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Review: Morris Berman's New Book on Japan, "Neurotic Beauty"

04/27/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2015

Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks At Japan is a fine addition to a long list of books that attempt to explain Japan, what one observer has called the "most foreign of foreign countries." Berman succeeds in his explanation mostly by avoiding the polarized industry of such explainers. To put Neurotic Beauty in context, let me explain.

The Explainer Industry

Almost all books "about Japan" (I'm leaving out the 600 page volumes on the geisha or the photo essays on whatever new trend is coming out of Harajuku) fall into one of two categories.

The predominant narrative declares Japan a near-perfect place, an epicenter of pure Zen that has whatever the author thinks his home country lacks. The minority opinion is that Japan has come over the hill and because of its poor treatment of women workers, warlike past or economic hollowness or whatever, is doomed to be a footnote when the history of modern civilization is written. Perhaps some sort of Switzerland with much better food.

Berman asks: Why can't both be true? Why can't Japan be a place with a once beautiful, encompassing culture of craftsmanship, that lost its way in the modern world and, if it can find again what it really is about at its core, become the first post-capitalist country?

A Cultural History of Japan, with an Angle

The book's argument begins with a look at what Berman sees as Japan's cultural soul, craftsmanship. He details the relationship early potters, sword makers and others had with their work, a desire to do more than simply make something -- a desire to create themselves as human beings through a quest for perfection in their work.

Inklings of this tradition still exist in modern Japan, as anyone who has seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi can attest to. The sushi master requires his apprentices to practice for years before they can prepare food for customers, and the very few who stay on through the process get great joy from the process, more so than the results.

Japan Went Insane

As the Tokugawa (for simplicity's sake, the samurai) era was coming to a close, Japan went insane, and abandoned all that, according to Berman. Fearful of being turned into a colony of the west, as was happening in China, the Japanese embarked on the Meiji Restoration. Science and engineering became the sole point of education, aimed in large part at building up a powerful military. Those forces, in imitation of the colonial west, would be turned on Japan's Asian neighbors. Japan made itself almost literally overnight into as rapacious an imperialist nation as it possibly could.

And at that point, Berman draws a straight line through Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading right to the surrender that ended WWII. But instead of finding its way back to something of itself, Japan simply dropped capitalism in its imperial guise and picked it up in its hyper-consumerism guise. The so-called economic miracle of the 1960's put appliances into homes and money into the hands of a booming middle class, but did nothing to fill the soul. The lost decades, and the current spiritual malaise in Japan as exemplified by the hikikomori and otaku cultures, were as inevitable as the spring rains which tear the cherry blossoms from the trees.

A Post-Capitalist Society

If you are at this point seeing some parallels to modern America, that is clearly intentional on Berman's part (one of his earlier works is titled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire). Japan has been trying to "fill the hole" in its spiritual center for nearly a thousand years, first with Chinese learning (including Chinese Buddhism), then with a martial culture, then with imperialism, and, most lately, with consumerism. None stick; they are all too unfulfilling and incomplete.

The key difference between Japan and the U.S., however, is that because it has a legitimate soul to potentially return to (from the day the first Native American was murdered, America has been all about appetite), Japan holds on to a chance that it may become the first post-capitalist society, one where living becomes more important than owning. This is a theme which will be not unfamiliar to readers of Berman's last book, Spinning Straw Into Gold: Straight Talk for Troubled Times. In Japan, there is something to fall back on.

It is a tall order, and Berman remains unsure what path Japan will take. Should it make the correct choice, however, the trope "only in Japan" could come to represent something more than Hello Kitty junk, bullet trains and cosplay.

Agree or disagree, Neurotic Beauty is a compelling, scholarly, narrative well-worth the time of readers seeking a better understanding of Japan.