Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Japan Lost?

"To put it bluntly, these places have become cities of illusion, historical theme parks... Kyoto, Beijing, and Bangkok have been turned into concrete jungles. Meanwhile, the countryside has been filled to overflowing with billboards, power lines and aluminum houses."

A collection of essays concerning personal history and cultural critique, upon publication Lost Japan made Alex Kerr a legend in expat circles in Tokyo and elsewhere on the archipelago. A bit of a controversial figure for his harsh assessments of Japan, it is difficult to question his authority, as there are few foreign residents who have gone deeper into the culture than Kerr. He variously describes his interests delving into traditional Japanese architecture, kabuki theater, calligraphy, and art collecting. He seems to have experienced Japan at every level including a stint working for the Trammell Crow developing firm during the Bubble Era. Fluent in the language, Kerr originally wrote the book in Japanese.

Japan really is one of the most mythologized nations of which nearly everyone has an opinion. Many romanticize it, and it is easy to fall in love after a brief vacation. The streets are safe, the people polite, the shopkeepers honest, the service impeccable, the eccentricities charming. But any longterm residents- no matter the quality of their expatriate life- can enumerate various frustrations with the Japanese way of doing things. Kerr is an aesthete and his main point of contention is the Japanese willful destruction of their beautiful landscapes (pylons, power lines, concrete covering nature) atmosphere (interiors of plastic and florescent light), and the abandonment of the traditional arts (philistinism best typified by the rise of pachinko). Kerr might be a snob, but he is an agreeable and knowledgable one and his points are well thought out and colorfully made. His derision of pachinko, a mind-numbing electronic gambling game and its parlors for playing, is spot on: "When you look at the cultural remains of a historical period, you are able to perceive its dominant ideology. In the Nara and Heian periods there were Esoteric temples; from Kamakura to Edo there were Zen temples and teahouses... What about the present?... In the Japanese countryside the tallest and most ostentatious building is invariably a pachinko parlor." 

Hitchhiking across Japan in the early 1970s, he discovered the Iya Valley in rural Shikoku, where in a little village suffering depopulation he purchases an abandoned 17th century wooden house. The most expensive and complicated renovation is replacing the kaya, or thatched roof. It takes years for him to do so but in the end the structure is beautifully restored. He calls it Chiiori and it becomes a success story for restorative village tourism. Nevertheless, in spite of a longterm recession and a history of failure, a corrupt national government continues to spend massively on pork barrel projects that despoil the environment.  

Kerr comments wearily, "This destruction has continued at an ever-increasing rate, and now Japan has achieved a position as one of the world's ugliest countries." However brusque Kerr's criticism is, the fury derives from a profound love for his adopted country. Wherever we choose to live, we will have a complex relationship to our environment, most especially if we import our values into a distinct culture. For all of Kerr's criticism, he is lavish when describing his fondness for calligraphy and kabuki not to mention, his gratitude for the genuine friendships he's maintained with certain Japanese people.

But for all Kerr's lamentations of a bygone Japan, I couldn't help noticing there was a tinge of the traveler's boast-- what I'm talking about is the one-upmanship people have when comparing their life experiences. No doubt Kerr has had an extraordinarily unique go at it, but the underlying message here for those coming to the party late seems to be "forget it!" as he was the last foreigner to experience the "real" Japan. Kerr is far too delicate to come out and say this explicitly-- however, over and over, he brings up cultural topics that have changed irreparably, from art collecting to kabuki to the rural village experience. Even something as culturally vulgar as Japan's economic Bubble is burst and the gold rush is over. Kerr's not exactly rubbing it in, but this memoir is an elegy for a "lost Japan," and let's not forget who wrote it.

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