For my own recollection and in case it might be interesting to
you, I thought I'd include a list of the books I read about Japan
before and during my trip.
1. Culture Shock! Japan by Rex Shelley and Reiko
Makiuchi. This book provided lots of useful insight into the nuts
and bolts of Japanese culture and how to get by in Japan without
being a dekai bakana gaijin (a big, dumb foreigner). However, it
seems pretty clear that book is a bit out of date. It seems to
have been written at the height of the Japanese bubble economy
when Americans were all hysterically afraid that the Japanese were
going to take over the world. That fault is forgivable--it's
mainly a source of mild amusement.
2. Lonely Planet Japan (7th Edition). It was a great
guidebook. In additon to helping me get oriented, it had some good
basic background texts on the food, history and art of Japan. I
had two complaints, one of which was unfair. The first was that it
had very imprecise maps of Tokyo, lacking street names for many of
the sites; later I figured out that the problem is the Tokyo
lacks street names for most sites. The second complaint is that it
didn't seem to have a very good selection of restaurants. I often
wished I had more options, especially for Tokyo.
3. Dave Barry Does Japan by (duh...) Dave Barry.
Mildly funny, eminently readable introduction to Japanese culture
and the peculiar pleasures of figuring out how to deal with life
in Japan. If I had read this at the beginning of my trip rather
than at the end, I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
4. Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex
Kerr. (I think in America this might have a different title, Dogs
and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan.) I felt
strongly enough about this one that I put this review up on
Amazon's Web site. Dogs and Demons successfully alerts the reader
to significant problems in Japan's cultural, political and
economic life. As a complement to other reading on Japan I found
it valuable. And from a personal perspective, I find it further
testimony to the importance of openness and accountability in
business and government.
That said, Kerr's tone is shrill. He harps so obsessively on
certain points that one must question his objectivity. My own
personal experience of Japan--a three week trip here--in some
cases makes the book's arguments seem excessive. He complains
about the ugly new train station in Kyoto and the monumental
buildings of the Shinjuku government center. Yet when I saw them,
before reading the book, I quite liked the architecture. It is
certainly fair to point out that the modernism of the Kyoto train
station is at odds with the cultural history of the city, but New
York's Penn Station is a far better example of an architectural
crime against humanity. Kerr's repeated attacks on these modern
building made me wonder whether he doesn't long for a traditional
Japan frozen in pre-modern times. Interestingly, Kerr is aware of
this weakness in his writing--in the book he makes an unconvincing
case in his defense.
That's enough of my personal perspective. If you're trying to
decide whether to buy it, I highly recommend the New York Times
Book Review's piece on Kerr's book. I can't include a hyperlink
here, but if you go to the New York Times Web site and then to its
book section, you can search on "dogs and demons" and
see the review for free.
Also, a reader of this book might be interested in Cadillac
Desert, by Marc Reisner. It's a classic study of America's own
runaway bureaucracy, which for decades wasted taxpayer money and
devastated the beautiful stretches of the American landscape with
unneeded irrigation projects and dams.
5. Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D. T. Suzuki
edited by William Barrett. I really enjoyed this book.