The above link will play a video of the introduction. You can download the speech (in Japanese) in its entirety here (Thanks to Curzon for optimizing the audio quality):
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Slide Show
Part 3: Question-and-answer Session
On Monday, I attended a speech given by author/businessman/historical preservation activist Alex Kerr co-sponsored by the Japan Foundation and the Japanese Language Group of the Thailand National Museum Volunteer Guides. For the modest fee of 250 baht (about 600 yen/US$6), the crowd, a packed house consisting mostly of middle-aged and elderly Japanese women and a few elderly Japanese men — i.e. the type of people who have the free time to attend a seminar on a Monday morning — got to hear the veteran promoter of Japanese traditional arts outline the arguments made in his two popular books, Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons. Though born in Maryland, Kerr spent the majority of his adult life in Japan and therefore had little trouble giving the speech in Japanese.
He started out by reflecting on his first experiences with Japan. He came to the country in 1964 when his father, a career officer in the US Navy, was stationed in Yokohama. He spoke proudly of how his arrival coincided with the historic Tokyo summer Olympics, and reflected on the excitement of that time. He mentioned that the atmosphere of excitement, rising living standards, economic growth, and opportunity closely resembles the national mood of Thailand now. He became enamored of Japanese houses by accompanying his mother on monthly visits to neighborhood houses in her capacity as a member of a Japan wives’ club.
He went on to describe the motivation for him to write Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons, the latter a book that he took 8 years to research. Essentially, he could not bring himself to write nice things about how beautiful Japan was when ugliness stared him in the face. The destruction of Japan’s beautiful landscapes and houses by a development-minded bureaucracy were deplorable and wanted to do something about it.
Then, to give people an idea of the destruction he was talking about, he spent the rest of his speech presenting a slideshow along with his own running commentary. The slideshow was kind of like a live version of the Dogs and Demons book – half of his presentation was spent introducing scenes of the concretization of Japan in places like the Iya valley that Kerr calls his second home, mostly using photos by famous Japanese photographer Toshio Shibata (some of his works can be found here). He spent a good amount of time railing against the ruining of Kyoto’s historical heritage – destroyed historic buildings, the godawful Kyoto Tower, electric lines outside Sanjusangendo. He had plenty of outrage leftover to decry the massive “monument” museums and event halls that have all but bankrupted small villages, the ugly exposed power lines, the cookie-cutter houses from the Sekisui House company, and all the other supposedly tasteless development in Japan that disrupt Kerr’s beloved Japanese landscapes. These monstrosities are caused in his words by a bureaucracy “on auto-pilot.” This is a well-known and well-traveled argument, and Kerr has not changed his tune a bit since the book was released.. If you are not familiar with the gist of the Dogs and Demons argument, I recommend taking a look at the NY Times review of the book that is available on Kerr’s website. Still, he believes that the Koizumi years, during which the Japan’s management companies were privatized and recognition of the role of non-profit organizations became more widespread, were an era in which “consciousness started changing” with regard to the old system.
He argues, as he did in Dogs and Demons, that the decision-makers in Japan still harbor a sort of shame about their own culture that has resulted in the pursuit of building flashy monuments, a practice he described as a “poor man’s mindset.” He uses Shanghai as an example of good city planning, as opposed to the a place like Nagoya, a somewhat similar industrial center. He alleges that the Chinese city has successfully maintained a distinctly Chinese flavor to its modern city planning. Historical houses have remained standing, and even in modern buildings you’ll see ancient Chinese historical artifacts to “remind you you’re still in China.” He also points out that Thailand, a society that he claims harbors a similar cultural shame, has begun to show a pride in its culture as well.
He implores the audience in effect that Japan should not be ashamed of its traditional culture, but instead should be ashamed of what modern Japan has become. He drives this point home by comparing the covers of the Time Out series of travel guides: while the covers for Barcelona and Hong Kong respectively feature beautiful traditional architecture and an awe-inspiring cityscape from Kowloon Bay, all Tokyo gets is a composite shot of exposed power lines and chintsy neon lights.
Later, he gives examples of good interior design and city planning that Japan should strive for. To Kerr, the best designs are modern structures with extensive Japanese touches, such as bonsai trees or miniature gardens (tsuboniwa) or vice versa, in which historical buildings are fitted with air conditioners and modern bathrooms.
The main part of his speech ended somewhat abruptly when he realized he needed to allow time for questions. One woman asked a question about what Japan should do from here on out, since his speech largely focused on where Japan screwed up in the past. He answered interestingly that Japan as a nation should be past the temptation to build flashy projects. China, at its stage of development, can’t help but to take on megaprojects and all that, but Japan should be beyond it. It’s his hope that Japan has entered a sort of transition phase toward (presumably) normal developed country status. For example, non-profit organizations have just started gaining recognition in Japan, when they were almost unheard of just a few years ago. But there is still a long way to go, especially given the difficulty of stopping projects once they are approved. For instance, even with the privatization of the road corporations, the construction of thousands of kilometers of dubiously necessary roads will nevertheless go on.
For some reason I was extremely nervous, but I was able to stammer out my own question (located at 5:11 in Part 3) to Mr. Kerr in my broken Japanese. I asked in effect, “How do you think foreigners who love and are watching Japan should be involved?” His answer was that even though he doesn’t think it is proper for foreign professors (“sensei”) to speak as if they’re giving orders to the Japanese about how the system must be reformed, for him at least he can’t just let things be as someone who loves Japan. Still, his intentions are not large-scale – rather than change Japan or save all of Kyoto he’d like to “bring light to a corner of the world” by restoring individual houses or making a difference with individuals. Another inspiration for him is because he “got old,” a line that sparked some laughter. By that he meant he, at age 54, wants to carry on the work of his former teachers such as the late essayist Masako Shirasu and pass on his ideas to the next generation. Otherwise, question time ended up being somewhat unremarkable, given the limited time and the fact that he was playing to what appeared to be a crowd of followers.
After the event was officially over, I walked up to his desk and had my copy of D&D signed. He praised me on my Japanese skills and asked if I’d ever stayed in Japan. “Two years,” I told him. “Wow, only two years and you speak that well?” We held the conversation in Japanese, and after I let the next person get their copy signed it took me a second to realize how weird it was to have what is probably the most common chit-chat conversation in the short repertoire of gaijin-Japanese person conversations, only this time with a fellow American.
I must have caught Kerr at a bad time, because I got the impression that he wasn’t exactly bringing his A-game that morning. It felt like he was, to an extent, going through the motions giving a speech he’d done dozens of times over the 5 years or so since the release of Dogs and Demons. He also didn’t seem to have a precise message.
But it was interesting to see how he works a crowd and makes a Japanese audience care about what he has to say. Most Westerners who have been expats in Japan have had at least one experience with a fellow foreigner who learns to speak at least passable conversational Japanese and uses it at every opportunity to make himself the center of attention. Japanese people, who for whatever reasons remain enamored of/polite to foreigners who learn their language, never seem to fail to cater to this person’s craving for the spotlight. This type of behavior, I believe, is central to Kerr’s style. Essentially, this is Kerr holding forth his impressions of Japan for all of the Japanese public to see, and the Japanese people, their lust for information on how outsiders view them insatiable, sop it up like Italian bread takes on spaghetti sauce. I say this in no way to diminish the man’s other qualifications – he is learned, an expert translator, and has decades of involvement in the restoration of old Japanese homes. His Charisma Man-like status is simply the sugar that allows his bitter pill — the controversial suggestion that the people of Japan have a misguided sense of beauty — go down easier.
The audience appeared to eat up every bit of it. Cries of “heee” (“oh wow!”) and “saitei!” (“that’s awful!”) filled the air at the sight of some of the more shocking pictures, such as plastic ikebana featuring what appeared to be blue balloons.
But his suggestions were strikingly provincial. He stayed away from the aspects of D&D that had nothing to do with his beloved landscapes and skylines and stuck to the topics he really cared about. Sorting things out after all his ranting against concrete, he never came out with specifics about what should be done about this ugly Japan that the bureaucrats have created. Instead, perhaps due to time constraints, the suggestions that he did make involved instilling pride in Japanese culture, better housing design, preservation of the remaining historical landmarks, sign regulations, and the inclusion of more Japanese culture-inspired designs in interior decorating and architecture. He made some vague references to grassroots political action, but again nothing specific for the issues of today. Noble causes to be sure, but it seems a little extreme to invoke the evils of a corrupt construction state and declare that Japan’s society has basically forgotten real beauty for what boils down to a combination of nostalgia and personal taste.
That’s not to deny the effectiveness of his message – a general call to action centered around an overflowing love for old-timey Japanese aesthetics – among his audience. One woman who approached me after the show spoke to me in English (she probably didn’t want to hear me stutter like an idiot again) and parroted Kerr’s line that many Japanese people agree with him but don’t know what they can do to act. Mission accomplished, Mr. Kerr!
This is really the first time I have sat down to listen to a veteran “Japan-watcher” in person, and for me it was a real eye-opener. At one time, I thought I wanted to be something like Alex Kerr – a respected expert on Japan stuff who lives peacefully somewhere in Tokyo writing polemics on this or that. But I’ve been away from Japan for more than 3 years now, and I feel as removed as ever from a life like his. I found it hard to see the issues of urban planning in Kyoto as anything more than a trivial local matter. Is it really so tragic that Kyoto has become a major industrial city with some of the highest living standards on the planet? There’s a whole world full of real tragedies out there and you’re worried about road signs? I’d be thankful just to live somewhere with even sidewalks right about now.
And Kerr’s mannerisms were those of a man who has spent his whole life in Japan. Maybe it was just because he was presenting for a Japanese audience, I don’t know. But I got the impression that he didn’t bother himself much at all with US culture or goings-on. He only really mentioned the US once, when he said that the US wasn’t a particularly good example of good urban planning, but it did a better job than Japan. Perhaps when he was living in Shikoku all those years it was impossible to keep up with US culture, but whatever the reason he looked like a man who has been out of touch for a while. I don’t think I could stand that level of self-isolation. Today, thanks to the Internet, I can keep tabs on things I’m interested in no matter where I am. Is it now possible to be obsessed with Japan without becoming a Dave Spector or an Alex Kerr? Perhaps I should consider polishing up my Japanese speaking skills before worrying about that kind of thing…