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A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains in Japanese Culture

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The received myth is that the Japanese are a race so different from the rest of us that no outsider can understand them - a myth they seem rather enjoy. But one that Ian Buruma explodes in this fascinating study of the Japanese character through an analysis of the way they perceive and, more importantly, portray themselves in their popular culture. Anyone who has ever been intrigued by the images of kamikaze pilots, geisha girls or the intricate arts of Japan will find this book a revelation.

In this scintillating book, Ian Buruma peels away the myths that surround Japanese culture. With piercing analysis of cinema, theatre, television, art and legend, he shows the Japanese both 'as they imagine themselves to be, and as they would like themselves to be.' A Japanese Mirror examines samurai and gangsters, transvestites and goddesses to paint an eloquent picture of life in Japan. This is a country long shrouded in enigma and in his compelling book, Buruma reveals a culture rich in poetry, beauty and wonder.
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Piercing analysis of the Japanese soul that has stood the test of time
  • Fascinating, eclectic and thoroughly researched
  • Written forty years ago so some references outdated
It's said that man creates Gods in his own image. Starting with an examination of Japan's creation myths, Buruma describes how the behaviours of the Gods are still mirrored in many Japanese customs and behaviours through an entertaining discussion of some of the "heroes and villains of Japanese culture" (the sub-heading of my edition). The book was written in the early 1980s so some of the references will be lost on most readers, but in the updated preface in 2012, he argues that though fads may change, the principles have largely remained intact, and indeed someone familiar with Japanese culture will be able to find modern-day equivalents for some of the fads in the 1980s whose allure has now faded (the chapter "Human Work of Art" immediately brings cosplay into mind).

The hero of the first chapter, and perhaps the biggest hero of all, is Mother, the unconditionally loving and long-suffering Japanese mother. Buruma explores the mother/son bond and argues that much of the behaviour of Japanese men can be explained by the extremely indulgent love given by their mothers in the first years of their lives, which is followed by the shock of having to adjust to a highly regimented society. As a result, men are forever subconsciously trying to get back to the "sweet, dimly white dream world of the mother's bosom"; it's no coincidence that the managers of hostess bars are called "Mama-san". Even the very entertainingly described Kyoto strippers "had a smile with a maternal assurance that there is nothing to fear". Sex plays a large role in this book and some of the descriptions are quite graphic (and also comical - the no-pants cafe where each customer is allowed a quick single squeeze of the maid's breast as they leave while they are thanked for their custom in the most honorific of language!).

A major thread running through the book is the tension between the will of the individual (and Japanese people are no less individual than those anywhere else) and a society in which words and actions are highly constrained. Repression tends to manifest itself in some way or other, and Buruma argues that in Japan, this explains the grotesqueness of some of the extreme sex and violence in quite mainstream films and publications despite Japan being a relatively safe society. This tension also explains the historical popularity of loners, outcasts, and travellers in Japanese culture (yakuza, the 47 ronin, Tora-san). It always ends tragically for these characters in films, but through them Japanese people can indulge in their nostalgia for their lost freedom while at the same time be thankful for their humdrum roles in society.

Another fascinating theme covered is that of authenticity, an issue that must go through the minds of people living in Japan most days - are the words or actions of the person I have just interacted with from the heart or are they playing a role? Although Western society has its own set of rules, emphasis is placed on 'being yourself' and behaving authentically, whereas in Japan it is important to play the appropriate role assigned to you; even if the role is unnatural, that's OK because everyone knows it is and understands. This theme is discussed through the takarazuka actresses playing men, and kabuki (in which men playing women are somehow better than women themselves, who are too damn natural!).

Finally, purity and pollution (of the soul and society) are a major thread running through the book, which was where I found myself most at odds with Japanese thinking. The monotheistic religions have resulted in Western people thinking along the lines of good and evil, regardless of their belief in a deity. Yes, society is flawed and evil occurs, but through our actions, we can make a difference and perhaps tip the scales slightly from evil toward good. In contrast, Japan has Gods that sometimes behave badly but are not actually good or evil, but most Japanese people will have experienced cruelty and arbitrary decisions from people they must kowtow to. As a result, Japanese thinking is more that the adult world is irredeemably defiled (and hence the enormous nostalgia for anything school-related, i.e., pure), and there's little that can be done about it, which perhaps explains Japanese passivity from Western eyes and also the love of ephemeral beauty that transcends the impure world. However, at this point, I could feel my soul screaming "You don't have to make it so hard for yourselves!"

Some parts of the book now inevitably feel dated - the intense pressure placed on young women to marry that existed a couple of generations ago no longer exists - but people familiar with Japan will find this a highly stimulating read as they compare the cultural phenomena in this book and their own experiences of Japan.
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Thanks so much. I've now put it on my list. Great review. Very interesting and thoughtful.

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Ian Buruma
Random House
Year of publication
2001 (paperback)
Number of pages
USD 8.99

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