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Japan Through the Looking Glass Paperback – February 1, 2009

3.2 out of 5 stars 6 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

“A well-informed analysis of Japanese culture and society.”—The Independent

“A disarming, engaging, and provocative book.”—Andrew Barshay, University of California, Berkeley

About the Author

Alan Macfarlane is Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge. He has often visited and taught in Japan. He is the author of The Glass Bathyscaphe and Japan Through the Looking Glass.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (February 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1861979673
  • ISBN-13: 978-1861979674
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,025,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Japan, I read Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass. Macfarlane is a relatively a relative latecomer to Japan, having arrived there for the first time only in 1990, although he’s been back several times, in addition to reflecting upon what he saw and learned there. Macfarlane completed his anthropological fieldwork in Nepal and he’s written a great deal about early modern England. He's a keen student of the transition to modernity and the early theorists who dealt with that change from Montesquieu to Maitland, including Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Malthus, Marx, and others who have attempted to explain the advent of modernity. It was with this background that Macfarlane approached Japan, and he found that Japan confounded many of the characteristic dichotomies that classical theorists had developed about modern versus traditional societies.

The main theme of Japan Through the Looking Glass is that nothing seems quite as it first appears in Japanese culture; indeed, even upon closer examination, paradoxes and uncertainties abound. As Macfarlane notes, many outward similarities exist with Great Britain. Both are island nations, both have a feudal history, both have a long history of a strong work ethic, and both were the first to industrialize in their regions. But as Macfarlane points out, despite the similarities, westerners have a continuing challenge in understanding how Japan works.

For instance, Japan has a mix of individualism and status relationships. It is a modern (often hyper-modern) capitalist society, yet the profit motive is not glorified. Individuals in the sense of Western individualism don’t exist. Instead, people are defined by relationships.
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Format: Paperback
My title says it all. This book contains interesting ideas. The author occasionally whips up sentences like "As I came to learn a little more about Japan, I began to have the sense that if the economy dominates America, law dominates England, religion India, culture China, then one of the central threads of Japan is aesthetics." Such statements, though impressionistic and hardly empirical, provide interesting prompts for further reflection on the topic at hand. This may be taken to be a good thing.

However, one gets the impression that the author is romanticising Japan. The overall impression of Japan that he conveys is positive at best and neutral at worst. He often gives a general statement or observation about the country, which is fine. The problem I have with his approach is two-fold: firstly, the way in which he depicts this observation is frequently one-sided; secondly, his observations do not always strike me as painting the full picture of Japan. For the first point, I cannot say for sure whether it is because the author is consciously romanticising Japan, or whether he is just being generous by trying to find explanations for why the Japanese have such-and-such a characteristic. With regards to the second point, I personally feel that it is as though his materials were deliberately selected to portray the Japanese in a sympathetic light. However, as this book appears to be, simply, an account of his experiences, perhaps it was just the result of the way his personal journey played out for him. That I do not know.

Another criticism I have about this book is that the author makes certain claims based on wrong assumptions.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Okay, admittedly I have not read the entire book yet, for I was most interested in the "Beliefs" section. I know some Japanese mythology, but I wanted to learn more about the "real-life" Shinto and Japanese religion. Of course beliefs will vary from person to person, but his claim that the Japanese do not believe in a soul or an afterlife contradicts other things I've read about the religion. Buddhism believes in an afterlife, and while some myths suggest the afterlife, Yomi, is somewhat like Hades, but there is also the idea of returning to nature, becoming a spirit, and so one and so forth, which this book did briefly touch on. I could be wrong, but this book goes against other things I've read, so it was a bit of a disappointment.
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