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Culture The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture

In The Japanese Mind, Roger Davies offers Westerners an invaluable key to the unique aspects of Japanese culture. Readers of this book will gain a

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The Japanese Mind is a collection of twenty-eight essays written by seniors from Ehime University's English department, each discussing an aspect of Japanese culture that exemplifies the Japanese mindset. The editors state that the essays are primarily aimed at students of Japanese studies and Japanese students of English who might need to explain their culture to non-Japanese people. The book would certainly be a great resource for that goal, but the essays go deeper. The authors seem genuinely motivated by this opportunity to reach out to the world, gain foster a better understanding of their country, and discuss what their generation wants from Japan.

The essays are presented alphabetically, and it works out well that aimai (ambiguity in Japanese communication) is first. Aimai refers to the Japanese tendency toward "more than one intended meaning, resulting in obscurity, indistinctness, and uncertainty." Having lived in Japan for nine years, I can attest to this being a definitive trait of the Japanese. The Japanese will sometimes tell you yes when they in fact mean no. Many of the books I've read chalk this ambiguity up to protecting the feelings of the other person. The essay on aimai goes further, delving into its historical development as a facet of Japan's vertical social structure. The author acknowledges that this ambiguity can make communication with Japanese difficult for foreigners (and often between Japanese), but closes with the hope that non-Japanese will "try to understand the Japanese mentality and the importance of the role that ambiguity plays in Japanese life." That understanding won't likely make it any easier for foreigners to deal with this ambiguity, but at least they'll know that the Japanese have deep-seated cultural reasons for communicating ambiguously.

In the essay "Bigaku," or the traditional Japanese sense of beauty, we see a student's view of where Japan stands on the traditional Japanese and modern Western-inspired senses of beauty which are now equally part of Japanese culture. One of the most visible forms of traditional aesthetic for both Japanese and Westerns is the kimono, but the author isn't as reverent of the kimono as some readers might expect. Contrary to the image of serene geisha against a rustic backdrop, we read that kimonos are seen as "uncomfortable to move in, and … those who wear kimonos are now regarded as relatively high class, or sometimes putting on airs … they are worn not for their sense of beauty but rather to demonstrate people's formality, status, and pride." As for painted art, however, the author expresses sadness that traditional Japanese art guided by the concept of mono no aware, a Japanese sense of feelings, has been eclipsed by the more logic-oriented beauty, as the author sees it, of Western art. The author overlooks the range of art styles in both civilizations, but the more basic concern about traditional Japanese feelings being dulled by the infusion of the Western logic-oriented mindset is one I heard often during my stay in Japan. Whereas the essay on aimai makes an appeal to foreigners to consider the Japanese point of view, "Bigaku" expresses hope that the Japanese will do more to regain touch with traditional Japanese art and the mindset it fosters.

The rest of the essays explore topics such as progress in gender equity, the flow of authority in traditional Japanese households, and group consciousness. The book covers lots of ground.

When I first saw The Japanese Mind, I assumed it would be similar to Takeo Doi's The Anatomy of Dependence
. They're actually quite different. Doi's book focuses on the Japanese concept of emotional dependence, but The Japanese Mind gives an on-the-ground view of a wide range of topics in a way that would be more useful to newcomers who are getting established. Doi's book should be on the reading list too, but a little later.

All of the essays in The Japanese Mind are excellent. The authors do a great job of representing their country and what they want for it domestically and globally. Students of Japanese studies, as well as casual readers, will learn a lot.

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Roger J. Davies, Osamu Ikeno
Tuttle Publishing
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