On Gaien Higashi Dori
Saturday, September 27
The love-hate relationship with Japan continues. But at times it is easier to focus on the hate. The "books on Japan" sections in the English language sections of big Tokyo bookstores like Kinokuniya and Maruzen don't help with this. A good example of such books is Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex Kerr, a person who obviously has his own love-hate relationship with the place.
Reading this book fills in a lot of what I suspected. Kerr chronicles the professed "love of nature" as a sham, the Ministry of Finance-oriented government-led financial system with its hidden budgets and low interest rates as a sham. For him, pork-barrel politics, with bureaucrats really controlling the show, as they concrete the land, close up the rivers, ruin the coastline, is a symbol of how Japan, supposedly the masters of technology, fail to deal with the modern world. Education, another key area, is exposed, as is city planning, with a passionate chapter on the destruction of Kyoto.
The thing is, reading books like this are not good for my mental health in Japan, because they ring too true. Of course, you can criticise the book as a kind of orientalism, exoticising the Orient, upholding the myth of Japan as a strange and un-understandable place, but dodgy literary techniques aside, it is hard to refute the sheer volume of the evidence Kerr piles up on the shambolic nature of modern Japan. Kerr uses Shelley's Ozymandias to lead into the culture of building useless monuments to use up budget so that local governments etc. can get the same budget the next year. So we get Ramen museums, endless theme-parks, useless dams, dam theme-parks, and the list goes on, with the rural population being drafted in as the construction workers to build them. Why is it, he asks, that Tokyo doesn't bury its power lines, a question asked to me also by a good friend who was only in the Japan for the World Cup. I couldn't answer. Kerr most certainly can.
When I first read this book, I went searching on the Web to see how it was critically received by the establishment. Not surprisingly, considering how his mission is to take it apart, the establishment did not respond too well, with the English-speaking academic community, which he sees as "yes men" to the powers that be, the most damning.
But I come here neither to bury Kerr nor to praise him. The point I want to make is that books like this fuel the hate side of my Japan relationship, but I cannot find the books to stimulate my love of the country anymore. Seeking refuge in an idealized past, in the samurai tradition or the amazing post-war recovery, will not do it for me. Idealizing the wacky kids of Harajuku and Omote-Sando is not the answer either. I saw what I loved briefly in March this year, when 40,000 people turned out in Hibiya Park to protest their government's complicit involvement in an imperialist war. I know 40,000 is not a lot, but in a country where time is so precious and the establishment-story of how to live your life so entrenched and pervading, this 40,000 was every bit as important as the 500,000 that turned out in London. I love Japan, so I want it to change. I hate Japan, so I want it to change. When what Kerr points to is taken on board openly by the Japanese person on the street, then I will be happy. When the Japanese person on the street starts to examine Japanese history, and form their own judgments on it, then we can start to move away from the idealized past. Forget Ishihara's A Japan that Can Say 'No'. I think what we need is A Japan that Can Ask 'Why'. Then the people will see that the very purveyors of Nihonjin-ron are doing it to keep the Nihonjin in their place, to preserve their positions of power.