Education About Asia: Online Archives

Understanding Japanese Society

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“Scintillating” is not a word one would use to describe Joy Hendry’s Understanding Japanese Society. Nonetheless, this attempt at a general overview of Japanese culture can be a serviceable supplementary text in courses on postwar Japanese culture or a useful reference for non specialists who would like to include Japan-related material in more general classes. Hendry claims that her book is designed to “open a door” into Japanese life primarily through the examination of the findings of anthropological studies of Japan. Having read Understanding Japanese Society, students will be, she says, “armed with background information” that will make it “possible to achieve a deeper understanding of specialist books in other areas” (3–4). I think her claims are largely true.

Hendry’s book is organized rather traditionally, with a beginning chapter tracing Japanese history from the beginning of time to the postwar era followed by a series of chapters that break Japanese society down into unsurprising categories such as “The House and Family System” and “The Education System.” Each chapter is followed by a well-rounded list of references and suggestions for further exploration, some of which include films and novels as well as scholarly books and articles that relate to the chapter topic. Hendry moves along systematically, acquainting the reader with the findings of the most well known works on Japanese culture and detailing some of the differences between research done in different time periods and in different locations in Japan. In both good and bad ways, Hendry’s chapters read most like literature reviews.

Hendry’s readers will receive a broad orientation to the work available on many different topics. Given the conscientiousness with which Hendry points out differences between specialists’ various perspectives, one is likely to take away a fairly realistic impression of the difficulty of making all-encompassing general statements about Japanese society. Students will get a summary explanation of theoretical approaches that have made an important mark on the Japanese studies field; they will also be cautioned about the limitations of those approaches. For example, in her chapter “Status and Stratification in the Wider World,” Hendry offers a detailed and cogent description of Nakane Chie’s famous “vertical principle” explanation of Japanese social structure (86–89). However, Hendry also points out that “Nakane’s model has been criticized for being too all-embracing,” and Hendry describes ways in which social behavior among housewives, for instance, may not conform to Nakane’s analytical framework (89–90).

Hendry’s even-handedness is sometimes her downfall. The book moves smoothly from topic to topic but seldom digs deeply enough into a single one to be truly fascinating. Furthermore, although, she is careful to avoid shaping her interpretation of Japan according to one simplistic perspective, the matter-of-course tone with which she moves through topics as diverse as toilet training and geisha training produces the ironic effect of privileging her overall authority. She admits to disagreement between scholars about how to classify Japanese experience. She does not admit that some parts of it might resist clear classifications or that the social science categories into which she has organized the book are, though common tools of her discipline, nonetheless makeshift in their own way.

Because of this fact, Hendry sometimes undercuts her own purposes. For example, she is very careful to point out that a Japanese person’s experience would vary greatly depending on where she is raised, and that Japanese customs are constantly undergoing change. Yet, by beginning her book with the “everything before the postwar” history chapter, Hendry seems to reinforce a rigid binary distinction between the traditional and modern in Japanese life. While she describes contemporary urban life as in contrast to rural and past practices, at least half of the book’s pictures depict “traditional” Japanese items such as shrines which, from my own research experiences, I would argue have only a small place in the lives of Japan’s largely urban population. “Religion” is a common anthropological category. “Train station culture” is not, and thus gets slighted even though that is where many Japanese spend several hours of each day. Students of Understanding Japanese Society will not be encouraged to think critically or comparatively about how we come to know what we think we know about another culture, and in that way, the book is limited to a relatively introductory role in the classroom.

Despite these misgivings, however, I think Understanding Japanese Society could be profitably included in the required reading of courses on postwar Japanese society. The book would be especially helpful in courses where the students either do not have a uniformly strong educational background or are entirely unfamiliar with Japan. Many of us teach precisely such courses. If I were to use Hendry’s book, I would combine it with other, more focused works—matching Hendry’s chapter on careers with a book such as Dorinne Kondo’s Crafting Selves or Hendry’s chapter on community with Theodore Bestor’s Neighborhood Tokyo, for example. (note 1) Since Hendry consistently provides very accessible introductions to other readings that a student might do, her book could also be a first stop for students doing research papers and wondering how to phrase their topic or where to begin in their approach to the library. Few of us would deny the value of such a resource.


1. Theodore C. Bestor, Neighborhood Tokyo (Stanford: Stanford University Press,1989); Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourse of Identity in a Japanese Workplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

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