A vale of abstruse ritual, a demonized enemy in the last world war, a ferocious competitor in the new global market - in Western minds Japan has been less a traditional sociopolitical state than a monolith of alien culture working in implacable counterpoint to the West. Two impressive new reference works help ``deconstruct'' the mythical status of unified Japan.

THE CAMBRIDGE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF JAPAN, edited by Richard Bowring and Peter Kornicki (Cambridge University Press, 400 pp., $49.95) is organized into broad conceptual essays, beginning with geography and traversing history, culture, and modern political structures. One recognizes, mulling over this highly readable volume, that ``the Japanese mind'' has been more diverse than either external stereotypes or internal traditions have indicated.

Given its relative brevity and the wide ground it covers, an inevitable superficiality creeps into the Cambridge Encyclopedia's treatment of certain topics: To cite only one example, the section on medieval literature says nothing of the renowned women court poets of the Heian period.

Nonetheless, its lavish illustrations are some compensation for its occasional authorial lapses. Besides the scores of photographs, the informational graphics are exceptional: A full-page chart represents the tonnage of Allied bombs dropped on the archipelago during World War II; a diagram displays legislative election results from 1958 to 1986; and maps and graphs abound.

KODANSHA'S JAPAN: AN ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIA, (Kodansha, two volumes, 1,924 pp. total, $200) is more technical and masterly in its approach than the Cambridge Encyclopedia: This two-volume set (which updates and abridges Kondasha's classic nine-volume reference work) is composed largely of thousands of entries rarely longer than a paragraph, with scattered short essays punctuating the text. As such, it is more an enormous conceptual glossary than a traditional encyclopedia. It is, however, dazzling in its range and specificity: readers will here encounter such esoterica as ohaguro, the medieval cosmetic practice of tooth blackening, as well as listings of major contemporary film stars.

With its special emphasis on recent events and personalities, this work portrays Japan less as a fortress of convention than as an innovative member of the postindustrial world.

Precisely because of its attention to detail, the Kondasha set may prove daunting to the general readers it intends to reach. Although its informative illustrations are even better than those in the Cambridge volume, they are difficult to locate among the welter of entries, and many of the reproductions are simply too small. Nevertheless, with its comprehensive index and excellent bibliography, this will surely become an indispensable tool to students and researchers, as well as a necessary addition to serious reference collections.

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