Articles of interest
17th August 2022
Book in Focus
Japan as the Far West
By John A. F. Hopkins
This book was born out of the perception that—after fifty-three years of residence in central Japan—there is still, surprisingly, little known about this country in the third decade of the 21st century. The viewpoint of the international news media is, almost inevitably, that of people writing from outside Japan. Their view hardly reflects the knowledge of an insider, fluent in the Japanese language, including its difficult written form. As an insider of over fifty-three years’ duration, I’m tempted to repeat the mantra “No one knows anything about Japan”, when coming up against such news.
The fatal shooting of former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzô last month (on the 8th of July, 2022) is a case in point. Mr Abe’s death, at only sixty-seven years of age, is certainly a tragedy. However, along with the predictable messages of condolences from leaders of other nations worldwide, and praise for Mr Abe’s leadership in the past, one American commentator stood out. According to this person, Japan will be “forever changed” by the event. I think this is unlikely for the following reasons. First and foremost, the commentator was perhaps speaking against the background of the many shootings in public places that occur in the US. (President Biden made a similar comment shortly after the event.) Also, it is essential to realise that Mr Abe was not “shot” in the American sense, i.e., by using a gun available over the counter. Due to the very strict regulations on gun ownership, there are virtually no guns in Japan, except for shotguns used for hunting small game. The gun in this case was one of a collection of handmade weapons, which looked like a couple of metal tubes taped together. It was plainly not a regular shotgun. Therefore, the “virtually no guns” situation is not changed by this event.
Again, because this event was a targeted political assassination, there will be no change in the all-encompassing safety of Japanese society. The event will not change the fact that a young girl can walk safely alone at night in the backstreets of the Yokohama docks. This is because Japanese politics—since such a thing actually does exist—are tightly bound up with Japanese ethnicity. Basically, to be Japanese is to be a supporter of Mr Abe’s party, the Liberal Democratic Party, which is neither especially liberal nor especially democratic. True, factory workers in both large and small companies tend to support one or another of the opposition parties, although the farming community is solidly in favour of the LDP, which pays them generous subsidies. In fact, the LDP has been the ruling party of Japan, with a short break in the 1990s, for nearly sixty years. This is not the same as Japan having a one-party system, but it is rather close to being just that.
Nevertheless, one may wonder whether the (effectively) two-party systems of countries like the US, the UK, and Australia are really preferable. Japan’s system is simply based on the essentials of what it means to be Japanese. Consequently, in the end, the LDP is fair and just towards the most underprivileged of Japanese society. Long ago, the conservative party assumed the appearance of a benevolent, paternalistic leadership. Its maintenance of the status quo is so thorough that the Japanese people themselves have little cause for complaint. Politics are simply not an important preoccupation for the majority of Japanese people, who remain generally convinced that the long-ruling LDP is the only party capable of ruling the country.
The book’s 12 chapters aim to show how Japan is more advanced than the so-called West in fields in which the West itself wishes to succeed. Chapter One introduces the relation between Asia and the West within the Japanese context: it is important to remember that a major government slogan back in the late 19th century was “leave Asia/enter Europe”. This has been done so thoroughly that, today, a larger percentage of Japanese people live in single family homes with a garage and a garden than do Europeans. (The Japanese word for home is katei, meaning “house and garden”.) In addition, once again against the prevailing wisdom, the average Japanese home is not so small: just under 130 m².
When it comes to the novel coronavirus, Japan was shown to be cleaner and more careful than other major nations: its death rate in July 2022 is about 1/14th of that of the US. Masks are still the rule, whereas they seem to have been largely abandoned in Europe and the US.
Chapter Two treats education, culture, and the arts, including literature from the pre-Heian period to the present. The Japanese people are probably more literary than inhabitants of any other country: they do more reading, and, difficult though the writing system may be, they know it surprisingly well. Lady Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji is the world’s first psychological novel (c. 1000 AD). When it comes to ceramics, Japan has the world’s oldest tradition; graphic art is of a very high standard, and is widely appreciated.
Chapter Three explores the issue of transportation, noting that travel by train is both safer and ecologically sounder than travel by car. Japan is home to the world’s most highly developed rail system. Indeed, the high speed Shinkan-sen rail system has had no fatal accidents in nearly sixty years.
Chapter Four discusses ethnicity and politics, showing them to be the glue that binds the Japanese people together. It needs to be said that even permanent residents, who happen to have another nationality, are denied voting rights. This is ostensibly in retaliation against North Korea for continuing to abduct Japanese citizens from the Japan Sea coast of Honshû.
Chapter Five notes that the Japanese architectural tradition has long produced houses of marvellous beauty. Dating back to the Meiji period, large mansions of European construction and Japanese detail may still be seen. Particularly since World War II, there has been a rash of American-style cottages. Katsura Imperial Villa in Kyoto (from the mid-1600s) may be considered the world’s first modern building. Modern architecture has a long and brilliant tradition in Japan, including the use of reinforced concrete for houses, which are more numerous here than anywhere else.
Chapter Six briefly describes the syntax and writing system of the Japanese language, with notes on phonetics.
Chapter Seven outlines the religions of Japan, noting that the high degree to which the country is non-religious reflects its modernity: in this sense, it is more Western than the West. It is not generally realised that, of Buddhism, Shintoism, and Confucianism, the last is more pervasive than the others.
Chapter Eight highlights Japan’s advanced health care system, noting that the country has the world’s lowest postnatal death rate and virtually the world’s best longevity figures. The cost of Japan’s system is less than half that of the US.
Chapter Nine focuses on sports and leisure. Japan excels at several sports, including swimming, athletics, and jûdô, as well as ball-games such as soccer, rugby, and baseball. As for leisure activities, there are many which are not shared to any extent with European societies, including flower arrangement and calligraphy. We must not forget Sadô, “the Way of Tea”, as a guide to domestic architecture, physical comportment, and consideration for others.
Chapter Ten considers economics and manufacturing, detailing the economic rationale for empire in Japan. The country is, of course, a manufacturing powerhouse; its exports are fourth in the world and it is the third biggest economy. More importantly, the chapter discusses the way in which Japanese people are “great makers of things”, in all fields imaginable. The yen has been a very strong currency ever since 1973-74: it has gone from ¥360 to the US dollar to ¥79, and is currently back to over ¥130.
Chapter Eleven shows that public safety in Japan is currently at a high level, but there has been some racial and ethnic discrimination in the past.
Chapter Twelve looks towards the future, with a specific focus on international relations: Japan’s future role in world affairs and the UN, population decline, immigration, the refugee question, and the use of English in the workplace. In recent years, skilled workers from overseas have been welcomed to Japan for stays of up to five years, which may be extended. For example, teams demolishing domestic buildings are quite often Turkish, Iranian, or South American. Hospital nursing is another field in which there is great demand for overseas workers. With three million permanent residents of non-Japanese nationality, Japan is no longer the ethnically homogeneous nation it perhaps once was.
To conclude, what this book demonstrates is that—having overtaken the West in so many areas—Japan has become a model to Westerners for how their own cultures might be developed.
There are also many colour illustrations throughout the book.
John A. F. Hopkins was a career diplomat in Tokyo (1968-1973), and holds an MA in French Literature, an MA in Linguistics, and a PhD in Linguistics and Semiotics. He is the author of Présentation et critique de la théorie sémiotique littéraire de Michael Riffaterre (1994) and The Universal Deep Structure of Modern Poetry (2020), as well as numerous articles on the semiotics of poetry. He has lectured in Japanese language and literature in New Zealand (1978-1980), and has been Visiting Professor in Semiotics of Literature at several universities in France.
Japan as the Far West is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.