Lost Japan: Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan by Alex Kerr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Originally published in 1993, this revised edition of Lost Japan is Alex Kerr’s examination of aspects of Japan that are slowly disappearing. It’s an exploration – admittedly by an outsider, though a long-term resident – of the parts of Japanese culture which, after hundreds of years, are vanishing in the wake of economic miracles and crashes, and with the rise of technology. (Kerr would later write about different forms of downturn in Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, though that work is concerned with modern declination.)
Kerr‘s an interesting fellow, and the aspects of his biography woven into the book’s structure intrigue: born in Maryland, he grew up in Yokohama, and studied such that he could be thrust back into Japanese life. Organised Japanese studies seemed to disagree with him, so he struck out on his own, on a path which led to a love of art (and time as a dealer), associations with Texan developers, and guardian angel for a house in the Iya Valley – as well as figurehead for a trust designed to fight the effects of depopulation in rural areas.
It’s a multifaceted portrait, and it fits the book well, skipping as it does from one topic to another. The work begins in the Iya Valley (home to Chiiori) and then ranges through tea ceremonies, Kabuki, Kyoto’s hatred for itself, the cementing of rivers, the role of the literati and the way wabi influences art and life. Kerr’s one of those rarities – like the shakuhachi player (and fellow American) Riley Lee – an outsider who has through perseverance become somewhat accepted in a country notorious for its ability to stonewall those without the requisite levels of Yamato spirit. Though I’m certain neither would say they were totally accepted in the country, the insights of a life spent adrift in the culture flow freely on the page. It’s a delicious collection of ephemera, tinged with regret.
(The book was written and published in Japanese as Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzō, and in the introduction to this version it’s noted that Bodhi Fishman’s translation is important to the English version, as Kerr felt unable to render some of the thoughts within to his native tongue.)
I’ve been to Japan a couple of times, and though I have next to zero facility with the language, I could empathise with Kerr’s feelings of concern. Perhaps this is the result of a life of buying into the concept of mysterious Japan, the aesthetic simplicity of islands dotted with trees, torii and tanuki, and discovering that yes, like everywhere, Japan moves on, at cost to traditions which have survived for a long time. It seems a shame, a decline to Kerr, though it would seem this view isn’t shared by the bulk of Japan’s population. And in a way, the book operates as a kind of memorial for the things which are fading away. Plans for saving these cultural experiences are beyond the scope of the book, so there’s always an air of melancholy floating about the pages.
What intrigued me about the work is the sense of an unfolding relationship between subject and author. In the chapter on Kabuki theatre, Kerr often refers to Bandō Tamasaburō V, one of the most famous (and delicately-featured)
(male actors specialising in female roles) in the genre. The pair’s friendship – and its role in sharpening Kerr’s appreciation for the theatre – pops up here and there throughout the work, culminating in this edition with an afterword penned by Bandō. They’ve known each other since 1978, and the amount of fondness that comes through Bandō’s words is touching, and highlights how on the money Kerr must be, at least from the Japanese perspective.
Unusually for an American, Alex is the type of person who judges things more by intuition than by logic. This has allowed him to ably come to terms with the quality that flows at the base of Japanese culture – an embrace of vagueness and uncertainty. We’re people who value things that can’t be explained just with clever words.
It’s a fitting, approving end to a book which – in my limited experience of the country, at least – accurately nails some of the disappearing aspects of Japan. It’s a cry for help and a meditation on what’s lost, cradled in affection. It is, as some have said, a desire for a Japan that never really existed outside a somewhat Orientalist reading of the country – but as a personally-held memorial, it’s wonderfully readable.
I have not read this book and it might be too late for me (as I am tainted) but I appreciate the topic and believe the writer (from your review) was on the right track. I was fortunate to begin my Japanese journey before it all went crazy. Then from the late 80’s I began to see some less than savory aspects overtake the beauty. Sad. It is really much worse now. I just finished ready a detailed UN report on Japan’s exploitation of children.