This is the second of Alex Kerr’s books on Japan that I’ve read, and it certainly doesn’t hold back. It’s critical – rightly so, in many cases – of the ornate, backhander-rich culture that permeates government and industry, of the blinkered educational aims of the country, of the done-with-mirrors, waiting-for-collapse economic system, the addiction to government works and needless halls that bankrupt cities and swell construction coffers, the lack of regulation and the wholesale disregard for culture, simplicity and the landscape which outsiders associate with Japan.
The man’s distaste and fear couldn’t be better conveyed if each chapter were entitled SHIT’S FUCKED in 72-point type, followed by pages of onomatopoeic screams.
And yet part of me – as a big ole gaijin myself – wonders how much of the writing is the result of the foreign lens being brought to bear, with the baggage that brings. True, this is a voluminously annotated work – but there’s also sections where we take it on faith that people inside Japan feel the same as Kerr, or that we must take his word for situations as Japan is basically like a lacquered box version of Churchill’s thoughts on Russia.
Kerr’s other book on Japanese culture, Lost Japan was one I quite enjoyed. Well, as much as one can enjoy a recitation of cultural decline. My review of that work is here, and I think in a couple of ways it’s a preferable read to this tome, because it’s not as easily tied to a specific date or time. Dogs and Demons is very resolutely a product of the late 1990s, though there’s hat-tips throughout the text that suggest the thought processes – if not the writing – are older still: referring to the “sleek Walkman” suggests a slight disconnect with currency, which is not exactly reassuring. Admittedly, this is partially my own doing: the book was published in 2001, a lot has changed in the global economic system (let alone Japan) in that fifteen years.
So this one’s a bit of a grind, partially because of the date of the work, but also because of the author’s bugbears, which aren’t hidden particularly well, though I suppose they’re the book’s real reason for being. There’s some interesting points made on the seemingly stunted development of Japan in terms of industry and regulation, of its inherent desire to keep the world at arm’s length in a throwback to the Dejima days, and I wanted to hear more. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency for the irritation machine to ramp up as the chapters roll on – the earlier parts of the book, about relentless construction and the manga-fied landscape are the strongest.
It mightn’t bother others as it does me, but I was irked by the repetition in this book, which is possibly a factor of its construction rather than an intentional thread. We get the dogs and demons idea: that in art, dogs are difficult to draw, while demons are simple, used as an analogy for pretty much all Japanese malaise – simple things are hard – several times, though it doesn’t seem to be to much point. Rather, it seems to be the result perhaps of chapters being written as separate entities then bound together.
Perhaps the thing which galls the most in this work is that there seems to be a lot of complaining that’s rooted in the fact that some things are just aspects of life Kerr himself doesn’t like. Anime is childish – I assume the result of never having seen Grave of the Fireflies? – Kyoto is a shithole with a terrible train station, and Kids These Days, Why I Oughta.
You get the picture.
I’m loath to criticise – I mean, the guy does have extensive experience as a resident and writer in Japan, whereas I’m just a jerk who likes to go there – but it does seem a bit like Old Guy Carping to some degree. Yes, I feel the same outrage at the concrete-sheeting of rivers, of unnecessary damming, but the prevalence of Sanrio characters in modern life (seen as an argument for the infantilism of the country) is probably not quite as worthy a hill to die on, man. True, he does admit he shares the blinkered view of the enthusiast in that he can screen things out – notably when mentioning an as yet unwritten book on Kabuki, he suggests it will be about what the art form can be, not its declining current state – but his writing here still reeks a little of criticism coming from personal taste rather than dispassionate observation.
Still, I learned a lot about the country which I didn’t know before I started. It’s just a shame it was conveyed as such a drag to read – something quite different from the drag that’s inherent to the depressing topics covered. The ending is a bit weak – rather than prefiguring a smash, Kerr suggests things will just continue to burble on in mediocrity, which I would’ve thought was the standard operating procedure for the world, not just Japan. An update would be very welcome, as I know very little about the topic at all, and am not equipped to rank the country’s economic performance since the turn of the century. That’s the problem – I’m now interested, but have no clue where to go.
There’s lots of things here to be angry about, but some are common to the rest of the world, some are crucial to address and some are hamstrung by personal irritation. The failing of the book, for all its tales of jaw-dropping dickery, is that Kerr can’t find the middle path.