Review of “Understanding Japaneseness”

[The following is the review I wrote for Missiology: A Review Journal. It was published in the January 2018 issue of that journal and can be accessed here.]

Understanding Japaneseness: A Fresh Look at Nipponjinron through “Maternal-filial Affection” by Kosuke Nishitani & Michael J. Sherrill. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2016. 250 pp., paper. $34.99.

This is a book I wish I could have read (and understood) fifty years ago, during my first years as a missionary in Japan. It is a thoroughly researched and quite detailed book, but it is not an easy book to read. Academic scholars will likely appreciate it more than field missionaries, or ordinary expats, in Japan.

The author is an ordained minister who in addition to being a pastor is also a professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, a prestigious Christian school in Tokyo. The editor, who no doubt worked to make the book so readable in English, is also an ordained minister and a professor at the same university. Their painstaking work deserves high marks from all who seek a fuller understanding of the basic way of thinking of Japanese people in general.

My main criticism of the book is of its organization. Rather than building toward a conclusion in which the main thesis of the book is amplified, the final three chapters are about the early history of Japan. Further, each of the chapters has numerous sub-sections, all of seemingly equal importance. Perhaps this also illustrates a common Japanese characteristic: rather than materials being developed in a linear manner, various facets of the issue at hand are presented for consideration.

My criticism notwithstanding, this book contains a wealth of information and interpretation that is valuable for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of “Japaneseness.” The author helps his readers gain that understanding through his analysis of ancient historical works, as well as analysis of the major writings on Nipponjinron (theories/discussions about the Japanese) in recent decades. His unique contribution is in seeing “maternal-filial affection” at the root of Japaneseness.

Given the highly secular nature of current Japanese society, readers may be surprised that in the preface the author avers, “Japanese religiosity is at the center of what it means to be Japanese” (xiii). Then throughout the book he emphasizes that among the Japanese there is “almost religious longing for and consecration of” what the author calls “maternal-filial affection” (128). Consequently, in order to relate better to the Japanese psyche, Christians should stress the maternal aspects of Christianity—such as Shusaku Endo, author of Silence, sought to do.

This book is a rich resource for those who will take the time and expend the energy to read it and to consider its central ideas.

About Leroy Seat

* Born in Grant City, MO, on 8/15/1938 * Graduated from Southwest Baptist College (Bolivar, MO) in 1957 (A.A.) * Graduated from William Jewell College (Liberty, MO) in 1959 (A.B.) * Graduated from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY) in 1962 (B.D., equivalent of M.Div.) * Received the Doctor of Philosophy degree in theology from SBTS. * Baptist missionary to Japan from 1966 to 2004. * Full-time faculty member at Seinan Gakuin University (Fukuoka, Japan) from 1968 to 2004. * Adjunct professor at Rockhurst University from 2006 to 2014.
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