In Review: September 8, 1999

Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West

by T. R. Reid '66
Random House, $24.95

When T. R. Reid '66 became chief of The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau some years ago, he and his family moved to Japan for an extended stay. Opting for total immersion in Japanese culture, they lived in a Tokyo neighborhood and sent their children to public schools. Confucius Lives Next Door is Reid's account of their experience. It is also an analysis of East Asia's postwar economic miracle and what Reid sees as its even more important "social miracle," the creation of ordered, civil societies marked by "the safest streets, the strongest families, and the best schools in the world," where lost wallets are returned to their owners with cash intact, baggage can be left unattended in the busiest train station, and no one locks their cars or bicycles.

The Confucius of the title is Reid's neighbor and mentor in Asian ways, Matsuda, an elderly gentleman of flawless manners who calls on him not long after he moves in to request, in the most polite and roundabout way possible, if Reido-san might urge his teenage son to stop playing his drums so loud. By disturbing the peace, young Reid-and by extension his family and the rest of the neighborhood-has committed meiwaku, a social sin resulting in shame by association for all members of any group associated with the offender. Meiwaku-literally, a breaking of the group harmony, or wa, on which a civil society depends-can be as trivial as arriving late for a meeting or as serious as committing a felony. Whatever the offense, it demands a profuse apology.

The real Confucius, a minor Chinese official who lived in the fifth century b.c.e., was one of the world's great moral teachers, on a par with Socrates and Christ. Reid (by no means the first to make this point) attributes Asian social and economic success to the inculcation of Confucian ideals in all aspects of daily life. The Master Kung, as he was known, believed in the subordination of the individual to society and in mutual obligation among citizens and between ruler and ruled.

In the Confucian scheme the goal of society is wa, which becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end. Confucius preached the importance of ritual in forging a bond between individuals and the group. Thus in Japan each January 15, most 20-year-olds participate in seijin-shika, a coming-of-age ceremony held in virtually every city and town, in which young people are welcomed into the world of adulthood. And on April 1, recent graduates of high school and college gather to pledge loyalty to their new employers in songs and speeches.

There are downsides to emphasis on the group, of course. When the Reids placed their two daughters in elementary school, they worried about ijime, a form of extremely cruel teasing directed at outsiders. Fortunately, the Reid kids adjusted easily to Yodobashi No. 6, whose strict regimen included performing all janitorial and kitchen chores. They became fluent in Japanese and mastered what may be the world's most difficult written language, whose complexities Reid explains in engaging detail. They also learned to hew to the Japanese maxim, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." Writes Reid, "It had to be confusing to our girls, who learned American-style lessons about individualism at home (Be yourself! Set your own standards! Just say no!) and Asian-style lessons about harmony and group solidarity at school."

Reid finds much to admire about the wa of Japanese corporations, which even in the deepest recession have refused to lay off workers. He tells of NKK Steel, a shipbuilding company whose ability to sell its chief product-icebreakers-on the international market was wiped out in the 1980s by the soaring value of the yen. In lieu of mass firings, NKK cut back on wages and salaries while pouring its resources into research on new products. It eventually became profitable by making huge enclosed structures for indoor beaches.

Faced with a similar crisis, a typical American firm would have slashed workers, the kind of Draconian action urged on Asian companies by western consultants in the wake of East Asia's current economic woes. "But efficiency," notes Reid, "can't be the only measure of success, for a business or a society. If a company enjoys big profits while the community around it grows desperate, neither company nor community really comes out ahead. At the same time we are teaching Asian societies about business efficiency, we might be learning a thing or two from them about loyalty, civility, and the value of a stable community."

-J. I. Merritt '66

Review 2 Title

The plastic pink flamingo? What can a lawn ornament that sells for $7.95 (a pair) at K-Mart really mean? "Nothing," had always been my own answer-but the pink creature turns out to be packed with surprising resonance and revelations for what nature has meant to Americans in the twentieth century. The bird's history speaks beautifully to my own generation of well-to-do baby boomers in particular-about our own meaningful post­World War II exploits, and our specific failures of connection. It's especially eloquent about big, broad definitions of Nature. And yet, the pink flamingo? As the environmentalist and nature writer Terry Tempest Williams has branded it, "our unnatural link to the natural world?"

-from Flight Maps by Jennifer Price '85

As a senior, Jennifer Price '85 was understandably eager to get her Princeton career over with. She had entered with the Class of 1982, but her graduation had been delayed several times-first by a stint doing senior-thesis research on bird ecology in Peru's Amazon basin, then by a serious knee injury sustained during a fall from a tree in Peru.

When she returned to campus, Price says she "was looking for a gut"-an easy, painless course. "I walked into American Social History: The Twentieth Century, taught by Gary Gerstle. But I was sort of disappointed because it was not really the gut I was looking for. I skipped the first precept because I was sure I was not going to keep with it. But I went to the second, and from then on, I was hooked. It opened the gates to a world I didn't know."

The course convinced Price, a biology major, to turn to history. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale in 1998 and this year published her first book, Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (Basic Books $24). In five episodic chapters, Price covers a century and a half of Americans' interactions with nature.

Price's first chapter recapitulates the extinction of the passenger pigeon during the latter half of the 19th century. The second chapter resurrects the largely forgotten tale of how fin-de-siècle society women shamed their peers into ending the fashionable habit of wearing dead birds as millinery adornments-and, in so doing, helped create the environmental movement. In the third chapter, Price reviews the cultural history of the plastic lawn flamingo. The fourth dissects how the Nature Company packaged and sold the natural world to willing consumers. And the fifth explores how television shows and commercials in the 1990s have used nature to appeal to viewers' sensibilities.

Price says she sought to break new ground by marrying environmental and cultural history. Earlier, when Price put together a panel on environmental history and cultural studies with former Princeton professor Andrew Ross, the event degenerated into a screaming match.

"Leftist social critics blame environmentalists for being middle class," she says. "The criticisms are often quite valid, but the critics also lacked a certain sympathy and insight into what nature lovers care about. I come to it as a nature lover myself. I want to ask why the pull of nature is so powerful, why people care so deeply about it."

Price, 38, credits her late-baby-boomer childhood in St. Louis, including annual trips to Aspen, Colorado, with shaping her "attachments to wild things." The other facet of her book-pop culture expertise-took longer to develop, with Price only beginning to watch a substantial amount of television during her fifth year of graduate school.

She has made up for lost time, however: Last year, Price moved to Los Angeles, in part to write TV scripts. Easy access to nature was a bonus. "If you're an outdoors person," she says, "you can be hiking in the mountains in 20 minutes, or at the ocean even quicker."

-Louis Jacobson '92

Louis Jacobson is a staff correspondent for National Journal in Washington, D.C.

Book briefings

A sampling of recent books of interest to Princetonians

The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry from Crop to the Last Drop, by Gregory Dicum '91 and Nina Luttinger (New Press, $14.95, paper). A wide-ranging look at America's favorite stimulant, from its discovery by an Ethiopian goatherd to the rise of Starbucks. In one of the more pointed sections of the book, the authors explore how coffee makes and breaks international economies and compare the lives of those who pick the beans and those who reap the profits.

The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages, Norman F. Cantor '53 *57, general editor (Viking, $40). Was King Arthur a myth or a real monarch? Where were the boundaries of the Mongol Empire? Who was the first Shiite imam? Does The Song of Roland represent history or an early example of Western propaganda? Cantor, a professor of history, sociology, and comparative literature at New York University, and 10 contributors cover these questions in 600 entries from the Abbadid Dynasty to Yugoslavia. The entries do not ignore Africa, Asia, and the New World, but European affairs dominate the book, supplemented by a profusion of maps and other illustrations.

The Sacrificial Years: A Chronicle of Walt Whitman's Experiences in the Civil War, John Harmon McElroy '56, editor (Godine, $29.95). The sacrifice of the title refers not only to those who fought in the Civil War, but to Whitman's years as an Army Hospital volunteer, when he read newspapers and wrote letters home for patients; distributed tobacco, oranges, and quince jelly; and simply sat beside those too ill to talk. McElroy, professor emeritus of American literature at the University of Arizona, culled 300 selections from Whitman's letters, newspaper accounts, and excerpts from the poet's recently discovered Civil War notebook, then arranged the book in chronological, diary-like form. (Whitman did not keep a diary of his experiences, which he regretted.) "Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction . . . and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life," Whitman writes. Fifty period photographs accompany the text.

Repair, by C. K. Williams (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $21). In this collection of 38 poems, Williams explores the subjects of forgiveness and coming to terms with pain, both on a personal level and in the larger world. His literary terrain is diverse: Auschwitz, Martin Luther King, Jr., a scrap yard, an island, his grandmother, his grandson, himself. His interests shift from the temporal to "that world beyond us which so often disappoints, but which sometimes shows us, lovely, what we are." Williams, who teaches in the Creative Writing Program, most recently received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature and the PEN/Voelker Career Achievement in Poetry Award.

Bargaining for Advantage: Negotiation Strategies for Reasonable People, by G. Richard Shell '71 (Viking, $24.95, paper). Shell offers a survivor's guide in the rough-and-tumble world of hard bargaining but without the macho posturing of Donald Trump. Shell, director of the Wharton Executive Negotiation Workshop, argues that ethics come first, and negotiators must evaluate themselves before sizing up the opposition. Readers first identify their bargaining styles-avoider, compromiser, accommodator, competitor, or problem-solver-and then assemble a "toolbox" of skills including solid planning, careful listening, and noting the other party's signals. Examples abound, from how Sony's Akio Morita launched the transistor radio in the U.S. to how disputes are handled by the Arusha in Tanzania.

Broke Heart Blues (Dutton, $24.95) and Where I've Been, and Where I'm Going: Essays, Reviews, and Prose (Plume, $12.95, paper), by Joyce Carol Oates. In her 29th novel and in a collection of nearly 50 previously published pieces of nonfiction, the Roger S. Berlind '52 Distinguished Professor of the Humanities again probes the American psyche. Broke Heart Blues follows a James Dean-like heartthrob who may or may not have murdered his mother's lover, and the high school classmates who elevate him to a hero and symbol of their own youthful promises. In Where I've Been, Oates ponders her romance with novel writing, ruminates on creating art, and delves into the subjects of fairytales, fear, and the motives of serial killers. 

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