Japan—Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Paul Norbury – Book Review

Japan—Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Paul Norbury is a book that is written as a concise collection of information on Japan and Japanese culture and etiquette for travellers. But after reading it, I must say that I found it to be offensive and condescending.

**Please note: I had a Japanese friend of mine—a specialist of Japanese culture—read the book after I finished it—it’s a very quick read—to get their opinion as well, and after discussing it with them, we both had the same feelings regarding it. **

There are a couple of good qualities to the book and I’ll begin with those. The book does exactly as it’s advertised: it offers a very concise telling of modern Japanese history, customs, culture, and etiquette. It goes over the bare minimum basics to provide a simple understanding of Japan as a nation and culturally rich community. That coupled with the effortless way its written, makes it fast read; I blew through it in less than an hour, reading it cover to cover. However, after finishing the book, I strongly felt that the point of it was not to inform or educate, but to keep people from visiting Japan, as it was extremely off-putting with its execution.


When the author talks about modern Japanese history, one of the elements that is discussed was Japan’s surrender in the Second World War after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This event, through the decades following the war, led to Japan being quite proactive for world peace. They even involved themselves in rescue relief efforts worldwide and advocate for the end of research and development of nuclear arms. But the author critiques Japan’s pro-peace endeavours as being wholly ingenuine and more of a “fad” because of how brutally they lost. He makes it sound like Japan is trying to hold a monopoly on nuclear destruction and the pain that stems from it, and then using that attitude to fuel their desire for world peace to make themselves look like they’re above violence and better for it, arrogantly speaking.

I’ve done a lot of research on the Second World War, particularly the aftermath of those bombings and how Japan rebuilt itself as a nation in the years following it. While there may be individuals who feel they can understand the pain and catastrophic ramifications of atomic weapons much better than others, having lived through it, maybe even feel some sort of entitlement to that experience and event, that sense of entitlement is not something that spans throughout the nation by far. Not only that, they were devastated by atomic bombings that cost approximately 300,000 lives. If this experience and this devastatingly tragic event didn’t move them towards the advocation of peace, then I don’t know what would have. Hell, this event should have pushed a lot more nations towards peace, but it didn’t.

When it comes to Japanese etiquette, the author’s descriptions of common practices, specific to businesses, makes the country sound like they are full of backwards and pretentious attitudes, who view the entire world to be culturally inferior to them. Again, this is not true. This is evident in Japan’s economic and societal history from the 1860s to current times. The Japanese people have a duality to their lives that is created to maintain order and discipline. There is an “inner” persona, which is personal and involves how they act with family and friends and their home life. Then there is the “outer” persona, which is for professional and societal situations. This is actually a common practise in various Asian cultures and is not limited to Japan. They have their own unique practise of this ideal, but the notion in general is not strictly Japanese. Yet, the author views this duality as being two-faced, making the Japanese people “untrustworthy” and deceitful, and something that travellers “need to be aware of” to protect themselves.

There are many, many other occurrences such as this throughout the 164 pages or so of the book and it was absolutely fucking infuriating. You can tell this was written by someone who has no respect for a non-Western nation’s culture or community. I found it to be highly disrespectful and a poor source of information for Japan, especially if you’re a traveller. If you truly want to learn about Japanese culture and be prepared for any travels that you may be taking to the country, particularly for first-time travelling, then look elsewhere because this is not the book to provide that, at least not in any respectful and educative means. I recommend you find one written by a Japanese person, as they will be able to provide that information most accurately.

1.5 outta 5.

Thank you so much for stopping by today! Until next time, happy reading and happy otakuing! 🌼

4 thoughts on “Japan—Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture by Paul Norbury – Book Review

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  3. Ughh, how frustrating! I had similar issues with another book written by a Westerner that was meant to address ‘culture shock’ for foreigners in Japan. It had such a nasty tone, I barely read a chapter. I don’t understand why there are books like that!

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    • I always feel the purpose of books like that is to discourage travelling & respect of different cultures; to act superior in comparison to them, & it boggles my mind as to why. Such a waste of energy, not to mention how harmful for people of those cultures to see that kind of hate.

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