David Pilling, 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.
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.