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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
BY AMY CHAVEZ, SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES
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…
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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