Japan: The Paradox of Harmony, by Keiko Hirata and Mark Warschauer

Joy Hendry hopes for insights that look beyond stereotypes in this study of a nation in flux

September 4, 2014

During Japan’s economic heyday, now more than 20 years ago, there was a long-running debate by outsider political scientists and others about the degree to which “the Japanese” really were the harmonious people that their ancient name – wa, meaning harmony – would suggest. Some scholars focused on the harmony, others on the clear cases of conflict to be found within Japan. Eventually, observers seemed to settle on a reluctant agreement that Japan remained a paradoxical place, illustrative of the wonderful title of Ruth Benedict’s wartime study, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that Keiko Hirata, a political scientist of Japanese origin, to judge from her name and the number of Japanese sources cited, and Mark Warschauer, an (educationalist) outsider, have together reached the same conclusion in a book whose title echoes that debate, and even harks back to Benedict’s work.

I confess I was a little disappointed, especially in such a well-written and engaging book, to find the same old stereotypes, even if the authors claim that Benedict would not recognise the people she described were she to go there today. There are good bits: the chapter “Grass-eating girly men”, for example, which introduces some of the new and different young citizens of a country the authors see as the scene of too much continuing harmony. Another chapter, “Meltdown”, examines in well-supported detail the dreadful crisis of nuclear fears and fallout when the earthquake and ensuing tsunami of March 2011 damaged four reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. The book also documents the worries of the Japanese about their ageing and shrinking population, and the ambiguous relationships being negotiated with their geographical neighbours, China and North and South Korea, and their trans-Pacific military supporter, the US, whose presence is so disruptive to the people of Okinawa.,

So what are my problems with this book? Well, for starters, there is a familiar overemphasis on the urban employees of big companies that totally neglects the many small and family businesses found throughout Japan. Second, there is a clear lack of understanding of the important distinction that must be made between the “face” or tatemae of what is presented, and the reality of what goes on in practice. This results in an oversimplification of the situation of women in Japan, little sense of the changing role of fathers in rearing small children, and no idea whatsoever of the value of the yakuza in maintaining the famous lack of petty crime. Moreover, this is a book that seeks American solutions to Japanese problems, such as advocating the admission of more immigrants to offset the diminishing birth rate, rather than perhaps seeking some (previously recognised) value in the health of the elders whose country leads the world in longevity. Choosing “The whistleblower” as the name of the book’s first chapter is also interesting.

Hirata and Warschauer look to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to shake up Japan as the 1964 Games did, and perhaps this “global” event will again bring a brighter economic outlook. To give the authors their due, they don’t call on Japan to rid itself of the positive aspects of the harmony they present, they simply ask for more confidence, openness and flexibility. No pressure, then!

Japan: The Paradox of Harmony

By Keiko Hirata and Mark Warschauer
Yale University Press, 320pp, £20.00
ISBN 9780300186079
Published 24 June 2014

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