New Part Three - July 6:
James Fallows
Alex Kerr

Part Two - June 26:
James Fallows
Alex Kerr

Part One - June 21:
James Fallows
Alex Kerr

Alex Kerr, educated at Yale, Oxford, and Keio universities, is the author of many monographs and articles in both Japanese and English. His last book, Lost Japan, originally written in Japanese, was the first by a foreigner to win the Shincho Gakugei Literary Prize for nonfiction. He lives in Kyoto and Bangkok.

James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996) and of Free Flight: From Airline Hell to a New Age of Travel, published this month. To learn about his new book and look through an archive of his recent articles, visit

Previously in Fallows@large:

Working Classes (May 2, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed.

The Work of Words (February 21, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Christopher Hitchens, author of Unacknowledged Legislation and would-be prosecutor of Henry Kissinger.

Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

More by James Fallows

More on books

More on foreign affairs

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

Atlantic Unbound | June 21, 2001
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
The Waste Land

An exchange with Alex Kerr, the author of Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan

From: James Fallows
To: Alex Kerr
Subject: The true Japan

Dear Alex (if I may):

Dogs and Demons

Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan
by Alex Kerr
Hill and Wang
432 pages, $27.00

Thanks for joining this exchange, and thanks for writing the book. While reading it, I was struck both by material that was very fresh and by themes that were very familiar. I mean both points in a positive sense. The facts, anecdotes, and revelations will strike most readers as fresh and new. At least many of them struck me that way—most of all, your use of Japan's modern architecture as a symbol of what you think is more generally askew in modern Japan. Many of your themes were, to me, familiar in that they rang true to my own experience in Japan a dozen years ago—not because they're similar to what we usually read in the Western press. On the contrary, one of the reasons your book deserves attention from a Western readership is precisely how different it sounds from the run of general reporting about Japan.

Now a word of summary about this book, for readers who haven't seen it or who may not have been following the furor about coverage-from-Japan over the last decade or so.

The "dogs and demons" of your title are drawn from a Chinese parable, the point of which is that the grotesque, exceptional, and extreme aspects of a society—the "demons"—are easy to describe and depict. It is the routine, everyday, taken-for-granted details of life—the "dogs"—that pose real challenges to the artist. Especially in the last decade, Japan has entered Western consciousness, or at least the Western news system, mainly during "demon" episodes—not times when Japan is seen as acting "demonic," but when something truly exceptional is going on there, from an outbreak of violence to a new wave of bankruptcies.

The point of this book instead is to describe the day-by-day, rarely reported operating realities of modern Japan that are starkly evident to anyone who lives there but that somehow fade out of the Western mental, and above all journalistic, picture of Japanese life. When I first went to Japan, in the mid 1980s, I was initially shocked by one of those realities: how difficult and materially constrained work and residential life were for the average Japanese person, during a time when everything you read about the Japanese economy emphasized its steady rise to greatness. If anything, American readers have absorbed this lesson about the trials of life in Japan too well. Through the last five years they have tended to write off Japan as an utter failure—this is part of a century-long cycle of Americans first under- and then over-estimating the achievements and capacities of Japan.

Much of your book is organized around a different sort of surprise—how aesthetically unpleasant modern Japan has become, and what larger lessons may be derived from that. We'll save for later exchanges exactly what those lessons might be.

My hope in this opening round is to draw you out on some of the ways in which your analysis most dramatically differs from standard reporting, and to ask you why you think Western reporters in Japan so rarely offer the kind of perspective you've provided here. In later rounds I'll push you on a few parts of your analysis that I found less convincing or less fully backed-up than the rest. But those will be secondary cavils. This is a fascinating, artfully written book, which sounds as if you want to grab the reader by the lapels and make sure your case is heard.

What's different about your book? I assume you'll agree that the typical article about Japan in the U.S. press is not really about Japan at all. Instead it uses Japan as a foil for arguments the writer really wants to make about Western business practices, the American educational system, the mission of the U.S. military in the Pacific, or some similar theme. In a sense this got its start in the immediate post-World War II period, when protective U.S. diplomats projected an unrealistically meek and gentle view of Emperor Hirohito (a.k.a. the "Showa emperor" in Japanese terminology) and by extension of his people. Herbert Bix's magnificent book about Hirohito, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, which won all the major literary prizes last year, suggests that even at the time, U.S. officials should have known that the Emperor had not been a harmless amateur scientist during the war but instead was an actively involved leader of the military effort. But conveying that actual truth seemed less important than offering the image of Sayonara-era Japan that would allow the U.S. and Japan to work together in the early Cold War years—and that would keep the Emperor on the throne. And so it has been, with differences in motivation and theme, through many decades of coverage from Japan. The nation has seemed interesting mainly to the extent that it could advance arguments about U.S. policy. In the past few years Japan has disappeared from America's mental map—except to be laughed at from time to time.

What I love about the tone of indignation in your book is that it arises from taking Japan itself seriously. You're on the warpath—but not on behalf of Western exporters who can't pierce the Japanese markets, or Western diplomats who can't get the Japanese government to play a larger international role. Instead you're angry on behalf of the people who actually live in Japan, and who suffer most of the consequences of its bureaucratized, quasi-democratic system.

Enough of this stage-setting. Let me introduce the single idea that will seem most startling to the average Western reader and ask you to elaborate on it. A real masterstroke of your book, I think, is the idea of organizing it around an exposé of ... the construction industry! Let other people talk about the latest slick innovation from Sony. You argue that the backward, corrupt, totally un-chic business of building dams, extending roads, and laying down concrete is the key to understanding what's wrong with the entire country.

The single most startling fact in your book is that Japan, whose land area is only 4 percent as large as that of the United States, each year produces and uses more concrete than America does. ("This means that Japan lays about thirty times as much per square foot as the United States.")

And the single most startling assertion, at least for those who have not spent much time in Japan, is that "Japan has become arguably the world's ugliest country."

To me, this judgment rings absolutely true. While living near Tokyo I came to love the bustle, intensity, and surprise-around-every-corner nature of the city, but I rarely stopped wondering how so much prosperity (in those times) could have led to such a combination of kitsch and sheer eyesore. But I also know the judgment is surprising. Surprising at a surface level, because it's not what we see or read day by day. And absolutely shocking at a deeper level, because for all the East-West tensions through the decades, the one trait for which Japan has been most universally admired is the elegance of its artistic tradition. My walls are still decorated with ukioye, the graceful old watercolors of Japan. From the austere beauty of torii gates to the stylishness even of sumo wrestlers, this is a culture that, over the years, seems to have had a more refined sense of design than any other you can name.

So how can it be that modern Japan is an aesthetic disaster? I am asking you, now, for the benefit of onlookers who have not yet read your book, to sum up the case.

How could the civilization that epitomized beautiful design have produced the ugliest modern cities? Why does this matter? Do the citizens of Japan seem to care about it as much as you do? And why haven't we read about it except in your book?

Looking forward to your answers,

Jim Fallows

Next Page: Alex Kerr - June 21

New Part Two - June 26:
James Fallows | Alex Kerr

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