Sunday, February 3, 2013

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan

A 100% representative sample (I promise!) of the scanty collection of works in Akita Prefectural Library's English-language books section. (1)

Looks like Japan is... let's see... big on beautiful traditional crafts, religion, societal pathology, and violent death. Let's go to print!

 (1) "You don't really live somewhere until you've got a library card" has always been my motto, and since the one-room Oga Municipal Library (above a satellite Board of Health Office!) doesn't promise to offer me much more than the sheer pleasure of surprising the staff by turning in my card application, I decided to hit the larger Akita Prefectural Library. Ended up coming home with not only the expected reaction <Erm, do you have anything that can prove you live here on you?> but a good pleasant afternoon read, the expensively out-of print book on minka (Japan's Folk Architecture) in the photo above, and a Japanese copy of the Tale of the Heike, which I keep planning to read but (as yet) have never been able to take much beyond 祇園精舎の鐘の聲、諸行無常の響き有り/ "In the bells of Gion Monastery echo the Impermanence of All Things", despite the promise of poignant infant-Emperor-drownings, Nuns-of-Second-Rank, and belly-ripping, gut-throwing carryings-on in the later pages. 


  1. The Anatomy of Dependence? What?

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  2. Famed representative of the genre of 日本人論/nihonjinron, a phenomenon of the "Japan as No. 1" period of global ascendency, during which Japanese and Western authors spilled oceans of ink writing essentializing, anecdotal, ethnocentric, and (alas) very, very popular books about How Unique The Japanese Are. In the case of The Anatomy of Dependence, Doi spins out a whole theory of Japanese society based largely on the ostensible prominence of the word 甘える|甘え/amaeru|amae、”to demand attention/behave like a spoilt child" in Japanese. Spoilers: the upshot is that Japanese society is full of mutual relations of dependence between superior and subordinate, unlike, say, every other society on Earth.

    One thing I am prepared to say in general about Japanese society generally is it's got a hell of a successful publishing industry-- such that trendy "controversial" books and their ideas spread like wildfire, and live on for years after the latest Groundbreaking Theory of Why We're All So Different From Everyone Else has slipped off the bottom of the bestseller lists. Once you get an ear for the stuff you start to hear it everywhere. Some of the best examples my coworkers have told me gravely are that: 1) alone among of all the world's languages, Japanese is somehow interpreted in "a different part of the brain", 2) that Japanese like fatty beef because their intestines are different than anyone else's, 3) that they had always thought that Americans couldn't use chopsticks because they don't have the right neural connections (that Japanese do).

    The weirdest bit of this tripe, and the one I hear most frequently, is a bizarre stress on how "unique" Japan is to have four seasons ("Do you have four seasons in America?"). Not only is it of course ridiculous on its face to claim that only Japan has four seasons, but actual meteorologists, and Japanese themselves routinely talk about the annual arrival of the "rainy season", a feature of *two* season subtropical climates!

  3. While I'm discussing my afternoon's reading: Religion in Japanese Culture reads exactly like the uninformative government committee memo it is (Section 1.3a: Additional Modern Developments in Buddhism: social-economic stress and the... SNOOOORREEEEE), and Seppuku is... actually a more balanced and informative book than I would have expected, written by a PhD candidate who refreshingly avoids stuffing the received bunkum about What This All Means About The Japanese Today down our throats while throwing in all the red meat (ha ha) you'd expect. Yes, it's larded with quotes and, like an inexpert 介錯人 (seppuku assistant) takes a few too many swings at the subject before it's all over, but can you really blame him?

    Swinging from the preferred method of Japanese upper-class suicide in the 15th century to one of the most popular Japanese methods in the 21st, from my queasy skimming, Asphyxia: The Physiopathology has got to be the definitive work on the subject. You'll find everything from the typical disposition of a hanged corpse (it's definitely not pretty), to the detailed results of blood tests on legions of brutally murdered rabbits (their blood oxygen saturations are most typically lower than normal!).

  4. Apparently the red trees and spring flowers here in Colorado are all an illusion. We must only have winter and summer, right?