Lost Japan

MJG Book / Movie Reviews 5 Comments

lostjapan1Lost Japan is an ode to an idealized, forgotten, and headily cultural past, written by an inveterate literati to whom pure artistic beauty is one of the loftiest goals imaginable. In this book we see the gentle beginnings of bugbears for the author that in time would evolve into the strident arguments of his masterwork- ‘Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan’. But where that book is fiercely angry and relevant, this one is reverent, gushing, and more than a little soft around the edges.

Lost Japan was first published in 1993 in Japanese, a collection of biographical shorts concerning the author’s life in Japan. It won the prestigious Shincho Gakugei literature award in 1994, the first time for a foreigner. In 1996 it came out in English from lonely planet, and was met with positive criticism, with numerous reviewers falling over themselves to espouse Kerr’s view of Japan as ‘unique’ and ‘brilliantly informed’.

Kerr first came to Japan in 1964 as the son of a US Navy family, and has been back and forth numerous times, living here for extended periods, buying a house in a remote valley, getting involved in cultural teachings, kabuki, calligraphy, and art collecting. The book is a series of vignettes about all these various aspects of Kerr’s life, with lavish detail poured upon the art of kabuki, interesting facts shared about the thatching of traditional Japanese houses, and an insider’s guide to the world of Asian art dealers. Throughout are the seeds of what will become the latter book ‘Dogs and Demons’, as he first considers the meaning of Japan’s concreted hillsides, the slow asphyxiation of kabuki under the weight of its own pomp and circumstance, and the ugly unorganized power line-striped morass of big cities like Tokyo. These are the things destroying the Japan that he loves.

I didn’t like it. I finished this book not out of any sense of enjoyment but out of a strange kind of indebted feeling to the author, after he blew my mind so thoroughly with ‘Dogs and Demons’. That book is an endless tirade of facts and figures and real history bearing out his suspicion that there is something seriously awry in the management of Japan. It was angry, raw, and it confirmed for me many experiences I’ve had in this country as a six-year resident, things I’d noticed but now accepted as the norm. I got angry alongside him. And I suppose all that colored my perception of ‘Lost Japan’. Where ‘Dogs and Demons’ bit hard and wouldn’t let go, ‘Lost Japan’ gave a slobbery knock-kneed smooch.

I tried to put the other book from my mind as I read, but just couldn’t get away from making the comparison. ‘Dogs and Demons’ was fiercely relevant to the way I look at Japan. It answered questions I’d long wondered about. It felt like it was important, and it mattered. ‘Lost Japan’ however did not feel important. It did not speak to me about Japan on any level that I care about. Kabuki? I went once, and fell asleep. Perhaps that says more about me than the book, but I couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t clean out the saccharine fluffy taste in the back of my mouth as I read of Kerr’s exploits in art dealership, calligraphy and numerous other flouncy seeming things. ‘So what?’ I wanted to ask. ‘What does it matter?’ How I managed to finish the final chapter gushing about Japan’s lost ‘literati’, essentially worthless rich bohemians who sat around and wore berets and smoked cigarillos and talked idly of ‘revolution’, I’ll never know, but it was a supreme testament to the other book that I did.

Basically, this book is the simpering wuss-cousin of the ferocious ‘Dogs and Demons’. If you’re interested in the ‘high art’ of Japan you’ll enjoy it. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Comments 5

  1. Compare Kerr’s two nooks with Alan Booth’s two books, if you’ve not already read them – Looking for the Lost and The Roads to Sata. Booth chronicled some of the despair. (e.g. deforestation, concreting riverbeds) well before Kerr.

  2. I essentially agree with you. Kerr is entertaining, and knows the culture better than I do, though even if I knew it quite as well I am certain I would not draw all the same conclusions. He exaggerates too far in both directions in each book.

    I am with you on the aesthete thing, and I too found Kabuki excrutiating. However, we are too spoiled in English with Shakespeare. There is a reason that everyone from Kurosawa (Ran=King Lear) to Verdi (Macbetto, Othello, Falstaff…) loves it too: the density and humanity of the Tragedies are unparallelled.

    I distrust any gaijin obsessed with ‘ancient’ Japan. How idiotic would it be for people to come to my country and run off into the woods in birchbark canoes to trade pelts with the natives? The fact about the ‘ancient’ traditions of any culture is that they are worth saving, and worth having knowledge of to give deeper understanding of the present culture, but they are not how most people live now, or lived then. The martial arts, tea ceremonies, ikebana, kabuki etc of ‘ancient’ Japan were the amusements of a tiny parasitic class, and those arts are now moribund besides. You’ll learn more about Japan by getting drunk with your friends on New Years or at a Matsuri, or even just by getting drunk

  3. Sorry, last thought. Japan’s construction industry is as pathological as Kerr describes, but he also has to realise that there are over 120 million people in a space the size of California who are just a few generations out of feudalism. I should think an intelligent person would realise Japan, for all its fualts, has done more for its population with less destruction far faster than our European culture did in its Industrial Revolution.

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    K- Recently finished and reviewed here Booth’s ‘Looking for the Lost’, just bought ‘Roads to Sata’ and will get stuck in soon. I find myself liking Booth considerably more than Kerr- he’s just a down to earth guy, while retaining a high level of knowledge and culture. Kerr seems to have the ‘high culture’ but has lost touch with reality.

    James- You make an excellent point- seeking an identity in another culture’s past, wrapping yourself up in it like a blanket- is ridiculous. Kerr may live a certain kind of ‘Japanese life’, but it’s not a real world Japanese life, nor is it grounded even in the past reality of the masses.

    About the construction industry, in the months since reading the book I’ve softened on my outrage against it, for reasons very much as you describe. This is just what happens when you have to industrialize quickly, to catch up to other nations who got there first. It’s not uniquely Japanese, it’s also happening in other developing countries reaching for global competitiveness. That’s not an excuse, nor does it mean it should be allowed to continue just as it’s going, but outright decrying its evils without any consideration for both its necessity and its positive results is surely over-reacting.

  5. I took a road trip through Shikoku on my Honda last May, and stayed at Chiiori for a night. Spent part of the next day re-reading Lost Japan. That is easily one of my favorite books on the culture. Dogs and Demons was also right on. Seeing tetras all over hames me want to start a tetra batsumetsu campaign.

    Do you really think there are positive results from all that construction? Just a few Km from my house they are building a 1.8km ling bridge to an island that has no parking. Aside from the fact that the ferry takes 20 minutes from down town, while the bridge entrance is 45 minutes away down a country road…

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