During the second half of the 20th century, much of the West’s idea of Japan was based on the anthropologist Ruth Benedict’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, first published in 1946. Researched from a distance through articles and interviews with Japanese living in the United States, it was written to help Americans navigate and understand the country they ended up occupying for seven years following the Second World War. Although the book was roundly criticised for its research methods and some of its conclusions, it is still widely read by visitors of every type to Japan and is credited by some in Japan for inspiring a genre of home-grown writing known as Nihonjinron – theories on Japanese identity. In 2020, we might have seen modern Japanese identity on full display during the Tokyo Olympics, now postponed until this summer (with any luck). As we wait to see how Japan will present itself on the world stage, three new books by foreigners reveal very different aspects of the country’s identity in refreshing and surprising ways.
Among my many treasured souvenirs from eight years spent living in Japan is a tiny 19th-century pouch of faded indigo cotton containing a tortoiseshell hairpin and a lacquer comb inlaid with abalone – a find at a provincial flea market. As I read Amy Stanley’s Stranger in the Shogun’s City,