What to ask Alex Kerr?

Kerr and InoseOn Nov 20, I’m going to see a lecture by Alex Kerr (pictured, bottom), a businessman in Japan and Thailand and author of Dogs and Demons, one of my favorite books on Japan. He’s giving some kind of talk at the Japan Foundation. Here‘s the promo copy:

Alex Kerr Lecture: “Lost Japan”

Alex Kerr, the East Asia scholar who was praised by Ryotaro Shiba as “a protector of Japanese culture, from America,” continues to express his melancholy at the state of affairs in which Japan’s beautiful scenery is in the process of being destroyed, as well as the need to protect traditional culture. Won’t you lend your ears to the warning bell that Kerr has sounded out of love for Japan and take another look at modern Japan from the perspective of someone who has lived abroad?

As I mentioned, Dogs and Demons is one of my favorites. It’s Kerr’s tale of woe, a follow-up to his previous love letter, Lost Japan, and it criticizes the social, economic, fiscal, and other problems facing Japan. He concludes that a runaway bureaucracy has ravaged Japan’s natural beauty and culture. The metaphor “dogs and demons” comes from this story by Chinese philosopher Han Feizi:

[T]he emperor asked a painter, “What are the hardest and easiest things to depict?” The artist replied, “Dogs and horses are difficult, demons and goblins are easy…. Japan suffers from a severe case of “Dogs and Demons.” In field after field, the bureaucracy dreams up lavish monuments rather than tend to long-term underlying problems. Communications centers sprout antennas from lofty towers, yet television channels and Internet usage lag. Lavish crafts halls dot the landscape while Japan’s traditional crafts are in terminal decline. And local history museums stand proud in every small town and municipal district while a sea of blighted industrial development has all but eradicated real local history.

Kerr goes on to detail initially covered-up river pollution that ended up being so bad they had to name a disease after what it did to people, nuclear reactors clumsily repaired with duct tape, massively wasteful public works spending that robs local areas of the chance to develop a real economy, unconscionable levels of government debt, and countless other examples of Japan’s “policy challenges” circa 1999.

The most effective parts of the book are where he talks about the destruction of Japan’s landscape and city planning, areas that directly affect Kerr personally as an art lover as well as his businesses in dealing artwork and urban restoration. Why are all of Japan’s rivers paved? What is the need for all the noise pollution in public areas? Why was Kyoto’s priceless architecture and urban culture allowed to be put on the chopping block? Why don’t they just tear down Kyoto tower?! OK, that last idea was my own, but he does at least call the tower “garish.”

I liked it because it put so much of what I experienced in Japan into context. Some may arrogantly argue that English-language books on Japan have nothing to teach those who can read Japanese, but I beg to differ – Kerr speaks, reads, and writes fluent Japanese himself, has lived in the country for years. I found the book especially accessible as he writes from a somewhat similar perspective to my own, though I have spent much less of my far fewer years in Japan and don’t necessarily have Kerr’s almost heartbreaking level of love for the country.

Alex remains active and has made several notable appearances lately. Last October he had an interesting discussion with Japan journalist Tony McNichol. Kerr likens the Koizumi years, in which a far-reaching structural reform agenda was promoted to move Japan away from its old model of economic development, to an addict’s “moment of clarity” when he finally realizes he has a problem. He was also mildly critical of famous social activist Arudo Debito for being too much of a “gaijin.”

In November 2005, I was a pleasantly surprised to see that he served as Laura Bush’s guide and interpreter when she sampled Japanese calligraphy at one of Kerr’s restored machiya during a visit to Kyoto while her husband chummed it up with Koizumi at Kinkakuji.

And in February, Kerr participated in a government study group called to ask prominent foreigners living in Japan their advice for Japan’s efforts to revitalize the country’s tourism industry, which is being promoted with a flagship “Yokoso” Visit Japan Campaign. According to an article on the meeting, he didn’t mince words: “‘First of all, what kind of a slogan is “Yokoso Japan?”‘ he asks. ‘That’s like saying “blah blah blah Japan.’ No one in the world would understand.'”

And since then he has been making periodic speeches in Japan on “Dogs and Demons issues” and tourism promotion. I’m interested to hear his take on the direction Japan is headed and (for my own sake) what opportunities there are for foreigners like myself who are interested in playing some role in making Japan a better place. I’d really like to know if he still believes what he wrote at the end of Dogs and Demons saying that foreigners have no place making demands on what Japan “should” or “must” do, since he has some pretty clear activist stances on issues focusing on historical preservation.

Still, I am not sure what to expect. I have some ideas for what I’d like to ask him, but I want to be prepared to ensure I can participate constructively and have something interesting to report back here. Any comments or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!!

57 thoughts on “What to ask Alex Kerr?”

  1. Personally, I got about a third of the way through Dogs and Demons before I had to take a shower, vomit and go to bed. It was such a badly-written book. There was no rhyme or reason to it: every chapter consisted of a few sentences about Japan’s bureaucracy, followed by a few sentences about how the entire country is covered in concrete, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat. I’m shocked that any publishing house editor would let it go to press in that state: it was like reading the stream of consciousness of a dog.

    This is not to disparage Mr. Kerr’s opinions; I just think his book needed a good dose of Structure 101, because I still don’t remember what the point of each chapter was supposed to be, other than to fill the minimum page requirement for a $23.95 book.

  2. Umm, maybe it made more sense in Japanese? I agree about the structure, and he seems to trail off when he enters an area that he doesn’t seem all that familiar with (like financial markets). Still, without it I wouldn’t have known about a whole host of issues the book brings up.

  3. Oh, I was going to say that it sounds like stuff I might be able to use in my contemporary Japan course. I love stuff that gives you texture, experience, without being absurdly exotic (Bumiller, for example). But I’ll have to take a look at it first, because structure is kind of useful for students….

  4. Here’s a few questions from someone who’s not read DandD (but Lost Japan lost it halfway through when he kept reminding me how much money he made helping save Japanese culture from destruction by the Japanese), but feels it Godwinises any discussion about Japan:

    1. If he were writing the book today, how different would it be?

    2. Yokoso Japan: good point, but what about “Ceud Mille Failte” to Ireland or the Scottish Highlands? Aloha Hawaii? Etc, etc?

    3, How would he recommend Japan encourages western tourism? (Rather than stopping them discouraging them further by concreting everything, for instance)

    Nice article about the lack of any cultural heritage protection, though, coming from Edinburgh where you’re restricted even on the colour you paint your front door in most of the city!

  5. I’d suggest you take a look at it. I wouldn’t discount it because it doesn’t flow like a classic piece of journalism. He makes some intriguing points from the perspective of someone from the inside as opposed to an academic that I think need to be looked at if you’re going to study Japan.

  6. Certainly, the Godwin effect applies to Kerr’s writing since it gets trotted out as some sort of gospel. Nevertheless it was at least worth a read and I see this event as an interesting opportunity while I’m in Thailand.

  7. As a Japanese, I don’t really know what is so special about his book. We already have a very loud group of Japanese intellectuals who are eager to criticize their own country. Indeed, much of the international criticism I hear of Japan is a recycling of criticism invented by those Japanese.

  8. Maybe it’s a question of what you encounter first. If I had been living in Japan all my life and totally fluent in Japanese and attuned to all the critical voices about Japan, maybe I wouldn’t have liked Dogs and Demons that much. But I came across the book at a time when it was extremely useful to me. Since then I have indeed come to realize that his book was more of a catalogue of sentiments by other authors (literally, that may be the best way to describe it especially when you look at the references) who had already done all the heavy lifting and investigation.

  9. Some may arrogantly argue that English-language books on Japan have nothing to teach those who can read Japanese…


    At the risk of getting stabbed in the guy myself, I believe the understanding was that you can’t call yourself a Japan (or any other nation) Expert without begin an expert of the language which will give you more access to more quality information (exception being a regional expert, but you’d need to have a team of people that are experts on each individual country as well). Sure there are good books written about Japan in English, but their numbers and diversity compare nothing to those written in Japanese. While Mr. Kerr may be a Japan expert, just reading his book wont make someone else a Japan expert. Please be kind and refrain from twisting the knife before you take it out to go in for more 😉

    As for the book itself, I’ve never read it myself, but I’ve heard about it on multiple occasions. The people I’ve talked to who use the book to talk about Japan seem to forget that a lot of the ‘destruction’ of Japan took place during the Bubble, when 800,000 people (I think that was the number, I can’t find a source, but regardless lots of people) moved to Tokyo every year. It just wasn’t possible to plan everything out to make an ultimate city. The Tokyo we live in today where it’s common to travel hours a day to and from work on crowded trains and subways is what happens when those kinds of people move in such a short period of time. They just had to build housing wherever they could, environment, society, beauty, and logic be damned. Slowly Tokyo is being rebuilt and beautified, but it’s going to take probably close to 100 years to redo the damage done over those 10 years. Unless of course that earthquake that’s due any time now comes along and jump-starts the process.

  10. First, to all of you who haven’t read Kerr’s book, I suggest that you do. I thought it was a very good read. I would lend you my copy but I had mine signed by Kerr and thus do not want to lend it out anymore.

    While Mika and critics who might say Kerr merely cataloged criticisms have their point, I think D&D is important because: a) Kerr (who won the 1994 Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for “Lost Japan”, and was the first non-Japanese to do so; not so easy a feat) wrote the criticism, and b) it’s a very powerful critique of post-war Japan’s reconstruction that is currently available.

    Japanese writers who critique Japan are great for the Japanese audience, but if that book isn’t translated, it doesn’t do the rest of the world any good. Simple fact.

    Also, I think it is safe to argue that few, if any, of the other writers of critiques of Japan have the literary status that Kerr has.

    Adamu- I met Kerr at the Japan Society in NYC in 2002 and enjoyed his speech on this topic.


    I would ask him: “Is Japan’s decline (vis-a-vis Japan’s falling birthrate, the growth of China, etc.) inevitable and what should Japanese people (not politicians) be doing to change the course of Japan for the future.”

    “Will you retire in Thailand?”

  11. :sigh:

    I’ve “critiqued” D&D in blog comments before, so here’s my take in brief: the book is chapter after chapter of self-righteous bleating that is far too solemn and herbivorous in its criticisms to be of any interest to someone who would really want to better this country. (BTW, funny that you comment on my ‘arrogant’ denigration of English-language books, since it was reading _this book_ in 2002 that first made me realize this was true.)

    Kerr’s whining about Yokoso Japan is a juicy little blurb because it pulls back the veil on what this guy is all about. Ken Y-N was on the money: “Yokoso Japan” is no worse than — say — an “Aloha Hawaii” campaign. Mika was right in that I wonder how Hawaiians would respond to some fat white guy who showed up and said, “I’m an expert on your culture! And let me tell you, this blah blah blah Hawaii campaign is one stupid idea.” Hawaiians wouldn’t tolerate that kind of bullshit, and in a Japan where manners are still a vital aspect of everyday life, it’s no wonder this guy’s fabled street cred circa 1994 has waned.

    What makes Kerr’s bitching even more priceless is that the it counters fact: the Yokoso Japan campaign was a big success, and Japan saw great gains in tourists over the past few years, particularly from ROK and Taiwan. But by this point, is it not so mind-numbingly obvious that Kerr is just a lugubrious whiner, a Fucked Gaijin bitchfest in book format, and little more than a self-absorbed post-modern nihilist?

    Not enough for you? How fun that you quote the late Shiba for lauding Kerr for protecting Japan from… America?

    Alex Kerr, the East Asia scholar who was praised by Ryotaro Shiba as “a protector of Japanese culture, from America,” continues to express his melancholy at the state of affairs in which Japan’s beautiful scenery is in the process of being destroyed, as well as the need to protect traditional culture.

    Funny, last time I checked I didn’t think it was America forcing Japan’s Land & Construction Ministry to pour concrete all over the countryside. But there you have it: what Shiba is really talking about, and what Kerr is talking about, and what all anti-American sentiment really is in the developed world, is moaning about modernity. And change. And that there are no more samurai. And Purikura, Karaoke, Shibuya decadence and monkey chicks. And that Kerr’s not the only foreigner living in Kyoto anymore. He hates the neon lights in Tokyo and the cosmopolitan world where immigrants are becoming part of Japanese daily life, where it is globalized, where you are just as likely to have an Indian or Italian restaurant open down the street as you are to see a sushi bar, where Japan has grown out of some of its more stuffy traditions to become a modernized and prosperous country. But no, Kerr says we need the good ol’ days when warlords ruled the country, foreigners who showed up on shore were executed, and Kyoto didn’t have modern architecture!

    I can forgive Kerr for being sentimental. (That is apparently what made _Lost Japan_ so popular.) But when he decided several years ago to change course and bitch about the modern world, without even the slightest sense of humor, using the most boorish prose imaginable, I get pissed off.

  12. “Umm, maybe it made more sense in Japanese?”
    Dogs and Demons was written in English. and the Japanese edition is just a translation.

  13. No one mentions that it’s interesting that Kerr was even invited to be part of the Yokoso Japan government study group after the book he published. It;s sort of to be expected that he’d slam something.

    His criticism of the name is on and off at the same time. One could defend or reject either side. But whether or not it works as a slogan, as a marketing tool, is what really matters. He thinks ‘Yokoso Japan’ will be detrimental to the bottom-line results. Ok, point noted. But this is marketing, where no one really knows until it actually happens (Who thought – on an empirical basis – that a crappy ad with an old lady saying, ‘Where’s the beef?’ would become a cultural phenomenon? – it was a shot in the dark).

    Curzon attacks the style of D&D, not whether anything Kerr has to say in the book is true, valid, logical or even worth nothing. I didn’t like his style either. I would have preferred to have the data-based information in Excel spreadsheets, to tell you the truth. But what matters is whether or not it’s true. Presenting it to people in a way they can read and access would be nice, but that’s one of the great things about style, it usually sucks for 90% of the people who encounter it.

    Ken Y-N:
    Great question about what Japan can do to get more Western tourists to Japan. I was under the assumption that Yokoso Japan was a push at the Chinese and Korean markets more than anything else, but I can see the sense behind making an effort for the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.

    What do they play up? Maids or Kyomizu? Roppongi Hills or Ise? Behind this marketing campaign, I see a bunch of confused people, not knowing what foreigners want to come to Japan to see. Those of us who have been here long term are probably the worst to ask. I make up lists for people who come over and one of the things they tend to enjoy the most is just wandering away from a station, getting lost and soaking it all in.

    That, and yakiniku.

  14. As far as Yokoso Japan goes, I think you brought up an important point. How do you market a country?
    Well, who are you targeting? I would think most people would agree that Yokoso Japan was aimed at people in the region more than at Westerners. Makes sense, those are the most likely visitors.
    That said, I think it’s neither possible nor necessary to create a broad blanket campaign. Want guys in their 20s, show the Akihabara. Interest in things Japanese among Western men seems to center on anime and martial arts. Fine, those are here.
    Want your Mom to come over? Show her Kiyomizu-dera.
    Want your brother to? Highlight all the nooks and crannies there are in which one can get lost.

    I’m in no better position than anyone else to say whether or not Yokoso Japan was a success. When planning for the future, though, it doesn’t matter. Success or not, it’d be best to target the waiting receivers you know are there. If you want to know what Westerners want to see and do in Japan, it’s simple – look at what aspects of Japan have become popular in the West.

    Sorry to get off the subject of Kerr there. As far as his books go, I think he gives voice to the bitching and dismay a lot of observers of Japan think. Anything that takes such a strongly critical stance is bound to displease more than a few people and the author of such a book is bound to be thought a jerk by quite a few people. I don’t think that detracts from or invalidates his points, though.

    I agree with Curzon on one important point, though. It seems that Kerr turned from needed criticism to anger some years back. “Dogs & Demons” was inferior to “Lost Japan” because parts of it bordered on screed. He seems to have changed sides a little bit, too.
    Protecting Japanese culture from America? Wasn’t it Kerr who pointed out that U.S. Grant did a lot to save ukiyoe and kabuki? And that the best collection of ukiyoe is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts? (Most of the best prints on display in the National Museum in Tokyo are on loan from Boston.) It seems, anecdotally, that foreign collectors and fans take an interest in historical and cultural aspects of Japan that are of interest and importance to very few Japanese, especially those under 40. It’s getting hard to see where Kerr’s coming from and what he’s driving at.
    (Who knows, maybe he’s just a better author in Japanese, in which 美しい日本の残像 was originally written, than in English.)

  15. Transpacific radio is hijacking my comments section!

    Curz: That translation might invite some misunderstanding – it actually is more like he’s a protector of Japanese culture WHO CAME from America. (アメリカから来た日本文化の守り手). Sorry if that misled.

    One of the repeated themes in D&D is not that Japan’s being ruined and needs to be restored to a pristine state, but that Japan didn’t get modernity right, most importantly (to him) in terms of modern concepts of historic preservation (think Freedom Trail in Boston, Dupont Circle area of DC, or something like Mt. Vernon) and city planning. The endless megaprojects, cozy relationships between regulators and the private sector, regimented education system, etc are signs of a very common argument – that Japan hasn’t successfully transitioned from a developing nation economy into a modern economy.

    Regardless of structure and style (since when have major political works been judged on style?) you have to consider the impact of this book. It’s become required reading and a name-check for reform-minded Japanese, and politicians like Ishihara have embraced it as a much-needed eye-opener. As much as you might resent Kerr for using his gaijin power to make his voice heard, the truth is that it is succeeding. As the promo copy demonstrates, Kerr positions himself as Japanese people’s friend, a warrior against the soft tyrrany that has ravaged Japan. And regarding the Yokoso Japan quip, at least this time they asked him.

    It’s funny, Curz- Kerr doesn’t argue to take Japan back to the shogunate, but there are Japanese authors that do (Kokka no hinkaku is probably the most popular example). Also, there are famous Japanese authors who, like Kerr, decry America’s pressure on (and formal negotiations with) Japan to arm-twist reforms from them, but mostly (like Takuro Morinaga and Hideyuki Sekioka) for fear-mongering and political posturing. My point is: the benefit I have gotten from reading Japanese language sources isn’t always that their commentary is balanced and factual – often it’s not – but it is incredibly diverse and remains, obviously, the only way to understand what people are arguing about in Japan.

    OK, so in terms of Yokoso Japan – go check out the site and you can see that they have a little something for everyone. Or better yet take a trip to the tourist offices yourself and pick up some brochures so you can see what the priority programs are. Yes, the market is bigger in China and SK, but they already know they want to go to Japan for the most part. It’s just a matter of stepping up efforts to offer more deals and then getting them to spend money and actually go home when they’re done. But for Westerners (the only other viable travel market), particularly Asian expats, a trip to Japan seems kind of like a far-off place that’s probably not worth forgoing a trip to Phuket, if it’s even an option they’re considering at all. That’s why you can see on that site a lot of information directed at the Western market.

  16. Curzon attacks the style of D&D, not whether anything Kerr has to say in the book is true, valid, logical or even worth nothing… But what matters is whether or not it’s true.

    First, my beef with Kern is _definitely_ substance, not form. Second, my critique above was not about his style, but his attitude. I’m brief on content because this book has been discussed in comments at MF before, and taking the time to fisk his sophomoric material is so tedious it bores me to tears. But I’m a crowd-pleaser by nature, so in brief:

    Ch. 1: Cement. Yes, Japan has a political economy based on a heavy construction sector. Kerr only mentions the social security reasons behind this (to keep unemployment down), and then goes on to moan about the environmental cost. He ignores the national security reasons for Japan’s robust construction sector: when a big earthquake hits, cities can be rebuilt quickly; witness Kobe today. But every society has some market distortions to keep the natural rate of unemployment low, and Japan has construction. So it has roads that go nowhere. So what? This has not decimated the countryside, as he alleged. It has not brought about environmental disaster. (And the whole nonsense about the tetrapods causing erosion is fantasy.)

    Ch. 2: Environment. _Japan planted lots of cedar and pine trees! Today this causes a hay fever epidemic!_ According to Kerr, this is the result of some anti-environment sickness in the Japanese _soul_ or some such nonsense. Bullshit. Japan was heavily deforested during WWII and had to plant fast-growing trees quick to stop erosion, stabilize their water supply, etc etc, read your Jared Diamond. They planted fast growing cedars that had the nasty side affect of putting out lots of pollen. This is slowly being remedied — to bring up Kerr’s own Kyoto, witness what they did with the Kiyomizu Dera hill between 2002 and 2004, cutting down thousands of birch trees to plant sakura. But watching Kerr be so desperate to make everything sound so awful is almost comedic — like watching someone sing a requiem for their empty bento box.

    Ch. 3: The Bubble. It was pretty clear in 2002 that Kerr didn’t know economics. In 2006, it’s even more obvious. The bad loans have largely been fixed, many banks have been restructured, and Japan now has a reformed financial system far more in-line with international norms.

    Ch. 4: Information. Quasi-conspiracy theory adopted from Ivan Hall, most of which is nonsense.

    Ch. 8: Urban planning. His critique of Japan’s spiderweb-style powerlines is perhaps the book’s only critique which is worth listening too, and which everyone reading this already knew.

    Ch. 12: Education. Yes, Japan has an education system that emphasizes memorization, not creativity. It suffers in some ways, but it also benefits. Having experienced high school and college in Japan and the US, the Japan experience wins out for me on both: better discipline, school uniforms, no drugs, organized club activities, and more. The US pushes creativity and original thought. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.

    Is that enough? To take Joe’s words, I want to go vomit and take a shower. If anyone wants to hear more, we’re talking in person over beers. And you’re buying.

    One of the repeated themes in D&D is not that Japan’s being ruined and needs to be restored to a pristine state, but that Japan didn’t get modernity right, most importantly (to him) in terms of modern concepts of historic preservation (think Freedom Trail in Boston, Dupont Circle area of DC, or something like Mt. Vernon) and city planning. The endless megaprojects, cozy relationships between regulators and the private sector, regimented education system, etc are signs of a very common argument – that Japan hasn’t successfully transitioned from a developing nation economy into a modern economy.

    Adamu, you have got to be kidding me. Just because Kyoto did a shit job doesn’t mean that Japan doesn’t “get” modernity.

    Let me get this straight: Kerr sees that his adopted hometown has done a shitty job of preserving its history… and says _this is a sickness in the very core of Japan’s soul._ (And he’s serious!) Japan doesn’t get modernity right?? This is bullshit. Plenty of Japanese cities have preserved their heritage in wonderful ways: Kumamoto, Himeji, Kagoshima, and Hakodate are beautiful. They’re not hot international tourist spots because their inconvenient to get to, and Japan is expensive. You’re never going to get fat Swedes to skip their cheap holidays at the beach in Phuket to go freeze their asses off in Hakodate in November, no matter what you call the “blah blah Japan” campaign.

    Next point: yes, a few cities in the US have some nice neighborhoods. But while Dupont Circle may be nice, DC is a filthy crime-ridden hole. I’ve never heard of Freedom Trail, but Boston is strangled with the worst traffic in the nation. Mt. Vernon is a park and some old buildings in the middle of nowhere, so it would be hard to fuck that up — except that, as you and I now know, it is in the process of being tackily commercialized with that new Ford welcome center.

    Compare the shitholes that are most US cities and compare them to Japan’s cities, in particular Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Sapporo, which are urban marvels. Japan has managed to create cities with an integrated residential and commercial zone that have eased rush hour (considering the concentrated population density), cities where there are essentially no slums or dangerous neighborhoods, the crime rate is the lowest in the world, the public transport is fantastic and efficient, dense urban areas are clean — shit, if anyone should be taking lessons it is DC and Boston, not the other way around.

    That Kerr is incapable of noticing so much of what is wonderful about Japan — and what really the world should be learning from this great country, not the other way around — makes me really sad that you find this whinepot such a compelling figure.

    P.S. My misunderstanding of Shiba’s quote doesn’t change any of the substance of what I said about Kerr’s view of modernity and change in my first comment.

  17. My quick take on D&D: I thought he brought up some good points (even about the environment despite what Curzon thinks, but I do agree with the righteousness comment) but like Joe I think he was far too repetitive. This was an op-ed unneccesarily stretched into a book.

    Ask him how he likes Thailand and how its modernization compares with Japan.

  18. What I see wrong with not just Yokoso Japan, but with the tour agents too, is that there seems to be only two ways to “do” Japan, on the whole, for the long-haul traveller.

    1. Culture: Meiji, Nikko, bus halfway up Fujisan, Kyoto.

    2. Otaku: Akiba, Gibili, err… and a few temples just to fill up time.

    I’m a Takarazuka fan myself, but I see almost no info about it. How could someone coming from abroad book a ticket in advance? Has Ticket PIA got an English site? Takarazuka’s own official English page doesn’t seem to have any info about how to book! Almost all package tours to Europe offer an optional night at the theatre or opera; Japan packages offers just Geisha (actually entertaining the time I saw a Maiko performance) or other traditional (perhaps cheesy) entertainment.

    PS: I’ve got an idea regarding this topic – if I’m not too busy this weekend I may be getting in touch with a few of you.

  19. I actually interviewed a couple of months ago with the tourism department at Kyoto City Hall for a project they were planning to help promote Kyoto to Western tourists. I talked with the head of the department and one of his assistants for about an hour about the sorts of under-emphasized things I thought they should be providing information on, and it was really eye opening for me to see how little they really seemed to understand about what foreign tourists might be looking for. I don’t want to write in detail about it right now, or what ideas I presented them with, but I will another time. Incidentally, the whole project was scuttled due to accounting scandals in city hall putting a freeze on all unnecessary new spending, so I never had the chance to actually do anything for them.

    As for Alex Kerr, I think some of his arguments are exaggerated, some are too far outside of his own area of expertise for him to fully grasp, but overall I think Dogs and Demons was an important antidote to all of the soporific mainstream coverage of Japan that was published in the American press throughout the 80s and 90s. Yes there may have been more academic works discussing structural, environmental, urban planning, educational etc. problems in Japan, but the general public in the West was simply not presented with these issues, and despite the flaws of this book I think Kerr did a service in simply raising the issues.

    And Kerr is hardly all doom and gloom. In more recent interviews he has happily admitted that many things are improving. I have, for example, seen him speak very fondly of the machiya preservation movement that has recently gained significant strength in Kyoto. Curzon, do you really believe that Kerr does not notice the good things about Japan? Try reading his first book some time.

    Ken, I would love to hear your idea, whatever it is.

  20. Curzon: I am basically agree that Kerr’s spiritualism is BS. And especially after coming to Thailand I realize that this business about properly adopting “modernism” doesn’t make a lot of sense nor is it all that helpful. I think it’s these stances that make Kerr sound more condescending and distasteful, especially given the decay of many of the supposed centers of modernity.

    Let *me* get something straight – DD remains an interesting book for me but I hadn’t even picked it up in a couple years before hearing about this lecture. The fact that he remains in the public eye as a respected figure (making speeches at the Tokyo American Club, recognition by Gov. Ishihara, voluminous press coverage) is enough for me to want to learn more about what the fuss is all about. My suspicion is he’s taking some convenient stances to promote his own projects.

    YH: I have a feeling that may be the very theme of his speech, but I’d love to hear how his experience in Thailand jives with his theories on Japan.

  21. I don’t think it’s very fair to compare contemporary Thailand and today’s Japan, at least without getting a broader perspective. Certainly Bangkok is not as nice a city in most ways as Tokyo, but it’s absolutely a paradise compared to, say, Manila-in EVERY way.

  22. Wow. I actually agree with Curzon for a change. He’s spot on in his critique of Kerr’s substance.

    I would add two things though. Firstly, cities like Kyoto may have had great chunks torn out of them and modernised, but most great ‘postindustrial’ cities tend to showcase a blend of the historical and the modern in this fashion anyway. DC may well have Dupont circle, but, as Curzon pointed out it also has its slums as well as its monuments to late 20th Century bureaucracy – like the FBI building. Kyoto, likewise, has the imperial palace, pontocho, numerous temples and shrines and Gion, etc, etc, etc. There are also historical buildings that have been preserved to celebrate the early modern such as the museum of Kyoto, and areas which integrate the modern with the traditional, such as kiyamachi and the part of Gion where people actually live (the bit to the South West of the Lawson opposite Yasaka jinja – I’m not sure if is technically still ‘Gion’). And yes, Kyoto has its modernism too, both in all its shiny glory (the post office, Kyoto station depending on your mood) and its shittiness (Kyoto tower, Kyoto station depending on your mood).

    Kerr and others seem to think Kyoto should be a museum – sort of like the Vatican city. Unfortunately, people in Kyoto have jobs and lives. Modern jobs require office space. Modern lives require comfortable housing and entertainment options. If Kerr wants a museum, he should go and live in Nara, but I bet he’ll be bored off his tits after he’s done the temple rounds a few times.

    My second major problem with Kerr is that his argument, or rather his methodology, is not particularly new. We have seen it all before and it was wrong then too. Back in the 1980s Karel van Wolferan painted a large essentialising picture of Japanese life, politics and culture, based on Chalmers Johnson’s economic analysis. Yet Johnson’s project was largely limited to explaining trade and industrial policy at the time. Whether or not Johnson was right in his analysis is debatable (I think he was), but it seems pretty silly for someone like von Wolferan, with next to no policy background, to take the focused work of policy scholars and expand it to a thesis on Japanese society as a whole. That is precisely what Kerr has done with the construction industry. His book is researched like an undergraduate paper – based on a few major sources and what seems to be a lot of internet (newspaper) research it reaches some sweeping conclusions. Hell, Kerr even links the construction industry to modern ikebana.

    More sensible books on post bubble ‘Japan’ would not try and come up with some sort of formula for understanding ‘the fall of modern Japan’ but would be more variagated, incorporating disparate issues such as the supposed rise of nationalism, political movement, youth concerns and the aging population, but not treating them as part of some monolithic whole. Either that or they would limit their purview to particular issues in Japanese society/politics and be clear about their limitation (i.e. no construction-ikebana matrix). Such books are out there. Jeff Kingston’s ‘Japan’s quiet revolution’ is pretty accurate in most parts, is accessable to the layperson and even incorporates Kerr’s concerns about the construction industry. It does not, however, attempt to find some secret ‘key’ to understanding Japan, possibly because such keys are a chimera. Be warned though: if you were not a fan of Kerr’s prose, Kingston’s is worse.

    One last minor quibble. In the prologue, Kerr wanks off about living in Bangkok and how he far prefers it to living in Kyoto. In Bangkok, you can sip coffee on the deck of the Oriental Hotel while glancing over the headlines of an Italian newspaper and watching the vibrant scenes of everyday Thai life on the riverbanks. Japan, so the narrative goes, is therefore inferior because Kerr cannot do that sort of thing there. However, this is all very well for rich white ex-pats, but what of the locals? I wonder how many of those Thais that constitute a charming daily spectacle for Kerr, and who are probably on the average Thai wage – or lower – would agree with him. I wonder if the women on the river who serve him his daily snacks wouldn’t prefer to live in an albeit smaller but modern Japanese-style apartment and be on the Japanese average wage and the opportunity to go overseas for a few days every couple of years than live day to day in a shack with no hot running water. I’m sure many of them would trade that for the privilege of watching large white men sipping expensive hot drinks and reading the foreign press in exclusive establishments designed to cater for tourists. Even if they did have to put up with hayfever.

    Doesn’t that say something about Japanese modernisation vis-a-vis the alternative?

  23. Ch. 4: Information. Quasi-conspiracy theory adopted from Ivan Hall, most of which is nonsense.

    I don’t remember if Kerr was specifically off-kilter in that chapter, but I wouldn’t broadly dismiss the idea that information control is more significant in Japan than in other non-dictatorships. Read Lauren Anne Freeman’s “Closing the Shop” if you haven’t already, which is a pretty unhysterical deconstruction of why kisha clubs are fundamentally bad for society and easy to be abused by political power. If there is not an element of elitist information control, why do reformers like Tanaka Yasuo etc. try to dismantle them?

    The internet is totally changing the information-dispersion system in Japan, so maybe this debate is irrelevant. But you don’t need conspiracy to explain the old model. Japan has a monolithic ad agency that handles most of the major companies and controls 75% of TV media space; publishing is centralized into major houses; advertorial is an accepted part of content; five media conglomerates run newspapers and TV; a few shady companies control all supply of actors/musicians. If you have an oligopolistic media market (with a lot of monopoly control in specific sectors, boy bands, for example), it’s very, very easy to control information. Much easier than a free market, at least. Who broke the Lockeed scandal? Not newspapers. Etc., etc.

  24. In response to marxy – I don’t think that you can argue that Japanese publishing is centralized. There are countless small publishing houses like Akashi Shoten, Kusa no Ne Shuppankai, etc. that publish VERY leftwing works critical of government. Their products are carried by major Japanese booksellers so there is no cut-off on the distribution side.

    Freeman’s book is jaw-droppingly awful in some ways. She insists, for example, that Japanese newspapers have no political stance. In other words she suggests that the Sankei is not far-right and that the Asahi is not a liberal/left work. That simply suggests that she is not that familiar with the editorials that these newspapers run daily.

    She also ignores the publishing houses attached to the major papers that publish no end of titles that eviscerate Japanese politics. Asahi has released MANY ultra-critical books. Are the writings of Honda Katsuichi not critical enough of state power? Shogakukan and Kodansha are two other big publishers that have realased works like Fujiwara Akira’s “Sekai no Naka no Nippon” which is, start to finish, a brutal attack on the Japanese government and what he sees as American world power. Iwanami Shoten is another major Japanese publisher that continues to challenge state power. Let’s not forget, Kerr and others like him all acknowledge that they get most of their ideas from Japanese authors. Those Japanese authors ARE being published and printed in news sources as well. They even make it on TV.

    Asahi has backed Tahara Soichiro’s “Asa made nama hoso” series on television as well as his books. He has touched upon just about everything from “the system” that Kerr hates to imperial war responsibility, comfort women, etc. There are hundreds of similar examples. NHK has run programs about Iraqi criticsm of the Iraq War, despite the government’s involvement. On social problems, I think that we can all agree that the Japanese media is nutzo — some kid remodels an air gun and shoots out a car windshield, let’s have a TV roundtable on the problem. Every time a hospital #$%&’s up, it is all over the press. Hyper-criticism seems like the rule. Hyper-criticism was at the root of the scandal that wasn’t – the Horie email earlier in the year that people were hoping would bring down the LDP. The Asahi went to town on Abe in the NHK pressure scadal back in 2004. The Yomiuri was all over Hashimoto’s dentist bribe thing. All of the newspapers (save the Sankei) slammed Koizumi over Yasukuni. Who do you think dug up the dirt on the yakuza connections to the bad debt of the Japanese banks in the 1990s? The Japan Times? Nope, the Mainichi and Yomiuri were racing for the scoop.

    I think that you are mistaking very limited information control by press clubs for a general lack of discursive freedom in Japanese society. There is a wide variety of quality, critical, non-fiction out there in a variety of media. Boy bands aside, I think that Japan is doing pretty well and if you think that “more free” markets like the USA are ahead of Japan in terms of free discourse, Noam Chomsky and his followers would certainly disagree.

  25. We might be veering off topic, but marxy has some great points above. Curzon: your first post did criticize style, not substance. Check it out again if you don’t believe me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with criticizing style, was just pointing it out. The second post did criticize content, which was good to read. Good points, in general agreement, but I have a few bones to pick…not now…

    Anyway, what to ask Alex Kerr…

    “How do you manage to handle your status as an internationally influential social critic and policy shaper?”

  26. Ken – I think I can answer that – he milks it for all it’s worth!

    Bryce – thank you for reminding me of that introduction! It really is a ridiculous passage – sure there are German businessmen planning sattelite systems or whatever, but there are about 10 times more pudgy British men pawing prostitutes from the country down the street. The river that he marvels about – the Chao Playa – is *shit brown* with filth. Yes development is exciting and all (and not as bad as a lot of other developing Asian cities, it’s true), but Bangkok right now is a pretty miserable place to live, especially if you’re living in a shanty by the river and actually have to ride in one of those boats Kerr derives so much pleasure from. And even though Bkk is developing fast, it faces even more serious problems in terms of urban planning than Tokyo does or probably ever had to deal with except for maybe in the initial post-war years when it was rubble. Looking back on that part now that I’ve lived in Bkk, it’s an extremely offensive way to make the point that there’s excitement and activity in Thailand while Japan has been passed over for attention by foreign investors.

    This discussion, along with taking a second look at D&D, has been very helpful. I get the feeling that Kerr is going to make a lot of DD- style sweeping statements about Japan’s soul at the event, and I wonder if the paying audience of Japanese expats will challenge him on it. For one thing, despite the Nikkei’s endorsements of failed technologies, the Internet usage in Japan is surpassing America’s right now.

    Also, all this talk of style and structure reminds me to be very careful when I finally get around to writing my own self-righteous diatribes.

    And I want to emphasize the impact this guy has had: MF made the point that I forgot to make that it was a sea change from some of the mainstream love letters that were on the scene. Gen made a very good point that Kerr earned the prestige (a quality lacking in the alternative presses that M-bone mentions) sufficient to make himself heard inside Japan. His opinions matter, just like Rush Limbaugh’s opinions matter.

  27. Shit dog,

    This lecture is happening while I’m in Japan. Where is it being held? Can I come too?

  28. Adamu – Re: the relative prestige of Kerr and the smaller publishers that I mentioned — right now Dogs and Demons is about 90,000 on Amazon’s sales ranking (Japanese version), there are a dozen titles from Akashi higher than that (some around longer than Kerr’s book). The books from these companies are reviewed in respected academic journals, Kerr was not taken seriously in this way. Iwanami Shoten, a left-leaning (mainly) academic publisher has… wow… well over 1500 titles ranked higher. I just did a quick browse but there are several non-fiction prize winners among them. Relative prestige is hard to measure, but Kerr is hardly a household name in Japan, has not been a big seller, and is not taken very seriously in academia.

    On the general subject of criticism of the Japanese media and press — wasn’t it Asahi that published the Japanese version of “Lost Japan” and Kodansha that published “Dogs and Demons”?

  29. That’s interesting. Perhaps I’m getting carried away reading his own promo site.

    I hope I don’t show up there to find only 3 other people in attendance. *That* would be awkward.

  30. Adamu – Kerr certainly thinks that he is gawd’s gift to Japan….

    BUT, there are better “lifer” Gaijin to read. Donald Richie is okay. Aceface throws Seidensticker (sp?) in with a rogue’s gallery of Japan-bashers but Seidensticker’s criticisms (in “Tokyo Rising”) were very focused — Tokyo (not Japan) has gone to pot lately. However, he freely admits several important things. He says clearly that while his writing is an elegy to the Tokyo of Nagai Kafu and some of Kawabata’s early works, that somebody will come along in a few years and write an elegy to the Tokyo that he has come to dislike. That is a great dose of the subjective. He also has many good things to say about Japanese culture, literature, etc. Has he said anything nasty lately? I’ll take Seidensticker over Kerr any day. (The other guys that aceface mentions deserve the criticism, I think).

    BTW, I’m sure that Kerr will draw a crowd. The Japan Foundation usually does a good job with promo.

    Bryce – It’s spelled “dawg”, right? (^_^)

  31. Curzon: your first post did criticize style, not substance. Check it out again if you don’t believe me.

    Thank you, I know what I wrote. Check my next comment — this has been discussed on MF before, and I don’t feel like repeating myself.

  32. I’m not sure how discussion of the popularity of Dogs and Demons in Japan is really relevant. It was a general readership book written for western audiences, that was only translated into Japanese at all because he had some reputation here from his first book, which was written in Japanese first and won a literary prize. Surely most Japanese readers who have any interest in politics whatsoever would already have been aware of all the topics he discussed in there, but very, very few Americans would have been.

  33. The more I think about it, the more I believe Kerr’s thesis is racist. Not in the “all chinks must die” variant of racism, but in the condescending idealisation of a particular image of the orient exposed by Said. It’s clear that the Japanese just don’t behave in the way Kerr prefers his orientals – unlike the Thais, who are apparently just dandy, thank you very much, because they run around doing ‘traditional’ shit. Take Chiiori, the house in the countryside, which is Kerr’s personal example of the Japanese idyll (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiiori) because it stands as a symbol of a Japan untainted by modernisation. Can we really blame today’s Japanese for not wanting to live there? It looks bloody freezing. Adamu has mentioned “Kerr’s almost heartbreaking level of love for the country”, but it feels more like romanticism of an ideal than love of the real to me.

    Adamu: “I want to emphasize the impact this guy has had.”

    To build on M-bone’s point, I think it’s correct to say that whatever impact Kerr’s book has had, it is largely confined to the English speaking ex-pat world in Japan. This is anecdotal, but most of the people I’ve met who have read this book and taken something from it are the type of people who had come to Japan for an overseas experience and are looking for an easy narrative to explain how everything works – again, no complex society can be boiled down to a few core principles, attractive as the temptation might be. Many of the ex-pats I met who read the book were also already feeling somewhat dislocated (i.e. homesick) when they read it and Kerr’s negative message plays into that.

    As for Ishihara, he seems to have used Kerr’s book more for rhetorical flourish to support his own longstanding policies anyway. His kooky nationalism notwithstanding, Ishihara has basically been about fighting nonsensical bureaucratic irregularities and stagnation since he got elected, and it’s a position he has held before D&D was even published. Of course there are going to be aspects of the book he agrees with. (In fact it is hard to disagree with “Kerr’s” analysis of the construction state, although it is hardly his own.) But this does not mean that anyone has to buy into Kerr’s “soul of Japan” bullshit – even Ishihara has his own formula, independent of Kerr’s, for this – or that anyone important would take Kerr as the definitive source on either construction policy or national identity in Japan.

    As for Shiba, well, he wrote a few good novels, and although the Meiji and Edo themes of his work might have been some sort of metaphorical reflection on post-war Japan, I doubt he has figured out some sort of formula to tell us whether or not Kerr was on the right track to “saving” Japan – or indeed that it actually needs saving. Besides, he died six years before D&D came out, so we don’t really know what he thought of Kerr’s later work. Again, it was probably more a question of Shiba agreeing with Kerr rather than being influenced by him.

    M-bone: “Bryce – It’s spelled “dawg”, right?”

    I’m from the Southern hemisphere. The gangsta pronunciation is a little different down here.

  34. Adamu: “That’s interesting. Perhaps I’m getting carried away reading his own promo site.”

    Bryce: “As for Ishihara, he seems to have used Kerr’s book more for rhetorical flourish to support his own longstanding policies anyway.”

    It does not surprise me that _Lost Japan_, written by a foreigner in Japanese, in the mid-1990s, written sentimentally about the end of old Japan, was a big hit with Japan’s literary community, which is big on nostalgia and tragedy. And the book may be excellent from a literary perspective. However, many of these people — Shiba, Ishihara, Inose, and Mishima to name a few — are politically provincialist, protectionist, nationalist, and overall not the kind of people you’d want to associate with outside the literary world. It doesn’t surprise me that Kerr shares their politics: grumpy, poetic diatribes about the corrupt nature of the modern world and longing for the old days.

    Bryce, do we disagree all that often? Only occasionally, surely. Your comment on Kerr’s “Orrientalism” was right on the money. And as for Chiiori… Jesus Christ…

    Purchased by Alex Kerr in the 1970s, the house is now home to staff members of the Chiiori Project, a non-profit organization based in Iya Valley that is working toward solutions to the problems surrounding depopulation in rural Japan.

    Hey, I’m glad someone claims to be working on rural depopulation. But living in that shack? Jesus, it sounds like the scariest type of Soviet-esque “NGO” I can think of: poor volunteers living in some fucking freezing thatched cottage in the middle of nowhere.

    Speaking of which, it’s not surprising that they’re seeking volunteers. Actually, looking at that site, I’ve got to think: the default page is in English, despite being in perhaps the most remote place possible. Does the project even have Japanese people involved? What kind of people go and do this? The only individual introductions on the Chiiori web site are listed in the photograph credits: “Ronny Kern, Anke Gosse, Galen Spong, and Mason Florence.” My hunch is that the people doing Chiiori are baby images of Kerr: foreigners looking for the same extinct ideal of Japan.

  35. Bryce, thank you also for reminding me of Kerr’s idealization of Bangkok. He likes Bangkok because he can sip coffee in a fancy cosmopolitan hotel, read a foreign newspaper, and watch bustling city life? If that’s what he wants, come to Tokyo. But I thought what he wanted was the quiet preserved Kyoto?

    So I return to my original point: he’s unhappy, doesn’t like something, and wants to complain about something, but he can’t even secure a constant thought. As for Bangkok v.s. Kyoto, apparently raw sewage flowing thick in open rivers is less of a problem than concrete.

  36. Cheers Curzon.

    Has anybody else been following the U.S. Democrats’ pledge to reign in ‘earmarks’ – obscure federal appropriations that aren’t taken from the budget get in on the back of often unrelated legislation? It seems to me that this kind of thing is very similar to what Kerr is describing. Given, the earmarks are technically approved by the legislature, but I think we would be pretty naive to expect Congressmen and Senators to personally read entire bills that they approve. There is just too much information.

    It seems America’s modernisation has included its share of teapot museums and bridges to nowhere, not to mention the military-industrial complex, so I wonder if it is that much different from Japan’s ‘construction state’. Perhaps in Japan there is just less of an environment to trash.


  37. Sure I’ve been following it. There’s lots of waste in America’s economy, whether it’s in the form of massive construction spending or communities whose economies depend on useless military bases or any number of the “spoils” that the author of that article decries. I see it as a huge problem not just because it’s corrupt but because it robs the affected areas of the opportunity to consider more sensible ways to develop their communities. And then when you hear those stories about closing military bases or whatever other gravy train comes to an end you get people complaining that there aren’t any jobs left.

    But I think the problem of waste in Japan is proportionally larger and more visibly ridiculous, and it’s also harder to stop since the decision-making is so centralized and out of the public eye. At least in the US, industry and development is spread out enough, and enough decision-making power is decentralized so that most states can consider developing a more self-sufficient economy that doesn’t depend on handouts from the central government. The process of decentralization is moving along, but it’s well-known that the more out-there areas of Japan just don’t have the mindset (or perhaps the capacity) for development after decades of postwar largesse.

  38. Bryce: the “Construction State” (土建国家), or alternatively identified as the “Construction Welfare State” (土建福祉国家) by political economists in Japan is reality unmatched elsewhere in the developed world. This can be confirmed with the figures: public expenditures, GDP, and employment. Construction accounts for a whopping 10% of Japan’s employment (as of 2001), compared to 2% in the US, 4% in the UK, and 5% in France (the highest in the EU). As for GDP, again, as of 2001, it was 16% in Japan, 13% in France, 11% in the UK, and 6% in the US.

    Those figues may have changed since Koizumi, but the underlying truth of the system remains: the government contributes enormous funds to the big six (Sumitomo, Mitsubishi, others) who build lots of construction projects, cement rivers, etc etc. And that’s why there are friggin’ eighteen safety traffic cops waving you through with ひかりスティック when you approach the hazardous rubber mats near the slightest construction near pavement. It’s Japan’s form of workfare: get people doing something without paying them welfare benefits to sit on their asses.

    Kerr mentions the concept in passing in chapter 1, but he’s more hung up in value judgments, critiques of how this ruins his seaside view, and speaks of public works projects as if they’re some kind of cheap fix to which Japan is addicted. Oh yeah, and bureaucrats are to blame for everything. He doesn’t mention that without the construction white elephants, Japan would have a Swedish-style unemployment rate of 10-12% and grand societal breakdown (in a nation where no job makes you an outcast as a failure), which would probably lead to more broken families and more crime. Think the homeless in Yoyogi Park, Shibuya, and Osaka Station are bad now? Imagine what would happen if there were not 2 million unemployed workers but 6 million.


    Curzon, do you really believe that Kerr does not notice the good things about Japan? Try reading his first book some time.

    Lost Japan? No thank you. But as for whether he sees the good things about Japan… well…

    “Dogs and horses are difficult, demons and goblins are easy…

    It’s tough to describe what you do like, i.e. dogs. It’s easy to badmouth what you don’t like, i.e. demons. And I don’t think there were a plethora of pro-Japan books in the 80s and 90s to which this text was a remedy. C Johnson, Bill Emmott, Van Wolfren, plenty had books critiquing the Japanese system without getting soppy and sentimental (and pointless).

  39. Curzon,

    I wasn’t saying that government wastage elsewhere all went on construction (hence my reference to military spending), merely that the earmarks appropriations process in the States is similar to what Kerr describes. It’s my understanding that the ‘earmarks’ in the U.S. are not considered part of the federal budget and they are pushed through the house on the back of other bills, often in the middle of the night. Perhaps it was not clear in my previous post, but I was trying to note that the way in which funds are appropriated is in effect, if not formal process, similar to what happens in Japan where you have an unsupervised bureaucracy borrowing willy-nilly from the postal savings fund and not having to declare it in the national budget. I can see from my comment about the environment where I might have been misconstrued though.

  40. The two systems resemble each other in that they are both undersupervised mechanisms that enable corruption, but the budget-making processes are vastly different between the two coutnries. The official budget and spending limits passed every year in the US are non-binding, so it’s not that the earmarks aren’t part of the federal budget, they just don’t show up on either the president’s suggested budget or the congressional resolution detailing the non-binding spending guidelines, and also that the foot-thick bills are sent to a floor vote with little debate. The problem with earmarking in the US is that the Congress members and their staff abuse the vague budget process and arcane legislative rules to write in favored projects behind the scenes.

    In Japan, however, the budget is separated out into the main account and several special accounts, the most famous of which is the one you mentioned, the Fiscal Investment and Loan Program (FILP) that was the “shadow budget” that gave the Ministry of Finance access to the bulk of private savings, which was then used to fund the public bodies that build the roads, pave the rivers, and finance cheap housing (among a myriad other projects) as we are well aware.

    It’s hard to compare, but I’ll try: a watchdog group estimates that earmarks account for something like 3% of federal spending in the US and 0.4% of GDP (by my estimate). Meanwhile in Japan the shadow budget dwarfs the regular budget, but FILP spending for 2005 accounted for about the same amount in GDP. But since FILP is only the tip of the iceberg for Japan’s long list of funding schemes (The scheme for redistributing local tax revenues for specific projects is another), the total amount of “pork” spending is likely higher in Japan. Still, FILP has been declining as the government has slowly started to reform a lot of the programs it financed (such as publicly financed housing).

    In short: Where FILP and other funds go is at the discretion of MOF officials sometimes at the behest of lawmakers, while earmarks are usually snuck into appropriations legislation by congressional staffers.

    So in that sense, the problems of wasteful spending in Japan, seeing as they remain at the near top of the political agenda, may be getting better while in the US the problem remains disgraceful yet contained.

  41. The proof that D&D is a necessary book regardless of its flaws is that the same mistakes are still happening.

    The proposed highway that will split Shimokitazawa has been (by Japanese standards) well publicized complete with New York Times articles, candlelight vigils, petitions (both paper and online), etc.

    But it was still approved a few weeks ago anyway!

  42. who the hell ARE you people?

    Jesus, I’ve been living in Japan for almost 4 years and I never met anyone who talked casually about “earmarking” and “Chalmers Johnson’s economic analysis” like it was on last night’s episode of Cheers. are you guys all some kind of university teachers or corporate stockbrokers or something?

    anyway, to answer your question, I would ask Mr. Kerr if he is related to Andy Kerr from NoMeansNo, and if so, could he persuade Andy to rejoin the band because they have really gone downhill ever since “Why Do They Call Me Mr. Happy?” Also you could ask him how Japan could lessen its economic dependence on the notriously corrupt “second budget” without totally screwing up its economy.

    Anyway I am totally happy I discovered this site, so rock on.

  43. I don’t think so Bryce. Paying to cut down trees is still providing pork for the construction industry. That and it’s a lot easier to pass legislation to pay money to reduce an allergy with a personal impact to the legislators than it is to stop a pork barrell project already in motion which doesn’t affect the older folks in power.

  44. A recent book, “Japan’s Quiet Transformation”, describes how Japan’s government construction spending has declined by 25% since 2000 and is expected to drop to less than 20% of all construction expenditure by 2010. Japan may be on its way to becoming a “normal” construction nation. I guess you can only build so many dams and roads to oblivion.

    Also, it is a mistake to discuss Japan’s construction industry as based only in government pork. In 2000, 60% of construction spending was private and went for housing and other buildings. Japan has had a notable increase in living space per capita since 1990 and very little of that has had to do with pork.

  45. In his book “Looking for the Lost”, which predates Kerr’s Dogs and Demons by seven years, the late Alan Booth had decried the concreting of riverbeds and hillsides. Figures were cited therein about the number of people employed by the construction industry–they’re so old, I’m not going to bother to quote them. However, they lend credence to Curzon’s statements about ‘the Construction Welfare State’. IIRC, Booth also complained about the cedar pollen in his first book, “The Roads to Sata”. Booth’s books are travelogues by a somewhat cranky Brit who had married a Japanese woman and spoke Japanese fluently, but also serve as social commentary.

    As for Kyoto, I agree that Kyoto Tower is a blight. However, if you go off the beaten path, you will see many authentic sights, not prepackaged tourist stuff like the “Gion Corner” show. Gion (as in Bryce’s post; Gion may also extend across Shijo northward) and Pontocho (west on Shijo, across the Kamogawa) are still considered geisha (geiko, more properly in Kyoto; the trainees are called maiko) neighborhoods. My otosan’s gilds kimono fabric, and much of his business originates at least indirectly from geiko and maiko, as there is not much call among the general populace for kimono any longer, except for special occasions.

    My okaasan’s oneesan is married to a person in the upper reaches of the Japan Highway Public Corp (the tollway authority)…anybody want to talk about ‘roads to nowhere’?

  46. I live right around the corner from Gion, and yes it does extend north of Shijo. I believe the official north edge of Gion is a bit south of Sanjo, where the second Keihan station building is.

    And for what’s worth, I loath Kyoto tower, but I think that the bizarre and baroque Kyoto Station is wonderful. Whatever you say about Kyoto Station, it isn’t a copy of anything.

  47. Slightly late, but I have only recently realised that you didn’t have to register to comment. I’ll try not to dredge up too many ancient posts. But Alex Kerr – and D&D especially – is something I have personally found annoying frequently.

    First off, that infamous scene in Bangkok. Quite aside from the ‘Foreigner Concession’ aspect of it that has already been touched on, the hotel he is at, the Oriental, is frequently rated among the very top if not the very top hotel in Asia: of _course_ it’s going to have all these wonderful perks and international things. Compare apples with apples please – not with mice.

    Another bugbear is the frequent rants about all the concreting of Japan’s rivers. Kerr seems to think that’s only done in order to have somewhere to PUT all this pork-barrel concrete. But Japanese rivers are short and steep: they have a historical tendency to flood very often. All these dams and raised embankments are there to stop that. The slathering of concrete barriers over mountains is there to stop massive landslips and even worse. While I certainly do not deny the existence and even general extent of pork, it’s not all just to spend money.

    I would loathe Kyoto station a lot less if the architect didn’t try and fool us into thinking it was based on traditional Japanese architectural styles. There’s a signboard to that extent on the viewing deck, or was last I was up there. One of my uni profs said it reminded him most of the Yamato (from the tracks side)…. Whatever else it is though, I wouldn’t call it ‘baroque’ myself. But I think even the nicer parts of Kyoto are rather over-hyped myself. However there are some decent corners, and there is a very definite preservation movement (not led by Kerr though) that even takes care of its Meiji-Taisho era western-style buildings.

    Those old Japanese houses that Kerr loves (and to be honest so do I – suitably restored) were condemned even by prewar urban planning experts – the rise of the ‘bunka jutaku’ was in direct response to the old dirty dark and generally unhealthy machiya of the common folk.

    I suppose I respect Kerr’s passion and his ideals, but – rather like Debito – I don’t always agree with his specific arguments and methods. I’d much rather hear about what Japanese are doing about this issue (and there are a lot of concerned people out there) than some token gaijin who can’t understand why people don’t all want to live in unheated uninsulated dimly-lit wooden houses with no sewers. Frankly I think Kerr likes Bang kok for the funky roofs the Thais still love to put on everything: hey, it LOOKS authentic man….

    But I really got pissed off with Kerr when he described Japan as arguably one of the world’s ugliest countries. Okay, it may not be Prague or Vienna or Venice set in Middle-Earth, but if it is ugly (and much of it is) it is the ugliness of wealth, not poverty. I’d prefer to live in say Kamagasaki in Osaka than a Thai slum any day.

  48. Just to clear thing up for you guys… kerr has nothing to do with the chiiori project, hell, the only connection between the project and kerr is that… he owns half the house the NPO is based in, the NPO was only awarded 2 years ago and any reports that say otherwise are false, this guy your all so obsessed with has made a living from 2 books out of which only 2/3 chapters are readable, he’s more than happy to point out problems and then appear to be seen to be addressing these problems by making money on the lecture circuit but in reality all it is, is talk, until people actually put themselves in a position to do something tangible about a problem, as opposed to turning the problem into ‘a nice little earner’ which our mate kerr has done, then the better off Japan & everywhere else will be…

    He did find the house but he also turned his back on it, and now after a few years away has become interested in it again.

    the 2 current staffers at the project are not by any mean fans of alex or clones, personally kerr winds me up, but what can you do, the man is like a monstrously brainy child with a temprament to match…

  49. Jeezus, this is one shit-load of bitching here. Don’t most of you have better things to do with your life? I suppose that’s why this thread has been dead for so long 😉
    Anyway, I work in the media and have been reading up on Mr. Kerr for ‘purposes’ (that’s how I found this blog). I lived in Japan for four years before landing here in Bangkok. As many Thais would say to most of the posters on this thread (and many other blogs): “You think too much.” AMEN

    Anyway, I got down to Bryce’s post, my mind went numb and was unable to read I further, but I just wanted to reply to this bit:

    ‘I wonder how many of those Thais that constitute a charming daily spectacle for Kerr, and who are probably on the average Thai wage – or lower – would agree with him. I wonder if the women on the river who serve him his daily snacks wouldn’t prefer to live in an albeit smaller but modern Japanese-style apartment and be on the Japanese average wage and the opportunity to go overseas for a few days every couple of years than live day to day in a shack with no hot running water. I’m sure many of them would trade that for the privilege of watching large white men sipping expensive hot drinks and reading the foreign press in exclusive establishments designed to cater for tourists. Even if they did have to put up with hayfever.

    Doesn’t that say something about Japanese modernisation vis-a-vis the alternative?’

    I think your missing a point. I think most of those women would agree, although their inherent ‘Thainess’ would likely have them not really much give a shit to really try one way or the other. Think about that. And then thing about ‘modernisation’ and all it entails. Their attitude, which Thais are renowned for, might be replaced with a lifestyle spiked with stress-induced pangs of acid-indigestion.

    I’m not taking sides one way or the other here.

    Thailand is a highly corrupt country though, and I do feel terrible for the hard-working ladies here who struggle day in day out to make $150-200/month. And here’s our dilemma.

  50. Just to add to the above, this ‘modernisation’, etc. as everything one knows is and has been taking place in Bangkok. Tons of new apartments, condos going up. I have many Thai friends who suffer from stress-induced acid indigestion 😉 I, like many others I suppose, don’t want Thailand to lose its laidback feel to something like devleoped ocuntries. And, I, as many others here will agree, don’t think the Thai work ethic will change much any time soon 😉

  51. “Don’t most of you have better things to do with your life?”

    Yes, we have better things to do with our lives than re-start threads that finished a year ago.

    “I, as many others here will agree, don’t think the Thai work ethic will change much any time soon”

    So your interjection into this long-finished debate is that you think Thais are on CPT?

  52. Well.I’m just surprised the numerous lenghty post on this thread reading this again now.Don’t we have things to say on the man…

    There seems to be at least one odd man pundit in any country’s expat community.

    Over The Peking Duck,the China blog a few days ago.The moderator had opened a thread on a guy named Phillip J.Cunningham a frequent CCTV commenter who had recently written an article furiously condemning Mia Fallow on International Herald Tribune.(The reason,she bashed my beloved China and hurt the pride of billions by connecting marginal topic like Durfur.That bitch!)He’s been known for defending China occasionary in human rights field and condemned American hypocricy.
    Hundreds of posters rushed to the thread and the moderator eventually shut down the whole thread.Something I really hoped I could join in.So I can understand why JJ wants to chime in to this long end conversation of ours even what he writes totally derails context and lacks content.

    The news Cunningham got a job as the professor in media study at Doshinsya and coming back from the retired home of disgruntled ex-Japan hand,the Thailand last year gave me a dizziness.(the professors there have such a warped idea on media even Noam Chomsky sounds like Rupert Murdoch)
    This is a man with a philosophy that CCTV is practicing more journalism while NHK airs propaganda(he used to work for NHK back in the early 90’s for joint project with CCTV called China NOW,a nightmarish Chinese propaganda) and writes repeatedly China has more open and free media environment than Japan (because there are huge and lively bootleg VCD market in China while Japan has kisya club)And now he is teaching Sino-Japanese media and it’s implication to bilateral relation in Kyoto….
    I don’t hate him entirely since he did write a jolly book which was also his debut as a writer that mysteriously disappeared from his bio called “Insert Please異国の肌に群がったTOKYO女事情”.

    Got a go.Must do the laundry.

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