I have finally finished reading Alex Kerr’s “Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan.” Though in the course of reading the book I was constantly coming across concepts, arguments, assertions, or quotes I wanted to share and discuss, I put off writing about it until I completed the whole text. After all, you never know what is going to come up next, and how that might complement or detract from one’s impression or understanding.
I had been eager for quite some time to read this book, as I have heard Kerr speak, and read elsewhere about his ideas on the construction state in Japan, the country’s failure to appreciate or protect its traditional architecture, and the traditional character of its cities. These topics form the core of the book, though only two chapters are explicitly directly related to “Old Cities” and “New Cities”; only about half the book is really devoted to these topics at all, the rest describing the social, educational, political, economic, and financial structures which enable and perpetuate what Kerr identifies as systemic problems in Japan.
Alternatively, one can see the book as one which addresses a wide range of systemic issues, issues of construction, architecture, and the character of cities being just one of them.
In any case, it is an excellent, informative, and sobering read, scary and depressing at times. Is this really the Japan I fell in love with? Is that really what’s going on behind the scenes? I always knew that the multitude of writers on how wonderful Japan’s corporate culture is (or other similar topics) were not getting the whole picture – finance/business experts, they wouldn’t know Ashikaga from Minamoto, Hiroshige from Hokusai, or Gainax from Madhouse – in short, they don’t really know Japan, but only one small sliver, one aspect, of modern Japanese “culture”. But Kerr really drives it home that these writers, who extol Japanese corporate culture, robotics technologies, bureaucratic efficiency, or what have you, really have no idea what is going on behind the scenes (or know but are choosing to not represent the darker sides), and thus present to the Western world, either intentionally or unknowingly, an extremely distorted view of Japan, which cultivates an ignorance of Japan’s systemic problems so complete that Kerr’s own arguments teeter on the edge of credibility.
*Think of Kyoto. What do you see? What do you imagine Kyoto to be like? Perhaps you picture cherry blossoms or red maple leaves, geisha walking along cobblestone paths lined with traditional-style wooden buildings with tiled roofs and tatami floors. A city frozen, in some ways, in the 18th century or earlier – a place where, unlike in, for example, New York, there is a long tradition to look back upon, to appreciate, protect, and preserve.
*Think of Tokyo. What do you see? What do you imagine Tokyo to be like? Perhaps you imagine sleek, white, ultramodern architecture, the kind of beautiful, futuristic structures you normally associate with sci-fi movies. A city not frozen at all, but forward-looking, progressing beyond anything we see in the West, as if arriving in Tokyo means stepping into the future.
*Those who have lived in Japan, however, will tell you that, in fact, sadly, both cities, like most cities throughout Japan, are composed primarily of a jumble of boxy concrete apartment buildings, electrical wires running every which way. These are cities frozen, not in a quaint, beautiful traditional past, nor progressing as the heralds of the future, but frozen in the 1950s or ’60s, when Japan was very much a developing country, still struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II; a time when so-called “modern” architecture stressed function over form, and yielded truly hideous, grey, depressing concrete cubes.
Kerr relates an anecdote in which a German publisher, visiting Japan on business, “looked out at a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, a typical jumble of concrete boxes and electric wires, and asked innocently,
‘So this is where the poor people live?’ … No, this is where everyone lives.”
(p207) This is the result, as Kerr explains, of Japan’s refusal or inability to acknowledge itself as a developed country, to put aside the idea of the people suffering and enduring for the sake of the country, and the misguided idea that concrete, steel, and this kind of cramped (semai) lifestyle are essential parts of what it means to be “modern.” This is also the result of a complex web of political and economic forces which prevent the bureaucracy, construction industry, banks, and other industries from having any motivation whatsoever to allow change, let alone to advocate for it; finally, the educational system and cultural attitudes against speaking out, against thinking idependently, prevent the populace from standing up to the bureaucracy and industry to demand change.
Granted, all of this was written several years ago, before the fateful 2009 election, in which the LDP lost power for only the second time in about 50 years, an election which was surrounded with chatter about dissatisfaction with LDP governance, with bureaucracy, and overall with the way government and bureaucracy operated. I’m not sure if all that much has changed in the last six months, since the DPJ took charge, or whether this cry for change from the masses truly represents a breakthrough in the power of the public, or at least the desire of the public, to actually effect change. Only time will tell whether the Japan of post-2009 truly becomes a different creature from the one Alex Kerr describes so pessimistically in 2001.