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.

Gold Rush

Title: Gold Rush
Japanese Title: ゴールドラッシュ (Gōrudo Rasshu)
Author: Yū Miri (柳 美里)
Translator: Stephen Snyder
Publication Year: 2002 (America); 1998 (Japan)
Publisher: Welcome Rain Publishers
Pages: 286

I recently stumbled across an article titled Reading List: Books to Help You Understand Japan, which is a transcript of a conversation between NPR’s Neal Conan, the Brooklyn-based poet Kimiko Hahn, and Donald Keene, who recently retired from Columbia University in order to live in Japan. When Hahn and Keene were asked to list their top five works for understanding Japan in the wake of the recent disasters that have beset the country, they fired off titles like The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon and Essays in Idleness. This bothers me for three reasons.

The first reason is the blatant cultural essentialism, or the idea that one can understand everything about contemporary Japan by reading texts written in the Heian period, as if nothing has changed in the past thousand years. It’s like saying that one can understand everything about contemporary America by reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The Japanese people live (and have always lived) in harmony with nature and posses (and have always possessed) an innate understanding of the beauty of impermanence – and Americans are all God-fearing Puritans who stifle their artistic creativity and capitalistic interests in order to serve their small agricultural communities.

The second reason is the academic elitism. The Tale of Genji is indeed a great monument of Japanese literature. It is also more than a thousand pages long, written in a style that is frustratingly elliptical, and set in a time period and society that are fairly alien to anything a contemporary American (or Japanese) reader would be familiar with. Reading The Tale of Genji is hard, and reading it without guidance is even harder. To assume that even a highly educated and intelligent reader could just pick it up and understand the unadulterated beauty of every word is somewhat presumptuous. Hahn’s recommendation of two literary anthologies is even more baffling. It’s like saying, hey, if you can’t crack open a 421-page anthology of medieval literature and read it in one sitting, there must be something wrong with you.

The final reason is the utterly bizarre assumption that, in order to understand the contemporary Japanese imagination of disaster, one need not read anything either written or set later than 1945. This is doubly strange to me, as Donald Keene recently published an excellent translation of Oda Makoto’s 1998 novel The Breaking Jewel (Gyokusai), which depicts a Japanese soldier’s harrowing experiences during the last few weeks of the Pacific War. Moreover, even if tales of firebombings and severe food shortages and suicide attacks and two atomic bombs and total defeat and occupation by a foreign power wouldn’t give us any insight into postwar and post-earthquake Japanese society, perhaps something like Murakami Haruki’s After the Quake, written in the wake of the devastating Kobe earthquake of 1995, presumably would. To suggest that we can best understand Japanese anxieties regarding nuclear power by reading the poetic travel diaries of Bashō is, quite frankly, ridiculous.

I think Yū Miri’s novel Gold Rush is a perfect antidote to the sort of essentialist thinking demonstrated in the conversation on NPR. Gold Rush is set in Yokohama’s Kogane-chō neighborhood, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks sort of neighborhood filled with small bars, cheap restaurants, pachinko parlors, and love hotels. When most people think of Yokohama, they probably picture the swanky and high-tech Minato Mirai waterfront area or the upscale Motomachi shopping and residential district that serves as the setting of several Tanizaki and Mishima novels. Kogane-chō, however, is a grungy, run-down pleasure quarter that has seen better days, as is the neighboring Isezaki-chō. The streets are dirty, the Ōoka River is dirty, the karaoke bars are dirty, the train station is dirty, the cheap hotels under the railway bridge are dirty, and I imagine that even the many soaplands that dot the area are dirty. Gold Rush begins when four middle school boys pick up a high school girl in this neighborhood. They get her drunk, have her come with them to one of their houses, and then rape her. To be more precise, three of them rape her, and one of them watches.

The one who watches is the book’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, Kazuki, and abetting a rape is just the beginning for him. If trigger warnings were applied to mainstream fiction, Gold Rush would be slapped with all of the big ones. Rape, violence, child abuse, murder, more rape, more child abuse, substance abuse, abandonment, sexism, self-harming behavior, eating disorders, more child abuse, and then more rape. There is also a particularly nasty scene in which Kazuki kills a dog with a golf club. One might question the existence of a plot buried under all of these triggers, but the plot isn’t really the point of the novel. The reader is instead engrossed in following Kazuki’s slow psychological deterioration from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. Kazuki is like Holden Caulfield on crack, and the reader can’t help but identify with his adolescent frustration at the realization that his life and his destiny are not entirely his own, even if he continually takes his rage one step too far. The people who surround Kazuki aren’t much better than he is in terms of acting like decent human beings, and the world they all live in is a bitter, nasty place. In a way, though, Gold Rush is also a twisted sort of love letter to Kogane-chō and the low city charm that permeates it.

Reading Gold Rush is like reading a full-length Ionesco play like Rhinocéros (or a Bret Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho) in that it’s trenchant and biting and brilliantly absurd, but difficult to actually read for the very same reasons. It doesn’t help that Gold Rush is two hundred and fifty pages of ultraviolence unmitigated by chapter breaks. If there’s a reason the novel won the Akutagawa Prize, however, it’s because the writing is excellent. Perhaps it’s also because the physical and psychological spaces written by Yū Miri are more than a little familiar to Japanese readers. So yes, classics like The Tale of Genji are very Japanese, but so is Gold Rush, which is written by a zainichi Korean telling a story about juvenile delinquency in a decaying neighborhood of a seedy commuter city. Yū is a good writer, she tells a good story, and Gold Rush is good Japanese literature. It might even give the reader some small insight into contemporary Japan as well.