Lost Japan

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Lost Japan, written in the 1990s at the start of Japan’s lost decade, is at once a heartfelt elegy to old Japan and an impassioned diatribe against many aspects of the new.

Alex Kerr is one of the few non-Japanese figures to have really broken into the rarefied sphere of cultural and national discourse within Japan. An avid collector of Japanese art and connoisseur of traditional Japanese arts such as kabuki and calligraphy, Kerr has written and spoken about the slow loss of Japanese natural and cultural heritage to relentless development.

Kerr’s Lost Japan, originally written and published in Japanese, was well-received in Japan, winning the Shincho Gakugei literature prize for best work of nonfiction in 1994. It is easy to see why: Kerr’s passion for Japan shines through and sweeps the reader into its expansive wake. Kerr pierces through the often inscrutable veil of Japanese art to reveal the core of what makes them so compelling to him.

There is an added autobiographical layer to the book – which deals with Japanese culture through the subjective lens of Kerr’s lived experience. And his anecdotes are always entertaining, and almost fantastic in their vividity. Kerr paints himself as an inveterate socialiser, making friends up and down Japan with his vivacity and the novelty of being a Westerner who can’t get enough of esoteric Japanese culture. Perhaps the most well-remarked of his achievements is the restoration of an old house in Iya valley, at great financial, time and social expense – in his twenties! I read also with incredulous interest Kerr’s many forays into art collecting – which made him somewhat of an asset to an American real estate magnate with a passion for Asian art, who later recruited Kerr, among other things, as a sort of art buyer for his collection, after a ten minute conversation. Kerr’s eclectically-lived life lends the book much of its human interest.

That said, Kerr often comes across as opinionated in a way that precludes argument, especially when it comes to his views on the modern cultural course that Japan appears to be taking with respect to the traditional arts. To Kerr, Japanese culture is mired in a decadent stage – with traditional arts losing their essence in their bid to attract a new audience, and with the true inheritors of culture – translators of the essence of the culture into the future – finding fame only outside of Japan. While this may or may not be true of the specific traditional arts, it is perhaps a bit of a reach to claim that Japanese culture is entering a state of general malaise.

Kerr makes other interesting claims, such as that Kyotoites have wilfully destroyed much of their urban heritage and replaced it with ugly and hypermodern glass and metal edifices in their Sisyphean task to show themselves as good as Tokyo – a resentment they have carried since the Heian era, having become a sort of provincial backwater since their heyday. Kyoto tower and the JR Kyoto station being two such examples. Kerr is not a fan of how Kyoto appears to have commoditized much of its traditional cultural heritage, manicuring it and touristifying it in a way that ultimately detracts from their original purpose of instilling a meditative atmosphere. While this may have some anecdotal validity – anyone who has visited Kyoto in peak tourist season would agree that Kyoto inspires rather the opposite of zen-like calm – making such arguments smacks of a certain propensity to generalisation and over-narrativization that doesn’t sit well with me.

Kerr’s commentary on the state of natural Japan finds a bit more purchase with me, although it is a rather unexpected thesis in the light of Japan’s many points of natural heritage. But I can somewhat see where Kerr is coming from – in Japan, these landmarks seem to exist in bubbles. There is much care in curating an experience – but what lies outside the remit of that experience seems to be open season for unfettered construction.

Some might see Lost Japan as a sort of “whitesplaining” for Japanese on the ills that plague their country, dictated by a foreigner with a slight know-it-all attitude with respect to things. I certainly felt whiffs of that emanating from Kerr’s prose, even as it is suffused with genuine passion for things Japan. Kerr’s sometimes scathing tone stems from that passion, however, and while I do think that Kerr could have been more circumspect and sensitive in issuing his pronouncements, it is a bona fide attempt at raising Japanese consciousness of the ways in which they are losing their natural and cultural heritage. It has been almost 25 years since the book was written, though – so I’d be interested to see how, if at all, Kerr’s thesis would change today – whether or not there is now more conscious husbandry of Japan’s cultural and natural heritage.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 restored thatch roofed houses

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