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Sunday, Oct. 7, 2001

Failure on a grandiose scale

DOGS AND DEMONS: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan, by Alex Kerr. Hill and Wang, New York, 2001, 432 pp., $27.00 (cloth)

Staff writer What has happened to Japan? Coming on the heels of the "lost decade," the January government reshuffle and a series of reforms that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi promises will turn the country around, this is certainly a timely question.

It is also the central question Alex Kerr grapples with in his new book "Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan." His answer: Japan has gone culturally bankrupt.

Under the guise of and in the pursuit of modernization, Japan has lost sight of its natural beauty, instead pouring its energies into encasing the nation in concrete and scarring the landscape with kitsch, nonfunctional monuments, Kerr claims.

From flower-arranging and film to the nation's schools and often noted penchant for public works, he argues that Japan has lost its bearings.

Over 60 percent of the country's coastline is fortified with concrete, he notes. In 1998, Japan spent more on public works than it cost to construct the Panama Canal. It builds stunning, useless structures squeezed among rice paddies -- such as a 1.6 billion yen museum to hold three pieces of art in Nagi, Okayama Prefecture -- that push rural governments to the brink of bankruptcy.

"Nothing could run more contrary to the trend of Western commentary on Japan for the past 50 years than the argument that Japan has failed in its pursuit of modernity," he writes. "However, that is the truth."

A highly readable, concentrated dose of wistfulness, "Dogs and Demons" is scattered with startling insights such as this. Unfortunately it is also repetitive, poorly organized and, in places, inaccurate, particularly when Kerr strays outside his realm of expertise.

This blanket statement is a case in point:

"(in Japan) . . . regulations control but do not regulate in the true sense of the word. Industries in Japan are largely unregulated. There is nothing to stop you from selling medication that has fatal side effects, dumping toxic waste, building an eyesore in a historic neighborhood, or giving investors fraudulent company statements."

Of course, Japan has laws to prevent dumping of toxic waste dumping, disingenuous company reports and the marketing of fatal medications. Implementation is a separate issue.

Likewise, novel insights occasionally snowball into hyperbole: "Japan has become arguably the world's ugliest country."

Granted, urban Japan is no aesthetic picnic, but the world's ugliest country? This contention is definitely "arguable" -- at best.

Other careless blunders -- the third Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Kerr's adopted town of Kyoto in December 1997, is rendered as the "Third UN Convention on Climate Control" -- should warn readers to proceed with care.

These trifling mistakes are sad because Kerr has something potentially important to say. For one, he argues that the world is behind the curve in understanding what is happening in Japan.

"In general, there is a persistent time lag in the world's perception of Japan," he writes, citing U.S. industries' delayed realization that Japanese industry was a force to be reckoned with as well as the release of the novel (and movie) "Rising Sun" after the so-called bubble burst.

The time lag is evident in cinema. The film sector -- ravaged by years of monopoly and insularity -- is a "superb window into Japan's modern troubles," Kerr writes.

When Kerr is in his element -- cinema, kabuki, architecture and other areas ostensibly closer to his heart -- his prose is tighter and his arguments more cogent than they are with, say, the environment, the economy or ikebana. Indeed, it seems as if Kerr overreaches himself.

Readers familiar with Kerr's last book, "Lost Japan," in which he laments the vanishing of Japan's culture, will find themes and places revisited here.

While laden with anecdotes that both help and hinder the book's flow, Kerr relies disproportionately on English language sources and the work of foreign pundits.

In addition, while he touches on environmental issues, he skips the new Environment Ministry. He writes about public works, but skims over important citizen movements, such as two in Tokushima Prefecture -- where he owns a house -- that have put government dam projects on hold.

That said, there is no mistaking the genuine concern -- for Japan and its future -- that this old Japan hand brings to his writing.

There are some fresh insights here mixed with much that residents and visitors will find familiar -- including drab urban scenery diluting traditional vistas as well as the ubiquitous and annoying public announcements.

The book takes its title, Kerr says, from a Chinese artist's rejoinder to the emperor when asked what was easy and what was difficult to draw. "Dogs are difficult, demons are easy," he said.

Kerr elaborates: "Dogs are the simple, unobtrusive facts in our surroundings that are so difficult to get right; demons are grandiose surface statements. Anyone can draw a demon. . . . ."

Kerr opines that Japan is chronically painting demons -- struggling with contrived monster edifices and public works projects when it should be seeking simple solutions to problems using wisdom from its parsimonious past. This book is a call for Japan to get back to the basics.

Despite his scathing criticisms of Japan, though, Kerr insists his book is descriptive, not prescriptive. He offers no solutions.

Yet, he believes that once angst reaches a critical mass, citizens may rise up and try to incite change. For Japan's sake, one can only hope he is correct.

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