Reimagining Japan

Title: Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works
Editors: Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler, and Heang Chhor
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: VIZ Media
Pages: 464

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty short essays on the future of Japan after an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown, and twenty years of economic stasis. The essayists brought together by this collection are mainly industry leaders and influential journalists, with a few academics and NPO-associated researchers thrown in for spice. In their essays, these luminaries speculate on what went wrong with Japan’s economic and social infrastructures and propose strategies to reinvigorate the country in the wake of the recent disasters.

I found this book to be infuriating. Here are five reasons why.

(1) The overgeneralizations. These generalizations tend to be made not about the economy, for which there are internationally recognized systems of characterization on the macro level, but rather about the Japanese people. Statistical demographic analysis is thrown to the wind as the reader is told, in essay after essay, that Japan is an aging society, that Japanese women don’t work, that there are no immigrants in Japan, and that the Japanese are a race of mindless automatons. Ironically, every other essay seems to offer the opposite set of generalizations. Women do work, Japan is filled with immigrants, and the Japanese are a highly individualistic people (everyone agrees that the population is aging, though). There are also generalizations about the relationship between the government and privately-owned industry and corporations. Government reliance on the private sector is good, government reliance on the private sector is bad. The government should regulate corporate activity, the government should not regulate corporate activity. This difference of opinion is not bad in and of itself, but when different people state radically different “facts” about the same issue, the validity of said facts is obviously called into question.

(2) The bad economics. Aside from a class in eighth grade and a class in my freshman year of college, I have never formally studied economics. I do not claim to be an expert on economic theory or practice. I genuinely respect people who do have this expertise. That being said, I don’t think telling an entire country of people how to behave constitutes a sound economic policy. An overwhelming number of the essayists in Reimaging Japan suggest that the Japanese economy will be revived if only “the Japanese” begin behaving in a radically different manner. There are some really strange examples of this type of thinking scattered throughout the book, such as when Pico Iyer obliquely blames the decline in Japanese economic productivity on women wearing makeup (with young women wearing makeup and older women wearing makeup being two separate economic issues, of course).

(3) Unchallenged assumptions. In an essay titled “Cool Is Not Enough,” Christopher Graves makes the following statement about Japan’s contents industry: “If Japan truly exports its wide array of anime and manga, foreign fans will discover that the content ranges from kawaii (super cute) to hentai (sexual perversion) interlaced with violence and dark apocalyptic visions. Real manga is not at all childlike and could cause an uproar in countries like the United States, whose people are likely to be outraged by scenes of rape or sex with an octopus.” In other words, most anime and manga in Japan is violent pornography, and Americans only tolerate Japanese popular culture because its true nature is hidden from them. I wonder, does Graves live in an alternate universe from our own, in which the vast majority of manga in Japan is indeed intended for a young audience, while a wide range of stories and genres are highly successful in America? How does the global CEO of a big-name international public relations firm make such silly and obvious mistakes, and why does anyone think it’s okay that his opinions and policy suggestions are based on such obvious and silly mistakes? These are questions I could ask regarding any number of the essayists in this book, who base their opinions on similarly ridiculous assumptions that they never question. A great deal of these assumptions come with no citations or corroborations, which is obviously problematic not just from an academic perspective but from the perspective of public and economic policy as well.

(4) An almost complete lack of concern over the environment. In an essay titled “Japan After People,” Alex Kerr goes off on one of his signature rants about how Japan is spoiling the beauty and sanctity of its natural heritage by lining its rivers with concrete and covering its mountains with sugi cypress trees. In the same essay, he laments the shrinking cities and rural depopulation caused by the country’s low birthrate. These two opinions, when placed side by side in a short essay, come off as somewhat contradictory. The last time I checked, fewer people means less strain on the environment, and more people along with less environmental destruction sounds an awful lot like having your cake and eating it too. Such environmental paradoxes appear throughout the book. Another remarkable contradiction is contained in the assertion, repeated across multiple essays, that Japan should emulate China. Not only are Chinese business practices not healthy on a social level, but they’re also terrifyingly destructive on an environmental level. The effects of global warming, such as extreme temperatures and drastically changing patterns of rainfall and drought, are very real and have a strong impact of economic stability. One might think that the incident at the Fukushima reactor would cause people to start taking environmental issues seriously, but all Reimagining Japan can offer is admiration of Chinese vitality and a call for more Japanese babies.

(5) Gender disparity. There are far, far more essays written by men in Reimagining Japan than essays written by women. While this may seem like a petty complaint on the surface, it becomes somewhat more troubling when one realizes that many of the issues addressed by these male essayists directly concern women. For example – where do all of those new Japanese babies that everyone wants come from? Also, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to answer demands for a diverse and stable workforce if Japanese corporations made it easier for the female (more-than-)half of the population to be full-time employees. One might argue that, in an essay collection representing the opinions of industry and opinion leaders, that there are simply not enough high-profile women to go around, but this is simply not true. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that something so obviously useful as female opinions on gender issues would be overlooked by the editors.

There are a few diamonds in the rough (such as the essays by John Dower and Kumiko Makihara), but this collection as a whole is repetitive and a bit ridiculous. I don’t enjoy writing such negative reviews (and in fact I almost trashed this one unposted), but I thought someone should stand up and say that the sort of intellectual laziness that pervades Reimagining Japan is not okay. Let me repeat that: this is not okay. Still, there is enough that is good and interesting in this collection to make it worth browsing just so long as one remembers to think about what she reads instead of simply taking it at face value.

ETA: I really enjoyed reading this review of the collection, which echoes many of my criticisms but contains more information about the actual content. The author of the review seems to have enjoyed some of the essays I found particularly problematic (mainly because of their inherent sexism), but he does an excellent job of detailing the book’s strengths and weaknesses.

11 thoughts on “Reimagining Japan

  1. Sounds like this book pretty much lives up to my expectations of most writing on contemporary Japanese economic & societal issues. Far too focused on the present, on Japan as some hypothetical economic/societal creature following trends and rules and patterns, rather than being the complex, cultural, colorful, diverse nation of real individual human beings that it is; and, also, on applying overgeneralizations and false assumptions garnered from a Western or global (read: not Japanese-specific) perspective.

    I agree with you, of course, as you know, about Mr. Kerr. I recall him making a similar point in Dogs & Demons about how Kyoto should emulate Shanghai. Now, I haven’t been to Shanghai, don’t really know what the city looks like, but I’m pretty damn certain that China is not at all a place to emulate when it comes to environmental protection, sustainable growth, maintenance of traditional culture, and architectural decisions (see: destruction of hutongs to build crappy 1950s-60s style concrete apartment buildings; see also China doing basically everything that Kerr accuses Japan of doing badly when it comes to concrete, architecture, destruction of traditional culture, etc.)

  2. It’s remarkable how lazy books on contemporary Japan are allowed to be. It’s as if the publishers know that most mainstream readers aren’t going to question outdated stereotypes (no immigrants, no working women), so they don’t even bother to fact-check or tell their writers to back up their arguments.

  3. We appreciate your feedback and are sorry to hear you found the book “ridiculous” and “intellectually lazy”. Everyone is entitled to their opinions; indeed our whole objective was to create a spirited dialog about the topic.

    Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of readers of this collection around the world have found the collection, and its contributors–which include 3 Pulitzer Prize winners and 20 CEOs, among others–to have provided insightful, relevant commentary on the country and its pedicament, as well as some possible solutions. The book’s unexpected bestseller status and glowing reviews–in addition to the number of Japanese university professors and others who have embraced the volume–have made us as optimistic as ever about the appetite for constructive dialog and change.

    Thanks for your comments and happy to discuss any of your feedback further.

    Brian Salsberg, Co-Editor

    1. I’m aware of the reception this book has enjoyed, which is precisely why I thought it necessary to point out some rather obvious problems. Along with many other reviewers, I think it’s absolutely wonderful that you and your colleagues were willing and able to put together this collection. It is my hope that future work along these lines might be rendered more interesting and useful through an awareness of the issues I discussed in my review.

      Thank you so much for reading!

      1. Kathryn

        Thanks for clarifying and for taking the time to read the book. I am sincere when I say we appreciate all the feedback–constructive and not. This is why we try to take the time to respond.

        As you point out, everyone who was willing to contribute to the book, and critique the book, has the same objective in mind: A brighter future for the country we love.

  4. 2 stars out of 5.

    I’ve lived in Japan for over 10 years and regret buying Reimagining Japan at its current price. I should have waited until I could get a used version for $5 or $10. I’m posting this here for those who think this is essential reading about Japan and feel a need to get a copy in summer. It is *not* essential reading and is more a collection of what many in business, several journalists and a few academics have thought about Japan over the past decade.

    With few exceptions, if you have been following Japan in the press, you pretty much have the book in your head,

    1. Thank you so much for this comment. You more or less nailed what I wanted to say with more concision and less vitriol.

      I think part of my frustration with this book stems from the fact that I paid $17.99 for a Kindle edition filled with typos and formatting errors only to read what I had more or less read countless times before in various articles and opinion columns in both the American and the Japanese press. As you say, there are happy exceptions, but I also wish I had waited until either the price went down or I could find a nice used copy.

  5. Regarding #3: I hate to say this, but that conversation (“ Real manga is not at all childlike and could cause an uproar in countries like the United States, whose people are likely to be outraged by scenes of rape or sex with an octopus.” ) is very 1997. I’m always shocked when I go back to the US and see how much manga there is in bookstores and on Amazon. I remember when it was mostly Sailor Moon and Takahashi Rumiko’s stuff. (I even own the Nausicaa Perfect Collection, purchased when I was in high school–and well as the later 7-vol. version, purchased for my now-husband to read when we started dating.) While a stroll through Borders a year ago was nothing like going to Book Off, there were a lot of genres represented from the cute to the sexual to the violent. This is old news, and even though manga translation companies seem to be having some problems, it doesn’t seem like America is in much of a moral uproar 15 years after the beginning of the boom.

    I wrote (and still write) a lot about gender and the birth dearth in Japan, and it seems these authors are arguing the same point the Japanese government tends to: Women aren’t making babies because they are selfish or working (which is selfish). In reality, it’s a combo of economics (the cost of education and housing vs. the recession and income) and societal gender roles (government-approved paternity leave vs. social expectations for men, often coming from their companies; lack of affordable childcare)–and that’s just scratching the surface. It’s a complicated issue and the answers aren’t simple, either–even with the extension of parental leave and the child allowances, the birthrate hasn’t skyrocketed. Simply blaming the women and lamenting the lack of babies isn’t productive.

    (See the bibliography at the end of this post for more reading/citations:

    John Dower, though, is one of my favorite authors in the field, and I would love to read his essay.

    1. Thank you so much for this comment, as well as for the link.

      There is so much awesome writing about gender and economic and public policy in Japan by so many awesome scholars and activists in both North America and Japan. Someone should really post a list of links to the essays that are freely available online…

      And as for the manga issue, all I have to add to your excellent points is a link to some of the manga that is being sold in mainstream bookstores and widely reviewed favorably both in print and by the manga blogging community:

    1. I really wish I could have attended this event, especially since I have about a million and one questions for Christopher Graves. Alas, I teach almost all day on Thursday, and New York is so far away…

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