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Japan Book Reviews

The New Japan: Debunking Seven Cultural Stereotypes

Author : David Matsumoto
Publisher: Intercultural Press
ISBN: 1-877864-93-5
pp. 301

Reviewed by :

Kevin Ryan
Showa Women's University

David Matsumoto is a professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University. His recent (2002) book uses tools of psychological measurement to determine the extent of the generation gap in Japan. Insightful and easily read, he seems to be writing for an audience of practitioners of intercultural communication.

He shows that there are large changes going on in society these days, something obvious to those of us that live and work here.

While reading J@pan Inc. magazine in January 2003, a review of Matsumoto's book appeared and intrigued me. I went to Amazon.co.jp and ordered this book along with two others about Japan: Japanese Higher Education as Myth (McVeigh), and Dogs and Demons (Kerr, last month's review -ed.). Matsumoto's Debunking was the most unabashedly academic of the three, yet a bit sophomoric. It was clear, to the point, and easy to read. The flavor of the writing made it feel like a pop psychology textbook.

Matsumoto begins his book with a review of the classic conceptualizations of the Japanese culture, from Lafcadio Hearn through Inazo Notobe and Ruth Benedict to Ivan Morris. He analyzes attitudes toward bushido, giri, on, chuugi, shame, wisdom, benevolence, self-discipline, honor and courage in Japan. In contemporary views, he covers Chie Nakane and asserts that the status of contemporary analysis of culture in Japan even today is of a classical nature. This may be a bit of straw man as Nakane's analysis is somewhat dated. He goes on to describe how some Japanese psychologists, such as Sanchez Hiroshi Minami and Takeo Doi, see Japan.

At the end of the first chapter he begins to cite studies on Japanese people's views of contemporary society, and an international comparison of views on the merits of information technology. He shows that there are large changes going on in society these days, something obvious to those of us that live and work here. You must remember, though, this book was written in the U.S. for what I am going to presume is a U.S. university audience.

Chapter 2 is the heart, the meat and the skeleton of the book. He decimates 7 stereotypes about Japan with well thought out arguments and a goodly amount of data collected by him and colleagues in the field. He finds that Japanese are more individual and less collective than their western counterparts. He finds that Japanese have an independent self concept and are not as interpersonally aware of the group as is the common conception. Japanese are not as emotional as they are generally thought of. The concept of the Japanese salaryman is no longer valid, along with the eternal myth of lifetime employment. Even Japanese marriage habits are changing. There is indeed a huge generation gap that has formed and is moving up the ranks. All these assertions are backed up with solid data and incisive insight.

This reviewers' life intervened, and I had to set the book down while reading Chapter 3. I was unable to come back to it for about 10 days. Upon the return, it felt almost like a different book. Gone was most of the hard data along with quotes of other experts. Chapters 3 through 5 did a good job of explaining the contents of Chapter 2. It contains a lot of Matsumoto's perceptions of Japanese culture, which are undoubtedly accurate from his point of view as a Nisei (sansei?) professor in San Francisco.

Matsumoto refers many times to his association with judo organizations both here in Japan and in the United States. We start to get a feeling in the later chapters that perhaps his view is not all that common. One other small quibble: he needs to get a new graphic designer for his graphs. Alternative and gradient shading from black to white through gray made discerning the numbers a puzzle and an optical illusion.

I can't help but compare Matsumoto with Dean Barnlund, his predecessor (granted, in a different department, Speech and Communications, retired) at SF State. With a quote by Shoko Araki (Oberin U.), you could see he has Japanese approval for following in Barnlund's tradition. He has the same warm fuzzy classroom lecture style but does better than Barnlund in acquiring new evidence of shifts in the cultural milieu of Japan.

If you're a longtime resident of Japan, you might consider getting your local library to buy this book and then read Chapter 2. If you're unfamiliar with Japan, you probably want to buy the book for yourself, as you will need chapters 3 to 5 to fill in the blank spaces.

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