Adamu Reports: Alex Kerr Speech at Japan Foundation, Bangkok November 20, 2006

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.

Alex Kerr PB200006.JPG
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…

29 thoughts on “Adamu Reports: Alex Kerr Speech at Japan Foundation, Bangkok November 20, 2006”

  1. I think that your own post has the key to answering your last question. “Is it now possible to be obsessed with Japan without becoming a Dave Spector or an Alex Kerr?” You wrote – “There’s a whole world full of real tragedies out there and you’re worried about road signs?” This is a smart comment. I think that the key to knowing a lot about Japan is to live in a bunch of different places and keep your eyes open. Also, while individuals like Kerr seem to spend a lot of time telling “the Japanese” what to do, just listening to what people have to say (in other words – taking that “charisma man” spotlight and shining it on some Japanese for a change) is probably a better way to know more about Japan.

    Kerr probably sees “kawaii” ikebana as the death of Japanese culture but it is pretty easy to see it as someone taking something traditional and making it over in a way that has meaning for them at present. I’ve seen ikebana by shogakusei with plush teddy bears and keitai straps and things like that worked in and I think that it is cute and creative. Maybe they will go back to the roots of the practice at some point, but I like a Japan where people have that choice.

  2. Kerr can more easily get the Japanese to pay attention to his arguments because, for the most part, he is a Westerner calling on Japan to respect its own (superficial aesthetic) traditions rather than demanding they take on “more civilized” deep structures and systems like free markets and grass-roots democracy etc. You can criticize him for this position as well (let Japan be concrete and neon and exposed wires! some proclaim), but he’s always going to be able to have an audience in Japan for this message (especially if he streamlines it to “the loss of traditional Japan.”)

    The fundamental problem though seems to be that he rallies against the symptoms of an entire holistic economic system, and they aren’t going to fix these issues with bandaids. A lot of bigwigs may agree with him and want to see the return of more traditional aesthetic forms in Japan, but there is too much money at stake and too many vested interests in the current model to really start taking his suggestions into consideration.

    Is it now possible to be obsessed with Japan without becoming a Dave Spector or an Alex Kerr?

    Neither of these men should be models for foreigners in Japan. This is the 21st century. Don’t box yourself in.

  3. This is the 21st century. Don’t box yourself in.

    Preach it, Marxy! No one here (as authors and most readers of this blog are in our 20s and 30s) would want to look to Specter and Kerr (both in their 50s) as models to live a life in Japan as a foreigner. The country has changed, there are foreigners everywhere, and the spectrum is broad.

    To relay some of what I said to Adamu earlier:

    1.) Exhibit 849 of Kerr’s inane banter: “50% of Japan’s actual annual budget is tied up in construction.” Please. Perhaps you can take a warped calculus and show that, just like some people play with the numbers and show that 50% of the US budget goes to defense spending, but that doesn’t make it true.

    2.) He’s basically given real cred to YH’s position: his book is just one point about construction and tourism stretched from an essay into 200+ pages. Jeez, this speech is only about concrete! He must use the word 100 times!

    3.) For Japanese skills, this is of course subjective. I will grudgingly accept that I’m impressed, considering the guy in his 50s. All the fake katakana words are cute, like ホープ and ランチタイム. But it’s still “a foreign who is fluent in Japanese” level, not actual fluency.

  4. Considering the deplorable state of my own spoken Japanese I’m in no position to fault the man for slipping up once or twice or for using “ne” a lot. He was easy to understand and presented reasonably well.

    And about not boxing: Agree with all 3 commenters so far. I’m aware that those two have had experiences in Japan that are totally different from the Japan of today and it was actually kind of refreshing to realize how different things can be for Japan-watchers and lifers today.

    It was kind of a shock to see this guy, who has been successful in business and in writing, walk around and carry himself in a manner not unlike the former NK defector Charles Jenkins – in other words, like he’s been sheltered from extensive contact with Western culture for a good while. I’ve met people like that before (they abound in Thailand for one thing), but meeting Kerr has got me thinking. Does living and succeeding in Japan require that degree of assimilation, or is it just required for the type of acceptance that Kerr is going for? I guess everyone’s got a different level of immersion that they are comfortable with.

  5. Excellent discussion. I think that it this is a good time to think a bit about different types of “lifers” and different “expert” experiences. Let’s face it, most Japanese don’t know a great deal about Japanese politics, literature, etc. The same can be said of any people (Americans, for example, have a reputation for not knowing much about their own country). Most people focus on their immediate environment and personal relationships. This means that some expats will “know more” about a country than the locals. However, Kerr seems to be a strange mix. He is at once –

    – An individual who uses his position as a foreigner for all it is worth.
    – An individual whose writing about Japan has found an audience in Japan but who is not well respected by Western scholars (ie. he is a curiosity in Japan and an more or less an annoyance in academic circles outside — this is not because of his arguments, he lifted a lot of his stuff from Gavan McCormack’s “The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence” which is respected…. it is because of Kerr’s contextless presentation that some people take exception).
    – An individual who thinks that he understands the “real Japan” and wants to tell the locals what it is.

    In other words, he seems to want the best of both worlds. To me, this does not seem a lot different than Dave Specter’s blonde hair dye.

    On the other hand, we have some people like John Dower who gets mad respect in Western academic circles, whose “Embracing Defeat” is still a strong selling history book in Japanese translation, etc. Dower does not really try to “act Japanese” like Kerr and certainly does not lecture Japanese people on how they should be living (put bonsai trees in your house!?!). I tend to look at the Dower way of doing things as an ideal. It involves –

    – Periods living in Japan and elsewhere.
    – Doing real, original research can’t hurt (is there one thing in Dogs and Demons that is not done better in the “Construction State” chapter of McCormack’s book?).
    – Most importantly – looking at Japan in international / comparative contrast. Kerr only seems to be able to contrast when taking something idealized (Thailand’s wonderful rivers) from another environment and mocking something Japanese. He is clearly cherry picking to make Japan look bad.

    I think, in the end, it depends on what an individual wants to get out of Japan. Attention (like Kerr or a “charisma man”) or understanding of different perspectives? Trying to “understand Japan” as one monolithic thing is not a good idea as there are many viewpoints from which Japan’s current problems and prospects can be seen. However, looking at it from a variety of perspectives, like Dower does, and gaining the linguistic skills to have warm friendships and deep conversations is probably the best way to immerse yourself.

  6. Adamu:

    You should check on the book written by 矢作俊彦(Yahagi Toshihiko)
    especially ニッポン新百景(New hundred view of Japan).
    It is a photo book with Yahagi’s commentary on what bubble
    age construction boom had brought to the county’s landscape.

    I think the difference between Kerr and Dower is that Dower is
    more aware about what Japanese had said and think about local
    issues and is more critical about outsiders giving instuctions to
    solve the problems without knowing them clearly.

  7. Aceface: I agree about Dower. That is the “perspectives” point that I was trying to make at the end of my post. If you really want to know more about Japan, the best thing to do is to listen to as many Japanese people (or read their books or watch their movies, etc.) as you can. Dower obviously has done that with his multi-sided (and critical where criticism is warranted) works. So many writings about Japan in English seem to be devoid of Japanese viewpoints. Why talk about real Japanese people when you can allude to an ethereal “system”? There is also this common strategy –

    1. Copy controversial point from Asahi Shimbun and write it out yourself.
    2. Say that it has never been discussed in Japan or is “taboo” in order to make yourself seem more edgy.
    3. Rinse and repeat.

    Kerr does this a bit but there are some commentators who do it a LOT.

  8. It was kind of a shock to see this guy, who has been successful in business and in writing, walk around and carry himself in a manner not unlike the former NK defector Charles Jenkins – in other words, like he’s been sheltered from extensive contact with Western culture for a good while. I’ve met people like that before (they abound in Thailand for one thing), but meeting Kerr has got me thinking. Does living and succeeding in Japan require that degree of assimilation, or is it just required for the type of acceptance that Kerr is going for? I guess everyone’s got a different level of immersion that they are comfortable with.

    What you’re basically saying is, “Can you be a westerner living in Japan and not be a pussy?” Of course. “Orientalizing” doesn’t require you to become emmasculated or ‘feline’, as one friend recently described a certain skinny white guy in Tokyo.

  9. Curz: First of all, I would never put it that way. Second of all, of course you are 100% correct and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    And about Dower, I think he benefitted precisely from *not* having an experience similar to Kerr, who came to Japan at a young age and instantly formed his conception of Japan as this wondrous place filled with lovely houses.

  10. The Dower/Kerr comparison is a bit unfair. Dower is a scholar living in America who writes scholarly books on Japanese history. Kerr writes polemics about contemporary Japan in Japan. Of course, the latter is going to fall prey to all the sins we are singling out.

    Say that it has never been discussed in Japan or is “taboo” in order to make yourself seem more edgy.

    Are you denying that there are actually taboos in the Japanese media? The new issue of Cyzo is titled: 「ジャニーズってタブーなの?」a question to which they find a lot of veteran Japanese entertainment reporters respond, “Yes.” The point is never that no Japanese people talk about an issue (a total societal taboo, if you will), but that the “mass media” (excluding 週刊誌) will not touch a certain number of controversial topics for institutional reasons.

    But yeah, why even point to a “system” when you can point to five specific media conglomerates that control an extremely wide swath of the total traditional media space and information dissemination facilities?

  11. To the best of my knowledge, Dower came to Japan in his 20s and lived in Kanazawa which is a nice, regional city that was not bombed in 1945 and thus has lots of cool buke yashiki and a geisha area (and the infamous Ninja-dera). He married in Japan and taught at a local private school for a while. The big difference is that he did not rest on this and make it a central part of his identity (maybe “persona” is a better word) like Kerr did. He kept looking for different angles for understanding Japan.

  12. The Dower/Kerr comparison was originally made to point out that one seems to be doing “it” (understanding Japan) the right way and the other the wrong way. This may not be “fair”, but picking winners never hurts. Dower also lived in Japan for a while (and I think that Kerr spends most of his time overseas now).

    I’m not denying that there are taboos in the Japanese media. However, some things that have been described as “taboo” by Western pundits (comfort women, Nanking massacre, Showa’s war responsibility) have actually been done to death in Japan. Most scholars agree that the best writing on the Nanking massacre has been done in Japan (and some, like Honda Katsuichi’s stuff, has run in newspapers), most of what is known about Japanese government involvement in the comfort women thing was dug up by an author named Yoshimi and published in the Asahi Shimbun, Herbert Bix, who wrote “the book” about Hirohito in English, admits that most of his ground had already been gone over by Japanese scholars (and in media journals like Chuokoron, etc.). However, this does not stop many from saying that these topics are “taboo” in Japan. There are a number of other – child sexual abuse, incest, etc. that I have seen described as Japanese “taboos” in English sources lately but that have actually been the subject of some rather potent mass media coverage lately. I even saw one AP report that suggested that the Yasukuni problem is a “taboo” subject in Japan, right after the Asahi, Yomiuri, and Mainichi ran editorials pissing on Koizumi for going. There are taboos, but some outside of Japan throw the term around in a liberal fashion to make their own contributions seem more important.

  13. Discussion of Yasukuni visits a taboo? I have seen hundreds of pages from 文藝春秋 alone that would destroy that thesis pretty quickly. Just because you don’t bring up something in polite conversation does not make it taboo in a more generalized case. Do Americans (activist assholes excepted) discuss their views on abortion with strangers? No. Same thing.

    For myself, I’m more interested in the Dower style. But then, I’m hoping to also get a PHD in history eventually.

  14. Just with in this month,we have burakumin related corruption exposed to
    media in Osaka,Dalai Lama visit japan and his interview is aired on nationwide television.we hear criticism on North Korea and Abe administration is now
    under fire for ordering NHK to have extended coverage on the abductee,
    Nuclear armament and changing the constitution is now on nationwide political debate,and chrisanthemum throne is no exception,the latest Syukan Bunsyun is targeting Princess Masako’s active consummerism while she avoids her official loyal duties.
     Since I work in the BIG Japanese media,I wouldn’t challenge everything
    what Marxy said but then again I found his criticism on media too offensive.
    I mean is ジャニーズ・タブー説、really hurts anyone?

    Now all of this had been more or less of a taboo in our industry for different
    reasons.but because of the resent political sea changes,and generational
    changes some are broken ,some are outdated.
    When you say”ttaboo for media”usually it is no longer a taboo,but simply
    a risky topic.

    If you were in Japan in the 60’s the country was full of lefty figures with attitude,
    Edward Seidensticker had been pissing about this so many times,and praised
    Park Chyung Hyee era South Korea as a realistic ally.but the younger generation
    of american japanologist didn’t agreed with this.They found leftism were just and
    righteous to some extent.
    Dower who was a member of the Commitee of Concerned Asian scholar had nurtured his view of Japan during this period.and this I believe his writings
    are more well accepted to wider Japanese audience who consider themselves
    as post-war democrats.aka leftwing liberals.

    While Kerr whose works are in my eyes,deeply influenced by late80’sjapan
    pundits like Johnson,Wolfren,Fallows and Prestowitz ,and not to the japanese
    comtemporaries ,do not immerse into the traditonal Japanese liberal codes of writings.Not because they are critical to Japan or breaking the taboos,but
    the lack of contexts and rough treatments of detailed facts.

  15. Rock and roll! Thanks Adamu. As soon as I’m not working at home until 3am every night I’ll finish watching. Did you do the video?

  16. It’s always been possible to be obsessed with Japan without becoming a Dave Spector or an Alex Kerr (both of whom seem like decent people who don’t really deserve to be stereotyped). It’s also been possible to become successful in Japan or respected by a Japanese audience without being obsessed by the country. Arguably, you have a better chance if you set about excelling at what you enjoy rather than setting out to become a “Japan expert”. I’m never really sure what that label means. It seems to be used mostly by non-Japanese to describe someone who has a more than superficial knowledge of an aspect of Japanese society. It surely isn’t supposed to mean that the person in question knows everything there is to know about Japan. Carlos Ghosn and Howard Stringer probably can’t speak or read Japanese but their experience with Nissan and Sony surely gives them a perspective on the country that no-one else has.

    Japan isn’t the only country with a lively interest in hearing what others think of them. The British are quite keen on that as well and commentators such as Clive James and Bill Bryson have built careers telling us about ourselves. Their criticisms are generally couched kindly which gets them invited back. On the other hand, Paul Theroux’s savaging of Britain in his travelogue didn’t win him many speaking engagements. We don’t want to hear how great we are all the time but nor do we want to get a brutal mugging.

    Japan has an extremely large lecture circuit and if you happen to hit the sweet spot with one particular theory or observation then you’ll be able to speak around the country and pocket some nice money for a few years. The trouble is that all the groups inviting you will generally want to hear your greatest hits and not “something from the new album” If you want to keep that income stream open, then you’ll oblige, whether you are Japanese or a foreigner. This often makes such events a disappointment if you want to see the debate taken forward in any way.

  17. The video is only of the introduction due to the space limits of my digital camera. You can listen to the whole thing on mp3 if you want, though.

    Mulboyne: It’s not my intention to stereotype or denigrate anyone, but your point is well taken. Setting out to become a Japan expert is a “mistake” I’ve made already, so this issue is something I think about quite frequently.

    Your comment about Japan’s lecture circuit reminded me of the pointless talk by David Kay (chief US weapons inspector in Iraq prior to the war) that I saw back in university. Those paid lectures do tend to be pretty lame. The university brought in Desmond Tutu and Mikhail Gorbachev as speakers too. In all cases their speeches ended up sounding pretty irrelevant as if they just needed to talk long enough to earn their speaker’s fee.

  18. Interesting and perhaps telling comment at the end of the article Kerr posts at
    “I don’t think we should fool ourselves that we’re changing Japan.” (good…) “But it is important that they asked us. That actually shows that this is a serious project.” Ah, what sublime confidence in your own importance….

    And no wonder Kerr likes old Japanese houses – he’s obviously short enough not to crack his skull on the lintels….

  19. I don’t have anything valuable to add, just some nitpicking on Curzon. As far as I know, both ランチタイム and ホープ are used in everyday Japanese. Sometime I think it is hard to find 片仮名英語 that is NOT used in at least some circles.

  20. Tore – When speaking Japanese you have to think about your audience. I’d use ranchitaimu, etc. when talking to some young people who are already studying English but didn’t someone mention that Kerr’s audience was mostly a bunch of elderly? For that type of audience, excessive katakana tends to be a hard sell. Kerr’s Japanese is very good but it certainly has a “my Japanese” kind of feel. Surely he knows Japanese alternatives for lunch and hope but is just too lazy to use them….

  21. Then you agree that his choise of words are just a matter of style, rather than language proficiency? I don’t think a group of Bangkok expats will have any problems with the Japanese he is using in this talk. A lot of foreigners (my self included) seem reluctant to acknowledge the immense amount of anglicisms used in modern spoken Japanese. This is the reality though, and a lot of native people do use it speaking to the elderly who can’t by any chance understand the meaning.

    Defining fluency is always a tricky subject, but I don’t see the point in saying that Kerr is a “fluent foreigner” but not “actually fluent” whatever that means. He does have the accent, intonation and overabundance of ね (why do these always show up in foreigners?) that identifies him as a non-native, but using this to discredit his opinions smells like bad polemics to me.

  22. As a foreign speaker of Japanese, it pays to use words that actually get used in conversational Japanese. “Lunchtime” is good in my opinion. “Hope” seems pretty dodgy. I did a quick web search and it does not seem like people are using it that much outside of company and product names.

    Anyway, do you have any favorite wasei eigo? I like “Skinship”. I take it that it is playful “friendship” based on touch (like with a baby or a dog or something). Also, do we actually say “Hard Gay” in English? I really have no idea at this point….

  23. I have to admit that I had initial reservations for ホープ, but an extensive survey of native speakers of Japanese (sample size of four) showed that a whopping 100% had no problem with the word. It is seemingly used in sports, i.e. 期待のホープ. I didn’t spot it in the parts I have listened to this far, so it might be that Kerr is unsing it in a non-standard way. ランチタイム on the other hand was regarded as a word mostly used in written language, presumably signs, in my survey. This could be due to gender bias (75% males), since males are known to predominantly use 昼飯 (data not shown).

    As I am a non-native and non-frequent English speaker, my biggest problem with 和製英語 is that they tend to contaminate my English. I would not have had any qualms about using ‘skinship’ in a conversation… And even having had it pointed out for me, chances are that I will use it anyway. One word I do recognise as non-English and quite like is Yシャツ, it is a nice development from T-shirt with a very japanese etymology.

  24. I also did a survey (of one person, boo). 100% said that Hope is no good…. I guess it depends on who you talk with. I also think that this is a slippery slope as these are obviously not English words being used in Japanese but “new” Japanese words that often have common uses very different from the standard English use. Just think of Ninja in English — I’ve seen it used as a verb (“I ninjaed that mofo”).

    You are 100% right, I have seen “hope” used for boxers and other athletes (slipped my mind). I’m not sure if it is a good way to replace “kibo”, however. In English, “prospect” would be used for a boxer (never heard “hope”) so a different pattern of use/signification has developed in Japanese.

    Bottom line is — probably best to use the Japanese word unless you know the English that you want to use has the same meaning when used as a Japanese word.

    Y-Shirt is good, Hard Gay is better…. Is “nighter” for a night baseball game a Japanese word? I think that it is. Seems like that one should make its way into English as well.

  25. “You are 100% right, I have seen “hope” used for boxers and other athletes (slipped my mind). I’m not sure if it is a good way to replace “kibo”, however. In English, “prospect” would be used for a boxer (never heard “hope”) so a different pattern of use/signification has developed in Japanese.”

    Does the phrase “Great White Hope” ring a bell?

  26. Oops. There hasn’t been a white hope in ages (only Russians who don’t get discussed in that way) so it slipped my mind.

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