Crime and punishment in conflict

The Lone Samurai
By William Scott Wilson
(Kodansha, 287 pages)

The Last Shogun
By Ryotaro Shiba
(Kodansha, 255 pages)

By Master Sugoi
(Green Candy Press, 109 pages)

By Kazuya Takaoka
and Sachiko Kuru
(Kodansha, 390 pages)

Japan has managed to remain – despite a century and a half of "openness" – one of the most unique and culturally inscrutable countries in the First World. Despite a constant barrage of "Western" cultural influences and continued strength in the global markets, Japan remains unmistakably its own society, a strength easily attributed to centuries of isolation and cultural consistency, two themes that are woven throughout a handful of recent books.

Although the pictures on the front of The Lone Samurai (a stern-faced Miyamoto Musashi with swords drawn) and The Last Shogun (a resigned and melancholy Tokugawa Yoshinobu in a formal pose) seem to tell two diametrically different stories, the similarities between the near-mythical swordsman and the doomed-by-fate shogun are many.

Wilson's excellent and concise book tracks the travels and battles of an intuitively great martial artist whose out-of-the-box thinking made him a near-unbeatable opponent as well as an ontological puzzle. (Wilson also translated Miyamoto's canonical Book of Five Rings, in which the master laid out what his philosophy of Ni Ten Ichi Ryu, "the way of strategy." ) Having little need for the strictures of mainstream society, Miyamoto basically wandered around 17th century Japan with just the clothes on his back, whooping ass everywhere he went and making a name for himself in the process. That name looms large even today, and needless to say, The Lone Samurai is far from the first book (or movie) based on his life. What Wilson makes much to-do over, however, is Miyamoto's deeply rebellious streak, which is what made him an excellent swordsman as well as an iconic figure. Surprise and a thoroughly unconventional approach were the keys to Ni Ten Ichi Ryu, and in a society supposedly built on formality and groupthink, this attitude has made Miyamoto a not-to-be-imitated hero.

Yoshinobu, the final man to sit as shogun (the leader of the Japanese army, he enjoyed more real and practical power than the emperor) was similarly iconoclastic. Born Mito Keiki (he was renamed upon assuming the shogunate), the last shogun was, despite his aristocratic upbringing, a determinedly unambitious man with little patience for court formalities and political maneuverings. He reluctantly took the rudder of the Japanese nation right after the arrival of Matthew Perry's ships had sent the entire country into a lather about how to deal with "intruders." Being largely disinterested in protecting the spoils of feudalism and equally uninspired by the pro-imperialist/anti-foreigner ideology of his father, his difficult position winds up paralyzing him politically, setting the stage for the Meiji Restoration, in which the shogunate is dismantled and the emperor – in the form of a teenager – is brought in to actually rule the country. The delightful way that Ryotaro not only dispenses the historical basics, but also makes all the principals exist as people (rather than archetypes) makes the book a fascinating read, while giving substantial insight into the times in which this upheaval took place.

The Meiji Restoration was essentially the beginning of "modern" Japan, a country open to the outside world, but fiercely protective of its own identity. It's easy to see how little changed between Miyamoto's early 1600s and the late 1800s of The Last Shogun and how much things have changed in Japan since then. However, many of the cultural aspects established during the country's centuries of isolation are still very much a part of contemporary Japan.

Although you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who would consider the objects illustrated in Pornogami: A Guide to the Ancient Art of Paper-Folding for Adults to be "traditional," the fact remains that the art of paper-folding has been around at least since the 16th century and it's unlikely that this is the first time in 500 years that someone thought to take a piece of paper and turn it into a vagina. But "Master Sugoi" (in all likelihood, a pseudonym for Eric Gibbons, a self-proclaimed origami master, who just happens to be founder of the Firehouse Gallery, the "representatives" of Master Sugoi) lays out step-by-step instructions on turning dollar bills into penises.

Somewhat more classy is the fascinating microcosm of Japanese goldfish. Kingyo: The Artistry of Japanese Goldfish nestles a delicate and classic novella ("A Riot of Goldfish" by Kanoko Okamoto) amid beautiful pages featuring goldfish of amazing varieties of colors and presentation. Whether in a bowl, in a pond, as statuary or lacquer or Photoshopped into an environment-free existence, the multiple permutations of these fish make it easy to understand that the Japanese have a bit of an obsession with these fish (they've been bred and cross-bred for centuries, in an effort to come up with the most beautiful and unique specimens); however, the book doesn't bother to go into why these fish get so much attention.

In the end, though, it hardly matters. Goldfish – like origami or the various personalities throughout the country's history – are simply one small part of a consistent and somewhat inscrutable cultural identity that is hard to summarize with a simple stereotype. And the persistence of these long-held traditions, in all their various forms, is what defines a nation as a culture, rather than just as a country.

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