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A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture

A Japanese Mirror, published in 1984, is Ian Buruma's dissection of the myths that imbue the darker segments of Japan's culture. He doesn't hold back; his cuts are sharp and deep. The "mirror" here can represent a number of things: a reflection of the nation's history on its present, its heroes and villains on society, or art on life and vice versa, and the way society wants to see itself and also, conversely, how it doesn't want to see itself (the wandering hero, for example—like Tora-san, charming and beloved by audiences as an anachronism incompatible with modern-day Japan and its norms, and rejecting inclusion in this society anyway).

On the mirror concept, Buruma writes:

The morbid and sometimes grotesque taste that runs through Japanese culture—and has done for centuries—is a direct result of being made to conform to such a strict and limiting code of normality. The theatrical imagination, the world of the bizarre is a parallel, or rather the flip-side of reality, as fleeting and intangible as a reflection in the mirror.

Buruma covers so much in the book in terms of films, literature, historical figures, actors, archetypes, social roles and so forth, that it's as illuminating a read as it is useful as a reference. It left plenty of impressions on me and influenced how I view aspects of the culture. And these impressions were not all positive. Buruma has such a masterful way with words, and so broad an understanding of Japan, it's often hard not to agree with him.

Although the book came out in the early 1980s, a lot of it still feels relevant to Japan today, though I'd argue that many of the more extreme cultural elements that Buruma brings to the fore have been whittled down over the past decades since the freewheeling days of the economic boom and also due to Japan being further pried out of its isolation by globalization. All in all, an excellent book that's rich with ideas and acute observation.


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