Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Alex Kerr is angry. He’s 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 book is very well researched and Kerr knows his subject, the country where he has lived for decades. All in all, the book is an important antidote to the Japanophiles who look at the country through rose-tinted glasses—and as Kerr points out, there are many of those (and to a point I have to confess being one myself). At the same time, this is a rather tedious read because of its gloom and hopelessness. Furthermore, at 432 pages, it’s somewhat overlong and somewhat repetitious. Still, it’s an important book, which I hope many Japanese would read. However, there’s probably not much risk of that, for the very reasons that Kerr outlines in the book.
Kerr takes us through virtually all sectors of Japanese society, pointing out systematically what is wrong. He takes the title of the book from an old Chinese story where an 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” (pp. 145-146). The metaphor here is that focusing on small everyday things is difficult, but constructing new, big and expensive things is easy. Japan in the past half century has focused only on the latter and in the process destroyed the former.
It all comes down to an all-powerful and completely unaccountable bureaucracy that is unimaginative, undemocratic and tone deaf to alternative voices. It has been empowered by an education system that discourages free thinking and emphasizes rote learning and military style obeisance. Of course, no such system could stay in place for long unless there were powerful groups that benefited. Kerr shows the collusion between the bureaucrats, politicians and industry that by any Western standard could only be condemned as corrupt. 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. Which it did, but at an enormous cost to the environment, nature and, yes, the poor people.
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. This construction frenzy has been a huge boon to the industry and to the bureaucrats who benefit from it, not least in the form of amakudari—cushy post-retirement jobs in the industry. It’s been enabled by many factors. Importantly, the huge government subsidies flowing to rural areas, but only if they accept construction works determined in Tokyo. These are in many smaller towns and villages the main sources of employment and income (although Kerr shows how many a town has also ended up in unsustainable debt because of the demons that have been brought upon them).
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; it’s a third larger than France or Spain and has a lower population density than Holland or Germany). Another aspect that the propaganda has been successful in is instilling the fear of danger into the population: everything is abunai (dangerous) and anyone doing manual labour (including, e.g., ambulance drivers) wear helmets. Although the Japanese culture traditionally admires nature, it has also been seen as something to be controlled.
The education system has been consciously devised to create an obedient, unquestioning and hard-working labour force for Japan’s industry. Inquisitive minds are discouraged from the beginning and authority is to be respected. My wife remembers from her Japanese childhood being punished when she asked questions from the teachers at school. Education is centred on discipline and group think—starting with the school uniforms: strictly militaristic for boys, sailor outfits for girls. One story from the time I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s has stuck in my mind as typical. It was about a boy who was expelled from school on the grounds that he had dyed his hair. The parents got a doctor’s certificate that the poor boy actually had been born with brown hair. The school authorities reluctantly reversed the decision, on the condition that the boy dyed his hair black. School bullying is rampant in Japan and the victims often are kids who are somehow different. All this has resulted in a complacent public. For instance, environmental NGOs are few and far between, their members considered radical outliers.
If school is tough, university is not. On the contrary, once you’ve secured a place in a prestigious university, the four years spent in higher education are commonly the only time in a person’s life when you can slack off freely. Employers hire graduates on the basis of which university they went to, not their grades or field of study. That’s 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. Only those intent on becoming academics go to graduate school. Unfortunately, graduate schools are equally hierarchical, as young scholars get affiliated with one senior professor who has complete authority over their research and lives. Peer review is basically unheard of in Japanese academia; it would be a logical impossibility, as it would involve a critique of a researcher who is affiliated with an unassailable senior professor. In the West, peer review is the foundation that guarantees academic quality. 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. Another acquaintance, an American professor in a recognized university in the Kansai region strongly discouraged me to join the faculty, as I remember him telling me, “these are the stupidest professors in the world.”
Of course, Japan is well-known for its technological progress and the situation in hard sciences and engineering is much better than in social sciences or even medicine. Japan is essentially a handicraft culture and, as such, it is extremely detail-oriented and aiming for perfection. It’s not that the Japanese invented the camera, the computer or the car; they just perfected them. Kerr elaborates on this: “Total dedication drives Japan’s self-sacrificing workers, and underlies the quality control that is the hallmark of Japanese production. But the tendency to take things to extremes means that people and organizations can easily get carried away and set out to ‘improve’ things that don’t need improving” (p. 45). I believe he is right when he sees a connection between this tendency and the constant desire to ‘improve’ on the rivers, mountainsides, ancient cities, and the like—if you think of it, even the famed Japanese gardens and bonsai trees are attempts to improve on what the nature has created. Kerr extrapolates further, stating that “there is an unstoppable extremism at work that is reminiscent of Japan’s military buildup before World War II” (p. 45). There is something to this, which can explain the continued destruction of Japan by a single-minded bureaucratic mass not governed by any democratically accountable political leadership.
The wanton way in which the environment has been destroyed in the name of progress is sad. After the war, in the effort to rebuild Japan and to catch up with the West, everything was sacrificed to the altar of industrial development. Minamata, a fishing village with considerable natural beauty on the island of Kyushu, became synonymous to industrial pollution in the 1950s and 1960s. The stunning thing about Minamata—and several other similar, if less publicized cases—was that, for decades, it was the victims who were shunned and ostracized for hampering industrial progress. One might say that Minamata took place half a century ago, but the case has barely been closed now. Perhaps more importantly, similar disregard for human health and life—not to mention ecosystem health or aesthetic values—continues to be demonstrated today, when Japan is rich and there is absolutely no justification for it (if there ever was). It was only in 1997 when the government started half-hearted regulation of dioxins after the publication of extremely high concentration levels of this poison around incinerators. The meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the tsunami of 11 March 2011 revealed stupendous breaches in security at the plant, with the government watchdog clearly in collusion with the industry to bypass even the weak regulations.
Taking Kyoto as a prime example, Kerr—understandably and correctly—lambasts the destruction of old neighbourhoods and the cultural patrimony in ancient urban centres. 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. But he decided to cover many more areas, including the bubble economy, manga, ikebana, the poor state of Japan’s museums, the movie industry, just to name a few True, he does tie the miserable state of Japanese cinema and other arts to the same root causes, stating how “Japan’s postwar educational system is turning the Japanese into children” (p. 312). Similarly, the critique of ‘internationalization’ of Japan is right on the money. Japan is likely the least international of any industrialized nation. Since the Edo period, foreigners have been isolated in their own ghettos, like the historical Dutch and Chinese merchants off Nagasaki. Today, foreigners (gaijin) have been largely relegated to the position of low-level workers in companies or language teachers with no chance of career advancement. As for unskilled workers, authorities have encouraged primarily ethnically Japanese people from places like Brazil and Peru to take up work in the country. Just a few years ago, I was having dinner in Tokyo with a senior government official. When I mentioned that, given the aging population and dearth of manual workers, Japan would be forced to ease up immigration laws, his answer was (seriously): “No, not at all; that’s why we’re investing so much in the development of robots.” Xenophobia is alive and well in Japan.
Kerr also talks about creative Japanese people who choose to leave the country. Japan has never appreciated the maverick, even if the person was a genius. He mentions leading scientists (like Shuji Nakamura, inventor of important breakthroughs in blue lasers; Dr. Ken Kakere, a cancer specialist long with NIH in the USA), business people (Nobuya Okabe who makes SciFi effects for movies and TV) and musicians (Seiji Ozawa, Ryuichi Sakamoto) who all have decided to go abroad. “In Japan’s medical world, young people, women, the outspoken, and the inventive stand no chance of recognition” (p. 339). The same could be said of many other fields. 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. 357).
This book was published more than a decade ago, in 2001, and its examples come largely from the 1990s. One could therefore expect it to be outdated. Many things have changed since the publication and, perhaps, things are no longer equally bleak. In fact, Kerr himself sees some hopeful signs for change, although he does have his doubts: “Change will get harder, not easier, as the population ages. At the very moment when Japan needs adventurous people to drastically revise its way of doing things, the population has already become the world’s 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. 367). Kerr points out that Japan has demonstrated an ability to abruptly change course, twice, but both times there was an external impetus: first in the late-Edo period when Commodore Perry forced Japan open to outsiders; the second time after World War II with an American instigated new constitution. This time Japan is on its own: “Nobody outside Japan is concerned about the fate of its mountains and rivers; nobody will arrive in a warship to demand that Japan produce better movies, rescue bankrupt pension funds, educate its children to be creative, or house its families in livable houses. The revolution will have to come from within” (p. 360).
But many things have indeed happened. The recession has shaken up the lifelong career structure and unemployment has risen. More young people have been forced into self-employment or have even dropped out. At the time when Kerr wrote his book a dozen years ago, Japan’s economy was still larger than the combined economy of the rest of East Asia, including China. Since then, China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Then there was the tsunami and the nuclear disaster, which surely must have shattered any remaining trust people may have had in the bureaucracy and big business.
Then again, East Village is still full of Japanese kids who did not fit in and Ryuichi Sakamoto still lives in New York. Japanese speaking henna gaijin are still paraded on TV variety shows as curious freaks. Construction is continuing unabated with government subsidies. And LDP—neither liberal nor democratic—is again in power. One can only hope for the best.
If this review—like the book itself—comes across overly negative, it is because Kerr focused on the critical aspects. Japan, of course, has so many good aspects to it. That’s why Kerr, I and many a Japanophile cares. At the end, this is a work of love. As Kerr points out, the overwhelming majority of books written about Japan by gaijin focus on the lovely aspects—the aesthetics, the traditional culture, the food, the politeness of people, the efficiency, the beauty that remains in nature and in culture—therefore, a critical look that doesn’t 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 Japan’s 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 nation’s 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. 385).
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