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The Emperor's New Clothes : CHRYSANTHEMUMS AND THORNS: The Untold Story of Modern Japan, By Edwin M. Reingold (St. Martin's Press: $24.95; 298 pp.)

December 13, 1992|John C. Elder | Elder's most recent book is "Following the Brush: An American Encounter with Classical Japanese Culture" (Farrar, Straus, Giroux) . He is also the author of "Imagining the Earth: Poetry and the Vision of Nature" and co-editor of "The Norton Book of Nature Writing."

The prologue to Edwin Reingold's "Chrysanthemums and Thorns" relates the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989 and describes the lavish funeral attended by heads of state from around the world. His book's epilogue focuses on the enthronement of Hirohito's son Akihito. Reingold's decision to frame his study with this pair of pivotal events reflects his assessment of Japan as a nation undergoing a dramatic transition, one that is both enormously challenging and, to the outside world and the Japanese alike, fascinating.

Hirohito, in whom Reingold shows a special interest throughout the book and to whom he devotes the second of his 12 chapters, functions as a gauge for the enormous upheavals of modern Japan. The scholarly emperor led a rather reclusive life during much of his 63-year reign, preferring his research in marine biology to the public stage. Nevertheless, he symbolized the state and the people, first during decades of militaristic expansion, then through the disasters of total warfare and defeat, and finally into the current period of Japanese dominance in the global economy. Even in death, the emperor served as a mirror for the nation. Reingold quotes a Japanese businessman, watching the televised procession of dignitaries at Hirohito's funeral, as saying, "People finally noticed how important we are. They can see the world coming to pay homage."

No nation has experienced more dramatic reversals of fortune than Japan did during the reign of Hirohito. The sheer pace of economic growth has been relentlessly stressful as well as gratifying. Reingold evokes "the sight of weary Japanese men and women on their way to work on the monumentally overcrowded public-transportation system." He shows the commuters buying little brown bottles of tonic at the station, hoping to recover enough vigor to carry them through another long day at the office and another night of compulsory drinking and socializing with their colleagues. From such daily stresses comes the increasingly publicized phenomenon of karoshi, "death by overwork."

Since 1969, Edwin Reingold has covered Japan for Time, including two assignments there as bureau chief. I found his book particularly rewarding for the many telling tidbits culled during his two decades as a student of Japanese political and economic affairs. He has an eye for occurrences that, while not "historical" in the sense of a state funeral, reveal much about the daily texture of life.

Reingold describes one crucial election for the Diet in which the phrase "five you win and three you lose" became prominent. It turned around "the common saying used by students preparing for examinations: If you study most of the night and get only three hours of sleep, you will pass, but if you waste your time by sleeping five hours every night, you will surely fail. In the political context it meant that 500,000,000 (yen) will win a seat but 300,000,000 (yen) won't." This sort of connection between supporting a candidate and preparing for an examination captures the extraordinary effort a visitor to Japan feels being expended in so many aspects of that country's public and private life. It sums up a culture in which the term usually given as the equivalent of our "Good luck!"-- Ganbatte!-- would actually be translated more literally as "Try harder!"

Reingold also is alert to the many little signs of continuity within the upheavals of Japanese society. He points, for instance, to the similarity between the zaibatsu, or industrial cartels, banned during the American occupation, and the modern associations of companies called keiretsu. In both cases, "Loyalty within the industrial groupings is familial and strong. It is still customary for a Mitsubishi employee, for example, to drink only Kirin beer or use a Nikon camera, those products being made by sister companies."

There is a literary context for this book as well as a political and economic one. In a chapter entitled "Through Foreign Eyes," Reingold cites two of the most prominent figures in the substantial body of literature produced about Japanese culture by visitors from abroad. Lafcadio Hearn, writing around the turn of the century, was a lover of "the old Japan" who dreaded the spiritual impoverishment that would come with modernization and Westernization. This is a note sounded by many subsequent writers who have found in Japan a collision between traditional values and rapid social change. Ruth Benedict's "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," published in 1946, pointed to a central tension even within traditional Japanese culture--between a highly refined and spiritualized aesthetic and the simultaneous glorification of military prowess. This observation, too, has often been elaborated by Westerners struck by Japan's "culture of extremes."

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