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Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia.

That hoary old chestnut about the 'inscrutable Japanese' must surely now be laid to rest -- squashed beneath this mammoth two-volume reference work. The Japanese must in fact now be among the most scrutable -- indeed, transparent -- races on earth. The nine-volume Kodansha Encyclopaedia of Japan, which this encyclopaedia both draws on and improves upon, was billed as 'the most comprehensive work of reference ever devoted to a single nation'. Whether or not this is the case, the Anglophone reader now has immediate access to virtually any fact that she or he might ever wish to know about Japan, in a splendidly up-to-date and accessible publication.

I cannot claim to have read this encyclopaedia from cover to cover: two million words is just too much to assimilate at one sitting. Indeed, some of the most impressive statistics contained therein refer to the book itself: 4,000 illustrations, 12,000 entries (2,000 more than the larger Encyclopaedia), 1,100 contributors, over 100 special double-page features ... etc. Entries were taken from the earlier work, condensed, revised, rewritten and substantially updated: leading to a work with about half as many words as its parent. There is also a colour atlas of Japan, a chronology, a bibliography of English works and a bilingual index. Elder statesmen of the field, such as Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker, appear unobtrusively in the list of contributors. Faced with an enterprise on this scale, one's critical faculties simply evaporate, leaving only awe.

Not that there is much to criticise. Entries are closely but legibly printed on high-quality paper, with margins used for illustration. Each item has English and Japanese headings, and an excellent User's Guide assists the reader who wishes to pursue particular themes. Special features treat single topics, such as negotiating strategies or the tea ceremony, at length. In contrast to its sire, which was a sober affair, this encyclopaedia bursts with colour: many of the special features incorporate double-page colour spreads. Coverage is, well, 'encyclopaedic'. Does it make any sense to criticize a reference encyclopaedia for the vast number of comic illustrators, fashion designers and other heroes of popular culture that grace its pages? Clearly not, especially when high culture also enjoys its due. Lawyers can happily delve into the minutiae of statutes and cases; financial analysts can track down their favourite companies; enterprising cooks can try out recipes for tempura, sukiyaki, sushi and other delights. Cross-referencing leads straight from general articles to consideration in detail. Here, for example, are the entries from one page under 'Y': yuino (an engagement ceremony at Which the future groom presents his fiancee with gifts); Yui Shosetsu (a military theorist and conspirator against the early Tokugawa shogunate); yujo (an Edo generic term for prostitutes); yukar (an oral epic of the Ainu people); yukata (a light summer kimono); Yukawa Hideki (a physicist and Japan's first Nobel laureate); the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics (attached to Kyoto University); Yuki (two entries for towns in Hiroshima and Ibaraki prefectures respectively); Yuki family (a warrior dynasty of the Kamakura era); Yukiguni (Kawabata Yasunari's famous novel, Snow Country); Yukike Hatto (the domain law code of the Yuki family); yuki onna (a legendary spectre associated with snowy weather); and finally Yuki Shoji (a post-war novelist). The time span covered ranges from the depths of prehistory to roughly 1993: thus Abe Kobo (d.1993) has his death mentioned; but there is no analysis of the collapse of the postwar political system with the defeat of the LDP in this year's poll. The book therefore closes as the post-war era has closed, fortuitously terminated as the chronicle of an age.

As for the content, I can only speak authoritatively on the articles which bear on subjects I know about, but those pieces are pithy and cogent. Occasionally, one could wish for a little more incisive criticism, especially of modern writers, but then it is not the place of a work of reference to be contentious. Outside my own core subject areas (literature, culture, religion, modern society), I find the whole an extraordinary lucky dip bulging with intriguing snippets of information. There is also a refreshing absence of the sanitization once so prominent in Japan studies. Meaty articles cover corruption, ethnic minorities and the discrimination they face, prostitution, etc. Even Kodansha itself is taken to task for its pre-war record of supporting the military. One might have expected an entry simply reading: 'Modesty forbids ...'. There is little else to say. If you need this work, buy it, for you will not be disappointed. Pity poor Cambridge University Press, whose Encyclopaedia of Japan wilts in the shadow of this behemoth. Despite the cost, Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopaedia is absolutely indispensable for anyone who wants to know about Japan. Everyone from stockmarket traders to flower arrangers is catered for. And if you think you can afford to ignore Japan: then think again. No better case has been made for the universal relevance of the 21st century's leading power. Catch it while you can.

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Author:Mackintosh, Paul St. John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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