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Japan: In the Land of the Brokenhearted
by michael shapiro
henry holt & company, 254 pages, $19.95 

In recent years writing on Japan has become a veritable cottage industry. In the slew of literature promising to reveal and explain the secrets of that mysterious “and economically prominent” island nation. Michael Shapiro’s book stands out both for its relatively modest focus and for its often penetrating insight. It is not so much a book on Japan per se, but rather on the subject of that nation’s relationship to the foreigners who live there. The story it tells is thus admittedly a partial and one-sided one. It is nonetheless informative and it indirectly raises questions with disturbing implications for the future of Japan’s relations with the rest of the world.

In general, Shapiro writes, there are two types of foreigners who go to live in Japan. There are those, like himself, who go purely for professional reasons and who have neither the need nor the desire to involve themselves very deeply in the society. And then there are those he calls the “enthusiasts,” people who throw themselves into the task of mastering the language and the culture and who try to enter and be accepted by Japanese society. While such enthusiasm is common among people living in any foreign land, the barriers that confront the foreigner in Japan seem far more formidable than elsewhere. Indeed the insularity of the Japanese seems matched only by the passion with which these “enthusiasts” seek to belong, a passion so great that their relationship to Japan can be better described as a love affair than as a mere desire to fit in. But as the subtitle Land of the Brokenhearted suggests, Shapiro feels that this particular infatuation is in the end doomed to failure, or at best wrought with great emotional difficulties.

The archetype for all foreign enthusiasts of Japan was Lafcadio Hearn, a journalist who arrived in Japan at the turn of the century on what was supposed to be a one-year assignment. Instead, he quit his original job, married a Japanese woman, and settled down to spend the rest of his life in the country toward which he developed an irresistible yearning, but which seemed always to keep him at arm’s distance. Michael Shapiro traces Hearn’s ultimately unsatisfactory love affair with Japan, periodically interspersing his story with those of five latter-day Japan enthusiasts who live there today.

One is the wife of a young Japanese university professor whom she met when they were students in the U.S. She refuses to allow herself to be fingerprinted for alien registration out of a moral conviction that these requirements are discriminatory against foreigners, especially the second and even third generation of Koreans who have been born in Japan without being granted citizenship. Consequently she becomes, much against her will, a rebel against a system which emphasizes conformity for the sake of group harmony, and she is subjected to intense media scrutiny and official pressure.

Another character, a Harvard-educated businessman, joins a small company and develops a close personal relationship with his boss. Though he is willing to work long hours, as much to meet the demands of the group as to do his work, and though he does manage to overcome various social barriers (reinforced in his case because he is black as well as foreign), he is frustrated when he tries to win acceptance for his own ideas and projects.

There is also an American missionary couple who have dedicated their lives to spreading the word of God in a small rural community. They realize that in the overwhelmingly closed context of Japanese society they have little chance of gaining many new converts to their faith, but they carry on in hope that somehow their example will make a difference to the few followers they do manage to attract.

Finally, there is an American baseball player, whose experiences in attempting to fit into a Japanese team”to which I will return presently”are perhaps the most revealing of all Shapiro’s characters.

Out of the experiences of Hearn and his modern-day successors there emerges an emotional cycle apparently common to all foreigners who try to win acceptance from Japanese society. First, there is the initial excitement of entry into a new land. This is followed by a feeling of Marco Polo-like exhilaration at mastering a new country and an alien culture, an exhilaration usually brought to an end by the often cruel shock that all is not exactly what it had seemed to be.

This comes in different forms for different people. For the wife of the Japanese professor, it comes on the day one of her closest Japanese acquaintances tells her she is happy for their friendship because it gives her a chance to practice her English. For the American businessman, it comes when he tries to convince his boss to let him lead the company’s expansion abroad, only to have his plans quietly ignored for reasons that are never made clear to him. Thereafter all the characters go through alternating periods of relative contentment and often intense frustration, finally arriving at a kind of passive acceptance of the reality that they will never be fully accepted in Japanese society because of what they are: outsiders.

While most Japanese are eager to travel abroad and to meet and learn about people from other cultures, there is at the same time a powerful impulse to prevent them from becoming too close to non-Japanese. In the end, one character explains, friendships between Japanese and foreigners are always defined in terms of nationality. One can never overcome the basic psychological barrier with which the Japanese almost instinctively separate themselves from other peoples, regardless of the length or apparent warmth of a particular relationship. After ten years the wife of the Japanese professor still found herself being referred to by her closest friends as “the foreigner,” and the missionary couple rarely succeeded in achieving a more than superficial level of communication despite ties to the community they lived in stretching over forty years.

In relating the stories of his informants, Shapiro avoids excessive embellishments of his own. He thus distinguishes his work from the many academic descriptions of Japanese culture whose turgid analyses obscure the subject they are meant to explore. Much of what is discussed here has already been covered in other books on Japan. That Japan is a highly insular culture comes, by now, as hardly a surprise to anyone. Similarly, the problems of cross-cultural communication have been discussed ad nauseam. And the plight of the Koreans and other minorities in Japan has been thoroughly described elsewhere. Yet, through his uncluttered narration of his informants’ experiences, Shapiro manages to convey much of the flavor of Japanese society with a simple clarity often lacking in other works.

He also manages to offer certain fresh insights into Japanese culture. Of particular interest in this regard are the comments of the American baseball player on how the game, while on the surface played in more or less the same way as in the U.S., has been transformed in the Japanese setting. The main emphasis for the Japanese teams is to display their “fighting spirit,” which involves engaging in extensive, unnecessary, even harmful physical training programs. Yet despite all the talk of guts and determination, Japanese players avoid situations where that fighting spirit might be tested. Fighting spirit to them is an infielder diving at the ball even when it is past him, in order to get dirt on his uniform to show he tried. At the same time, pitchers are taught not to challenge strong batters with fast balls, but rather to try to get a good slider over the corner. Related to this is a mentality, contrary to Western notions of fighting spirit, that is decidedly averse to taking risks and prefers to stick to doing the expected. Japanese fielders often refuse to charge an oddly bouncing ball even if it means not making the play, because they know that while they will not be faulted by the coaches for failing to respond to unusual circumstances, acting in an unexpected manner and failing could have serious consequences.

In his concluding comments, Shapiro likens his stay in Japan to the situation of someone who finds himself at a party standing in the corner of a crowded room filled with sounds of laughter and of people trying to talk to one another over the noise. While he gets friendly nods from the people he knows, he doesn’t seem to be able to join the party, and in the end he leaves the room without any feeling of regret or desire to go back. It is time, he feels, to go home.

The question that Shapiro leaves unanswered is what happens when he. and other foreigners, can no longer leave the party? As Japan’s economic influence spreads around the world, as ever more Americans and other nationalities find themselves working with or for Japanese bosses, it will no longer be possible for anyone to ignore Japan. And given the kind of psychological insularity he describes, what are the chances that non-Japanese in this new world will find their interests being satisfied?

Japanese officials often accuse foreigners of not making the effort required to adapt to and meet the needs of the Japanese market, of not recognizing sufficiently or of neglecting altogether the necessity to learn the native culture and build personal relationships. Yet as the stories in this book show (and they seem to be borne out by the experiences of many other foreigners, American and non-American alike, who have lived in that country), no level of good will and determination, however long sustained, is likely to break through the deep psychological barriers the Japanese have erected against the outside world.

It is perhaps unrealistic to expect that the people of any two nations should bear any great love for one another. But unless Japan becomes more capable of accepting outsiders, there are reasons for concern even for those whose experiences of that nation do not take the form of an unrequited love affair.

Image by John Gillespie via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

Thomas Berger is currently completing a Ph.D. in Political Science at M.I.T. He speaks and writes Japanese and he lived in Japan from 1986 to 1989 .