By Hiroko Ihara / Japan News Staff Writer Japan and the Shackles of the Past
By R. Taggart Murphy
Oxford University Press, 443pp
“Japan and the Shackles of the Past” is a grand overview of Japan and a kind of national biography written by someone who cares about its future.
Japan, the third largest economy in the world, has experienced various setbacks and problems in modern times, and throughout its history. The author, R. Taggart Murphy, takes up almost every possible issue about this country and discusses them in the context of its long history.
Murphy is a former investment banker and now a professor of International Political Economy at the MBA Program in International Business at the University of Tsukuba. He has spent most of the last four decades in Japan.
This book is primarily intended for an imagined non-Japanese adult reader who “hadn’t spent a lot of time in Japan or much energy thinking about the country but who was interested and curious.”
This book covers politics and economy, daily life, high and pop culture, gender relations and changing business situations with his insightful analyses and candid, sometimes severe opinions. He also introduces terms to understand Japanese thinking, from the famous pair of “tatemae” and “honne” to more recent coinages like “k.y.” (an acronym for kuki yomenai, literally, “cannot read the air”) and “neto-uyo” (Internet ultra-rightist).
This book also includes first- and secondhand inside stories that never made the news, giving readers the feeling of sitting in a classroom where the lecturer occasionally digresses into witty ramblings that may turn out to be useful later.
This book is also recommended for Japanese readers. Although not all matters discussed here will be new to them, it’s a good chance to stop and think about what happened or is happening and learn about their own country better while building up relevant English vocabulary. To say the least, it is a rare chance to read about the entirety of Japanese history discussed along with current topics in a single book.
The last two chapters, “Politics” and “Japan and the World,” describe power and leadership, which are among the major themes of this book, by referring to Japan’s relations with the United States.
According to the author, “Japan’s original sin lies in its attempts to separate itself from Asia.” He also writes that ordinary Japanese call Japan’s fighting in World War II “stupid,” but they “were never invited to examine the causes of its stupidity with a view toward preventing a repetition” and that “the real problem is Japan’s ongoing failure to digest its past.”
The author also refers to a Japanese tolerance for contradiction, stating that “this resolute refusal to notice contradictions has a key political dimension that is often overlooked. It may be the source of what makes Japan so alluring and successful; it also ... explains much of the tragedy of modern Japanese history.”
His views may not be shared by all readers, but may prompt them to look into such matters again. Suggestions for further reading at the end of this book may help.
Japan is marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war this year. This book is a timely addition to the conversation about this topic.
Where to read
At home or wherever you have access to the Internet, as you will probably become curious and want to learn more about matters the author just briefly mentions here and there.