image of book goes here
Leith Morton,

Modern Japanese Culture:
The Insider View

Oxford University Press, Cambridge, 2003,
pp. 290, ISBN 0 19 554089 1, paperback.

reviewed by James Boyd

  1. The declaration that 'Modern Japan is an enigma' is the publishers' first description of Leith Morton's book, Modern Japanese Culture: The Insider View, and in many ways this sets the tone of the book's content. In the introduction, Morton outlines his approach, which is that it is necessary to examine modern Japanese culture from an insider perspective in order to fully understand it. Morton himself says that it is not his aim 'to argue that Japan is a cultural isolate, incomprehensible outside the frame of reference constructed within Japan by its native intellectuals' (p. 5). Rather, 'understanding is only possible if Japan is viewed from as large and multifaceted a perspective as possible' (p.5). I would certainly agree with this, but I do not think the aim is well served by drawing a line between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. Such an approach comes perilously close to that older genre of writing on Japan that considered the country in some way 'exotic' and ultimately unknowable.
  2. The first three chapters of the book examine a series of authors on Japanese culture, beginning with works written by non-Japanese authors, to show how the 'outsiders' have approached the subject, before then moving onto works by Japanese authors, the 'insiders'. Unfortunately, this results in mere descriptions of books, often detailing what each chapter talks about, with some further comments by other Japanese writers. The style is turgid and if, as the publisher's description claims, this is a book for an introductory course in subjects such as Japanese studies or comparative literature, it is more likely that it will cause confusion than clarity. For example, when talking about the Jungian psychoanalyst Kawai Hayao, Morton says, 'Kawai has also written a number of books in English. So, in a sense, both in his theoretical approach and his target audience, Kawai is a truly international thinker, simultaneously straddling both the categories of the insider and the outsider, balancing one view against the other while working in an explicitly outsider context of Jungian thought' (p. 32). However, as Morton does not provide a simple explanation of Jungian thought, it is difficult to evaluate this claim.
  3. In the second and third chapters, Morton concentrates on two Japanese writers, the famous Yanagita Kunio and Yoshimoto Takaaki, of whom the former is better known outside of Japan, as his work has been translated into English. While both chapters are in the same overly complex style as the first, the chapter on Yanagita is likely to be more acceptable to non-Japanese, as they will be able to read some of Yanagita's work in translation and evaluate his position personally. Unfortunately, this is not possible in the case of Yoshimoto, despite the prodigious output in Japanese that Morton claims to be somewhere between 100 and 200 individual volumes. Morton talks at some length about Yoshimoto's most important work, What is Beauty in Respect of Language, which Japanese critical opinion has come to agree is Yoshimoto's most significant work in the forty years since it was written. However, since Yoshimoto has never been translated, there is no way in which this claim can be assessed. While it may be an important work, in this day and age, when major works by notable Japanese writers are quite swiftly translated, the claim that Yoshimoto is in some way especially notable falls flat.
  4. If the first three chapters are dense and difficult to read, the last two chapters, covering the contemporary literature, television, film and manga of Japan are written in a more accessible style, and are more suitable for an introductory course. There are, however, still some reservations with these two chapters. Firstly, there are places where the writing style is sloppy. For example, when talking about popular author Murakami Haruki, Morton alternates between using either his family name or, inexplicably, his first name, which is inaccurate and inconsistent. Secondly, it is unfortunate, due to the nature of this book, that the reader gets in only a brief introduction to each of the authors, poets, directors and artists that Morton introduces and the impact they had on modern Japanese society. Morton touches on both contemporary women's fiction, as well as the work by a number of female Japanese poets. However, given the impact that women writers are having now in Japan, it seems a missed opportunity not to have enlarged this section.
  5. In the final analysis, this is a flawed work, and while the publishers' description may claim that the book is useful for, 'introductory and advanced courses in subjects such as East Asian civilization, Japanese studies, comparative literature, contemporary cinema, and cultural studies', I would have grave reservations about using it as a set text. The first three chapters are too dense, while the last two merely scratch the surface of what is a rich and powerful culture. It is a shame that Morton did not restrict himself to just the last two chapters, which if expanded with further examples in the case of the literature, as well as of the impact that the works had when they were first published or released on society, would have made this book so much more relevant.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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