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Review: Chie Nakane, Japanese Society

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Sociology in general doesn't really get the bad rap it deserves for trying to weasel its way into a space between history and poli-sci, and puffing itself up and blinding the reader with statistical pixie-dust. Once in awhile, however, its adherents come up with something quite worthwhile, usually by staying true to the anthropolgy roots of the "discipline". Chie Nakane's book is one of those things.

Japanese Society is a 151-page study of the structures of Japanese social organization, of group formation. After a little discussion of method and terminology, unusually helpful for such, Nakane continues to discuss the veetical and group orientations of Japanese social behavior. His assertion, which he explicates throughout the book, is that Japanese primarily orient themselves to the "frame" in which they exist, rather than to an "attribute" which one has or is. The intersection of these is a major part of one's identity, but they should not be taken as two halves of a dichotomy; Nakane simply points out that Japanese society is more sensitive to the former, the "frame". As a consequence, one identifies oneself with a group structure and finds a place within its hierarchy, striving to move within that group.

A number of points which had seemed merely arbitrary to me in reading other background sources on Japanese society and etiquette became much more clear in light of Nakane's exposition. I found that certain either a.) unstated, or b.) unexplored aspects of behavior had a much greater force of logic within the overarching structure Nakane sketches. (Some semi-coherent ranting was related to this.) Re-reading a number of sources should be more profitable since I have a conceptual framework to study them with. Now, I confess that Japanese Society is over 30 years old, and academe has aged a lot in the intervening span. The theories, such as frame/attribute, may no longer be in vogue, and the whole work could probably be deconstructed while waiting for stylish cocktails these days, but I found it helpful in making sense of my data about the Japan of this world, limited though it may be. I suspect my awareness of some of these issues would keep me from a number of false starts in a leadership / theological training setting, just by having read this study.

Nakane's Japanese Society is probably helpful reading for missionaries and history students seeking tools to grapple with the problems of comprehending Japanese society from a 'Western' point of view. Probably dated in its specific referents, and must be supplemented by other materials. Worth reading for anyone interested in Japan.

Chie Nakane, Japanese Society. University of California, 1972. ISBN 0-520-02154-1

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