In S4E05 (The Chrysanthemum and the Sword), the Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Price agency gets a nibble from the Honda motor company, who are taking suitors for an ad campaign to show off their new motorbike.
The relationship between Japan and America post-Second World War is an irresistable and inevitable addition to the Mad Men series, and it’s been kind of hinted at from the beginning with Roger Sterling’s war experience and Bert Cooper’s Nipponophile-ness.
The Japanese have entered the American marketing world by the ’60s, and Mad Men heads straight for the rising tide of Asian influence on American culture and business, a reality that will remain.
In the episode in question, Peter Campbell says the crew needs to read the book by Ruth Benedict before the sale to understand their culture before making a pitch.
Don, of course, reads it, and no one else does.
The episode is very much a ‘this is how things started’ type of story where we see the Second World War era (Roger) pitted against the post-war capitalists (Peter) who are after markets and money wherever they are.
This is where American ad agencies and businesses branch out to Asia (mostly Japan), and vice-versa.
Roger comes out looking the stereotypical bigot, which is no surprise, and Don looks nuanced and wise, as per. Everyone else is the typical bumfungling crew completely freaked out about screwing up and getting fired.
Of course, Bert Cooper first introduced viewers to Japanese influence with his shoeless office, but this is the first time Asian characters are introduced, and the Japanese business world and culture is explored.
As a follow up, in S4E11 (The Chinese Wall), we see Fosco Maraini’s Meeting with Japan on Peggy’s shelf, which shows both Peggy’s ambition and seriousness about her career, and maybe gives us a bit of that following-Don’s-lead aspect to her character.
Benedict’s book was written in 1946 at the request of the U.S. Office of War Information as the Americans were getting set to occupy Japan post Second World War. The book very much does the “this is how Japanese people are” thing that’s pretty dated, and simplified, but the book is an interesting read not so much to discover what Japanese culture is like (you can read a Japanese author for that), but how Americans and outsiders view and deal with them.
This is very much how the episode plays out. It is almost entirely about how the Mad Men characters view the Japanese, although there is a brief taste of how they view the Americans, even if it’s a bit stereotypical in its delivery. See: men staring at Joan’s boobs.
The importance of the book in the episode comes at the end.
After all the other ad agencies have ignored the pitch rules, Don refuses the cheque he was given because his firm have not done the same. He tells the Honda people that they broke the rules they outlined. Read: you have no honour.
Maraini’s book, it should be noted, is the better book about Japan written by someone who’s not Japanese. It is more honest about the obstacles writing from a European perspective. He, like Benedict, is writing for Western eyes, but focuses more on art and culture. I found it the better book.
So-called “eastern influence” starts to pick up in Mad Men from season four on. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I Ching, and others are coming to the reading list, and the intention is pretty clear: Asian influence is starting to become a thing in American culture (particularly big cities like New York).