Kerr writes with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story.
My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this -- for us.'"
Kerr writes with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story.
My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this -- for us.'"
I went to a talk by Alex Kerr, a noted Japanologist and author of the book Dogs and Demons, at Temple University's Tokyo branch campus and was impressed with his presentation on some problems facing modern Japan today. He also had a slide presentation to highlight his concerns about what Japan is doing to itself. Thus, he makes a case for the way that Japan is destroying its countryside and culture through bureaucratic policies that may have made sense at on time, but have spiraled out of control while no one was really paying attention since it is the status quo. The strongest part of the book is at the beginning where he illustrated the problem of over-construction, specifically the over use of concrete, with a multitude of well-researched facts. For example, he points out that Japan, a country with the land mass of Montana, pours ten times the amount of concrete a year as the United States. He makes the valid point that less than 40 years ago Japan was in desperate need of infrastructure. One of his other major points was how these systematic bureaucratic decisions about building and urban planning were affecting the culture of cities, and in turn effecting tourism. The reason Japan doesn't bury its cables and wires are related to the construction problem.
The book shows so many negative side of Japan and those add up when you read through and I felt totally fed up. He should write his opinion about better future for Japan and with that suggestion, this book will become much better and I want him to update this book with it.
Written during Second World War on behalf of the Office of War Information, Benedict's work continues to be one of the most influential, if not the most inaccurate, studies of Japanese society ever published. According to Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, Benedict's underlying error was that of recognizing among her Japanese subjects a set of publicly acknowledged and condoned behaviors and relationships, and then concluding, in a gross fallacy of generalization, that the repression endemic in Japan both before and during the Second World War was "voluntarily embraced." In Benedict's eyes, "to be totalitarian and to be Japanese were the same thing." Machiavelli argued that the founder of a political state could create institutions that allowed the founder to instill fundamental changes in society while at the same time "making the new prince seem ancient, and rendering him at one more secure and firmer in the state than if he had been established there of old." Likewise, the much heralded Meiji Restoration that thrust a 17th century agrarian society into the 20th century in less that fifty years did not occur without careful planningfew "restorations" or "revolutions" ever do. "It appeared to have been created by the Meiji idealogues for the purpose of solidifying the Emperor system." Agrees Gluck, "From the time Japan began its deliberate pursuit of civilization in the mid-nineteenth century, ideology appeared as a conscious enterprise, a perpetual civic concern, an affair, indeed, of state." Lummis puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it." The revisionist school of Japanese studies, exemplified most recently by Kerr and Patrick Smith (Japan: A Reinterpretation), similarly portrays the common man as the oppressed tool of a fascistic state. Except that the modern Japanese aren't oppressed and don't live in a fascistic state. The neo-Marxist indictments of the admittedly imperfect institutions of democratic capitalism as in some way analogous to 20th totalitarianism are as miguided and tired as Benedict's attempts to conflate a political behavior of the moment with the cultural heritage of the past. Kerr grew up in Japan, has lived there for three decadesin a suburb of Kyoto, not Tokyoand is fluent enough in the language to have edited the translation of his book. R. Reid, a veteran of the Tokyo Press Corps, produced as his last book on the subject (before he up and transferred to London) an embarrassingly fawning account that spoke more to a comfortable life schmoozing among the internationalized upper middle-class than anything relevant to the lives of the average Japanese. Another reason why van Wolferen's remains the more relevant analysis: it is a story of political institutions sinning against culture and society, not the other way around. By blaming culture and not politics, Benedict's approach only confirms comforting ethnic stereotypes, and does not illuminate the true source of the current conflicts between China and Japan in the grubby, prosaic world of diplomatic gamesmanship and manipulation of public opinion.) Working through an inbred and unaudited system of "government" and "public" corporations (with no open bidding), the Japanese construction industry, spending twice the percent of GDP as the U.S. in a country not much larger than California, manufacturing more raw tonnage of cement than the entire United States, and laying thirty times as much concrete per square foot, has locked sixty percent of the shoreline behind artificial breakwaters, built 2800 dams with five hundred in planning, completely diked all but three of Japan's rivers, and drained every costal wetland in the process. This is all paid for by massive off-budget borrowing from Japan's Postal Savings Accounts, essentially a trillion-dollar national bank run by the postal service. He concludes, "Tobashi is a form of make-believe in which Japan's banks pretend to having hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have. If the world banking community agrees to believe that Japan has these billions, then it essentially does." A more dangerous experiment taking place on a national scale is the lack of enforcement of environmental protection directives. The problem, Kerr argues, is that Japan is being true to itself. Speaking of the "traditional" one more often communicates instead a sentimentality for a certain era, in the case of Japan the late 17th century "Genroku" period, during which all the unemployed samurai, with nothing else better to do, began busily inventing the modern image of the samuraimuch in the way that modern conception of the medieval knight and the western cowboy have long been the products of Hollywood producers. But the process takes about a century, and Japan has been a functioning free-market democracy for only fifty years, while the United States, in 1776, had been hard at work at both capitalism and democracy for two centuries already, and had the legacy of the transcendentalists and naturalists and politicians like Teddy Roosevelt to draw on when the movement did get underway.
Hes angry at the Japanese bureaucrats, construction industry, media and, not least, education system that have all destroyed not only the natural beauty of the unique archipelago, but also the culture and psyche of the ancient country. The long-standing principle of poor people, strong state was born after the American occupation when Japan was determined to catch up with the West at any cost. Probably the strongest part of the book focuses on the power of the construction industry and the Ministry of Construction, which have systematically destroyed the natural beauty and ecological balance of this unique archipelago. By the mid-1990s, Japan used about 30 times more concrete per square kilometre than the United States, channelling virtually every river and stream, constructing erosion control measures on the most remote uninhabited mountainsides, building roads into the forest to allow for logging, destroying most of its shoreline with coastal protection works, and paving over virtually anything that can be paved. The government propaganda has been effective in making many Japanese genuinely believe that theirs is a small (semai) country with not enough of space for the population (in reality, Japan is by far larger than any country in Europe, barring Russia; its a third larger than France or Spain and has a lower population density than Holland or Germany). The education system has been consciously devised to create an obedient, unquestioning and hard-working labour force for Japans industry. Thats because the next stage of socialization is at work: the employer wants to re-educate the new staff member and mould him to fit the company culture. A Japanese friend of mine who did his doctorate in the States, but got hired by one of the better private universities in Tokyo, told me that his publications in the best international journals have no bearing for his career or status; the university only requires him to write two pieces per year, in Japanese, to its own non-peer reviewed journal. Kerr elaborates on this: Total dedication drives Japans self-sacrificing workers, and underlies the quality control that is the hallmark of Japanese production. Kerr extrapolates further, stating that there is an unstoppable extremism at work that is reminiscent of Japans military buildup before World War II (p. Again, at work are the bureaucrats and construction industry on autopilot and a complacent public with a misguided understanding of progress and modernity. Had Kerr left it to examining environment, construction and education the book might have read better. Japan is likely the least international of any industrialized nation. As for unskilled workers, authorities have encouraged primarily ethnically Japanese people from places like Brazil and Peru to take up work in the country. Kerr also talks about creative Japanese people who choose to leave the country. At the same time, many young people decide to leave for studies abroad where they can enjoy life and study, rather than just endure like in Japan (p. At the very moment when Japan needs adventurous people to drastically revise its way of doing things, the population has already become the worlds oldest, with school registrations on a strong downward curve Meanwhile, youths, whom one would ordinarily expect to be full of energy and initiative, have been taught in school to be obedient and never to question the way things are (p. At the time when Kerr wrote his book a dozen years ago, Japans economy was still larger than the combined economy of the rest of East Asia, including China. As Kerr points out, the overwhelming majority of books written about Japan by gaijin focus on the lovely aspectsthe aesthetics, the traditional culture, the food, the politeness of people, the efficiency, the beauty that remains in nature and in culturetherefore, a critical look that doesnt overlook the troubling side is useful. Taking an analogy from what is missing in new ikebana, Kerr concludes Japan has strayed too far from jitsu, or reality, and there is a need to getting back in touch with this reality. He concludes: The result of Japans war with jitsu has been to tear apart and ravage most of what Japan holds most dear in its own culture, and this lies at the root of the nations modern cultural malaise: people are sick at heart because Japan has strayed so far from its true self The challenge of this century will be how to find a way home (p.
Kerr raises the following as the foremost issues at the heart of Japan's perceived decline: - pointless pork-barrel construction projects - garish, misguided architectural design that ignores local flavor - an educational system that focuses on mindless obedience and rote memorization - an economy on the brink of collapse, plagued by creative accounting and fraud - infantile pop culture (the cult of "kawaii" and the prominence of anime and manga) - a monolithic bureaucratic juggernaut unconcerned with public need - skepticism and resistance of internationalism The list goes on, and it paints a very bleak picture. (I regret reading the bulk of this book on a gloomy, rainy Sunday.) While the issues Kerr cites are--to some extent--visible to this longtime resident, his argument is far from ironclad. The biggest turnoff about this book comes from Kerr citing the Edo period (1603-1868) as some sort of ideal for modern Japan to aspire to.
Kerr argues that many of Japan's problems are rooted in its culture, and being Japanese not purely as a result of a pressure to Westernize, as the common school of thought goes.
It paints a very negative portrait of Japan, albeit it was published in 2001 so a lot of time has passed. It did make me wonder if Kerr's book is the equivalent of the horrendously negative political titles that we sell at the store.
As much as I want to agree with Mr Kerr on most of these points, I simply cannot agree with the picture of Japan as a culture-less country. Japans culture is one of the MOST enduring cultures on the planet; while Shintoism may not have become popular in the rest of the world, Buddhism has, almost to mainstream levels. Zen, and the idea of Zen have become mainstream with new age, modern culture in Western Civilization, endowing people with the means to 'de-stress' and calm, in a society that is constantly buzzing with activity, and the need to do better, to be more. He mentions that Japanese cinema. He speaks nothing of Japans culinary culture, a culture that survives MAINSTREAM to this day. The fact that Japanese cuisine has not only survived, but adapted to Western ideas is amazing; when I spoke to the chef, he mentioned that ONLY salmon, tuna, and cucumber sushi were traditional. The author briefly mentioned festival culture, as if it were a blight. The childish excitement of fireworks, good food, and intimate air (You will always find someone who knows so and so!) Wiki'ing Japanese festivals lists at least 19 MAJOR festivals a year, 6 on a level below the major festivals, and then countless across Japan for local prefectures. Modern japanese orchestral music maybe be adapting to western ideas, but at the same time, using their own instruments, they manage to keep their own identity while doing so. He speaks nothing of a culture and people that have allowed the idea of romanticism to survive and gambare, endure. I mean, if you're dissimilate a country by it's culture, and say that they've strangled their own culture, you might want to actually take a look around. What happened with this book was a spiralling ramble about the same issue that didn't vary from cover to cover; Japans inability to work it's own culture into it's industrial sectors, combined with an ineffective economy. The author neglected to mention movements that were current in Japan to preserve culture, stand up to the government, and ways for foreigners to help.