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Dogs and Demons by Alex Kerr. Click on image to go to the entry.
The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel Van Wolferen is also still very relevant. It is about the power structure behind Japan.
I was already feeling pretty bad about Japan and the job ahead of us, but after Dogs and Demonsby Alex Kerr, I feel worse. I feel like moving to an island somewhere or killing myself. The most difficult thing about the book is that it's probably all true. Alex Kerr is a Japanologist who talks you through the problems with modern Japan from the viewpoint of how Japan has managed destroy it's environment and the economy at the same time. He details how the construction industry has taken over Japan physically and economically. It is a MUST READ for anyone interested in Japan today.

He also makes a point that although Japanese are considered to be nature lovers, much of it manifests as control over nature.

Dogs and Demons
People who admire the Japanese traditional arts make much of the "love of nature" that inspired sand gardens, bonsai, ikebana flower arranging, and so forth, but they often fail to realize that the traditional Japanese approach is the opposite of a laissez-faire attitude towards nature. These arts were strongly influenced by the military caste that ruled Japan for many centuries, and they demand total control over every branch and twig.

Here are some quotes:

Dogs and Demons
In the early 1990s, construction investment overall in Japan consumed 18.2 percent of the gross national product, versus 12.4 percent in the United Kingdom and only 8.5 percent in the United States. Japan spent about 8 percent of its GDP on public works (veersus 2 percent in the United States -- proportionally four times more). By 2000 it was estimated that Japan was spending about 9 percent of its GDP on public works (versus only 1 percent in the United States): in a decade, the share of GDP devoted to public works has risen to nearly ten times that of the United States. -- The colossal subsidies flowing to construction mean that the combined national budget devotes an astounding 40 percent of expenditures to public works (versus 8 to 10 percent in the United States and 4 to 6 percent in Britain and France). -- by 1998 it (the construction industry) employed 6.9 million people, more than 10 percent of Japan's workforce--more than double the relative numbers in the United States and Europe. Experts estimate that as many as one in five jobs in Japan depends on construction, if one includes work that derives indirectly from public-works contracts. -- In 1994, concrete production in Japan totaled 91.6 million tons, compared with 77.9 millions tons in the United States. This means that Japan lays about thirty times as much per square foot as the United States. -- By the end of the century...shoreline that had been encased in concrete has risen to 60 percent or more. -- There are more than a thousand controlled hazardous substances in the United States,...In Japan, as of 1994 only a few dozen substances were subject to government controls...


I saw this book -- now I'm going to read it... :)

I read "The Enigma of Japanese Power" years ago, and it really crystallized many of the isolated observations I'd made into a coherent view of who and what controls Japan... I still think this was an amazing book, especially as it was written before the bubble burst.

All this emphasis on construction starts to make you wonder whether the yakuza are really as much of a non-issue as people seem to think. Maybe they're really running everything ;)

I guess it depends on how you define yakuza. ;-)

At some point I bought Dogs and Demons, but after reading the introduction I figured it would be better not to continue (and further blacken my view on Japan), so I gave it away.

Sure, Japan is backward and all that, but what is the alternative? Even the ("free, tolerant") Netherlands is not what it used to be...

This book is very depressing. That's kept me from finishing my review, nearly a year now since I read the book. Many important statistics and vignettes in this text, as you noted Joi. But it made me want to leave Japan. Or cry, or something. As you said!

Alex Kerr spoke at the Foreign Correspondents' Club in Tokyo a few months back; he's a good speaker, as you'd expect, and he has some fantastic (if bleak) slides that go with the text. Sadly, he wasn't able to include these with the print edition. He notes the election of pro-reform, anti-concrete-industry governors as a good sign of slow change in Japanese eco-thinking.

Another glimmer of hope he offers is his Chiiori house - your post Joi pushed me to finish my draft post about Chiiori on Chanpon.

"But one must ask: How satisfying would a portrait of American culture and politics be if it described only corporate cover-ups, reality television, racial profiling, misogynistic rap lyrics, widening income disparities, electoral miscounts, police brutality, glass ceilings, suburban sprawl, hate crimes and the excesses of the Las Vegas strip? While each of these is a slice of the contemporary American pie, they add up to less than the full plate of national life. So it is with this important and oddly romantic, if imbalanced, book. "

Taken from NY Times review.

(Reg req'd)

I guess the most disturbing thing about the issues discussed in D&D is that the Japanese public have a decent idea that this stuff is going on but don't do anything about it.

I agree with Kei - the apathy of many Japanese worries me. Compare this to Europe and the US, where local groups can have a great deal of power, especially when it comes to green/conservation issues.

Yes, Dogs and Demons is a part of the story, not the whole story.

Finally, when I read the book I did not get the impression that this was a `Japan-bashing` book. It is a book by someone who loves Japan,maybe has a slightly romanticized view of Japan, and who wants to educate others in order to improve things here. If we all walk around with our eyes shut, the problems Kerr outlines can never be solved.

If you've read "Dogs and Demons" you'll remember that one important thread in the book is about how Japan manipulates nature, and doesn't revere it as is the stereotype. Here's a great quote from Thomas Pakenham, who has published two great books on trees, about bonsai:

Q. In the new book, you confess to a loathing for bonsai. What is so bad about bonsai?
A. They give me the creeps. I never would want to be involved with a bonsai. Because they cut all the living material of the root, except the youngest growth, in order to confine it to this prison of a pot. It's like tying Chinese women's feet. Natural bonsai can be rather moving. Sometimes you see them growing out of rocks on mountains and surviving in terribly hostile environments, and that is moving.

I just thought this was a perfect quote to support Kerr's arguement that Japan wants to control nature, which is very different from the image that Japan cultivates.

well, how's the situation in the US then? any better?

I'm reading this book at the moment (long after this was posted) and wondered what you had to say about it. Gogo google!

The most affecting element for me of his criticism of what has happened in Japan, particularly in the last 40 years or so, is the way in which I can see Japan's influence, unacknowledged, denied, resented, in the way in which Korea has brought itself out of ruins in the same time frame. Some of the things I have seen since I first came to Korea 8 years ago, things I revile about the place, when I'm in a revilin' mood, I intuited had grown out of the Japanese occupation and its aftermath, but I had no idea the influence was so profound and pervasive and overwhelmingly negative. Koreans don't like to talk about it.

Japan, as is Japan's way, takes them to untenable extremes, and Korea, as is Korea's way, muddles through by pluck and self-defeating randomness, but the parallels are there, glaringly, and it has been a revelation to me.

Going to need to write more about it.

I read the book in one sitting on the ferry from Tsuruga to Tomakomai as it was so compelling, and after seeing first hand the grey bland sprawl of Kyoto and the Manga Megalopolis of Osaka, I became very depressed and upset. It`s good that Kerr avoids offering solutions, but I honestly think that there needed to be something to balance the criticism in the book, which was like an endless pummeling to the soul. I know that the book was supposed to expose the realities of Japans indemic corrpution and environmental destruction, but reading it in one sitting like I did (which may have been a bit silly) was like being forced to drink a gallon of cod liver oil. I would like to see the Japanese people rebel in someway, and to start asking more questions, but I sort of know it`s not in their nature to ask `why?`.

I've been reading the book for 3 days and I feel the same as you. What's more, as a Chinese I feel that China somehow is moving the the point that Japan set a bad example, which is very bad.I hope China can learn from Japan not only from the modern tech but also the mistakes that caused by the sticky bureaus.

I live in Japan. I wish I'd had this book when I arrived here in 1991. I have come to the same conclusions as Kerr by way of personal uncovering, a much more painful way. Kerr is "real" and, I think, very compassionate and forgiving, offering the Japanese both the information and perspective they've been trained to lack, and the freedom to chart their own course, if they dare.
I can leave whan I want, and I probably will before it becomes unbearable. What about the 100 people who commit suicide every day? What about the 56% of the population over 65 years old whose pensions will soon run out? What about those who breathe radioactive air and drink mercury and cadmium-laced water doomed to misery and an uncompassionate society and government? What about those destined to die in a conflict with either/both China & the DPRK over dwindling resources? Japan's future is bleak, by any stretch.........but the lemmings march on!

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Author Alex Kerr is a remarkable foreigner in Japan. He's won a non-fiction book prize for a book written in Read More