The Lives of Japan's Greatest Men and Women

By Mark Weston

Kodansha. 377 pp. $32

Reviewed by Doug Struck

The Depression of 1929 hit Japan and Konosuke Matsushita's small manufacturing firm hard. Orders for his irons, bicycle lamps and batteries plunged, and he faced the prospect of firing workers. Instead, he made what seemed a dumbfounding decision: He kept his staff on full pay and ordered them to work only half-days. In their spare time, he asked them to go out and encourage people to buy his products.

It worked: The grateful employees became zealous salesmen, and in half a year sales were back to normal. His company, Matsushita Electric, prospered and grew into the world's largest manufacturer of consumer electronic products, sold under such names as Panasonic, Technics, Quasar and National. And Matsushita, once a poor apprentice boy in a bicycle shop, ran his huge corporation with the philosophy that "the mission of a manufacturer is to overcome poverty . . . to make all products as inexhaustible and as cheap as tap water." Matsushita's strategy and his company's revolutionary treatment of employees -- including Japan's first five-day work week, equal pay for women, and a corporate spiritual philosophy -- offer telling insights into Japan.

That is the point of Giants of Japan, a compilation of 37 miniprofiles of leading figures in Japanese industry, culture and history. As author Mark Weston notes in his preface, no Japanese businessman or student would be ignorant of Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain or Thomas Edison. But Americans know little of the major personalities of Japan, our chief trading partner, major economic competitor, former military foe and primary Asian ally. To begin to remedy that, this collection of portraits skims from the 6th century to the present, from warring shoguns to artists and politicians to industry moguls and baseball stars. It is a fun browse, an easy read, and an often fascinating glimpse of the leaders who helped shape a country that seems at once familiar and strange.

Readers will find some subjects familiar: the founders of corporate giants Mitsubishi and Honda, wartime figures such as Prime Minister Tojo and Emperor Hirohito, modern politicians such as the late political boss and convicted former prime minister Kakuei Tanaka. But other subjects are unknown to most Americans, such as Lady Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote the sweeping novel The Tale of Genji one thousand years ago, or Sen no Rikyu, a commoner who perfected the Zen-based, exquisitely ritual Japanese tea ceremony.

Weston's short profiles -- typically under 10 pages -- are most exotic when he deals in the history of mystery-shrouded Japan before its abrupt entry into the modern world in 1868 under the guns of Admiral Perry. Here are accounts of warlords and geishas, of honorable suicide and palace intrigue. For example, Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose family dynasty lasted nearly 300 years, was faced with intercepted letters by his wife conspiring against his own peace pact with a fierce military rival, Oda Nobunaga. As retribution, Nobunaga demanded a family sacrifice from Ieyasu.

"He could save his alliance with Nobunaga and kill his wife and eldest son, or he could fight a disastrous war," Weston writes. Ieyasu "had no problem deciding to kill his wife, whom he looked upon as a traitor, and quietly sent a vassal to do the bloody deed. But he spent two months trying to decide what to do about his son. . . . In October, 1579, he ordered his son to commit seppuku, ritual suicide."

Weston acknowledges that his roster of giants is only an appetizer; one hunger left by the collection is for greater insight into the role of the women in his tales. Only five of his 37 accounts are of the lives of females -- an understandable ratio where women's roles were and still are circumscribed. But there are intriguing hints that the women behind the men exercised considerable influence on the course of events.

The format of Giants would seem to make it a handy reference work, but here Weston falls short by failing to attribute his material. Each chapter has a bibliography -- virtually all of them secondary, English-language sources -- but without footnotes it is impossible to make a judgment about what is sure and what is supposition. That failure is telling, for example, in Weston's unqualified descriptions of the relations between lovers, and in other areas that clearly seized the author's interest. In an account of Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of the martial art aikido, for example, Weston states without attribution -- and without skepticism -- that Ueshiba "broke the ribs of six attacking thugs by projecting his ki [life force] into a wet towel" and that he "pinned. . . with a single finger" a well-known sumo wrestler.

But Giants of Japan's worthiest contribution to understanding Japan is in its successful effort to personalize history, to offer a look at the passions and motivations of those who influenced this powerful nation. Anyone with an interest in Japan can enjoy it.

Doug Struck is the Tokyo bureau chief of the Washington Post.