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Japan sees beginning of change

Tony McNicol talks to 'Dogs & Demons' author Alex Kerr

by Tony Mcnicol

Writer Alex Kerr first came to Japan in 1964, since when he has worked as a translator, art dealer and in real estate during the “bubble” economy.

He has also founded traditional arts programs in Japan and Thailand.

In 1994 he was the first foreign winner of the Shincho literature prize for “Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzou” (later translated as “Lost Japan”).

Kerr’s next book, “Dogs and Demons” (2001), was an account of “the fall of modern Japan.” He denounced the destruction of the Japanese countryside by boondoggle construction projects and wrote of a nation of “concrete-shrouded rivers, shabby cities, stagnant financial markets, Hello Kitty-fied cultural life and mismanaged resorts parks and hospitals.”

Four years on, some commentators are cautiously speculating that Japan’s “lost decade” may finally be over.

The upcoming postal system privatization may even cut off some of the postal savings funds that fueled the road, bridge and dam building in the countryside.

“Although I am skeptical of Japan’s ability to change . . .” wrote Kerr in “Dogs and Demons,” “in my heart I dream of change.” As the economy looks up, and with Prime Minister Koizumi elected with a mandate for reform, might change have come at last?

Do you think September’s election marked a turning point?

Actually, I think Koizumi’s first election marked the turning point. The analogy I use is alcoholism. With an alcoholic, the first and hardest step is to admit that there is something stronger than you, that you have lost control.

Koizumi was the one that admitted it. He was the one that said, “the banks are underwater, we have a problem with the bureaucracy, with the postal service, with the road corporations.” When you do that it is when everything starts to change.

It doesn’t mean you are suddenly cured, but that’s the crucial attitude change.

But has any real reform been achieved so far?

It is unquestionably true that under Koizumi there have been major slashes in the boondoggle money. Public civil engineering projects are down 20-30 percent. It’s a considerable drop considering that it had been rising uninterruptedly for over a decade.

The boondoggle money was all public debt, and it was disastrous. There was a point finally where, even in this very wealthy country, a line had to be drawn, and he did draw it. That is a real change.

Rural constructions projects were funded by the postal savings. What effect will postal privatization have?

First of all, they’ve got 12 years before it actually has to happen. Secondly, it has been watered down by political and bureaucratic interests involved and it is not clear at all whether the bureaucrats will cease to have control over those funds.

(But) the reason postal privatization reform is important is the same as why the highways corporation reform is important.

You have got to produce actual reports. You have to show whether you are making money or not.

It will be much clearer what is going on. That is the main difference that we are going to see — it will become more transparent.

Have you seen signs of change in the countryside?

I travel constantly in Kyushu and Shikoku and other places. Until now (communities) could depend on road and dam building. It’s very hard.

On the other hand, for the first time in 50 years they can actually think about how they could make real money with a real industry . . . very often that is tourism. The revival of interest in tourism is also a Koizumi achievement.

Did you go to the Aichi Expo?

No, I tend to avoid those things. That’s not forward-looking tourism. That’s very old-fashioned, almost a 19th century thing. Foreigners don’t care about that sort of thing any more.

You have called modern Japanese culture “Hello Kitty-fied.” What do you think of Japanese pop culture’s success abroad?

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with anime and manga. Within anime there is some pretty amazing work. It’s a matter of balance, and I think in Japan sadly that balance has tipped. If 13 year old girls liked Hello Kitty all over the world, that would be just fine. If Hello Kitty is all there is, then you have an issue.

You have also been very critical of academics experts on Japan?

The academics don’t have a clue. The journalists are pretty good because they tend to actually live here. The academics’ problem is an incurable nostalgia and a kind of conversion mentality to whatever it is: in the old days it used to be tea ceremony, and now it’s anime. It becomes a living . . . and pretty soon you are co-opted. And that happens regularly in academia.

You are partly based in Bangkok now — did move away partly out of frustration with what was happening in Japan?

That’s what everybody thinks. For the record, the fact is that I still have two companies in Japan. I am here constantly. I’m still here at least 50 percent or 60 percent of the time. I still have my house in Kamioka (near Kyoto).

It’s true that Japan is not the only thing in my life. I am very involved in Thai arts. I have a business in Thailand as well, and I am now traveling a lot to China. That actually helps me in Japan because it brings a certain perspective.

What kind of reaction did you get to Dogs and Demons?

I lot of people tell me that it is deeply disturbing, then after they read it they have this catharsis.

I’m (also) accused of being racist and all this stuff — but you can’t worry about that. It’s very often people fresh off the boat; it’s the newcomers who feel that way, (who) have come to make a new life in this exotic fabulous place.

I think of myself as coming from the inside. The reaction from the Japanese has been overwhelmingly positive. In the tourist industry (Dogs and Demons) is practically a bible at this point. I get constant requests to speak at Japanese tourist industry conventions. For the people who say, “how could he say this? Isn’t this racist and terrible?” — you have got to look at how the Japanese have responded.

The book is now in its 8th printing in Japanese. Ishihara Shintaro, of all people, has now given two press conferences holding the book up to the press and saying “why haven’t you read this?”

In Dogs and Demons you argue that Japan has failed to internationalize. What do you think about the work of Debito Arudou and others to combat racial discrimination in Japan?

Well, somebody has to do it. I’m glad that there is a whistle-blower out there. But, I am doubtful whether in the long run it really helps. One would hope that he could do it another way. He’s not doing it the Japanese way. He’s being very gaijin in his openly combative attitude, and usually in Japan that approach fails.

I fear that his activities might tend to just confirm conservative Japanese in their belief that gaijin are difficult to deal with.

That said, perhaps we who live here are slow to stick our necks out when we sense an injustice, and quick to self-censor in order to get along smoothly in our communities.

To me the most interesting aspect of Arudou Debito is that, in taking on Japanese citizenship, he has brought the dialogue inside Japan. His activities reveal the fact that gaijin and their gaijin ways are now a part of the fabric of Japan’s new society. A very small part of course, but a vocal and real part.

You wrote that it might take an economic slump to jolt Japan out of the rut it’s in. Do you still think that is true?

Japan’s problem at the moment is precisely that. Things are getting good again economically a little too soon. What that does is lull everyone back into a feeling that everything is going to be OK: “Let’s talk about reform, but we don’t really have to take the pain of it.”

The environmental onslaught hasn’t ended. Things are unquestionably getting worse as we speak, it’s just that the rate of that damage has slowed a bit. They are pumping money into the countryside, just not quite at the rate as before. It’s not that the dams get canceled, but that they get delayed.

That’s different from saying that things are getting better. It’s the beginning of change, but real change is not here yet.