Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr

Reading Alex Kerr's book DOGS AND DEMONS is like getting all dressed up, walking outside, and having a cold bucket of water thrown on your face. As you stand there, dripping, in shock, your first thought is, "Damn! Now my clothes are all wet!" But then your thoughts turn. Perhaps to pity: "Why did this have to happen to me?" To anger: "I'm going to get that guy who threw that water." Or maybe, just maybe, that splash makes you suddenly look up, and find that you've wandered off the path, and are standing in an unknown, unfriendly, run-down part of town. As you retrace your steps, you wonder how you could have been so lost in your thoughts, so oblivious to your surroundings, that you let this happen.

And so, in Alex Kerr's book, Japan has wandered off the path, it's head down, lost in a fantastical illogical world of its own creation. Unable to look up, Japan keeps going, straight ahead and to its doom. An overabundance of slush funds, government budgets that are measured by how much you use, not how much you need, and an economy that relies on useless construction projects to employ a large percentage of the workforce; these are the problems Kerr picks out just for starters.

And while I wanted to dismiss some of his rants as overheated, exaggerated, and overly pessimistic, I couldn't. Because when I lived in Japan, ten years ago now, I observed many of the same things he did. I only lacked a proper context into which to put what I saw.

I came to Japan for a job. I remember it was just after the mid-term elections in Clinton's first term; the Republicans had been swept into Congress based on their new "Contract With America;" or the "Contract On America," as we liked to call it. With Newt Gingrich as TVs most popular talking head, it seemed an ideal time to flee the country for a while. And so when my wife came across an ad for Teaching English as a Second Language in Japan, we thought: Why not? We applied for a job with a "conversational English" company called AEON, whose aim was to provide, in the words of its slogan, "Heartful English." (Clearly English competency was not a requirement.) We landed jobs, signed one-year contracts, and headed over -- to Nagoya, a city Kerr well describes as a "drab metropolis," "home to millions of people, but very nearly devoid of architectural or cultural interest."

Kerr describes Japan as possibly one of the ugliest places on Earth. It might be hard to imagine if you've never lived there. He gives an anecdote about a traveler who spies some dull, grey, apartment complexes and remarks, "So that's where the poor people live," to which a native replies, sadly, "No, that's where EVERYBODY lives." My "permanent" living quarters for the year was to be a small apartment on the Meitetsu Seto Line, about midway between Nagoya and Seto. The only splash of green nearby was a small market near the station selling fresh vegetables. The neighborhood itself was grim and unreservedly grey. There were no sidewalks to speak of, so I would walk along the gutter of the road the three or four blocks between the station and my apartment, which was located in a four story building coated in small white tiles. The building looked remarkably like the interior of a bathroom. Later, I would come to understand that the "toilet-tiled" building is the standard of what passes for modern architecture in Japan. From my balcony, I could see nothing but unsightly grey boxes of varying heights -- more buildings like my own. Leaning out a bit further, I could see the Seto Line -- the red train cars the only flash of color, rumbling into sight, then disappearing, the world monochromatic in its absence.

I am quite (some would say overly) sensitive to my environment, and the view from my apartment made me feel ill. Phsyically, mentally, ill. The cookie cutter homes of the average suburban American environment also make me queasy, but the unrelieved mediocrity of the American suburb is nothing when compared to the unfeeling ugliness of the Japanese suburb, squatting on the landscape like a giant toad, oozing a sense of palpable menace. It took only a couple days to realize that I could not live in a place so inhospitable to beauty.

Luckily my wife landed an apartment in Nagoya proper, and I cozied into her eight-tatami space, where we settled in fairly quickly. While the cityscape was still rather unpleasant, and her apartment building covered in shit-brown tiles, the higher population density, taller buildings, and restaurants, shops and pachinko parlours kept the neighborhood alive and interesting. It was hard to tell whether the neighborhood was supposed to be residential or commercial, Kerr mentions in DOGS AND DEMONS that zoning is practically non-existent, so perhaps this feeling is typical of Japanese cities. While I think American zoning laws are often too strict, preventing in some cases the existence of a livable, walkable community, it is somewhat disconcerting to live in a place where zoning is irrelevant.

The biggest challenge for me, after living in Japan for a few months, was the readjustment of my preconceptions. (That, and squat toilets.) But we had long been taught that Japan was on the technological edge of the world. It is a concept brought out especially in the cyberpunk novels of William Gibson, of which I was a voracious consumer at the time. So it was a bit disconcerting to find, upon arrival, that advanced technology was nowhere in evidence. And this is a central point of DOGS AND DEMONS. That while Japan was the most technologically advanced country in the world in some ways -- mainly in products designed for export, by and large the nation has failed to develop advanced technologies in a wide variety of fields at home. To take just one example, the apartment we lived in had no insulation whatsoever. I could tell the weather outside just by touching the wall. We heated the unit with a simple space heater, as did everyone else. A popular table called a kotatsu, which has a space heater underneath and blankets on all sides, allows you to eat dinner and warm up your bottom half at the same time. It was absurd (but quaint). At work, there was only one computer, a cheap terminal that looked like it could have been a vintage TRS-80. The Assistant Manager used it to laboriously key in student "codes" to get payment records and the like. All the information about classes and students in the school was kept in filing cabinets, and see-through, plastic files. Everything was done manually.

Alex Kerr describes the absence of disaster recovery technology by relating an account of how an oil spill was cleaned off the beach by old ladies using bamboo ladels. After the Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo subway gas attack, I remember seeing Japan's precautionary response put into place: teams of two special policemen, patrolling the major subway stations. There were some placed almost immediately in Nagoya, as rumors made it a possible future target. One of the policemen carried a long wooden pole with a hook at the end. Aum poisoned the Tokyo commuters by leaving a bag filled with sarin gas in one of the cars, so presumably the pole was developed specifically to combat mysterous bags left on commuter trains. How this would actually help anyone were an actual sarin-leaking bag actually discovered is anyone's guess. They might as well have been carrying wooden ladels.

I am so grateful to Alex Kerr for writing this book. I gave up some time ago trying to describe my experiences in Japan, they were so far removed from everyone's expectations. Sometimes I wondered why I was the only one who complained about how awful the suburban and city sprawl looked, how ridiculous the cultural centers were (and how empty of culture they were), how ironic it was that in order to see some traditional architecture, you had to visit a sort of "preserve" where a few examples of the architecture had been removed to (even a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright's demolished Tokyo hotel stood in one). But everything that I saw, and did not know quite what to make of, Alex Kerr has seen too. And he looked deeper, and uncovers what happened behind the scenes to make Japan fail so spectacularly in so many ways that are important in making an environment habitable for human beings and preserving a sense of cultural identity.

Alex Kerr takes the time to explain why, when I visited the famous, historic, temple city of Kyoto, I saw a city only barely more interesting than Nagoya, and often appreciably less attractive. He helps me make sense of the vacation I took to the top of Mount Koya in Wakayama, far away from any city, where I slept in a monastery near a fabulous ancient cemetary, and where, just down the path from that monastery on the mountain, there stood a fully lit, neon, noisy pachinko parlour. And why, after bumming about in Hiroshima for a few days, I was left with the realization that the most beautiful structure in the city is the one that was left untouched, partially destroyed from the atomic bomb.

DOGS AND DEMONS reminded me in a way of Eric Schlosser's FAST FOOD NATION. Whereas Schlosser takes a look at the fast food business, and exposes its horror from every angle, Kerr does the same thing for Japan. I still eat the occasional burger, still savor my side of fries. And I still love Japan. What's different, though, is that now I understand them both a bit better. No one who loves Japan should be without this exceptional book.


Available at amazon.com

Posted by Peter Nepstad on January 06, 2005.


Comments

Husky Dogs are so cute!

Posted by: Christopher at February 6, 2005 10:37 PM

I may have to take a look at this book. Sounds like an interesting if depressing read.

In 1988 I spent four weeks living in Himeji, which I realize in no way equates with actually living in Japan, but I like to think it gave me a different perspective than the average tourist in Tokyo.

We were a group of pottery students staying in a sort of guest house; we were responsible for our own cooking and cleaning. This gave us the experience of grocery shopping in a Japanese market without being able to read or speak Japanese. We also got to enjoy squat toilets, and sleeping on futons, and taking our shoes off all the time. I remember looking at the kotatsu and being very glad it wasn't winter.

But they did have some technological advantages over Western households. The front-loading washing machine washed our clothes much more effectively and efficiently than the big top-loading machines back home. We never ran out of hot water, even with all 8 of us taking a shower every day. Someone could take a shower while another person was using the toilet because the facilities were in two separate rooms.

One of the things that most struck me was the apparent lack of interest in anything old. I don't know what the Japanese attitude toward elderly people is, but if their treatment of old things is anything to go by I would not want to grow old there. We were amazed to find a shop selling wonderful old kimono and obi fabrics for next to nothing. I went to a sort of flea market and bought a charming little figurine very cheaply. The Japanese just didn't seem to care about antiques or family heirlooms. We were tremendously excited to go to a pottery museum in Shigaraki, but I don't recall seeing any Japanese people there other than the staff.

Posted by: Rachel at February 10, 2005 02:59 PM

I have been living in Japan for 9 years and first read this book about 4 years ago. I had previously read Alex Kerr's first book, "Lost Japan" and being impressed with that, was anxious to read his next volume. I am now in the midst of reading it again. It is spot on, and I have given the Japanese version as gifts to two Japanese friends, as well as loaning out my wife's copy (her's is in Japanese) to a few Japanese students and friends.

Their responses have been telling. Very little comment, and without exception, they seemed upset by what they read, but not because the information enlightened them about things of which they were unaware; on the contrary, they seemed upset that a writer would say so many things that were not glowing appraisals of Japan. I bought a copy of the Japanese version for a friend of mine who is a Japanese artist and she didn't get past the first chapter. Visibly upset, she said 'he doesn't know anything about Japan.' This particular individual, on past occasions, has shown herself to be particularly uncritical of her country's problems and very thin-skinned regarding any perceived criticism.

Obviously, Kerr knows his stuff and what he says hits a nerve with any Japanese who reads this book. The saddest thing is that educated, intelligent Japanese who are in positions to spread the word among their countrymen and take some sort of direct action are not interested in doing so. They have been reared on the concept of Japan's special 'uniqueness' even moreso that the Japanologists who Kerr filets so well. And so I don't believe that anything will be done until it's far too late; this is another of Kerr's laments, and rightly so, although he has more faith in the 'people rising up' than I do.

Rachel's comments about how Japanese have no interest in anything old is spot-on. Make that comment to a Japanese and he or she will vehemently disagree, but ask that person to give some examples, and they will invariably point out ossified museum sites such as particular temples in Kyoto, that sort of thing. But what Rachel witnessed is exactly how it is. Old, charming neighbourhoods are considered 'dirty' (kitanai) and people will tear down, without batting an eye, a 100 year old house left to them by their grandparents and replace it with the home of their dreams, which invariably is an ugly concrete structure, devoid of any outward beauty or charm.

As a personal example, I am a big fan of traditional Japanese onsen. However, to find one that is quiet, charming, and 'Japanese' is quite a chore. I have a well-worn copy of Robert Neff's 'Japan's Hidden Hot-Springs' in which he offers his views on a variety of off-the-beaten-track onsen. One of my favourites is Chuji onsen. Small, rustic, beautiful, old, polished woods throughout the hallways, high beamed ceilings; a gorgeous old structure that has been well-maintained and feels like stepping back in time. Fresh mountain vegetables, first-rate meals. Well, I recommended this unique place to a female student of mine, a 60 year old woman who I thought might appreciate such a place. She did not go, but suggested it to her cousin, who is also 60. Well, her cousin's comment, after spending a night there, was a word that I mentioned already. 'Kitanai.' Dirty. I can assure you that Chuji onsen is spotlessly clean, but what she really meant was that it is old. The word 'kitanai' is used by Japanese to refer to old houses, regardless of the level of cleanliness. Needless to say, I have stopped recommending anything of this sort to any of my students or Japanese friends. I just cannot bear their near-sighted reaction to a beautiful part of their own culture that they seem to deeply hate. Almost without exception they prefer a hot spring that is in a concrete structure with jet baths and goofy faux-tile, a room full of electric massage chairs, and piped muzac throughout the hallways.

Sorry for the long post, but I felt this was worth relating.

Posted by: Mark at February 19, 2005 09:38 PM

Never-ever-Again

It might be uncompromising to call this contribution by the above, but Japan I found, quite largely, disappointing. The four main elements I consider that make up a country's framework are cultural, social, the intellect and the environment. if one looks around the world today it becomes clear that no country can meet all criteria to succeed at being good. Maybe at two, perhaps three, if it's lucky. But to fail at all four is quite an achievement. What a phenomenon! How astonishing! In my own country, the UK, it succeeds at least in one of the four, and also in China where I'm now living. Not so in Japan, I'm sorry to say, The Japanese, mentally and spiritually, don't seem to have it. I'm generalising, not talking about wings of its society, but to have any impact at all they should be confronting the Government and the Beurocracy and say, "stop the tragic rot that is happening in our country." If that doesn't work, even if rioting is unnacceptable, go on the rampage, and not just because of the contents of a book. If they continue to be like the perishing passengers in the Titanic, serve them right, they will only have themselves to blame. No one will pick up the pieces at the end.
Why did I choose Japan as a place to live and work in? Was it because, years ago, the daughter of someone I knew went there to to teach English, and I thought I'd like to do the same someday, which is precisely what I did do, shortly after completing a TESOL course? Was I driven there at the behest of a higher power who wanted me to go there a fulfill a now defunct Biblical prophecy? What about seeing the archipelago through rose-tinted, rather than horn-rimmed spectacles; looking at Japan through the guise of a guidebook and all its nice glossy images? I guess all three played a part. I was even taken in by slogans such as: "the Japanese take from the West everything they need, while preserving their cultural identity," which is a joke because that's precisely what they are not doing. Evey country that has the means "takes" or imports from the West. Japan is not alone in this. It's actually very doubtful if it is taking what it really needs from the outside world to move forwards, while at the same time treasure its cultural roots. Something that Kerr longs for.
I was conjuring up an impression of the Japan experience, and as a 'gaijin' there, long before I picked up a copy of Kerr's book in Central Tokyo. "'Dogs and Demons." Isn't this by the guy who wrote "Lost Japan?"' I blindly read the first book in Britain before leaving, so was out of tune with its meaning. Then I knew there was something wrong but couldn't put my finger on it until "Dogs and "Demons brought it home. I read it while living in Yaita, a small provincial town in Tochigi Prefecture, where wonder of wonders I served out a full year's teaching contract. What a miracle! I was fired from three posts during my time in Japan through little or no fault of my own; manipulated from them in the most secretive underhand fashion. I fought with a regional union to be reinstated in one company, and won a case for unfair dismissal, but working with those colleagues wouldn't be the same, so I refused the invitation. It's no wonder, as the book says, nothing is transparent in Japan; why the Japanese can't stand up for themselves nor stomach change. The rest is history.
To be fired from one post is unfortunate, but three. That's just bad luck. Any right-minded person would have gone back to the secure and loyal embrace of the family, but I stuck it out and learned what it means to lose house and home as well as job, stomach misfortune, and above all, to be resilient. So whose misfortune, or rather disorder, was I really stomaching, the Japanese people's or mine?
Japan has a big market for English teaching, and private businesses are established here and there like the sakura blown by the wind. Jumping from one job to another is therefore quite easy. I even checked out Berlitz as an option for staying on until something inside me said "no," and after reading some sad mixed-up comments by one of its employees vilifying Kerr's book, I'm glad I had the good sense to refuse.To risk further humiliation and insult to my intelligent awareness about the country, no thanks!
One may wonder if I have an axe to grind, and "Dogs and Demons" provides the cure, the icing on the cake, a perect testimony for "revenge is sweet, up yours Japan, why should I care." I doubt if I can ever forgive the proprietors of those teaching posts by the way they treated me. But I learned through the book's comprehensive, in-depth and eloquent analysis, that the issue is more complex than that. Why kick a country when it's already down?
Of course, I saw all the hallmarks of what Kerr amply describes, and more: damed lakes, electric pylons and wires ruining mountain scenery, construction plants slipping the landscape into further ugliness; tunnels through mountains, monstrous iron bridges, the tendency to block beauty by casting concrete. Japan has an efficient recycling system. It needs to with vending machines at every corner inducing much consumption. Combustible material is another matter. Seeing white bags crammed with paper and plastic packaging stacked high and extending well onto the pavement, ready for the incinerator, was quite surprising, if not embarrassing. Through scenes like this, I learned there's something truly impoverished about the Japanese Way. It all held a fascination, a strangeness, a mystery. Japan is mysteriously ugly; and it's difficult to reconcile the most beautiful with the most ugly without an attentive enquiring mind.
During a bus trip from Tokyo to Nagano Prefecture, I found the journey disappointing. The landscape was hurt. What happened to all the mountain panoramas I saw when watching a TV programme about a man's marathon hike through the country during the 80's? He was high enough away from the environmental atrocity. He only came down to it to buy more provisions. This is what I did during several treks. Japan has quiet corners left, although how long they will last is anyone's guess. It's still a beautiful country. No book, however powerful, is without controversy. Not every temple in Kyoto is "very hard to see." Kiyumizadera is visible from afar among the trees, and I was entranced by the grace, precision, the "Japaneseness" of the pagoda. Toji, the country's largest, is impressive, and its black uniqueness is visible for miles around even though it's somewhat eclipsed by the "monstrous carbuncle" of Kyoto station. No tree in Kyoto's streets is allowed to breathe and display its life once it is stripped to the bone, bare, dry and ugly. During my stay in China, I've seen this rarely happen. To do it time and time again! Why bother with trees at all?
So "Dogs and Dmons" does hit the mark. I tried to force myself to think it could be wrong. Could be, just a little? Not really. There maybe a smudge of factual inaccuracy: forgetting to dot an i or cross a t; a touch hyperbolic. No book, however well researched, is entirely foolproof, but it's wrong to assert that the book is incorrect about the school system without experiencing how Japanese children feel about being forced to accept a curriculum-based situation, to ask no questions, merely to accept.
While living in Yaita, I was invited to a Christmas party at a house held for local children. There was a lot of heart to heart talking. The look of misery, perhaps despair, on those kid's faces about what they were putting up with. Every picture told a story.
People, largely foreigners, who like to take issue with the book, are mere cat's paws that swipe at birds and mice, or at best scratch your hand. They don't like to see their interests threatened. What about those rose-tinted spectacles? They see things as rosy in Japan. The standard of living is high. A lot of money can be made there. I saved to the equivalent of 12.000 pound sterling. What about the thrill of travelling on the Shinkansen? It's a great whizz; resembling a ride on an amusement contraption in a fairground. Sedate train travel in China, providing you can get a seat, is also meaningful. As Kerr says, it's about "balance," life is what you make it. It's not all about efficiency. Money isn't everything.
To produce a work like "Dogs and Demons," one has to be enormously sensitive in tune with the issues and concerns at hand. The words "yourself and Alex Kerr" resurfaced. What do they mean? I share his dream, vision and philosophy, his sense of purpose. I might like to think he shares my sense of timelessness or romantic ideal. I could take issue with him and say, "pack your bags and leave. There's no point in steering the course for a hopeless cause." But I know that would be self-defeating, and he should stay in Japan precisely for the reasons why I left.
I've come full circle. Thinking Japan and the past were dead resurfaced a few weeks ago because of writing a travel related article about one of my hiking exeriences there. It's still a great place to visit. Living and working there is quite a different matter. The Japanese, at least some of them, are enormously difficult to deal with. A British ambassador to the country in the 1970s thought "the Nipponese are difficult to please." This, in turn, explains why they think foreigners are difficult. Of course, I'm generalising. There are good sincere Japanese people, as there are good sincere people everywhere.
But why had my Japanese odyssey settled into the apex of my consciousness once again? Because the issues haven't gone away; the country's soul is still being driven out. I'm sure the survivors of the Pakistani earthquake will find the impetus to rebuild their shattered communities and move on, as are the victims of the Asian Tsunami. Flexibility, compassion and resilience are the way forward and will help to keep a perspective. We live in a mysterious world, and Japans problems are somewhat unique, complex, and no less mysterious to it. If the Japanese, however painful, can't find a way to resolve their problems, then the consequences could be incalculable. Regarding outside interference and their reaction or mistrust towards 'gaijins', they have a tendenct to over-protect themselves. All they ared doing is protecting themselves from themselves. It is perhaps ironically unfortunate that the apparent "swathe of optimism" affecting the country due to its unexpected economic upturn will drive the Japanese further into complacency and away from the reforms the country so badly needs.


Posted by: David Butterworth at December 17, 2005 11:42 PM
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