Confucius Lives Next Door

14 Aug

To get more insight into the Confucian-influenced psyche, I read T. R. Reid’s Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living in the East Teaches Us About Living in the West. A reporter for The Washington Post Reid and his family lived in Japan for many years. His work took him throughout the region and he wanted to figure out just how Confucian philosophy influences Asians.

In some respects the title is quite literal. Reid learned heaps from his next door neighbor Matsuda san, who handled complaining about loud rock music emanating from Reid’s son’s room so differently from the American way. Rather than calling and yelling, Matsuda san knocked on Reid’s door, came in for tea, chatted about all sorts of inconsequential matters and then cleared his throat to introduce the meiwaku or trouble you’re causing those around you. We really don’t have a specific word for that, do we? Reid explains how other meiwaku’s have been handled in business and politics. He provides readers with facts they may not know about Confucius and how he strove to make communication more direct and social relations more balanced.

It is fascinating to read about how children in Japan are educated and how societies from Singapore to China in various ways infuse more moral good citizen messages throughout the environment. He acknowledges that the average American would find this rather hokey, but that many of us do wish for more consideration from those around us.

I did think he presented some statistics and facts on literacy and school achievement that were questionable. He’d never met an illiterate Japanese person, but I have. He reports that if one or two children in a class don’t meet the grade level standard, it’s an emergency in the faculty room, but from my time teaching in rural Japan, I’ll tell you that a lot of teachers don’t worry about failure since the society has a spot for underachievers. My students were from low status families. So I’d read parts with a grain of salt, but I do recommend reading it.

The book is very Japan-centered and I did expect more about at least Korea and China, which are covered, but so briefly. Each country takes on Confucius thought differently. I wished that could be examined. Also, it was written in the late 1990’s and seems a bit dated.

The book reveals a lot about Japanese business practice and social policy and makes it clear that many countries look at the US and think, “Okay, you are number one, economically and militarily, but you sure pay a high price for that in social costs. Your streets aren’t all that safe. Your prisons are overflowing. People fear losing their jobs. Your schools don’t teach students well.” (Yes, I think the Japanese literacy rate is under the 98% they report, but I bet it is higher than ours.)

When I finished, I felt eager to read the real thing. Looking forward to famed lines like:

Isn’t it a pleasure when you can make practical use of the things you have studied? Isn’t it a pleasure to have an old friend visit from afar? Isn’t it the sure sign of a gentleman, that he does not take offense when others fail to recognize his ability?

One thing Reid does that I liked is that he added an atogaki, a traditional afterword in Japanese books in which the author points out the weaknesses in his or her own thesis to make sure the cracks in the wall are acknowledged. The idea is that the author thinks s/he had built a good wall, but wants the readers to see the cracks too. Then everyone can see the problems and contribute to an improved thesis down the road. Quite a communal approach, huh?


Posted by on August 14, 2011 in contemporary, non-fiction


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2 responses to “Confucius Lives Next Door

  1. ficklefolly

    August 14, 2011 at 11:02 pm

    I would be interested to read this someday as I am currently living in South Korea and experience the small differences Confucius has added to the culture everyday. Thanks for posting the review.


    • smkelly8

      August 18, 2011 at 11:13 am

      I’ve lived in Korea too. They espouse neo-confucianism. If you live near Seoul, check out the Royal Asiatic Society’s Tuesday evening meetings on culture. They also offer great trips.

      At one of their lectures I learned that Koreans are very hard core in their neo-confucianism, and any belief they adhere to. When the Chinese traveled to Korea after Korea took on Confucianism the Chinese were taken aback, kind of thinking “Chill a bit, folks.” Korea, in my opinion took up half of Confucianism, how the lower status people should treat the higher status. They do poorly in the rights and obligations due the lower status people.