Japan hit and missed

Another minefield of misinformation

By William Wetherall

A review of
Boye De Mente
Japan Almanac
Lincolnwood (Illinois): Passport Books (National Textbook Company), 1987
xiv, 319 pages, softcover

A version of this article appeared in
Asahi Evening News, 22 April 1988, page 9

It looks good on the rack. It's big and thick. "The Authoritative Reference on Japan Today and Everything Japanese" reads the blurb under the title. "Nearly 1,000 subjects are covered in an easy-to-read, A-to-Z format" the back cover claims.

The problem with reference books is that you either trust them or you don't. You can't check their accuracy by looking up something you know nothing about. And if you already know, why look it up?

Perhaps to confirm your memory. Or to estimate a book's general accuracy, assuming that if it's right for what you know about ABC, then it may be right for what you don't know about XYZ.

First I looked up "Foreigners in Japan" since I am the author of its counterpart in Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (1983).

De Mente's version: "All residents of Japan who are not racially Japanese are counted as foreign, regardless of their citizenship. On this basis, the largest group of foreign residents is Korean (some 670,000), followed by Chinese (approximately 55,000) -- most of whom are Japanese citizens or have permanent resident status. . . ."

Score this zero out of 100 points. De Mente does not know beans about citizenship or race, or related laws or statistics. But just to be fair, I checked "Koreans in Japan", which De Mente incorrectly equates with "Kankokujin (Khan-koe-kuu Jeen)" before he writes:

"Koreans make up the largest community of so-called foreign residents in Japan, numbering nearly 700,000. Most of them are citizens of Japan who descended from Koreans who came to Japan -- or were brought there -- during the period from shortly after the turn of the century to 1945, when Korea was a Japanese possession. . . . About half the Koreans in Japan support the Communist-run People's Republic of North Korea and are therefore virtually stateless. . . ."

Give this 10 points for the phrase "came to Japan -- or were brought here" (most people wrongly think that most Koreans were brought to Japan). Everything else is wrong or misleading. But then I turned to "Japanese People / Nihon-jin (Nee-hone-jeen)":

"The people of Japan do not all look alike, despite this frequent complaint by visitors from abroad. Most Japanese have black or dark auburn hair. Nearly all of them have black or dark brown eyes. Most have the same or similar skin coloring, and most are primarily of Mongolian descent."

Eighty points so far. Ten off for the stereotypic claim "frequent complaint by visitors from abroad", and ten off for not saying that some Japanese have blonde hair, green eyes, black skin, etc. But as I read on, the score plunged, to 50 points by the time De Mente slipped into his favorite subject, sex; and to 40 points when, at the end, he listed his own Exotic Japan and two books by his cellmate Jack Seward, as recommended reading along with two better works by Donald Richie.

I was going to stop checking topics concerning race or ethnicity, then read "International Marriages / Kokusai Kekkon (Koke-sie keck-kone)". But I took off 50 points, for pretending to be comprehensive while focusing mainly on "East-West" marriages; for failing to mention the largest related organization, Kokusai Kekkon o Kangaeru Kai, which is mainly for Japanese women married to non-Japanese; for concluding that "the children of mixed-blood parentage . . . have a remarkable sensitivity to cross-cultural and racial problems that can make them valuable bridges between the two different cultures" -- without citing any evidence that this is true; and for assorted other sins.

Another subject I like to test is suicide. De Mente's comments on "Harakiri" (heavily based on Jack Seward's book by the same name), gets 60 points. His remarks on suicide in general get 70 points.

On a whim I turned to "Tokyo Journal" but gave it only 80 points: ten off because De Mente wrote that the magazine "is well done, informative, useful"; ten more off for not writing that he is its Associate Publisher and Executive Editorial Director.

I scored the last entry "Zushi" 100 points, mainly for nostalgia, because I've been there but still don't know anything about it.

I gave De Mente 90 points for the first entry "Abacus / Soroban (Soe-roe-bahn)" because I know nothing about this either. My insulted computer, not I, knocked off 10 points for De Mente's claim that "the soroban differs from the computer -- in particular the electronic calculator -- in that its use requires both physical and mental skill."

So, unfortunately, does the use of this almanac.