If you’re interested in learning about Japan beyond manga and anime, I’ve got some resources for you.
This post comes with a disclaimer: despite a long-standing relationship with Japan (including 12 years of language study, 2 years’ residence, and 2 years’ of working in a Japanese office in the U.S.), I’ve never been very interested in anime or manga. There are some I like, but you may as well ask me if I like TV or books. Both are mediums, and creations in either medium will have target demographics in mind during production, different stylistic choices reflective of the creators on board, etc. Just think about how different Howl’s Moving Castle is from Naruto.
But for some people, manga and anime have their own specific charm. Many of the people I’ve met studying Japanese and travelling to work in Japan began that journey with a favorite manga or anime. Several of them shared their thoughts with me on their experience, and the summary of their thoughts comes to this: expectations of a different place and its people rarely meet reality, and the cultural concepts that challenge you most will likely be concepts you never knew to expect.
I never expected that one of my most heated moments in Japan would be debating with a fitting room attendant at Uniqlo about me trying on a bra over my bare skin. Yet there I was, saying, “Do you really mean to tell me that Japanese customers go in there and try the bra on over their shirts? What’s the point?” While my Japanese friend whispered to me, “You can just go in and do it anyway–she’s not going to know.” (After a few iterations I was given a disposable faux-cloth vest which I could use to determine an accurate fit–why the conversation didn’t start there is beyond me.)
All it takes is a look at your own home culture to see how the different layers of gradation shift in the light of time to make different shapes, different unique phenomena. Without further ado, here are some resources if you’re curious about Japan’s shifting contrasts.
The Japanese Have a Word for It by Boyé Lafayette De Mente
Have you seen the new Queer Eye: We’re In Japan!? If not, add it to this list of resources, but there’s a moment in Ep 3, “The Ideal Woman,” where Antoni does not realize how hot the coals at his feet could have gotten in that conversation (timestamp 34:18). Why? Because he was, naturally, approaching the conversation in a very American way: very directly challenging what past factors led to the present situation and questioning the parties involved. It’s a makeover show, and that’s necessary.
The late Boye‘s book has a word (several, in fact) for the cultural hotsocket that got forked in that conversation and it’s preserving face. (Namely, Antoni’s challenge to the mother to review the situation came off, through a Japanese lens, as questioning her value and competency as a mother–just look at her face and how she processes the convo.)
The Japanese Have a Word for It might be old (1997) and lack some important updates (loads more international peeps and greater presence of English loanwords, for starters), but it’s a reliable compass to anyone who wants to know more about Japanese cultural axioms.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
This is one of my all-time favorite books, though it has some really hard moments. Bullying, for starters, child (self-)prostitution, attempted sexual assault; and regular, thematic, deliberate discussion of suicide. I love that it’s an I-novel, though, which is a novel that fictionalizes the author into a story. The author is Ruth Ozeki, a “novelist, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest,” who has dual nationality with Canada and the U.S.
A Tale for the Time Being is, in my words, actually two stories that sound and crescendo together: the first tale is about Ruth, who finds the journal of a teenage Japanese girl among the debris from the 2011 tsunami washed up on the shore near her home. Ruth reads and translates the diary (written at different points in English, Japanese, or French), worrying over what she might learn of the girl’s fate while also confronting her own struggles on marriage, faith, and the pain and challenges of having an aging mother who is very different from yourself.
The other tale is about Nao, the girl writing the diary who says very early on she wants to kill herself, but who takes the time to explain how she lived in the U.S., gets bullied upon return to Japan, loves her Buddhist nun grandmother, discovers a historic family war relic, and becomes a bully herself at one point.
It is fiction, but this book goes deep into some very Japanese concepts while also highlighting aspects of life for those with Japanese-heritage living outside of Japan.
The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
I had a very hard time reading this. A high school history teacher learned I was teaching myself Japanese (11 years ago!) and said I needed to read this book. Having since seen a lot of people exoticize Japan and put it up on a pedestal, I’m so grateful my teacher recommended this book to me and nipped any possibility of that in the bud.
As an American, the side of WWII I learned was obviously more focused on what happened once the US was involved: the American bomb raids and resulting starvation experienced by Japanese civilians, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the American occupation after. The Nanjing massacre happened before all that, winter 1937-1938.
This is a nonfiction historical book by a Chinese-American descendant of one of the massacre’s survivors. The book goes in great detail to contextualize, narrate, and prove the massacre (or, more appropriately, genocide) committed by the Japanese army in China’s historical capitol. When you read the news and hear about tensions between Japan and China, this book can put things into perspective for you especially if you pay attention to the part where Japanese curricula wouldn’t teach this point of their history and at certain times outright denied it happened. For comparison to what you know about the Holocaust, in Nanjing most of the estimated 300,000+ casualties (civilians) were killed over the span of a few days, though the event itself spanned weeks.
Serious content warnings for everything you can think of that might happen in war, especially sexual assault and mutilation, including very graphic images and descriptions of war atrocities. The wikipedia page about the event itself, too, is very explicit on these fronts.
I know, not a happy resource to end on. Just remember why you started reading this– the beauty of Studio Ghibli animations with their anti-war bent, the tongue-in-cheek humor of Ouran High School Host Club, and the feminism-doesn’t-have-to-exclude-femininity glitter in Sailor Moon. But this list is here when you’re ready for those more serious topics, too.
About this Column: With occasional parentheticals a la Robin McKinley, If This, Then That connects the dots between niche interests for LSQ readers and the books that suit them.