The Japanese

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Edwin O. Reischauer, dean of Japanese studies in the United States, was born and reared in Japan, has taught Japanese history at Harvard University, and served as United States Ambassador to Japan from 1961 to 1966. With such credentials, Reischauer could be expected to produce a description of the Japanese that is both lucid and penetrating.

For the nonspecialist reader, Reischauer provides a good introduction to the subject in his brief description of the setting of the Japanese islands and a concise historical overview. A negative aspect of this introduction, which takes up one third of the book, is that much of the information included is repeated in subsequent sections dealing with society, politics, and Japan in the international setting. For the novice in Japanese studies, this repetition may be a strength in that crucial points are reiterated; for the specialist in Asia, it is annoying and suggests that more attention to tight organization could have produced a less discursive, more coherent book.

The major strengths (and weaknesses) of the volume come in Reischauer’s topical probing of contemporary Japanese society, politics, and world role. An extended discussion of the role of education in Japan since the Meiji Restoration underlines the author’s view that education probably lies behind Japan’s phenomenal national success story. There is an excellent discussion of the structure and function of business, the arena of national development where this success is most apparent. Reischauer allots an inordinate amount of time to a detailed study of the Japanese political system (unfortunately with substantial amounts of repetition); but the reader gains important insight into the style of political decision-making through consensus-building, the positive functions of political factions, and differences between the Japanese and Western political culture. In this last vein, there are scattered throughout the book valuable nuggets of information on basic cultural differences between East and West.

A long chapter on the nature of the Japanese language and its impact on international relations is the best treatment of the subject available. Reischauer views the Japanese language as a barrier to Japan’s participation in international affairs and (perhaps too ethnocentrically) calls for more attention to the method and extent of foreign language instruction in the islands. The author’s prescription is much less interesting than his fascinating description of the origins and development of written and spoken Japanese.

A highlight of The Japanese for Western readers (some of whom tend to view the world through Western glasses—in other words, to see the whole world as becoming inexorably Westernized) is several short but insightful sections in various places on the differences between modernization and Westernization. For all their sketchiness, these passages should be required reading for many Westerners. In short, Reischauer’s book provides a fine introduction to some salient aspects of contemporary Japanese politics and society and insight into various problems of cultural understanding.

The picture that emerges of the Japanese, however, is not clear or precise; instead, it seems almost as if it were a double-exposure. Part of the reason may indeed be that there is an ambivalence about the Japanese which in many ways makes them a combination of contradictions. In modern Japanese society, various opposing attributes are joined together as in the classic East Asian yinyang concept. Tradition vies with and merges into modernity. Pressure for uniformity and conformity clashes with modern trends of diversity. Hierarchical structures in society and politics contend with the modern thrust toward egalitarianism. The desire of the Japanese to be separate from and unique among the world’s peoples collides with their fervent wish to cooperate in the international arena. It is little wonder that in the 1970’s the Japanese have been caught up in a debate over what it means to be Japanese (Nihonjin-ron). Some have seen this duality in the Japanese culture as a negative aspect: the Japanese are cultural schizophrenics involved in a search for identity. This picture of Japanese culture is one which Reischauer seems determined to deemphasize.

It is not that he attempts to deny the image of societal and cultural contradictions. He points out, in fact, the coexistence of ambivalent cultural attributes. But Reischauer’s thrust in this lengthy volume is toward portraying a country of great homogeneity, coherence, and stability. He dismisses the designation of schizophrenia as one “which may seem obvious to the untutored Western eye,” but which “simply does not exist for the Japanese. . . .” Through this assertion he avoids the fact that the schizophrenic is never aware of his own...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Best Sellers. XXXVII, August, 1977, p. 153.

Christian Century. XCIV, August 31, 1977, p. 763.

Commentary. LXIV, September, 1977, p. 87.

Economist. CCLXIV, August 6, 1977, p. 83.

National Review. XXIX, October 28, 1977, p. 1247.

New Republic. CLXXVII, August 6, 1977, p. 42.