Homogeneous misunderstandings

Promoting false comfort in duplitious views of Japan

By William Wetherall

A review of
Toshiya Torao and Delmer M. Brown (editors)
Chronology of Japan [Nihon no rekishi]
Tokyo: Business Intercommunications Inc. (Asuka Shobo), 1987
237 pages. paperback [bilingual]

A version of this article appeared in
Asahi Evening News, 11 March 1988, page 9

Blue phrases were cut from the AEN version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the AEN version.

"Understanding Japan" has been a major industry since the Meiji period. Thousands of books have been written in English on Japan, hundreds of them with the express purpose of "explaining Japan" to presumably ignorant or naive foreigners.

The Japanese government has also been involved in the Japan PR business, and long before the Pacific War, which some Japanese now openly blame on American ignorance about Japan. The recent spate of official pamphlets and books in English are nothing new.

Since "mutual understanding" is strongly believed to be the key to peaceful international relations, and because many Japanese are sure that "Japan bashing" results from a "lack of understanding" among foreigners, a number of Japanese have been arguing that they must make a greater effort to make the "real Japan" known to the outside world.

Namiji Itabashi, chairman of the board of the International Education Center, a semi-public corporation in Tokyo which has been training government and company employees in English since 1946, stated in the message on his New Year's card this year: "IEC intends to continue greater efforts to train international people who are able to effectively explain Japan's markets."

Many "internationalists" in Japan share this view that Japan's main problem is the inability of its citizen to "explain" its markets, that a convincing explanation exists and can be disseminated through "international people" who speak English with the proper accent. If only foreigners could be made to understand Japan, they would respect Japan, accept Japan as it is, and stop all the cataphonic criticism.

The "international person" is supposed to be someone who has a firm Japanese identity and is able to talk about Japan and make the citizens of other countries see Japan as the Japanese do. All this presumes that there is a Japanese view, which Japanese intuitively share but have to be taught to articulate to the verbal foreigner.

An ideal world would not question the last word on Japan from someone like Toshiya Torao, a professor of Japanese history who has taught at Princeton and now lectures at the National Museum of Ethnology, in Osaka. In the real world, though, a Japanese scholar's views are more credible to Japanese (if not foreigners) when endorsed by a certified alien expert like Delmer Brown, emeritus professor of Japanese history from the University of California at Berkeley.

Toshiya and Brown are the "editors" of Chronology of Japan, a bilingual book of unclear authorship consisting mainly of lists of major events in Japanese history with longer comments on selected topics. The quaint sketches have quainter captions ("Doctress").

The contents are divided into four periods -- Prehistoric and Ancient Age, Medieval Age, Early Modern Age, and Modern Age. Each begins with a one page (!) overview of the whole period. The book is introduced by a six page essay (?). This means only ten pages of "framework" to help integrate the chronologically listed entries.

The first entry: "40000 B.C. -- Japan inhabited before this (Old Stone Age lasts till about 8000 B.C.)" The last entry: "1987 -- The Japan National Railway privatized. Land prices in the Tokyo metropolitan area skyrocket. Susumu Tonegawa awarded a Nobel prize."

As Casey Stengel used to say about the baseball trivia he liked to cite: "You can look it up." Then you can ask trivial questions, like: Why is it "Susumu Tonegawa" and "Takako Doi" and "Naomi Uemura" but "Fukui Kenichi" (yet "Tomonaga Shin-ichiro") and "Sato Eisaku" and "Ezaki Leona"? Why "Mao Tse-tung" and not "Mao Zedong"? Who is "Ho Chin Ming"? Why "Premier Sato" instead of "Prime Minister Sato"?

Why three different mentions of the "Temporary Administration Inquiry Committee" (when it "opens" and who headed it until 1983, when it submitted its first and final reports)? But no mention of a prime minister since Sato, except to note "former premier Tanaka arrested"?

Most of the facts are correct as far as they are stated, but no criteria for their selection are given. Nor are the inconsistencies in name order, romanization, or spelling explained.

The only note to the reader comes immediately after the title page, before the copyright page. It explains in English: "The English text of this book has greater detail than the Japanese text because non-Japanese readers are apt to be less familiar with Japanese historical events and personalities."

The Japanese counterpart translates: "The English parts are somewhat more detailed and explanatory than the Japanese parts. This is to help the foreign reader's understanding."

These two messages are significantly different. The English note is more accurate in its use of "apt" -- which implies that there may be foreigners who are more familiar with the detail than the Japanese reader. The Japanese version simply implies that foreigners need all the "help" they can get.

Both remarks, though, turn out to be wrong. In at least one case, the Japanese text has more detail than the English text.

In English the reader is told: "With an indigenous folk culture, Japan had never embraced the whole of T'ang culture, nor abandoned that which was uniquely hers."

The Japanese counterpart translates: "Moreover, Japan, with its already monoethnic ethnic culture [tan'itsu minzoku to shite no minzoku bunka], did not accept all of T'ang culture, nor did it abandon its unique culture."

The fiction that Japan is a "monoethnic" state, and has been one since antiquity, is reinforced in Japanese, as is the ideology of "ethnic" culture. The English version imparts completely different "indigenous" and "folk" images of Japanese history.

All of this contradicts with the confusing reference to "Ainu" in the "Early Modern Age" -- another example of where the Japanese version contains quantitatively more and qualitatively different information.

Elsewhere the English text reads "homogeneous people" where the Japanese text translates "single ethnic group" [tan'itsu no minzoku]. Yet "Germanic race" is the English counterpart to Geruman minzoku.

Lest this be called "nitpicking", recall ex-prime minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's trouble with the word minzoku. Properly "initiated" writers softened it to "people" and "nation" in the translations of his major speeches. Only when some journalists more faithfully rendered it "ethnic group" or "race" did it become clear that Nakasone and others have been cloaking the key Japanese words of their domestic racialism in internationally more palatable English.

Chronology of Japan -- its title reminiscent of the "Chronicles of Japan" (720) -- is billed as "indispensable . . . for people who have many interchanges with foreigners and for students who are studying English". Similar delusions of grandeur are seen in the advertising for (and even the preface to) the recently supplemented 9-volume Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983),the biggest basherbuster of all.

The less ambitious Torao and Brown But the book just aims to bilingualize selected facts and interpretations of Japanese history in the minds of Japanese readers. It sometimes does this, however, in ways that would merely thicken the Japanese side of the "misunderstanding" barrier -- by encouraging Japanese readers to embrace one view of Japan, try to imbue their unsuspecting foreign friends with another, and take false comfort in the prideful belief that such hopefully unwitting duplicity has contributed to "mutual understanding".