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Thursday, June 13, 2002

OUR PLANET EARTH

'Dark Side' proved a lightning rod for readers' ire


Being a columnist can be lonely. Apart from doing interviews, researching and writing are pretty solitary activities and feedback is limited. Getting a handful of e-mails, be they cranky, critical or supportive, marks a successful column.

Sometimes, though, a column hits a note that resounds with readers -- and the response can be stunning. A recent interview with Alex Kerr, discussing his book "Dogs and Demons" (Hill and Wang, 2001), struck such a chord.

Kerr's book is subtitled "Tales From the Dark Side of Japan," but these are not ghost stories. Rather, the book reveals some horrifying truths about a nation that has created a dysfunctional educational and bureaucratic system. Kerr -- who has spent more than 30 of his 49 years here, and who has studied at Yale, Keio and Oxford -- explains how this system allows the construction-industry juggernaut to degrade Japan's environment, and has led to the decline of Japanese cinema, as well as to the destruction of Kyoto and other once-lovely cities.

"Dogs and Demons," whose Japanese edition was published in April by Kodansha, strips the veneer of success from Japan's "economic miracle," exposing the greed, selfishness and opportunism, in both the public and private sectors, that have fueled this nation's rise and fall. As one environmentalist and longtime observer of Japan commented, "Kerr wrote the book I was going to write. He wrote the book everyone wanted to write."

Though Kerr now lives part of the year in Bangkok, Japan is still his home and its losses are his own. As he notes in the book's conclusion: "For one who loves Japan's culture and its rivers and mountains, the disaster overtaking cities and countryside has been heartrending to witness. I've written this book for my Japanese friends and millions of others who . . . feel as sad and angry as I do."

While interviewing Kerr I was struck by his intellectual honesty and his genuine sadness for Japan. I expected quite a few Japan Times readers would identify with his concerns as well. Little did I know how many.

Within hours of the interview's appearance in the paper's April 25 edition, e-mails started to arrive from readers passionate about Japan's decline: environmentally, culturally and morally. To date I have received several dozen from readers who want a copy of the column, or who have just read it and want to share their thoughts.

Some readers wrote simply to ask where they could buy the book. Others wrote brief messages to say thank you for the column. But many wrote to share then anger, concern and fears for Japan.

*    *    *

A Scot and a five-year resident of Japan asked why the Japanese do not resist the destruction of their culture, villages and heritage centers. He asked whether Japanese society is "too wealthy in a sense and therefore has no real need for political change in the minds of many." The reader noted that with the rise of [Prime Minister Junichiro] Koizumi last year, "Japanese showed an interest in politics for the first time in a very long time," but everyone seems to have "gone back to sleep."

Another reader, also five years in Japan, explained that he though he knew "Japan and its people" until he became a salaryman.

"My whole perception of Japan has changed now from that of an English teacher with rose-colored glasses to that of a salaryman who basically exists to work," he wrote. "There is no reason for the lawmakers to make any changes -- they're the ones benefiting from the current situation. Change is really up to the people of Japan."

A Minnesota resident who graduated university here in 1975 and has visited Japan on business numerous times noted, "The economic issue of growth without purpose . . . may be the same issue that all current market economies will need to face." He added, "While Japan has fed this need to grow with public debt, the U.S. has been using private debt. The end result may prove to be similar."

Writing from Okinawa, a Japanese resident of mixed decent said he is "really saddened by the fact that well-respected" lawmakers/politicians are the ones cheating the people to enrich themselves," using public money as if it were their own. He mentioned a massive landfill project offshore in Okinawa City that the mayor has assured everyone "will bring prosperity." The reader, a civil engineer, is not convinced. "To me, this is another waste of taxpayers' money and, most importantly, it will destroy the environment," he wrote. "Right now, my trust in these elite powerful politicians is at zero."

A Japanese national who was born here but grew up in "a very traditional Japanese family" in America, sent a passionate message about the decline of morality in Japan.

"What strikes me and my parents the most is how Japanese people have become less caring and even apathetic about the nation -- and even about their next-door neighbor," he wrote. "I believe the majority of Japanese people have lost their 'moral' center, and no one is willing to stand up for what is right. They are all too busy thinking about themselves and how to get ahead socially and economically for their own benefit." He believes we need to "re-humanize the Japanese people so they can get back the ideals and principles we possessed as a nation decades ago."

Another reader who also wrote a lengthy and thoughtful note shared his vision for urban change. "I think there is a huge demand to live near nature, and it can start by simply turning local canals and rivers into parks with side paths and foliage," he said. He also suggested that rice fields interspersed among apartment buildings be used as parks and linked to serve as "a community boundary bordering other communities" to help preserve an area's identity.

One Japanese reader even wrote to explain that the key to understanding Japan's dark side lies in the history and structure of the Japanese language. Though the reader explained in great detail -- nearly 1,500 words, in fact -- his point eluded me. Still, there is little doubt he was concerned about Japan's decline.

*    *    *

Overall, though few readers seemed optimistic, many echoed Kerr's words in the book's final chapter: "Although I'm skeptical of Japan's ability to change (the very roots of the tragedy lie in systems that repress change), in my heart I dream of change."

Steve Hesse welcomes questions and comments at stevehesse@hotmail.com


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