How a country with ‘everything’ went into a tailspin

By Paul Baylis, Asahi Shimbun, 29 May 2002

While Alex Kerr was visiting the United States recently, a college student told him he was reading Kerr's book Dogs and Demons under his bed covers at night, since his professor had warned students not to read it.

The professor is not alone in his displeasure.

Published last year, Dogs and Demons has wrankled many Japan scholars in the West by challenging the accepted characterization of Japan's development since World War II-and especially since the 1960s—as a miracle.

Rather, Kerr argues, Japan is a case of failed modernization. While initially successful in delivering economic growth, the political, bureaucratic, economic and educational systems set up after World War II are now so bloated and ossified they are causing terrible damage to the environment, economy and society. As a result, Kerr believes Japan is poised for great change, similar to that which closed the Edo Period (1603-1867).

Quietly, around the edges, you had all these scholars writing shogunal tracts. You had people meeting in backrooms, plotting, all this stuff going on around the fringes. That is exactly what I see happening now, he said in a telephone interview from Bangkok, where he lives part of the year, spending much of the rest of his time in Kyoto and Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture.

Kerr said the arguments in Dogs and Demons-the Japanese version of which was published this month (Inu to Oni, Kodansha, 2,500 yen)-have been better received by Japanese audiences than by Westerners.

When I say to an American audience that Japan has concreted its countryside, people rise up and say, `How dare you? That's preposterous!' But in Japan, everyone says, `Yes, what can we do about it?'

Kerr first came to Japan as a child when his father was posted here with the U.S. military in 1964. Educated at Yale, Oxford and Keio universities, he has lived here for more than 35 years, much of that time as an art dealer in Kyoto. His first book, Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo (Lost Japan), published in 1994, won the Shincho Gakugei literary prize for nonfiction, the first time it was awarded to a foreigner.

In Lost Japan, Kerr explored his personal sense of loss at the destruction of Japan's environment and traditional culture. For Dogs and Demons, he set out to do the research to back up those feelings. The book took five years and underwent numerous revisions.

It began with the central question of why Japan fell into its current malaise when it had so much going for it-a beautiful environment, rich cultural heritage, top-rated education system, legendary flair for high technology and vast wealth from industrial success. Yet somehow, Japan went into an inexplicable tailspin and has become the world's ugliest country.

The title of the book comes from a Chinese parable referring to the difficulty of depicting commonplace things, versus those that are grotesque and extreme.

Dogs are the simple, unobtrusive factors in our surroundings that are so difficult to get right, such as zoning, sign control, planting and tending trees, burying electric wires, protecting historic neighborhoods and environmentally friendly resorts.

Demons are grandiose surface statements, such as unused bridges and expressways, cultural halls and museums shaped in all manner of bizarre designs, Olympic-sized sports facilities in rural villages and futuristic metropolises built on reclaimed harbors-any kind of monument, the bigger, more expensive and more outrageous, the better.

Kerr does not mince words. His writing is packed with poignant similes and metaphors. The bureaucratic mindset that pushes through rural development despite protests and the absence of any coherent rationale is like a Terminator robot that no one can stop or override.

These are not simply the grumblings of a disappointed foreigner, Kerr emphasizes. Thousands, if not millions of Japanese people are deeply concerned, and he quotes them widely.

For the Japanese version of the book, Kerr said he spent less time marshalling facts and figures, since much of the background is already known to Japanese audiences.

It's not about numbers, especially in the Japanese edition, it's about a point of view, he said. Generally speaking, it is a pulling together of a body of opinion already out there in Japan and organizing it.

The initial translation came back in unacceptable translatorese, he said, lacking cultural sensitivity and bogged down with long, complex sentences, with no lilt, no fun, no joy. Kerr extensively rewrote it himself, and the final product is a different book than the English original.

It's shorter, in some sense it's stronger than the English. In Japanese, I could come out and say some things much more clearly, he said. The English approach is to be terribly logical, and in Japanese, you don't need to be quite so rigid.

While Kerr does not think Japan will face a major economic collapse any time soon, he does see significant changes on the horizon.

We are balanced perfectly like a scale between the incredible weight and complexity of the system and the voices of change. My short-term prediction is more stagnation, for possibly even another five years. Long term, something must give.

Asked what change will feel like, he points to the end of the Edo Period.

When the fall of the shogunate finally came, as the Chinese classics would say, it was like turning the palm of your hand. It happened with incredible speed. Suddenly the bakufu (shogunate) looked down at its feet and there was no ground to stand on.