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

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

4.4 11
by T. R. Reid
"Fascinating...clearly stated, interesting and provoking.... A plainspoken account of living in Asia." —San Francisco Chronicle

Anyone who has heard his weekly commentary on NPR knows that T. R. Reid is trenchant, funny, and deeply knowledgeable reporter and now he brings this erudition and humor to the five years he spent in Japan—where he


"Fascinating...clearly stated, interesting and provoking.... A plainspoken account of living in Asia." —San Francisco Chronicle

Anyone who has heard his weekly commentary on NPR knows that T. R. Reid is trenchant, funny, and deeply knowledgeable reporter and now he brings this erudition and humor to the five years he spent in Japan—where he served as The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief. He provides unique insights into the country and its 2,500-year-old Confucian tradition, a powerful ethical system that has played an integral role in the continent's "postwar miracle."

Whether describing his neighbor calmly asserting that his son's loud bass playing brings disrepute on the neighborhood, or the Japanese custom of having students clean the schools, Reid inspires us to consider the many benefits of the Asian Way—as well as its drawbacks—and to use this to come to a greater understanding of both Japanese culture and America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this breezy homily, Reid, an NPR commentator who was the Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief for five years, offers a look at what he calls Asia's "social miracle" (as opposed to its once vaunted economic growth). The nations of East Asia, he reports, have "the safest streets, the strongest families, and the best schools in the world." Along with their enviably low rates of crime, divorce, unwed motherhood and vandalism, countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand boast a burgeoning middle class, a general aura of civility and a more egalitarian distribution of wealth than the U.S. enjoys. Like many other Asia watchers, Reid attributes this social cohesiveness to a shared set of core values--discipline, loyalty, hard work, a focus on education, group harmony, etc.--that he traces back to the Confucian classics. Yet Reid, now the Post's London bureau chief, readily admits that the East Asian model of Confucian prosperity has glaring flaws: most cities he visited were drab and ugly; Singapore is a "self-righteous and thoroughly intolerant place controlled by a small clique." Reid, who transplanted his family of five from a small Colorado town to Tokyo, serves up amusing anecdotes and cross-cultural observations (his two daughters enrolled in a Japanese public school), but his report reads like one long radio spiel and covers well-trod terrain. After gently berating Westerners for more than 200 pages, he gets to eat his rice cake and have it, too: Confucian values and our own Judeo-Christian morality, he concludes, are basically the same, differing mainly in nuance. Author tour. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Using anecdotes of his family's five-year sojourn in Tokyo and his own observations of Asian customs, media, and corporate practices, Washington Post bureau chief Reid offers a welcome expos of modern East Asia on the eve of what he terms "the Asian century." He contrasts Asia's ways with the West's in an effort to explain why the United States in particular does not measure up to the East on social stability indicators such as violent crime, theft, and single parenthood. Reid gives modern Asian trends a historical basis, with particularly keen insights into European imperialism's legacy there. Confucius's life and subsequent influence in both the East and West are illuminated. An appendix of concise, almanac-like entries for each East Asian nation includes brief historical backgrounds, economy, size, current political trends, and sociopolitical projections for the future. Highly recommended for all collections.--Kim Baxter, Van Houter Lib., New Jersey Inst. of Technology, Newark
Frank Gibney
Admittedly, the Master's ritual and his sense of group responsibility tided the Japanese over the difficult postwar half-century, just as they did for centuries past during the troubled times of the old Tokugawa shogunate. But in a world that for better or worse has become globalized, marked by computer-assisted innovation, unsparing competition and virtually automated international money markets, it's about time to send the old boy packing.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A readable if superficial analysis of the moral basis of east Asian society. Over the course of a generation, the nations of east Asia have become, to varying degrees, prosperous industrial societies. And a social miracle has accompanied the economic miracle, notes Reid (former Tokyo bureau chief for the Washington Post), namely, social stability. Nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all enjoy extremely low crime rates. Divorce is rare. Public education is superb; economic equality is more a fact than a goal. These societies work, and in comparison, ours doesn't. Why? Reid holds east Asian values responsible. For the region's people generally adhere to the tenets of Confucianism, and Confucianism preaches social harmony as an end in itself. Thus, to break or disregard social mores brings shame upon the self, one's family, and one's society. Reid writes knowingly about Confucian thought and shows, through sharply drawn anecdotes, how harmony is pursued and practiced on a daily basis in east Asia. Yet he doesn't find Confucian moral values to differ all that much from those of the West and its Judeo-Christian tradition. The main difference, for Reid, lies in the fact that east Asian societies will go to extraordinary lengths to instill moral values in every member (and this, he claims, Americans don't do, although they should). There are flaws in his logic, however. The author never questions, for instance, the psychic cost of socially mandated conformity, nor does he discuss the often highly unequal status of women in east Asia. And he doesn't consider how differing social policies, rather than simply differing emphases on values, may account for east Asia's success. Reidpresents an interesting thesis but doesn't quite convince. (Author tour) .

From the Publisher
"A provocative and entertaining portrayal...unfolds with insight, wry amusement, and unforgettable portraits that do indeed teach us as much about ourselves as about those living in 'the East.'" —The Washington Post Book World

"Engaging...a fascinating read...he is amusing, droll and extremely knowledgeable." —Detroit Free Press

Product Details

Random House, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.38(d)

Read an Excerpt

Drug Use

One of the reasons for the low crime rate in East Asian nations is the low rate of narcotic abuse. The percentage of addicts in the population is far lower than in Western nations, and thus the rate of drug-related crimes is lower as well.

Historically speaking, the crackdown on drugs is a fairly recent phenomenon. Asians have long been growers and users of opium and other narcotic plants. The traditional Chinese word for "drugs," in fact, is a compound of the character for "grass" and the character for "pleasure," suggesting that ancient China understood opium thousands of years ago. But today the old traditions of drug use persist only in a few areas, including the region on either side of the Thai-China border.

As with other forms of crime, the low rates of drug use result from heavy-handed police work in some Asian countries. Anybody who has flown into Singapore's airport will know this; as the plane nears touchdown, the flight attendant makes the arrival announcement: "We will soon be landing in Singapore. Please put your seat backs and tray tables in the full upright position, and please remember that anyone caught bringing drugs into Singapore will be sentenced to death."

But in most of East Asia, the main reason for low rates of drug use lies with the people, not the police. They have decided not to tolerate drugs, or drug users. We lived in Japan during the fervent "sa-kah boomu," or soccer boom, when the entire nation seemed to be crazy about the sport of soccer, and world-class soccer players were treated as matinee idols throughout the archipelago. (The American influence is so strong in Japan that the Japanese have adopted theAmerican name, soccer, for a game that is called football in most of the world.) Perhaps the height of this fascination came when Japan qualified for the 1998 World Cup finals, and a series of practice matches was scheduled between Japanese teams and the veteran World Cup players from Argentina. When it was announced that the Argentine national team was coming to Japan, every ticket for every game sold out within minutes. Then, just days before the series was to begin, Japanese immigration authorities announced that the greatest Argentine soccer star, Diego Maradona, would not be granted an entry visa. He had been convicted of drug use a few years earlier, and nobody who has a record of drug convictions can be admitted to Japan--no matter how strong his crossing kick.

In a huff, the other Argentine players announced that none would play if Maradona was not admitted to the country. The Japanese stood firm; so did the Argentines. The long-awaited series was canceled. The national sense of disappointment was palpable. And yet, the Japanese media and fans overwhelmingly supported their government. "I was really looking forward to that game," said the famous TV commentator Chikushi Tetsuya, holding up his now useless ticket on his evening news show. "But soccer games won't do us much good if we let ourselves become a society that tolerates illegal drug users."


Marriage: Once two people marry in Asian societies, they are a family. And family is a such a powerful concept that Asian couples are much more likely to stay married than couples in the Western democracies. Japan probably has the highest divorce rate of all the East Asian countries (I say "probably" because the official statistics on such matters are foggy in some parts of the region) but still ranks well below Western nations on this score. About 16 percent of marriages in Japan end in divorce; the figure is close to 50 percent in the United States and around 30 percent in most countries of Western Europe. In other East Asian countries that report family statistics, fewer than 10 percent of married couples seek divorce.

As with crime, this is a function more of social attitudes than of law. Divorce is legal in all the East Asian countries and is generally easy to achieve, if the husband agrees (a legacy of the traditional notion that a man should be free to leave the wife when he wants to but a woman is not free to leave her husband without his consent). But couples don't split up. This is not because every Asian marriage is made in heaven; rather, couples feel a responsibility to make a union work as well as possible. Maintaining a stable family is still considered something of a duty owed to the society as a whole.

Those who do get divorced tend to be ashamed of it, which is the key reason people don't do it. In Japan, a man or woman who is divorced is known as a batsu-ichi, which is to say, "a one-time failure." I've never met anybody in Japan who was divorced twice, but my unabridged Japanese dictionary says that such a person would be a batsu-ni, or "a two-time failure."

Millions of Americans had an opportunity to view the culture gap in attitudes toward marriage one evening on the Larry King show. It was "Japan Week" on Larry King Live!; the talk show host and his wife had traveled to Tokyo to focus on America's most important Asian ally. On his first show from Japan, Larry's guest was a highly respected Japanese newscaster, Tamaru Mizuzu. Tamaru-san had been invited on the show to discuss recent developments in Japanese politics. As is his custom, King did almost no research before the taping, about either the topic or the guest (he told me later that this no-preparation rule makes him a better surrogate for the audience when the tape is rolling).
For that reason, King was visibly stunned when the Japanese political analyst walked onto his set, just seconds before shooting was to start. Tamaru Mizuzu is a gorgeous woman, partial to elegant designer suits cut well above the knee so as to favor her long, perfect legs. Larry King took one look at this beautiful woman and her beautiful legs and forgot all about Japanese politics. "Well, Tamaru, uh, how's the social life here in Japan?" he asked. "A woman like you, must have a busy social life."

Now it was Tamaru-san's turn to be stunned. She has reasonably good English, and had in fact practiced a few English sentences--about the political situation in Japan--before coming to the show. But this totally unexpected turn of events threw her completely off kilter. "Well, I, ummmm, uh, ummm, I . . ." she stammered, groping for something, anything, to say in response to this off-the-wall question.

King tried to help out. "Oh, I'm sorry, Tamaru," he said graciously. "You must be married, right?" This question threw the Japanese newscaster into deeper despair. "I was umm, umm, umm, uh--" was the only answer she could produce. "Oh, Tamaru, I get it," King went on in his peppy, casual way, slipping a thumb under his suspenders. "You're divorced, right?" This was clearly the worst question of all from Tamaru-san's point of view. She flashed red with undisguised anger, and spat out a reply that essentially ended the interview: "I'm not talking about that." King quickly turned to another guest and asked about U.S.-Japan trade friction.

I joined Larry King and his production team at a restaurant after the taping, and it was clear that this veteran interviewer was concerned about the painful glitch in the interview he had just conducted. "What happened with Tamaru?" he kept asking. "I mean, hey, I really didn't mean to set her off like that." I explained that Tamaru-san was in fact divorced, that she had been criticized for selfishness in the fan magazines when she broke up with her husband, that this was considered a serious detriment to her broadcasting career, and that it was embarrassing for a Japanese person to talk about such a thing. "That's so strange," King replied. "Why would she make such a big deal out of a divorce?"

King then introduced me to his wife, Sherry, noting that they had only recently wed. I learned later that she was Mrs. Larry King number six. Larry and Sherry were divorced shortly after the visit to Japan.

Children: If marriage is deemed to involve fundamental responsibilities, parenthood is considered even more important. In East Asian countries, virtually every child is raised in a family with two parents; grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives are frequently living in the same home, although that pattern is changing somewhat as populations become more mobile. But the conviction that every child deserves a mother and a father at home remains solid.

This, too, is borne out in statistics. There are few broken homes in Asian societies, and almost no births out of wedlock. In the United States, somewhere between 30 and 35 percent of all babies are born to single mothers. In the countries of Western Europe, the figure ranges between 20 and 25 percent.

In East Asia, 1 percent (or less, in several countries) of the babies are born to single mothers. This is not to say that every Asian family is ideal. But just about every Asian family is a complete family. The social problems that seem to be connected to a high rate of broken homes--crime, social stress, and dire economic straits for single mothers--are not problems for Asian societies.

What People are Saying About This

James A. Leach
Like Tocqueville, who demythologized American culture to a wondering Europe a century and a half ago, T.R. Reid has brought a penetrating eye and an engaging pen to de-enigma-tize modern Japanese society. Confucius Lives Next Door establishes Reid as the preeminent cultural journalist of our times.
Joe Klein
T.R. Reid approaches Asia with a humor, humanity, and humility—the result is a wise and delightful book. In Reid's hands, the values of the East are made stunningly 'scrutable,' and more—Confucian civility becomes a useful lens through which we can view the vagaries of our own culture.

Meet the Author

T.R. Reid is currently the Washington Post London bureau chief.

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