When West Edits East

Be clear or perish

by Sumiko Iwao

The original appeared on page 12 of Japan Update, April 1993 (Number 19)

Author and reader in Japan are like partners in ballroom dancing. In America the author is a solo dancer, while the readers are the audience.

Free Press, a division of MacMillan of New York, published my book The Japanese Woman: Traditional Image and Changing Reality in November 1992: I long had keenly felt that Americans had stereotyped images of Japan and Japanese women that were considerably skewed, and so had undertaken to publish in the U.S. this book, which analyzes Japanese society through its women.

People have told me they found the book highly readable. However, the process I went through to make it readable was a painstaking experience in communicating to a culture different from my native one. I had had quite a bit of experience in presenting papers in Europe and America. But this was the first time I had put out my own book through a major American publishing company. Instead of writing in Japanese and then translating, I decided to write in English, because I had heard that translations of social science books written by Japanese for Japanese, without thorough editing for an American audience, are not very well received. At this stage, however, what was in my mind was merely the vague notion that a translation somehow wouldn't do. I had no inkling of the problems involved.

Many American friends who had heard I was preparing to publish a book in English asked me whether I was thinking in English when writing the book. However, it took considerable time before I learned that writing for an American audience is not just a matter of thinking and writing in English. It took two years to complete the book, and the work was far more laborious than I had imagined at first. At the same time, it was a precious opportunity to learn through experience the difference between publishing in Japan and in America.

In the first place, the significance placed upon publishing a book is different between Japan and the U.S. In the U.S., publishing a book is regarded as a far more serious affair. For one, the name of the publishing company is extremely important. When I chose Free Press, it was purely by accident and I did not know what kind of reputation it had. Fortunately, it turned out that Free Press was a publisher with a good track record and a high reputation. While I was still writing, some Americans, who could not tell how good a book it would be, regarded me with respect when they merely heard the name of the publisher. "Splendid!" they said. More than once I basked in reflected reputation. In Japan, one would not have such an experience no matter how great the reputation of the publisher. One of the reasons for this is the that there is a big difference between Japan and the U.S. with regard to the relationships between the author, editor and publisher. However, before I reached this understanding, I merely thought the American academic community places tremendous importance on publishing, as indicated in the saying, "publish or perish."

The differences in publishing are very numerous between Japan and the U.S. The points that made me realize the differences most strongly were the manner of involvement of the editor, and the way of writing a book. In Japan, whether the writer is commissioned or proposes a book to the publisher, the procedure is as follows. The author, in consultation with the editor, decides the general outline of the contents in accordance with the proposed chapters and with the target audience in mind. Then agreement is reached on technical matters, such as points of style and the deadline for submitting the manuscript. After this, all the author needs to do is write. On occasion, the editor might inquire about the progress the author is making. On the whole, however, the author is left alone until the writing is finished, because it is assumed the work is proceeding according to plan. After reading the completed manuscript, the editor might request a few revisions, but it never happens that the manuscript goes back and forth many times between the author and the editor. The editor puts the manuscript in order, puts on the headings and sends it to the printer. There is nothing for the author to do until the galley proof comes out. This is the normal procedure in Japan.

In America, the relationship between author and editor is immensely more close, and is full of tension. In contrast to a Japanese author, an American author is like an athlete who is managed by the editor. In playing the game, the author must take full care not to miss the signals given by the manager. Unlike in Japan, the general practice in America is that the author receives an advance payment. This practice, too, seems to give the American editor powers incomparably greater than in Japan. In my case, I sent the editor the draft manuscript for two or three chapters at a time. The editor sent it back to me with detailed comments. After I revised the manuscript in accordance with the editor's comments, 1 sent it back to New York. This procedure was repeated over and over. In addition, at midway I made a trip to New York to sit down with the editor for a discussion.

What bewildered me were the editor's comments, i.e. the substance of the requests she made. One of the things that astounded me was her request that I set down in the first chapter all the points I wanted to propound. She said the function of the following chapters was only to support the points made in Chapter One. This approach was applied also to each chapter, which must start with a statement of the points to be made in that chapter, i.e. the conclusions. In contrast, the ordinary approach in Japanese writing is to state the reasons and explanations first and to give the conclusions at the end. To be sure, a Japanese being interviewed on American television gives the impression that the point of his argument is not clear and that his statements lack punch. This is probably because he gives a lengthy explanation first and then states his conclusions as if it were an afterthought or something thrown in as an extra. For anyone who cannot bear to listen to the end, the Japanese style of communication may be ineffective. Nevertheless, as a Japanese who was educated in a society that considers modesty a virtue, I felt considerable resistance to putting my proposition up front at the very beginning of the book in the American fashion.

In an effort to convey the real picture to non-Japanese who are apt to think of Japan as a "vertical society" and of Japanese women as Madame Butterflies or geisha, I would plainly state facts based on data. Back would come the manuscript from the editor with the notation in the margin: "This is too descriptive. Make it more argumentative." In short, unless the author writes down his contentions first, the editor is not satisfied. Different people see things in different ways and think in different ways, and both ways have good points and shortcomings. Therefore, I cannot say my way is totally correct. However, it was the editor's opinion that my standpoint that it should be alright for me to show my own way of looking at things was too weak.

I told the editor I wanted to end the book on a trailing note, leaving something to the readers' imagination after stating my arguments with the attitude of thinking together with the readers, which is the style in writing a book in Japanese. My wish was rejected flatly. I was told Americans would not pay money for a book that does not clearly state its conclusions. Japanese readers, most likely, would think that a book that clearly states all the conclusions is arbitrary and presumptuous and not look upon the book favorably. You can say the relationship between author and reader in Japan is like that of partners in ballroom dancing, with the author leading the steps. The analogy in America would be that the author is a solo dancer on the stage, while the readers are the audience seated in the hall.

Another aspect in which there is a big difference between Japan and America is that in American publishing there are, besides the editor, a copy editor and a production editor. The cost that goes into publishing a book, including sales promotion of the finished book, is far greater in America than in Japan. Perhaps this point, too, amplifies the significance of writing a book in the United States.

Permission for using this reprint here has been applied for.


is a professor of psychology at Keio University and an adviser to the Japanese government and many international corporations.