Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Japanese by Spring is a satire on contemporary American attitudes toward cultural diversity, especially on college campuses. The title comes from the name of a language instruction book that promises the protagonist quick mastery of Japanese. The book, which soon becomes abbreviated to “J.B. Spring,” and finally just “J.B.S.,” is a symbol of the consumer attitude to other cultures that many characters in the novel exhibit. The main character, Benjamin Puttbutt, for example, seems to be studying Japanese simply to make himself more marketable.

Reed makes the satire much more amiable than some of his earlier novels by making the villain cultural elitism itself rather than any one character. The enemies of cultural diversity are not evil, merely crippled by various forms of chauvinism, from which many characters recover. It is not only the defenders of the white status quo who are carriers of this disease: The Japanese educators who take over the college end the elevation of Western culture in the curriculum, but they threaten to replace it with an equally narrow, Japan-centered vision of the world. The African studies department is run by an “Afrocentrist” who believes that Africa is the source of all good and that African culture is morally superior to any other.

Stylistically, Reed continues a trend in his novels toward realism, though there is a touch of his earlier fantasy style in making the character Jack Only “a giant cucumber with flippers.” Characterization is muted in the novel, as is usual with satire and with...

(The entire section is 641 words.)