Tokyo Damage Report

Japanese book 5: THE JAPANESE MIND, Edited by Davies and Ikeno

amazon here, of course!

Like the last book report – "INSIDE THE KAISHA", THE JAPANESE MIND attempts to explain Japanese behavior so as to avoid "culture shock" and misunderstandings. Unlike INSIDE THE KAISHA, THE JAPANESE MIND is a huge mess.




THE JAPANESE MIND is a book that succeeds by failing! If you read it, at first you’re struck by how confusing and poorly written it is, how it tries to do 6 things and does none of them well. Half the information is redundant, and the other half so esoteric it’s not useful.

But if you read the introduction, the introduction explains HOW the book was made – the context and the decisions that shaped the form of the book.

And once you understand that, you realize that the book has a LOT to teach you: all the failures of the book are the results of classic Japanese decision making. By looking at the failures you can learn a lot about Japanese way-of-thought.



"Inside the Kaisha" TELLs you, but "The Japanese Mind"  straight-up  SHOWS you.

See,THE JAPANESE MIND had a lot of goals:

Originally, each chapter was a senior thesis about "Japanese Culture" by a Japanese student of International Studies. So one goal was to be a thesis for the students..

Then the teachers decided to make the theses into a textbook to teach foreign students about Japanese culture .Despite the somewhat confusing and improper English – and despite the fact that students shouldn’t be teaching classes.

 The "book about Japanese culture” idea then expanded to be a sort of “how-to” manual which would try to teach foreigners common cultural misunderstandings and how to avoid them . . . based on learning about flower arranging and "the Japanese spiritual connection to seasons"??? Well, yes! Because the first two ideas were still in effect, they didn't get tossed when the book changed direction. Why would they? Silly gaijin!

 Finally, the thesis/ textbook / how-to manual was expanded in scope once again: it’s not only for foreigners who wanted to larn bout Japan, but for OTHER JAPANESE STUDENTS OF INTERNATIONAL STUDIES who wanted to learn “what foreigners think of Japan” while practicing their English reading skills. Thus you wind up with “study questions” that make no sense to foreign students, since they are directed at Japanese students of international studies who happen to be reading in English.


Amazed yet?


 So now let's see how the failure of this book can teach us about Japan. Note how I'm applying  the concepts from INSIDE THE KAISHA to explain the failures of  INSIDE THE JAPANESE MIND.

ONE: the importance of kata and process over logic!


Almost every chapter begins by saying “Japan used to be a society based on rice farming which required all the villagers to work together, thus prioritizing the society over the individual.” No evidence is used for this, let alone comparing Japan to other countries where they cultivate rice. So as an explanation for the various unique Japanese customs in the book, it’s a failure! But as an illustration of KATA (every chapter has to have the same format even if it’s redundant) and the Japanese idea of EXPLANATIONS DON’T NEED TO BE GROUNDED IN LOGIC AS LONG AS THEY FOLLOW THE CORRECT FORMAT, it’s great!


TWO:  the  MONTAGE: 


Instead of deciding to discard certain goals or kata, they just pile more and more goals on top of each other, producing a MONTAGE. And I know I discussed montage in the previous article, but there's so much to say, and this book provides such a rad example of montage-gone wrong.


Here’s some examples of montage (or layering, for those of you who are not pretentious) from Japanese history:


1 – language (hiragana, kanji, katakana, and now engrish . . . .ok sure  American english is a mutt language, but we just take individual words, nighongo layers entire SYSTEMS which have to be individually learned)

2 – religions (buddhist funerals, Christian weddings, Shinto seasonal rituals)

3- fashions (not just the many-layered kimono, but the the famous ‘I’M wearing stuff from 4 countries I don’t even know the names of at once” montage of harajuku girls etc.)

4- Japanese science being historically shitty at inventing new technology but a world leader at synthesizing existing technologies into rad new combo-products: watches with calculators! Microwaves with electric stoves built in!

5- keitais with too many features, all poorly planned, because if one company introduces a new feature, all the other companies have to save face by "keeping up" (even if their version of the feature is just a sad little eraserhead baby of a feature)

7 –world war two : the army wanted to invade Russia, the navy wanted a sea war in southeast asia. The emperor (most powerful man EVER) couldn’t decide between them, and let them go their separate ways, even though this lack of a coordinated strategy cost japan the war.

8 – meiji constitution : layering an absolute monarchy/theocracy over a constitutional democracy, which was a totally futile idea, since they mix like oil and coups d'etat.

9 – wrapping candy in four layers of packaging?!?


So as a textbook THE JAPANESE MIND  sucks, but as an example of MONTAGE, it’s ideal!

 It’s a senior thesis essay , oh plus a textbook for foreigners studying Japanese, oh and plus a guidebook for how to avoid cultural shock, oh plus a textbook for Japanese students studying foreigners studying Japanese! Plus it has a built-in microwave and over 14 different screen-savers.

 And where does the uniquely Japanese montage come from?


 I'll tell you where it DOESN'T come from : " shinto syncretism” – everyone started out animist, after all!

SO where, then? 


 This is a concept that I don't have a clear handle on. I keep finding examples of it, but have yet to come across a book or a theory that explains why it is such a feature of Japanese decision making.  I'm just going to try my best to explain it, but if anyone else has any thoughts or recommended books, please let me know.

 The best example of "lack of responsibility at the top" is that world-war-II anecdote above! Even the most powerful man in the world couldn’t decide between his army and navy! This isn’t just because of the usual “Japanese are too polite to say ‘No’” thing.And it's different from the way powerful people all over the world are unaccountable.


Powerful people can rule with an  iron fist, but Hitler and Mussolini (not to mention Goldman and the Pope) tend to be responsible, in the sense that the top guy says, "DO AS I SAY, DO IT THIS WAY, I MADE THIS DECISION, ME ALONE, AND THAT'S WHY YOU HAVE TO OBEY." so, being un-accountable is different from being un-responsible.


Japanese groups have a hard time abandoning outdated protocols. The juniors can’t ask the leaders "Do we still need this procedure anymore?"  or "Isn't that a terrible idea?" because it’s insubordinate, and the leaders can’t trim unwanted procedures, because what if it turns out later that they cut the wrong one? It would be embarrassing! So the goals / features / procedures keep growing and accreting. Even leaders are powerless against processes once set in motion. The leaders ARE held responsible, but their responsibility only extends to making sure the process is done correctly. It doesn’t extend to the final result of the project – whether it’s an epic war in Asia or a simple textbook.

 Actually, I don't have a good reason why the leaders can't single-handedly change or cut layers.

But anyway in the case of this book, nobody ever said, “Let’s just pick one or two goals and do them well.”




This is kind of a cliché about Japanese so I won’t bother to explain it.

 How the cliché manifests itself in the book, though, is pretty amusing. A lot of student/authors didn’t want to tackle anything controversial, anything that would make Japan look bad. So there’s a lot of chapters on “the Japanese sense of the seasons” or “haragei : the implicit communication” , “arranged marriages”, and “buddhist funerals”, not to mention “wabi sabi”, which it turns out is some esoteric aesthetic concept of ancient clay-pot makers. Useful?


As a book of traditional culture, that would have been fine. But as a book about common misunderstandings between foreigners and Japanese, forget it! Even the students that DID try to tackle important topics, like ambiguity or honne vs. tatemae, do so in a very shy way.


However, on the good side: they do systematically present both the good points and bad points of each Japanese concept, and they do systematically compare their own country to other countries as a way of illustrating uniqueness.

If there’s a profusion of “safe, but irrelevant” topics, there’s a lack of “outside the box” topics. Lots of interesting, unique, relevant topics are ignored simply because Japanese education stifles creativity.


For example: how Japanese education stifles creativity!  That would have made a great chapter! The inability to handle lateral thinking or open-ended questions, the difficulty of thinking without a model to guide you. That’s really characteristic of Japan but since it doesn’t have a name or a famous book about it, it’s not included.

Or, “being rude by being excessively polite” : that’s another CLASSIC Japanese tactic. Or “Being in your own little world doing your makeup on the subway.” There should have been three chapters on that.


Once again, the COLORING INSIDE THE LINES approach makes for a sub-standard textbook, but as an EXAMPLE of how Japanese people think, it’s pretty great!



This should self-explanatory. Only by understanding the context in which the book is written can you learn anything from it.

Schultz out!


7 comments Tags: , ,

7 Comments so far

  1. Jamie July 7th, 2011 2:41 am

    Read this book a while back and got the impression at the time that the students were
    a) writing on the topics of their professor's choosing (hence the waba saba pots thing) 
    b) plainly not daring to write anything they thought their professors might disagree with.
    Both of which are, of course, typical of Japanese in academia and elsewhere. 
    The few that did really try and get a grip on an interesting problem did so while still trying to not illuminate the topic too much…. The Japanese culture (due to the rice farming collectivism in the soul, etc) is of course unique and slightly ineffable, to shine too bright a light on the stage would break the illusion for everyone. Writer included.

  2. admin July 7th, 2011 4:35 am

    >while still trying to not illuminate the topic too much….

    I think you hit the nail on the head. There’s this idea that nihongo just SEEMS ambiguous to dumb gaijin, but the more of these interviews I read with japanese whistle-blowers, the more it seems that nihongo ambiguity is at least partly done ON PURPOSE to confuse and bewilder OTHER JAPANESE. In fact, I’m keeping a little file of these “Can you make that article more vague and unsatisfactory, please?” “Yes boss.” -type quotes for a future article.

  3. Josh July 7th, 2011 10:53 am

    I just wanted to let you know that I think you have been nailing it with these book reviews lately.  Keep up the good work.

  4. Candice N July 11th, 2011 1:20 am

    Okay. It's official. You're a fucking genius, Mr. Schultz. I mean it.

  5. François July 17th, 2011 5:40 am

    The concept of “being rude by being excessively polite” actually has a name in Japanese, also your average J-dude doesn't know it. (I met so far only two people that did, but I don't talk about that with everybody either)

  6. zet September 26th, 2011 2:49 pm

    I understand now! Japan is a gigantic volunteer run arts organization !!!!

  7. cunt October 24th, 2012 12:25 am

    @francois, Thanks, and thanks Francois. I can't believe they do it on purpose! I always thought they were trying to outdo me in the manners stakes, turns out  they are MEANING to insult. Anyone have any idea how they got to be so imbecilic and infantile?

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