Japanese Society by Professor Chie Nakane was a ground breaking book when first published in 1972, and has been cited in many books that followed it. It needs updating to take into account the changes in Japan that have happened over the past 40+ years, but its scope and anthropological investigative style means it’s still worth reading today.
I read the Pelican edition, which came out in 1973. I picked it up because I was interested in the perception that the Japanese are different to Westerners, and in how popular Western tropes of Japanese people being hard working, company loyal, and socially rigid in behaviour and levels of language had become so entrenched in Western thinking. I found the book to be full of interesting background to the development of Japanese society and why the Japanese behave the way they do in comparison to other nations, and found the social anthropology particularly interesting.
Professor Nakane applies a Western anthropological approach to her study of Japanese behaviour, instead of the more typical psychological approach taken by other writers. Starting with an exploration of the way in which two individual Japanese people might view each other and moving out and up to the vertical hierarchy that existed within Japanese companies at the time and the effect of company loyalty on wider society, particularly the family unit, she examines the history behind the social structure in Japan to find out why. I was reminded of Nakane’s approach recently, as I’m currently reading Marius B Jansen’s book, The Making of Modern Japan. Jansen provides a more indepth history of the development of social hierarchies in Japan since the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, but so far hasn’t done anything similar to Nakane’s study of why Japanese people behave the way they do socially.
I learnt a lot from Nakane’s book about why Japanese society is so different to Western society in its structure and its interactions between people. My observation, based on what I’ve seen on holidays to Japan and Japanese friends I have who live in the UK, is that Japanese society is changing, slowly – maybe because of the bubble bursting, maybe because there are more tourists visiting, maybe because the Japanese equate modernisation with being more Western, which is why an updated edition would be useful.
In summary: Japanese Society is worth reading for anyone intrigued by Japanese social etiquette.