Review of The Japanese: A Cultural Portrait (1978)


Robert S. Ozaki (writer).

Read in 2019.

Contemporary Japanese culture for interested Westerners, particularly businessmen.

At a 41-year remove from its writing the book remains readable among its crop from the booming decades. The chapters on history do meander through a few anecdotes, Ozaki uses the word “hara-kiri” somewhat carelessly (in the last chapter), and the basic historiography is poorly informed by antiquated notions of fundamental forces.

For example, apropos of the meticulous historical rice economy, Ozaki concludes that the Japanese are basically intuitive and emotional (page 98 of a 1990 Tuttle paperback): A completely illogical conclusion. This purported intuitiveness is then linked straight to being “more feminine than masculine” (page 100). This othering is inherited, half digested, from an earlier orientalism.

The real cultural differences between Japanese and European cultures are sourced to a difference in terrain types, which is quite a useless speculation. When he’s more concrete and personal, Ozaki makes some good points. Having described the state of Tokyo’s housing, amenities and transportation in the 1970s, he concludes (page 270):

Although Japan is the second largest industrial power in the free world, the quality of an ordinary citizen’s economic life is impressively poor.

Ozaki explains this observation from the centralized nature of the government, focused since the Meiji Restoration on catching up as an economic and technological power, not on welfare. Political stagnation, itself the result of business and state bureaucracies converging to uphold the status quo, has largely continued since this time, validating Ozaki’s understanding of the problem even as life has gotten more convenient. His willingness to engage with the subject of his informal study is signalled by his decision, unusual in a mass-market book even today, to put Japanese names in their native order.

References here: Shin Godzilla (2016).

text non-fiction