BOOK REVIEW / An honorary man among gropers and automatons: Caught in a mirror: Reflections of Japan - Lisa Martineau: Macmillan, pounds 16.99

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IT IS refreshing to read a book about Japan written by a woman. I don't mean this in any patronising sense. I say it because this book brings a range of new insights into a country that to most of us has become merely a cliche for industrial perfection and political corruption (Italy does not stand alone). Lisa Martineau defines her Japan as a 'high-tech feudal state'.

The picture you will find here is not painted in plain colours. In fact, the colours often change before your eyes. There is lots of good old-fashioned arrogance, tons of neuroses, buckets full of uncertainties, a mask for everyone, and many roles to play. Because she is a foreign journalist, the author of this book is made an honorary man and enters a world ordinarily denied to women, just as Japanese businessmen in South Africa were made honorary whites so that they could escape the restrictions of apartheid.

At one stage the pretence that she is a man fails. At a formal dinner, a scion of a distinguished family of Japanese brewers plants both hands on Martineau's breasts under the swifly averted gaze of startled guests. Within moments minders have picked up his chair and removed both it and the ancient groper from the room. The next morning the entire board of directors appears before the author in her hotel room with a selection of their finest booze to announce that the man has resigned 'to take responsibility' for his actions - a formula also used by Japan's politicians. The resignation is merely an image that glazes over the reality. After a suitable time the perpetrator emerges from behind the screen as an 'adviser', or even the puppet master.

When it comes to groping, Martineau gets away lightly. Most Japanese women at some time in their lives are victims of sexual harassment. And they come to expect it. You have to understand, we learn, that Japanese men are under tremendous pressure because of their work. To be touched 'playfully' is considered part of a woman's duty. 'This is our role in the economic miracle,' one female office employee says. Even when giving birth, a woman is expected not to cry out but must suffer her wifely role in silence, as Martineau discovered when she gave birth to her child.

You get the impression that Martineau thought she was living in a madhouse. But she has an anarchist's touch, lobbing bombs at the received view of Japan, or rather the view that Japan would like the rest of the world to accept. She shows sensitivity, even affection, and toughness.

Martineau doesn't believe a word about the war innocence of Emperor Hirohito, is stunned by the ease with which Japan can switch camps and ideologies, but rather likes the way the authorities buried Hirohito and installed his son according to Shinto ritual while pretending nothing of the sort was happening. Likewise, Japanese children are taught not that Japan lost the Second World War, but that the conflict merely ended.

She has great sympathy for Japan's benighted schoolboys and girls, and in one memorable sequence visits an extraordinary summer cramming school (which is transformed into a ski resort in winter) where children are prepared to torture themselves in order to stay awake. Examination results from infant school onwards are the key to the best jobs. It would do John Patten good to see what testing has done to Japanese youth - it has turned them into pathetic and re

luctant automatons, broken human beings.

For me, her most interesting observation is that Japan is not a nation of conformists. Martineau holds that while Japanese society might be group-oriented, as opposed to individualistic, it is actually a collection of antagonistic groups.

She finds that resistance and rebellion in one form or another has always been a part of Japanese life, there being no middle way. Add this to the Japanese obsession with being Japanese - a nation apart, in other words - and you have a perfect recipe for arrogance and uncertainty. As she says: 'Japan is always flipping the superiority/inferiority cultural coin, always finding itself wanting, only to find its former mentors (China, Europe, the United States) even more so.'

Japan's extreme immersion in foreign ways, incautiously gobbling everything it finds abroad, has historically been followed by a rampant xenophobia, each phase, according to Martineau, tumbling down the ages in a reckless game of point and counter-point.

So where is Japan now? Martineau is not certain, but the signs are dangerous. Japan's economic success has led to a feeling of smug superiority. At the same time, the Japanese feel threatened by the United States. She hears talk among the post-war generation that war with the US is inevitable. A war, they say, in defence of Japan against an America that wants to destroy it economically. Do we believe her? I'm not sure, but she is a good reporter. I just wish someone would take away this particular mirror and let reality light up the room.