on May 29, 2011
This book is very successful at what it set out to do, which is to look at Japanese "etiquette manuals and manners guides" from a gender studies perspective. All of the essays are readable, though some more jargon-filled or methodologically self-conscious than others (I'll return to this in a moment). All of them also include the interesting or amusing factoids that one has come to expect from books about Japanese popular culture. E.g., I hadn't known that geisha are more concerned at pleasing their _iemoto_ (teachers in various traditional arts) than their customers; and I also learned about an entertaining-sounding TV drama that aired shortly before I moved here. An essay about the evolution of guides for foreigners with advice for dealing (or not) with Japanese manners was especially interesting, and Laura Miller's essay on offensive behavior, which ends the book, was the most fun. The publisher has admirably included not only footnotes but a unified bibliography, which to boot includes translations of Japanese titles, some of which are entertaining in their own right (e.g., "The first date: Doing that is wrong! Wrooong! 100 quick hints" and "Anthology of office lady taboos"). Were I to consider this dimension of the book alone, I'd give it 4.5 stars. The half-point deduction is for the dearth of illustrations: only one out of the 11 essays has any at all. In several of the others we're treated to descriptions of various manga, advertisements or woodcuts -- it would have been more enlightening to have seen them directly.
Readers should be cautioned that, the blurbs notwithstanding, this book doesn't give a "snapshot of Japanese society in the early twenty-first century." First of all, some of the essays focus in whole or in part on much earlier periods, including the Heian, Tokugawa and Meiji eras. Second, the focus is on etiquette manuals, advice columns and other guides, NOT on actual behavior. As emphasized in an essay about the 2006 bestseller, _Josei no hinkaku_ (The dignity of the woman), readers may reject the advice given in even the most popular guidebooks. (Despite that book's huge sales, it received mostly negative reviews on Amazon.) And finally, this "snapshot" is filtered through the categories of postmodern gender studies. This means that "messages" are "mediated," "identities" are "constructed," "norms" are "challenged," "bodies" (or the "pursuit" thereof) are "encoded" as well as being both "sites and objects of consumption," etc.
To be fair, there are plenty of other books that deploy this sort of jargon more thickly. But for all the political correctness in the essays, many exhibit a sort of "orientalism" -- most often an orientalism of cute (see, e.g., the cover, and the use of the word "mischief") -- that pervades too many books about Japan. (BTW there is little or nothing about "mischief" in this book.) Cultural and gender studies scholars produce a flood of books and articles about Japanese manga, anime, toys, monsters, fractured English, teenage girls, "sneaker culture" and other trendy cultural capital. Yet why don't we see a similar stream of product from English-speaking scholars about, say Swedish popular culture, or Saudi Arabian, or German? Search on Amazon and you'll find a few, but nothing like the output there is for Japan; and most of it is far more serious and political, not cute, wacky or quirky.
This is not an innocuous trend. It has a distancing effect that labels Japan as more "other" than other societies, or even as a "toy" society not to be taken seriously. Example: shortly after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the New York Times ran an op-ed purporting to explain contemporary Japanese attitudes toward nuclear power on the basis of 60-year-old monster movies. Would anyone dare to use similar reasoning to explain attitudes toward nukes in Germany, Switzerland or France? Actually, peoples' concerns about nukes here are pretty much the same as those of people in, say, Pennsylvania: they're worried about their kids, their health, and their ability to stay in their communities. Seen in this light, the book's PC jargon struck me as hypocritical. I admit that I rationalize consuming a fair number of these Japanese cultural studies books on the grounds of there being a practical benefit to my understanding the local culture; but reading this one I began to feel a little creepy for facilitating what postmodernists might call an "anti-postcolonialist" trend in scholarship -- and what the rest of us can call a patronizing one, however affectionate its practitioners may believe they are being. Another fraction of a star deduction (the blame for this hypocrisy should be spread around over lots of books, not concentrated on this one), for a net of four stars.