Books on Japan Written by Foreign Authors
- Famous Books on Japan to Read Before You're 30 (3)
- "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan" "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" "The People and Culture of Japan" "Japan as Number One"
So far in this series on famous books about Japan, I’ve written about:
(1) Motoori Norinaga and Kobayashi Hideo
(2) Books Written in English by Japanese Authors
When we contemplate the Japanese identity or Japaneseness, we reference people like Kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga, or seminal works like Uchimura Kanzo’s Representative Men of Japan, Nitobe Inazo’s Bushido, and Okakura Tenshin’s The Book of Tea. We consistently return to these works because they identify certain values, aesthetics, philosophies, and morals that continue to drive or be exhibited in modern Japanese behavior. The Japanese identity is the deeply rooted spirit that weathered the tumultuous Meiji Restoration and subsequent rush to modernize, and continues to live in the Japanese people today.
For this article I’ve put together a list of books on Japan and the Japanese written by foreign authors. To the West, Japan has always been a country in the Far East, a land on the frontier of the world with mysterious, exotic customs and traditions. After the Meiji Restoration, Westerners who came to Japan were likely puzzled to come face to face with a nation that put so much weight on tradition while also rapidly and rather effortlessly undergoing modernization. In these books they detail their impressions, observations, and interpretations.
2.Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan by Lafcadio Hearn
Why was Japan able to shift gears from the early modern Edo period to the Meiji period, modernize, and subsequently catch up to the West? Greek-born author Koizumi Yakumo found answers in the national sport of Jujutsu (or what we refer to today as Judo).
Although Koizumi came to Japan commissioned as a newspaper correspondent, he quickly terminated his contract after some trouble. In summer 1890, he obtained English teaching positions in Shimane Prefecture, where he would meet and marry his wife. In late 1891, he obtained another teaching position in Kumamoto through Kano Jigoro, who was the dean at what was then called a “higher middle school", as well as the founder of Judo. Hearn would observe Kano teaching students at the dojo, and would come to understand the key approach of judo, where a competitor wins by using the power of an opponent: “winning without directly opposing the other’s strength". This, in turn, would lead to the epiphany that the same principle underpinned all of Japanese society, and was the reason for its success. As Japan underwent modernization, it had incorporated only the best elements of Western culture, all the while protecting and preserving the heart and soul of its national culture.
Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
This is Hearn’s first book after arriving in Japan in 1890. He writes about his first impressions of Japan through his experiences in Izumo Province and Matsue—encounters with various customs, superstitions, landscapes, and expressions of national character. He observes a distinct Japaneseness that remained despite the tidal forces of modernization. The reader is left with the sense that Hearn was drawn to Japan—and chose to remain there until his death in 1904—because its culture stood in contrast to the materialism of the West.
●About the author
Koizumi Yakumo / Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) is a Greek-born newspaper reporter, travel writer, essayist, researcher, and Japanese folklorist. He spent his childhood in Ireland, where he was brought up in a strict Catholic community, and went on to be educated in France and England. At 19 he traveled to the U.S., where he would eventually find work as a newspaper reporter. In 1890, he went to Japan with a commission as a newspaper correspondent. Later, he worked various teaching positions while writing numerous books introducing Japanese culture to the West. One of his best-known works is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, a collection of traditional Japanese ghost stories. In 1891, he married Koizumi Setsu, the daughter of a samurai family in Matsue in Shimane Prefecture. He obtained Japanese citizenship in 1896, and assumed the name Koizumi Yakumo.
3.The Chrysanthemum and the Sword by Ruth Benedict
During the Great East Asia War, American anthropologist Ruth Benedict was recruited by the U.S. Office of War Information to study Japanese culture in an attempt to better understand and predict the behavior of its enemy in World War II. (As Benedict was unable to travel to Japan, she studied Japan’s literature, newspaper clippings, films, and recordings, and also conducted extensive interviews with Japanese-Americans.)
Benedict published The Chrysanthemum and the Sword in 1946. While there are many criticisms leveled at the book today, when it was first released it had a considerable impact on Japanese intellectuals.
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword
This 1946 book was based on Benedict’s wartime research report, entitled “Japanese Behavior Patterns”. Benedict attempts to portray the whole structure of Japanese culture. Its most famous argument is the idea that Japan is a “shame culture” (where people’s actions are influenced by the inculcation of shame), while Western cultures are “guilt cultures” (where people’s actions are influenced by the continual reinforcing of the feeling of guilt, often through religion). The book has been criticized by both Japanese and foreign scholars for representing Japan based on extraordinary wartime circumstances, among other reasons. Regardless, the book was the first examination of Japaneseness by an American anthropologist and was influential in shaping American ideas about Japanese culture in postwar Japan.
●About the author
Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) was a pioneering American cultural anthropologist who is best known for her 1934 book Patterns of Culture, where she wrote, “His culture is the raw material out of which a man makes his life." She also expresses her belief in cultural relativism—the idea that no culture is superior to another, and all cultures are equal.
4.The Japanese and the Jews by Isaiah Ben-Dasan
After the war, Japan would experience the Japanese economic miracle, rapidly becoming the world’s second largest economy. But as the Japanese became materially wealthy, they began to realize that they were spiritually unfulfilled. In the 70s, they would once again be confronted with an identity crisis: what did it mean to be Japanese?
That was the social backdrop that spawned books like The Japanese and the Jews, which was written by Yamamoto Shichihei under the nom de plume Isaiah Ben-Dasan.
The Japanese and the Jews
“Written" by Isaiah Ben-Dasan, a Jewish author raised in Japan, and “translated" by Yamamoto Shichihei, this book compares and contrasts Japanese and Jewish culture and spirituality in an attempt to explore what it means to be Japanese. Although the majority of Japanese would likely say that they are non-religious, Yamamoto argues that all Japanese are believers of Nihonkyo (Nihonism, or literally, the Japanese religion), which emphasizes human convenience over any god. He uses this mentality to explain how Japan adapted Buddhism and Confucianism for its culture, as well as why religions like Christianity and Islam have never really taken root in the country. This book was awarded the Oya Soichi Nonfiction Award in 1971.
●About the author
Yamamoto Shichihei (1921-1991) was a Japanese bookstore owner and later conservative critic in postwar Japan. He is best known for his book The Study of “Air", an examination of how the Japanese tend to make judgments and decisions based on “air"—the atmosphere or circumstances of a place or situation. After The Japanese and the Jews became a bestseller, he continued to write several other books under the penname.
5.The People and Culture of Japan by Shiba Ryotaro and Donald Keene
Following the success of Yamamoto’s book, publishers unleashed a slew of treatises on Japan and Japaneseness, many following a similar title scheme of “The Japanese and X”. The most worthwhile of these works is The People and Culture of Japan, a series of conversations between popular historical fiction writer Shiba Ryotaro and scholar of Japanese culture and literature Donald Keene.
The conversational tone makes this an easy read, and Shiba and Keene tackle difficult topics with familiarity and ease.
The section on Japanese morality is especially intriguing, as Keene and Shiba have differing views on the subject. Keene posits that the reason the crime rate in urban areas in Japan remains relatively low while they continue to rise in other developed countries is largely attributable to the influence of Confucianism. Shiba, however, argues that the influence of Confucianism on Japan is minimal, and that Japanese morality is based on its culture of shame.
At the end of the book, Keene talks about the difficulty of understanding and translating the Japanese of Kokugaku scholar Motoori Norinaga, and the conversation turns to how the Japanese worry too much about what it means to be Japanese. On that point, we can all agree.
The People and Culture of Japan
This book features conversations between Shiba and Keene that took place in 1970. The pair discuss a range of topics, including the Japanese identity, the Japanese view on war, Japan as seen from foreigners, Edo culture, and more. A second round of conversations took place in 1996 and was published as Edo Japan Encounters the World.
●About the authors
Shiba Ryotaro (1923-1996) was a Japanese novelist, nonfiction writer, and critic from Osaka. He won the Naoki Prize in 1959 for his ninja-themed debut novel Fukuro no Shiro (“Castle of Owls”), which he wrote while working as a journalist with the Sankei Shimbun (one of Japan’s major newspapers). His best known works include Ryoma Goes His Way, a historical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma, Burn, O Sword, a dramatization of the life of Shinsengumi Vice-Commander Hijikata Toshizo, and Clouds Above the Hill, a historical epic set against the backdrop of a modernizing Japan.
Donald Keene (1922-2019) was an American-born scholar of Japanese literature and Japanese culture. He was University Professor Emeritus and Shincho Professor Emeritus of Japanese Literature at Columbia University, where he taught for over fifty years. During that time he also published numerous books about Japan and translations of Japanese literature. He was awarded the Japanese Order of Culture in 2008. Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, he relocated to Japan, and obtained Japanese citizenship.
6.Japan as Number One by Ezra Vogel
The last book I’d like to write about is American sociologist Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One. In it, he writes optimistically about Japan’s economic success and the social institutions that facilitated its growth—all of which was like music to Japanese ears. The book subsequently sold 700,000 copies in Japan.
Japan as Number One
Vogel wrote this book in the late 70s, a time when the U.S. was facing an identity crisis of its own. He identifies and breaks down the reasons for Japan’s unprecedented rise and growing economy in the postwar period, and gleans lessons for America. In 2000, he published a follow up, Is Japan Still Number One?, in which he offers lessons for Japan, which at the time was in the middle of its “Lost 20 Years” period of economic stagnation.
●About the author
Ezra Vogel (1930-) is an American sociologist who has written chiefly on Japan, China, and Eastern Asia. In 2014, he was awarded the Fukuoka Prize, which was established “to honor the outstanding work of individuals or organizations in preserving or creating Asian culture".
About ten years after the publication of Japan as Number One, the Japanese economic bubble burst, sending Japan into a lost decade of stagnant economic growth. That “Lost Decade” would eventually be relabeled as a Lost 20 Years (some would even say a Lost 30 Years). Yet whereas the Japanese economy has faltered, the momentum and international reach of Japanese culture has only grown throughout that same period.
Naturally, that has led to numerous new Western treatises on Japan and Japaneseness published in the form of books and newspaper articles. The fascination has also been manifested in such films as Lost in Translation and The Last Samurai. More recently, both tourists and expats alike are posting videos of their experiences and encounters in Japan to YouTube and social media.
When you look at how Japan and the Japanese are depicted in those channels, you can’t help but notice that so much of the content continues to paint Japan as a land of the mysterious and exotic. While some may say that this is simply a reflection of the fact that Western culture remains the global standard, I would argue that it reflects the particularity and complexity of Japanese culture. In the books I’ve listed in this article, there are shrewd observations that get to the heart of the Japanese identity, as well as critiques that feel utterly compromised by Western biases.
This is all complicated by the Japanese inferiority complex toward the West. Japanese people are constantly wondering about how they are being viewed by foreigners. In his book Nihon Henkyoron, Japanese scholar Uchida Tatsuru posits that the Japanese are only able to envision how their own country should be by comparing themselves to other countries. It’s no wonder that Japan as Number One became a bestseller in Japan.
All the books I’ve written about in this article are worth a read, but they will be much more rewarding for those who approach them with an awareness of foreign biases regarding Japan and the Japanese inferiority complex toward all things foreign. Not only will you be able to glimpse the real Japan, you will be able to glean insights about Asia and the West.
BOOKS & MAGAZINES #009
Books on Japan Written by Foreign Authors － Famous Books on Japan to Read Before You’re 30 (3)