The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths

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9780436201721: The Idea of Japan: Western Images, Western Myths

A hundred and fifty years ago Japan was a country so remote from the West that it might have existed on another planet. Today its influence touches all of us, yet in the West we know almost as little about it as we did in the days when Henry Adams, visiting Japan, called it “a toy-world.” Ian Littlewood's Idea of Japan offers a framework for making sense of a culture that puzzles us. His book is about the Japan we encounter when we turn on the television, open a newspaper, or flip through a magazine―the Japan that has been created by the West. “What emerges as we move through a mythical world of subhumans and superhumans, of temples and cherry blossoms, of exotic women and strange fanatical men,” Mr. Littlewood writes, “is a striking picture of how closely our current images of the Japanese are tied to the clichés of the past.” Drawing from a wide range of sources―from the accounts of Jesuit missionaries to the japonisme of the nineteenth century and the images of contemporary Hollywood―he shows why we have too long seen Japan only as a projection of our own fears, dreams, and desires. The Idea of Japan is also a provocative insight into the processes by which we understand, or fail to understand, another culture.

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About the Author:

Ian Littlewood, who teaches English at Sussex University, has also written literary companions to Paris and Venice, and a study of the writings of Evelyn Waugh.

From Kirkus Reviews:

An Englishman's intermittently intriguing audit of Western attitudes toward Japan and the Japanese, from the first contacts in the 16th century to the present day. Drawing on his own experiences and on anecdotal evidence culled from the popular as well as fine arts, Littlewood (English/Sussex Univ., England) offers a well-ordered if deadly earnest survey that raises as many questions as it answers. Citing works by a pride of literary lions (Pearl Buck, James Clavell, Ian Fleming, Lafcadio Hearn, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Koestler, Pierre Loti, Eric Lustbader, James A. Michener, Robert Stone, et al.), he documents how the Western world's impressions of Japan have been by turns patronizing and ethnically prejudiced. From the Meiji Restoration through the turn of the 20th century, the author notes, European and North American writers depicted the island nation as a timeless aesthetic wonderland whose doll-like people had a revered emperor, decidedly quaint customs, and a shockingly permissive approach to sexual matters. When Japan bested Russia in a real war, Littlewood observes, the Occident's perceptions of the country's capabilities changed, albeit grudgingly. With the advent of WW II the views of the Allies declined to forthright racism, and today, the author says, Japan has come full circle, being viewed as an economic Yellow Peril. He concludes that there's no telling how long the current version of Japan--as a threatening, regimented nation of suited samurai--may endure in the West. Littlewood makes a good job of recording the cultural stereotypes that have probably precluded closer (or less adversarial) relations. What he fails to do, however, is to probe Japan's consensus- oriented, demonstrably homogeneous, and arguably xenophobic society to determine what residual validity the clich‚s might have. The result is a survey with no more depth or breadth than a reflecting pool. -- Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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