Saturday, July 9, 2011

Book Review: Dogs and Demons - more Demon than Dog

The book "Dogs and Demons - The Dark Side of Japan" by Alex Kerr is a rather grim expose on the problems seemingly endemic in (modern) Japan. Alex Kerr, a resident of Japan for some 35years, attempts to describe the often overlooked underside of Japan - no, not organized crime, but rather the problems that he sees as being self-censoring of both Japanese and in particular Japanophiles about Japan. From corruption, to lack of sophistication and technology, a destruction of any meaningful connection with the deep roots of Japanese culture combined with an 'infantiling' of the new popular culture, to an almost apocalyptic fascination with the burying of nature under a protective (sterile) sheath of concrete. And indeed, there is some truth and value in the points that the Kerr makes.

At one level, he identifies the waste of the wealth generated through the heady years of the 60's-80's, which was maintained even after the Japanese bubble burst in the 90's. Yet, Kerr's criticisms strike at a deeper vein. The books title, dogs and demons relates to a proverb that painting a demon is easy (any one can draw a demon), rather it's painting a dog that's hard... which he translates to a Japanese desire to distract and mis-direct Japanese self-belief through the obsessive building of monuments and superficial things whilst avoiding the harder reforms that would really improve the life of everyday Japanese.

Kerr's background is in the old, having worked for a Shinto-based sect in Japan, Oomoto, and having co-owned "traditional-focussed" tourist ventures and a seller of antiquities. And in a way his book is constantly touched by the sentimentalities of the Japan of old, as he imagined it. Yet his musings seem strangely contradictory; an example of which is that he at one point criticises Japan for the cancerous spread of cedar plantation forests (with all of the ensuing health problems they create); whilst at another point he rails at Japan for it's addiction to cheap building materials and having given up on using traditional (quality) wood construction methods in the millions of homes. How many forests would be needed for that? It is the gap between the what and the how that is most obvious in his books.

Indeed, I doubt any visitor to the cultural heart of Japan, Kyoto (also Kerr's home), could feel anything less than disappointment at the state of the city as a whole. A jumble of concrete, steel and cables, without design or style. The Kyoto of our dreams is hidden away, as if being subsumed by a blanket of concrete. This is modern Japan, and it can be a stark reality compared to dreams of Japan's traditional past.

Now I bought this book last year (and have only just read it)... thinking that it's good to get a balanced view of Japan, rather than only the view of someone that wishes to promote the good side. A noble intent; but alas, balanced is not a word that I would use to describe the book in any way. He takes an almost naive or blinkered view of the rest of the world, and especially from the perspective of how modern the West is. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand seem paragons of virtue in his perspective - as if the colonial vestiges were the backbone of their modern society.

Indeed, such is the strength of this one-eyed view of the inside and outside world that I initially thought, "ah, yet another disenchanted gaigokujin for whom the glamour of Japan has worn off - having some parting pot-shots at Japan as he heads for different shores" (Kerr is based half out of Thailand now). But the more I read, the less I believed that. He is passionate about Japan, but his writing seems more designed to meet the needs of the Japanese themselves. As if to say, wake up Japan - and see what you are doing to yourselves. Indeed, he wrote his first book in Japanese, for Japanese. And I can't help but feel that perspective remains. He has become a voice of the dispossessed, knowing something's been lost and longing for a different future. Yet, such focus detracts from the books message, undermining it's credibility as one anecdote after another is used as if to show the universality of the problems. He writes with passion, but not with intellectual rigour.

The disturbing message that I'm left with is, why? Kerr's Japan is a cultural desert, filled with plastic, neon and the failed monstrosities of monuments - built to divert attention from the fact that the country had sold it's soul for growth in GDP and manufacturing export. It's a place where corruption and incompetence rules, and where the Japanese people themselves have become automata designed to only consume and to provide the vast capital base for further economic abuse through mismanagement of the government. It is an unpleasant place - and one can't imagine why anyone would want to inhabit the world he creates.

Now the book was originally published in 2002 (also under the name Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan)... and Japan's economic situation has not improved. Indeed, China has now surpassed Japan as the second largest economy, and with the disaster of March 11, things must have even taken a grimmer turn. It is perhaps under these circumstances that we should take a critical look at the real Japan, with the hope that from the wreckage a more environmental and internationalised country can be constructed. The fear is that, instead Japan might slip further into introspection and denial.

I have to say that book was not an easy read (for anyone that loves Japan); and Kerr's over-bearing biases and agenda reduce the potential impact of the book. Whilst parts made me angry (at his superficial analysis) - it also made me question why; why was I getting so emotional in response? In society we need the painful gadfly, to annoy us out of our comfortable stupor, and make us ask hard questions about our own beliefs. For that reason it's a useful book - but I could never say it was a great book... and one can't help but wonder, if indeed it isn't easier to paint the demon rather than the dog.


  1. Sounds like a critical look at the real Japan warts and all. My current favourite book about Japan is Tokyo Vice, which is a substantial first hand peek inside the underworld of Japan by a foreign journalist.

    Japan Australia

  2. Of course, there's many aspects of Japan - and it's impossible to get any sense about what is real or not. I would say that there are few (if any) of us that have a good take on Australia's good and/or bad sides. And I'm not sure that we tend to look that seriously at ourselves either.