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  • Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture
  • Leith Morton (bio)
Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture. By Charles Shirō Inouye. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008. xv, 260 pages. $27.95, paper.

Charles Inouye's Evanescence and Form: An Introduction to Japanese Culture is a fascinating book, rich in insightful analysis and enlivened with impassioned polemic. Intensely personal, with a number of references to the author's personal milieu (his classes at Tufts, his students, the physical environment of Boston) and especially to the author's family in both Japan and the United States, the book is also consciously lyrical, with numerous examples of fine writing embroidering the text. I applaud the personal references and the lyricism, and the polemic, but have various problems with the content, which I outline below.

The book is divided into three parts: the first part deals with culture from ancient times to the nineteenth century (pp. 1–101). The second part discusses culture from 1868 to 1970 (pp. 103–74), and the third part treats culture from 1970 to the present (pp. 175–223). Thus, the description of culture for the 130 or so years of the modern era is considerably more detailed than the description of culture for the more than a thousand years of Japanese history that preceded it (a total of 121 pages for the modern era but only 100 pages for the premodern era). This concentration on the modern era stands in stark contrast, for example, to H. Paul Varley's Japanese Culture (University of Hawai'i Press, 4th edition, 2000), long the standard introduction to Japanese culture in English, which devotes two thirds of its content to the premodern era. In addition, Varley begins with prehistoric, [End Page 383] therefore preliterate, Japan whereas Inouye's volume more or less starts with a thirteenth-century literary text.

There are good reasons for this. Varley's study is an attempt at an objective description of Japanese culture, with a broad overview of major cultural art forms, genres, and artists as well as the relevant historical background. However, Inouye's volume is not so much an introduction to Japanese culture as an interpretation and as such it is highly selective. There is nothing wrong with being selective, of course—given the vast array of possible material implied by the notion of culture, it is impossible to be comprehensive—but Inouye's choice of examples for discussion is part of an intricate argument, and the logic of his argument plays a large role in the process of selection. The argument itself, the interpretation of Japan's culture that he is advocating, is summed up in the title Evanescence and Form (An Introduction to Japanese Culture is the subtitle). Evanescence refers to mutability and change whereas form refers to the "effort to give meaning to a constantly changing reality" (p. 205). Inouye sees Japanese culture as a constant interplay between evanescence and form. An overemphasis upon "transcendental form" led to "ideologies of nationalism and imperialism" but "the order of the here-and-now" can be described as postmodern lyricism (p. 216). It is clear that Inouye finds the latter cultural trend (here and now) preferable to the former (transcendental form).

A number of general questions are raised by this schema. I consider these more abstract questions before examining issues arising from the particular cultural phenomena examined in the book. The first is: why is the interplay between the here and now and transcendental form, or between a focus on the moment as opposed to an abstract conceptual frame, a particularly Japanese phenomenon? The cultural history of several human societies could be seen in much the same light (I am thinking here of various Middle Eastern and Asian cultures with a historic cultural focus on nature like that of Japan being transformed by the introduction of Islam into a complex metaphysical framework). Inouye's lyrical conclusion seems to suggest that this pattern of culture is indeed universal but this suggestion contradicts much of the earlier narrative thrust (p. 223).

Another question concerns the significance of culture itself. Inouye's analysis tends to favor cultural causes for complex historical events, finding a...


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