Scandal, Sukyandaru, and Chouwen

Benjamin L. Liebman, Columbia Law School


Jose Canseco's use of steroids, the sale of used girls' underwear in Japan, penile mutilation, and the moral failings of both Bill Clinton and former Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Uno are not topics that often appear side by side, much less in a scholarly work of comparative law. And few law professors have the chance to publish a book whose jacket features a picture of a scantily clad woman. In Secrets, Sex and Spectacle, Mark West does both. He also does much more, unraveling the interplay of social and legal rules that influence the formation of scandal and spectacle in Japan and the United States.

West clearly delights in the retelling of scandal. His readers will as well. Yet his aim is not simply to provide an account of scandal in Japanese (and American) society; it is to explore in a comparative context what makes certain conduct scandalous and how societies differ in the formation and management of scandal. In keeping with these aims, West's study is also a call for greater emphasis on the comparative study of scandal and its interaction with law.

This Review takes up West's challenge, discussing West's book with reference to China. Secrets, Sex, and Spectacle has little, if anything, to do with China. Nevertheless, examination of scandal in China largely supports West's central arguments: institutions and rules, both formal and informal, matter in determining the types of occurrences that become scandal in a given society; and scandal is not simply the product of culture.

China's recent experience with scandal also shows some of the ways scandal can play a positive role in opening up discussion of taboo topics – perhaps even more so in a nondemocratic state than in a liberal democracy. Analysis of selected recent Chinese scandals, however, also suggests the benefit of further refinement of West's analysis.