THE JAPANESE TODAY Change and Continuity by Edwin O. Reischauer (Harvard University Press: $25)

Besides being one of America's preeminent authorities on Japan, Edwin Reischauer displays a novelist's sensitivity in this thorough overview, managing to explain the paradoxes of Japan without diminishing the sense of mystery. The Japanese are among the most worldly travelers and traders, yet they are one of the most isolated, shy and mistrusted peoples; the education system is hailed as one of the world's most meritocratic, yet competition before university entrance examinations is brutal and failing them often marks a person for life; the culture is one of the most tolerant, with scarcely a notion of sin ("moderation is the key concept," Reischauer writes, "not prohibition"), yet this permissiveness doesn't extend to women ("Japanese men are blatantly male chauvinists and women seem shamefully exploited and repressed"). To explain the first of these paradoxes, Reischauer explores the 18th and 19th centuries, when Japan was completely sequestered from foreign powers. Japan's isolation helped cultivate the nationalism that brought it into World War II and the cohesion that fortifies the nation today.

To explain the enduring chauvinism, Reischauer shows how women's roles are still defined by the legacy of the feudal and Tokugawa periods, when the emphasis on strength and swordsmanship pushed them out of leadership positions. World War II labor shortages brought women back into the work force, but traditions die hard. Today, Reischauer can only point to small signs of change in the streets: men carrying babies, women walking next to, not behind, their husbands. The only thing missing from this expansive (412 pp.) overview is an examination of mass culture. Reischauer's chapter on the subject is cursory, not examining the content of TV programming or adult comic books, for instance (Reischauer indicates that the latter have been rapidly growing in number, but he doesn't mention that a majority of them depict brutal violence against mostly defenseless victims). Even so, however, "The Japanese Today" offers the broadest available overview of the world's third greatest economic power, sagaciously exploring politics, history, religion and education.

THE INTIMATE CIRCLE

The Sexual Dynamics

of Family Life

by Miriam and Otto Ehrenberg (Simon & Schuster: $16.95, cloth; $8.95, paper) You don't have to watch Dr. Ruth to realize that we live in a sexually expressive society, celebrating sexuality in films and television and cautioning against the dangers of sexual abuse at school or in the workplace. As the authors point out, however, the subject of sex is still as taboo at home as it was before the Sexual Revolution. Unless damaging sexual dynamics become dramatic enough to make the nightly news, we hear little about them. And so, like the people interviewed in these pages, many of us don't envision sex as a significant force in children's lives before they reach puberty. "The Intimate Circle" debunks this myth, arguing that the early years can be the most crucial in children's sexual development, helping establish their basic level of self-confidence. If parents ignore children's questions about sex, the authors contend, children will believe that this side of them is bad. And "when children are told they are bad because they have sexual feelings, they do not feel good enough about themselves to be able to say 'no.' Paradoxically, many children cannot say 'no' because they were never taught how to say 'yes' to something better." This lack of self-confidence, argue the authors, both psychologists in New York City, has helped make America's teen-age pregnancy rate among the highest in the world.

"The Intimate Circle" is a bold step toward confronting this problem, as well as others too subtle to make headlines. And yet, while the authors' fundamental message (a lack of self-confidence about sex can lead to self-destructive behavior) is well-founded, it's not immediately apparent. The authors take a deliberately dispassionate tone, introducing numerous case examples rather than consolidating and summarizing information. The style seems part of an earnest attempt to avoid the condescension masquerading as sympathy that mars many self-help books. Occasionally, however, it makes the authors seem insufficiently empathic with parents from sexually repressed families, whose own lack of self-confidence perpetuates the destructive cycle.

STAY TUNED

Behind the Scenes

at Channel 5

by Peggy Lamson (David Godine: $17.95)

Commercial TV news is sometimes criticized for its myopic focus on events rather than causes, official statements rather than underlying assumptions. The few news shows on public television do not always offer a viable alternative, however, for while they project the big picture, their focus is often too diffuse, failing to direct us toward a center of attention. Peggy Lamson, a spunky, inquisitive biographer who used to write extensively for live TV drama, looked for a way to integrate the best of both approaches and found it in Boston's Channel 5. She takes us on a grand tour of the station in these pages, composing a portrait that is often captivating. Channel 5's particular pride is "Chronicle," a 30-minute news show that examines one issue every weekday night. The show is rare because it explores the significance behind daily news events, and rarer still because it has consistently beaten commercial shows like "Entertainment Tonight" in the ratings. As Lamson sees it, "Chronicle" is one of many shows on the station which, in the spirit of Jeffersonian democracy, try to engage the public in political debate. "Stay Tuned" profiles the program producers rather than the programs produced, so Lamson never really proves her argument that Channel 5 "may be the best station in the country." But her sketches of the station's visionary, independent-minded founders are colorful. Moreover, her thoughts about the government's role in regulating television, "a public trust," are original and inspiring (though counter to the current tide in Washington): "Public libraries are also a public trust. They would be violating that trust if they offered their readers nothing but a wide selection of lurid romances and formula mysteries. . . . But those mysteries and romances are in fact the equivalent of what much of television offers its viewers."

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