Sage Handbook of Modern Japanese Studies ed. by James D. Babb

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The SAGE Handbook of Modern Japanese Studies, ed. by James D. Babb
SAGE Publications LTD, 2015
ISBN 978-1-84860-663-0

Review by Richard Coxford

The SAGE Handbook of Modern Japanese Studies does exactly what its title and tastefully illustrated cover would suggest, providing in almost unassuming fashion an immense examination of the history, trends and possible future of innumerable aspects to the study of Japan. It would be long-winded folly to go through the career of every one of the 33 contributors to prove their very great merit, but suffice it to say nothing suggests that this is anything short of a “star studded cast”. Naturally there are big names who did not contribute, but this is intended as an accessible general text. In some ways there is exactly the composition of authors one might expect, with a preponderance of Sheffield, SOAS, St Anthony’s College Oxford and the British Association for Japanese Studies linkages running through most of the contributors. In any event, what really makes this book?

Tasked with providing a readable overview of an entire country as a subject, publications by single authors sometimes attempt to water down that country until it is an engaging and sufficiently concise narrative. This book is not that; it introduces Japan as both a subject and a nation, to the point where almost any reader will learn something new. Some edited compilations, even on the subject of one country within a very limited timeframe, can have such seemingly wanton chapter consistency that it proves too niche a book for anyone but the most ardent researchers and academics. This collection, while the writing can seem choppy because of the immense number of references in any discipline meta-narrative essay, is broad without being random, and is exceedingly well done. It would do readers of the Japan Society Review a disservice to deconstruct each chapter’s arguments in depth because some disciplines are entirely alien to this reviewer, so instead, the general scope of each part will be sketched out.

The titles of the four parts (Land, History and Culture; Society; Medicine and Health Care; and Economy) embody such a broad brush approach to Japan as an issue as to be interchangeable, although the chapter listings within them give some clear direction. ‘Land, History and Culture’ sets the tone perfectly with a measured, albeit brief, chapter by Andrew Cobbing on historiography and the shifting identities of Japan to authors and to the Japanese since the Nineteenth Century. Delving into the debates just enough to tease out geopolitical ulterior motives behind studies or results, it centres around the perennially significant questions, such as when ‘Modern Japan’ began, Japanese nationalism, and identity projection, both abroad and at home, particularly Hokkaido and Okinawa.

The chapter on social and cultural anthropology provides a social scientific response to Japanese conformity, the contest between what is modern and what is tradition, and how globalization and consumption have been experienced by the Japanese. Religion (or religions) in Japan usually serve as a barrier to insider knowledge for those of us coming from Western European philosophical and religious traditions, but Lucia Dolce delves into the topic with diligence, cross-examining how it can intertwine with politics (Komeito, for instance), Japanese modernity, state identity (just think of Yasukuni shrine), plus the ambiguity as to whether Japanese religion is a ‘religion’ as defined by the West. With methodological and historiographical variegation greater in religious studies than might be said for other humanities, she does a tremendous job abbreviating them and not being afraid to ask ‘how indigenous’ Japanese religion is, or to bring up the Aum Shinrikyo cult.

‘Mass Media’ opens by denoting the term as historical, because the internet has surpassed any archaic notion of mass media, and then proceeds to a discussion of popular culture, politics and representation in the media. Noriaki Nishiyama provides a very stimulating chapter on natural and cultural heritage management in Japan. From the outside Japan might appear to be successfully protecting its heritage, he shows how much more complex the domestic story is. It certainly surprised this reader to find that Japan has no equivalent to our National Trust, and waited 22 years before ratifying the UNESCO World Heritage convention.

Human geography begins with an ambitious sounding section giving the lowdown on ‘What is Japan’ but also affords for observations on the state of geography as a discipline in Japanese higher education through time, and the modern Japanese diaspora. Returning to the interpretations which show nations are not always one homogenous cultural identity, Anthony Rausch provides a chronology on the conceptualisation of the Japanese nation as a whole, and gets into questions of decentralization, depopulation from rural to urban landscape and makes a surprising conclusion that Japanese post-war “growth” had a negative net effect on regional governments, bar the two where Japanese identity projection was still ongoing: Hokkaido and Okinawa.

Second in the thematic bookmarks is ‘Society’, bouncing from education to feminism, sexuality and gender equality, to policing and “anti-social behaviours” in Japan. Japanese education’s bare-bones functionality is described so that an unfamiliar reader will easily follow the debates on governance, reform, and the highly charged political issue of whether patriotism or internationalization holds more sway in schools. The question of teaching World War Two history is mentioned, but very cautiously. Vera Mackie proffers that Japanese feminism has been built upon international linkages, while Mark McLelland debunks myths about Japanese sexuality and describes the great internal debates, reviewing the legal, education and media histories of sexuality, both standard and ‘minority’.

Statistics on female upward mobility make for stark reading in the ‘Gender Equity’ chapter, and the comparison of laws and their enforcement records likewise, suggesting there is much room for improvement. David Johnson then jumps onto that erstwhile question: “Why is Japan so safe?” before picking apart the achievements of Japanese policing and police accountability, an issue also often brought into question.

When it comes to organized crime Peter Hill focuses on the Yakuza, a subject particularly relevant given that their popular image is projected worldwide through film and TV, yet people wonder why they still exist at all. A plethora of fraudulent schemes also make for entertaining reading in this salacious but intellectually sound chapter.

Part 3, ‘Medicine and Health Care’, is arguably the most technical, and myth-breaking. The Western image of Japanese health care is of clear success, and the preliminary chapter shows its transnational borrowings and more recent global status as a pharmaceutical giant of sorts. However despite the clear successes of Japanese healthcare, the difficulty and ambiguity of its nature ‘on paper’ makes for an interesting rejoinder. Thereafter are some very interesting summaries of medical education in Japan, the medico-legal issues, and the rather rarely mentioned subject of mental health. The Japanese debate about malpractice can provide subtle comparison to British approaches, but what really struck me was the Japanese question of whether telling a patient the truth (say, that they have cancer) can hurt them and therefore should be done or not. In transnational comparison, even the NHS might not seem quite so strange.

Part Four, possibly the meatiest section, is reserved for politics and foreign relations. Questioning the appropriation of ‘political “science”’ in Japan, notably in the postwar movements towards ‘Anglo-Saxon’ methodologies, or as the early borrowings are described, ‘American imports’, it makes a call for greater reflexivity in political studies regarding Japan. The LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) are a wondrous enough political construct to merit citations in two successive chapters, which span the whole series of postwar elections to pick apart and understand LDP ‘dominance’, then question the nature of postwar democracy itself by wondering whether there are meaningful electoral choices and how, in spite of reforms, these doubts linger. After this comes the sociological concept, with a cross-examination of organizations, welfare, religions, minorities such as the Ainu, and foreigners. Once more the sense that local governments do more to please foreigners and promote their rights than the central government is solidified. Perhaps that says less about Japan and more about human nature; relationships come through more readily in local government than the strained national ones that also juggle the finances and grand diplomacy which often undermine good treatment of immigrants. The give and take between civil society and government also extends to discussing protests, be they derived from labour unions, gender equality movements or political extremism.

Japan’s place in international society is expertly dispatched as an issue by Christopher Hughes, Hugo Dobson, Paul Midford and Caroline Rose. Together their chapters examine what drives Japanese diplomacy and how it no longer fulfils any image of a ‘reactive state’, how ‘globalization’ affects interpretations, and relations with the principal powers of America and China. As Dobson defines globalization, it makes for very worthwhile discussion of the old notion of Japanese exceptionalism in the present day, and how this transnational, multi-level factor reaches into and alters economics, politics, security and so forth.

Midford’s chapter on the Japan-US alliance squarely faces down all of the distinct sides to why the alliance exists, whether it is an equal one or something else entirely, and the ever more pressing question of whether it is a ‘help or a hindrance’ in Japan’s diplomatic manoeuvrability within Asia. The backbone to the analysis is hard to resist: that of two democratic nations within established norms watching a relationship grow out of Cold War prerogative into an East Asian stability mechanism par excellence. Rose, meanwhile, reminds the reader that Sino-Japanese relations go beyond present hostilities and the generational changes in the two nation’s political classes, as pretty much all periods and aspects remain in academic focus with high potential, primarily due to the opening of many new archives.

The fifth and final part addresses the Japanese economy. A summary of the structural changes, oversight and developments since the ‘lost decades’ ends with an honest assessment of present and future challenges. The chapter on Japanese Business and Management makes very interesting points and takes a very historicist approach to proving them, looking from the Bakufu until the 3/11 triple disaster at specific cultural turning points. Thereafter the economy section shifts to decidedly trickier sociological matters such as the psychological factors behind consumers and consumerism, and the various floating definitions of ‘purchasing groups’ like Otaku or Young Men, and labour relations and unionism in Japan since the end of GHQ in 1952.

When it comes to discussing the issue of foreign workers in Japan, there is a very critical stance looking statistically at the flexibility of visas, the biggest immigrant communities, the difference between regular and irregular migrants, and the overall dissonance in Japanese policy on immigration. The number of foreign residents in Japan compared to any other OECD country is decidedly low, which can seem like a deficit of logic when reviewing Japan’s labour shortages, while dissonance between the intention and the result of policies evidences that seeking only the highest skilled immigrants is not fool-proof, and also how local policy is more amenable than national policy. Agriculture, the usual tricky question plaguing current free trade negotiations with Japan, be it the bilateral EU FTA (free trade agreement) or the Trans-Pacific Partnership, gets its own chapter, providing insight on its decline, protectionism and reforms, not to mention the potential benefits of gaiatsu (external/foreign pressure).

Finally the book ends on a subject that for many has acquired a great deal of gravitas since 3/11, Energy – and it proves very informative at this interesting time when Japanese nuclear stations are reactivated. Ranging from energy source to energy source rather than any over-elaborate thematic structure, it is an astute exploration of the changes within Japan since the oil shocks of 1973 and 1979 that saw Japan diverge from America on Middle East policy, and in the post-Fukushima political landscape. The idea put forward that Japan is at an ‘energy crossroads’ akin to the 1970s is a powerful analogy, and I certainly hope the authors are right that Japan will make a substantive energy decision, although their suggestion that it would be by 2016 and ‘the next’ House of Representatives election was perhaps made before the 14th December 2014 snap election.

To quote the book itself, ‘When we learn about Japan we learn about ourselves, and others around the world’ (p.24). The SAGE Handbook is a brilliant tool for just that. It serves as a very good primer and review of the Anglophone study on Japan, and is far from being impenetrable to the general public. Most chapters have a bibliography roughly equal in page length to their essay, and within this cross-disciplinary study of Japan explicitly execute their own sustained interdisciplinary methods too. So overall, this edited collection is a massive contribution towards a tiny need. Japanese studies have been making such headway that academics might even now say “Japan is BACK!”. The SAGE Handbook exceeds itself by not just capturing a small portion of that success, but presenting a refreshed and comprehensive review of the state of play that itself inspires appreciation of all manner of study on Japan, and could very well motivate the continuation of the Japan interest boom.

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