Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review - Japan: Secrets from the Land of the Rising Sun

The same day I found the excellent Hiroshige print book a little while ago, I also ran across the 2009 book Japan: Secrets from the Land of the Rising Sun by Ellen Flynn and Deborah Stowe.
Unfortunately, Secrets is on the opposite end of the scale from Hiroshige. A general overview of Japan, it feels at best lazy and at worst uninformed and stereotypical.

Before I became a teacher, I used to do a small bit of graphics work at my job, and still do for fun on occasion. One of the tricks graphic designers have these days is the cheap stock photo: you can go to a handful of sites, type in "Japan" and get quality photos for your projects at absurdly low prices. They're quite useful, but only if you know what they show.

As I started reading Secrets, I began to feel the authors might be using stock photos they hadn't taken themselves, because the captions seemed needlessly vague, as if the authors themselves weren't exactly sure what the pictures showed. Sure enough, a few pages later I ran across a stock photo I'd used myself a few years ago, a very striking one of a maiko, an apprentice geisha, passing under a traditional curtain as she walks into a building.

Stock photos aren't evil, but if you're going to write a book on Japan and present yourself as an authority you've really got to know your stuff before you start using them.

The photos were also a source of some of the most annoying and misleading generalizations to be found in the book. A photo of Shinto priests, who of course are all dressed the same, is labeled with some BS about "conformity" in Japanese culture. While there is definitely pressure to conform in most parts of Japanese society, this is a completely nonsensical example of it. It'd be like taking a shot of Catholic cardinals on their way to church and saying it shows all Westerners dress the same. Again, it gives the feel the authors didn't even recognize the men were priests.

That shallow, stereotypical exoticism (Japan is magical, Japan is better than everyone else at most things, Japan is unknowable to mere Western mortals) is found elsewhere in the book, the geisha section being particularly bad. Apparently, we can "never know" if geisha today are flat-out prostitutes or not because they're hidden behind a veil of secrecy in their exotic, mystical world of secret mystery, yada yada. For anyone reading who isn't sure, it's pretty basic: geisha are NOT prostitutes. They're women and have their desires and needs, I'm sure, like any other woman, but their job is most definitely not to have sex with customers. Ten minutes of research on the part of the authors would have answered the question of prostitution.

Long story short, avoid this book like the plague unless you just want some pretty pictures to look at without any context or very basic facts to read (population, location of cities, etc.). Romanticizing a country is one thing, but doing so at the cost of facts and to the point of stereotyping is a disservice to both the country and those who would like to learn about it.

No comments: