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A Pair of Book Reviews

Japan

Enchantment of the World

By Barbara A. Somervill

Japan

Cultures of the World

By Rex Shelley

I recently checked the card catalogue at my small local library to see if there were any books about Japan available, either there or through the inter-library lending system. Surprisingly, there were a couple of books on Japan right there in this tiny library that had been published in just the last few months. That shows how much interest there is in the country.

Not only that, but the books are surprisingly well written. They were in the children’s section of the library, an area where I would not normally be looking for books. And they are quite sophisticated, something else that I would not have expected.

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The books were published by academic organizations. Japan is apparently part of a series of books entitled Enchantment of the World, available from Scholastic. The photograph on the cover is of a geisha at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyōto. It is indicative of the gorgeous photography that the book is filled with. There are beautiful shots of Mount Fuji, the Great Buddha at Nara, temples, shrines and castles throughout Japan, Tōkyō by day and night, especially the lively entertainment districts, samurai as depicted by famous artists, Kabuki actors, flora and fauna, automated factories and government figures. However, there are also photographs that one might not expect, such as one of an Ainu in traditional clothing.

The book also contains eight maps of Japan, focusing on such things as the distribution of population, geographic features, natural resources and military expansion 1895-1945. There is a good map of Tōkyō as well.

The design of the book seems to be aimed at attracting the interest of youngsters as effectively as possible. Chapter One is entitled “Mad for Manga” and the photograph that fills the first page shows two happy and lively boys racing home from school to watch their favorite manga program on television. There is a photograph a couple of pages later of the Kyōto International Manga Museum, which has more than two hundred thousand manga on the shelves. There is also a black and white photograph of a very young Tezuka Osama, known as the father of manga. But as noted above, the book is packed with information and it is noted that manga publishing is a $3.6 a year industry.

Here is one among many of the sidebar blurbs in the book:

Pokémon

Whether it is TV cartoons, video games, trading cards, T-shirts, or one of the more than one thousand other Pokémon products, Pokémon continues to be one of Japan’s most popular cartoons. Pokémon is everywhere. Japanese TV shows the cartoons and hosts a children’s program on which contestants compete to become a Pokémon champion. The show opens with a song that lists all 150 Pokémon monsters―a single that became an instant hit on the Japanese music charts.

What is perhaps most surprising about the book is how deeply it delves into Japanese history, starting with the Jōmon period, which flourished from prehistoric times through approximately 200 BC. Prince Shōtoku, an enlightened leader who introduced many civilized pursuits from China, such as Buddhism, then makes an appearance. Then Minamoto Yoritomo in feudal times. The destruction of Kublai Khan’s invading Mongol army is shown in an old illustration and described in the text. Ōda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu are presented. Naturally, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry’s opening of Japan in 1853, bringing about a revolution in the society, is illustrated with a famous print but only written about briefly. However, that is just because there is so much information that must be covered in this short book of 144 pages. Emperor Akihito is shown, along with his father, Hirohito. A chapter is devoted to the modern Japanese government, including photographs of the Diet, the Supreme Court and major politicians. Sports also have a place in the book, with baseball player Suzuki Ichirō given prominent mention. (He has won ten Golden Gloves, named to the All-Star team ten times and won the major league batting title a few years ago. So he is a great player, without doubt, but I wish a way had been found to explain why he plays in Seattle for the Mariners. The fact is that Seattle is where the headquarters of the Japanese corporation Nintendō is located. And Nintendō owns the Mariners.) Judō and karate, soccer, table tennis and even kite flying are presented. Japanese cuisine, the Japanese language, festivals, holidays, films (with another sidebar for Kurosawa Akira given: “I like unformed characters. This may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself.”), Japanese literature (the “Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu gets a nod, there is still another sidebar for Bashō and one of his haiku). And the Nobel Prize winners Kawabata Yasunari and Oe Kensaburō are given their due. Anyone who reads this book will get a solid grounding in the history, people and culture of Japan.

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Japan by Rex Shelley is part of another series, this one called Cultures of the World, published by Marshall Cavendish Benchmark covers the same ground with just as much acumen. It gives a photograph of Himeji Castle, the most beautiful one in Japan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The castle was surprisingly not mentioned in Somervill’s book, but she covers the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011 while this book does not. However, both books deal with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Whichever book one might read one can feel assured they are written authoritatively. And they would both make great gifts for kids!

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