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  • Modern Japanese Culture: The Insider View
  • Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (bio)
Modern Japanese Culture: The Insider View. By Leith Morton. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, 2003. v, 290 pages. $25.00, paper.

In this bold project, Leith Morton sets out to give an overview of modern Japanese culture by focusing on those contemporary Japanese thinkers he believes have made the greatest significant impact. His approach differs from other recent introductions to Japanese culture such as books by Florian Coulmas, who gives an anthropological overview, and by Vlasta Winkelhöverová, who stresses material aspects of Japanese culture.1

To introduce "The Insider View," Morton presents "explanations of cultural phenomena by people who are writing inside the culture being described, [End Page 444] who have been raised inside that culture; in this specific case, writers whose language and social and cultural background are explicitly Japanese" (p. 2). At the same time, however, the "Insider View" points to Japanese thinkers and writers "who predominantly adopt a nativist approach, rather than those who adopt a universalist approach to discourse" (p. 2). According to the author, most accounts of Japanese culture in English have been written from an outsider perspective, which is easier to synthesize and comprehend because of its universalist theoretical orientation. Morton's concentration on insider theorists of culture claims not only to open up new perspectives but also to expose these native discourses to at least the possibility of intercultural dialogue.

One presupposition of an endeavor like this is to admit that contemporary Japan is not a fixed entity but a constantly changing complex that cannot be "frozen" into one tableau. Morton does not aim at the "final word" on Japan, which he believes is "not humanly possible" (p. 5). Instead, he wants to suggest "some of the underlying patterns that various thinkers have identified as applicable to the evolution of culture in Japan" (p. 5) and compare them with outsider viewpoints, thus arriving at a "synthetic, syncretic—in short, overtly interpretative" cultural map (p. 5).

In chapter one, Morton examines, by way of a close reading of two volumes by the psychologist Minami Hiroshi, Japanese ethnocentric discourses, attempting to probe their unexamined assumptions as well as to evaluate key modern thinkers in this area. He introduces Watsuji Tetsurō's Fūdo (Climate and culture, 1935) and Kuki Shūzō's Iki no kōzō (The structure of iki, 1930) and traces patterns of argument developed therein to contemporary thinkers such as Kawai Hayao, Umehara Takeshi, and Aoki Tamotsu.

Chapter two is devoted to discussion of four works by Yanagita Kunio, whom the author holds to be the "major theoretician of culture of modern Japan" (p. 7). According to Morton, Yanagita has had a profound influence on Japanese ways of conceptualizing and thinking about society and culture, which he tries to show by citing various thinkers of later periods. Yoshimoto Takaaki is seen by Morton as one of Yanagita's most prominent successors in contemporary Japan, and his works, such as Gengo ni totte bi to wa nani ka (What is beauty in respect of language? 1965) as well as his studies on collective imaginaries (1968) and mass images (1984), are subjected to an exegesis, which is then mirrored in contemporary reactions by figures such as Tokieda Motoki, Isotani Takashi, and Karatani Kōjin.

The next section highlights the literature of contemporary Japan, focusing on Mishima Yukio as "postwar heretic" (p. 157), ōe Kenzaburō as his political counterpart, Murakami Haruki, Yamada Eimi, and Uchida Shungicu, as well as a host of poets active from the immediate postwar period down to the "revolution in women's poetry" (p. 204) as it was brought about [End Page 445] by figures such as Shiraishi Kazuko and Itō Hiromi. Chapter five sketches television, cinema, and manga as the three most influential areas of mass culture, drawing, as in the other parts of the book, mostly on Japanese views such as Yoshimoto Takaaki's critique of television and Yomota Inuhiko's Nihon eigashi 100-nen (History of 100 years of Japanese cinema, 2000).2

In his brief epilogue, the author tries to determine how much insider discourse on culture in Japan differs from its equivalent in...


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pp. 444-449
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