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Books Are The Best Of Things, Well Used; Abused, Among The Worst

Things To Read

New Tag
--My Mother is a Tractor
--Tokyo Stories
--Dogs and Demons
--Tokyo Underworld
--Importing Diversity
--The Cult at the End of the World
--You Gotta Have WA
--Cartels of the Mind
--Closing the Shop
--Turning Japanese
--Unbeaten Tracks in Japan
--Lost Japan
--36 Views of Mount Fuji
--Old Kyoto
--Angry White Pyjamas
--The Rape of Nanking
--The Reckoning

Authors & Publishers:

Your humble editor is always on the look out for new and interesting books about Japan.

If you wish to have your title reviewed by the CJT please contact me to arrange for a review copy to be sent.

Your humble editor promises a thorough and professional review delivered in a timely manner.

Keep in mind, I will only publish reviews of books I would recommend to others. Therefore, if I don't post your review, I will return the review copy along with my review.


Alex Kerr

In his follow up to Lost Japan, Alex Kerr takes us on a harrowing tour of the Land and Transport Ministry and its system of semi-private, semi-public corporations made up of amakudari, or former ministry officials who've “descended from heaven” into lucrative posts. These amakudari, in exchange for handsome bonuses and rich pensions work to find even more work for the ministry by publishing reports and studies that encourage local communities to build dams, roads and concert facilities they don't need and can't afford.

The result is a nation only slightly bigger than California with more roads, dams and concrete than the entire United States. Whereas the USA is now working to dismantle many of its dams, Japan is currently working to build more. In fact, only one river in Japan remains undammed and a substantial portion of Japan's beaches are literally buried under millions of giant concrete tetrapods.

Kerr's exploration of this aspect of Japan, and how it is financed by the Japanese Post Office, which currently runs what is arguably the largest savings bank in the world, is enfuriating and entertaining. As always, Kerr is at his best when talking about Kyoto and the Iya Valley in Shikoku. His section on how a project to cover a small creek in concrete led to a kind of financial dependence—the project quickly became the lone source of income in the mostly agricultural valley, leading to the need for more projects—is both frightening and tragic. Also entertaining is the detailed process by which an idyllic valley becomes home for a highway interchange shaped like an eight-headed dragon.

The book also explores how certain entrenched attitudes have led to a surprisingly bleak urban landscape. Japanese cities, for example, do not bury power lines, creating cluttered streets. The reason for this, as given by a public corporation run by former ministry officials, is that Japan has a “uniquely moist soil,” prohibiting power lines from being buried, and that buried power lines are a hazard in an earthquake. The 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, of course, prove that the opposite is true: fallen power lines hinder rescue efforts.

Despite these nuggets, which are themselve worth the price of the book, as you read, you quickly begin to wish that Kerr had either written the book more quickly (he started it in 1996 but it wasn't published until 2001) or that his publisher had provided a better editor.

Because neither of these happened the book suffers from two annoying flaws: 1) every chapter reads like the first chapter as if it were immediately typeset without having been read by the publisher or reread by the author and 2) substantial portions of the book were outdated by the time it was published.

An example of the first problem is the phrase “dogs and demons” itself. It comes from a legendary story in which an artist was asked if it was easier to draw a dog or a demon. The artist said that dogs (i.e. natural things) are harder to draw than demons (i.e. unnatural, fantastic things.) “Anyone can draw a demon.” This story is told no less than five times in five different sections. The aforementioned small creek is mentioned three times in the first two chapters. To make matters worse, Kerr also drifts off into other metaphors. For example, Japan is sometimes described as a runaway tank and sometimes, quite effectively, Japan is compared to descriptions of ancient Sparta.

Also, much of the book is an unecessary rant against modern Japanese architecture. The point is not that Japanese architects prefer a 1960's science fiction movie style, what's important is the hidden costs. His analysis of how a small town took government money to build a meeting hall and ended up with a gargantuan concert hall requiring over a million dollars US a year to maintain is more important than the fact that Kerr doesn't like the building's design. He manages to complain about all concrete buildings while at the same time complaining about the endless stands of industrial cedar used to make houses. At one point he seems to realize this and offers that concrete could be used to make a “Japanese style house” but he never really defines what that means or what it might look like.

The book deteriorates even farther when Kerr branches off into Japanese film and education. On education he recites mere cliches and manages to avoid mentioning the entire Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme, which is an unusual effort by three ministries to fix one of his main complaints: Japan's lack of connection to the rest of the world.

Regarding films, he complains that Japanese movie studios have deteriorated to the point where all they are doing is putting out copies of old films (the 48 movies in the Tora-san series, endless Godzilla sequels, etc) without seeming to notice that Hollywood is not only producing third and fourth sequels of movies, but is also remaking classics like Psycho and Dawn of the Dead. He also tries to make a case that Japan is a more immature society than the west because the best selling Japanese film of all time was the animated film Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away). He apparently doesn't seem to know that the target market for most films in the USA is boys aged 12-25, hence the comic book antics of films like Scooby Doo and any film by Adam Sandler. Even the Lord of the Rings books are, at their hearts, children's books, as is the series currently most popular among children and adults, the Harry Potter books.

As Dogs and Demons was being published, Nagano prefecture elected Yasuo Tanaka as governor and he subsequently killed every dam project in Nagano. A reform committee, despite a tumultuous existence, recently brought the price of new highway projects down. Therefore his claim that Japanese don't notice or complain about what is going on is quickly becoming outdated. Also, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's efforts to reform and privatise the post office are a quixotic effort to limit its role funding public works projects.

Despite these flaws, your humble editor grudgingly recommends this book. The analysis of how the Japanese bureaucracy functions is terrific and a must read for those pondering a move to Japan, or those living here who don't understand why even short rivers in Japan have two or three dams.

Robert Whiting

Whiting, the author of You Gotta Have “Wa” and The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, makes a delightful departure from the world of Japanese baseball to analyze the yakuza and its role in Japanese society since World War II.

Central to his story is the life story of Nicola “Nick” Zappetti/Koizumi, an Italian American from the USA who thanks to blind luck and a knack for making pizza finds himself in the middle of yakuza culture.

During the US occupation of Japan, Zappetti found himself a part of the burgeoning black market, using his military connections to get supplies and contraband into and out of Japan. After several rags to riches to rags to riches schemes, he used some of his proceeds to buy property in the then undeveloped area of Roppongi. He quickly opened a pizza restaurant called Nicola's that became the hangout for different gangs of yakuza and countless Japanese and foreign celebrities. Even the current emperor and empress used to dine there when they were courting.

As Zappetti grows richer and richer, his penchant for risky, often foolish schemes grows stronger. He ventures into everything from pig farming to property to forgery. That, combined with an inability to take advice, especially from his various Japanese wives, eventually leads him from within one signature's breadth of becoming a billionaire to his inevitable, rather tragic downfall.

Along the way the yakuza's connections to everything from professional wrestling and prostitution to construction and newspaper delivery are examined in wonderful detail. We also see Japan grow in confidence and watch the Japanese become less enamored of everything western, causing changes in everything from fashion to pizza.

A terrific book all around. Even the endnotes should be considered a must-read as they flesh out several events.

David L. McConnell

This is an excellent and insightful book that should be high on the reading list of those brave and crazy few pondering working in Japan. For those entering the JET Program or hoping to teach in schools, this should be considered required reading.

In 1987, three Japanese Government ministries came together, each bringing its own agenda and biases, to form the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program, arguably the largest education program in the world. The plan was to bring large groups of Westerners, all under the age of 35, to Japan as English teachers in public and private schools. The birth was surprisingly smooth, until the Westerners arrived.

McConnell's book analyzes the JET Program as an anthropological oddity. He argues that never before has a government attempted such an ambitious top-down project to change the very nature of its own people by importing large groups of foreigners. Along the way, he gives us brilliant insights into the nature of Japanese education, the Japanese government, and the Japanese people themselves.

Through interviews with former and current JET's, and impressive access to government ministries and the bureaucrats who helped create JET, McConnell deftly walks us through the growing pains for both the Westerners and the Japanese and carefully analyzes the motives of each government ministry for creating JET in the first place. His analysis of the first few years of JET is brilliant and helps us understand how a program that was supposed to improve Japan's image around the world, came dangerously close to creating a group of young enemies.

David E. Kaplan and Andrew Marshall

A fascinating and harrowing book that details the rise of Aum Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

It begins by focusing on Shoko Asahara, the cult's leader, and how he rose from ordinary con man to the leader of an international cult that managed to attract many of Japan's best and brightest young scientists. Most harrowing, though, is the apathy of the Japanese police, who watched while Aum built a large walled complex near Mount Fuji and ignored neighbors complaints that something was going on. The fact that all the grass and trees in and around the complex had died didn't seem to bother the police. When the complex was finally raided, police were amazed to find modern laboratories capable of producing a wide range of chemical and biological weapons--although not with the efficiency and consistency Asahara had hoped for--and a small factory capable of producing AK-74 rifles.

Along the way, Aum kills dozens of people--their own included--and disposes of many of the bodies with giant microwave ovens. They attempt on numerous occasions to release airborne botulism near government buildings. When Aum launches its first gas attack in the city of Matsumoto in Nagano prefecture, an innocent man receives the blame. (He apparently was a photographer and had photographic chemicals, as well as gardening chemicals on his property.)

Kaplan and Marshall have amassed an impressive amount of evidence via interviews and news reports and have managed to arrange it all in an impressive and very readable book that tells us as much about Japanese society as it does about Aum. The sequence describing what happened during the gas attack is marvellous and, after reading it, you will flinch everytime someone on a train sniffles or sneezes.

Aum still exists by the way, although they now call themselves Aleph. Members of Aum/Aleph are kept under constant surveilance by the police. Shoko Asahara's only recently ended after almost 8 years of hearings. He was sentenced to death.

Robert Whiting

A collection of essays about the remarkable sport of Japanese baseball.

Whiting takes us on a tour of Japanese baseball from its unusual origins to its unusual present condition. Along the way we read about foreign players and the problems they had and caused; the "Sandwich Man" caught between foreign players and their Japanese managers; 1,000 groundball drills; and why High School baseball is more popular than professional. We also learn why over 70% of all Japanese cheer for the Yomiuri Giants, including the owners of several rival teams.

Whether you love baseball or hate it, this is a terrific read, if not for the sports, then for its insights into Japan's character.

Ivan P. Hall

A disturbing, often enfuriating look at the states of Japanese Higher Education, law and media and their systematic exclusion of foreigners.

In the early 1990's, The Ministry of Education directed all public universities to eliminate their senior foreign faculty members without regard to their tenure status. Although often defended as a cost-cutting measure, Hall's book analyzes the more sinister and isolationist motives behind the move. These motives, he argues, and the heirarchies which hold and enforce them have even caused some Japanese professors to go overseas in order to do research. As a result, only a handful of Japanese Nobel laureattes have actually worked at Japanese universities.

Hall also goes into detail about kisha clubs (see next article) and law firms and the rules they use to exclude foreigners and foreign companies. Foreign lawyers can't join the Japanese Bar and are therefore unable to represent companies in court. Japanese lawyers can be disbarred for representing a foreign company. Although these sections are interesting, the book is at its best when it tells the stories of a number of tenured professors, including one Hall knew personally, who lost their jobs after ugly fights.

A must read for any pondering a career at a Japanese university.

Laurie Ann Freeman

A fascinating, albeit pedantic analysis of Japan's kisha (Press) Clubs from their birth to the present.

Officially, kisha are groups of reporters assigned to work at a particular ministry or the Prime Minister's office. The White House Press Corps in the United States is a type of kisha. Unofficially, they are an alliance of media groups and politicians designed to protect the interests of both. The media groups avoid being scooped and the politicians have a pliant mouthpiece for official policy. Violating rules, either written or unwritten, can result in suspension or expulsion.

Freeman analyzes the efforts of several foreign media groups, including Barron's and Reuters, to penetrate the kisha with limited and ambiguous results. She also examines the effect the clubs have on Japanese Democracy. In a number of cases, including the Lockheed Scandal that brought down Prime Minister Tanaka, the kisha knew about the stories but chose not to report them. As a result, it took the foreign press to make the stories public.

A bit dry at times as it attempts to maintain its "scholarly" posture, but an interesting, often disturbing read.

David Mura

A sometimes too honest look at the experiences of a Japanese-American living in Japan for the first time. Mura analyzes the way his sense of racial identity changed upon finding himself among the Majority after a lifetime of being called a Minority. The fact that he suddenly blended in with the crowd and his Caucasian wife suddenly stood out strained their relationship and gave him second thoughts about their marriage.

Although this anecdote is handled well, the book occasonally bogs down in whining self-pity when Mura discovers that he doesn't really fit in to Japan as well as he wants, and when he describes trying to start an affair with a fellow expatriate. An almost unforgivable passage where he complains that he's too attractive to women reminds the reader that the line between honesty and masturbation is very thin indeed.

Such passages should be overlooked, however, as the book's real strength is its exploration of the complex relationship between Mura's third generation Japanese-Americans (sansei), their nisei parents' and his grandparents' generation. Going beyond the usual Oedipal hatred of the previous generation, Mura introduces us to a group of children who cannot forgive their parents for having forgiven the United States for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. His account of the journey toward a reconciliation of sorts with his father and his father's generation makes the book worth reading.

Isabella Bird

A remarkable account of Bird's 1878 visit to Japan as told through letters to her sister. Bird, a not so typical Victorian English woman, traveled extensively around the world, visiting the rocky mountains, China, Tibet, Korea, Hawaii, Persia and Kurdistan, and even managed to sneak in a brief marriage, all after turning forty. Her travels are related in numerous books, of which Unbeaten Tracks is considered one of the best.

Her journey starts in Tokyo in the early Meiji Restoration and takes her through Nikko and Niigata enroute to Hokkaido. Niigata, all but ignored by every major guide book, gets a surprisingly good report as a city of "50,000 souls" that would have become a major port if the Shinano River didn't have a habit of silting up. (Disclosure: Your humble editor spent three years living in Niigata prefecture.)

The real treat, though, is Bird's account of the Ainu in Hokkaido, whose culture she chronicled before it had been decimated and reduced to a tourist attraction and forbidden conversation topic. She accurately predicts that Ainu culture will be destroyed in a Japan racing to modernize.

The book is perhaps more interesting than it is well written, although it is frequently both, and Bird is not above a little colonialist racism. (Japan is dirty and its people squat, ugly and lacking in moral character.) She is, in fact, frequently amazed by how ugly Ito, her 18 year old English-speaking guide, is. Ito, who neither bows nor speaks politely to Bird, becomes, by the end of the book, the embodiment of the Meiji Era. He despises the mostly illiterate, feudal peasants they encounter, preferring everything Western even though he dislikes Westerners. As Bird sums him up: "He thinks that Japan is right in availing herself of the discoveries made by foreigners, that they have as much to learn from her, and that she will outstrip them in the race, because she takes all that is worth having, and rejects the incubus of Christianity."

Bird's eye for detail, and her honest descriptions of the people she meets and the mistakes she makes as she attempts to travel the unbeaten tracks of Japan make this book a delight to read.

Alex Kerr

Lost Japan is a very uneven collection of essays originally written in Japanese and published as Utsukushi Nippon no Zanzo (Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan).

The early essays, which recount Kerr's first visits to Japan and how he got a thatched roof home on Shikoku practically for free, lose themselves in the distinctly annoying "None-Shall-Ever-Pass-This-Way-Again" attitude some travel/environmental writers tend to adopt. The works of such writers always have the undertone of "I am the only person who will ever see this as it was. If you go there, you won't see it like I did. You can't see the 'Real X'. Only I saw it." (You get this same tone in Lonely Planet guides which, despite their usefulness, tend to whine about not being able to see the "Real X" while at the same time complaining about the abundance of real X-ese at common tourist sites.)

Such writers also lament the loss of certain aspects of traditional culture without seeing how inconvenient such traditions often were. For example, after buying his thatched roof house, Kerr wonders why people prefer modern tile roofs to the more picturesque thatch. He then goes on to describe what a pain in the posterior it is to have to maintain and to replace a thatched roof. He never seems to connect his own troubles to why the thatched roof went out of fashion.

The later essays though, especially "Kyoto Hates Kyoto," are very insightful as to why the Japanese seem in a hurry to obliterate all vestiges of their past and why they are often fuzzy on pre-Edo Period history. The later essays explain why attractive, ancient neighborhoods were torn down to make Kyoto Tower and the strange, ultra-modern behemoth that is the new Kyoto Train Station. Kerr's adventures in the world of Japanese art and the essays which explain how he managed to acquire a large Japanese art collection for little money are excellent and give a fascinating look behind the scenes at auctions.

Skim the first half of this one and spend lots of time with the second.

Cathy N. Davidson

Over a period of ten years, Davidson spent almost five years living in Japan and teaching at women's universities near Osaka and Kyoto. This book is an account of those years with names changed and places and people made into composites to protect not only the innocent, but to spare her Japanese friends the embarrassment of having their emotions made public.

Because the book distances itself from the emotions of others and focuses instead on events of profound emotional significance to Davidson some parts come across as hokey as she tries to read meaning into mundane events. Davidson is convinced, for example, that all the Japanese men mentioned in the book wanted to sleep with her. There's also a long discussion about her relationship with the temples her family has visited after her son calls them "our temples."

Also, at times it's hard to separate real events from Davidson's fictional, representative events. This is too bad, as the book is most interesting as an exploration of the lives and roles of Japanese women. Davidson's universities, which are combined to form the fictional Kansai Women's University, are filled with women whose parents intend for them to marry rich business men and politicians. It is therefore important that they speak English and understand foreign culture so that they can entertain foreign guests. Some students, as portrayed by Davidson, seem to recognize that they may be among the best educated people in Japan, but know that society will not allow them to show it. Also, Davidson becomes acquainted with a number of older Japanese women who run restaurants after the deaths of husbands and reveals a small niche, outside the home, where Japanese women are powerful.

Diane Durston

Few places evoke such extreme reactions as Kyoto. Some people love it for the temples; some people hate it for its ugly attempts to modernize; some people (your humble editor included) love it for the clash between old and new.

Either way, whatever your initial reaction, after two days in Kyoto, you're sick of temples. This book is probably the best resource I've found for seeing a part of Kyoto you might otherwise walk right past. As the title says, this book guides you to those places which still have some of the charm of old Kyoto. It takes you to shops where you can buy ancient scrolls, ukiyo-e prints, fresh tea (much better than the stuff passed around in the office) geta, hemp-brushes, dolls and scores of other items, all in shops that have been serving the public for hundreds of years.

Despite the age of the book, most of the places are still in business, although in at least two instances, the included maps were inaccurate as to the stores' locations. While many of the inns and restaurants mentioned may be prohibitively expensive, this book is recommend for those travelers who love to shop and who love to find the old hiding in the new.

Harry Guest

The book is designed to give you a different perspective on various oft visited sites (Kyoto, Tokyo, Nara, Sado, etc.) by showing them through the eyes of writers, both Japanese and otherwise. Although the book is poorly organized and is rather superficial in the way it analyzes the included literature, if you're interested in Japanese literature and literature about Japan this book is a good starting point. It's filled with excerpts, brief bios and bibliographies. It also provides interesting diagrams of famous journeys around Japan including Basho's journey to the far north, Isabella Bird's trip to Hokkaido and others.

It would be nice, however, if the book offered more specific literary sites to visit rather than just featuring general excerpts. Also, since the excerpts are not chosen for their quality but for their references to specific cities, they are not always first rate. Still, for the templed-out, or those looking for a different perspective, this is a useful resource.

Robert Twigger

A gaijin angst book with a twist. At 32, Twigger, an award winning poet from Oxford University, finds himself stuck in Japan with no prospects, no girlfriend and an increasingly decrepit body. This prompts him and his roommates to join Yoshinkan Aikido, the school that created modern aikido. After a few months he applies to join the Tokyo Riot Police/Instructor's course, an intense nine month course designed to create perfect warriors.

Twigger's play by play of the course's brutality and the brain-washing involved are harrowing, as are his forays into the Roppongi club scene and a romantic relationship. Although pedantic at times, the book is generally readable even for non-athletes and those not interested in the martial arts. His portrayals of his fellow dojo members and his instructors, including the surprisingly villainous American sensei Mustard, are first rate.

The best passages deal with the gentle nature of Japanese fascism and its habit of putting a child's face on the crueler aspects of society. (Even the police have a cute cartoon character mascot designed by a child.) The book also explores why the Japanese seem willing to tolerate brutality and humiliation with a bow and gambatte. (Don't give up. Mustn't grumble.)

Iris Chang

Chang is a decent jounalist with an undisguised passion for the material but not a good story teller. This is a story that begs for a teller who can handle narrative and details. Chang tends toward summary rather than depth and compounds her weakness by not letting the people involved tell their stories.

When she does let the participants speak--the woman who survived 38 bayonette wounds and the man who survived a massacre only because the Japanese soldiers switched from beheading to throat slashing--the book comes alive.

Despite her passion, Chang seems understandably queasy about the rape and this effects her writing. On more comfortable ground, such as the war trials, and the Japanese government's attempts to erase the rape from history, Chang excels. Japanese children ask "who won WWII?" and "who did we fight?" while Shintaro Ishihara, the current mayor of Tokyo, claims the rape never happened, then that the rape did happen but wasn't that bad, and then that even if it was that bad, the Japanese weren't going to apologize for it.

It should also be pointed out that this debate over Nanking is still alive and well in Japan. See "Outside the Text" and "Foreign Relations" in back issues of the Crazy Japan Times.

David Halberstam

An acquaintance of your humble editor's used to ponder, usually after encountering the vagueries and horrors of the Japanese bureaucracy: "Tell me. How? How did Japan ever manage to become a major economic power?" This was usually accompanied by a throwing up of hands.

David Halberstam answers this question by tracing the histories of both Ford and Nissan, the number two automakers in the USA and Japan, respectively. Ford rises by giving people they want and then falls as it becomes overrun by "bean counters" and grows increasingly isolated from its own customers and sales people. Nissan rides the wave of a handful of key and insightful decisions by the Ministry of Trade and Industry that the oil era was commencing and that Japan should focus on making better, cheaper steel and, ultimately, better cars.

As always, Halberstam focuses on the people involved as much as the politics. In the USA, we see the rise of Robert McNamara and the "bean counters" and the rise and fall of Lee Iacocca before his move to Chrysler. In Japan we see the collapse of the unions and the rise of a handful of designers who believe they can beat the US automakers. The lives of those on the assembly line are given as much time and detail as those in the boardroom. Especially interesting is the chronicle of the careers of a die-cast diemaker from Ford and an assembly line worker from Nissan as they weather the late 1970's in different ways with bitterly different results.

As always, Halberstam pushes the edge of overwhelming us with detail. His standard technique of introducing a story or crisis, then backtracking and giving us a mini-biography of a key player before moving on, only to backtrack and give us another mini-biography of another key player gets a bit repetitive at times. Despite this, the stories included are excellent and he manages to answer questions that have always been at the back of your humble editor's head: Why did Nissan call itself Datsun in the USA for many years and why are the "Z" series cars (280Z, 350Z, etc.) called "Fairlady" here in Japan?

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Updated May 2004.
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