Japan Through The Looking Glass, by Alan Macfarlane

Views from a lonely road to modern life
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The Independent Culture

Japan, like Antarctica, does funny things to its visitors. Perfectly normal people return desperate to write up "unique" experiences. I've lost count of the number of sub-standard accounts I've read of both places. Airport officials should keep an eye out for the afflicted and quarantine them until the authorial urge wears off.

I'd wave through the green lane, though, the author of Japan through the Looking Glass. Alan Macfarlane, professor of anthropology at Cambridge, has produced an engaging and well-informed analysis of Japanese culture and society. Though the book springs from his long-standing personal fascination with the country, it is refreshingly light on self-reference, instead treading a scrupulous anthropological line between observation and acknowledgement of one's perspective as observer.

Macfarlane jumps in at the deep end with a summary of the Nihonjinron, the notorious debate on national identity that gripped Japan from the postwar period to the mid-1970s, which may have the uninitiated floundering. Thereafter, he settles into a broad thematic analysis that explores wealth, people, power, ideas and beliefs. Admittedly, there is little here that feels particularly new, but readers fresh to Japanese studies will find something fascinating on every page. Those more familiar with writing on Japan will appreciate the smaller details, many born of Macfarlane's rich comparative insights: that Japan is "the only civilisation with no trace of witchcraft beliefs in its recorded history"; or that at the middle of the 20th century, reportedly 80 percent of the Japanese population were regular composers of haiku.

There is delightful trivia, too – like the fact that for centuries dwellers along Japanese highways "placed urinals in front of their houses" so that both men and women could "provide fertiliser for the field". Macfarlane hasn't included this for trivial reasons, though. He is very good at suggesting how Japan has been shaped by its poor soil, mountainous geography, monsoons and earthquakes. Not least, this led to a fascinatingly counterintuitive period, roughly 1600 to 1850, when the Japanese "systematically eliminated two of the fundamental technologies which had revolutionised agriculture about 10,000 years ago... the wheel and domesticated animals".

The penultimate chapter is a persuasive articulation of why Japan really is so tantalisingly unique. It draws heavily on the work of others, principally SN Eisenstadt and Robert Bellah. But much as Macfarlane admires the Japanese ability to incorporate only the best and most suitable of foreign influences, improving them in the process, so he distils a graceful and concise argument from the existing scholarship.

His conclusion – that Japan, being a modern society that has reached modernity by a path utterly different from the rest of the world, thereby offers an "opportunity to escape from the assumptions of our own culture" – is the best rationale yet for why we still need intelligent books on Japan. Just the intelligent ones though, please.

Victoria James is a former arts editor of the 'Japan Times'

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