To follow up on my previous post about the importance of reading good books about Japanese culture, here is a short list of book recommendations. Click on the title and you’ll be directed to Amazon.com.
1) The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japanese Culture by Roger J. Davies and Osamu Ikeno
This book offers a primer on basic yet essential concepts in Japanese culture. If I were to read just one book it would be this one. An example of a cultural concept is the idea of honne and tatemae (public and private self) which can be quite confusing for Westerners to grasp.
2) Learning to Bow: Inside the Heart of Japan by Bruce Feiler
Description from amazon.com: “A sensitive and readable account by a young American exchange teacher of his years in a junior high school system 50 miles outside Tokyo. He talks about much more than school life, however, and readers cannot help comparing the Japanese society to ours, sometimes finding ours, theirs, or both wanting.”
3) Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Haruki Murakami This is an absolute must-read by one of Japan’s most famous authors. If you don’t know much about what happened in Tokyo on March 20, 1995 read this amazing book and find out. The Japanese refer to it as the 地下鉄サリン事件, or subway sarin incident. The book offers firsthand accounts of that horrific day that will never be forgotten by the people of Japan. Interviews with survivors, family members of the deceased, and former members of Aum Shinrikyo make this a haunting read.
4) Japan at War: An Oral History by Haruko Taka Cook and Theodore F. Cook
This is a marvelous book full of unforgettable stories from ordinary Japanese about life before, during, and after WWII. I stayed up many nights reading incredible story after story. I really wish this book were available in Japanese.
5) Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII by John W. Dower
Description from amazon.com: “MIT professor Dower offers a dazzling political and social history of how postwar Japan evolved with stunning speed into a unique hybrid of Western innovation and Japanese tradition.”
While reading Embracing Defeat, I learned many new things about the horrors of post-war life in Tokyo but one thing stood out to me because of my love for children. I did not know that there were over 120,000 orphaned and homeless children in Japan. Some had lost their parents in air raids and many were separated from their parents in the turmoil following the end of the war. The children in Tokyo lived in railroad stations, overpasses, abandoned ruins, etc. They picked pockets and survived by their wits. What broke my heart was to learn that these children were treated worse than dogs. When they were rounded up on trucks like cattle by police or city officials they counted in the same way as animals (ippiki, nihiki, etc.) If they were sent to an institution, they faced physical abuse and terrible discrimination. Some boys were kept naked to prevent them from attempting to escape.
Homeless orphans in 1946
Street children near Tokyo’s Ueno station, 1946
From the book: “Osaragi Jiro, a distinguished author respected for his humanism, wrestled with [this] issue. A British acquaintance had asked why the Japanese did nothing about the street children…he concluded that as a people they simply lacked love for strangers. He himself was no exception. In all honesty, he had to admit that he had no desire to take in these filthy urchins and try to straighten out their characters. Could it be, Osaragi mused, that the Japanese were shallower than other peoples when it came to love?”
I often wonder if any post-war missionaries worked with these children or tried to get them off the streets. If anyone has an answer please write a comment.