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

Dear Jim,

Every Japanese letter begins with a comment about the weather, so I must tell you that I'm writing this e-mail from my old thatched farmhouse in Iya Valley on the island of Shikoku, where rain is pouring down and mists—looking just like those zig-zag swatches of cloud you see so often on old screens—are rising from the valley, swirling together and disappearing again.  It's my little bit of paradise, the beautiful Japan we all dream of.

You have no idea how I appreciate this opportunity to discuss Dogs and Demons with you—it gives me the forum I've been longing for to launch a fierce counter-attack against my critics! Well, there's a little of that, I must admit, but mainly it's a chance to talk about my supporters, that is to say the people for whom this book rings true and for whom it matters. I'm honored that you appear to be among them.

I'm starting right out by talking about this group of people because their existence underlies everything I've written. You ask if the citizens of Japan care about these themes as much as I do, and the answer is a resounding yes. Not everyone, of course. As in every country, a complacent majority rules. But there is here a substratum who are deeply disappointed with their nation—to the point of heartbreak. In my case, I've lived here so long (on and off since 1964, when I came as a child with my parents) that my feelings about Japan are strong indeed.

There is a real conflict going on right now in Japan between the forces of change and the old bureaucratic systems that have ruled for so long. The public is aware that this is a do-or-die moment, and this is why the new maverick Prime Minister Koizumi is so incredibly popular—more popular than any Japanese politician has ever been in modern history. People realize that Japan needs to change, but most are not aware of the details of the system that are strangling the nation. To turn these systems around will require a revolution in thinking that can only come after people look clearly at their circumstances and understand what is going on around them. That was what I set out to do in this book, to show the reality for what it is. This is my gift to the revolution.

But let's step back a bit from ringing words like "revolution." Many readers must wonder what is all this trouble I'm talking about. Isn't Kyoto a charming city filled with quaint wooden shops, rock gardens, and exquisite temples (not to mention geisha busily writing their memoirs)? Well, no, the sad reality is that the world heritage sites were preserved, but the city itself has been nearly wiped out in the past few decades. What's left in the city where people actually live is a conglomeration of concrete boxes, flashing neon signs, treeless streets, tangles of telephone wires, aluminum, chrome, and plastic. Kyoto has become one of the world's drearier urban landscapes, on a par with some industrial cities in China.

Tourism as an industry is a conspicuous failure—to the point that more people visit Croatia and Tunisia every year than Japan. Foreigners mostly avoid Kyoto, except those determined to do their "cultural duty." Meanwhile, the Japanese are also starting to avoid Kyoto—people prefer to tour theme parks like Universal Studios in Osaka, and millions more are flying abroad and escaping Japan altogether.

I bring up Kyoto as one example of an environment that has been mismanaged in a way almost beyond imagining in the West. An even worse fate has befallen the countryside, for here a mammoth construction industry (the largest in the world) every year gobbles up trillions of yen in government subsidies to build. Anything. Roads to nowhere in the mountains, bridges to uninhabited islands, empty "utopian cities" on harbor landfill, grim "resorts" that look something like a People's Palace in Communist Bulgaria, erosion control on mountains and beaches where nobody lives....

This brings me to your question: How did it happen? How could the country of "love of nature" turn on its own land with tooth and claw? How could the people who had "refined aesthetics" as their very birthright create and live in cheap houses, drab hotels, shabby cities?

It came about because of what I call the "victory of the industrial mode." When Japan opened up and modernized in the 1860s, the response to the threat from the Western powers was to throw all the energies of the state into building a strong manufacturing base. The loss in World War II only strengthened the leadership's resolve in this regard—if Japan's industrial base had been stronger, perhaps Japan might even have won the war.

So the overwhelming emphasis on building and making things goes on. Meanwhile everything else has been sacrificed: universities withered because the goal of education was to train people to be company drones, not to think. The legal system never developed means of restraining industrial excess such as toxic waste; nor did a non-profit sector develop. The landscape disappeared under cement. The financial system decayed due to a policy that funneled the nation's savings at zero percent interest to industry. And the culture suffered because very little was taught or studied that didn't bear on making things on an assembly line.

It's been going on a long time—a century and a half. In your book Looking at the Sun you described the complex of ideas underlying Japan's modern history in a chapter called "The Drive to Catch Up," the title of which says it all. The problem is that Japan never felt that it caught up. Policies that are completely out of line with the needs of Japan's society in the twenty-first century go on and on, and it seems almost impossible to stop or even slow them. In the process it wasn't only traditional aesthetics or love of nature that was skewed. Everything was skewed.

Why haven't we heard this from writers on Japan before? It's because Japan, for many who study it, becomes a religion to which people convert. They become true believers in Japan's cinema, architecture, the Ministry of Finance, or robotized factories—and the next step is to become a missionary preaching Japan's superior achievement. Obviously there is much to praise in Japan's modern development. But with a few exceptions such as yourself or Karel van Wolferen, Japan experts (especially cultural authorities) have almost universally shown us the asset side of the ledger and not the debit one.

And now I can finally talk about my critics. In a radio discussion recently with a Harvard professor, I brought up the fact that Japan had concreted 60 percent of its entire shoreline. That's because Japan chose to place its steel mills along the shore, and this brought tremendous profits to the nation, he hastened to explain. Well, the steel mills account for a fraction of one percent of the concreting. What about the other 59.9 percent? The telling thing was the professor's instinctive, almost pathetic, urge to justify Japan in its follies.

There's something else going on. One of my reviewers, another distinguished academic, dismissed the construction frenzy with the phrase "environmental insouciance." That's an interesting choice of words. Insouciance, to me, implies a child thumbing his nose at a straight-laced adult, something silly, even trivial. If they concreted over the state of Massachusetts, however, would this professor have viewed it with insouciance, I wonder, or would he be screaming bloody murder? There is an unspoken assumption that the Japanese are different and therefore need not lay claim to the quality of life that we take for granted in the West. It's a profound type of condescension.

Which brings me to your question: Why does it matter? I would say that from a universal standpoint, for the good of mankind, it's important that every nation preserve its cultural patrimony and protect its environment. When a powerful and wealthy country like Japan goes dramatically in the opposite direction, this is surely of concern to us all.

Within Japan it matters because Japan's present path is not something that most of its citizens chose or approve of. The agonized comments about Japan that you read in my book are taken from hundreds of hours of conversation and numerous books and articles spoken or written by Japanese. For millions of people within Japan, these issues matter.

Finally, despite the passionate tone of Dogs and Demons, it's a fact that beautiful mountain villages, lovely temples, interesting modern architecture, so many things of cultural value—even geisha writing memoirs in Kyoto—do still exist. I'm writing from one such Shangri La village at this moment. But these things have a limited lifespan, and they are truly few and far between. Ugliness is never far behind, and it's gaining rapidly. If fundamental change comes to Japan, what remains of beauty and value can be saved, and this gives me hope.

Well, the rain is still falling, and so is the soot from the rafters. I think I'll stop here. Please forgive my insouciance.

Best wishes,
Alex Kerr

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