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BOOK REVIEW | 'The People and Culture of Japan' by Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro

"The People and Culture of Japan" reveals how much of Japan's past persists in the present, from fireworks and kabuki to the centrality of Tokyo.



"The People and Culture of Japan" (2016, Japan Library) by Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro

Do many people today, including the Japanese, have any respect for Japan's history and culture? I was asking myself this question while reading The People and Culture of Japan (2016). This book is the result of conversations (originally in Japanese, later translated into English) between literature scholar Donald Keene (1922-2019) and novelist and historian Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996).

The answer, for myself at least, is that I do not know enough about Japan, my own country. I must learn more in order to grow in respect for the culture into which I was born. I believe that the conversations between Shiba and Keene help Japanese people take pride in their country.

Reimagining the Past to Improve the Future

By reading The People and Culture of Japan, I learned more, for example, about what the Edo period was like. I learned about the things that interested Japanese people long ago and what kind of dreams they had for the future.

I learned about the more recent past, too — the wars and tragic events of our time, and the time of our parents and grandparents. If we are ready to listen to the lessons learned from those times of hardship, we can imagine a better future.

Crucially, Shiba and Keene's book is not only for, or about, Japanese people. Everyone can benefit from reading this work.

For example, one of the most interesting parts of The People and Culture of Japan was about something introduced from overseas: guns. This technology and how it was adopted in Japan give profound insights into Japanese culture.

Novelist and historian Ryotaro Shiba in 1960. (© Sankei)
Donald Keene was a world-famous scholar and translator of Japanese literature.

A Unique Blending of 'Hard' and 'Soft' Power

Guns were imported and the technology to produce them was available during the Edo period. However, the Tokugawa shogunate restricted their production and only authorized a few feudal lords to do so. Whereas firearms in the West have often limited state power, in Japan the central government has long been relatively successful in regulating their production, ownership, and use.

Another interesting insight concerns the social positioning of firearms.

Harvard scholar Joseph Nye famously contrasted "hard power" with "soft power." He argued that both cultural (soft) and military (hard) modes of coercion are available to central governments.

The example of guns in Japan complicates this Western-based dichotomy. Of course, guns in Japan could be "hard power," useful for maintaining central control.


But guns during the Edo period were also gaudily decorated. Japan incorporated guns into culture through decoration, and also through innovative methods of manufacture. This made guns a kind of "soft power" in Edo Japan.

The Japanese people kept much of that "soft power" in the hands of warriors and artisans. It was a form of shared soft power.

The Wisdom of Selective Engagement

Looking at Edo Japan in this way — thanks to the inspiration of Shiba and Keene's book — helps me to see other parts of Japan's history with fresh perspectives.

One big point of contention in Japanese history is "sakoku," or the policy of so-called "isolationism" during part of the Edo period. There is an exchange of views on isolationism in The People and Culture of Japan.

I feel that isolationism was a good thing, at least in terms of cultural prosperity. The Tokugawa shogunate kept the peace in Japan for more than 200 years and was never overthrown. The Tokugawa regime avoided collapse for more than two centuries. Because there was peace in the Edo period, ideas could develop in-depth, albeit with some restrictions. As a result, culture flourished and took root.

Excluding many foreign influences to some extent helped this culture remain distinctly Japanese. This unique culture, in turn, may have helped the Japanese people and authorities find a workable arrangement about firearms.

There was preferential trade with the Netherlands at the time, although only certain clans in Japan were able to interact with the Dutch and other foreigners. Christianity was delimited and then banned. But I reflect now that having a space for Japanese culture apart from religion has helped preserve Japanese culture in a special way. In other words, "isolationism" contributed also to fostering a certain Japaneseness in the Edo period.

I think that maybe we should call "isolationism" something different, like "selective engagement." This would help convey the idea that the "sakoku" policies were meant to help Japan and Japanese culture.

Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu

Big Social Changes, Long-Term Cultural Continuity

Japan during the Edo Period was not extraordinarily wealthy. There was economic distress, even famine. The economy shifted from rice-based to silver-based transactions. Much was in flux, and many were poor.

However, the economic ideal during the Edo Period was largely egalitarian. During the Meiji era and then the period of world wars, Japan was considerably influenced by the West, and by the United States in particular after World War II. It is not often mentioned today, but as soon as selective engagement ceased, Japan became more capitalist. The old "Gemeinschaft" ideal of communal cooperation and mutual regard gave way to a "Gesellschaft" approach — individuals without strong community bonds.

However, as The People and Culture of Japan helps us see, much of the Japanese past remains in the present. Tatami mats, fireworks, kabuki, and the centrality of Tokyo (despite the name change from Edo), which of course is still the capital of Japan — all of these have been with us since the Edo period.


It is probably correct to say that the thinking and culture of the Edo period form the basis of Japanese people's lives and ideas today.

Japanese Culture and People Continue to Welcome the World

"Selective engagement" continues. Japan remains open to foreign cultures, on Japanese cultural terms.

Take Japandi for example, a style of home design that fuses Scandinavian and Japanese culture. It is a combination of Scandinavian design styles with ideas from the Edo period and earlier, such as Japanese wabi-sabi.

From this example, I think it can be said that a characteristic of Japanese culture is its ability to communicate with various cultures (even without the mediation of grand narratives such as globalization).

I learned from The People and Culture of Japan that it was the Edo period that laid the foundations for these kinds of ongoing cultural encounters.

Omagari Fireworks Festival on April 29. (© Kyodo )

The Dynamism of Japan

The People and Culture of Japan has helped me, as a Japanese person, to understand and express Japan better. I believe people of all nationalities will similarly benefit from reading this book.

Regardless of isolation, many composite identities exist in Japan, and each has developed in its own way. Japan's history of adopting foreign knowledge in its own way contains much promise. Each of us, Japanese or not, can become aware of our identity and then strive to pursue our own unique form of happiness.

People from other countries may be able to find one of the many Japanese identities that is comfortable for them.

In The People and Culture of Japan, Shiba and Keene discuss what the Japanese should do to become a member of the global community. It seems to me, however, that Japan is already taking on a more dynamic shape and connecting in many different directions. Our globalization in Japan is well underway, and "selective engagement" continues to work rather well.

I have great hope that Japan and other countries will be able to recognize our mutual diversity and build an era of peace together. I am also hopeful that this will lead to a creative era in which new ties will be created by the addition of cultures.

As an example of this, I point readers to The People and Culture of Japan, a conversation between two people of different backgrounds who came together through Japanese culture.


About the Book:

Title: The People and Culture of Japan

Subtitle: Conversations Between Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro

Authors: Donald Keene and Shiba Ryotaro

Translated by: Tony Gonzalez

Publisher: Japan Library / Japan Publishing Industry Foundation for Culture
(The publisher for the 2013 Japanese version was Shinchosha)

ISBN: 978-4916055576 (Hardcover)

To purchase: Available in hardcover ¥3000 JPY and softcover ¥2,400 (publisher's price). An e-book version is also available.

For more about the book: Check the publisher's website.


Reviewed by: Yu Kitamura

Yu Kitamura is a student at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan


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