Monday, April 20, 2015

Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

Published 2007

In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Japan with C and the Glamorous Nomad, I read Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass. Macfarlane is a relatively a relative latecomer to Japan, having arrived there for the first time only in 1990, although he’s been back several times, in addition to reflecting upon what he saw and learned there. Macfarlane completed his anthropological fieldwork in Nepal and he’s written a great deal about early modern England. He's a keen student of the transition to modernity and the early theorists who dealt with that change from Montesquieu to Maitland, including Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Malthus, Marx, and others who have attempted to explain the advent of modernity. It was with this background that Macfarlane approached Japan, and he found that Japan confounded many of the characteristic dichotomies that classical theorists had developed about modern versus traditional societies.

The main theme of Japan Through the Looking Glass is that nothing seems quite as it first appears in Japanese culture; indeed, even upon closer examination, paradoxes and uncertainties abound. As Macfarlane notes, many outward similarities exist with Great Britain. Both are island nations, both have a feudal history, both have a long history of a strong work ethic, and both were the first to industrialize in their regions. But as Macfarlane points out, despite the similarities, westerners have a continuing challenge in understanding how Japan works.

For instance, Japan has a mix of individualism and status relationships. It is a modern (often hyper-modern) capitalist society, yet the profit motive is not glorified. Individuals in the sense of Western individualism don’t exist. Instead, people are defined by relationships. People think in terms of relationships and emotions rather than in terms of  logic whenever dealing with other people. Thus, while the Japanese can be quite reticent in speech and seemingly cold, in their observation of the subtlest behaviors and assessments of responses they’re finely nuanced and responsive. As to religion, in a land filled with temples and shrines, the Japanese are, according to Macfarlane, some of the least religious people in the world. If we measure religiosity by belief in a soul, the afterlife, or belief in God, we find few Japanese adhere to these beliefs. The Japanese perceive little difference between nature and culture, and none between the natural and the supernatural. This does not mean that the native Shinto religion, Confucianism, and Buddhism have not had an effect, but rather than suffer a transformation by any one religion, Japanese culture has transformed the religions to fit Japan. Thus, Zen Buddhism lies a far distance from the more traditional Buddhism of South Asia. This lack of distinction between nature and culture also helps us appreciate Japanese attitudes towards nature and the beauty of ephemeral things like cherry blossoms and the phases of the moon. Macfarlane even ventures into the difficult question of why, when Japanese became a conquering military power in the 1930s, there were so many instances of the Japanese atrocities. How did such an otherwise docile people, who have an extremely low crime rate and few incidents of criminal violence, turn into war criminals? Macfarlane, adopting the opinions of some others who have considered this paradox, suggests that the perception of extreme differences between native Japanese and others accounts for this stark dichotomy. But it remains in some sense another one of the enigmas of Japan. 

Macfarlane has an open, inquisitive mind that is well trained in attempting to understand how societies work. He readily admits that Japan has confounded his preconceived notions about the transformation to modernity and the role of the Axial religions in modern cultures. In this way, he serves as an outstanding guide him for a venture into understanding Japan and the Japanese. If you're looking for us a sink, a well constructed and broad ranging work on the enigma of Japan, I highly recommend this book to you.