Lost Japan

Title: Lost Japan
Japanese Title: 美しき日本の残像 (Utsukushiki Nippon no zanzō)
Author: Alex Kerr
Translator: Bodhi Fishman
Publication Year: 1996 (America); 1993 (Japan)
Publisher: Lonely Planet
Pages: 269

If you’re thinking about reading this book because you’re interested in Japan, I am sorry to inform you that Alex Kerr doesn’t like you. He just doesn’t think you’re very smart:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, “All is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land,’ where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […] Since World War II, Japan has had fifty years of uninterrupted peace, during which time the concrete of its social systems has set hard and fast. It has become a land of social stasis, and the foreigners drawn to Japan tend to be those who find comfort in this. (106, 107)

A Rhodes scholar friend of Kerr’s from Australia studying China, for instance, had the opportunity to become involved in the 1989 Tienanmen [sic] Square incident. What a hero! There is nothing more exciting than politically motivated massacres. If only they had more of those in Japan, amirite? Japan is such a boring place. All they have there are earthquakes, terrorist attacks, and nonviolent political upheaval, not to mention a dynamic feminist movement that really began to gather momentum in the years following an unprecedented economic downturn. Japan is home to a conformist society, where everyone is unbearably polite, and there aren’t any youth movements to capture to attention of intellectuals who have picked on the connections between Japanese society and their own.

Perhaps I’m being too critical. Lost Japan doesn’t have end notes or a bibliography, and the book works much better as a travelogue than as a serious study of Japan. Unlike many other “foreigner in Japan” books that came out of the nineties, however, Lost Japan is still in print and still referenced and recommended within communities of English-speaking people visiting and living in Japan.

As should be apparent from the passage I quoted above, Kerr is a person with strong opinions. As Kerr himself readily admits, his opinions tend to be polarizing, but it is their controversial nature that make them so interesting and compelling. Unfortunately, these opinions also tend toward sensationalism. Kerr seems to firmly believe that Japan is hurdling along a downslope slope towards cultural disaster. In order to demonstrate what Japan is losing, Kerr offers examples of the beauty he himself has experienced. These descriptions are vivid and immersive. Kerr details natural beauty…

As anyone who has hiked through the mountain ranges of Shikoku and Kyushu will know, Japan’s mountains are a jungle of sorts. Wherever one looks, the humid, dense slopes are covered with ferns, moss and fallen leaves. Coming along the bend of an unpaved mountain road, I would suddenly have the illusion that I had traveled back hundreds of millions of years. It felt as though at any moment a pterodactyl might come flying out of the mist. (17-18)

…architectural and artistic beauty…

Even within tourist-clogged Nara Park there are places which possess […] religious appeal. Entering the Sangatsu-do Hall, next door to the Hall of the Great Buddha, you find a quiet room far removed from the flurry of people in the park. In this dim space, there towers a magnificent gilt statue of the Fukukensaku Kannon Buddha, surrounded by a mandala arrangement of statues of guardians, the Sun and the Moon, and other bodhisattvas. From the halo behind the Buddha’s head project gilded rays, gleaming in the darkness. Tourists come to Sangatsu-do talking and laughing, but they soon fall silent in the presence of Fukukensaku Kannon’s fearsome light. None of them, including myself, has the slightest idea what the significance of Fukukensaku Kannon is. It doesn’t matter – those beams of light are enough. (207)

…and more intangible types of cultural heritage:

Other villagers from Tsurui came one by one to look at the foreigner, and then pitched in to help with the renovation. A foreigner was rare enough, but a foreigner who was trying to repair an old thatch-roofed house was doubly bizarre. Old folk took an interest, and would come over with straw to teach me how to weave straw sandals. […] At night, Shokichu and his friends told ghost stories in the spooky light of the floor hearth. (35)

What Kerr seems to love more than describing beauty, however, is describing ugliness. There is the ugliness of Japanese cities in general…

There are innumerable detailed building codes, but the overall design of a building and its aesthetic relation to street and skyline are ignored; the result is careless, disjointed, ugly. (66)

…the ugliness of Japanese cities in particular…

I was once taken to see the new Yokohama residential district Kohoku New Town, and was amazed at the multitudes of enormous steel pylons and smaller utility poles clustered everywhere – a hellish web of power lines darkening the sky above one’s head. This is a site which is considered a model of urban development. (50)

…the ugliness of the Japanese countryside…

There is hardly a single object on the Kabuki stage recognizable to young people today. When stage chanters sing of fireflies or autumn maples, such things are now almost mythical objects in this land of vast cedar plantations. (67)

…and the ugliness of the Japanese people themselves…

Japan’s national problem is homogeneity. The school system teaches everyone to say and think the same thing, and the bureaucracies restrict the development of new media, such as cable TV, the information highway and even movie theaters. As a result, no matter where you go, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all the houses look the same, the clothes look the same and people’s loves center around the same humdrum activities […] The passivity, the way in which [a department store counter saleswoman]’s shut out the outside world – it was a distinctive posture which I have seen in Japan so many times. Sensory deprivation? Passive silence? Fear of the world? I wish I could find the right words for it, but Japan is becoming a nation of people like this. (223)

…even though they know better:

I do not believe that the Japanese have completely lost the delicate sensibility of the Heian era. Somewhere, deep in their hearts, they know that Japan is becoming an ugly country. (51)

Sometimes I wondered whether Kerr really believed what he was saying, which seemed to be that Japan is an ugly country full of people who are either stupid or lazy. I wondered if it was really okay to say make generalizations like that about a country with a land area of more than 350,000 square kilometers and a population of more than 127,000,000 people. I also couldn’t help wondering what sort of person sees beauty only in very a small number of specific instances while seeing ugliness everywhere else.

It wasn’t just Kerr’s diatribes against ugliness that made me raise an eyebrow. For example:

Today, many Japanese would hardly know what the word yobai means, and it was a little short of miraculous that the custom still existed when I arrived in Iya. It was the subject of many a laughing conversation, and villagers slyly asked me now and then when I was going to start on my nocturnal adventures. At the time, yobai seemed to me just another local oddity, but later I discovered that there was more to it than I had thought. In the Heian period, the loves of the aristocrats immortalized in novels such as the Tale of Genji were modeled on the yobai pattern. (37)

Yobai, or “night crawling,” is when a young man breaks into a young woman’s bedroom late at night, often after a village festival (which usually involves alcohol), and ostensibly with the consent of the young woman’s parents. What an elegant, noble custom! It’s a shame that people don’t do this anymore. Let’s laugh about it, because there is nothing funnier than surprise sex! (Also, I think Kerr might be suggesting that marriage practices among the elite in an earlier historical period were modeled on a subset of rural customs from later historical periods, but this is excusable as everyone knows that history is like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.)

Also, sometimes Kerr says things that made me wonder if the Japan he’s talking about is some kind of bizarro-Japan from an alternate dimension. For example:

Standard Japanese, to the sorrow of [my younger cousins], has an almost complete lack of dirty words. (224)

The Japanese language has an almost complete lack of dirty words only if the words used to describe feces, effluvia, human genitalia, sexual acts, gay men, gay women, women in general, and displeasure at the behavior of others aren’t considered “dirty.” Seriously, there’s a whole book about this, and this book was written before cell phones and the internet became mainstream.

The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty – often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost. This is why Japan, which has hundreds of thousands of Italian and Chinese restaurants, has almost no genuine Italian or Chinese food. (231)

I guess the huge historic Chinatowns in cities like Yokohama and Kobe don’t exist?

One can scour the history of Japan, however, without finding much in the way of articulated philosophy; to put it strongly, Japan is not a country of thinkers. (113)

Not only is this not true, it’s also not a very nice thing to say.

If nothing else, Alex Kerr is an extraordinarily entertaining writer, and his strong opinions certainly contribute to the entertainment value of his writing. If one can simply take what he says with a grain of salt and understand Lost Japan as a story the author is telling about Japan, then it’s easy to enjoy being swept up in his tales of adventure. Kerr has had no small number of unique experiences, and he can take his readers into worlds that they would not be able to enter without him. Bodhi Fishman’s translation is both eloquent and frank, and each of Kerr’s chapters is written so that disappointment with one aspect of Japan will be balanced out by wonder and amazement at another.

Kerr’s follow-up book to Lost Japan, Dogs and Demons, reprises many of the same themes but contains a great deal more factual information. The author’s bitter and rancorous tone is somewhat gentler in Lost Japan than it is in of Dogs and Demons, however, and the earlier book contains much less ranting on the topic of how all popular culture is worthless and offensive. In comparison, Lost Japan has aged much better than Dogs and Demons, and its balance of adulation, criticism, colorful descriptions, and strong opinions make it an enjoyable light read more than ten years after its first publication in English.

Still, the book is far from unproblematic, and the reader is encouraged to maintain an attitude as critical of Kerr as Kerr’s own attitude is critical of Japan.

I’d like to end this review with a picture that I took while waiting for the bus one morning this past April just outside of the center of town in Kyoto, which Kerr describes as one of the ugliest cities in Japan. Is it really ugly? It’s a truism that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s ultimately up the reader to decide for him or herself.

Reimagining Japan

Title: Reimagining Japan: The Quest for a Future That Works
Editors: Brian Salsberg, Clay Chandler, and Heang Chhor
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: VIZ Media
Pages: 464

Reimagining Japan is a collection of eighty short essays on the future of Japan after an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown, and twenty years of economic stasis. The essayists brought together by this collection are mainly industry leaders and influential journalists, with a few academics and NPO-associated researchers thrown in for spice. In their essays, these luminaries speculate on what went wrong with Japan’s economic and social infrastructures and propose strategies to reinvigorate the country in the wake of the recent disasters.

I found this book to be infuriating. Here are five reasons why.

(1) The overgeneralizations. These generalizations tend to be made not about the economy, for which there are internationally recognized systems of characterization on the macro level, but rather about the Japanese people. Statistical demographic analysis is thrown to the wind as the reader is told, in essay after essay, that Japan is an aging society, that Japanese women don’t work, that there are no immigrants in Japan, and that the Japanese are a race of mindless automatons. Ironically, every other essay seems to offer the opposite set of generalizations. Women do work, Japan is filled with immigrants, and the Japanese are a highly individualistic people (everyone agrees that the population is aging, though). There are also generalizations about the relationship between the government and privately-owned industry and corporations. Government reliance on the private sector is good, government reliance on the private sector is bad. The government should regulate corporate activity, the government should not regulate corporate activity. This difference of opinion is not bad in and of itself, but when different people state radically different “facts” about the same issue, the validity of said facts is obviously called into question.

(2) The bad economics. Aside from a class in eighth grade and a class in my freshman year of college, I have never formally studied economics. I do not claim to be an expert on economic theory or practice. I genuinely respect people who do have this expertise. That being said, I don’t think telling an entire country of people how to behave constitutes a sound economic policy. An overwhelming number of the essayists in Reimaging Japan suggest that the Japanese economy will be revived if only “the Japanese” begin behaving in a radically different manner. There are some really strange examples of this type of thinking scattered throughout the book, such as when Pico Iyer obliquely blames the decline in Japanese economic productivity on women wearing makeup (with young women wearing makeup and older women wearing makeup being two separate economic issues, of course).

(3) Unchallenged assumptions. In an essay titled “Cool Is Not Enough,” Christopher Graves makes the following statement about Japan’s contents industry: “If Japan truly exports its wide array of anime and manga, foreign fans will discover that the content ranges from kawaii (super cute) to hentai (sexual perversion) interlaced with violence and dark apocalyptic visions. Real manga is not at all childlike and could cause an uproar in countries like the United States, whose people are likely to be outraged by scenes of rape or sex with an octopus.” In other words, most anime and manga in Japan is violent pornography, and Americans only tolerate Japanese popular culture because its true nature is hidden from them. I wonder, does Graves live in an alternate universe from our own, in which the vast majority of manga in Japan is indeed intended for a young audience, while a wide range of stories and genres are highly successful in America? How does the global CEO of a big-name international public relations firm make such silly and obvious mistakes, and why does anyone think it’s okay that his opinions and policy suggestions are based on such obvious and silly mistakes? These are questions I could ask regarding any number of the essayists in this book, who base their opinions on similarly ridiculous assumptions that they never question. A great deal of these assumptions come with no citations or corroborations, which is obviously problematic not just from an academic perspective but from the perspective of public and economic policy as well.

(4) An almost complete lack of concern over the environment. In an essay titled “Japan After People,” Alex Kerr goes off on one of his signature rants about how Japan is spoiling the beauty and sanctity of its natural heritage by lining its rivers with concrete and covering its mountains with sugi cypress trees. In the same essay, he laments the shrinking cities and rural depopulation caused by the country’s low birthrate. These two opinions, when placed side by side in a short essay, come off as somewhat contradictory. The last time I checked, fewer people means less strain on the environment, and more people along with less environmental destruction sounds an awful lot like having your cake and eating it too. Such environmental paradoxes appear throughout the book. Another remarkable contradiction is contained in the assertion, repeated across multiple essays, that Japan should emulate China. Not only are Chinese business practices not healthy on a social level, but they’re also terrifyingly destructive on an environmental level. The effects of global warming, such as extreme temperatures and drastically changing patterns of rainfall and drought, are very real and have a strong impact of economic stability. One might think that the incident at the Fukushima reactor would cause people to start taking environmental issues seriously, but all Reimagining Japan can offer is admiration of Chinese vitality and a call for more Japanese babies.

(5) Gender disparity. There are far, far more essays written by men in Reimagining Japan than essays written by women. While this may seem like a petty complaint on the surface, it becomes somewhat more troubling when one realizes that many of the issues addressed by these male essayists directly concern women. For example – where do all of those new Japanese babies that everyone wants come from? Also, I couldn’t help thinking how easy it would be to answer demands for a diverse and stable workforce if Japanese corporations made it easier for the female (more-than-)half of the population to be full-time employees. One might argue that, in an essay collection representing the opinions of industry and opinion leaders, that there are simply not enough high-profile women to go around, but this is simply not true. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that something so obviously useful as female opinions on gender issues would be overlooked by the editors.

There are a few diamonds in the rough (such as the essays by John Dower and Kumiko Makihara), but this collection as a whole is repetitive and a bit ridiculous. I don’t enjoy writing such negative reviews (and in fact I almost trashed this one unposted), but I thought someone should stand up and say that the sort of intellectual laziness that pervades Reimagining Japan is not okay. Let me repeat that: this is not okay. Still, there is enough that is good and interesting in this collection to make it worth browsing just so long as one remembers to think about what she reads instead of simply taking it at face value.

ETA: I really enjoyed reading this review of the collection, which echoes many of my criticisms but contains more information about the actual content. The author of the review seems to have enjoyed some of the essays I found particularly problematic (mainly because of their inherent sexism), but he does an excellent job of detailing the book’s strengths and weaknesses.