Life Histories, Life Cycles, Life Stages edited by Susanne Formanek and Sepp Linhart

Book reviews — Japanese Biographies: Life Histories, Life Cycles, Life Stages edited by Susanne Formanek and Sepp Linhart

Mostow, Joshua S

JAPANESE BIOGRAPHIES: Life Histories, Life Cycles, Life Stages. Edited by Susanne Formanek and Sepp Linhart. Vienna: Verlag der Osterriechischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. 1992. 299 pp. oS. 490. ISBN-3-7001-1969-0.

THIS IS A COLLECTION OF PAPERS on “the study of life course” in Japan, in other words, the examination of generalized life cycles and their representations, from a conference held in Vienna in 1990. Of the fourteen papers, six are by scholars working in Germany, two in Austria, three in the United States, and one each in Scotland, Canada and Japan. The papers range in length from eleven to thirty pages and are gathered into five groups: “Childhood and Youth,” “Young Adulthood and Maturity I: Women,” “Young Adulthood and Maturity II: Specific Roles, Cohorts and Professions,” and “Middle and Old Age.” These are preceded by two essays on “General Problems of the Study of Life Course and Biographical Research,” by Sepp Linhart and David W. Plath.

In fact, the guiding spirit of this project seems to be Plath and his 1980 work Long Engagements: Maturity in Modern Japan (Stanford UP). This anthropological study combined four case studies with an analysis of four Japanese novels to reveal current patterns in the maturation process of contemporary Japanese. Rather than combining literary and sociological analysis in each essay, however, the papers in the volume under review divide themselves into those that focus on artistic representations and those that use the more sociological methods of statistical surveys and interviews. Thus, Linda Erlich looks at “The Undesired Ones: Images of the Elderly in Japanese Cinema”; and Susanne Formanek, “Normative Perceptions of Old Age in Japanese History: A Study Based on Literary Sources of the Nara and Heian Periods.” In “Failed Fathers: Two Japanese Authors and Their Attitude Towards Family,” Lisette Gebhardt examines works by Dazai Osamu and Hagiwara Sakutaro. The works of Enchi Fumiko, Hayashi Fumiko and Miyamoto Yuriko are discussed by Michiko Mae in “The Creation of Female Identity Through the Autobiographical Work of Three 20th Century Japanese Women Writers,” and that of Miyamoto, Sata Ineko, and Hirabayashi Taiko by Hilaria Gossmann in “Writing as a Means of Liberation: Women Writers’ Autobiographical Works in Proletarian Literature.” The section specifically devoted to women closes with two real-life stories, presented in Joy Hendry’s “Generational Diversity in a Family Life History: Two Academic Women.”

The section “Childhood and Youth” is the least successful. In “‘Who Am I?’–Testimonies of Silent Controversies in Japanese Schoolchildren’s Compositions,” Peter Ackermann uses the compositions as “very private essays [that] give us valuable insights into reality as it is seen” (p. 54) by schoolchildren. Likewise, in Gisela Trommsdorff’s “Values of Social Orientations of Japanese Youth in Intercultural Comparison” we are given an absolutely unreflecting recitation of statistics based on surveys conducted by the Youth Affairs Administration. The assumptions and methodologies of both these studies are wonderfully deconstructed by Margaret Lock’s “Symptoms of Indolence: The Rhetoric of Middle Age and Menopause In Japan.” This paper covers some of the same ground as her recent “Ideology, Female Midlife, and the Greying of Japan” in The Journal of Japanese Studies (vol. 19, no. 1 [Winter 1993]), but in the present context highlights the coercive nature of statistically derived behavioral “averages,” as well as graphically portraying the real-life conditions of caring for the elderly in Japan.

The other strong ethnography of the volume is Tamara Hareven’s “Between Craft and Industry: The Subjective Reconstruction of the Life Course of Kyoto’s Traditional Weavers,” an article that also pays considerable attention to the position of women in this male-dominated industry. Finally, analogous to Trommsdorf’s paper, a kind of mythology of the confucian work ethic can be seen operating in Morioka Kiyomi’s “Life Course of Japanese Men in the 192-23 Cohort,” to which Friedrich Furstenberg’s “Autobiographies of Japanese Entrepreneurs” serves as an appropriate pendant.

Copyright University of British Columbia Spring 1994

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