Pearl S. Buck | Critical Review by Josh Greenfield

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Pearl S. Buck.
This section contains 1,150 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Josh Greenfield

Critical Review by Josh Greenfield

SOURCE: "Picture Post Cards," in World Journal Tribune Book World, October 9, 1966, p. 8.

In the following review, Greenfield complains that in Buck's The People of Japan, she "mostly serves up the usual blend of picturesque pap and old saws."

Not the least of the effects of the American victory in the Pacific is that we were spared the back-breaking, mind-reeling chore of having to learn the Japanese language. Instead, the burden of language learning fell upon the vanquished: each Japanese student has to face six years of classroom English before he graduates from high school. And Americans in Japan, laughing lustily, rather than nervously, at this race of little Jerry Lewises, bespectacled and back-teethed, malaproping and mispronouncing our language, could lean back upon the counsels of experts if they wished insights into the "special" Japanese culture and character.

This was one of those unfortunate developments which result in our getting dramatically involved in situations from which we don't quite know how to get out of. For experts, once established, function like Civil Service servants, their moistened fingers in the air detect the wind currents around their own position rather than the drifts of a problem; they tend to fit policy instead of shaping it, producing tired justifications rather than new analyses.

Our Japanese experts, for example, functioning in the rough Asian League not only boast a competitively high average of post-war bumbles—from the urging of the retention of the emperor system through the rebuilding of the zaibatsu (the giant interlocking corporations) down to the current encouragement of militarization—but they have even managed to convince many of us in masterful exercises of double expertise that some of their biggest bungles have been strokes of brilliance.

But then Japan has long been a natural mark for experts. Not only is the language difficult but the people differ from us radically and the living there is easy—comfortable with good pay—because one can pile up expert points through residency. First, there were the churches funneling funds to their Christian soldiers in the rice fields; and now there are Rockefellers and Fords and Wilsons, foundation grants and fellowship handouts aplenty for those who would structure their disciplines around an exotic country. The Japan business, much like any other specialization, offers both rich rewards and a power base because it is the only game in town. The expert stakes out a field, builds a knowledge barrier around it, and then lays claim to all the secrets within it; in time he proceeds to traffic in the mystique the market demands.

The resultant misinformation about Japan, not surprisingly, is staggering. The experts busily fill the orders for the image our society demands, and a two-week excursion to Japan arranged by the Japan Travel Bureau provides mostly cultural feedback that enhances the image. Yet each time a new book about contemporary Japan appears, I turn to it hoping that now the kidding will stop, the myth will be cracked, and the simple light of truth will break through.

Although an old China hand, Pearl Buck is not professionally in the Japan business. A Nobel laureate, she is also a noble woman, a grande dame, given to the right passions and supporting the right causes; she is also sensitive and tries to be sensible. But The People of Japan, which is subtitled "A perceptive portrait of their life today," only occasionally lives up to that billing. Too often it is a collection of uninspected clichés and is only fitfully discerning. Miss Buck falls into the quaint-cute trap that affects so much of the writing about Japan, and in this way her book is more revealing to us of the American attitude as reflected in even liberal opinion than it is of anything else.

Take the Japanese woman. Again she is suffering and scraping, bowing and submissive, always administering dutifully to men. Take the Japanese man. Again he is haughty and proud, manly and regal, with a license to be licentious with bar girls and geisha. And so it goes. The Japanese are inscrutable, polite, imitative, neat, clean, beauty lovers, lonely, sentimental, gentle, rigid, etc. Superficial generalities are spun relentlessly, and soon the picture of a people swims into fixed focus, ethnic characteristics are assigned, and prototypes not only emerge but are expected. Sound familiar? We don't do it with the French (are the French gentle?) or the British (are the British basically neat or sloppy?), but we always do it with the Japanese. We patronize them. For our attitude toward them we are guilty of racism.

And how do the Japanese react to this attitude? Why naturally, we're told by the experts, as Miss Buck tells us now, they love us. For if they love us how can we really be guilty of racial prejudice toward them. After all didn't we bestow upon them the honor of being the world's first recipient of a nuclear attack? Didn't we intern the Nisei in America in ersatz concentration camps? Didn't we show our true respect for Japan as a conquered power by giving her a MacArthur and his GHQ to preside over her occupation rather than a mere educator such as HICOG's Conant as we gave to Germany? And don't we still have restrictive and discriminatory legislation against their emigration to America? Of course they love us.

Miss Buck is perceptive in her discussion of student demonstrations, in realizing that they articulate a widespread feeling of the populace at large. And she is capable of sweeping aside her good-hearted sentimentality to recognize that the Japanese are not ideologues in any way, that they are guided more by the logic of simple pragmatics than by the moralism of a philosophy or by the pull of blind emotion. She is also open-eyed in her reportage of Japanese prejudice toward the Koreans and the Eta (a remnant of the attempt to impose caste in Japan) and all Eurasians, but particularly those fathered by Negroes—areas of coverage that are usually slurred over.

But mostly she serves up the usual blend of picturesque pap and old saws. Her "explanation" of the Japanese character, for example, is but still another rewording of the old web of giri mesh—the responsibility of obligation—and her recurring description of Japanese life is a simplistic "change that is not really a change." Which may sound good but means just about as much—or as little—as the two pennies in my pocket.

If we are to deal meaningfully with Japan—in fact, with all of Asia—we must first come to grips with ourselves. We must realize, no matter how difficult it is for us to accept, that we begin any confrontation there with a racist approach which our experts have always carefully catered to. That a Pearl Buck, who is no parlor Orientalist, who is full of genteel humanity and obviously loves Japan, lands in most of the familiar traps is further sad evidence of the inscrutable blinders we still wear.

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This section contains 1,150 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Josh Greenfield
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