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Japan Book Reviews

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the dark side of Japan

Author : Alex Kerr
Publisher: Hill and Wang, New York (2001)
ISBN: 0-8090-9521-1
p. 320

Reviewed by :

Kevin Ryan
Showa Women's University

A little bad haiku to begin the review:

Japan without brakes
careening quickly toward
a long slow decline

This book was particularly depressing for a guy in my situation. You see, I'm 46 years old, and have two daughters in junior high school. About the time the last one graduates from university I will be ready for retirement. According to Alex Kerr, it doesn't look good. He spent six years researching the Japanese government and the way it manages the land, the economy, the bureaucracy, and society.

Luckily for the world, Japan has become less relevant, both economically and politically, since the bursting of the bubble.

Japan has been very successful in reaching a pinnacle of economic success up to this point. The problem is that the devices that worked in the past no longer apply to today's situation, yet the government and the bureaucracy continue to use the same tools. It's as if they used a hammer to build a house and now know no other tool, so they continue on building the countryside, the cities, and even its own history.

Luckily for the world, Japan has become less relevant, both economically and politically, since the bursting of the bubble. Since 1990 the recession, along with the advent of the Internet, should have caused a change in the approach toward managing the country, but it hasn't. Kerr thinks that this country is over modernized. Essentially, the approach was frozen in the year 1965. Japan lacks a way to say enough is enough.

Read some interesting facts Kerr puts forward. All but three of Japan's 113 major rivers have been either dammed or diverted. Japan spends three to four times what the U.S. does on public-works projects, even though it is 5% of the size. By 1993 more than half of the entire coast of Japan was encased in cement. Construction investment is about 18% of the GDP in Japan, where it is 12.4% in the United Kingdom and less than 9% in the U.S. Japan raises about 30 times as much concrete per square foot as the United States.

Kerr, who grew up in Japan and speaks fluent Japanese, thinks that Japan still sees itself as a developing nation, not one with a mature landscape. This propensity to master nature, he says, comes from a historical attitude about nature. He quotes Donald Ritchie, "What's the difference between torturing of bonsai and torturing the landscape?" They are also expanding to Southeast Asia.

This is just the first chapter. He goes on in a similar vein to talk about the hacking of the trees to populate the hillsides with cedar, which may be causing the spike in allergies. He covers Japan's financial system in the third chapter, giving very good evidence that Japan's capital is not based on tangible goods but on government fiat. A giant shell game that requires stock prices to continue to rise, it fell apart in 1990. The problem is it's still falling apart. Chapter 4 deals with the losers' tendency to hide his losses, here done with "cosmetic accounting" and government corporations. Did you know that Japan has two budgets?

Chapter 5, about the bureaucracy, is in some ways the most frightening because the system of power and privilege is so endemic, so interwoven with the government and corporations it is Machiavellian, as is his quote on the first page. Amakudari, "special government corporations" and "public corporations" are the tools. The instruments are over-regulation, with licenses and their inevitable fees (institutionalized bribery) bringing in the money. Kerr points out, as an example, "In short, if you want to teach aerobics, you must run the gamut of four agencies and pay for six permits." Total cost: about 650,000 yen.

The title of the book relates to the propensity of the government to start grand expensive projects while ignoring more difficult, smaller projects that actually improve people's lives. In the chapter entitled Monuments, he exposes an airport built to shuttle radishes to the capital (never mind that it is too expensive to actually ship them that way). Add to that the highway system with mid-level agencies taking their slice of the pie for merely doling out work. Japan is the only industrialized country still building dams (500 more in the next ten years), while others are tearing them down. I now notice small articles in the newspaper almost daily about projects large and small that have no real purpose other than employment of the rural (voting) constituency.

Kerr lives part of the year in Kyoto, part in Bangkok, which he finds much more of a livable place. The Kyoto train station comes in for special scorn for ruining the whole city's architecture. He notes tourism to Kyoto is dropping steadily as there are fewer interesting historical places without unfettered modernism encroaching. In Japan's cities the tangle of electrical wire is a result of government regulations, as well as the sunshine law being the cause of overcrowding. England and Germany are just as crowded as Japan, yet they manage to both keep historical sites and allow their people to live in comfortable housing.

The latter part of the book goes into the theories and thinking that is behind this benign destruction of Japan. He often points to Wakon Yosai (Japanese Spirit, Western Technology) as a marriage made in hell, leading to current abuses.

Education is one particularly good example of this, with compulsory education (western technology) and the feudal desire for total control (Japanese spirit). He opines that the real purpose of education is to inculcate obedience to the group. School is not a pleasant place to be, nor is it one where individualism or creativity is nurtured. Passive complicity with bullies fits into the control aspect of educators. University and post-graduate education are merely ineffective and out so synch with today's needs.

Kerr uses Japanese cinema as an example of the impoverishment of creative spiritual activities in Japan. Unnecessary for the production machine Japan has become, it is an under-funded financial distraction. Internationalization is properly exhibited as a very sad joke, with many examples of insular treatment of foreigners and even Japanese who don't fit the mold, leading to an exodus of creative talent.

Kerr finally examines Japan's ability to change, and comes out less than enthusiastic. His prediction is for a long slow decline into a second-tier economy with little social or economic importance outside, having lost most of its valuable traditions and esthetic. That will be about the time I retire.

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