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Reviewed by:
  • Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes
  • Robin M. Le Blanc
Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes. By Mark D. West. The University of Chicago Press, 2005. 278 pages. Hardcover $65.00; soft-cover $19.00.

Mark West's Law in Everyday Japan is a study of the interaction between legal structures and individual behavior that fills important gaps in our understanding of how conflict is managed in Japanese society. West studies the application of laws, rules, and a variety of formal and informal conflict resolution practices in prosaic situations that will be familiar or of interest to most students of Japan: the return of lost objects, the governance of wrestlers' careers through the Sumo Association, the persistence of long working hours, and the practice of debt suicide, among others. West's methods are eclectic. He "loses" cell phones, interviews love-hotel employees, talks with survivors of failed suicide attempts, examines records in police and local government archives, and, when data permits, even conducts simple quantitative analyses. West does not offer a unified theory describing the relationship between law and problem-solving practices in Japan, but that may be precisely his point. This study surveys a range of fields in which law, cultural commitments, and social practices interact in complicated ways, and in which neither culturalist nor institutionalist-economic theories suffice to explain Japanese citizens' behaviors. If West has a summary message, it might be this: theoretical cleanliness is not the best indicator of social science usefulness. [End Page 278]

Law in Everyday Japan is an interesting book. In part, this is because West digs into the way in which law (or, in the case of sumo, professional association rules) shapes human choices in settings that are popular symbols of contemporary Japan's cultural uniqueness. He knows that many of his English-language readers will have their own amazing stories to tell about the recovery of lost articles (mine is about the return of a purse loaded with cash, a cell phone, credit cards, and every piece of identification I've ever had). He understands that his readers will have gawked at garish love-hotel fronts and that even undergraduates will arrive in Japanese studies classes with some awareness of the salary man's famed long day and the disciplined, traditionalist world of sumo wrestlers. Many of us have shaken our heads on train station platforms after suicides cause delays, and few of us have survived any amount of time in Japan without being asked to perform our karaoke favorites in the very sort of loud bars that are the object of the conflicts West studies. These cases, plus his treatment of consensus-building in the management of condominium renovations and reconstructions, constitute a set of examples even those Japan scholars most suspicious of the "unique Japan" refrain are likely to see as the products of cultural distinctiveness. As such, West's selection of cases gives him an excellent proving ground for the claim that institutions-such as laws and rules-are as significant in the shaping of Japanese social practices as culture is.

West examines each case he chooses from a variety of different perspectives. In examining the process for the recording and returning of lost articles, for example, he looks beyond the statistical evidence that lost objects in Japan are found and returned more often than in other countries. He notes the institutional commitments such as reporting obligations placed on the police, the existence of laws providing clear rewards to finders of lost articles who turn them into authorities (and penalties for finders who are discovered to be less punctilious), and differences in return rates for different types of articles. West dropped wallets and cell phones in both Tokyo and New York, and interviewed lost-object finders in both cities. Japanese finders, he observes, are more likely to return lost objects, but the reason does not seem to be merely that Japanese people care more for others. Instead, the most commonly mentioned reasons for turning in lost objects were institutional. People in Japan know that the police are charged with the return of lost property, and they know a great deal...


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pp. 278-281
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