Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Book Review: The Japanese Have a Word for It by Boye Lafayette De Mente

This is one of the books that I borrowed from the TUFS library. It's subtitled "The Complete Guide to Japanese Thought and Culture" and I thought, hey, if I can build up my vocab and learn something about Japanese culture, then I should borrow this book.
The book is structured into 230 short chapters (each chapter is one or two pages long). Each chapter will introduce a Japanese word, it's pronunciation, a 'chapter title' and then explain one aspect of Japanese culture. But, the book does focus quite a lot on understanding Japanese business culture rather than Japanese culture (as a whole).

Well, the good thing about the book was that it was easy to read and quite interesting. There are a lot of history references (although there's no footnote or bibliography) and the author's personal experience is used as an example many times (you can decide if that's a good or bad thing). While there were a few things I disagreed with (some relating to Christian theology, and some contradicting my own experience), I thought it was a pretty informative book on the whole.

Be warned though, the 'chapter titles' are not translations of the Japanese words. They are his interpretation of this aspect of Japanese culture. To be fair, he does define the word within the mini-essay, but on first glance, you might think that the quoted words in bold below the Japanese words are translations.

I'm well aware that right now, my experience is atypical, because all the students at TUFS are learning a foreign language and therefore are more open to other cultures. I've heard from some seniors about comments like "why isn't your Japanese better" and "there's no need to know English in Japan" which is really different from what I'm used to. So while I've never encountered most of the stuff he talks about, it could be a lack of experience on my part rather than him being inaccurate. But to me, everyone is going to experience a different Japan, because of the difference in time and place.
Organisation wise... there isn't much of it. There are a few recurring themes in the book, but they're scattered here and there and there aren't clear sections about say "business culture", "attitudes towards foreigners" and the like. I would have really appreciated something like that though. There is a "guide to key cultural terms" at the very front of the book, but using it (say you wanna explore Japanese communication) means that you'd have to keep flipping the pages instead of reading one section.

In short, an interesting book, although I don't think anything can replace the experience of being in Japan. It also seems to portray a fairly negative view of the Japanese at times (especially when it comes to their penchant for group work and consensus-based decision making).

Watch out for my next post! It's about an app from Babylon that I'm going to try installing into this blog :D