Comparative Societies Series

Kerbo and McKinstry

McGraw Hill, 1998.

On a recent visit to Japan, this slim volume illuminated many puzzling aspects of the society I briefly encountered. Of course there is more to this than a potted guide to Japan. The editor of the series, Kerbo, quotes a nice line by Seymour Martin Lipset:

"Those who know only one country know no country."

Thus I have extracted a few items with a broader significance, beginning with a discussion of a kind of untouchable caste called Burakumin, whose descendants are routinely rooted out by detectives hired by prospective employers or spouses. The discrimination has ruinous effects, despite there being no biological difference between them and other Japanese.

"Even though face and ethnic differences are not factors with Burakumin, we find a situation very similar to racial minorities in the United States (such as lower IQ scores), which strongly suggests the problem all over the world is racism and discrimination, not biological differences, in contrast to what has been suggested in the controversial book The Bell Curve by Herrnstein and Murray." (p.70)

Japanese society may also throw some light on ethical controversies between the religious and irreligious:

"It must be surprising then for people from Western tradition to hear that in Japan there is little if any link between religion and morality, ethics, or standards of right behaviour. This must be especially puzzling in light of the amazingly low rate of crime in modern Japan. If your think that a society must use religion to keep people in line, well, Japan proves you are wrong. Japanese society is very orderly, but social order in Japan stems mostly from obligations to people [...], not from religion." (p.105)

The authors go on to provide some kind of context for the enormities of the notorious Aum Supreme Truth cult:

"standard religious practices in Japan offer very little sense of any purpose or meaning; hence, some people see commitment to some sort of extremist cause, be it a political or quasi-religious movement, as the only available outlet for devotion. It is therefore not surprising that, although small in numbers of members, there are about 1,500 religious sects or cults with headquarters at the foot of Mt. Fuji alone." (p.109)

Finally, we are given this update on the lamentable state of affairs in design and architecture, infested as it seems to be with feng shui:

"Hardly a single building is ever erected in Japan, from office buildings to private residences to warehouses, without first consulting a system of geomancy, divination that establishes the most favourable place for entrances, toilets, kitchens, and other features of the structure. This kind of divination, along with many other aids in reaching decisions, is not officially part of Buddhism or Shinto. It is part of a multibillion dollar industry that relies on private practioners who study and practise as sort of divination counsellors." (p.110)

The book is equipped with very useful glossaries of Japanese and sociological terms, a bibliography, and a list of internet resources, including those given below.

Guide to Japan:

Japan Times:

Japanese Religion:



Paul Taylor 2001