Book: Japan Unbound by John Nathan

Extremely good on the current state of Japanese culture

John Nathan
Japan Unbound
Houghton Mifflin, 2004
ISBN: 0-618-13894-3
253 pages (main text)

Japanese people discuss and write about their Japaneseness to an extent quite alien to an American. (The term for the genre is nihonjinron; literally "Japanese people discussion".) In Japan Unbound, John Nathan has written a very good book of that sort for an Anglophone audience.

Japanese society and psychology has long had a lot to do with an individual's identification with the group. The family, the village (traditionally), and the company (more recently) tend to be the most important groups in a person's life. And those groups are breaking down. Divorce is common. People generally live in large, anonymous cities, often far from their parents. And companies have been forced to lay off workers. To a large extent, group cohesiveness has broken down, and it leaves a considerable void. It's that void and the resulting search for another sort of identity that is Mr Nathan's topic.

Mr Nathan begins with chapters about Japan's difficulties. Many of the stories that he tells are touching but he doesn't pull any punches. Alas, the problems are clearer than the solutions. That's not Mr Nathan's fault; he's describing things as they are.

In looking at how Japanese people are trying to find a new sort of identity, Mr Nathan writes about several different approaches that people have taken. To begin with, he writes about some maverick entrepreneurs. But it doesn't seem likely that Japanese society will be refashioned along individualistic, entrepreneurial lines any time soon.

Mr Nathan also writes about some ultra-nationalistic politicians and writers who want to refashion Japanese society along the lines of a past that, too bad for them, never existed and probably can't be made to exist. The profile of the current governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, is one of the gems of the book. Mr Ishihara is commonly known outside of Japan as merely a xenophobe; Mr Nathan's profile shows that he is much more subtle and sophisticated than that.

More hopefully, Mr Nathan writes about the current governor of Nagano Prefecture, Yasuo Tanaka, who is a genuine maverick among Japanese politicians. Mr Tanaka has had considerable success in introducing good sense and transparency into the prefecture's government. He's also a fascinating character.

The book's epilogue is its weakest part. That's again a matter of the problems being clearer than the solutions. Mr Nathan bravely tries to suggest how Japan might find its way out of its current difficulties. He suggests that Japan's future may lie in a closer relationship with the rest of Asia and a more distant one with the United States. There are a few points on which I'm not inclined to agree with Mr Nathan's analysis, but his arguments are at least as good as any I could come up with. And it's not Mr Nathan's fault that Japan's economy is doing better now than it was when he wrote the book.

Mr Nathan's prose never fails to be clear and precise and his profiles make his subjects come alive. He tells us only a few details about himself but when he does talk about himself, what he says is always apt.

There are more clues per paragraph here than you'll find even in The Economist. The book could have a better title; "Japan Unbound" doesn't tell us much about the book's contents. Regardless of that, of all the books on my bookshelf about postwar Japan, Japan Unbound is the best by no small margin.

Posted: Wed - May 5, 2004 at 09:57   Main   Category: