A culture of cheap industrial junk

Japan's economic woes are just the beginning of its troubles

"Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan" is nothing less than a sweeping indictment of a nation gone awry.

In chapter after chapter, Alex Kerr describes an oppressively backward-thinking, corrupt, bureaucratic state that is trashing Japan's environment and culture while exploiting the self-sacrificing ethos of its obedient people.

Kerr admits that his deeply troubling depiction of Japan is so remote from Western experience that it "strains credibility." Yet his bitter and somewhat exaggerated conclusions cannot be written off as Japan-bashing, if for no other reason than his obvious love for and profound knowledge of Japan.

Kerr first went to Japan in 1964 as a 12-year-old boy, the son of a US naval officer, and has spent some 35 years as a resident observing the country up close. Fluent in Japanese, he holds a degree in Japanese studies from Yale and is an avid collector of East Asian art. In 1994, his book "Lost Japan," written in Japanese, became the first by a foreigner to win the prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literary Prize for nonfiction.

At the heart of Kerr's argument in this latest book is that Japan still functions on a set of outmoded ideas and social principles that underpinned its development strategy after the shock of World War II. Central among these is Japan's old policy of "poor people, strong state," the author writes, which has led Japan to subordinate the quality of life to the overarching goal of challenging the world with industrial power and economic expansion.

Driving this policy is a massive, secretive, authoritarian bureaucracy that is largely unresponsive to Japan's public but cozily tied to leading industries, Kerr says. Lacking accountability, bureaucrats on "autopilot" have gone to extremes in ordering make-work projects and meaningless regulations that in turn secure industry profits, ministry budgets, and their own employment sinecures.

The results, Kerr says, are devastating Japan: The majority of its rivers, streams, and sea coast are dammed or lined in concrete, its native forests have been clear-cut and replaced with monotonous cedar, and its lands have been polluted from uncontrolled toxic waste. Quixotic projects such as futuristic "intelligent" buildings and "veggie airports" sit unused and deserted while real needs for better housing and agricultural renewal go unaddressed.

"There is hardly a single feature of modern Japan touched by the hand of man that one could call beautiful," claims Kerr. Instead, he sums up the island nation as "an apocalyptic expanse of aluminum, Hitachi signs, roof boxes, billboards, telephone wires, vending machines, granite pavement, flashing lights, plastic, and pachinko."

And where are Japan's citizens in the midst of this bleak landscape? According to Kerr, they merely endure under "a complex system of bureaucratic control infinitely more subtle than anything ever achieved in Russia or China in their Communist heydays."

Propaganda is issued through a clubbish media cartel. Japanese schools aim not to educate but to teach "the habit of obedience to a group." Adults exist under the mental constraint of "invisible rules" everywhere, from exclusive mothers' circles in the parks to the constant blare of recorded announcements in trains, temples, and rock gardens.

"One cannot underestimate the public's complacency," he concludes.

Few rays of hope can pierce Kerr's utterly dark and arguably one-sided view of Japan. Social activism is rare, democracy limited, and the courts unjust, he writes. A slide into reactionary nationalism is more likely than revolutionary change, he submits.

Ultimately, only a catastrophe is likely to jolt Japan from its current course, and into a realization of its true self, its spiritual purpose, he predicts. But such a jolt is unlikely, he says. Instead, he likens Japan to a frog sitting unawares in lukewarm water that is slowly heating up to the cooking point.

Ann Scott Tyson writes about Asia for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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