BOOK REVIEW / Essex Man of the East: 'The Japanese: Strange But Not Strangers' - Joe Joseph, Viking, 15.99; 'Caught in a Mirror: Reflections of Japan' - Lisa Martineau: Macmillan, 16.99

A LAND of high-tech and atavism, of faceless conformity and ruthless competitiveness, of exquisite aesthetic sensitivity and callous cruelty - Japan, to most of us, is a mystery. How does it all make sense?

Joe Joseph, the Times Tokyo correspondent for three years, takes us chapter by chapter through aspects of Japanese life - language, business, the sexes, yuppies, transport, the media, quality of life, ethnicity, etiquette, the role of the emperor, crime, education, sport (a particularly interesting section on how baseball was made bizarrely Japanese). The information has been carefully chosen, and is clearly and wittily presented.

But Joseph doesn't like the Japanese much. They emerge from the book as a kind of Oriental Essex Man - vulgar, nouveau riche, aggressive, unthinking (his Japanese women aren't quite Essex girls; instead they do a lot of simpering and dressing up in expensive clothes). Travel writers don't have to like the people they meet - ask Paul Theroux - but a suspicion arises that the author hasn't given the Japanese a fair chance. He doesn't introduce us to many, except for a few rather standard journo's interviews with a kabuki actor, an unemployed whale harpoonist and an ultra-nationalist politician. Didn't he make any friends while he was there? And if he doesn't know any of the individuals who make up a culture, how can he begin to talk about that culture in any depth? The answer, of course, is that he can't and never intended to. His is an enjoyable, well-researched but shallow general guide.

Lisa Martineau digs deeper. She knows her Japanese history - not just Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the mythical Shinto roots, the real roots in China's Tang dynasty, the female-dominated Belan court, the warlike Tokugawa shogunate (which instituted a caste system, the bottom two rungs of which were 'non-humans' and 'filth'). She has read the literature and peppers the book with quotes. Best of all, she introduces us to some ordinary Japanese: Koko, the young office worker about to meet her arranged marriage partner; Mr Watanabe and his geisha mistress, still romantically in love after 60 years; the kindly, sad, philosophical loser Mr Nagano (about whom she writes particularly well). Joseph's descriptions of Japanese life are from the outside - the sadistic schoolteachers, the sardine-can commuter trains, the sexual harassment of female office staff. Martineau gets inside, and shows people coming to terms with a seemingly unbearable life.

Caught in a Mirror is nearly spoilt, however, by its construction. Subjects drift in and out of focus; topics are ditched mid-paragraph. One minute the author is discussing comic books, the next the lack of sexual fulfilment in Japanese marriage, the next the quality of catering on the bullet trains. Japanese words abound. Some, such as samurai, are obviously untranslatable - but does it help our understanding of the Japanese psyche to read gaimusho for Foreign Ministry? No, it simply means we have to keep turning to the glossary.

A less journalistic perspective is provided by Peregrine Hodson, whose A Circle Round the Sun, published last year, is now available in paperback (Mandarin pounds 5.99). He is an orientalist, philosopher and poet revisiting the Japan he fell in love with as a young man and finding that 'being Japanese' is a ritual game that has lost significance.

All these books quote the Japanese educational catchphrase: 'The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.' Could anything be further from our Western liberal viewpoint? Yet Lisa Martineau shows us that the hammering is an imperfect process - individuality is still expressed, albeit in subtle, cautious ways. Japanese culture may still be very different from ours, despite the recent influx of McDonald's, Hermes and Gucci, but underneath that culture, people's basic emotions do not seem very different from our own.