Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: Alex Kerr's "Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan"


This is the first in a series of book reviews that we'll be doing in coming months. We'll take a look at books on a variety of topics, including economics, progressive issues and world affairs.

It's difficult to know where to start criticizing Alex Kerr's spectacularly misinformed Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. This is a book that is wrong on so many levels that Kerr can write one paragraph and it takes at least 20 pages to sort out the record.

In this book, Kerr has one main, overriding theme: that modern-day Japan is a horribly mismanaged basket case that is run by evil, corrupt bureaucrats who have driven the nation into ruin. The only hope for the nation, Kerr believes, is that Japan must completely abandon its current economic system and embrace a good, hefty dose of sweeping changes. Although Kerr doesn't specifically say it, it's clear that he believes Japan must become more like America.

As an "Exhibit A" of how terrible things supposedly are in Japan, Kerr opens his book with a relentlessly bleak assessment of Japan's supposedly out-of-control "construction state." In Kerr's view, trillions of yen are being wasted in unnecessary infrastructure projects across the nation. Not only are these projects not needed, Kerr writes, but they solely exist to benefit corrupt bureaucrats.

There's only one problem with Kerr's observations. He simply doesn't make a convincing case that these various infrastructure projects are indeed unnecessary. Indeed, about the only real "evidence" he serves up is simply the steep costs involved. Kerr notes that Japan spends far more on infrastructure than does the United States, a nation with vastly more land area.

However, it never seems have occurred to Kerr that Japan is simply a prosperous nation that has the money and inclination to spend heavily on infrastructure. More than one observer has pointed out in recent years that America is seriously neglecting and underinvesting in its own crumbling infrastructure. Could it be that Japan isn't really overspending at all and that the real problem is that America is spending too little?

Is there indeed waste going on in Japan's mighty infrastructure projects? Perhaps. Any major project, be it public or private usually has a degree of waste involved.

But while America may not be spending on its infrastructure at the levels Japan does, we certainly have plenty of questionable costs in our society. Take, for example, the hundreds of billions America spends yearly to house 2.2 million inmates in our prison system (the biggest in the world). Japan has no similar costs, as its own prison population is tiny, with less than 80,000 people behind bars. What's interesting is that, despite the fact America locks up millions and Japan doesn't, Japan still has a low crime rate that is only a tiny fraction of America's.

Speaking of wasteful spending: take for example, America's $3 trillion in costs for the Iraq War---a venture that most Americans now believe was a big mistake. Or take the $1 trillion of Americans' tax dollars that were used to bail out a corrupt Wall Street in 2008. Of all the examples of corruption and waste of tax dollars that Kerr cites in this book, there is nothing remotely as wasteful as the two preceding examples.

Incidentally, Kerr repeatedly mentions that Japan is supposedly in worse financial shape than America because its government debt levels are higher. What he fails to point out, though, is that Japan's government debt is almost entirely domestically owned---and thus not at the mercy of fickle foreigners, unlike America's titanic deficits. I wonder how serious Japan's debts are when the nation enjoys high savings rates, and can not only pay its own debts, but those of America's as well (to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars).

Speaking of Japan's finances, it's highly ironic that Kerr constantly favorably contrasts America's financial sector with the supposedly inferior Japanese financial sector throughout this book. Kerr maintains that Japan's financial services are lagging in innovation and are way behind on the creation of exotic new financial instruments, of the sort pioneered by Wall Street. (As we now know, it's the latter that turned out to be nothing more than giant Ponzi schemes that led to the 2008 Wall Street crash).

Between the Wall Street crash, the Iraq fiasco, and the colossal waste of the whole military industrial complex, it's clear that America has far more staggering problems than Japan in the 21st century.

But reading "Dogs and Demons" you'd never grasp this. While Kerr is busy bashing Japan, he is constantly holding up America as a superior nation that supposedly leads Japan in every measurable aspect.

Take the two nations' education systems for example. Kerr sings the praises of America's education system, while blasting Japan as having a flawed system that supposedly does nothing but turn out uncreative worker drones.

A casual look at the facts, though, dispels this myth. For a start, Japan has worked hard in recent years to increase the encouragement of creativity among its students. This effort appears to be working. After all, many of the world's most cutting-edge and innovative products are made in Japan these days. Japan is also an world leader in many creative fields, from fashion to art to music to literature.

While it's true that the very best and most elite U.S. universities lead the world, only a tiny percentage of U.S. students will ever have the money or resources to attend the likes of a Harvard or Yale. By contrast, America's public schools these days are a Third World-like disgrace, with their guns, their drugs, and their metal detectors.

For all their supposed problems, Japan's public schools have the highest standards of any major nation. Japanese students' math, science, and literacy scores crush their American counterparts. And for a nation that supposedly lacks "creativity," I find it interesting that Japan leads the world in the number of patents issued these days.

And for a nation that is supposedly in "decline," the fact is, Japan has the highest average life expectancy rate of any major nation. Of course, you won't encounter that fact in Kerr's book. But I can't think of one single important statistic that could sum up how prosperous a nation is than average life expectancy. (America's average life expectancy is the lowest of any developed nation). It's difficult to reconcile this with Kerr's insistence that America somehow leads Japan.

Like virtually all Western commentators, Kerr consistently underestimates Japan throughout this book. He spends so much time talking about how the nation has supposedly collapsed from the late 1980s "Bubble" era that a reader might assume that the nation is in the midst of a "Great Depression" type crisis.

There's a few facts that Kerr leaves out of his screed (and for good reason, as they would completely undermine his thesis). For example, for all of its supposed woes, Japan still has a $5 trillion economy, the second largest of any nation on earth.

While Japan's stock market has indeed stagnated in recent decades, the fact is Japan's stock market has never been a good indicator of the nation's real economic health. The whole logic of Japan's economy is fundamentally different from America's. Comparing the two nations' stock markets is like comparing apples and oranges. For a start, few ordinary Japanese even own stocks.

In his desperate attempts to portray Japan as a failing basket case, Kerr makes some truly strange observations. For example, Japan (along with China) currently helps prop up the U.S. economy by loaning America hundreds of billions of dollars. Bizarrely, though, as far as Kerr is concerned, this is a problem for Japan, not America. Kerr claims that if the U.S. dollar takes a dive, this will supposedly devastate Japan's economy.

This is truly some odd reasoning. The fact is, if the dollar tumbles this will be a disaster for America. After all, the dollar is a key lever of American power in the world. If the yen soars against the dollar, Japan could displace America as the world's leading economy. It's difficult to fathom how such a development could be a "disaster" for Japan.

And in predicting that a soaring yen will stifle Japan's exports, Kerr is simply regurgitating a claim that has been made over and over by Western commentators since the end of World War II. The yen has been steadily gaining on the dollar now for half a century. And yet Japan's exports have continued to climb steeply decade after decade. A strong yen has never hurt Japan's export strength---and it's doubtful it ever will.

The reason for the latter is that, since 1945, Japan has relentlessly pursued industries with very high entry barriers. And for all of Japan's problems since the Bubble collapse, the fact is Japan today is stronger than ever in high-tech manufacturing.

But Kerr downplays or ignores any evidence of Japan's strengths. He's convinced that the nation has been badly mismanaged, by corrupt bureaucrats, who've somehow betrayed the nation. At one point, he even says Japan could be ripe for a French Revolution-style social upheaval.

As ever with "Dogs and Demons," it's important to step back from time to time and review the facts when Kerr makes such hysterical claims. The fact is, if any nation is primed for a French Revolution style upheaval, it would be Kerr's beloved America.

Note that America in the past three decades has become by far the developed world's most economically polarized nation. In the past two decades alone, America's top 1 percent have increased their share of the nation's wealth from 20 percent to an astonishing 40 percent. The number of poor has soared, the number of people in prison has soared, and the middle class has steadily shrunk.

Nothing like this has occurred in Japan. In fact, Japan is not only one of the most prosperous nations on earth, but it has done a better job of sharing that prosperity amongst its population than any other developed nation. Today's Japan is even more egalitarian than the Nordic nations. Just to give one example, Japanese CEOs only earn around 15 times what rank-and-file workers earn in Japan. (In the U.S. that multiple has soared to an astonishing 500 times in recent years).

Kerr spreads a huge amount of badly researched misinformation in "Dogs and Demons." Hardly any aspect of Japanese life that he touches on is free of serious errors.

Take for example, Kerr's statement that automaker Honda has transferred its "base of operations" from Japan to the United States. This is just flat-out wrong. Like other Japanese automakers, Honda has set up assembly plants in the U.S. (as well as other nations worldwide). But it remains a Japanese corporation (and all its most important and cutting-edge research and manufacturing still takes place in Japan).

Kerr is also off-base on his observations on Japanese cinema. Like the nation as a whole, Kerr writes that the Japanese cinema industry has "collapsed." But this is patent nonsense. A casual glance at a weekly box office stats from sources like reveal a different story. The fact is, at any given week, a strong majority of the most popular movies at Japan's box office are domestic films. (Japan is one of the few nations in the world, along with South Korea and India, where the locals prefer domestic films over Hollywood).

And Japan's recent cinematic success goes beyond mere box office numbers. The nation is home to one of the world's most dynamic and acclaimed film industries. A Japanese movie, "Departures," for example, won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009. And a creatively bankrupt Hollywood has increasingly turned to re-making Japanese films in recent years (the horror film, "The Ring" being just one example). Meanwhile Japanese filmmakers like Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa have enjoyed increasing acclaim abroad in recent years.

Some of Kerr's observations about Japanese cinema are downright laughable and incredibly misinformed. For example, Kerr blasts Japan's movie critics who highly rate "Godzilla" as a classic. He believes this "campy" film isn't worthy of such praise. But the joke is on Kerr. The 1954 film "Gojira" (the original Japanese film) is widely regarded as a classic by serious film historians in both Japan and the West. The later "Godzilla" version, released in America, is indeed a travesty---it takes the original film and butchers it with poor editing and lousy dubbing. But this is NOT the film that is beloved of movie critics worldwide. Once again, Kerr reveals his ignorance of Japanese culture.

In his contempt for virtually everything that modern Japan has become, Kerr would have us believe that nation is in the toilet. And, as he repeatedly points out, he believes that he alone among Western commentators, is telling "the truth" about today's Japan. It's here where (once again) he completely loses me. For Kerr is simply merely the latest of a series of Western authors who have portrayed Japan as being a nation in decline, in increasingly hysterical terms.

Like the vast majority of current Western "Japan experts," Kerr clearly believes the Japanese system has no future and is driving the nation into ruin. What I find interesting, though (and what Kerr fails to acknowledge) is that other East Asian nations have embraced the Japanese way and rejected the free-wheeling Anglo-American style of capitalism. As a result, East Asia is booming and rapidly becoming the world's economic center of gravity.

While it's true that a lot of bitterness still exists between Japan and the rest of East Asia as a result of Japan's past military aggression, it's also true that East Asian nations have embraced key elements of today's Japan Inc.

Take China, for example. China in the past two decades has become one of the world's all-time spectacular economic success stories. Did China achieve this by embracing American-style capitalism? No, they did it by rejecting America's ideas about the supposed "superiority" of the service economy. China, like Japan, is a bureaucrat-led economy that is heavily focused on manufacturing, with an emphasis on mercantilism and exports. Like Japan, China follows a long-term industrial policy and the government takes a heavy hand in regulating many aspects of the private sector.

Kerr may believe that such an economic approach is a recipe for national decline. But regardless of what he believes, East Asian nations like China, Taiwan and South Korea, have clearly embraced the Japanese model in many ways---and have spectacularly boomed as a result.

East Asian leaders these days clearly reject the Anglo-America economic model that Kerr touts as the example to follow. Quite rightfully, they see it as a recipe for decline. Today's America, after all, suffers from titanic and soaring trade and fiscal deficits, a crumbling infrastructure, a Third World-like public school system, a dysfunctional, corrupt and broken political system, an out-of-control military industrial complex that is bankrupting the nation, and many other titanic woes.

As someone who seen Japan first-hand and is fluent in the language, I strongly disagree with Kerr's bleak assessment of that nation. Japan may be no utopia. No nation is. But in the long term, I believe its prospects are brighter than those of America. If you doubt me, I urge you to visit Tokyo for a couple of weeks and see for yourself just how high-tech and modern and prosperous today's Japan is.


AltandMain said...

Being somebody of Chinese origin, I agree. Alex Kerr is more interested in assimilation of Eastern cultures than anything else it would seem.

That said, Japan is a very split society right now. There's the high-tech, very modern Japan that most people here in the West are familiar with and then there is the lower end class. What is remarkable about such a division is that Japan has somehow managed to remain a relatively equal society. Look on the Gini indexes of many nations and you'll see Japan and Germany (interesting enough, the 2 Axis nations from WWII) as the most equal nations. Canada for an Anglo-Saxon nation is relatively equal, although poverty is much higher than we would like (look at the Scandinavians for low inequality AND low poverty).

In terms of education, Japan's primary education is very much ahead of the US. In terms of university, I think that the typical state, non-private university is falling behind. It's interesting for me as a university student because I am in Canada. Here in Canada, there is a sense that you don't want to end up in any US school unless you go to the elitist ones because the typical Canadian public universities are generally considered (and I don't mean to sound arrogant here) better. I'm not sure about that, but looking at statistics, I can tell you that average class sizes are much smaller, and that we haven't been hit as hard by the recession so our schools aren't cutting back as much. (Naturally, statistics can't reveal what universities are "better" in that sense).

As you will no doubt agree, it is with good reason that Japan, China, South Korea, and company all do not wish to follow the US. Heck, even here in Canada, people want a more independent economic policy.

If you are interested in reading about the truth about China, rather than Japan, I suggest this article here:

If you are interested, the Monthly Review is a genuinely socialist magazine, unlike the Tea Baggers, who seem to think that even Blue Dog democrats are "socialist". But it does have some very good opinions.

I for one am amused to see in the US that the largest recipients of welfare and state socialism also proclaim themselves to be firmly "anti-socialist" when they are receiving the benefits and the people are getting nothing more than crumbs (if even that).

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Chris, thanks for your comments. I enjoyed the Monthly Review piece you suggested. It'll be interesting to see, in future years, how Chinese authorities deal with the problem of rising inequality.

AltandMain said...

Equally interesting will be how the American people and the politicians in Washington respond to growing inequality. Most like, the politicians will increase inequality.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I'd rather have Japan's problems than the never-ending, exponentially-growing sh@t sandwich this country keeps feeding itself. I'd rather have health care, infrastructure that won't kill me, massive technical investments, a well-educated citizenry, and national broadband and wireless internet dating back to the 90's that shames U.S. private internets today.


acuvue oasys said...

Now, that's what you call a deep, thorough and engaging review!

Marc McDonald said...

Hi WageslaveZ,
Thanks for your comment. Having seen Japan first-hand, I have to say I was very impressed. Coming back to the U.S. was like entering a Third World nation, by contrast.

Sara said...

As someone who has been living in Japan for about 6 months now, I agree with many of Alex Kerr's observations. Many Japanese cities are, Kytoto for example, are very ugly and the houses are very poorly built with no insulation for example. And take the electrical poles on the street, Japan is one of the only 'industrial' countries in the world who hasn't buried their electrical wires. How high-tech is this? This is exactly what Kerr talks about, how Japan has failed to deal with the 'dogs' -everyday concerns like building properly insulated houses for people and burying wires and are instead spending on building 'monuments' like multipurpose halls that people don't even need or use. I have to say I was quite shocked when I came to Japan and realised how low tech and backwards it is in many senses. I think Alex Kerr has many valid arguments, especially how the constructions industry is overdosing on pouring concrete anywhere it can in nature; just look around yourselves and you can see that a lot of rivers and mountains have been covered. One wonders if it is really necessary. I think his book definitely a must read for anyone living in or interested in Japan, but also remember that it was written about 10 years ago so some things might have changed today.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Sara,

Thanks for your comment.

You said you agree with Kerr on the "ugliness" of Japan's cities.
Having seen Japan myself, I would have to disagree. But I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Frankly, I think huge areas of U.S. cities are much, much uglier than anything I saw in Japan.
After all, what on earth could possibly be uglier than the typical messy urban sprawl that one sees in every U.S. city these days?

For my money, typical U.S. urban sprawl is the ugliest sight that one will find anywhere in the world. Endless acres of ugly exposed asphalt and parking lots; gas stations; car washes, junk food stores, big box stores, and a monotonous sameness, that exists no matter where in the country you are. If you've seen one Wal-Mart, you've seen them all.

Say what you want to about Japan's cities (and I admit, there are eyesore areas), but the thing I always find wonderful about Japan's urban areas is the fact that they are compact and friendly to pedestrians. Sidewalks and foot pathways are everywhere. You can walk everywhere---or take Japan's outstanding, modern mass transit (which is the best in the world).

By contrast, the ONLY way to get around in America's nightmarish urban sprawl areas is by car. You have no other options. In America's urban sprawl wasteland, there is, for the most part, no mass transit and no pedestrian-friendly walkways.

It's outrageous that a nation like America has such contempt for those of us who'd prefer other options than traveling by car. And in an era of dwindling oil reserves, it's downright irresponsible to an insane degree.
As social critic James Howard Kunstler has pointed out, it's also unsustainable.

Incidentally, I'd like to ask you the same question that I would ask Kerr if I had the chance: if Japan is so bad, then why are you living there?

AltandMain said...

Sara, as I pointed out, Japan is split in between the wealthy, tech-savvy people that people in the Western world have come to associate Japan with. Less well known is the underclass. Still, if you look at the statistics, the underclass there is much better off than the underclass here.

After seeing Canada, US, and parts of Europe (someday, I would like to visit Japan), I would say urban decay is probably the worst in the US due to the lack of real government efforts and public initiatives to prevent it.

Of course, the public won't be told all of this info. Take a look at this:

Welcome to the World's First Murdochracy

Somehow, I doubt that the public will be fed real objective information.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi, Chris,
Thanks for your new comment. I enjoyed the article on Murdoch.

>>>Still, if you look at the
>>>statistics, the underclass
>>>there is much better off than
>>>the underclass here.

Very true. And this is one important stat that is completely ignored by the likes of Japan-bashers like Kerr.

Indeed, the startling rise of poverty and the destruction of the middle class in America is a topic that has been all but ignored by our so-called "free" press.

No, they're too busy chasing the latest sleazy tabloid trash story.
(Indeed, one thing that has always amazed me about the Fox News Channel is how much time that network devotes to tabloid sleaze. If the MSM really was "liberal" as Conservatives claim, then you'd think that the likes of Fox would have their hands full setting the record straight. But instead, they spend all their time on junk news).

Chris, I do hope you get a chance to visit Japan someday. While the nation isn't a utopia, it is certainly a wonderful place to visit. Tokyo is probably the most exciting and dynamic city in the world. Of course, one gets the sense from walking around any East Asian metropolis these days that the world's center of economic gravity has now decisively moved from the U.S. to East Asia.

Misguided and inaccurate writers like Kerr are really doing their readers a disservice by suggesting otherwise.

AltandMain said...

Thanks for the comments too.

In this world, it is getting increasingly hard to find objective unbiased news. One does realize of course that news is not free, that to deliver high quality content, well you need high quality journalists who are willing to travel everywhere something happens, you need editors, you need support staff, and you need people who feel passionate about what they do.

Yet, difficult is not impossible. It can be done, has been done in the past, and could be done in the future. However, great potential and possibility are not a reality. These days, all too often what is written in books like the one that you reviewed or in the "news" feels like it is really tabloid content, that is is recycled, or that it is more of an advertisement than objective news. So long as that happens, the general public will never be informed because most people simply lack the attention span to bother to search for real news from informed and relatively unbiased sources.

I think that you're going to find inequality everywhere you go. If you truly wish to see terrifying inequality, visit India. You'll see research and technology parks not unlike the ones in Silicon Valley or Houston (no doubt mainly owned by Western firms who have decided that outsourcing is the greatest thing on earth), right beside massive slums and garbage dumps where thousands inhabit. By contrast, Japan is one of the most equal nations in terms of income distribution on earth. (You may be interested to know that some of the eastern European nations that broke off from the old Warsaw Pact and USSR are also some of the most equal nations on earth).

As much as I sound socialist, I really do think that all nations need to set up some sort of a plan as to where they want to see their nation and its people in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years, and what a world their grandchildren wish to inhabit. Central planning and industrial policy are decried by modern capitalists, yet there was a time, WWII and the 1950s when the US itself engaged in such policies.

AltandMain said...

I don't think that the left is ever going to reconcile with the right. In 2008, there was a psychological study done that interested me. The findings:

1. Misinformation will have a lasting effect on people, even after it has been proven false. Not a surprise; human psychology.

2. You are more likely to believe things that you wish to believe. Again human psychology.

3. Both the left and right are vulnerable to this, however the right appears to be very vulnerable to this. By nature, it would appear, people who are told to obey and be authoritarian are more likely to be vulnerable than those who advocate for more independent and objective thinking. This is however, a curse for the progressive movement politically as it is hard to unify the entire progressive movement at times on certain controversial issues.

And finally, most interesting:

4. When you are told something that you do not wish to believe and additional evidence pops up supporting the position that you are against, you are more likely to believe that story even less, despite more evidence.

The experiment was done on a group of conservatives concerning Iraq, the 2003 invasion, and weapons of mass destruction. At the start of the study, only 34% of conservatives believed that Saddam had such weapons. After evidence from multiple independent sources was shown, that number nearly doubled to 64% who believed that Saddam had weapons. This was repeated with Bush II's tax cuts with similar results. Also, often the subjects would argue against the evidence itself. This study was then performed on left wing subjects on stem cell research and several other topics, however, without the backfire and with the expected effect - that support would corroborate with evidence.

What does this mean? Fundamentally, the left and the right will never agree because they don't think the same way. It's believed that #4 will hold true for issue such as the current economic climate and how neoliberal policies caused it, global warming, poverty, and other political issues.

As such, there will always be those who will believe books like the one that you read and Fox News because that is the way that they think. Of course, the long term implications of this study are very troubling indeed.

Anonymous said...

Returning from a three week trip to Japan I picked up a copy of Kerr's book at the Narita airport. While it stuck me as perhaps excessively negative, much of what he says was confirmed by my own observations while in Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, Koyasan and Tokyo. I feel that much of what Kerr says has a ring of truth.

I should point out that many of the "exceptions" the reviewer points out (USA's waste of the Iraq war, the financial bailout, etc.) are things which occurred AFTER Kerr's books was published in 2001.

In short, I do not agree with this review and feel that while the book may have some faults, there is much of interest in Kerr's book that make it worth the time.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Anon, thanks for stopping by.
>>>I feel that much of what Kerr
>>>says has a ring of truth.

I'm just curious: do you have any specific examples?

Anonymous said...

Marc, having lived in Japan, what are your thoughts on propaganda that is put out by the bureaucrats or the media for that matter? Is it noticeable? I know every nation programs its people but I have read about propaganda in several books about Japan, including more neutral ones. Also can you talk about their attitudes towards foreigners?

Myron L. said...

While your many criticisms of Kerr are "spot on," you miss two overriding "truths" contained in his observations: (1) The ills, extravagantal waste/cost overruns, and environmental damage of the Construction State are well documented by the various writings of Jeff Kingston, a much more systematic obsevor than Kerr. (2) Kerr decries the changes taking plae in Japan and the loss of traditional Japanese values and beauty, as evident in the transformation of Kyoto. He is much more pro-Japan and pro-"Eastern" than your review indicates. He may not appreciate the need for modernization, and, hence, is more than a bit paternalistic as he does not balance the "good" with the "bad" as Kyoto's civic leaders chose modernization--a viewpoint that is too often typical of westerners who value an idealized, unchanging Japan.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Myron's assessment of Kerr's writing in that he "pro-Japan." Kerr has spent most of his life in Japan, and obviously has a deep affection for the country and the people. While he sometimes uses the United States as maybe a less than appropriate model (since the book's publication in 2001: 2 unpopular wars, financial meltdown, hyper-partisan politics degrading the national debate, etc.), his points on Japan are with merit.

This review obviously comes from someone who has never been a resident of Japan, because Kerr's observations are painfully obvious to almost anyone who has lived in the country (both foreigners AND Japanese citizens). This review is far more concerned with bashing America and Kerr's use of it in comparisons, than addressing the real motives of Kerr's observations. It completely misses the point, which is that Japan has essentially wasted one of the great opportunities modern civilization has ever witnessed in their post WWII development.

As they rapidly grew economically, they sacrificed so much of what made them a cultural jewel in this world. They could have used this expansion to improve upon already magnificent cultural traditions and cutting-edge infrastructure, but instead stubbornly followed a path of misguided "modernism." It is truly tragic to anyone who loves the country, including many Japanese citizens whom I call my friends.

As Kerr notes, tourists come to Japan with preconcieved notions of futuristic cities intermingling with ancient traditions, and they inevtibily find that to be true. They snap pictures of this "culture clash," ooh-ing and ahh-ing along the way. But a tourists perspective is blinded to the realities that created this clash, and the sacrifices made that produced this illusion of harmony. And to note, I consider Tokyo to be my favorite city in the world, so its not as if I miss the allure. Its important to understand the history as well though.

Also, this most recent nuclear crisis only further cements Kerr's observations on the bureaucratic wall that surrounds information in Japan. Much of this book is unfortunately being proven correct in a sad and dangerous manner as we speak.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Myron,
Thanks for your comment.

>>He is much more pro-Japan and
>>pro-"Eastern" than your review

I'm not sure I agree with you here. I read "Dogs and Demons" twice and I must have overlooked the part where Kerr has anything positive to say about Japan. Where, exactly, in this book does he have a good word to say about Japan?

Actually, I wouldn't mind an accurate, well-researched critique of Japan. But the worst part of Kerr's screed is that he is just downright wrong on many issues.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Anon, thanks for your comment.

>>Kerr has spent most of his life
>>in Japan, and obviously has a
>>deep affection for the country
>>and the people

You could have fooled me. "Dogs and Demons" is one of the most brutal, savage (and dishonest) critiques of any nation that I've ever read. One would think, after reading this book, that Japan is the worst country on earth.

>>It completely misses the point,
>>which is that Japan has
>>essentially wasted one of the
>>great opportunities modern
>>civilization has ever witnessed
>>in their post WWII development.

I completely and totally disagree with you here. Since WWII, Japan has emerged as one of the great success stories in world history.

At the close of WWII, Japan lay in ruins. It was broke, starving, friendless, lacking in any resources and had no infrastructure. Somehow, Japan rebuilt itself with astonishing speed and today is a $5 trillion economy, which until very recently was the second largest on earth (I doubt many Japanese are too troubled by China recently taking the No. 2 spot---after all, China has more than 10 times the population of Japan, so it's not really an apples-to-apples comparison).

Incidentally, for a country that has supposedly made such a mess of things, I find it interesting how the Japanese model is more closely followed by other nations like China these days. And for a country that fancies itself as the gleaming model for the world to follow, I find it interesting how many countries reject the supposedly "superior" American model.

China, our generation's great success story, has completely rejected the American model, while embracing many aspects of Japan Inc. For example, China has rejected building a U.S.-style service economy. Instead, like Japan, it has relentlessly pursued building a manufacturing base. Like Japan, it has put the interests of the nation first (instead of the idiotic U.S. model, which puts the interests of a dreamy, utopian "free market" first).

And China has copied the Japan model in that technocrats hold all the real strings of power. China has rejected the U.S. model (in which all the power is held by the wealthy and by large corporations).

True, China has deep historical animosities with Japan. But it's also true that China sees the Japan model, not the U.S. model, as the one to emulate.

Incidentally, maybe I'm alone in this view, but I believe that the most positive thing any nation can achieve is two-fold: (A) to build a prosperous society and (B) to do a good job spreading that prosperity around.

On this score, Japan probably does better than any other nation on earth. The fantastic gap between rich and poor that plagues the U.S. simply doesn't exist in Japan. Japan is, in fact, the most egalitarian major nation on earth.

(Oh, and before you respond and tell me all about Japan's poverty, let me say this: I've spent time in both the U.S. and Japan. Yes, there is poverty in Japan, but it is nothing to compare to the vast scale of horrible, bottom-of-the-barrel poverty in the U.S.)

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Anon,
I had to break my previous comment into 2 parts, due to technical limitations. The rest of my comment follows:

Japan is not utopia (no nation is). But it's clear that Japan is, in many ways, the most successful nation in modern history and is the biggest post-WWII success story. This is reflected in many ways, from average life expectancy rates (where Japan leads all major nations) to the increasing value of the yen, which has steadily been increasing in value over the past half century.

The yen was worth 360/one dollar at the close of WWII. In the 1970s, it was worth 240/one dollar. In the 1990s, it rose to around 112/one dollar. (Note that, at that time, many commentators claimed it was overvalued and could rise no more---and that any such rise would wipe out Japanese manufacturers----a claim that Western commentators have repeatedly made since WWII).

In the event, the Western commentators were proved wrong. The yen continues to climb in value. And yet Japan's current account surplus continues to set new records (in fact, it's currently vastly higher today than it ever was back in the booming 1980s).

Ben Freeland said...

I think it's worth bearing in mind that Dogs & Demons was published over a decade ago and the product of research in the post-Bubble era, and that a lot has changed since then. The 1990s was a time of particularly egregious pork-barrel spending as the LDP government at the time saw fit to "spend" its way out of a recession, which of course was a failure. It wasn't long after the publishing of D&D that Koizumi came to power and slashed a lot of unnecessary public works. The other thing that has happened since in Japan is a domestic tourism boom, which has resulted in a renewed sense of civic pride (and commitment to preserving historic neighbourhoods and whatnot) in places like Kyoto and elsewhere. Kyoto even went to far as to institute a new law called the 'Keikan' (scenery) law, which requires that all new buildings have slanted roofs so as to preserve the traditional skyline. There's still a lot of ugliness, but at least they've turned a corner. And Kerr has been one of the people promoting such laws - and has been a HUGE proponent of tourism to Kyoto, Iya and elsewhere.

When I was a journalist in Japan, I interviewed Kerr twice, and on both occasions he expressed optimism (albeit cautious optimism) about Japan's current direction. The irony about D&D is that most of its critics were foreigners whereas the book was almost universally well received by its Japanese readers, including Tokyo governor Ishihara who famously championed the book. According to Kerr, it's now recommended reading among JTB staff and within the Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure. It's certainly made a difference.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi Benjamin, thanks for your comment.
You raise some interesting points. But I think in my article, I've made a pretty good case that Kerr's book has a great deal of content that simply isn't true.
As far as Dogs & Demons' supposedly favorable reception in Japan, one thing I've noticed over the years is that a lot of Japanese admire (or at least claim to admire) Western works that bash their country. I'm unclear as to why this would be---but I've seen enough of it to know that this bizarre phenomenon definitely does exist. Perhaps it is tied in to the "ritualized false modesty" that writers like Eamonn Fingleton have documented. (Fingleton noted how the Japanese are constantly bashing their own nation, especially to foreigners, and how they have this "poor little me" complex that Western writers have observed for decades in Japan).
I myself have seen this on a number of occasions. For example, I once had a correspondence with a Japanese person on the topic of cinema. At one point, he told me that his favorite film was "Lost in Translation." I found this extremely bizarre. After all, Lost in Translation is a film that is incredibly harsh on Japan and, for much of its running time, viciously bashes the Japanese people with one racist stereotype after another. I've never understood why this film's racism didn't generate more comment in the Western media. I can only assume that it is because in today's American cinema and culture, racism against the Japanese is fine (just as racism against Arab people is fine, as well).