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The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Japan.

Edited by Richard Bowring and Peter Kornicki. Cambridge, 1993. 400pp. 29.95[pounds]. 0 521 403 529.

Intended as, in the words of its blurb material, |a richly illustrated introduction to Japan past and present', this volume comprises the efforts of fifty-four expert contributors' and includes 384 illustrations, 318 in colour', to make up |in a single volume for the first time ... a complete and convincing portrait'. It is certainly a heavyweight work, and its arrival has been awaited in Japanological circles for some time. Japan's current economic and political importance will certainly assure its sales.

As with others of Cambridge's geographical encyclopaedias, presentation is thematic rather than chronological or alphabetic, so that this is not an encyclopaedia in the strict, Britannica sense. Under the headings of Geography', History', Language and Literature', Thought and Religion', Arts and Crafts', Society', Politics', and Economy', different topics are tackled by the appropriately qualified contributors, and--as one would expect--there is a full glossary, bibliography and index. Coverage is right up to date, including the aftermath of the so-called bubble economy' of the 1980s and its subsequent collapse: one point at least that should count in this book's favour. A thoroughly reliable, comprehensive guide to its subject, the book will probably be one of the starting points for undergraduates and interested general readers for years to come. It represents good value for its price and is attractively presented. No-one should hesitate to buy it who needs or wants such a book. But I feel a creeping dissatisfaction, that much more could have been done with the material, and that the book is not properly addressing the interests of its audience.

In a quart-into-pint-pot enterprise like this, something obviously has to give. For example, I quote the beginning of the article on decorative arts: The complexity of the subject is more than can be dealt with in a brief introduction, and the overview that follows concentrates on the history of Western interaction with Japan and the nature of Western collections of Japanese decorative arts'. The section which follows this lead-in is substantially shorter than that given over to Japanese science, and its illustrations deal overwhelmingly with export items. Yet the unique quality of Japan's native handicrafts, traditions, and their importance to outside perceptions of the culture, surely warrant more extensive study than this. The sections on modern politics, economics and society are wide-ranging, magisterial, and will probably provide budding foreign correspondents with all they need for their articles; but therein again is the problem. Such information can be gleaned from the newspapers or television reports, but presenting it in this format simply reduces Japan to a series of pie-charts. This book includes no separate section on Zen, and devotes a considerable space to Japan's ga-ga new religions' at the expense of the immensely long and important history of Japanese Buddhism as a whole. Or, in a more modern context, why so little on love hotels' and the highly sophisticated Japanese sex industry? Cultural, historical and intellectual analysis seem to have lost out to the interests of readers of the financial pages. This is a depressingly familiar pattern in Japan studies as a whole, where commercial or business-related interests usually set the agenda, but it is sad to find it in a book aspiring to comprehensiveness.

I feel this work compares unfavourably with Phaidon's Cultural Atlas of Japan, written by Martin Collcutt, Marius Jansen and Isao Kumakura and published in 1988. Clearly, this latter cannot aspire to the topicality of a volume published in 1993, nor to the universality offered by 54 scholars. But to begin with -- it has a complete list of emperors and their reigns, and of shoguns and their reigns, which the Cambridge encyclopaedia does not. Its maps are carefully plotted with lines of latitude and longitude usually given, whereas the Cambridge maps leave them out. Its text runs the length of its pages, whereas the Cambridge designers have left theirs with large white voids at the top. Its illustrations are more striking and vivid. It does concentrate on historical presentation at the expense of the modern nation and of thematic treatment, and it has certain weak spots (notably modern literature), but in general I find it most stimulating and interesting. Since it costs 21.95[pounds] at 240 pages, I would be wrong to say it is clearly better value than the Cambridge product, but it does not have the unpleasantly perfunctory air (evident in the maps and the design) sometimes apparent in the thicker book. Myself, I will stick by it.

Of course, there cannot be too much wrong with an up-to-the-minute compendium of useful information on what will be the 21st century's world leader. If there really are still some people in the West who know little or nothing about Japan, they would be doing themselves an immense favour by buying The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Japan. But the audience it does not address, the popular audience for things Japanese who pass over the economic details for the mystique of James Clavell novels, the martial arts enthusiasts and dabblers in sushi, are testifying however imperfectly to the truly fascinating, autonomous character of Japan: that which preceded and which will outlast the current economic hyperactivity. What is it that makes Japan worth an encyclopaedia to itself in the first place? Statistics on trade balance, nuclear power, family structure, etc? Or a culture -- despite its debt to China -- unique in the world, an inspiring tradition of sensibility, and a rich and complex history dating back well before the advent of most European nations? If you agree with that first answer to this rhetorical question, then this is the book for you.
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Author:Mackintosh, Paul St. John
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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