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Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan

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A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan. In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan's recent, and chronic, crises -- from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema. He is the first to give a full report on the nation's endangered environment -- its seashores lined with A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan. In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan's recent, and chronic, crises -- from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema. He is the first to give a full report on the nation's endangered environment -- its seashores lined with concrete, its roads leading to nowhere in the mountains -- as well as its "monument frenzy," the destruction of old cities such as Kyoto and construction of drab new ones, and the attendant collapse of its tourist industry. Kerr writes with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story. Millions of Japanese feel as heartbroken at what is going on as I do. My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this -- for us.'"


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A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan. In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan's recent, and chronic, crises -- from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema. He is the first to give a full report on the nation's endangered environment -- its seashores lined with A surprising assessment of the failures and successes of modern Japan. In Dogs and Demons, Alex Kerr chronicles the many facets of Japan's recent, and chronic, crises -- from the failure of its banks and pension funds to the decline of its once magnificent modern cinema. He is the first to give a full report on the nation's endangered environment -- its seashores lined with concrete, its roads leading to nowhere in the mountains -- as well as its "monument frenzy," the destruction of old cities such as Kyoto and construction of drab new ones, and the attendant collapse of its tourist industry. Kerr writes with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story. Millions of Japanese feel as heartbroken at what is going on as I do. My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this -- for us.'"

30 review for Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Modern Japan

  1. 5 out of 5

    Patrick McCoy

    I went to a talk by Alex Kerr, a noted Japanologist and author of the book Dogs and Demons, at Temple University's Tokyo branch campus and was impressed with his presentation on some problems facing modern Japan today. I read his book and felt that although it effectively addressed some pressing concerns for Japanese society, it ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. It is always difficult to be an outsider looking on and criticizing a society from the outside. He had some good points to make, I went to a talk by Alex Kerr, a noted Japanologist and author of the book Dogs and Demons, at Temple University's Tokyo branch campus and was impressed with his presentation on some problems facing modern Japan today. I read his book and felt that although it effectively addressed some pressing concerns for Japanese society, it ultimately left a bad taste in my mouth. It is always difficult to be an outsider looking on and criticizing a society from the outside. He had some good points to make, but it seemed like a one-sided attack, and perhaps this was intentional so as to highlight his concerns and criticisms. I found it a bit heavy handed and his tone was a bit arrogant and holier than thou. That being said, I felt that his presentation in person was much stronger. First off, he came across less severe, but intelligent, reasonable, and personable, thus making the audience comfortable at the onset. He discussed his history and background in Japan, which is extensive. He seemed much more willing to give credit, where credit was due. He also had a slide presentation to highlight his concerns about what Japan is doing to itself. The central metaphor of the book is that according to an old expression demons are easier to draw than dogs. The logic behind this is that imaginary things are easy to create since there are no examples in our midst, while the ordinary, everyday things like dogs and horses are difficult to get right since you hardly pay attention to the details of the ordinary. Thus, he makes a case for the way that Japan is destroying its countryside and culture through bureaucratic policies that may have made sense at on time, but have spiraled out of control while no one was really paying attention since it is the status quo. The strongest part of the book is at the beginning where he illustrated the problem of over-construction, specifically the over use of concrete, with a multitude of well-researched facts. For example, he points out that Japan, a country with the land mass of Montana, pours ten times the amount of concrete a year as the United States. This point was strengthened in his presentation by his slide show, which showed the ridiculous civil construction projects that result in unneeded dams, roads that go nowhere, senselessly ravaged roadsides, and massive unnecessary tetra pods that litter the seas sides. He cites this as one of the major examples of bureaucracy out of control. He illustrates this by describing the unholy alliance of government and construction companies that work together awarding government contracts for kickbacks to politicians. In fact last year, a major politician from Nagano (Mueneo Suzuki) was indicted for accepting bribes on behalf of construction companies. The problems run deeper according to reports that construction companies drive up bidding prices on construction jobs by meeting before and setting the low bid. He makes the valid point that less than 40 years ago Japan was in desperate need of infrastructure. He used a personal antecdote from his youth spent with his family in Yokohama, in which he describes the day his family took a special trip to Tokyo, which was special because it was by car on the new two-lane highway they had just built between two of Japan's biggest cities in 1964. This clearly illustrated the need for more infrastructures. However, it has skyrocketed out of control, as it became means for jobs, status in local communities as well as a form of rewarding those in politics. One of his other major points was how these systematic bureaucratic decisions about building and urban planning were affecting the culture of cities, and in turn effecting tourism. Not long ago one of my students said that Tokyo was a "lovely" city and I had to correct that idea. Tokyo may be "an exciting" city, "a lively city", but it is decidedly not a "lovely" city. Paris is a "lovely" city, Venice is a "lovely" city, but Tokyo is something else altogether. It is poor urban planning combined with urban sprawl-where does Tokyo end and the suburbs begin? It's difficult to tell. Don't get me wrong there are some beautiful places in Tokyo (Shinjuku Gyoen, the Imperial Grounds, Yoyogi Park, etc...), but it is blighted by mismatched building styles, exposed telephone wires and aerial antennas. In fact, I can look outside my window right now and get a wonderful view of a power transformer. The reason Japan doesn't bury its cables and wires are related to the construction problem. The poles that support the wires and transformers are made by construction companies out of concrete, therefore eliminating them would affect the industry. He takes this argument further and relates it the decision to forgo traditional designs or material when building public buildings like train stations or private enterprises like hotels. He rightly points out the rich tradition of architecture and art in Japan that gets overlooked for more bland or European influenced design styles. As result Japan isn't presenting what it has that separates it from other countries. Japan, at the time of the writing of this book, was 49th in tourism behind Croatia and Tunisia. Kerr has a project going in the Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku in which he is restoring an old style village. There are opportunities for people to come and volunteer in the restoration of some to the ancient houses that they are trying to preserve. You can check out his website as well. I recommend this thought-provoking book to anyone with an interest in modern Japan.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Eugene Woodbury

    When published a decade ago, Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan was the latest in a series of polemics that began most prominently with Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power. Unabashedly iconoclastic, the revisionist themes common to these critiques hearken back to earlier academic criticisms of Ruth Benedict's landmark anthropological survey, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Written during Second World War on behalf of the Office of War Information, Benedi When published a decade ago, Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan was the latest in a series of polemics that began most prominently with Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power. Unabashedly iconoclastic, the revisionist themes common to these critiques hearken back to earlier academic criticisms of Ruth Benedict's landmark anthropological survey, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Written during Second World War on behalf of the Office of War Information, Benedict's work continues to be one of the most influential, if not the most inaccurate, studies of Japanese society ever published. Even if the Japanese immigrants Benedict interviewed during her field research did more or less represented the greater Japanese population at the time (the war foreclosed any access to the latter), lacking in the data she gathered was the context of Japanese political history since Meiji (or even Sekigahara). She limited the scope of her research to such narrow and predetermined objectives that in order to justify her conclusions she found it necessary to integrate the substance of a civilization reaching back two thousand years into the product of a man-made ideology less than a century old. Benedict's work was undoubtedly a major reason why SCAP bought so completely into the emperor system that in fact had only existed since 1868. The whitewashing of imperial involvement in the war continues to this day to be at the root of diplomatic tensions between Japan and her Asian neighbors. According to Douglas Lummis, professor of political philosophy at Tsuda University, Benedict's underlying error was that of recognizing among her Japanese subjects a set of publicly acknowledged and condoned behaviors and relationships, and then concluding, in a gross fallacy of generalization, that the repression endemic in Japan both before and during the Second World War was "voluntarily embraced." In Benedict's eyes, "to be totalitarian and to be Japanese [were] the same thing." Machiavelli argued that the founder of a political state could create institutions that allowed the founder to instill fundamental changes in society while at the same time "mak[ing] [the] new prince seem ancient, and render[ing] him at one more secure and firmer in the state than if he had been established there of old." Likewise, the much heralded Meiji Restoration that thrust a 17th century agrarian society into the 20th century in less that fifty years did not occur without careful planning—few "restorations" or "revolutions" ever do. In this case, along with the resurrection of bushido and the imperial emperor was the introduction of the pseudo-theology of the kokutai, or the polity of a singular, unified, genetic "family-state" (an essentialist approach that came to typify the entire Nihonjinron school of thought). And where, asks Daikichi Irokawa, professor of Japanese history at Tokyo University, did it come from? "It appeared to have been created by the Meiji idealogues for the purpose of solidifying the Emperor system." Agrees Gluck, "From the time Japan began its deliberate pursuit of civilization in the mid-nineteenth century, ideology appeared as a conscious enterprise, a perpetual civic concern, an affair, indeed, of state." Lummis puts it more bluntly: Benedict's interviewees all reflected the totalitarian patterns she anticipated because those patterns "had been pounded into them by a modern, highly organized, state-controlled school system, and by all the other 20th century techniques of indoctrination which the government had available to it." The revisionist school of Japanese studies, exemplified most recently by Kerr and Patrick Smith (Japan: A Reinterpretation), similarly portrays the common man as the oppressed tool of a fascistic state. Except that the modern Japanese aren't oppressed and don't live in a fascistic state. The neo-Marxist indictments of the admittedly imperfect institutions of democratic capitalism as in some way analogous to 20th totalitarianism are as miguided and tired as Benedict's attempts to conflate a political behavior of the moment with the cultural heritage of the past. But another striking, and forgiving, difference between Kerr and Benedict is the unapologetically subjective nature of the commentary. Kerr's less-than-academic tone often reminds you of a disappointed parent scolding a stubbornly misbehaving child that refuses to heed his wisdom and follow his advise. The hurt here is personally felt. And the corresponding absence of the typical set of academic imprimaturs allows to you take his rhetoric at face value, without the sense of having your arm intellectually twisted behind your back. Besides, I can understand where the author is coming from. Kerr grew up in Japan, has lived there for three decades—in a suburb of Kyoto, not Tokyo—and is fluent enough in the language to have edited the translation of his book. A rare thing for a westerner. It's easy to imagine him perusing the work of popular "experts" such as James Fallows, who spend the entirety of their two or three-year tenure "inside the Yamanote" (the rail line that encircles Tokyo), and just seething. Even T. R. Reid, a veteran of the Tokyo Press Corps, produced as his last book on the subject (before he up and transferred to London) an embarrassingly fawning account that spoke more to a comfortable life schmoozing among the internationalized upper middle-class than anything relevant to the lives of the average Japanese. So Mr. Kerr feels it incumbent upon himself to set the record straight, and relates his account in the tone of taken insult. He's particularly pissed off at the destruction of "old" Kyoto, and devotes a chapter and copious anecdotes to the subject. But the bulk of the book concerns itself with corruption, á la Upton Sinclair (á la Junzo Itami). The first couple of chapters—about graft, corruption and Keynesian economics-gone-mad in the construction industry—pretty much sums it all up (it gets a little redundant after that). Another reason why van Wolferen's remains the more relevant analysis: it is a story of political institutions sinning against culture and society, not the other way around. (And more relevant to China, as well. By blaming culture and not politics, Benedict's approach only confirms comforting ethnic stereotypes, and does not illuminate the true source of the current conflicts between China and Japan in the grubby, prosaic world of diplomatic gamesmanship and manipulation of public opinion.) Working through an inbred and unaudited system of "government" and "public" corporations (with no open bidding), the Japanese construction industry, spending twice the percent of GDP as the U.S. in a country not much larger than California, manufacturing more raw tonnage of cement than the entire United States, and laying thirty times as much concrete per square foot, has locked sixty percent of the shoreline behind artificial breakwaters, built 2800 dams with five hundred in planning, completely diked all but three of Japan's rivers, and drained every costal wetland in the process. Along the way it replanted almost half of all native woodlands with industrial cedar and carved out 280,000 kilometers of mountain roads in order to access the lumber, most of which, it turns out, is not economical to even harvest. This is make-work on a scale the administrators of the WPA never dreamed of: ten percent of the workforce directly employed by the construction industry, and another ten percent in supporting and peripheral industries; entire rural communities that do nothing but pour concrete. This is all paid for by massive off-budget borrowing from Japan's Postal Savings Accounts, essentially a trillion-dollar national bank run by the postal service. It's a bad habit that has spread to the private sector, and now seventy percent of corporations can't cover their pension obligations; 800,000 companies have simply stopped paying the equivalent of social security taxes. Banks have resorted to an accounting trick called tobashi to write off bad debts: the non-performing asset is sold to a subsidiary; the bank then lends the subsidiary funds sufficient to cover the interest payments. The debt is thus considered "retired." Combined with another trick, called "latent value"—a property is kept on the books at its purchase price, not at its market value—and this, combined with zero percent effective interest rates, means that banks have no incentive to write off their real debts. The total real debt could amount to as much as twenty-five percent of GDP. Brokerages play this game, too, listing a company's capitalization based on the stock's IPO value, rather than on its market value. (Not a few dot-coms would go for that kind of accounting.) And Kerr is just getting warmed up. His account is grim, to be sure, but he not a nihilist. Japan is simply too big to fail, he admits, and at some point it will have to go through the equivalent of a massive S&L bailout. Indeed, Japan should provide an interesting test case of what happens when a country borrows past the limits of its ability to lend. He concludes, "Tobashi is a form of make-believe in which Japan's banks pretend to having hundreds of billions of dollars they don't have. But, after all, money is a sort of fiction. If the world banking community agrees to believe that Japan has these billions, then it essentially does." A more dangerous experiment taking place on a national scale is the lack of enforcement of environmental protection directives. Japan provides for a test case of industry—almost without oversight—setting the agenda, from dioxin levels to zoning to logging on public lands. And as frightening as Kerr's account is—frightening even for an environmental agnostic such as myself—even taking into account such notable disasters such as the Minamata mercury poisoning incident and the occasional nuclear plant malfunction, the Japanese just keep living longer and longer. I remain divided on Kerr's analysis of the why, that is, his analysis of the problem on a cultural/psychic level. I agree with his dismissal of the "occidental contamination" theory, that Japan was "true to itself" until the arrival of Perry's "black ships" in 1853. The problem, Kerr argues, is that Japan is being true to itself. He offers as a metaphor the bonsai tree, nature bound and manipulated so as to conform to the artist's sense of what nature should be, rather than what it is. He cleverly identifies the post-modern, post-apocalyptic world depicted in much of anime as an honest artistic rendering of the popularly perceived state of affairs. But then he contradicts himself with a poetic conclusion embracing the "traditional" and what he terms jitsu, the Platonic ideal that a country represents, what it should be "true to." Mom, baseball, and apple pie, that sort of thing. The problem is, to identify a set of "traditional values" one must pick an equally artificial point in history from which those traditions are imagined to have sprung. Speaking of the "traditional" one more often communicates instead a sentimentality for a certain era, in the case of Japan the late 17th century "Genroku" period, during which all the unemployed samurai, with nothing else better to do, began busily inventing the modern image of the samurai—much in the way that modern conception of the medieval knight and the western cowboy have long been the products of Hollywood producers. This is not to say that society should automatically yield to the modern and the new without caution and reflection. This is Kerr's biggest cultural complaint: Japanese simply are not sentimental enough for his tastes. And I suspect later generations will prove him right, just as so many city planners in the U.S. came to regret the destruction, in the name of "urban renewal," of their traditional and historic city centers during the 1960s and 1970s. True, being old is not a value in and of itself: great art and architecture should stand on their own merits; but I can empathize with Kerr's anguish at runaway urban planning doing to Kyoto exactly what the WWII didn't. But Japan will come around. I've come to believe that all societies must go through the same stages of evolution, in periodic, sinusoidal iterations. Having arrived at the top of the post-industrial, navel-gazing, tree-hugging ladder first, Americans too impatiently fret that the rest of the developing world isn't scampering up into the branches with us. It's a lot like the notion that with cloning you'll be able to hatch a complete and socially acclimated adult out of the shell. None of that fussy toilet training and adolescence to struggle through. Actually, the more worrisome topic Kerr covers is the rise of ethnocentrism in an almost ethnocentrically-pure country. It's reminiscent of know-nothing and isolationist attitudes the U.S. suffered during recent and historical recessions, and is no doubt spurred on by the same forces (and Japan's disturbingly Huxleyan government). But I believe it too shall pass, once people are given more appropriate targets for their frustrations—namely, politicians. In terms of environmentalism, for example, you start out with the industrial revolution and the exploitations of nature, then people notice how ugly and unhealthy it is and you move into the subduing nature stage (the Colorado River and Tennessee Valley Authority being prime examples), and then you start to figure out that just leaving nature alone is not such a bad thing. Japan is still in the process of seeing every example of imperfect or threatening nature as a candidate for another TVA project. And unlike the U.S. during the 1930s, Japan has a whole lot more money to get carried away with. But the process takes about a century, and Japan has been a functioning free-market democracy for only fifty years, while the United States, in 1776, had been hard at work at both capitalism and democracy for two centuries already, and had the legacy of the transcendentalists and naturalists and politicians like Teddy Roosevelt to draw on when the movement did get underway. Similarly, it doesn't surprise me that the current generation in China is so much more nationalistic and less reactionary—life, for them and their parents, is better than they could have ever possibly imagined. (The same was said of the baby boom generation in Japan.) But let the alloy of capitalism and democracy slowly work its magic. Call it the Consumer Reports syndrome. Once you have come to expect a certain quality and satisfaction in the goods and services you consume on a regular basis, and to expect an inevitable increase in the standard of living, it's a small step to cast about and begin to expect the same of political and social institutions as well. You eventually get to point we have reached in U.S. politics, when every generation is convinced that the environment is more polluted, the politics more corrupt, than the last. When, in fact, the truth is the opposite. The result, though, is an incessant pressure to "save the Earth" for each upcoming crop of children, which, while generating unappetizing streams of hand-wringing and angst in the process, does serve to motivate the society as a whole in the direction of constant improvement. So, paradoxically, the less we believe that things are getting better, the more likely they will. Japan, I believe, is proving itself no exception to this rule.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Tomoaki

    I believe this book needs to be updated. This book's publication data back to 2001 and he actually wrote this book before that. What he described here in the book is 80s and 90s. Even though most incidents and figures may be correct, still we feel these events were long ago. A lot of situations may be still the same but many other situations have changed dramatically too. The book shows so many negative side of Japan and those add up when you read through and I felt totally fed up. Since he does I believe this book needs to be updated. This book's publication data back to 2001 and he actually wrote this book before that. What he described here in the book is 80s and 90s. Even though most incidents and figures may be correct, still we feel these events were long ago. A lot of situations may be still the same but many other situations have changed dramatically too. The book shows so many negative side of Japan and those add up when you read through and I felt totally fed up. Since he does not have any hope for Japan's ability to change, he does not show his ideas for the change. Without any suggestions, I felt he was just whining what he does not like about Japan. It is easy to complain and quibble but difficult to change. He should write his opinion about better future for Japan and with that suggestion, this book will become much better and I want him to update this book with it.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Juha

    Alex Kerr is angry. He’s angry at the Japanese bureaucrats, construction industry, media and, not least, education system that have all destroyed not only the natural beauty of the unique archipelago, but also the culture and psyche of the ancient country. The book is very well researched and Kerr knows his subject, the country where he has lived for decades. All in all, the book is an important antidote to the Japanophiles who look at the country through rose-tinted glasses—and as Kerr points o Alex Kerr is angry. He’s angry at the Japanese bureaucrats, construction industry, media and, not least, education system that have all destroyed not only the natural beauty of the unique archipelago, but also the culture and psyche of the ancient country. The book is very well researched and Kerr knows his subject, the country where he has lived for decades. All in all, the book is an important antidote to the Japanophiles who look at the country through rose-tinted glasses—and as Kerr points out, there are many of those (and to a point I have to confess being one myself). At the same time, this is a rather tedious read because of its gloom and hopelessness. Furthermore, at 432 pages, it’s somewhat overlong and somewhat repetitious. Still, it’s an important book, which I hope many Japanese would read. However, there’s probably not much risk of that, for the very reasons that Kerr outlines in the book. Kerr takes us through virtually all sectors of Japanese society, pointing out systematically what is wrong. He takes the title of the book from an old Chinese story where an emperor asked a painter: “What are the hardest and easiest things to depict?” The artist replied, “Dogs and horses are difficult, demons and goblins are easy” (pp. 145-146). The metaphor here is that focusing on small everyday things is difficult, but constructing new, big and expensive things is easy. Japan in the past half century has focused only on the latter and in the process destroyed the former. It all comes down to an all-powerful and completely unaccountable bureaucracy that is unimaginative, undemocratic and tone deaf to alternative voices. It has been empowered by an education system that discourages free thinking and emphasizes rote learning and military style obeisance. Of course, no such system could stay in place for long unless there were powerful groups that benefited. Kerr shows the collusion between the bureaucrats, politicians and industry that by any Western standard could only be condemned as corrupt. The long-standing principle of ‘poor people, strong state’ was born after the American occupation when Japan was determined to catch up with the West at any cost. Which it did, but at an enormous cost to the environment, nature and, yes, the poor people. Probably the strongest part of the book focuses on the power of the construction industry and the Ministry of Construction, which have systematically destroyed the natural beauty and ecological balance of this unique archipelago. By the mid-1990s, Japan used about 30 times more concrete per square kilometre than the United States, channelling virtually every river and stream, constructing ‘erosion control’ measures on the most remote uninhabited mountainsides, building roads into the forest to allow for logging, destroying most of its shoreline with ‘coastal protection’ works, and paving over virtually anything that can be paved. This construction frenzy has been a huge boon to the industry and to the bureaucrats who benefit from it, not least in the form of amakudari—cushy post-retirement jobs in the industry. It’s been enabled by many factors. Importantly, the huge government subsidies flowing to rural areas, but only if they accept construction works determined in Tokyo. These are in many smaller towns and villages the main sources of employment and income (although Kerr shows how many a town has also ended up in unsustainable debt because of the demons that have been brought upon them). The government propaganda has been effective in making many Japanese genuinely believe that theirs is a small (semai) country with not enough of space for the population (in reality, Japan is by far larger than any country in Europe, barring Russia; it’s a third larger than France or Spain and has a lower population density than Holland or Germany). Another aspect that the propaganda has been successful in is instilling the fear of danger into the population: everything is abunai (dangerous) and anyone doing manual labour (including, e.g., ambulance drivers) wear helmets. Although the Japanese culture traditionally admires nature, it has also been seen as something to be controlled. The education system has been consciously devised to create an obedient, unquestioning and hard-working labour force for Japan’s industry. Inquisitive minds are discouraged from the beginning and authority is to be respected. My wife remembers from her Japanese childhood being punished when she asked questions from the teachers at school. Education is centred on discipline and group think—starting with the school uniforms: strictly militaristic for boys, sailor outfits for girls. One story from the time I lived in Tokyo in the 1990s has stuck in my mind as typical. It was about a boy who was expelled from school on the grounds that he had dyed his hair. The parents got a doctor’s certificate that the poor boy actually had been born with brown hair. The school authorities reluctantly reversed the decision, on the condition that the boy dyed his hair black. School bullying is rampant in Japan and the victims often are kids who are somehow different. All this has resulted in a complacent public. For instance, environmental NGOs are few and far between, their members considered radical outliers. If school is tough, university is not. On the contrary, once you’ve secured a place in a prestigious university, the four years spent in higher education are commonly the only time in a person’s life when you can slack off freely. Employers hire graduates on the basis of which university they went to, not their grades or field of study. That’s because the next stage of socialization is at work: the employer wants to re-educate the new staff member and mould him to fit the company culture. Only those intent on becoming academics go to graduate school. Unfortunately, graduate schools are equally hierarchical, as young scholars get affiliated with one senior professor who has complete authority over their research and lives. Peer review is basically unheard of in Japanese academia; it would be a logical impossibility, as it would involve a critique of a researcher who is affiliated with an unassailable senior professor. In the West, peer review is the foundation that guarantees academic quality. A Japanese friend of mine who did his doctorate in the States, but got hired by one of the better private universities in Tokyo, told me that his publications in the best international journals have no bearing for his career or status; the university only requires him to write two pieces per year, in Japanese, to its own non-peer reviewed journal. Another acquaintance, an American professor in a recognized university in the Kansai region strongly discouraged me to join the faculty, as I remember him telling me, “these are the stupidest professors in the world.” Of course, Japan is well-known for its technological progress and the situation in hard sciences and engineering is much better than in social sciences or even medicine. Japan is essentially a handicraft culture and, as such, it is extremely detail-oriented and aiming for perfection. It’s not that the Japanese invented the camera, the computer or the car; they just perfected them. Kerr elaborates on this: “Total dedication drives Japan’s self-sacrificing workers, and underlies the quality control that is the hallmark of Japanese production. But the tendency to take things to extremes means that people and organizations can easily get carried away and set out to ‘improve’ things that don’t need improving” (p. 45). I believe he is right when he sees a connection between this tendency and the constant desire to ‘improve’ on the rivers, mountainsides, ancient cities, and the like—if you think of it, even the famed Japanese gardens and bonsai trees are attempts to improve on what the nature has created. Kerr extrapolates further, stating that “there is an unstoppable extremism at work that is reminiscent of Japan’s military buildup before World War II” (p. 45). There is something to this, which can explain the continued destruction of Japan by a single-minded bureaucratic mass not governed by any democratically accountable political leadership. The wanton way in which the environment has been destroyed in the name of progress is sad. After the war, in the effort to rebuild Japan and to catch up with the West, everything was sacrificed to the altar of industrial development. Minamata, a fishing village with considerable natural beauty on the island of Kyushu, became synonymous to industrial pollution in the 1950s and 1960s. The stunning thing about Minamata—and several other similar, if less publicized cases—was that, for decades, it was the victims who were shunned and ostracized for hampering industrial progress. One might say that Minamata took place half a century ago, but the case has barely been closed now. Perhaps more importantly, similar disregard for human health and life—not to mention ecosystem health or aesthetic values—continues to be demonstrated today, when Japan is rich and there is absolutely no justification for it (if there ever was). It was only in 1997 when the government started half-hearted regulation of dioxins after the publication of extremely high concentration levels of this poison around incinerators. The meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the tsunami of 11 March 2011 revealed stupendous breaches in security at the plant, with the government watchdog clearly in collusion with the industry to bypass even the weak regulations. Taking Kyoto as a prime example, Kerr—understandably and correctly—lambasts the destruction of old neighbourhoods and the cultural patrimony in ancient urban centres. Again, at work are the bureaucrats and construction industry on autopilot and a complacent public with a misguided understanding of progress and modernity. Had Kerr left it to examining environment, construction and education the book might have read better. But he decided to cover many more areas, including the bubble economy, manga, ikebana, the poor state of Japan’s museums, the movie industry, just to name a few True, he does tie the miserable state of Japanese cinema and other arts to the same root causes, stating how “Japan’s postwar educational system is turning the Japanese into children” (p. 312). Similarly, the critique of ‘internationalization’ of Japan is right on the money. Japan is likely the least international of any industrialized nation. Since the Edo period, foreigners have been isolated in their own ghettos, like the historical Dutch and Chinese merchants off Nagasaki. Today, foreigners (gaijin) have been largely relegated to the position of low-level workers in companies or language teachers with no chance of career advancement. As for unskilled workers, authorities have encouraged primarily ethnically Japanese people from places like Brazil and Peru to take up work in the country. Just a few years ago, I was having dinner in Tokyo with a senior government official. When I mentioned that, given the aging population and dearth of manual workers, Japan would be forced to ease up immigration laws, his answer was (seriously): “No, not at all; that’s why we’re investing so much in the development of robots.” Xenophobia is alive and well in Japan. Kerr also talks about creative Japanese people who choose to leave the country. Japan has never appreciated the maverick, even if the person was a genius. He mentions leading scientists (like Shuji Nakamura, inventor of important breakthroughs in blue lasers; Dr. Ken Kakere, a cancer specialist long with NIH in the USA), business people (Nobuya Okabe who makes SciFi effects for movies and TV) and musicians (Seiji Ozawa, Ryuichi Sakamoto) who all have decided to go abroad. “In Japan’s medical world, young people, women, the outspoken, and the inventive stand no chance of recognition” (p. 339). The same could be said of many other fields. At the same time, many young people decide to leave for studies abroad where they can “enjoy” life and study, rather than just “endure” like in Japan (p. 357). This book was published more than a decade ago, in 2001, and its examples come largely from the 1990s. One could therefore expect it to be outdated. Many things have changed since the publication and, perhaps, things are no longer equally bleak. In fact, Kerr himself sees some hopeful signs for change, although he does have his doubts: “Change will get harder, not easier, as the population ages. At the very moment when Japan needs adventurous people to drastically revise its way of doing things, the population has already become the world’s oldest, with school registrations on a strong downward curve … Meanwhile, youths, whom one would ordinarily expect to be full of energy and initiative, have been taught in school to be obedient and never to question the way things are” (p. 367). Kerr points out that Japan has demonstrated an ability to abruptly change course, twice, but both times there was an external impetus: first in the late-Edo period when Commodore Perry forced Japan open to outsiders; the second time after World War II with an American instigated new constitution. This time Japan is on its own: “Nobody outside Japan is concerned about the fate of its mountains and rivers; nobody will arrive in a warship to demand that Japan produce better movies, rescue bankrupt pension funds, educate its children to be creative, or house its families in livable houses. The revolution will have to come from within” (p. 360). But many things have indeed happened. The recession has shaken up the lifelong career structure and unemployment has risen. More young people have been forced into self-employment or have even dropped out. At the time when Kerr wrote his book a dozen years ago, Japan’s economy was still larger than the combined economy of the rest of East Asia, including China. Since then, China has surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Then there was the tsunami and the nuclear disaster, which surely must have shattered any remaining trust people may have had in the bureaucracy and big business. Then again, East Village is still full of Japanese kids who did not fit in and Ryuichi Sakamoto still lives in New York. Japanese speaking henna gaijin are still paraded on TV variety shows as curious freaks. Construction is continuing unabated with government subsidies. And LDP—neither liberal nor democratic—is again in power. One can only hope for the best. If this review—like the book itself—comes across overly negative, it is because Kerr focused on the critical aspects. Japan, of course, has so many good aspects to it. That’s why Kerr, I and many a Japanophile cares. At the end, this is a work of love. As Kerr points out, the overwhelming majority of books written about Japan by gaijin focus on the lovely aspects—the aesthetics, the traditional culture, the food, the politeness of people, the efficiency, the beauty that remains in nature and in culture—therefore, a critical look that doesn’t overlook the troubling side is useful. Taking an analogy from what is missing in new ikebana, Kerr concludes Japan has strayed too far from jitsu, or reality, and there is a need to getting back in touch with this reality. He concludes: “The result of Japan’s war with jitsu has been to tear apart and ravage most of what Japan holds most dear in its own culture, and this lies at the root of the nation’s modern cultural malaise: people are sick at heart because Japan has strayed so far from its true self … The challenge of this century will be how to find a way home” (p. 385).

  5. 5 out of 5

    Phil

    As someone living long-term in Japan, this was, hands-down, the most depressing book I've read all year. Kerr's argument is that Japan is in the midst of "cultural malaise," with no real end in sight. The book is an impassioned laundry list of the (mainly structural) problems facing modern Japan. Kerr raises the following as the foremost issues at the heart of Japan's perceived decline: - pointless pork-barrel construction projects - garish, misguided architectural design that ignores local flavor As someone living long-term in Japan, this was, hands-down, the most depressing book I've read all year. Kerr's argument is that Japan is in the midst of "cultural malaise," with no real end in sight. The book is an impassioned laundry list of the (mainly structural) problems facing modern Japan. Kerr raises the following as the foremost issues at the heart of Japan's perceived decline: - pointless pork-barrel construction projects - garish, misguided architectural design that ignores local flavor - an educational system that focuses on mindless obedience and rote memorization - an economy on the brink of collapse, plagued by creative accounting and fraud - infantile pop culture (the cult of "kawaii" and the prominence of anime and manga) - a monolithic bureaucratic juggernaut unconcerned with public need - skepticism and resistance of internationalism The list goes on, and it paints a very bleak picture. (I regret reading the bulk of this book on a gloomy, rainy Sunday.) While the issues Kerr cites are--to some extent--visible to this longtime resident, his argument is far from ironclad. He presents a civilization circling the drain, while frequently using the United States as a counterpoint. However, since this book's publication in 2002, America has undergone a dramatic decline while Japan has more or less muddled through. Kerr is careful to cite specifics to support his arguments, but he has a tendency to resort to a pretty broad brush when drawing conclusions. The Japanese educational system has some pretty glaring flaws, for example, but my experience with public education in the US certainly didn't leave me with any fond memories of freedom and acceptance of diversity. The biggest turnoff about this book comes from Kerr citing the Edo period (1603-1868) as some sort of ideal for modern Japan to aspire to. Kerr must not be a student of history. The Edo period brought stability, popular culture, and the initial rise of a middle class, yes, but it's arguable that most of the positive aspects of Edo society developed despite the government, not because of it. It's simply bizarre to me that Kerr can spend much of a book bemoaning self-perpetuating bureaucracy, the rejection of internationalization, social "ossification," and mindless obedience to authority, only to get misty-eyed about a military dictatorship with an inflexible class system. In the end I'm forced to conclude that, like many disillusioned foreigners, Kerr yearns for a Japan that never really existed. The problems he cites with Japan's society and government are certainly present (all the things that get me down about this country), but he offers no satisfying solutions, and his platonic ideal for Japan (Edo feudalism!) is only appealing when viewed through rose-tinted welding goggles.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Gavin Smith

    A weak argument that you agree with is still a weak argument. And there is so much here that I agree with. I'm sure that any long-term foreign resident of Japan will have shared some or all of Alex Kerr's frustrations. I particularly appreciated his summary of Japanese economics which I found balanced and free of both the current hysterical doom-mongering of recent times or the slavish fanboyism of the nineties. This highlights the single biggest problem with Dogs and Demons... though. It's signi A weak argument that you agree with is still a weak argument. And there is so much here that I agree with. I'm sure that any long-term foreign resident of Japan will have shared some or all of Alex Kerr's frustrations. I particularly appreciated his summary of Japanese economics which I found balanced and free of both the current hysterical doom-mongering of recent times or the slavish fanboyism of the nineties. This highlights the single biggest problem with Dogs and Demons... though. It's significantly out of date. Because it was published before the sub-prime banking crisis, many of his ideas about the relative strength of American and Japanese banks have been proven false. It turned out they were all based on dodgy credit and hidden losses. This is no real sin when writing about economics, however. Economics is still far more art than science so predictions about the future are always a risk, but discussing and investigating those ideas still has value and is still worthwhile. Even with predictions that have been proven false, there is still something to learn from why the prevailing wisdom was wrong. For these reasons, while the book's age is a problem, it isn't the most off-putting thing for me. Many, many times during the course of this book, Kerr slips into a pretty unpleasant tone of arrogance and cultural superiority. I don't think he's aware of it and I'm sure that his love of Japan and Japanese culture is genuine. I still think it's there though. Here are a couple of choice quotes. Here Kerr is talking about the effort to convince an elderly couple not to demolish their old house and sell off some land to finance a smaller modern house, We were trying to convince the couple that their house was very special, an important heritage in fact, and with a little fixing in the kitchen and bath, would be the best for them to live in. p.176 Elderly couple have no interest in spending their twilight years as part of a museum exhibit shocker! Or try this one. It needs no context. However, new industries like interior design can prosper only when people are comfortable and educated enough to develop a higher level of taste. p.211 Oh, thank Andre the Giant that you and your friends are here to share your higher level of taste with us! This type of tone is woven throughout the book. Kerr also likes to talk about the 'Japanese' concept of 'pure poverty' as if this is anything other than a vague philosophical concept. In fact, it is nostalgic propaganda at best and pure noble savage bullshit at worst. These tonal issues and the fact that much of Kerr's evidence for his arguments is anecdotal mean that while I find truth in this, I don't really want to hear it from Kerr. I wouldn't blame most Japanese people if they felt the same.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Rich Uncle Pennybags

    The chapter on corrupt business practices was excellent. Most of the rest of the book is a mix of ideas that might improve the country for rich aesthetes at the expense of everyone else (e.g., suggestions to abolish the estate tax so they can rehab old houses instead of building multi-family housing on the plots when their owners die), hilarious-in-retrospect paeans to the inventiveness of American finance and cinema in comparison to the Japanese equivalents, pontificating on subjects Kerr clear The chapter on corrupt business practices was excellent. Most of the rest of the book is a mix of ideas that might improve the country for rich aesthetes at the expense of everyone else (e.g., suggestions to abolish the estate tax so they can rehab old houses instead of building multi-family housing on the plots when their owners die), hilarious-in-retrospect paeans to the inventiveness of American finance and cinema in comparison to the Japanese equivalents, pontificating on subjects Kerr clearly knows nothing about (e.g., his claim that children like Japanese video games but teens and older only play Western ones), rants about anime aethetic (the man really hates the "baby faces"), and extremely blinkered attacks (e.g., his remark that his Southeast Asian friends don't think Japanese live so well because in Southeast Asia "everyone" has a maid -- a remark that is perhaps the most reliable indicator that you are talking to a wealthy person from an extremely stratified society). All of this is delivered with learned references to old Japanese literature that quickly wear out their welcome. One wonders if whether Saikaku would recognize contemporary Japan is *really* the most salient question. It would be wrong to say that there are no interesting and important critiques in the rest of the book, but you have to wade through a lot of muck to get to them. I'd really recommend just the one chapter and skipping the rest of the text, which is wearisome.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ben Taylor

    what not to read when on holiday in Japan

  9. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    This may not have been the best book to cap off my 4+ years living in Japan, but I suspect long-time expats will find much to relate to... There's a lot of literature and vocal praise out there for Japan, especially from people who have never lived there, but some of it tends to gloss over some of the more serious problems festering in the country. Anyone who has been here long enough recognizes just how ineffective Japanese bureaucracy can be, and just how deep corruption is a part of the govern This may not have been the best book to cap off my 4+ years living in Japan, but I suspect long-time expats will find much to relate to... There's a lot of literature and vocal praise out there for Japan, especially from people who have never lived there, but some of it tends to gloss over some of the more serious problems festering in the country. Anyone who has been here long enough recognizes just how ineffective Japanese bureaucracy can be, and just how deep corruption is a part of the government (amakudari, anyone?). Kerr goes one step further to illuminate these issues, highlighting examples like the construction industry, plagued by pork-barrel projects. This is generally common knowledge, but his analysis of how this has wreaked an astonishing amount of environmental damage is alarming – especially as it is at odds with the stereotypical image that Japanese is "one with nature" (or at least very "zen" about it). Japanophiles who have never thought of taking a more critical approach to Japan may be in for a rude awakening. Kerr argues that many of Japan's problems are rooted in its culture, and being Japanese – not purely as a result of a pressure to Westernize, as the common school of thought goes. I find this answer too simple and dismissive, and as a result, his criticism at times is too negative and one-sided. Nevertheless, it's an interesting read, if somewhat frustrating, and worth reading to see a more critical evaluation of Japan than most people are apt to come across.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Mel

    I'm torn in my feelings about this book. It paints a very negative portrait of Japan, albeit it was published in 2001 so a lot of time has passed. I found myself trying to remember details from my trip to see if they supported Kerr's writing or not. It is rare that I read negative non-fiction books. Even if there is a problem at the heart of the tale, there is some redemption or hope in the end. Not so much with this one. It did make me wonder if Kerr's book is the equivalent of the horrendously I'm torn in my feelings about this book. It paints a very negative portrait of Japan, albeit it was published in 2001 so a lot of time has passed. I found myself trying to remember details from my trip to see if they supported Kerr's writing or not. It is rare that I read negative non-fiction books. Even if there is a problem at the heart of the tale, there is some redemption or hope in the end. Not so much with this one. It did make me wonder if Kerr's book is the equivalent of the horrendously negative political titles that we sell at the store. That makes me even more cautious about accepting his words at face value. Ultimately, the writing was fine. He did pull themes together and show how they worked out in different scenarios. If you're looking for a happy, touchy-feely, I-love-Japan book, this is not the one for you. However, if you're looking for a serious look at Japan and its environmental issues (albeit as they were 8 years ago,) this one will provide that.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Alejandro

    I read this book while i was living and working in japan and I thought it was spot on. Kerr might be overly critical of the erosion of "traditional" japan but he looks at it through the perspective of one not interested in fetishizing but perserving a culture and countryside that is beautiful and worth knowing. Read it if your are planning to visit or if you are planning to live there... it is eye-opening. I read this book while i was living and working in japan and I thought it was spot on. Kerr might be overly critical of the erosion of "traditional" japan but he looks at it through the perspective of one not interested in fetishizing but perserving a culture and countryside that is beautiful and worth knowing. Read it if your are planning to visit or if you are planning to live there... it is eye-opening.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Olsen

    I'm actually giving this 3.5 stars. And I ask myself why; this book, now over a decade dated, was written to reflect the growing crisis that was Japan of the '80's and '90's. I believe the most current date mentioned was 2000, maybe 2002 in a passing reference. Alex Kerr, the author, had a very distinctive way of writing this. Absolutely none of his thoughts seemed to reflect the good AND bad of Japan. There was only negativity found throughout this book, because the way Japan is run seems to ru I'm actually giving this 3.5 stars. And I ask myself why; this book, now over a decade dated, was written to reflect the growing crisis that was Japan of the '80's and '90's. I believe the most current date mentioned was 2000, maybe 2002 in a passing reference. Alex Kerr, the author, had a very distinctive way of writing this. Absolutely none of his thoughts seemed to reflect the good AND bad of Japan. There was only negativity found throughout this book, because the way Japan is run seems to run directly opposite to his thoughts and opinions. While the majority of Japan seems to be staunchly conservative (in every aspect except culture, funnily enough), he seems to be staunchly liberal. The "us" and "them" mentality he describes in the book seems to be wholly ironic. Gambare!, Mr Kerr. The leftist movement will endure, just give it time. Japan will catch up eventually, by it's own volition or by force. What he describes is a landscape ravaged by man; concrete everywhere, flashing lights, billboards and a distinct disregard for nature. This book actually scared me a little with it's stark, fatalistic picture of a country where its' citizens have a non-sympathetic approach to its' landscape. It paints a picture of a culture-less society whose culture is found ONLY in the past; that there is no modern culture to Japan. And honestly? As much as I want to agree with Mr Kerr on most of these points, I simply cannot agree with the picture of Japan as a culture-less country. Japans culture is one of the MOST enduring cultures on the planet; while Shintoism may not have become popular in the rest of the world, Buddhism has, almost to mainstream levels. Zen, and the idea of Zen have become mainstream with new age, modern culture in Western Civilization, endowing people with the means to 'de-stress' and calm, in a society that is constantly buzzing with activity, and the need to do better, to be more. While Alex Kerr views anime as "infant-like", that is simply not the fact-- it's rife with storylines, plot, setting, character. Hayao Miyazaki is an internationally recognized name; his work brings people to tears, to laughter, to stoicism. It's riddled with tidbits of Japanese culture and mythology. He mentions specific anime by name; Pokemon, Sailor Moon, all names any child of the 1990s' will recognize. But funnily enough, even as an adult, these titles bring a smile to my face- the themes are wholly recognizable: friendship, romanticism (Sailor Moon), perseverance, adventure.. there are many. These titles bring nostalgia to my mind; these are moments that allow me to remember fondly. And cinema! He mentions that Japanese cinema. In 2015, I count at least 69 individual films to be released in Japan; there may be more. He briefly mentioned these few people who managed to make it into the world of acting. There are countless other individuals: Yakusho Koji, Sinada Hiroyuki, Watanabi Ken, Yonekura Ryoko, Tao Okamoto, Eriko Hatsune, Kaori Momoi, Yoko Shimada, Miyoshi Umeki. I mean, I could go on, but the point is made. He speaks nothing of Japans culinary culture, a culture that survives MAINSTREAM to this day. As a cook, I look at Japanese cooks with awe. I actually went to a sushi event locally, hosted by a Japanese sushi chef from a nearby restaurant, and learned so much merely by watching him. And the humbleness he displayed in his quiet talent was awing. The fact that Japanese cuisine has not only survived, but adapted to Western ideas is amazing; when I spoke to the chef, he mentioned that ONLY salmon, tuna, and cucumber sushi were traditional. Now think of the last time you went to a sushi bar. How many kinds of sushi were there? Those are all western variations, the cuisine adapting to the modern demand. The author briefly mentioned festival culture, as if it were a blight. Festival culture is something that anyone who knows ANYTHING about Japan wants to see. The childish excitement of fireworks, good food, and intimate air (You will always find someone who knows so and so!) Wiki'ing Japanese festivals lists at least 19 MAJOR festivals a year, 6 on a level below the major festivals, and then countless across Japan for local prefectures. And within these cultures, you have tidbits of culture everywhere from the attire, to the food, to the events themselves. Where else in the world is it the norm to wear traditional dress, even for foreigners, to local events? Where else would ANYONE feel comfortable doing so? There are so many other cultural tidbits I could discuss-- music, theatre, etc. GION- Kyotos' district for Geisha, geiko and maiko. He never mentioned Taiko, the koto (sōkyoku) or Shamisen (nagauta or jōruri), Shōmyō, to modern music. Japanese pop (J-pop for short), and famous composers! Uematsu Nobou! Modern japanese orchestral music maybe be adapting to western ideas, but at the same time, using their own instruments, they manage to keep their own identity while doing so. He speaks nothing of a culture and people that have allowed the idea of romanticism to survive and gambare, endure. To me, that is an endearing quality of asian culture: the differentiation of themes between Western and Eastern entertainment. There is absolutely no mention of prominent Japanese literature, from the past (The Tale of Genji, Taketori Monogatari,The Tale of the Heike, Oku no Hosomichi, Kokoro ((This is a GREAT novel, by the by))) to the present (A Personal Matter, Ripening Summer, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore). I mean, if you're dissimilate a country by it's culture, and say that they've strangled their own culture, you might want to actually take a look around. I neglected to mention art, but that is a ramble in its own. Wood block printing past and present, japanese embroidery, etc. The list is endless. What happened with this book was a spiralling ramble about the same issue that didn't vary from cover to cover; Japans inability to work it's own culture into it's industrial sectors, combined with an ineffective economy. I stumbled across some writing in the margins about 3/4 of the way through the book. The little note read, "Leftist bs". I'm not sure at this point, if I'm inclined to disagree. This, at the end of the day was a poorly veiled jab at the opposing party; one that needs sorely to be either update, or expanded upon. The author neglected to mention movements that were current in Japan to preserve culture, stand up to the government, and ways for foreigners to help. If Japan is truly to be supported, should the author not have given readers the means to help? I tend to think so. At most, this was a shallow comparison, of Japans weaknesses to the rest of the world without taking Japans strengths into the light.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Edson

    Disclaimer: this review is biased due to several factors: 1. I lived in Kyoto for two years in a position where I experienced culture, academics and business in an almost equal measure. 2. I dated a half Japanese person for a while. 3. I hail from a lusophonic African country and have lived in another 3 countries on 3 different continents. These were mostly influenced by Anglo-American policies and culture. 4. I grew in an academically oriented household with a socioeconomic historian and a computer Disclaimer: this review is biased due to several factors: 1. I lived in Kyoto for two years in a position where I experienced culture, academics and business in an almost equal measure. 2. I dated a half Japanese person for a while. 3. I hail from a lusophonic African country and have lived in another 3 countries on 3 different continents. These were mostly influenced by Anglo-American policies and culture. 4. I grew in an academically oriented household with a socioeconomic historian and a computer scientist for parents. That out of the way, Dogs and Demons is a fascinating, but by no means perfect read. While dated in parts by now, many of the underlying aspects that are talked about are still relevant today (even if it is written by a non-Japanese national). A number of the thoughts laid out here have begun to be echoed by Japanese nationals. Though mostly those who find themselves outside the usual system, whether it’s voluntary or not. In the case of my…ex-girlfriend, she’s very Japanese in her behavior (IMO) but there is enough difference in it and enough melanin in her skin that she often found herself as the one on the outside looking in. Which made it extremely interesting to learn about Japan from someone with one foot in and another out. Economically, I suppose it [Japan] skates by. Consumption is the name of the game, usually driven by large companies or the ever-looming keiretsus. Back in 2001, Alex Kerr said that startups were not really a thing in Japan. Today, the culture is taking off, albeit slowly. This is interesting considering that a significant amount of patents are developed in Japan on a yearly basis. My guess is that the present situation is a direct result of intrapreneurship (without the usual rewards) and not entrepreneurship. Recently, JETRO has opened a section on the site where companies interested in hiring foreign employees. At the time of this writing, a grand total of 18 companies are listed. Which isn’t much…but it’s a start. Japan is a remarkable country that is facing something of an identity crisis. A crisis that tends to be ignored in lieu of harmony (read: obedience). Dogs and Demons provides substantial evidence as to why this is the case, and this is backed up (mind you, anecdotally). Perhaps this is confirmation bias, and a result of my own experience with an identity crisis and brushes with anthropology and psychology in my personal, professional and academic lives. Being a third culture individual only served to exacerbate this. As an expat, reading this made me doubly concerned about the direction the country is heading in and the relative indifference that the general folk has regarding its future. Or just plain nihilism. Internally, you can see the strain caused by a number of different things. And externally, Japan has to interact in a sociopolitical climate that is very dynamic and often places it on a pedestal. It is this pedestal that allows it to continue exercising its soft power in myriad ways. But that is only part of the answer. The soft power includes but is not limited to anime, video games, (apparent) recycling, (apparent) extreme productivity, and all the vehicle spare parts that less industrialized nations have to purchase from them. Language and its interpretation are used as barriers to discourage outsiders from learning too much about how things really work. On the flip side, their lack of foreign language skills sometimes bites them in the ass. The Olympics next year will be interesting, as even emergency respondents hardly speak English: a microcosm of a larger issue. Of course, Japan isn’t alone in doing some pseudo cloak and dagger warfare. America, Russia, and China come to mind. But it is certainly given some sort of free pass that isn’t bestowed on the others for some reason or another. Especially since its position on the Press Freedom Index has slid dramatically over the past few years. Don’t get me wrong, Japan has slowly made headway in terms of being more aware of internal problems and in some cases, being more proactive. Some of the industries have had new life breathed into them either by design or by chance. But in my opinion, these changes are happening too slowly - if at all). Dogs and Demons isn’t the be-all-end-all body of text that will educate you on all the finer points on how and why Japan is today. But it’s a substantial enough starting point that will allow you to think a bit more critically about one of the greatest and (one of the most misunderstood) nation-states on the planet. With all the criticism, I find myself moving back to Japan. Better the demon you know, right? I welcome a discussion on any and all of what I’ve covered here. It will be an opportunity for all of us to learn and fine-tune (or correct) our thoughts on Japan and its people. Our world views may clash, but hopefully, we’ll come out of it with more information and more wisdom to build a…harmonious world. Harmony as acceptance of differences, and not as “a denial of differences and an embrace of sameness. Sameness in interpersonal relationships means a reflection of the other, the basic concept of which derives from narcissism”. Yes, I know. This review is longer than even I expected...but also you've read this far. Please watch the documentary: Comfort Women. It's a harrowing, but essential watch.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Alyse

    A very informative primer on the inner workings on Japanese bureaucracy. This book was published in 2002, and while you think the information would be out of date by 2019, a lot of the internal problems plaguing the government, are still apparent now. I only hope the author will come out with an updated version soon. Be warned, the information is quite depressing, so maybe try not to read it all at once.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Balázs

    A shocking read, but a lot of it rings true based on my personal experience. My hope is that things are changing for the better in Japan, especially since the book's original release. A shocking read, but a lot of it rings true based on my personal experience. My hope is that things are changing for the better in Japan, especially since the book's original release.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Crawford

    This book is an attack on many facets of Japanese society, primarily dealing with economics. Among the things the book examines are (and these are only bare topics, not the details under each of them): 1. Runaway construction, the building of roads, bridges, buildings, etc, that aren't really needed, but are built just to spend the money that is available. 2. Bad architecture, in which the good things of the past buildings are ignored and often destroyed, and much that is built is sterile and blea This book is an attack on many facets of Japanese society, primarily dealing with economics. Among the things the book examines are (and these are only bare topics, not the details under each of them): 1. Runaway construction, the building of roads, bridges, buildings, etc, that aren't really needed, but are built just to spend the money that is available. 2. Bad architecture, in which the good things of the past buildings are ignored and often destroyed, and much that is built is sterile and bleak in appearance. 3. An educational system that emphasizes sameness and discourages original thought and creativity. 4. New cities, in which interesting historical parts of cities are torn down in order to build new portions which lack the atmosphere of the original buildings. 5. The stock market system as it works in Japan. 6. University education which, according to the author, isn't really very significant, where students who make it through the exam hell at the end of high school can basically coast along through college. 7. Bureaucracy, which the author talks a lot about. Basically, he's saying it's incredibly corrupt and inefficient and the manner in which it works is not at all well adapted to the conditions in today's world. This also involves construction, public works, etc, and an incredibly complicated system of kickbacks, unacknowledged monies, etc. 8. Cinema, which he says is mostly aimed at children. He also attacks Japanese manga. 9. Questionable accounting practices of many companies. 10. Lack of concern about the environment. 11. The medical system. 12. Airports. 13. Ikebana, as it is done today. 14. Japan's basic dislike and intolerance of non-Japanese in their country. Those are not all of the things that the author attacks, but it's a good number of them. As you can see the book covers a very wide variety of topics, and the author backs up his assertions with numerous statistics. A lot of it is sort of complicated (if you don't really have a deep understanding of economics, which I don't), and at times a little tedious. While I was reading the book I checked one of the on-line Japanese newspapers (that are translated into English), and I found an article covering one of the topics in the book, the article noting that the Finance Ministry had allocated 100 million yen for a research commission that didn't actually exist. Further, this came on the heels of reports of similar things by the Social Insurance Agency and the Natural Resources and Energy Agency, all of this relating to topic 7, especially, of the above list. The book paints a very grim picture of Japanese economics and doesn't really hold out a lot of hope for the country. As far as I can understand what the author is saying will happen is that Japan will fall behind other countries economically and that their quality of life will continue to get worse. It's an interesting albeit somewhat complicated book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jee Koh

    Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons (published in 2001) is a polemic against the wrong direction that Japan has taken in the closing decades of the last century. The charge sheet looks serious. Excessive construction is destroying the environment. Bureaucrats are enriching themselves at the expense of national interest. The country is piling up its national debt but losing its technological edge. Schools are teaching rote-learning and social conformity. Culture has degenerated into manga and anime, plas Alex Kerr's Dogs and Demons (published in 2001) is a polemic against the wrong direction that Japan has taken in the closing decades of the last century. The charge sheet looks serious. Excessive construction is destroying the environment. Bureaucrats are enriching themselves at the expense of national interest. The country is piling up its national debt but losing its technological edge. Schools are teaching rote-learning and social conformity. Culture has degenerated into manga and anime, plastic flower-arrangement and context-less architecture. The unremittingly bleak picture makes me doubt that I visited the same country last summer that the author is describing. Still, I remember things in retrospect that fit with Kerr's picture. The Kamo River in Kyoto was barricaded on both sides by concrete embankment. Pachinko parlors contributed to the noise pollution in Shinjuku in Tokyo, where we stayed. Manga took up more than half of the shelves of the bookshop in one train station. The culture of cute, or kawaii, was evident everywhere. But I went to Japan to launch the Japanese translation of my Pillow Book, my homage to Sei Shonagon. The launch was well-attended by a youngish crowd, who listened appreciatively to my Singaporean re-working of this Japanese classic. Afterwards, a young woman approached me and asked me shyly why I called a verse a tanka when it does not have the traditional five lines. She shared that she was studying medieval literature at school. In that hip, artistic crowd, there was at least one person who looked back to Japan's past for enjoyment and education. She couldn't have been the only one.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Lum

    Alex Kerr provides convincing evidence to support his view of a nation-state that has trapped itself in an kind of cultural, economic and political stagnation via a compounding of convoluted bureaucratic systems and corporations in-bed with ministries, alongside a decades-long education system topped by a culture that lends itself easily to conservatism. In other words, his arguments - though applicable largely to Japan pre 2001, and which would have benefited from a more modern update - are sou Alex Kerr provides convincing evidence to support his view of a nation-state that has trapped itself in an kind of cultural, economic and political stagnation via a compounding of convoluted bureaucratic systems and corporations in-bed with ministries, alongside a decades-long education system topped by a culture that lends itself easily to conservatism. In other words, his arguments - though applicable largely to Japan pre 2001, and which would have benefited from a more modern update - are sound. However, the writing style of the book is hugely, relentlessly negative to the point where you begin to actually doubt the veracity of the arguments; there are no opposing viewpoints, there is no comparison of other countries that does not show them as almost inherently superior (any book that argues that Malaysia and Singapore are shining beacons of anti-corruption Asian modernism deserves to have some doubt cast upon it) and there is an often unthinking tendency to cast a wide net over all Japanese people or to discount Japan's few soft power successes as juvenile or infantile. An interesting book that opens one's eyes, but not necessarily entirely enjoyable or thoroughly convincing as you would hope.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Justin

    To anyone who has ever been a gaijin, this book can offer some assistance in explaining the history behind certain customs and norms that Westerners might find a little baffling, at least economically. I was reminded of this book last night upon reading of the disinvestment going on throughout more rural Honshu in the Times. The construction budgets have been cut in some rural prefectures and the consequences have been disasterous because little else supports the base in certain areas. It really To anyone who has ever been a gaijin, this book can offer some assistance in explaining the history behind certain customs and norms that Westerners might find a little baffling, at least economically. I was reminded of this book last night upon reading of the disinvestment going on throughout more rural Honshu in the Times. The construction budgets have been cut in some rural prefectures and the consequences have been disasterous because little else supports the base in certain areas. It really goes to show how dysfunctional the modern Japanese economy can be and how these bizarre capital spending on unnecessary infrastructure floats their system (the island of concrete). It's worthy of a read to dig deeper and I would say even helps us to better understand the fundamentals of economics from a different system.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Manintheboat

    We recently spent 2 weeks in Japan. Narita, Tokyo, Sendai, Kyoto, Nagano, Hachinohe. I agreed with a few parts of this book (paving over the rivers, there are almost no wild animals in Japan), but really expecting people in Kyoto to live in old houses is like expecting people in Denver to live in log cabins. They aren't fire resistant, they are cold, and difficult to plumb. I LOVED the Kyoto train station. There ARE beautiful trees, streams, ponds, paths, and temples around nearly every corner. I We recently spent 2 weeks in Japan. Narita, Tokyo, Sendai, Kyoto, Nagano, Hachinohe. I agreed with a few parts of this book (paving over the rivers, there are almost no wild animals in Japan), but really expecting people in Kyoto to live in old houses is like expecting people in Denver to live in log cabins. They aren't fire resistant, they are cold, and difficult to plumb. I LOVED the Kyoto train station. There ARE beautiful trees, streams, ponds, paths, and temples around nearly every corner. If there isn't something beautiful, there's something interesting (4 story tall Doge mural, 6 story bicycle store, tongue restaurant). And why would you bury the power lines? What would the monkeys use to cross the streets? Then they would get hit by cars. PS. I installed a Japanese toilet here in Denver when I got home. They are amazing. Get the kind that sings to you.

  21. 5 out of 5

    J

    A great book which highlights the scandals, failures, and shortcomings of the Japanese Elite who control the government, ministries, and corporations. This is a book that sometimes entertained me. Other times it made me frustrated and disgusted. I had to take a few breaks from this book due to the nature of the content. While reading this, I often had to step back and remind myself to make an objective (as objective as possible) comparison to the U.S. and it helped to put things back into a less A great book which highlights the scandals, failures, and shortcomings of the Japanese Elite who control the government, ministries, and corporations. This is a book that sometimes entertained me. Other times it made me frustrated and disgusted. I had to take a few breaks from this book due to the nature of the content. While reading this, I often had to step back and remind myself to make an objective (as objective as possible) comparison to the U.S. and it helped to put things back into a less cynical perspective. Great book, but definitely not a weekend leisure read.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Max Shen

    The book is horribly written. Worse than that, it lost my trust early on, perhaps the greatest sin any writer can commit. I finished it anyway because it was quick skim and it was nice to reminisce on my month-long visit to Japan, but it's incredible how single-minded Kerr's story is. Perhaps its single-mindedness cannot be helped as it rails against the perceived single-minded and behemoth cultural monster of Japan. Unfortunately, there are far too many subjective value judgments, it's extremely The book is horribly written. Worse than that, it lost my trust early on, perhaps the greatest sin any writer can commit. I finished it anyway because it was quick skim and it was nice to reminisce on my month-long visit to Japan, but it's incredible how single-minded Kerr's story is. Perhaps its single-mindedness cannot be helped as it rails against the perceived single-minded and behemoth cultural monster of Japan. Unfortunately, there are far too many subjective value judgments, it's extremely repetitive, and there's not even a single breathe spent considering alternative points of view.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Brad

    Illustrative narrative explication of Japan circa 2000. Kerr sets forth a clear context for Japan's failed response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Illustrative narrative explication of Japan circa 2000. Kerr sets forth a clear context for Japan's failed response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Spike Gomes

    I originally got "Dogs and Demons" on the advice of a classmate of mine when I was in grad school many odd years ago. I never actually got around to reading it until now, years after I had lived in Japan. Of course much has changed both in Japan, in the West, and to myself since it was published back in 2001. The most immediate thing that one can say about Kerr's take on Japan, is that it offers a counterpoint to the whole "Japan Inc." boosterism/fearmongering of the pre-bubble era. In this book, I originally got "Dogs and Demons" on the advice of a classmate of mine when I was in grad school many odd years ago. I never actually got around to reading it until now, years after I had lived in Japan. Of course much has changed both in Japan, in the West, and to myself since it was published back in 2001. The most immediate thing that one can say about Kerr's take on Japan, is that it offers a counterpoint to the whole "Japan Inc." boosterism/fearmongering of the pre-bubble era. In this book, much of Japan's dirty economic and social laundry is aired out by someone who has lived in the country for decades, yet as a foreigner and outsider, is able to speak the truth better than someone embedded within Japanese culture. That said, even if I agree with many of his criticisms of Japan, I believe that he himself is making many of them from an extremely rarified position of a long-term professional expat within Japan, one who is part of a cultural and economic elite abroad who is as removed from the average Japanese factory or office worker as many of the bureaucrats he is criticizing, and moreover, views the West with as rose-tinted glasses as he accuses those in the West of viewing Japan. This is particularly apparent when he compares the Japanese banking system and governmental Ministry of Finance policy versus the "transparent" and "free market" mechanisms of the West. In light of the sub-prime catastrophe of 2007-2008 that wrecked the American economy and threw real estate and employment rates into a tailspin that have only "recovered" recently due to our own government redefining "employment", as well as the IMF/Eurozone loan fiascos and mismanagement that have currently left the European Union a slowly burning sinking wreck, the sort of genteel and quiet 20 year economic doldrums of Japan look positively paradisiacal in comparison. In short, it seems that banks and investment houses cooking the books, and governmental incompetence and complicity in that fraud isn't a particularly Japanese flaw at all, but the Japanese societal ability to collectively agree not to burn the house down in order to spite the bureaucrats is rather unique, considering the West's response was a wholesale return to populist leftism and rightism. In the same way, he criticizes Japan's educational system for creating minds that do not think, and personalities that do not question. While there is certainly quite a lot that can be said that's bad about the Japanese pedagogical system, is the West any better? Kerr states that Japanese universities are crumbling underfunded day cares. Isn't that pretty much what the United States primary and secondary educational facilities have been for the past few decades? Wouldn't our universities also be crumbling if they weren't bolstered by a governmental influx of unlimited student loan money that's led to tuition inflation far beyond what most graduates can repay? He states that the primary object of Japanese education is to teach rote facts and incalculable conformity. Haven't our universities in recent years become beholden to social justice warriors that hold individual personal feelings and emotional security above critical thinking, challenging existing pre-conceptions and even basic academic standards, and hammer on classmates and faculty that don't conform or agree to their many many grievances and "triggers"? Kerr lambastes the Japanese cultural addiction to cuteness, childishness and bemoans the death of independent and innovative Japanese cinema. Yet as I write this right now, the highest grossing movies on the box office are either animated children's features, superhero movies, or a remake or sequel of an action movie. He particularly points out Hello Kitty and Pokemon as a sign of the degradation of the culture that produced Kurosawa and Ozu, however when I turn to look out the window to the left of me, I can literally see two adult males walking in circles around the parking lot hoping to catch imaginary Pokemon characters on their cell phones. If Japan as a culture is guilty of anything regarding the retreat into the infantile, it is only that they were some good ten years ahead of the curve. The Japanese obsession with construction for the sake of construction and lack of interest in historical preservation or aesthetic urban planning is something that the author is particularly bothered by, which is not completely surprising since he is by trade something of an art history consultant of sorts (like most of the transnational elite, it's actually really difficult to tell what it is he actually does for a living, save that it certainly makes him a tidy sum, as his multiple residences and expensive antiquing hobby exemplify). Granted, from my time in Japan, the whole "raze it and then pave it" mentality is something that is both is both awe-inspiring and disturbing at the same time. It is rather sad how little a culture supposedly renowned for it's aesthetic sensitivity and love of nature is willing to destroy both in countless mostly unprofitable and superfluous mega-projects without a second thought, but at the same time, for someone like myself, who comes from a state that can't even keep the pavement on its highways from falling to pieces every time it rains hard, nor get desperately needed infrastructure like affordable housing or mass transit to come about due to the influence of dozens of NIMBY groups and laws that require ten kinds of impact studies to be filed with a governmental agency with a three year backlog on approvals, there's something attractive about the Japanese ability to get something done on time, and not half-ass it so that it's broken in 10 years, even if that something is something useless, costly, and destructive like concrete shorebreaks or a highway to nowhere. There's got to be a happy medium. On the same subject, I think Kerr really has blinders on when it comes to a lot of things. When he bemoans the fact that Kyoto pretty much razed away it's old city and poured several concrete monstrosities in the heart of the new pre-fab town, the lack of outcry from the denizens of the city wasn't due to the submission of the citizenry to the bureaucratic powers that be, nor from apathy. It came from the basic desire to of the people to have newer, nicer houses that kept out the winter chill and had their own toilets and baths. When he contrasts what happened in Kyoto, Nara and other historic neighborhoods and villages of Japan with the great efforts taken in European cities to maintain their historical character, he overlooks that their is an unavoidable trade-off, wherein the visual aesthetic and charm is retained at the cost of the inhabitants. Kyoto, for all it's flaws, is still a city where people born in Kyoto, no matter rich or poor can live and work there for all their lives if they choose to do so. Compare that to the hearts of London, Paris, or Venice. The historical districts of the central cities are maintained not so much through the grass-roots will of the citizenry, but via draconian preservation and character laws. Despite what Kerr may believe, it costs far more to retrofit a Georgian pub or an Edo period home with modern plumbing and electricity than it does to just build a new pre-fab house. Thus all those fine looking neighborhoods in Europe end up inhabited by the wealthy and elite, both from within the country and abroad. They're giant walk-through museum pieces for tourists, not living communities. In the same way, Kerr complains about the degraded state of the traditional arts, such as Ikebana, Kabuki and Chado, citing various aspects of Japanese aesthetic philosophy... yet he oddly overlooks one major aspect of it, namely "mono no aware", the transitory nature of all things. If Ikebana has become tacky glued plastic branches set at prescribed angles, as opposed to a reactive Zen art influenced by nature, that is because nothing remains as it is forever. Who knows what it will be in 20-30 years... or 200-300 years? The point is, even if Kerr (and myself, for that matter) prefer Ikebana done as prescribed by 16th century masters, it is not the 16th century anymore, and people will do Ikebana in the 21st century manner. Moreover, is it any real surprise that the average Japanese person doesn't have strong feelings one way or the other about this perceived decline? If you pulled the average Russian off the street and asked them about the state of ballet at the Bolshoi, or average Italian about the opera at La Scala, they'd probably know it was important to their national and cultural identity, and think it should be "preserved" in some form, but likely they're not consumers of it, or have any real deep knowledge of it. They likely consume some form of popular culture. That's how it's always been. In fact, there's the deep irony that Kerr uses Kabuki was one of his examples of the "decline" of classic arts forms in post war Japan, when in fact during the Edo period, Kabuki developed as easily accessible popular drama for the masses, in contrast to the refined and cultured "high" art of Noh Drama, and was held in similar disdain by elites as Kerr disdains forms of popular Japanese media today. In fact, it seems like the author has some sort of odd attachment for the Edo period, seeing it as a period of Japanese cultural and economic flourishing. It certainly was that, but many of the things he complains about in this book were far worse. Governmental bureaucracy was incredible back then, about as close to totalitarian as a pre-industrial society could get. What religion a person was, what job they held, and where they lived was all set from birth. Corruption was endemic and widespread, and money was wasted on pointless projects. Society was far more xenophobic because foreigners were banned by the government. Yet, despite all this, culture flourished and the economy grew for much of that period, even if technological development lagged. That said, I don't think anyone Japanese or foreign really wishes a return to the social system of that time, as aesthetic as it was. That gets me on another thing about this book, though it's never really stated outright. Kerr seems to be obsessed with authenticity and very much bothered that it's not really something that the Japanese put much stock into. Well, if I were there to ask Kerr one thing, and one thing only, it would be "Well, when you want things to be "authentic" (or as he puts it in the book, "jitsu", meaning "real") what is it that you mean by that?" For example, on his list of "theme parks" he places the mock traditional town just outside the Grand Shrine of Ise. I've been there, and this was the first I heard that it was a complete fabrication from the 90s. Granted, I'm not a historian of the material culture of Japan like Kerr, but I'm still someone who spent years in college researching traditional Japanese culture, with an emphasis on religion. Likely, given what I know now, if I went there again, I'd likely see things like the metal nails instead of traditional wooden jointing, but it's hardly a place I'd include on a list with the fake Dutch town in Nagoya, much less Disneyland. There's enough verisimilitude there that a person could easily think that it was some charming restored historic district. I certainly did. In that same token, when you and other long time expats in Japan weep over the destruction of the traditional neighborhoods in Kyoto, who is to say that those neighborhoods were completely authentic and real themselves? A traditionalist in the cosseted Imperial Court of the Edo period probably felt just as put out by all the old Heian estates being replaced by large swathes of houses that looked just the same as those newfangled neighborhoods down in Yokohama. If all those old houses were maintained, but at the cost of the original inhabitants of the city being priced out, or lacking jobs outside the tourist industry, would it still be authentic? I really do hope that my review isn't coming across as *too* scathing. Like I said, I actually agree with Kerr's main premise. There is too much tatemae (official position) and not enough honne (real feeling) in much of Japan today, and much of this can be traced to the post-war reformation of Japanese society, in which the military, the zaibatsu and the nobility all lost their power, leaving the bureaucrats as the sold arbiter of economic and political power in the nation. The result is a ossified society and stifling culture, in which anyone with creativity, novel intellect or ambition either is broken on the wheel of the educational system and societal censure, or chooses to emigrate as soon as possible. However, Kerr makes for a very flawed Jeremiah. Certainly, only a man in his position could have the freedom and social status to even make a considered criticism of Japan, whereas most native Japanese intellectuals would be far too afraid of being cast out of polite society, and most foreigners don't have his decades of experience, sterling credentials or refined manner. That said, the fact that he's a trans-national cosmopolitan colors his view of the world in an unrealistic manner. To him, all the world is bettered by open borders and greater internationalism, when in fact, such a policy in Japan would mean that for every innovative scientist or scholar that braves the difficult linguistic and cultural walls in order to breath new life into Japanese society and the economy, there will be one hundred third worlders who come crammed into small apartments and driving down wages for the most vulnerable unskilled workers in Japan. It would be no better for Japanese society than masses of North Africans have been for France, or Turks have been for Germany. Japan has done well to avoid having inassimilable and eventually aggrieved and impoverished masses in their nation. By the same token, Kerr fears the growing tide of nationalism in Japan, as demonstrated by Shintaro Ishihara. If anything, healthy inwardly channeled nationalism would revitalize Japan. It is impossible to truly remove a national spirit from people. One can only channel that spirit into something. Whether that something is healthy is the question. When Japan had that spirit channeled into the destructive pursuit of aggressive military colonialism and cultural supremacism, it was because the original mission of strengthening the nation had been reached, and the alternate path offered in the Taisho Period of artistic and cultural development failed to properly thrive, leaving only a warped continuation of the original path to reach its apocalyptic end. In the same way, the post war channeling of national energy into rebuilding the nation and industry reached its proper conclusion decades ago, and now continues on for its own sake. Pump industry that's no longer vital, build monuments to modernity for the sake of building them. If the previous path ended in fire, this one will end in ice, as the aged and shrunken population gazes at their concrete, steel and asphalt island, all cold, unnatural and inhuman, and sees their few dispirited and listless offspring among the girders, all herbivore men, hikkikomori, and ganguro girls. If all that energy could be focused now on inward development, on gaining a better understanding of the self and the connected nature of all things, on working to keep a functioning, pleasant, beautiful and unique society, and not one that grows for the sake of growing, I think Japan could again accomplish great things, but that of course relies on the recognition that each nation and people has a unique set of strengths and weaknesses that must be properly cultivated, instead of acting as if all humanity were simply an interchangeable set of tools and ideas. Of course, that's me just spit-balling things right now. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Gaylord Dold

    Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr (Hill and Wang, FS and G, New York 2001) As a seasoned traveler with a life-long fascination with Japan I thought I needed to know the “truth” about that country. Having studied for a number of years with a master at Japanese Karate (Shotokan) and having read extensively in the religious and spiritual history of that country, not to mention having watched dozens of classic Japanese movies (though none recently), I wanted to get the o Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr (Hill and Wang, FS and G, New York 2001) As a seasoned traveler with a life-long fascination with Japan I thought I needed to know the “truth” about that country. Having studied for a number of years with a master at Japanese Karate (Shotokan) and having read extensively in the religious and spiritual history of that country, not to mention having watched dozens of classic Japanese movies (though none recently), I wanted to get the opinion of an American in-the-know. Alex Kerr is that someone. He has lived for a long time in Asia and has homes in Japan. He speaks the language fluently (or mostly so), has traveled widely, and has many Japanese friends and colleagues. My ideas of Japan were admittedly idealized—idyllic rural vistas of maples, mountains and cherry trees in blossom, majestic valleys and waterfalls, ancient temples, magnificent valleys and an awesome seaside, all dotted with quaint villages and samurai. Even though I held these views, I had the feeling that something was rotten in Japan. I had the feeling that conformity and lack of empathy, along with a non-democratic subservience infected the people. I had the vague feeling that the landscapes of both city and country were ruined and that corruption plagued the political landscape just as a monoculture of concrete and cedar plagued the countryside. Well, all of that is true, and worse. In fact, anyone reading the vivid and detailed account of Japan written by Kerr, will come away depressed beyond measure by the ugly truth. Kerr lists the many problems. Japan is a “construction State”, with its dams, concrete river channels and banks, highways to nowhere, “monuments” to nothing, and its heedless paving over of everything worthwhile. Its populace is stagnant, infantile and subject to a fantastical bureaucracy that consistently pampers people with largesse in the form of meaningless projects, jobs and patronage. Japanese children are educated to unquestioning subservience, worked beyond endurance in rote schooling, and then funneled into dull routine jobs in the same bureaucracy (and corporate bureaucracy) that invented the education system in the first place. It is a culture almost without joy and certainly without sex (its birthrate is the lowest in the world), unless you count video porn as sex. This is not to mention the national financial mess composed of massive debt, a stock market rigged and corporate accounts juggled. Japan fails to innovate, to educate or to move forward. It isn’t worth visiting. Kerr’s story, though now sixteen years old, resonates because nothing has changed in Japan. Its xenophobia and racism remain. Its lousy cities with their overhead lines and garish LED lights remain. Its irrational observance of “duty” and “obedience” (punctuated buy constant overhead speakers blaring the most inane instructions) and its failure to question continue. I guess I won’t go to Japan. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe someone out there can tell me that Kerr is wrong and explain how and why he’s wrong.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Alex Kerr has a lot of interesting points to make about Japanese society; however, this book is in desperate need of a rewrite. Some of the ideas feel outdated for example his comment that international travel is dead and no foreign people come to Japan. In reality it is quite the opposite and Japan suffers from over-tourism. The other issue is that Alex Kerr is a lot of the time overly dramatic. He claims that there is nothing beautiful left in Japan and you can't enjoy nature without some sort Alex Kerr has a lot of interesting points to make about Japanese society; however, this book is in desperate need of a rewrite. Some of the ideas feel outdated for example his comment that international travel is dead and no foreign people come to Japan. In reality it is quite the opposite and Japan suffers from over-tourism. The other issue is that Alex Kerr is a lot of the time overly dramatic. He claims that there is nothing beautiful left in Japan and you can't enjoy nature without some sort of hideous construction obstructing your view. This is wrong, I have travelled the country extensively and have been touched by unobstructed natural beauty very frequently. His comments on anime/manga been childish are very wrong. He makes biased judgements about Japanese society based on the fact that Pokemon the movie ranked as one of the top grossing films when it was released. Even though Pokemon the Movie may be aimed at kids, anyone who has seen it understands that it is much more. It is quite a profound film with a lot of important messages that appeals to all ages. Particularly Mewtwo's line about the circumstances of one's birth being irrelevant and it is what one does with the gift of life that is truly significant. Besides some of his unfounded or over the top dramatic points, he does offer a lot of inciteful commentary on how the Japanese economy works and the sort of destruction that is going in nature. His incites into the Japanese forestry industry and the concreting of the Japanese coastline are of particular interest. It can be imagined that much more of the Japanese coastline has been concreted over since the publication of the book. Overall, this book is in desperate need of a revised edition, but if you ignore some of Kerr's unfounded opinions then this book is quite good.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Ajay Palekar

    Dogs and Demons is a passionate, detailed, and compelling portrait of the failed system behind Japan's woes. I strongly appreciated the nuance and clear local knowledge that underlines this discussion of Japan. My greatest criticism is a large part of the content matter is redundant (or otherwise duplicated) and could have been communicated more concisely. A construction frenzy (building without purpose), architecture (design without context), education (facts without independent thought, new cit Dogs and Demons is a passionate, detailed, and compelling portrait of the failed system behind Japan's woes. I strongly appreciated the nuance and clear local knowledge that underlines this discussion of Japan. My greatest criticism is a large part of the content matter is redundant (or otherwise duplicated) and could have been communicated more concisely. A construction frenzy (building without purpose), architecture (design without context), education (facts without independent thought, new cities (destroying the old), the stock market (assets, no cash flow), real estate (making no returns), universities (irrelevant to education or research), internationalization (keeping out the world), bureaucracy (spending without regard to real needs), finance ("virtual yen"), cinema (children and porn), company balance sheets ("cosmetic accounting"), the Environment Agency (unconcerned with nature), medicine (copycat drugs poorly tested), information (fuzzy facts, secrets, and lies) - the country is lacking in purpose and meaning, beyond growth. If ever there was a case study to help us understand the future environmental, economic, societal, and human problems we face around the globe - by achieving the extremes in all things - Japan is it. So what are we to do about it? Alex Kerr doesn't have a clear call to action - but he has hope for a '3rd revolution' - a moment that would enable the rebirth of a system that makes little sense for the modern world. I have visited and read on Japan in the past, but this book has marked a dramatic increase in curiosity for this country. For unlike in the past my next visit will not be consumed by a search for historic glory, delicious cuisine, and spectacular nature - and all the monuments dedicated to them - but rather to explore what I have learned in this book and explore opportunities to change it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    David Mytton

    This is an almost entirely negative perspective explaining all the problems with Japan, mostly due to the incompetent, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. It is really just a collection of anecdotes, but because it is written by Alex Kerr it has serious credibility. He is one of the few non-Japanese people to have mastered the language, culture and history of the country to the extent that he has created nationally renown heritage projects like the Chiiori Trust. Even though it is almost 20 year This is an almost entirely negative perspective explaining all the problems with Japan, mostly due to the incompetent, inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy. It is really just a collection of anecdotes, but because it is written by Alex Kerr it has serious credibility. He is one of the few non-Japanese people to have mastered the language, culture and history of the country to the extent that he has created nationally renown heritage projects like the Chiiori Trust. Even though it is almost 20 years old, you can still see many of the issues Kerr raises when you visit Japan. Famed for being high tech, it lags with adoption of computer and internet technology. Startups are almost non-existent and many of the famous cities are damaged by state-sponsored environmental destruction. I wonder how much of what he reports has improved. I suspect not that much. That said, there are many things to love about Japan, and the fact that it is written by someone who does really love the country makes it all the more powerful. The equivalent for the US (and The West in general) would be The Great Degeneration. Ironic that this is only available in paperback, not Kindle.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Luke

    This is the second of Alex Kerr's books on Japan that I've read, and it certainly doesn't hold back. It's critical - rightly so, in many cases - of the ornate, backhander-rich culture that permeates government and industry, of the blinkered educational aims of the country, of the done-with-mirrors, waiting-for-collapse economic system, the addiction to government works and needless halls that bankrupt cities and swell construction coffers, the lack of regulation and the wholesale disregard for c This is the second of Alex Kerr's books on Japan that I've read, and it certainly doesn't hold back. It's critical - rightly so, in many cases - of the ornate, backhander-rich culture that permeates government and industry, of the blinkered educational aims of the country, of the done-with-mirrors, waiting-for-collapse economic system, the addiction to government works and needless halls that bankrupt cities and swell construction coffers, the lack of regulation and the wholesale disregard for culture, simplicity and the landscape which outsiders associate with Japan. The man's distaste and fear couldn't be better conveyed if each chapter were entitled SHIT'S FUCKED in 72-point type, followed by pages of onomatopoeic screams. And yet part of me - as a big ole gaijin myself - wonders how much of the writing is the result of the foreign lens being brought to bear, with the baggage that brings. True, this is a voluminously annotated work - but there's also sections where we take it on faith that people inside Japan feel the same as Kerr, or that we must take his word for situations as Japan is basically like a lacquered box version of Churchill's thoughts on Russia. Kerr's other book on Japanese culture, Lost Japan was one I quite enjoyed. Well, as much as one can enjoy a recitation of cultural decline. My review of that work is here, and I think in a couple of ways it's a preferable read to this tome, because it's not as easily tied to a specific date or time. Dogs and Demons is very resolutely a product of the late 1990s, though there's hat-tips throughout the text that suggest the thought processes - if not the writing - are older still: referring to the "sleek Walkman" suggests a slight disconnect with currency, which is not exactly reassuring. Admittedly, this is partially my own doing: the book was published in 2001, a lot has changed in the global economic system (let alone Japan) in that fifteen years. So this one's a bit of a grind, partially because of the date of the work, but also because of the author's bugbears, which aren't hidden particularly well, though I suppose they're the book's real reason for being. There's some interesting points made on the seemingly stunted development of Japan in terms of industry and regulation, of its inherent desire to keep the world at arm's length in a throwback to the Dejima days, and I wanted to hear more. Unfortunately, there's a tendency for the irritation machine to ramp up as the chapters roll on - the earlier parts of the book, about relentless construction and the manga-fied landscape are the strongest. It mightn't bother others as it does me, but I was irked by the repetition in this book, which is possibly a factor of its construction rather than an intentional thread. We get the dogs and demons idea: that in art, dogs are difficult to draw, while demons are simple, used as an analogy for pretty much all Japanese malaise - simple things are hard - several times, though it doesn't seem to be to much point. Rather, it seems to be the result perhaps of chapters being written as separate entities then bound together. Perhaps the thing which galls the most in this work is that there seems to be a lot of complaining that's rooted in the fact that some things are just aspects of life Kerr himself doesn't like. Anime is childish - I assume the result of never having seen Grave of the Fireflies? - Kyoto is a shithole with a terrible train station, and Kids These Days, Why I Oughta. You get the picture. I'm loath to criticise - I mean, the guy does have extensive experience as a resident and writer in Japan, whereas I'm just a jerk who likes to go there - but it does seem a bit like Old Guy Carping to some degree. Yes, I feel the same outrage at the concrete-sheeting of rivers, of unnecessary damming, but the prevalence of Sanrio characters in modern life (seen as an argument for the infantilism of the country) is probably not quite as worthy a hill to die on, man. True, he does admit he shares the blinkered view of the enthusiast in that he can screen things out - notably when mentioning an as yet unwritten book on Kabuki, he suggests it will be about what the art form can be, not its declining current state - but his writing here still reeks a little of criticism coming from personal taste rather than dispassionate observation. Still, I learned a lot about the country which I didn't know before I started. It's just a shame it was conveyed as such a drag to read - something quite different from the drag that's inherent to the depressing topics covered. The ending is a bit weak - rather than prefiguring a smash, Kerr suggests things will just continue to burble on in mediocrity, which I would've thought was the standard operating procedure for the world, not just Japan. An update would be very welcome, as I know very little about the topic at all, and am not equipped to rank the country's economic performance since the turn of the century. That's the problem - I'm now interested, but have no clue where to go. There's lots of things here to be angry about, but some are common to the rest of the world, some are crucial to address and some are hamstrung by personal irritation. The failing of the book, for all its tales of jaw-dropping dickery, is that Kerr can't find the middle path.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Eoghan Kelly

    Deep dive on the shadiness that the Japanese government does behind the scenes in Japan and how they're working to destroy the countries natural beauty to keep these construction industries profiting. Also interesting analysis on how all the governments efforts to make nature and natural landscapes in Japan appear more uniform has impacted the general publics opinion on the matter. Would only recommend reading if your interested in Japan. Deep dive on the shadiness that the Japanese government does behind the scenes in Japan and how they're working to destroy the countries natural beauty to keep these construction industries profiting. Also interesting analysis on how all the governments efforts to make nature and natural landscapes in Japan appear more uniform has impacted the general publics opinion on the matter. Would only recommend reading if your interested in Japan.

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