Book Review

NTC's Dictionary of Japan's Cultural Code Words

de Mente
NTC Publ., 394 pp, paperback, 1997


This book is not really a dictionary, but a collection of 230 short essays describing the cultural differences between Japan and the West. For businessmen and others who need to deal with and understand the Japanese, reading this book before traveling there could save a great deal of embarrassment and frustration. Each essay uses a different Japanese phrase to explain some aspect of Japanese behavior, such as iijime ('bullying'), shain ryoko ('social travel'), kubi wo kakemasu ('gambling one's neck'), etc. According to the author, the cultural uniqueness of Japan results from the fact that, until 1868, Japan was ruled by a military dictatorship, and retained a feudalistic system until the end of World War II. The author has lived in Japan and socialized with Japanese people for 3 decades, and although he is not a historian or sociologist, he has clearly had considerable experience explaining their customs to Western businessmen as a consultant.

However, because the book was written before Japan's current economic troubles, many of the assumptions about the greater efficiency of their business practices, and the repeated mentionings of Japan's "success" seem odd in light of the ultimate near-collapse of their economy. Refreshingly, the author is more reserved in his praise for the Japanese social system, and points out many of its inefficiencies and the immense pressures imposed by their strict, hierarchical system of etiquette. He also mentions and tries to explain some of the cultural idiosyncracies often noticed by visitors, such as their love of cute little cartoon figures.

Also, the author promulgates the old myth that Japanese self-discipline is due in part to the complexity of their writing system, and claims that, because of the abundance of Chinese ideograms in their language, the Japanese use the opposite side of their brain to apprehend language, compared to Westerners. From a scientific perspective, this is utter nonsense. The Japanese writing system may be a jumble of different scripts including a limited subset of Chinese characters, but neurologically one should expect little difference between recognizing a Kanji and recognizing an English letter. Indeed, numerous scientific studies over the past decade have consistently shown this to be the case (the inferior temporal area on the language-dominant side of the brain is involved in reading of both ideogram and phonogram-based languages, with no significant differences in lateralization). However, this is the only real flaw in an otherwise informative and readable book about Japanese social customs.