Amy Chavez JT obit on “Japan writing giant” Boye De Mente: Let’s not whitewash his devaluation of Japan Studies


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Hi Blog. I hope everyone in the Northern Hemisphere is having a pleasant summer (and as for you lot Down Under, a much pleasanter winter than can be had up north!).

While on vacation I saw this review-cum-obituary of the late Boye Lafayette De Mente in the Japan Times. Written by Amy Chavez, it headlines him as “a giant of writing on Japan”:

Remembering the life and works of Boye De Mente, a giant of writing on Japan
JUN 25, 2017

Any Japanophile will have at least one of the 30 or so books authored by Boye Lafayette De Mente during his long and prolific writing career in Japan.

His works are read by travelers, businesspeople and scholars alike, with offerings ranging from “The Pocket Tokyo Subway Guide” to the “Tuttle Japanese Business Dictionary,” and my personal favorite, “Kata: The Key to Understanding and Dealing with the Japanese.” Several of his books have become classics…

Full article at:

I would respectfully disagree. As I wrote in the Comments Section of that article:

One the last of the truly old-school postwar “Japan analysts”, who helped set the tone of Japanology as a pseudoscience fueled by stereotype. Check out his list of titles on Wikipedia and you’ll see the undermining of Tuttle as a reliable-source publisher. “Women of the Orient: Intimate Profiles of the World’s Most Feminine Women”, dated 1992, where he boasts of his sexual escapades, and draws broad conclusions about how Asian women please White men like him, anyone? Or if you want something approaching a different kind of lingus, try “The Japanese Have a Word for It: The Complete Guide to Japanese Thought and Culture.” (“Complete”?). Plenty more that anybody actually trained in modern Humanities or Social Sciences would find highly problematic.

Eulogies are one thing. But let’s not whitewash this person’s publishing record. “Classic” does mean “influential”, but it should not in this case necessarily imply “good”.

Now, I am aware of the old adage of “Of the dead, nothing but good is to be said”, and I’m saying nothing about De Mente as a person.  I am assessing his work, as I hope someone would after I pass.  What I am critical of is the effects of his works, which are whitewashed in Chavez’s piece. (Disclaimer: I am not a fan of Chavez’s lousy social science in her writings to begin with: See for example her “How about a gaijin circus in gazelle land?” from the JT in 2010.)

As I allude in my comment above, De Mente is of a genre of writers who paint Japan in immensely broad and often sloppy strokes.  He expands upon a narrow amount of personal experience to make sweeping (and generally outdated) judgments about a society, and then replicates this across societies often with ribald results (and titles). De Mente not only portrayed Japan as a playground for rapacious White Men and “feminine” “Oriental Girls” (seriously, that’s one of his book titles in 2009), but also positioned himself as an oracle on how to use “samurai practices” and “code words” to triumph in careers, understand “thought and culture”, and even understand “the lively art of mistress-keeping“. And the fact that this was taken seriously–because there were so few analytical books on Japan when De Mente started out–is one reason why Japanology is such a mixed bag in terms of actual in-depth analysis. To this day, sweetmeat books on manga and anime are more likely to get book deals and sell better than anything, say, some powerful analysis Chalmers Johnson or Tessa Morris-Suzuki would write.

In sum, after reading a couple of De Mente’s books (as well as Jack Seward‘s, another profiteer of this Orientalist genre), I vowed never to read pseudoscientific books with analytical paradigms built on sand until I came up with my own paradigms — informed by facts, statistics, long experience full of trial-and-error, and full immersion making a life in Japan for decades like anyone else (including buying a house and taking out citizenship). Accomplishing that took some time, of course, and not all of my past writing goes beyond even De Mente. But I kept at it, and improved over the years; and now “Embedded Racism” has been reviewed very favorably by fellow scholars, thanks.

Will “Embedded Racism” have an influence within Japanese Studies, enough to be labelled a “classic” someday? Here’s hoping, but people more likely want to read about “Weird Japan”, Geisha, and how to bed Japanese women. And I challenge anyone to find a country written more about in the English language basically in terms of exotica and erotica.  We don’t take Japan, or scholarship on Japan, seriously enough partially because of that. That’s De Mente et al.’s legacy. RIP to the man, and someday RIP to his genre. Dr. Debito Arudou


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6 comments on “Amy Chavez JT obit on “Japan writing giant” Boye De Mente: Let’s not whitewash his devaluation of Japan Studies

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    I checked out De Mente on the wikipedia. Scrolling down the pages, and the list of books came into my eyes. Geez, I could barely keep my eyes open. I don’t know anything about him(and I don’t even know he was one of founding “Japanology” in the first generation.) Note that I put a quotation mark on the term “Japanology” because I consider it as a semi-social science/humanity whose work integrity is always price-tagged with the value of marketplace. Some(or most) of his book titles are nauseating. His legacy should be left as the founder of post-colonial whiteness sellout for promoting adventure of cultural exploration as exclusive privilege to like-minded people in his and following generations. R.I.P to fake social science

  • Anonymous says:

    Just as it would be for us to state that a problem about Loverilakkuma is his “Japanese-ness”… too, it is equally rude, for Loverilakkuma to (once again) state, that a problem about somebody is his “White-ness”.

    One can complain about a particular person’s past actions quite fine (as Debito did eloquently above) without throwing in irrelevant descriptors such as White-ness or Fat-ness or Japanese-ness.

    Perhaps Loverilakkuma assumed that since Debito used the term ‘white-wash’ that somehow that created an opening for Loverilakkuma to start using the term ‘white-ness’ again here? In which case it must be explained that the etymology of “white-wash” derives from painting fences white, and has nothing to do with race, and nobody is offended by the use of the word “white-wash”, while the etymology of “whiteness” derives from people complaining about the white race itself, complaining about whites holding unfair power and whites using that unfair power to do unfair things, and many people are offended by the derogatory use of the word “whiteness”.

    Complaining about actions of a particular person (as Debito did above) is fine.

    Complaining about actions done or values held by a particular culture (as we often do here in the comments section) is fine.

    Complaining about an entire race, using the term “whiteness” in a derogatory way (as Loverilakkuma has repeatedly tried to do here, even attempting to label Japan’s culture’s Embedded Racism problem as being a problem of “Whiteness”) is NOT OK.

    Each time Loverilakkuma attempts to get away with complaining about “whiteness” here, I’m going to have call out his unrepentant rude refusal to stop using such a derogatory racist term.

    Regardless of the unfortunate fact that the racist “whiteness” and “whiteness studies” terms became accepted in various places by various people, Loverilakkuma needs to learn the higher reality that one can and should complain about actions (Japan’s culture of discrimination, De Mente’s wrong writings, whatever) WITHOUT blaming those actions on race, and WITHOUT using derogatory race-related terms.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Color blindness, false dichotomy, and begging the questions. Never cease to amaze me to see some people take a left/progressive position on race-related issue without even bother examining the historical contexts of what/how their race played out for economic exploitation through exploration of ‘culture,’ and how predecessor’s problematic behavior influenced his successors who came to learn about Japan throughout generations. Doesn’t matter what the term is. It’s common term among scholars and public community as well.

    De Mente is a controversial figure because of his choice of writings that promote western superiority through his own discovery of Orientalism in the East. That really matters because his description of Japan is a clear representation of hegemonic representation of western idea that depicts indigenous culture as “savage,” which is quite troubling to so many scholars studying Japan and/or any other regions. Biggest reason why tourism and some magazines like National Geographic are often subject to heavy scrutiny for promoting “inferiority” of non-western society.

  • Baudrillard says:

    I read Boye De Mente’s “Bachelor’s Japan” in the early 90s (there wasnt much else in that genre) and even then I felt a lot of it was filler material, and quite cliched. I was waiting for something useful to understand Japanese women.

    Perhaps most tellingly about the kind of women he often met (?), he is however spot on about the warped mentality of bar hotesses, e.g how they “prefer married men because they are suspicious of single “playboys” (“whats wrong with him? Why isnt he married?).

    However, this is gutter Japan studies. And I do wonder whose money he was frittering away at all these outrageously priced hostess bars he went to. Research grant, maybe?

  • realitycheck says:

    Hear Hear Debito, spot-on. If De Mente had been a young person fresh out of college and into Japan like so many of the young people , now making immature you tube Japan ‘vlogs’ and convincing themselves they are important, I could cut him some slack.

    But I recall picking up one of his books some years back in a Japanese bookstore and being a little shocked when I found out his age and the time he had spent in Japan.

    Frankly that book, like much of his output, was full of stereotypes and writing that gave a strong impression it was written by an undeveloped writer with little experience of the topic they were writing about.

    Mr De Mente simply got lucky – he came to Japan when foreigners were still anovelty and managed to make a place for himself through the usual cliques and networks of the smaller sets that used to run foreign participation in Japanese life before the 21st century.

    And the whining about how he should not be criticised by Debito which I have read on a few net locations simply because he is now no longer on earth, is irrational.

    You put yourself out there as a writer to have people read and then critique your books. Mr De Mente was a writer although a fairly poor example of one in some ways, and anybody has the right to say that regardless of whether he was living or passed on.

  • Daniel Burke says:

    I once mistakenly grabbed “The Chinese Have a Word For it”, his “complete” guide to Chinese culture when I was too ignorant to know better. It sat on the shelf for many years. I picked it up not that many years ago now, when sorting out what I was keeping or discarding, and gave it a read. My goodness! Just jarringly awful stuff. The amazon reviews were likewise very scathing. It doesn’t have a space on my shelves any more, glad to say.


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