Author: Kyoko Mori
Publisher: Fawcett Books
ISBN: 0-449-00428-7

Kyoko Mori has interesting qualifications to compare and contrast Japanese culture and society with American. She is a Japanese woman who grew up in Kobe, moved to America to attend Rockford College in Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. She published her first novel, Shizuko's Daughter, a New York Times Notable Book, in 1993 and published Polite Lies: On Being a Woman Caught Between Cultures in 1997 when she was teaching creative writing at St. Norbert's College in De Pere, Wisconsin.

She says that when she wrote Polite Lies her life was split neatly half: twenty years in Japan, twenty years in the American midwest. The book consists of a dozen essays titled Language, Family, Secrets, Rituals, A Woman's Place, Bodies, Symbols, School, Tears, Lies, Safety, and Home. And by page 5 she's pointed out bilingual announcements on a plane take twice as long in Japanese as in English because "every Japanese announcement begins with a lengthy apology," It's an observation one can make (a) only if you speak Japanese and (b) are sensitive to the implications. Because while the polite apologies fall like spring rain, the "politeness is a steel net hauling us into the country where nothing means what it says."

I thought I knew something about Japan and its culture, but in every chapter Mori told me something new or articulated something I knew but had never put into words or both. For example: "In Japan, there is no such thing as a purely personal choice. Everything you do (or decide not to do) is a symbolic message directed at the world, a manifesto of a philosophical cause you support. Even your rebellion, then, will be interpreted as a sign of your belonging to another group. . . ."

In her essay on Tears she writes that no one in Japan "expects a cab driver to show—or even experience—any emotions in the presence of his customers. That is part of the paradox about emotions in Japan. We are caught to refrain from expressing our feelings in public because to do so is rude, intrusive, and selfish, and yet it is all right for six hundred people to cry together at a funeral, or for an important company official to break down in public in the middle of delivering a eulogy. . . ."

That leads naturally to an essay about Lies, which are "fascinating because there are so many possibilities for invention and embellishment. In a liar's mouth, facts are no longer boring and predictable, but interesting and surprising . . .  My Japanese friends and I were not brought up to lie on all occasions. What we received was a very mixed message: lying is all right under some circumstances, and yet honesty is also very important . . . "

I have been interested to talk to businessmen and America tourists returning from Japan who report that "Tokyo is just like New York" or that "The Japanese are so polite." Polite Lies conveys a much more complex, much richer, much more interesting reality, one that Mori describes as both an insider and outsider. She is also an individual with a unique history and perspective. So while I do not question her generalities, I also suspect there may be individual variations.

More seriously, I wonder how many of her twenty-year-old observations hold up. What effect, if any, do the recession and general economic malaise, the rise of China next door, the spread of the internet and cell phones, the Fukushima disaster, the aging population, the less-than-replacement birth rate, climate change and more have on the culture? I suspect not much, but it would be nice to know. In the meantime, Polite Lies is a fascinating introduction to Japanese culture and society.