10 Books to Read to Understand Japan

I. In Praise of Shadows [1933] by Junichiro Tanizaki

This persuasive essay by Japanese author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki illuminates the darkest corners of cultural and aesthetic Japan, explaining the country’s traditional preference for imperfection. Tanizaki says that there is an eerie beauty to be distilled from things that at first seem “dark”, “small” or “imperfect” (such as special charm emanating from lacquerware illuminated by candles). Those who are open to experience the imperfect and not afraid to crouch in the dark, will find that special delight. It now appears to me that Tanizaki might have also been influenced by the writings of Yoshida Kenkō, a Buddhist monk.

II. Another Kyoto [2016] by Alex Kerr & Kathy Arlyn Sokol 

In this book, Alex Kerr and Kathy Sokol capture and explain the nuances of the Japanese culture by focusing on seemingly mundane objects of the Japanese society, such as walls, gates, tatami mats and screens, opening to us a whole new way of perceiving these attributes of the Japanese culture. In Kerr and Sokol’s book, Kyoto never felt as intimate nor its most distinguishing features better explained.

III. The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] by Christopher Harding

I thought this was an exciting read, presenting Japanese history through the lives of twenty distinguished citizens, from mythical Princess Himiko (“Shaman Queen”), who lived in the year 200, to Empress Owada Masako (1963-), an intelligent, well-educated woman, but once a very unlikely contender to the title. It is possible that Harding based his book on Gen Itasaka’s 100 Japanese (People) You Should Know, and those who want to read a more linear history of Japan, can pick up Andrew Gordon’s A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present [2019].

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Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Making Movies [1995] by Sidney Lumet ★★★★

This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men [1957], Murder on the Orient Express [1974] and The Verdict [1982]. It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.

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Review: The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives by Christopher Harding

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] – ★★★★★

In this new book, Dr Harding traces the history of Japan through the lives of twenty remarkable people that helped to shape the country, making a powerful impact on either its politics, business, religion, science, culture or just society at large, and – more often than not – against all odds and in very challenging times. From heroic personalities from mythology and ancient politics to people who changed business, music or literary scene, the author introduces each extraordinary individual in turn, focusing on their childhood, on Japan of their time and on their contribution to the country, with the result being that Japan finally became what it is now – a culturally rich country full of so many paradoxes, intricacies and hidden treasures that a lifetime will not be sufficient to know and understand them all. In this book, we get to know royalties, warlords, samurai, Buddhist monks, politicians, businessmen, scientists, poets, singers, revolutionists and Manga creators. Dr Harding’s book is a history of Japan in a bright new form that is a pure pleasure to read.

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