Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

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Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

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Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Over a period of 16 years Anthropologist Alan Macfarlane has been investigating Japan and the Japanese in the light of his experiences of other cultures around the world. He seeks to share what little understanding he's mustered of how the differences can begin to be understood. A deceptively simple, thought-provoking introduction into Japanese culture, history and current society.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: August 2007
Publisher: Profile
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1861979520

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One of the pleasures of books that arrive as opposed to those you seek out is that they are often not at all what you expect them to be. Anyone expecting a travelogue from Through the Looking Glass has wandered into the wrong section of the library.

Whilst it is based on his own travels and experiences, the book is Macfarlane's attempt to understand and to explain Japan.

As a trained historian and Professor of Anthropology at Cambridge University, he is better placed to do this than most. He first travelled to Japan some sixteen years ago at the invitation of the British Council... an invitation, which had originated from a Japanese professor whose wife was interested in a previous book by Macfarlane. Contacts and friendships made, he has been back to the country six times, travelled extensively in the company of his Japanese hosts and their family, and hosted their reciprocal visits to England, supervised Japanese and Korean postgraduate students and enquired extensively into their lives and beliefs and systems. Hampered by being unable to read, write or speak Japanese, his reliance on interpreters may in fact have facilitated these enquiries... but he freely admits when the translations are potentially dubious.

His academic life in England combined with fieldwork in Nepal and travels in India give him insights and comparators against which to measure Japanese-ness. This was his aim in writing the book, and in doing so he discovered that the measures he intended to use simply do not apply.

Most of us will freely admit that we do not understand the Japanese, that they are not just foreign to us but completely alien - a far greater degree of foreignness than that which we might apply to other nations. At the beginning of the Macfarlane's work, I thought that this might be a state that would be lessened by partaking of his knowledge. Instead, he serves to confirm that it is true.

Japan, and the Japanese, really ARE different.

His explorations of culture, wealth, people, power, ideas and beliefs frequently start with the notions we understand which are often phrased as alternatives: primitive/civilised, democratic/dictatorial, religious/secular... but which could also be viewed as a continuum. Much of the quest is to place Japan and her people somewhere on these strata that we recognise... the usual result is to discover that they lie either completely off it, or at several points along it all at once.

To take examples:

My generation and more particularly that of my parents will think of the Japanese primarily in terms of the Second World War, the horrors committed and the apparent lack of remorse. None of this is denied. But when compared with Europe and the rest of Asia over the centuries leading up to the twentieth Japan proves to be among the most peaceable of countries. In the 21st century, despite the industrialisation and related tensions life still appears to be serene and crime rates exceptionally low.

The explanation for this seems rooted in the absence of religion. We may think of Japanese as being Buddhist or Shinto. There are shrines everywhere, including inside most private homes. Rituals are observed - but not so much faithfully, as faithlessly. There is, Macfarlane, postulates no real belief in anything beyond an intrinsic interconnectedness of everything.

As a result there is no all-powerful god that will condemn you to eternal suffering, no threat of a thousand lifetimes working off bad karma. This life is all there is. The surprising duality resulting from that is (a) a complete lack of a system of ethics or a moral code but also (b) if now is all there is, focus on now and try to make it as wonderful as possible... for all concerned. Life is full of chance and random luck... and it may not hurt to try to appease the spirits... but all you can do is your best.

Thus the Japanese are legendarily slow to anger. But once angered, that is also pursued with the full bearing of all at their disposal. The horrors of the war are, to the Japanese mind, explained fully and simply by the fact that they were at war. War is not a game, with rules that limit its pursuit. It is an action with an end. We tend to think that surrender is 'shameful' to them. Not in the sense that we would understand it... it is not about losing face, but about failing to do everything you could. It is simply not an option.

Elsewhere: consider commerce. As one of the major industrialised nations on earth, Japan is economically strong without having any concept of 'commerce' or 'contract' as we would understand it. The idea of commercial competition was so alien to them that no word existed for it until the late 19th century. Even now there is a notion that one's services are given freely to the company... and that the company freely gives a salary, but that salary is a gift, not a direct exchange for the services rendered. It is easy to say that this is a question of semantics, but is it? Their commercial relationships tend to be long-lasting, not just between employee and the company, but also between contractors and subcontractors. They do not seek out the lowest price (or even in the modern jargon 'most economically advantageous tender' which goes beyond mere price) for a given supply or project... but continue to work co-operatively over long periods. They forge relationships is the true sense of the word.

I was forced to wonder whether the pressures to conform to the Egan Agenda which haunt my profession are not born specifically of the motor industry as we are led to believe, but are a recognition of the fact that perhaps the Japanese model is one worth emulating. We will not find out anytime soon as there are the conflicting requirements for free competition on the European model.

Somehow the Japanese have managed to both ignore and harness competition. They are big players in the capitalist world, and yet they maintain a uniquely egalitarian society that has nothing to do with communism.

ow crime rates, a healthy attitude to nudity, and general peaceful co-existence exist alongside prolific and violent pornography.

Throughout, Macfarlane illustrates his theories with examples and quotes from the early European travellers to Japan and the explanations and ideas of his contemporaries, showing us how much and how little has changed. These personal touches work well in breaking up the narrative, making the whole easier to digest and to ponder.

A great deal of ground is covered in this relatively short work (only 230 pages) and it is surprisingly enlightening.

Similarities with systems that appear in England (and virtually nowhere else) crop up now and again - such as the laws of inheritance, the specific nature of feudalism - but always with a twist.

There are odd quirks of the historical development of the country: an almost universal literacy at a very early point in development, which did not then produce a legal class or a civil service or even a university system. Could it be that the universality of education served to 'play it down' - power-wielders in other nations relying on the illiteracy of the masses?

The generally protective and successful society has somehow managed to produce huge numbers of frightened teenagers, unable to leave their rooms. Why is that, and how do they recover from it?

In the best tradition of low-brow academia this book raises as many questions as it answers, and Macfarlane dutifully provides a comprehensive bibliography and website reference section for further reading.

Do I understand the Japanese any better? Only slightly, but the important achievement is in showing that if we wish to understand them, we need a framework other than our own... we do have to go through the looking glass and at least consider the possibility of believing six impossible things before breakfast.

Should you read it? If you've the remotest interest in Japan, and certainly if you've plans to visit, it should be top of your list. For the general reader with an interest in either history or current affairs, definitely. If you're looking for in depth descriptions of places and customs, no.

I wouldn't normally comment on 'production quality' of a book, but it is disappointing in a book that I will want to return to, to find pages becoming loose after a single reading.

You might also like Mishima's Sword by Christopher Ross.

Buy Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Japan Through The Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane at Amazon.com.


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