Unstereotyped Japan

HAVE you ever seen a lazy Japanese? It's one epithet that seems to be missing from the vocabulary of Japan's critics. But if you see these tight little islanders as individuals, you might come across a laggard or two.

Jonathan Rauch took the time to meet people when he explored Japan for six months in 1988 on a fellowship from the Japan Society of New York. No, he doesn't seem to have met a lazy Japanese. But whomever he got to know - young or old, man or woman - came alive to him as an individual.

That is the great value of Rauch's book "The Outnation: A Search for the Soul of Japan." He refuses to indulge in stereotypes. The Japanese are different from Americans, he finds, "but not especially different. And if you say that Japan is unique and always harp on how utterly unlike America it is, I will want to fight the point: not because you may be misunderstanding Japan, but because you will be failing to look our own country in the eye."

Rauch's book takes the form of a highly personal essay. Parts read like a poem. On the Japanese roof, for instance: "Viewed from above, the gray roofs of temples and houses make towns look like dense colonies of armored sea creatures." He notes how much more important roofs seem to be than walls, and muses, "In a communitarian society, perhaps once shelter is provided for, walls are less important."

He met two of his closest Japanese friends by accident at a yakitori (roast fowl) restaurant in downtown Tokyo. They were machine-tool salesmen working for a small trading company, and by the time the meal was over he knew all about their homes and families, helped rather than hindered by his rudimentary Japanese and their assorted phrase-book English.

"Had I met a couple of machine-tool salesmen at a coffee-shop counter in America," he says, "we would have had nothing to say to each other; we would have exchanged pleasantries and turned away. These two Japanese men and I were not handicapped by any comprehension of accents or class attachments. That we had nothing to say was not a problem, because anything we managed to say was more than good enough."

Because Rauch was willing to meet the Japanese on their own terms, he didn't find them at all inscrutable. And they opened up to him "often with a frankness that takes you aback.... Foreigners are, indeed, at a peculiar advantage in that respect.... We are outside the ring of gossipers and colleagues and relatives, and so we may have confessions blurted out to us, sometimes embarrassingly."

His comments on conflict avoidance in a consensus-minded society are perceptive and lead to the question: Why has Japan produced only five Nobel laureates in the sciences? Rauch rejects the usual interpretation that the Japanese lack creativity. It is rather, he finds, that conflict avoidance stifles the process of criticism and countercriticism that leads to the establishment of a new truth or the rejection of an old one.

Rauch is an acute critic of aspects of the Japanese experience, but his book is not a neat little package of conclusions tied up in ribbons. Neither does he shirk his responsibility as a critic: His comments can be quite pointed. You will probably find yourself agreeing with some of his findings, and disagreeing with others. Read "The Outnation" for sheer enjoyment, though, and you will not be disappointed.

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