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A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture (Paperback) Paperback – Import, 1995
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|Paperback, Import, 1995||
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It seems Buruma couldn't quite make up his mind: are they unique, these odd people from the separate islands East of Asia, or is that only their own wishful thinking about themselves? (Is there any merit in a comparison to the odd people living on the islands West of Europe?)
While Buruma says early on that deep down the Japanese are really not that much different, he spends most of the rest of the book showing us that they are quite odd indeed. He writes always with sympathy, never mocking, but at times headshaking about all these little quirks that one finds in the daily life of the very Far East.
So we meet the mother (who rules by appeasement and keeps dominating the male for life), the female demon (the woman who irritatingly discovers sexuality), the prostitute (who serves as surrogate mother to the poor man who suffers withdrawal syndrome), the cross-dresser in show business, the hard man (how do you stand out when society wants you to conform?), the gangster (in the movie version a hero like the bull in the Spanish corrida) and some more.
The basis for all the things that we find contradictory seems to lie in the co-existence of a popular and sometimes vulgar culture based on Shinto with the more sophisticated cultural rules derived from the imported and adapted doctrines of Buddhism and Confucianism.
I can't pretend that I am an expert in Japanese civilisation, nor even in Japanese movies, so I will not attempt to evaluate the contents of Buruma's diagnosis beyond confirming that this is an interesting collection of essays.
The book is split into two sections, the first section dealing with women and the second section with men, as well as a bridging chapter on cross-dressers. The section on women show the long suffering, devoted mother, the innocent schoolgirls, the vile demon-women seducers and the art of prostitution. The section on men show the loyal retainer, the hard school and nihilism of the yakuza, and the idiocy of fathers. Each stereotype is supported with a host of evidence from many different media types.
The most repeating storyline, and the most important lesson for the Japanese, is that he who acts outside society is doomed. Like all culture's storytelling, Japanese books, films and theater seem to reinforce a comfortable lesson, allowing people to vicariously watch rebels get their just due.
Also of interest in this book is the lack of core good/evil myths in Japanese religion, and how this affects their storytelling and how this disturbs and confuses Western viewers. Violence for violence's sake, without a moral lesson, is often found in Japanese storytelling. After reading this book, you will have a better idea of why.
The weakness of this book is that, regardless of the title, the focus is on heroes. There are not really any villains mentioned. Also, as the book was written in the 1980's, many of the current "hot" stars and stories mentioned by the author have faded into obscurity, which dates the book somewhat.
"The Japanese Mirror" is a great book for anyone interested in Japanese culture and/or film. It is scholarly without being dry, and intelligent.
I found this book interesting, but this book was published in 1984 orginally, so when Buruma refers to popular culture, it is quite outdated. When talking about movies, he refers primarily to movies from the 60's. For other forms of entertainment, the references come from the late 70's and early 80's. His references don't reflect the current impact that Japanese pop culture is having on the world today. Also the strong cultural institutions, such as lifetime employment, that he talks about have been breaking down since the Japanese economy collapsed in the late 80's and early 90's. Presently, Japanese society is in a state of flux. Despite this, you'll still find lots of interesting observations in this book.