Ten things you didn’t know about JapanTokyo: it’s hard for Japanese women to break out but gender relations are evolving nonetheless

By Richard Lofthouse

Off the shelf – July 2015

A terrific volume from Oxford University Press, Japan and the Shackles of the Past is by R Taggart Murphy, a professor of international political economy at the University of Tsukuba in Tokyo who has lived most of his life in Japan. Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s jibe — that ‘the whole of Japan is a pure invention: there is no such country; there are no such people’ — we thought we’d draw out some of Taggart Murphy’s numerous points about a country that is still — we might contend — mostly misunderstood by the west.

1. Kyoto is beautiful.

No it isn’t. Particular temples and other sites are exquisite, as any tourist will attest, but the city ‘resembles a once-lovely woman who has had acid thrown in her face; you can still make out enough to tell that she had been a great beauty, but it is a melancholy act of mental reconstruction’.

2. ‘Abenomics’ (after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s use of fiscal policy to devalue the yen and jolt Japan out of deflation) makes him recognizably ‘western’.

No it doesn’t. Rather, it is a case of reaction parading as reform. Shinzo’s a hard-right-winger who wanted to give Japan a fiscal ‘sugar-high,’ to achieve the political aim of wresting control of the upper house, duly achieved in 2013. His real goal is to take Japan back to the 1930s, repealing everything that was good and right about the American-sponsored constitution that was handed to Japan after 1945, such as the notion of popular sovereignty and gender equality.

3. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 was the defining moment in Japanese history.

No it wasn’t. That’s the result of western navel gazing. The real date of consequence was the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, which created the very institutions that survived 1868 and were later disastrous for Japan.

Ten things you didn’t know about JapanSecond bite of the cherry? Japan's economy has returned to inflation since current PM Abe Shinzo devalued the yen

4. Japan is now irrelevant except as a strategic asset.

Not unless viewed shallowly from Wall Street. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and remains a leading manufacturer, as was demonstrated in March 2011, when the disruptive effect of the tsunami on global supply chains was far more serious than onlookers imagined it to be. As for security, Japan remains of paramount importance to America, yet its own pursuit of territorial claims (the Senkaku Islands) get tangled up in the West’s relationship to Beijing.

5. Japan is a shining example of a polity where religion doesn’t upset the temporal order

Absolutely wrong. Even the divine right of kings allowed for a transcendent power greater than royalty, whereas in Japan the concept of the divine is embodied in the emperor, who is considered to be actually divine, thus rendering political protest uniquely difficult. This is why Japan suffers a deep spiritual crisis today, because since the emperor’s role became muted after 1945, no one knows what to believe in. It’s a turbulent problem that might again be rendered as nationalism in the face of Chinese provocation – a real worry.

6. Japan’s businesses largely lost their mojo after the collapse of the 1980s bubble — since when did Sony do anything interesting?

Wrong again. It’s just that the big winners in Japan are not consumer-facing brands like Apple and Samsung. The three most profitable companies in Japan today are Keyence, Fanuc and Hirose Electric. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s because you’re stuck in your own Sony Walkman time warp.

7. Japan before 1868 was isolated. After 1868 it ‘turned to the west’.

More western navel gazing, and plenty of Japanese wishful thinking. Actually, most of Japan as we know it was influenced historically by China, via Korea. European missionaries entered the country in the 16th century and were later repelled, but not before they won some converts who continued after their departure. Long before Zen Buddhism arrived, Mahayana Buddhism came to Japan via Korea, via China, via the ancient kingdom of Bactria in what is now northern Afghanistan.

Ten things you didn’t know about JapanJapan is an economic tiger laid low by twenty years of deflation — but that might be changing

8. Japan lost World War Two

Well now you really are parading your ignorance. Japan never referred to it as ‘World War Two’. They referred to it as the Pacific War, to distinguish it from their invasion of mainland China in 1937. In fact they ‘won’ that much larger land campaign in the Ichigo offensive of 1944, beating the Chinese Nationalists. But it was one of the greatest 20th-century examples of unintended consequence. It was not the Japanese who walked into the resulting power vacuum, as planned, but the Communists. As Zhou Enlai put it, without the Japanese, there ‘would have been no new China’.

9. Women have always played a subordinate role in Japan

Not if we allow for the fact that the world’s first novel, The Tale of Genji, was authored by a woman, as was The Pillow Book. ‘Indeed, as a body of writing, Heian’s (794-1185) is unique in world history in that virtually all of it that matters was composed by women.’

10. Japan is gradually becoming more western

Arguably the reverse is true. The rest of the world is becoming more Japanese. Ruling elites are everywhere ‘learning to live with the constant presence of contradiction while perfecting the mental gymnastics necessary to deceive oneself about motive while still acting on that motive.’

All images © Richard Lofthouse.


By Joji Sakurai

Dear Richard,
Please allow me to add No. 11: Japanese anime and manga are merely cartoons.
A former Magdalen linguist, I have embarked upon a series of critical essays about Japan's misunderstood art-form.
Best wishes,
Joji Sakurai

By Juan D. Gutierrez

I found the analogy about Kyoto being like "once-lovely woman who has had acid thrown in her face" very appalling. In many countries of the World gender-based violence is a very big issue and attacks to women with acid is one of the worst manifestations of the tragedy. I have never been to Kyoto and I hope some day I will, so I am just complaining about the use of such a perverse metaphor when the author had infinite options that are not offensive.


Interestingly provocative but so generalised - with the exception of number 1 - that where it isn't factually wrong it betrays the same ignorance as Oscar Wilde (in jest) of the complexity of Japanese society.

By Thomas L. Ricketts

"Well now you really are parading your ignorance..."

As a general rule, insulting your audience is never an effective strategy. Change your tone and might be taken seriously next time.

By H. J. Shepherd

Number 3 seems to be regurgitating prewar Marxist scholarship on Japan's "feudal remnants" - I don't think many Japanese historians now would feel comfortable drawing a line straight from 1603 to 1945...

By Mizuhiro Kuroda

Thank you for your very interesting and erudite contribution.
On the description of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and his policies, one must take into account the terrible devastation of 3.11, 2011, from the earthquake and nuclear crisis. One of his main tasks in the 2nd term is to bring the nation out of depression and to restore a sense of stability and respectability, economic and otherwise; Abenomics is about reflating the economy, and people's egos as well. His right-wing stance must now be seen in the light of climate change and persistent natural disasters, as well as the post-WWII 70th anniversary factor.
You may wish to recall what transpired during his official visit to the US in spring, and especially the way he tried to underscore common values including democracy and the rule of law. He may have come under criticism in Europe on account of comments pertaining to WWI, but in a similar vein, it may not be wise to refer to his thinking as to go back to the 1930's because, for one thing, Japan is allied to the US nowadays.
On gender equality, I think he may be more progressive than some of the opposition parties, as evident in his numerous appointments of female colleagues, cabinet members and high ranking officials.

By Ludwig Kanzler

Off to a good start with the first few points (except for the poor choice of metaphor) but levelling off considerably in the second half. Not always does one need a list of ten to be credible. Less would have been more.

By Peter Jaeger

Either Lofthouse has failed to understand Murphy's book, or Murphy's points themselves are so convoluted and contrived that the reader is lost long before he has a chance to appreciate the "mysteries" of Japan. Or maybe Lofthouse hasn't actually bothered to locate the most interesting ten little-known facts covered in the tome. In either case, haven't we all seen enough lists of "things you never knew about Japan" by now? One hopes that Taggart Murphy aspired to more with his book than what Lofthouse shares with us in his quick review.
And now, some free advice: these lists of little-known facts are far more interesting to readers when they have to do with unusual sexual practices, unfamiliar foods like toasted sugared beetles or raw sea urchin gonads, or outlandishly priced commodities such as two-hundred-dollar mangoes from Okinawa or one-million-dollar bluefin tuna traded at the Tsukiji fish market. Erudite concepts in history, philosophy and religion are little-known mainly because they're boring.

By Charles Griffin

One other thing about Japan that amazes people who haven't been there is that they drive on the Left. Purportedly, this is so that they can flog off all their second-hand Nissans, Toyotas, Subarus and Datsuns to Oz and NZ! And they have the best powder snow in the world! On a more serious note, the young there seem very friendly, and all want to learn 'Engrish' to the extent that they will actually initiate coversations on ski lifts etc.

By David Bolton

Why is it that Germany's war crimes are blamed on "the Nazis" whereas the enormous numbers of Chinese civilian fatalities at the hands of the Japanese are not laid at the feet of an equivalent subset of japanese society who promoted acceptance of the massacres as necessary in the name of the emperor?

By Ludwig Kanzler

To the editor: interesting you would solicit comments and then ignore them, even when submitted by Oxford alumns. I will not try again.