Book Review: Netsuke Nation: Tales of Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet

Netsuke Nation: Tales from Another Japan, by Jonathan Magonet, is a short-story collection unlike anything you might have encountered before–unless you are familiar with netsuke, small and elaborate decorative carvings that are part of proper Japanese dress. Magonet, who has lived and taught in Japan, became enamored of netsuke and began to collect some of his own. Netsuke Nation is the result of his fascination with the carvings: partly short stories based around the imagined lives of individual figurines, and partly an ethnographic exploration of netsuke life, including politics, art, entertainment, and even sexual relationships.

As I read, I found myself wishing the Magonet had dropped the enthnography conceit entirely, and instead focused solely on the personal histories he had created surrounded his own personal netsuke. Those chapters, to me, felt the most in-depth, realistic, and creative. There are stories about a geisha cat, a pair of elderly sumo wrestlers, a fox priest, a professor, and more. They range from exploring themes of loneliness, relationships, and politics, with just a twist of magical realism, and are written with a certain detached wryness that I thought was appealing. Enough of the “other Japan” comes through in these stories, in bits and pieces that occur naturally as our characters navigate the world, as to make dedicated ethnography chapters seem flat and overly-expository. The geisha cat, for example, introduces the reader to the role of a geisha–to be a conversational, charming, objective of beauty–in addition to what her days and nights might look like, without necessarily going into a formal study of geisha culture. It probably also helps that I was the type of kid that totally believed her stuffed animals were alive, and had all sorts of fun adventures the moment my back was turned. It was very easy for me to fall under the spell of the netsuke characters!

The other thing is that I wanted to see more than just “another Japan.” Really, this could have been an ethnographic study of the Japanese; the fact that the netsuke were sculpted into the forms of cats and demons and shepherdesses didn’t factor into their society as much as one might think. Netsuke hold jobs and live in cities and towns; they are stereotypically a quiet and reserved people; they wear kimono and geta; they are considered cold and polite to outsiders; there is even a Netsuke Republic that is obviously China. This also highlights, for me, why the character-based chapters were the most effective. We can read nonfiction histories and ethnographies of Japan, but the character chapters of Netsuke Nation give us something unique: cultural studies by characters navigating that culture.

One of the more-successful integrations of netsuke culture with Japanese culture was that societal divisions are based upon the materials netsuke are made of. Bone netsuke were elite, whereas the newer materials (resins, plastics) made up the lowest caste. This was an imaginative way to combine status differences in Japanese society with the unique properties of the netsuke, and I wished that there had been more of this in the book, rather than relying so heavily on real Japanese culture. Magonet is obviously capable of this type of creative writing, and so I hope in the future he considers writing pure fiction!

One last concern was that the terms used for certain things made me wince, hard. For example, having the netsuke call horror films “holla” films, and Gene Kelly “Jinokerry” and flower power “fraupau.” First, it actually took me a long time to figure out what each of these terms was referring to. Secondly, and more importantly, this is racist. We are clearly supposed to identify netsuke society with Japanese society. For all intents and purposes, netsuke individuals are Japanese. This weird stereotype of Japanese people being incapable of pronouncing “r”–without challenging it, or calling it out–has absolutely no place in a book being published in 2013. Magonet obviously loves Japan, having lived and taught there, and so his usage of these terms struck me as very odd. Perhaps people of Japanese descent wouldn’t find it inappropriate, but I certainly did. And it’s too bad, because the imagined lives of netsuke lend themselves to some interesting and engaging stories.

Netsuke Nation will be released on April 1, 2013. I received a copy free for review from publisher Matador through Netgalley.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “She would be the hero of her own story, and not some helpless, passive dreamer, endlessly waiting for her savior to appear.”

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