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Reviewed by:
  • Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes
  • David T. Johnson (bio)
Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes. By Mark D. West. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005. xiv, 279 pages. $19.00, paper.

This book is interesting—sometimes fascinating—and yet the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Its biggest strength is what it reveals about how law works in several little-studied spheres of Japanese society. Its biggest weakness is that it fails to make much of a case for the payoffs that come from attending to the role of law in "everyday Japan." Call it the opposite of synergy.

The book opens by claiming that the literature on law in Japan is too preoccupied with "broad-based, high-stakes phenomena" such as the country's litigation rate (p. 1). According to West, the problem with focusing on matters that matter is that it results in a "potentially misleading and irrelevant model of Japanese law" (p. 1). Although this diagnosis might be right, the author never explains how extant models of Japanese law (as in Frank Upham's "bureaucratic informalism" or John Haley's "authority without power") are misleading or irrelevant, nor does he offer an alternative model that would improve upon the defective ones.

West's remedy for the preoccupation problem is a focus on the role of law in seven spheres of everyday life: lost property (umbrellas, wallets, and so on), the organization of sumo (in which 105 elders make all major decisions), karaoke noise disputes (the industry has annual revenues of $3.8 billion), the repair of earthquake-induced damage to condominiums (there are four million units nationwide), love hotels (where, the author calculates, about half of all sex in Japan occurs), working hours (which peaked in the [End Page 444] 1960s but now number less than in the United States), and the relationship between debt and suicide (about 30 Japanese kill themselves every day because of economic problems, and perhaps ten times that number make unsuccessful attempts for similar reasons).

To explore how law works in these everyday realms, West relies on three main "analytical tools" (p. 4). First he assumes that institutions ("the rules of the game") matter. While this assumption seems sound (does anyone argue institutions do not matter?), West's concept of "institution" is so broad that it is difficult to discern anything important that is excluded from its confines. Second, the author subscribes to several assumptions of rational choice theory, such as maximizing behavior, stable preferences, and market equilibria. But he is not doctrinaire, for he recognizes that these assumptions often fail in real-world cases. It is therefore correct to call the book more "problemdriven" than "theory-driven" (p. 5). Third, West believes empirical analysis is essential for understanding the way law works in the world, and it is from this premise that the book's most important contributions arise. West conducted extensive fieldwork for most of his case studies. In order to compare return rates for lost property, he deliberately "lost" mobile phones and wallets in New York and Tokyo. In order to learn how karaoke noise disputes are experienced and resolved, he interviewed no fewer than 270 offenders, complainants, complaint counselors, and establishment owners. And in order to comprehend the love hotel business, West made (unaccompanied) visits to 50 such hotels (and even joined maids on their room-cleaning rounds). West possesses an uncommonly inquisitive curiosity, and his intrepid, indepth investigations make him a consistently captivating guide.

Since four of the case studies in this book (chapters two through five) have been previously published, I shall summarize the three that make their first appearance here. Chapter six, on love hotels, explores two broad areas of law and legal theory: how law and social norms interrelate to regulate the love hotel industry, and how state regulations sometimes stimulate unanticipated change. The core of the chapter is West's analysis of a 1985 revision to the Entertainment Law—"the Japanese government's first attempt to regulate love hotels directly" (p. 162). This law had two principal effects: it gave power to local boards to decide the location of love hotels...


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