Hundreds of years since the initial breakthrough contact between the ambassadors of Western countries and the Japanese, an honest assessment of the relationship between Japan and the outside world is probably useful. While much progress in cooperation, understanding and transformation has occurred in the intervening years, conflicts and misunderstanding still arise, even today. In order to aid in developing concord between Japanese and Western mind , Boye Lafayette De Mente has written ‘Japan UnMasked’, a brilliant work in the Nihonjinron genre.
Nihonjinron is the term describing the study of ‘Japanese-ness’. More specifically, it is the academic discipline that seeks to explain what makes the Japanese, japanese. The global catalog of Nihonjinron literature could fill many shelves. This study initially was developed by native scholars and researchers, but now has been shouldered by outsiders as well, and has been enriched as a result.
For readers of Japancast, Nihonjinron can be a source of increased insight into the cultural depths that hold such magnetic attraction. The title of this particular work of Nihonjinron itself is telling; the Japanese are famous for their reserve and for not being forthcoming with their true feelings, thus the ‘mask’ motif; De Mente seeks to remove the obscuring factor through his book.
“The Japanese are probably the most knowable and predictable people on Earth”
-George H. Lambert
From this optimistic starting point, the author begins constructing a picture of the character of Japan through a series of essays. The Japanese way is unlike that of any other people in the world. That is part of its attraction for many gaikokujin (foreigners) but also a great part of its frustrating impenetrability. This anthology of essays explains its subject viewing fragments of the whole. It describes the unique form that the Japanese sensibility and soul impress upon religion, education, business, the criminal underworld, xenophobia/xenophilia, psychology, social life and outlook. It covers varying topics in its chapters with titles like:
Dispelling the Enigma Myth of Japan, The Challenge of Being Japanese, The Challenge of Speaking Japanese, A Japanese Dilemma: Policies vs. Principles, Beware of Using Logic in Japan, Can the Japanese Really Tap in to Cosmic Energy?, Cultural and Extralegal Barriers Facing Foreigners in Japan, Dealing with “Godless” Japan, Doing Business on Japan’s Permanently Tilted Playing Field, How the Inept and Mediocre Rise to the Top in Japan, How the Japanese Perceive and Use Knowledge vs. The Western Way, Japan’s “Moral Hazard” Syndrome, Japan’s Victim Mentality and Avoiding Responsibility, Japan’s Inferior-Superior System, “Soft” vs. “Hard” Management, Japan’s Suicide Syndrome, Japanese Culture vs. Scientific Management, The Japanese Corporation of the Future, The Eight Golden Rules of Japanese Management: Are They Doomed?, The Japanese “Allergy” to Westerners, The Japanese Obsession with Becoming “Un-Japanese”, The Mindset of Japanese Bureaucrats, Why Actions in Japan Speak Louder Than Words, Yakuza: The Story Behind Japan’s “Honorable” Gangsters, Zen’s Contribution to Japan’s Economic Power, How Japan Became an Economic Superpower, How the “Black-Mark” System Rules Japan, Ijime: Terrorism in Japan’s Schools, Japan’s “Hell” Schools, More on the Crisis in Japanese Management, Nihonteki: One of the Secrets of Japan’s Success, Selling Sex in a Glass: Japan’s Pleasure Trades, The Japanese Way of Striving for Perfection, Japan’s Myth of Internationalization, Tuning in to Japan’s Cultural Telepathy, The West’s Why/Because vs. Japan’s Wa/Sa Approach, Understanding the Japanese Business Mind, aaannd Strengths and Weakness of the Japanese.
There are many insights of interest. One that stands out comes from the chapter titled, ‘How the Japanese Perceive and Use Knowledge vs. the Western Way’. In it De Mente writes:
“… Japanese people have traditionally looked at life and all of its facets, including knowledge, as part of a continuous flow of events, all interrelated, all essential to each other … Japanese treat the search for and utilization of information as an ongoing thing, without end, regardless of how or when they intend to use it. This trait led the Japanese to automatically take an active rather than reactive approach to information.”
Each chapter could be an entryway into its own unique field of study, but for the neophyte there are some wonders, delights, mysteries and hard truths to be discovered in De Mente’s book. Despite the density of information, this is not an intensely intellectual book and is an easy read.
Not every idea or opinion in this book hits the bulls-eye everytime, in my opinion. There are no footnotes or endnotes as can be expected in an anthology of loosely connected essays. Given that, you ought to take the author’s point of view with a grain of salt. However, Osaka Ali has found the book to be a source of great use after revisiting it numerous times.
After reading will you find the Japanese to be knowable or unknowable? Read and find out …
Japan UnMasked: The Character & Culture of the Japanese by Boye Lafayette De Mente is published by Tuttle Publishing