On 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!!