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

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Atlantic Unbound | July 6, 2001
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
From: Alex Kerr
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: The true Japan - Part Three

Dear Jim,

Zenryaku. That means "dispensing with preliminaries," and it's a handy expression you can use in Japanese letters (very popular in e-mail) in order to get around writing another paragraph about the weather. So I'll not say much about my garden in Kameoka (outside of Kyoto), where I am now, looking out at feathery maple leaves glistening in the night rain.

Instead, to your first question: How does it all fit together? How does Japan's bureaucratic and political system relate to the ugliness of its modern environment? This touches on one of my goals in writing Dogs and Demons. Typically, writing about Japan falls into two camps: economical/political and cultural. The former group tend to be hard-nosed professionals, and while they have their various enthusiasms (in the eighties everyone loved MITI, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, in the nineties they lost their hearts to the Ministry of Finance), they do tend to look at Japan with an analytical and critical eye. Then there are the cultural writers, who specialize in Zen, architecture, cinema, manga comics, rock gardens, and so forth. These tend to be full-fledged converts dedicated to preaching the high aesthetic and moral value of Japanese arts to the world. Most of the political writers have little or no interest in arts or the natural environment; and the cultural writers don't read or understand the financial page of the newspaper.

In my case, because of a quirk in my background, namely the fact that Trammell Crow drew me into the business world in the 1980s, I had experienced both worlds. So I tried to combine them. Perhaps I was too ambitious. But what is absolutely fascinating to me about modern Japan is the way in which exactly the same troubles bedevil every aspect of society. The reason the banks are failing is the same reason Japan can no longer produce movies for adults—or stop concreting the countryside.

Here, in a nutshell, is what I think happened: Japan had a wonderful formula for economic success in the 1950s and 1960s. There was a literate and well-educated work force—obedient, hard-working, and willing to sacrifice for the national good. It had an elaborate industrial structure that repressed imports and controlled the marketplace by keeping big firms big and small firms small. The government was in the hands of one party that stayed in power for generations. Meanwhile, true power was concentrated in the hands of elite bureaucrats who ruled quietly from behind the scenes. All was stable, all went like clockwork.

Unfortunately, there were a few missing pieces in the machinery. For one thing, Japan did not have a true democracy, which meant that the voice of the people was not heard. It didn't have an independent legal system. It didn't have a rational financial system. And there were no watchdogs on the bureaucrats.

All this is a recipe for "auto-pilot," which is essentially what happened. There was nobody to question or to provide new ideas, no winds from abroad, no community consciousness. Japan's systems froze. The rules and regulations got more and more complicated, and their reason for being grew farther and farther from the real needs of society. By the end of the twentieth century, Japan's ways of doing things had grown wildly removed from reality.

Hence we get stocks producing no dividends, roads going nowhere, dams built for no reason, bridges to uninhabited islands, universities that don't research or teach higher knowledge, companies routinely issuing false financial statements, untrained workmen pouring fissionable material out of buckets.

These things are indeed all related. They came about because Japan's systems were all too far-reaching and inflexible. The aim was stability. Stability, without change, became decay.

Another thing that happened in field after field was "addiction." The countryside is addicted to pouring cement. Banks depend for their very lives on zero interest deposits. Movie companies cannot shake their dependency on animated films for children. And architects survive on regular fixes of income from bombastic monuments. It's so hard to shake these addictions! Hence Japan is finding change excruciatingly difficult.

So, yes, architecture is related to banks and the stock market, and these are related in turn to the destruction of old cities, mountains, and seaside. It's the same sickness in different places.

Next you ask whether the concreting of the countryside was an inevitable part of Japan's political history. It's always interesting to speculate on "what if?" Before World War II, despite the military hysteria, there was a firm core to Japan's traditional culture, upheld by a wealthy land-holding class. The loss of the war (which led people to question all traditional values) and MacArthur's land redistribution had the effect of smashing this core. So perhaps if Japan had not rushed into war in the 1930s, its culture and environment might have survived in better shape. In a sense, today's environmental calamity could be viewed as a time-delayed result of the loss of the war.

After the war, if Japan had achieved true democracy, the nation might have been governed by politicians who did not depend on the rural vote, as the ruling LDP party has done these fifty years. So there may have been no need to flood villages with money from construction projects, thereby giving the countryside a gigantic New Deal.

But these things did happen. And once they were set in motion in the 1950s, then what we see now probably really was inevitable.

This brings me to your final two questions: Ian Buruma's review, and How Could This Be? That is, how could the nation that seems to have had aesthetic perfection as its very birthright sink into a culture of cheap industrial junk? I think I can answer them together.

First, Ian Buruma. As you know, I've been longing for a chance to reply to my critics, and there is no one I'd rather get my teeth into. But unfortunately, Buruma devoted most of the review to expounding his own personal idea of Japan's post-war history, and only tangentially mentioned my book, so there's not much I can say in reply. There is one important point, however, that I'd like to pass on to my readers. Buruma complains that I seem "obsessed" with foreign observers and old-line Japanologists who are preaching Japan's glory. "Who is he talking about?" he asks.

Alas, one of them is Buruma himself. While he is not preaching Japan's glory per se, he has fallen into the old trap of excusing Japan's failings by attacking the critic. It's endemic to this field. It used to be that critics of Japan, like Karel van Wolferen, were called "Japan bashers." That term is now out of vogue. The new approach is to dismiss the writer by suggesting that his comments are the result of some personal animus. Buruma talks of my tone of "personal hurt, something of the erstwhile Japanophile who feels spurned or let down."

Let's talk about this for a minute. The same sort of comment was made by an (unnamed) reviewer in The Economist. He (or she?) wrote, "Like so many foreigners who have adopted Japan and made it their home, affection eventually turns to frustration, anger even, as the subtle and inevitable exclusion by a culture that treasures its homogeneity starts to erode the foreigner's enthusiasm...."

Well, we know that disillusionment with Japan is a common pattern. And I would hardly deny that I'm disillusioned. However, I would argue that it's the same disillusionment that millions of Japanese feel with their own country. In 1997 I moved my base of operations to Bangkok. However I've kept my houses and my business here, and continue to spend several months of each year in Japan. My particular focus for these last few years has been the "Chiiori Project," an attempt to revive a remote mountain village in Iya Valley where I've had a home for thirty years, through sustainable tourism. Meanwhile I'm meeting with bankers in Tokyo for other purposes. Perhaps if Buruma had been involved on the ground—running a business, for example, rather than writing a column about economics; or planning and executing cultural events from backstage rather than sitting in the critic's chair, he too might have felt some of the Japanese people's disappointment himself. What is absurd is the assumption that it's due to a feeling that I was unfairly treated. Nowhere in any of my writings (Lost Japan, or Dogs and Demons) have I ever implied that I was excluded from anything!

I knew this would be a common reaction among foreign Japan observers, and thought I was mentally prepared for it, but it still surprises me to hear it from someone of Buruma's stature. There is a knee-jerk reaction that the only reason a foreigner would write critical things about Japan is because he's an outsider with a personal vendetta. The fact is that I was never "excluded" or "spurned" by Japanese society: I had (and have) good friends there, two lovely houses, a wonderful antique collection, a profitable company, was admitted into the inner circles of culture, and have been very well-treated by the media—and all of that is still here when I return from my home in Bangkok. I've never made a word of complaint about my personal situation in Japan, and why should I? Buruma (whom I've never met, and therefore wouldn't dream of guessing what his personal motives are) should have known better than to create an imaginary persona for me.

The reason I dwell on this point is that yes, I'm angry and disappointed, but my anger lies in what happened to Japan, not in what happened to me.

There's another point Buruma makes that I take very seriously. He writes, "Even though Kerr writes a great deal about politics and economics, his real concern is culture, which muddles his conclusions." Buruma is right that my real concern is culture. Frankly, I think that politics and culture are simply two sides of the same coin. You simply can't talk about one without the other. Unfortunately, most of the discussion of modern Japan's troubles has dwelled on which faction was in power when, and what Prime Minister Tanaka did or did not do, and so forth. All of this is important, of course, but there's a deeper current, and it's the change in the culture itself. The government chose to concrete the countryside. So far so good. But what's really notable is that the people overlooked and even welcomed it. That tells us something drastic about modern Japanese culture which you would never learn by looking at economic statistics or knowing the policies of Prime Ministers: this is a nation that truly loves concrete.

Which brings me to How Could It Happen? Weren't the Japanese the people who lived in harmony with nature? With their wonderful tradition of design, how could they live in trashy cities and towns surrounded by such ugliness? I don't wonder that you ask this question. It's one that I ask myself every day.

Buruma might not approve, because it's a cultural question, not a political one, but in my view it's tragically important. If a country no longer loves its mountains and rivers and loves concrete instead, then what has happened?

I certainly don't think that the Japanese have lost their inherent design sense. You can see it shining through even in an essentially juvenile medium like manga comics, which are admired world-wide for their inventive designs. However, "inherent design sense," like "intelligence," or "talent," has two aspects: nature and nurture. I won't begin to speculate on what in the Japanese brain, or language, or society, gives people the ability to create consistently such astonishingly daring designs. Whatever it is, that ability is still there. That's the "nature" side. That's what you have if you're born a Japanese in Japan.

But then there's the "nurture" side, i.e., your environment. Design in Japan was always one and the same with the environment—the hills, rocks, rivers, streams, and latticed and gardened houses that made up the landscape. Today, the design sense is still inspired by the environment, and what is that? Concreted rivers, flattened valleys, plastic houses, universal fluorescent lights, pachinko parlors, tenement cities, ugly hotels, sterile resorts. This is the starting point for design, and so the most inspired talents in the world end up where they began, with more concreted rivers, flattened valleys, and plastic houses. It's a vicious cycle. It's a profound cultural problem, and no change of Prime Ministers is going to suddenly cure it.

You ask what I would have added or cut or stated differently in my book if I could revise it? At the moment I'm working on writing the Japanese version, which will be published by Kodansha in October. I realize now that I was perhaps too scrupulous to avoid making suggestions. Because there are things Japan could do. I'm suggesting some of them in the Japanese version. A law that makes it illegal for bureaucrats to profit from activities under their control would transform ministries overnight. A thoroughgoing reform of public works, putting farmers to work burying phone lines (for example) instead of rivers, would enhance the infrastructure and reduce damage to the environment. There is much that Japan could do, if only the will to change is there.

Maybe it is. What do I see for the future? I won't even begin to predict. At the moment, despite ringing calls for reform from the present government, the chances are largely for further stagnation. But the world's a funny place. Although I've moved my base to Bangkok, I've kept my bases in Japan and I visit frequently. I'm not moving away completely for the time being. I'm just too curious to see what's coming next!

Pale blue and white dawn is coming up in the garden now, and it's time to bring this letter to a close. Jim, it's been great corresponding with you, and I look forward to seeing you in Kyoto, Bangkok, Berkeley, or maybe even Iya Valley (in a drier month). Thank you for giving me this opportunity.

Best wishes,

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