John Spiri reviews Gregory Clark’s book “Understanding the Japanese”


The Japanese and Ware Ware Non-Japanese
A review of UNDERSTANDING THE JAPANESE by Gregory Clark
By John Spiri, former Assistant Professor at Akita International University

(written for a mass media outlet, unpublished)

UNDERSTANDING THE JAPANESE: Gregory Clark. First published 1982 by Kinseido, Tokyo

It is difficult to imagine a book written by a Japan “expert” having as little of substance to say as Understanding the Japanese by Gregory Clark. The book, awash with trivial generalizations, simplistically attempts to dichotomize everything—brains, societies, and the entire world—while presenting “theories” that would be better left to barrooms and pubs.

The mother of all Clark’s dichotomies is between “Japanese” and “non-Japanese.” Clark writes, “For us non-Japanese peoples the identity of a nation lies in its ideas and culture.” Clark even goes so far as to title a section, “The Non-Japanese Nation” citing stereotypes about the French (who are happy to accept even millions of refugees and workers), Chinese (who have even refused to accept Western technology), and Americans (who exclude homosexuals since they are seen as a threat to Christian ideology). The conclusion is “culturally advanced non-Japanese peoples are more exclusive to foreign ideas and culture than they are towards foreigners” while Japanese are the reverse.

Later, after generalizing that Japanese have a “dual morality” (with his evidence being banal inconsistencies that exist within every human), Clark claims, “With non-Japanese it is not possible to admit to such a dual morality. Our behavior is supposed to be guided by law and principles.” One example of Japanese morality that Westerners supposedly lack is the “generosity” of booksellers who allow customers to read books for free. Clark might be a little shocked to see evidence of this “Japanese morality” in any Barnes & Noble bookstore in the United States, where customers sit around in lounge chairs reading unbought books.

Towards the end of the book readers are told the Japanese negotiate “heart to heart” while all the other peoples in the world negotiate “mind to mind.” “It is as if Japan were to insist on playing shogi while the rest of the world plays chess.” Oh, those Japanese are so, so, what’s the word?, different!

As the thin book wears on, we learn that “non-Japanese” might not really be meant to include everyone; only the “advanced” peoples are worthy of the ultimate comparison. After telling his readers again that “the Japanese seem to be very different from other peoples” Clark claims the reason is that all the other “advanced peoples” had protracted conflict with foreign nations. “Meanwhile,” readers are told, “the rest of us, for the past thousand years or much more, have been constantly involved in fighting each other.” Besides the historical falsity, Clark doesn’t bother to explain how the experience of warring samurai factions of generations past has failed to affect modern Japanese in the same way that warring knights in medieval Europe has supposedly affected modern Europeans.

Clark’s efforts to engage readers in Socratic dialog are juvenile: “Do the Japanese lack a sense of morality?” (answer No! their morality is different from ours), and, “Why does (Japanese flexibility) exist?” (answer: Japan is a nation without ideology!). Then, Clark resorts to citing “someone” to modify: “Someone once said that the ideology of Japan is Japanism!” One would think an “expert” would be held to higher standards.

However, readers learn that if a writer tosses around enough unsupported opinions and generalizations, some will resonate. My favorite was the section about the Japanese propensity for booms. Clark notes that when he first came to Japan there was a “hula hoop boom,” followed by the bowling boom. “The businessmen had convinced themselves,” he writes using his finest prose, “that the Japanese people wanted to do nothing else for the rest of their lives except throw large balls at distant pins, and the relics of their emotionalistic judgment still dot the nation in form of unused bowling parlors.” Hopefully, one day the same can be said of pachinko parlors.

The Japanese, according to Clark, are comparable to one other nation. The Chinese? Never! They are like Westerners. The Koreans? Perish the thought. The Mongolians? They’re not “advanced.” It may come as a surprise, but the one nation that resembles the Japanese are Cretes! Like Japan, the Cretes could “borrow the ideologies of the advanced rationalistic societies around it” and was also a “very durable civilization, lasting almost 1,500 years.” Of course, concrete comparisons are tough to make considering the fact Crete society perished 2,500 years ago in a massive volcanic eruption. “Perhaps there is a message there for Japan,” Clark tells readers, without elaborating.

Some of the stereotypes are downright mean-spirited. “Under the Christian ethic stealing is forbidden,” Clark tells readers, “But that does not stop taxi drivers from trying to short-change their passengers.” The recent stories of the New York city cabbies would undoubtedly surprise Clark. One returned a bag of diamonds; a second sped to the airport to return a forgotten wallet containing thousands of dollars.

The book, constantly hammering home the theme that “Japanese are unique,” is clearly trying to cash in on a writing style, and topic, that appeals to Japanese. Clark frequently tosses in yokeina (superfluous) Japanese: tanitsu minzoku, gyousei shidou, and nantai doubutsu, to either benefit the Japanese reader or put his knowledge of the Japanese language on display, and ends with 13 pages of notes in Japanese.

If Clark weren’t writing with apparent seriousness, the book might be amusing; the illustrations, however, give a hint that the book is not to be taken seriously. As Clark himself has (according to Brad Blackstone, a former associate professor at AIU) been heard to say, “I milked that baby (Understanding the Japanese book) for 20 years, going to speaking engagements around the country.” So, in a sense, it’s “hats off” to the author for getting away with elevating barroom blather to social theory and still maintain status as a culture commentator and Japan expert.

More on Gregory Clark, columnist at the Japan Times, on at

7 comments on “John Spiri reviews Gregory Clark’s book “Understanding the Japanese”

  • Interesting: from the 2001 JT article by Clark, via your links at the bottom of this post, we learn that one Hatoyama Kunio is married to one Takami Emily (高見エミリー), whose father was Australian, which makes their three kids, well, you can guess the rest.

  • I quite agree with Boogey. This is pretty typical of long-standing personal feuds which both parties think other people care about.

    It makes one think twice about the important views you have on other matters.

  • One assumes Spiri is commenting on Clark’s most recent major work and that it is still in print. The pandering is a bit puzzling, as Clark writes with intelligence and insight on China matters. Milking the “uniqueness” angle for a quarter of a century does sound oddly cynical. It would matter if it still earns him the ear of the powerful.

    Didn’t the “nihonjinron” boom peak a few decades ago? One would like to think it got laughed out of existence, at least outside of rightist circles and certain dotty academics. Is it still being commented on, even in the barrooms? (Leave pubs out of this, mate.)


    Pygymy X

  • Boogey, Does it have to be perceived as “dragging out an old feud?” Can’t it just be perceived as a book review? Actually I wrote this for a media outlet but they declined coz it was too harsh. I couldn’t resist writing it because the book was so mocked by everyone I encountered at AIU, yet Clark posed himself as some sort of intellectual giant. And maybe, in some ways, he is. His language acquisition is impressive, even if he milks that one too. For the record I don’t hate Clark at all–he criticized, privately at least, AIU for their treatment of me. And hey, even a harsh review will certainly not hurt sales (altho that’s probably not an issue anymore). So I don’t see why you feel compelled to criticize Debito for putting this on his *blog*. The review slams something that deserves to be slammed (the book not the man).

  • Spiri – Not criticising you. I do have a problem with Debito putting it on the blog. Debito runs very little in the way of book reviews or comments on Nihonjinron, etc. To see one about Clark, who had a very public and well known bashing-fest with Debito, come more or less out of the blue, reeks of a continuing immature feud (as do Clark’s backhanded comments about Debtio on the NBR forums). A frequent criticism of Debito online is that he uses his activism to self-promote or to work personal grudges. I find it difficult to look at this situation in any other way. I think if material about Clark is going to be posted, Debito should look for a third party who can mediate some sort of discussion between the two to accompany it.




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