Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Alex's Book Club - Dog and Demons by Alex Kerr

Started several years ago and recently rediscovered on my trip back to Mother England, I just finished Dogs and Demons and boy was it depressing.

If you don't want to like Japan, Dogs and Demons is the book for you. No, that's a little uncharitable - overall it's a fascinating, well written treatise on the way modern Japan has completely (and in almost every respect) lost its way. Alex Kerr, who is American but seems to have spent most of his life in Japan, goes through almost every aspect of Japanese life and explains why it sucks, and how Japan has sold out its land and its traditions in desperate, misguided bids for industrial power and some mistaken view of modernism that passed away in the 70s.

It is very readable, but if you currently live in Japan, it is not exactly an easy read. Y'know, what with the painting nihilistically depressing portraits of the country in which you currently reside.

I believe Kerr received some stick for being so critical about almost every aspect of Japan, as a foreigner - and to an extent he tempts it. Non-Japanese, when they pop up in the book, are never responsible for the erosion and corruption of Japanese values. Kerr's point is that the Japanese have done that themselves. Foreigners are the voices of reason, who have helped the developing economies in Thailand and other Asian countries advance in a way that respects their heritage, and the foreigners in Dogs and Demons are almost invariably bemoaning the changes they've witnessed, or fighting to preserve some part of Japan that the Japanese government wants to turn into a pachinko parlour. I've gotta call shenanigans on that - it may be the case that some foreigners are like that, but there must be a lot out for a quick buck too, and Kerr's examples are so one sided that he starts seeming patronising to the Japanese pretty early on, relying on a series of Japanese traditionalists and academics to keep him from sounding absurdly one sided in this.

When he turns his attention to modern culture he hits a fair few wrong notes too. He bemoans the infantilising of modern pop culture, the dominance of cutismo and so on, while saying that in the west those trends are only popular with children, never with more important demographics. Even when he wrote the book back in 2001, that would have been crazy. Japan's popular culture, it's 'soft power', is one of the biggest things it has going for it now. In fact I was reading last year about how people were criticising the Japanese government for not taking advantage of that more. Kerr comes across as basically out of step with the times in those areas; and a few other times when he relies on anecdotes rather than facts he seems far too subjective - ranting about things that piss him off rather than real problems.

But that said, when he backs up his points with figures, facts about the hideous knots in which Japan has become bound due to its rampant, corrupt beauracracy (which he does for the vast majority of the book), and the central 'Dogs and Demons' premise (that Japan loves to build gimmicky 'Demons' because they're more eye-catching, while the basic 'Dogs' of everyday services are neglected)... I can't argue against any of that. His story of Japan - basically that it is sick from the roots up and that there's nothing anyone can do about it - is pretty much spot on.

Depressingly enough.

1 comment:

  1. I found this to be a bizarre book. I'm not sure which Japan Kerr is describing. But it's not the one that I've seen during visits over the years. I've done a lot of world travel. And frankly, Japan has got to be the best-run nation I've ever seen, with the possible exception of Singapore or Switzerland.

    A lot of the criticisms that Kerr makes in this book simply don't exist in the real world. They are figments of Kerr's imagination. I also find it bizarre that Kerr chooses to live in a nation that he has nothing but contempt for.

    In reality, Kerr's own nation, the U.S., the country that is poorly run. Over the past three decades, the U.S. has been the worst-run nation in the First World. Evidence for this includes America's titantic trade and fiscal deficits and our sinking currency.

    In shot, Kerr is full of sh*t (as are the vast majority of English commentators about Japan these days). I suspect this suits Tokyo just fine. The Japanese leadership has long sought to keep the West in the dark as much as possible about the real state of Japan. For one thing, Tokyo is sick and tired of the U.S. lecturing and patronizing Japan----as it has done continously for the past half-century.