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Sunday, May 27, 2001

Japan's traditions aren't lost, they're buried


Staff writer
DOGS AND DEMONS: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan, by Alex Kerr. Hill and Wang, 2001, 432 pp., $27 (cloth).

An ancient Chinese tale holds that dogs are difficult to draw because they are ubiquitous; demons are easy to create because they spring from the artist's imagination. Or, to put it more plainly, it is difficult to focus on the mundane and familiar, but quite easy to envision the grand, the colorful and the unique.

Applying such wisdom to the economic and social development of an entire country might seem like a dubious task. But Alex Kerr succeeds brilliantly. He argues that Japan's obsession with building "demons" like worthless public-works projects, while ignoring "dogs" like low-key activities that help preserve the environment and traditional culture are the real cause of not only Japan's "Lost Decade," but of a deeper crisis that he defines as cultural malaise.

Kerr, whose previous book, "Lost Japan," was the first publication by a foreigner to win the Shicho Gakugei Literary Prize for nonfiction, is no ordinary Japan observer. With over 35 years firsthand experience living in or dealing with the country, he has watched, with increasing rage, as Japan's obsession with economic growth and public works has led to environmental and social degradation and an estrangement from the rest of the world and the nation's true self.

He begins with an examination of Japan's obsession with construction -- that huge, bloated monster of an industry that pours concrete over every riverbed, forest and harbor it can find. Disregarding environmental law, scientific analysis, economic need, popular opinion and ordinary common sense, the Construction Ministry, and especially it's powerful River Bureau, orders projects like the Nagara Dam to proceed despite public opposition and little evidence of need. Since nearly 40 percent of combined national budget expenditures go to public-works projects -- the comparable figure in the United States is about 9 percent -- all the ministries have a strong incentive to build just for the sake of building.

Even when concrete is not being poured, the Japanese obsession with rearranging the landscape often leads to environmental disaster. Consider a plan, introduced by the Forestry Agency in the late 1940s, to clear the natural forests on mountain sides and plant commercial timber. By 1997, Japan had replanted nearly half its broadleaf forests with coniferous trees, primarily cedar. But the acidity of the cedar trees damaged the surrounding wildlife, creating a barren desert free of plants, bushes and grass underneath the trees.

Unable to hold ground water, mountain streams beside the newly planted trees have dried up, a phenomenon known as "cedar drought." The cedar trees, which officials originally said would provide work for those in the countryside, are still standing because over the past 50 years those who the government thought would be cutting trees left for less dirty and dangerous work in the big cities.

The demons come most clearly into focus when Kerr demonstrates how the construction state mentality has extended to aspects of Japanese cultural life. Most hideous is the state of Japanese architecture. Although there was a brief period in the 1960s when Japanese architecture won international acclaim, Kerr shows how the jumble of incoherent buildings that have been thrown up since then stem from the minds of individuals who lack any aesthetic sense of balance.

In two chapters on the philosophy of monuments and the business of monuments, Kerr argues there are two basic forms of monument in Japan: manga and massive. The former is distinguished by functionless decorations such as stainless steel tubes topped with dragonheads at a sword museum in Yokota. The latter includes massive buildings like those planned for Tokyo and Osaka harbors. These may be an architect's ultimate fantasy, but they're a city's financial nightmare.

Many of these monuments were conceived during the years of the bubble economy, roughly 1987 to 1991, a period that Japanese are now desperate to forget. In what should be required reading for anyone who writes about or studies the Japanese economy, Kerr recounts one of the most unbelievable tales of that gilded age: In 1987, just as the bubble was inflating taking off, Japan's leading bankers and industrialists descended upon one Onoe Nui in Osaka, who gave them stock advice that came from a ceramic toad.

You didn't misread that: a ceramic toad. As Kerr explains, in China and India, toads are believed to have mystical powers and none had more power over markets than Nui's toad. Top officials made regular trips to a remote Osaka neighborhood where the toad, through the body of Nui, told them how to invest. Thus, the financial fate of a nation was divined -- until Nui got greedy and someone finally woke up and had her arrested.

From there, things went downhill for Japan. Deftly avoiding economic and financial jargon, Kerr explains in clean, precise language how, with the demise of Nui's toad, the Finance Ministry and corporate Japan have cooked, fiddled and juggled the books in a vain attempt to convince the Japanese public and the international business community that all is well.

For Kerr, the reason Japan fell from its position as an economic power so far so fast is a product of its history and culture. An emphasis on shared responsibility and obedience led to a situation in which no one is in charge. As a result, once Japan sets out on a course, it will not stop. Since the Meiji Period, Japan's unbridled race to catch up with the West and become "modern" has created a mentality in which the world's second-wealthiest nation in terms of per capita income believes it is still poor.

In a passage that will surely enrage both politically correct American scholars and graduate students in East Asian study departments as well as Japan's rightwing conservatives, Kerr argues that Japan has a problem with honestly looking at and dealing with unpleasant truths. The old shibboleths of "honne" and "tatemae" are presented as yet more evidence that Japan simply cannot avoid carrying things to extremes. Tatamae, he notes, is fine when one has committed a faux pax in polite company. But it's disastrous when applied to national finance and sound environmental and social policies.

It would be easy to dismiss much of Kerr's work as science fiction or the rantings of someone who has spent too much time in Zen gardens. But like Karl von Wolferen's classic "The Enigma of Japanese Power," "Dogs and Demons" pulls together concerns and criticisms thoughtful Japanese and foreign observers have long held about separate aspects of Japan (the economy, the environment) and shows how they are symptoms of a much more deeply-rooted problem: that of Japan's identity.

Kerr admirably resists the temptation to give readers a happy ending by providing easy answers or offering advice. Instead, he simply notes that the Japanese will have to find their own way out of the concrete, Pokemon Orwellian nightmare that Japan has become.

This approach makes "Dogs and Demons" one of the most worthwhile books on Japan in quite some time. Kerr has already come under attack from certain American academics (notably, Harvard's Ezra Vogel) for painting too bleak a picture. Others in the U.S. and Japan will no doubt cry "Japan basher!" upon reading this book.

In the introduction, Kerr anticipates his critics, charging that too many people who claim to be friends of Japan are more interested in mouthing platitudes and tired stereotypes so that they might not lose their university grants, symposium invitations or business contacts.

Yet as anyone who has lived in Japan will admit, most of the problems detailed in "Dogs and Demons" are very real. In the finest traditions of investigative journalism, Kerr has produced what will be a very controversial work and many are likely to brand him as anti-Japanese. Nothing could be further from the truth. Kerr, like von Wolferen, is one of Japan's true friends. "Dogs and Demons" is a passionate cry for help by a man who cares very deeply about Japan and ordinary Japanese people.



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