How "Americans" see Japan

By William Wetherall

A review of
Sheila K. Johnson
The Japanese Through American Eyes
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988
xi, 191 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared in
The Japan Times, 13 August 1988, page 16

This book -- a much revised, updated, and expanded edition of American Attitudes Toward Japan, 1941-1975 (American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research) -- is an evenly toned and very readable introduction to Japan as revealed through selected American eyes.

Johnson, a self-employed anthropologist and free-lance writer, has selected a number themes that she believes "have colored American postwar attitudes toward Japan" from "the floating world of popular stereotypes", meaning "cartoons, best-sellers, popular magazine articles, movies, art exhibits, tourist figures, business reports, and export statistics."

The text is illustrated by a number of clearly reproduced cartoons, and a facsimile of the 1941 Time article that featured four Oriental faces and the headline: HOW TO TELL YOUR [Chinese] FRIENDS FROM THE JAPS.

The first edition was published in 1975, the year of James Clavell's Shogun. This edition, itself a revision of a version that was prepared for a Japanese translation in 1986, devotes a new chapter to Shogun and Eric Van Lustbader's The Ninja (1980) and The Miko (1984). "Of Shoguns and Ninjas" follows "The Legacy of the War", "The Legacy of Hiroshima", "The Legacy of the Occupation", "The Sexual Nexus", and "The Cultural Nexus", and it is followed by "The Business Nexus" and "The Dilemma of Japanese-Americans".

While the book is generally stimulating and sometimes insightful, it is not always clear how "American" the presented images are. Johnson's own eyes first imagined Japan from German-occupied Holland.

An introduction called "The Ambiguous Legacy" begins by showing how Commodore Perry and Lafcadio Hearn both admired and criticized the Japanese. Hearn is often quoted in the book, but Johnson never tells the reader that Hearn was born in Greece to the Greek wife of a mostly Irish father of gypsy descent in the English army, was educated in Dublin and France, worked in the U.S. for two decades as a journalist, came to Japan in 1890 and was later naturalized as Koizumi Yakumo. So what nationality was the one good eye of this self-searching wanderer?

Indeed, what nationality are Clavell's eyes? "Mr. Bestseller" was born in Australia the son of a Royal Navy officer, raised in England, and was a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore. He moved to the U.S. in 1953 after becoming a screenwriter in England.

The problem of "eye color" is even more apparent in the chapter on Japanese Americans (no hyphen necessary). The chapter certainly belongs in the book, for as Johnson writes, "To some extent, any ethnic group in a large, pluralistic society such as the United States, is a hostage to international relations." But her overview of the "dilemma" that Japanese immigrants to the U.S. and their American offspring have faced is flawed by the uncertainty of her use of words like "Japanese" and "American".

In a number of contexts "Japanese" seems to designate race or ethnicity, while "American" sometimes seems to exclude Americans of Japanese ancestry. Though such ambiguity may characterize the images Johnson presents, she herself should have used the labels objectively.

Johnson's "American eyes" are perhaps too blue, in the sense that she has taken mainstream (hence Anglo-white dominated) media as her guide. It would have been interesting to know what Japanese Americans of various backgrounds (black, white, and yellow) have thought of "the homeland" (sic). But Johnson has ignored their media, except to cite another writer who describes how the Japanese-language pages of two Hawaiian dailies, published by Japanese immigrants, hailed Japan's military inroads in China up to 1941.

Such evidence of how "many first-generation Japanese immigrants (sic) . . . identified with their homeland" leads Johnson to observe that, despite the history and prevalence of anti-Orientalism in the U.S., "it would be a mistake to think of the Japanese-Americans purely as victims" of discrimination when the property of those living on the west coast was confiscated "during their World War II imprisonment (sic)."

Here Johnson fails to follow the moral imperative that ought to guide a study of stereotypes as serious as hers: if wrong to treat any individual or group on the basis of popular images, and if illegal to intern westcoast Japanese immigrants and Americans of Japanese descent without specific charges, evidence, and due process, then those who were so treated were, indeed, purely victims of the very racism that Johnson otherwise describes with reasonable accuracy.

But Johnson's critical perspective partly compensates for her vantagepoint problems. She disagrees with Nathan Glazer's assessment of American attitudes toward Japan as shallow. For her they are no more more shallow than American perceptions of countries like France, Spain, or Russia. "In fact," she argues, "they may be more profound, since they tend to be based on wartime experiences, tourism, or contact with Japanese products, from kimonos to automobiles."

Johnson also refutes Glazer's thesis that American attitudes toward Japan are ambivalent because Japan and the Japanese are by nature paradoxical. She recognizes that in some respects Japanese and American character "markedly" differ to an extent that may both "attract and repel" Americans. "But," she argues, "this is not at all the same thing as saying that the Japanese character harbors such a galaxy of traits that one can only respond with confusion."

The introduction looks at various "national character" studies, which Johnson qualifies as "studies of cultures at a distance". But not until the end of the book does she note that such studies may be limited, both because they are based on "modal personality" traits which may characterize fewer than half of the people in the group being studied, and because factory workers in two societies may have more in common with each other than they have with, say, professors.

Some themes -- like language, minorities, and religion -- are missing. Suicide stereotypes are touched on in passing, but one must turn to the end notes to learn the "truth" about suicide in Japan -- as of 1964, based on a 1973 source. Detective Ohara in the U.S. TV series was inspired by the protagonist in two of Nan Hamilton's novels, not by Masao Masuto in E.V. Cunningham's stories.

Nit-pickers and trivia freaks will find more to fault. But the above shortcomings aside, this book deserves wide reading.


My copy of this book includes a card which reads "Compliments of the Author" and two personal letters from Sheila Johnson. In one letter, dated 2 October 1985, she sent while updating her 1975 book, American Attitudes Toward Japan, 1941-1975. In the letter she asked a number of questions related to certain issues she wanted to cover in the updated edition.

Sheila and I were acquainted because her husband, Chalmers Johnson, had been my general program advisor as head of the Group in Asian Studies during all of my graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Ordinarily I do not review books of people I know unless I have something critical to say. In the case of Sheila's book, I found myself wanting to point out many things I regarded then, and still regard, as flaws in an otherwise commendable effort by a fellow scholar and writer.

The second letter, dated 3 October 1988, is one I received from her in reponse to my review, a copy of which I had sent her. I take liberties here to cite the most important lines from the part of her letter that concerned the review.

I would take issue with your assertion that it is not clear in what sense the images I'm presenting are "American" since I am Dutch, Hearn is Greek, Clavell is English, etc. etc. It is not our [emphasis in letter] nationality that matters but the fact that the best-sellers I describe became best-sellers in the U.S. and therefore can be taken as both representative of American attitudes and possibly as having contributed to certain stereotypes.

I replied to the effect that I would agree with this -- but would have liked to have seen such a statment in the book -- among other clarifications of viewpoint.

A paperback edition was published in 1991, and it is possible that Sheila corrected the reference to Masao Masuto and E.V. Cunningham, as she said she would "if there's ever another edition."

26 December 2005