Monday, June 22, 2009

Dogs and Demons

The latest in my occasional forays (see here, here for previous) into reading Japan-related literature is the widely-discussed "Dogs and Demons" by Alex Kerr. The author is a long-term resident with a serious involvement in the cultural history of Japan (he has built/restored an old farmhouse which is widely visited) and his account of "the fall of modern Japan" is heavily biased towards criticism of the unstoppable pave-and-build policies of the bureaucratic machine.

His book falls somewhere in between the previous two I've read: like Niall Murtagh, he's a long-term resident with a wealth of personal experience, but in contrast to "The bue eyed salaryman" this book is no autobiography, dealing instead with Japanese culture in a much more general and comprehensive sense. However, the comparative analysis does not match the level of Alan Macfarlane's "Japan through the looking glass", and too often for my taste seems to generalise from a few anecdotes without any evidence that they represent something specific to Japan. I'm sure we have all experienced the problems of obdurate unyielding bureaucracy in our own countries, and some anecdotes about city councils ignoring the wishes of the people hardly prove Japan to be uniquely bad in this respect.

The bulk of his book deals with the pave-and-build policies which have rubbed out much of Japan's past, which is probably where the author's own experience and authority to speak is greatest. It is pretty convincing and horrifying stuff, but weakened slightly by my own daily experience of living in Kamakura and frequent visits to Yokohama, the former of which is a particularly beautiful and reasonably well-preserved town and the latter which has a rather well-designed and attractive cityscape. However I fully agree that most of the coastal plain is packed with a hell of mis-shaped jumbled boxes that pass for accommodation and offices here, and the countryside and coastline is concreted over to a ridiculous extent. When we cycle into the surrounding countryside, the villages are unremittingly ugly and heaps of abandoned tyres and derelict corrugated iron sheds are common sights. It is also interesting to read the stories behind the numerous imposing cultural centres, art galleries and town halls which seem so superfluous and uneconomic.

When he ventures into other fields he seems less convincing: it was particularly poignant to read his lambasting of the conservative financial system here in contrast to the innovation of derivatives in the West and particularly the USA, just as the latter has collapsed around our ears. Perhaps there is something to be said for a bit of fiscal conservatism after all! I was also not entirely convinced by his criticism of the house-of-cards nature of the economic management: the fact is that all modern economies run along similar lines in terms of borrowing against the future, and although the JGovt's borrowing is higher than most, so are the savings of its people. Therefore, a direct quantitative comparison with other nations is not necessarily appropriate, and I don't see any reason to trust his judgement about it. He was disappointingly brief on the political system that keeps everything just so - as an indication of this, there are 5 chapters comprising 110 pages which focus directly on construction, but only 26 pages on education, and a paltry 15-page chapter entitled "Bureaucracy: power and privilege". Even this section barely touches on the failure of a real functioning democracy to take root amidst the "shoganai" attitude to life - surely a fundamental issue in any discussion of the ills of Japanese society.

I found the book a bit too negative for my taste: it amplified my own negative feelings about Japan, without counterbalancing that with the positives that have kept me here for 8 years - which is now longer than I stayed in all of my previous 3 jobs combined in the UK. Anyone looking for anecdotes about what is "wrong" with Japan will be well served by this book, but I'm not sure they will be much wiser about the root causes.


EliRabett said...

An awful lot of those nice "picturesque" villages were mud fields and the houses sucked to live in. In the cities, much of the housing was awful and this is not just Japan. The place I grew up in was pretty much like that. The projects were an improvement. After people get out of the urban and rural hell holes it takes about a generation before they come back with cash and renovate.

Georgianna said...

I'm currently reading the book today. I've never been to Japan. Is the book exaggerating things? If it isn't, then living there must be terrible.. :|

James Annan said...

Well, it's not terrible enough for us to come home yet (hearing about the Hadley Centre losing 25% of its funding is hardly going to encourage us either). He doesn't even mention the things that are really great about Japan, like the trains that run on time, fabulous electronics stores, amazing mountains.

I reckon it would be easy enough to write similar style diatribe about any country. OTOH there is definitely a disfunctional feel about society and I am glad I have a safety net of foreign nationality and can leave whenever I like :-)