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.

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

Murals of Wat Phra Kaew

Sure, the shiny gold buildings, freaky demon statues, and annoying Korean tourists at Wat Phra Kaew, the royal temple of Bangkok, were plenty fun, but what really did it for me were the fantastic murals that cover the entire inner wall. What exactly is going on, or what saga it is based on, I have no idea, but I do know that I want Peter Jackson to make a movie version of it, starting tomorrow.

Update: From the Wikipedia article in The Ramayana.

Thailand’s popular national epic Ramakien is derived from the Hindu epic. In Ramakien, Sita is the daughter of Ravana and Mandodari (T’os’akanth (=Dasakand) and Mont’o). Vibhisana (P’ip’ek), the astrologer brother of Ravana, predicts calamity from the horoscope of Sita. So Ravana has her thrown into the waters, who, later, is picked by Janaka (Janok). While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. It has an expanded role for Hanuman and he is portrayed as a lascivious character. Ramakien can be seen in an elaborate illustration at the Wat Phra Kaew temple in Bangkok.

You can read an English translation of the Ramakien online here.

These images cannot be appreciated in such a small space, so please click on them for a larger file.

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.”
Continue reading What to ask Alex Kerr?

My Mexican Experience in Thailand – ¡muy malo!

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As part of the week-long birthday festivities for Mrs. Adamu, on Friday we had the chance to visit Charley Brown’s Tex-Mex Cantina, one of the few places in Thailand that can claim to serve anything close to Mexican food. I ignored Cosmic Buddha’s reservations about the place and decided to go anyway. Some thoughts:

  • I’ll start with something positive: in terms of food, there was nothing Thai about it at all, so my taste buds could forget they were in Southeast Asia for an hour or so. But here’s the bottom line: I’ve had El Paso instant taco mixes in the US that were about on par with this. Seriously, it barely registered as restaurant-level Mexican food. I give the place credit for at least giving it the old college try, but I’d wonder whose white grandmother was making the stuff if I had it back home. No discernible flavor to the meat, and the end product felt very mashed together. My chicken burrito was smothered in cheese on the outside that made it soggy (unexpected bonus – the refried beans tasted just like the beans they serve at Popeye’s chicken!). On top of that, it ended up being one of the most expensive restaurants I’ve ever visited in Bangkok – the bill came to 800 baht (approx US$20) for two dishes offering middling portions and 3 Heinekens. Here’s what it the burrito looked like:
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  • The manager of the establishment, a young British-sounding man named Chris, made a go at being friendly and asked how our meal was. This practice of returning to a table after the meal is served and asking how things are going is standard for the US but is something I had never seen until I came here. Still, it was a little off-putting when he decided to put off bringing us our bill to down a shot with some other ex-pats, who made themselves enough of a part of our dining experience that they earn their own bullet point below:
  • Our experience was badly marred by its intended customer base: Western tourists and sexpats. Mrs. Adamu and I could barely carry on a conversation over a boisterous group of Aussies, and people filtered in and out from a nearby outdoor whites-only drinking establishment. Worse than that, however, had to be the pasty white men and their Thai hooker escorts sitting at the 3 tables around us. Nothing ruins a meal faster than seeing some 50-something ‘Nam vet pawing at his new plaything between bites of enchilada. Oh, and their fat bodies bounced around enough to rattle Mrs. Adamu’s seat since the booth chairs were connected. We kind of knew what to expect after we tried to eat there unsuccessfully on Monday (it’s closed on Mondays, a fact that didn’t make itself known on the online site we checked), since to get there one must wade through myriad cheap crap stores, decrepit beggars, and numerous prostitution venues. The area outside the Nana skytrain station is notorious as a red light district, so in that sense it’s our fault for going in the first place.
  • Recommendation: unless you have no problem with sex tourism and are sure that you’ll never ever visit a part of the world with good Mexican food again, stay away from Charley Brown’s.

    Bridge on the River Kwai [Photo]

    August 19, 2006

    Immortalized in the 1957 film of the same name, this bridge was constructed during the Second World War by British and American POWs of the Japanese as part of the so called “railway of death,” intended to create a link with Burma. After Japan was forced to give up all of their overseas colonies and property following their defeat, the British sold the entire Burmese-Thailand railway, including this bridge, to the Thai government for 50 million baht. The bridge, which had been damaged by aerial bombing, was repaired and remains in use as a tourist attraction.

    Meet Boozy Bird, Diamond Geezer, and Football Crazy

    As Mrs. Adamu and I wandered through the Tokyu department store, which is attached to the massive, disorganized and foreign-tourist-packed shopping mall known as MBK Center, we came across these creepy, grotesque dolls that in some designer’s twisted fantasy are intended to be cute:
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    Looks like one statue maker needs a little diversity training. But wait! The same company (the name of which remains unknown due to the lack of any labels on the items save the obvious) deftly escapes any charges of racial insensitivity by offering similar nightmare images of white people:
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    Such bad taste is extremely typical here in Thailand. The most egregious example of this is the large number of “bad taste” T-shirt shops that are common throughout Bangkok but are especially noticeable at outdoor markets. The sight of countless shirts that make absolutely zero attempt at actual humor in favor of a blatantly shocking/offensive message is an almost daily cringe inducer here. You can see a representative sample of these embodiments of betrayal of God’s gift of language and creativity upon mankind here (only click if you promise never to buy a shirt). Who buys the stuff? I have not seen anyone around Bangkok wearing a “Just did it” t-shirt, thank God, but my guess is they appeal to some of the more boorish Eurotrash tourists (Americans are a rare breed here among tourists) and their kids.

    One positive result of the proliferation of annoying and unfunny T-shirts is that once in a while you’ll stumble upon some real humor, such as when a mild-mannered 40 year old Thai woman has no idea she’s wearing a shirt telling everyone around her to “FUCK OFF” or a younger man who probably has no idea of what “super funk” means or is despite wearing those powerful words emblazoned on a tattered jacket.

    Getting back to the icky dolls, a Google search of the seemingly nonsense names turns up an actual diamond seller, a show the Nokia corporation sponsors on ESPN that I believe airs on the company’s station in Thailand, and some sort of differently hideous drunk baby doll that’s apparently got some following in the UK, that actually does resemble the first doll. Leads me to wonder: Are these things all references to/sad imitations of Commonwealth-region pop culture?

    Driving in Thailand: Some words to the wise

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    (A rare lull in traffic outside the Ari skytrain station. Photo (c) Adamu)

    It is dangerous to drive in Thailand, I have recently learned:

    Cars wear down quickly in Thailand because most roads are paved in concrete, not asphalt, and because it is hot and humid year-round. Other factors contributing to wear and tear include fraud at the service station, including repairmen replacing new parts with used ones and bringing in cars for the same repairs over and over again.

    Many expats living in Thailand hire drivers, but the drivers can be unreliable. Often they will show up late or not at all. And when they do show up, they may drive drunk or on drugs. If you decide to fire an irresponsible driver, watch out: he may try and get revenge.

    The traffic conditions in Thailand are infamously dangerous. In fact, statistically every car on the road will experience an accident each year (as opposed to about 1/4 of cars in Japan). Insurance coverage, on the other hand, is often extremely low, with personal injury coverage often less than 1 million baht (about US$27,000).

    In the pretty likely scenario that you are in an auto accident, be aware that many public hospitals do not have ambulances of their own. And you may have to wait for the ambulance for a while, since you can’t go to the hospital until an insurance inspector arrives on the scene. Further, emergency personnel may not do much until they know you can pay for their services.

    Still, Thailand’s roads aren’t nearly as dangerous as, say, Pakistan‘s. (More info on driving in Thailand can be found here)

    Enjoying Root Beer in Thailand

    Root beer is not popular in Japan, which makes things tough for me as both Japan watcher and root beer lover. During my stays in the country, the high prices at the import stores – formerly the only place that sells the stuff before the rise of discount stores – forced me to regard my beloved root beer as a rare treat to be enjoyed alone or in the company of other foreigners.

    Attempts have been made to add the drink to the usual lineup of carbonated drink products, but the Japanese consumers are apparently having none of it. Why?

    Japanese friends have told me it tastes like medicine. Wikipedia tells me that the specific reason root beer fails to gain popularity outside Okinawa (a legacy of extended US occupation) and US military bases (see previous paretheses) is because drinking it makes you smell like you’re wearing a compress. I have always found the comparison somewhat insulting. I mean, root beer used to be a folk medicine – it’s supposed to taste that way!

    Thankfully, the Thais have absolutely no problem with stinky food (take dorians – please!). It was with great pleasure that I have found root beer to be plentiful here. Not only can one find A&W cans on the shelves of the ubiquitous 7-11s, right next to Coke and some unsettlingly hypersweet Lipton Iced Tea, but the A&W fast food chain is alive and well throughout Bangkok. You might be unfamiliar with A&W restaurants as they have a limited presence in many US states, but they but are, rest assured, a nationwide chain (and big in Canada!). They serve a lot of fried food and are known for having good curly fries (true) and chili dogs (not as true). Here I am hugging a statue of their beloved mascot the Great Root Bear (who knew they had a mascot?!) before enjoying their signature root beer in a frosty mug:

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    Unlike the A&W cans, which for some reason taste almost like Dr. Pepper (blech), the root beer at the restaurant is authentic and delicious. We also had curly fries, which were good as ever, and some fried chicken that was OK but doesn’t hold a candle to some of the awesome fried chicken you get at street vendors around Bangkok. One interesting feature of the menu is that waffles a la mode are offered along with the rest of the value meals, served with curly fries and apparently intended to be eaten as a full-fledged meal. Sounds good to me!