I really wanted to like this book, and I thought I was going to based on the introduction. I still like the idea: going back through history to show how bad times have always had a net positive result on Japan, leading up to a look at how that seems to be happening again in regards to the 3/11 tsunami. But the author fails to live up to his plan.
The author falls into few traps:
1. Thinking his book won’t be long enough.
This is a relatively minor complaint but it really is how the thing reads. Every point has way too much buildup, and then is made and restated several times. It really feels like the author wasn’t confident that what he had to write would fill a whole book, and so went about padding it out a bit as he wrote it, only to wind up at four hundred pages by the end. It really needs an editor to come in and trim one to two hundred pages off. He simply doesn’t have enough to say to fill that much space.
2. Confusing all sources of information.
It is definitely good to expose yourself to films and books and even drunken businessmen at bars in order to try and give yourself a rounded, fleshed-out picture of the country, but don’t put that in your book as if it is all fact. He freely mixes fact and fiction; first- second- and third-hand accounts; opinions of Japanese people, resident foreigners, and distant Japan watchers; important government figures and some guy down the pub; contemporary and retrospective retellings of history.
As I said, this makes it well-rounded, but leaves it confused, without focus or insight.
3. He puts too much stock in surface appearances.
This is probably the saddest thing about the book as in several places he seems to indicate that he knows better. But he just can’t help himself. He knows not to look too strongly at stock markets and other tools as good economic indicators, but does so anyway. He knows history isn’t a simple story of anthropomorphic nation-states sometimes engaging in fisticuffs, but that’s how he presents them. He knows to look deeper than elections and politicians to see how the country actually works, but he can’t help but get caught up in personality cults.
For a concrete example of this, he refers to Japan’s general switch to producer goods over consumer goods as a “downgrade.” He laments that Apple rather than Sony has captured the smartphone market, yet he knows that Japan makes more money off of every iPhone sold than the US does. That’s one good downgrade.
It’s a real shame, and robs the book of potential depth. As it is, you could gain all there is to learn in this book by simply reading through the archives of any English-language Japan news website.
4. He tries to understand Japan.
While a noble cause, it is bound to failure. Especially since he tries so hard. He goes around asking everyone he meets what Japan is, what is means to be Japanese, and what makes the place unique. It is no surprise that the results make for a confusing and contradictory book. I don’t know that anyone can ever understand Japan, but I do know you won’t get any closer to it by simply asking people about it. You’re much better off observing them, or asking them literally any other question, and then trying to glean from that a tiny piece of what Japan is like. If you want to understand your friends, don’t ask them who they are or what they stand for, just ask them what they did last weekend; their actions will reveal their natures far more than their words ever will.
All of this makes for a book that is certainly not worth the time or the cost. However, I should say that his first-hand accounts of his experiences meeting people in the disaster-hit areas after the tsunami are largely good and well-written. He captures some of their tragedies well enough to bring you to tears. But as the vast majority of the book is given over to things he’s heard about rather than things he’s seen, there is very little value overall. [If you do find it in a library, go ahead and read the tsunami chapters towards the beginning and end of the book.]
To end on a more positive note, though, I’ll just place a couple of quotations here that I enjoyed.
“If quality of life meant individually wrapped biscuits and an impeccably maintained aquarium at your local metro station, then Japan won hands down. Where else would it be possible to lave your laptop on a cafe table safe in the knowledge that it would still be there on your return? What other country had gone through years of sever financial crisis with few obvious signs of social strife? There was a relentless pessimism, even sneering bitterness, in much writing about Japan that I found hard to reconcile with the largely comfortable society around me. Though I arrived at the end of Japan’s first ‘lost decade’ and in what was supposed to be a deep recession at the start of its second, there was scant evidence of deprivation, certainly much less than I was used to seeing in my native Britain.”
“Social systems, however, are not always easy to disentangle. Their strengths are often their weaknesses and vice versa. Cultures are not menus from which one can order a la carte.”
“Japan’s historical ability to transform and rejuvenate in radical ways is rooted in a strong sense of itself. ‘Japan believes that their society is so different that they can adjust to anything and preserve their national essence,’ Kissinger said.”