Friday 31 October 2014

Bending Adversity

David Pilling, 2014
(October 2014)

Some fifteen years after John Dower’s near-mandatory Embracing Defeat, David Pilling brings us Bending Adversity, the next installment of the Manipulating Negativity series on The State of Japan. I’m happy to announce that I’m slated to write the final volume of the trilogy some time in 2029, to be titled Pity-Fucking Decrepitude.

Unfair flippancy aside, this is clearly intended as something of a sequel to Dower’s meisterwerk, as after some relatively brief historical scene-setting it picks up fairly neatly where ED left off to focus on Japan since the bubble burst and into the 21st Century. As before, I tend to come at books about subjects I (like to think I) know a fair bit about in a slightly antagonistic frame of mind, looking for holes in both their arguments and mine (though mainly theirs, if I’m being honest), but there’s really not a whole lot here to disagree with. There’s perhaps a bit too much about the economy at the expense of exploring social issues – less than a year after publication the ongoing disappointment that is Abenomics makes some of the later arguments seem, at best, uncharacteristically naïve – but given Pilling’s day job as an economics journalist that’s to be expected. Likewise, the treatment of Japan’s relations with the rest of Asia (i.e. a rising China) feels a bit slight; given the obvious depth of the author’s contact book you can’t help but think of how much more comprehensively this might have been explored. Still, you can’t please everyone, and this book does many things well. It’s very readable for one; even the fairly recondite sections about historical Nikkei indexes and the like are, if not particularly clear or interesting to the likes of me, then not actively painful to read, which is no small feat in the circumstances.

The journalistic tendencies of the author also come through in the now prevalent (but no less irritating because of it) insistence of giving ‘both sides of the story’ even when there’s clearly more merit in one than the other. That said, there’s also a pleasingly British line in exasperated understatement running through all this that usually makes it very clear on which side his bread is buttered. He is reassuringly sceptical about Japan’s ‘unique uniqueness’ bullshit throughout, and manages to tease out some startlingly revelatory opinions from some fairly unlikely sources, such as this from Fujiwara Masahiko, academic and author of Dignity of The Nation (the title of which should tell you all you need to know about his ideological leanings), taking an unexpectedly candid line on the tired nationalistic arguments against the need for better English education and the stereotypical image of the ‘inscrutable Oriental’:

Besides, he said dismissively, failure to communicate preserved the image among foreigners that the Japanese were thinking deep thoughts. Only when Japanese broke the language barrier did they reveal to the outside world that they had nothing to say.

The book is framed by the triple disaster of March 11th 2011, and some of the research and writing here is astonishing. The first chapter stands as one of the most harrowingly powerful descriptions of devastation and tragedy I’ve ever read, and I say this as someone who’s had the rare privilege of co-translating hibakusha testimony. It’s no coincidence that one of the first associations I made watching the tsunami aftermath on TV three and a half years ago was with the diorama depicting the post-bombing landscape in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Nothing in the rest of the book comes close to reaching the impact of the opening chapter, but given nature of what inspired it that’s probably no bad thing. While I didn’t exactly learn anything new from Bending Adversity, I’ve lived here for coming up on half my adult life, and on the whole it does an excellent job of framing the issues which confront contemporary Japan (by which of course I mean it largely reinforces my pre-existing beliefs). It’s not quite in the same category of must-read necessity as Embracing Defeat, but it’s not far off it either, and is something I would definitely consider pressing on my less worldly relatives the next time they see fit to subject me to their misconceptions of the country and its people.


  1. That quote is gold. I almost feel like it should be followed by 'my hobby is sleeping.'

  2. I have neither read this nor 'Embracing Defeat', but have thought to read 'Embracing...', but I wonder is it going to tell me anything about the place I do not yet know.

    After long ago falling in love with Kurosawa's and Itami's movies, Japan's food, and its women's comeliness to be honest, studying the language for two university years, a smattering of Japanese history and relevant EA Studies courses, coming on JET, living the 'Charisma Man' life, but wondering why my second-year culture shock was so bad, 'The Enigma of Japanese Power' was something between a depth-charge to my Orientalism and a moment of 'satori' I never gained getting my ass kicked in a dojo or drinking tea. It's hard to beat a readership moment like that, so it's hard to get motivated to read anything more book length about the place. I don't think I've read much since 'Speed Tribes' and 'Pink Samurai'. Perhaps these books are the present JETs' awakenings.

    1. I quite enjoyed Tokyo Vice, though that's probably more in the 'In Cold Blood' tradition of blurring the lines between reportage and storytelling. Speed Tribes keeps floating around the edges of my awareness, but every time I consider it I wonder about he worth of reading something about 'contemporary' culture that's already so dated. I'd definitely agree that the more you know about the place, the less books aimed at a more general readership appeal.

  3. Embracing Defeat is one of the two or three books I first recommend to people who want to read about Japan. I think it's amazing. This one sounds like a good companion read to both this and the Richard Samuels book I wrote about a year or so ago. (3.11: Japan in the Aftermath of the Tsunami or something like that)

    Now that I'm away from Japan more often than not, I'm less in touch with the slow moving train wreck that is my second home. However, after a political discussion with my rural in-laws the other night, despair set in once again.

    Also, this comment is way past the expiration date. I should be keeping pace with blogs better than I am.

    1. I sympathise with the keeping pace thing (he says while replying to comments a month old). Bix's Hirohito book is another that I've recommended and been recommended pretty frequently. Seems like with that and ED you've got at least a decent foundation to build on.

      Hang in there with the in-laws. Shitty luck that an election gets called just as you visit, eh?

    2. I have the Bix book, but haven't read it. I also plug In the Realm of the Dying Emperor and Saving the Sun frequently. (I have a Japan poly sci MA, so there are many volumes next to my computer to choose from....)

      Holy crap, my wife and her brother got into it about immigration, not so ironically enough at a Chinese restaurant run by actual Chinese people. It was at once hilarious and nauseating.

      Also, Speed Tribes is ok. Thoroughly sensationalist, by someone who should know better, but entertaining. I have mixed feelings about Karl Taro Greenfield, or whatever the author's name is, having read more of his work elsewhere.

    3. One of these days I'll get round to The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, just for shits and giggles. Not just no though, have to leave myself something to look forward to.

      Hope the food was better than the conversation, at least. It's mainly my older in-laws with the more 'traditional' views, which you can at least rationalise away. Always slightly alarming when anyone under the age about about 45 starts spouting that kind of rubbish though.

      (BTW, comments on older posts get auto-moderated, as a couple of them are absolute spam magnets for some reason. I'll let through both your replies here if you like, but I'm assuming you're fine with one ;)