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.