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Alex Kerr on Japan: From ‘voice in the wind’ to vindication

by

Contributing Writer

To get to Alex Kerr’s 400-year-old house in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture, it takes time.

Although Kerr, famous for chronicling Japan’s profligate public spending as much as for his efforts to restore “lost Japan,” spends between six to eight months of the year in the country, he’s rarely at his Kameoka home, a former Buddhist nunnery that was moved into a Shinto shrine, where he has lived since 1977.

Instead, Kerr bounces around Japan: He’s on a permanent speaking circuit, talking with politicians, mayors, bureaucrats, company executives, community activists and students; he’s in demand as a host for elaborate and exclusive multicourse dinners that pair some of Japan’s best chefs with off-the-beaten-track locations; he’s been a specially appointed Visit Japan ambassador since 2008; and there’s also the substantial business of restoring houses and revitalizing rural communities.

And then there’s Thailand, his other home since the 1980s, which he retreats to for a few months of the year, for his sanity and to work on his writing projects. So catching him at home takes time.

Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of “Lost Japan,” which Kerr first wrote in Japanese. He followed it with “Dogs and Demons,” a seminal if polemic attack on the excesses and shortcomings of modern Japan, covering everything from dams to telephone poles and street signage, nuclear power mismanagement, financial malfeasance and educational inertia.

In many ways, both books are a repudiation of the “Japan as No. 1” genre: Staggering economic growth was a zero-sum game that had led Japan to degrade its natural environment and lose its soul or jitsu, Kerr argued. There’s an undeniable undercurrent of anger and exasperation running through “Dogs and Demons”; Kerr is relentless in outlining mismanagement, negligence and ugly public monuments.

A discussion about or with Kerr is by extension a discussion about Japan. He first came here aged 12 when his father, a U.S. naval officer, was stationed in Yokohama. He returned in the early ’70s as a student at Keio University, although by his own admission he spent more time rediscovering Japan than he did at college. It was during his year at Keio — or not at Keio — that he first discovered the Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture from the back of a motorbike. Over a period of more than 40 years he has been deeply involved with Japan, as a collector, writer, artist and, latterly, as he puts it with a touch of irony, a “public works contractor.”

Kerr is soft-spoken and his youthful looks belie his age: He turned 65 this year.

Shortly into our interview I ask Kerr if he was indeed angry back when he was writing “Dogs and Demons”

“Yes, and I’m still angry,” he says. “As you would be if you loved anything.”

He quotes Masako Shirasu, as he did in the book: “‘If you love something enough you’ve got to get angry about it.’ Of course I am angry,” he says. “The mistake that a lot of fresh-off-the-boat foreigners think is that I am angry personally because I have been mistreated, when Japan has treated me wonderfully.”

Illustrative of the mixed feelings Kerr provoked among non-Japanese following the publication of “Dogs and Demons” is a lengthy thread on the internet forum Gaijin Pot from a few years ago titled “To like or to hate Alex Kerr, that is the question.” Despite the juvenile nature of the “question,” many of the posters expound upon the topics Kerr covered in the book, and many also challenge his ideas.

“Japan’s been good to me personally,” he says. “Does that mean that I am happy about this disaster that overtook this incredibly beautiful cultural environment that I loved? No. I am still angry about that. I’ll never get over that. And I’m not alone. Many Japanese, it turns out, feel just like I do.”

His anger, though, is more communicative than combative, more interested in solutions than point-scoring.

Home: Kerr points towards Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture on an Edo-Period map of Japan from around the 1800s.
Home: Kerr points towards Iya Valley in Tokushima Prefecture on an Edo-Period map of Japan from around the 1800s. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Proved right — and wrong

Much has changed in Japan — and arguably a lot hasn’t — in the years since “Dogs and Demons.”

On restoring and preserving Japan’s heritage, Kerr feels vindicated.

“There is now a body of people and opinion in Japan that do understand that they have damaged the environment and that they need to protect it.”

What’s more, he adds, now there’s government money to support the heritage industry. Some of this money is coming from the tourism industry, which is booming.

In “Dogs and Demons” Kerr had more or less written off Japan as a tourist destination. He cites figures of 4.5 million international visitors in 1999. Kyoto, for all its cultural assets, is a “chaotic and trashy modern cityscape.” Elsewhere he calls it “a conglomeration where everything looks equally shabby.” Kerr predicted that theme parks such as Shima Spain Village would overtake the imperial capital in visitor numbers.

In contrast to these grim predictions, 20 million tourists visited Japan in 2016. Officials are targeting 40 million visitors by 2020 and 60 million by 2030. And Travel and Leisure magazine has twice voted Kyoto the best city in the world to visit.

“Tourism has swept all before it,” Kerr acknowledges. “In fact, now it is the engine of whatever will be saved. Now the national imperative is tourism — from the prime minister down to the tiniest little village. It’s the magic word, and that’s good.”

Up to a point. Kerr’s praise comes with caveats, especially on the issue of how tourism is managed, or not managed — a topic Kerr will take up in one of his next books. He’s got several lined up on the shelf of his mind.

Elsewhere, in a feat of civil re-engineering that is as symbolic as it is sound environmental policy, Japan is tearing down its first dam. Kerr notes that many more and bigger dams have been dismantled in the United States, but the removal of Arase Dam in Kumamoto Prefecture is hugely symbolic.

Incidentally, locals along the Kuma River began campaigning for the removal of Arase Dam in 2002, the same year “Dogs and Demons” was published in Japanese. When the dam is fully dismantled next year it will become the first of Japan’s 2,732 dams to be removed.

And as for the clotted mess of overhead power lines and cables that litter the urban skyline, another of Kerr’s betes noires, he found an ally — on this issue, at least — in Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who reached out to him while she was still a Diet member.

Kerr says he fully supports Koike’s goal for zero poles in the capital. Tokyo has considerable catching up to do, given that currently only 7 percent of power cables are underground in central Tokyo. By comparison, Hong Kong and Paris have buried virtually all their cables.

In his talks, Kerr is quick to point out that while many people think he is against the whole idea of public works, it is the wasteful and damaging public works that really get his goat, “given that Japan’s addicted to it.”

“If people have to wear hard hats then let’s have them bury the utility lines, let’s have them restore old houses, let’s have them protect beautiful old streets,” he says. “Or remove the mistaken dams.”

Despite having a knack for sounding political at times, Kerr, a U.S. citizen, remains steadfastly apolitical when it comes to Japan. While he has been asked to join different movements at various times, he has opted to stay aloof. “It’s tricky as a foreigner,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions.

“As far as America is concerned,” he says, “I used to be quite apolitical, but now I’m just positively violent in my disgust and anger and disappointment. What’s going on is just so ghastly. I have become quite political.”

Kerr has had one other conversion: Decades after moving here, he has “discovered” Japanese food. The catalyst for this is his involvement as a host and planner for Dining Out, a gourmand venture established by Hakuhodo DY, a PR company, and sponsored by Lexus. As host, Kerr has witnessed some of Japan’s top chefs create extravagant and extravagantly priced meals in scenic regional locations such as Onomichi in Hiroshima Prefecture and the Iya Valley.

“I was never a food person,” Kerr says, “but now I cook. I got inspired.”

His foodie experiences, which Kerr clearly enjoys, have had such a transformative effect that a book he plans to write will focus on what might be the most overlooked meal of the day, breakfast, and the many forms it takes on tables across the world.

A garden for all seasons: Maple trees and a cherry tree fan out over moss beds at Kerr
A garden for all seasons: Maple trees and a cherry tree fan out over moss beds at Kerr’s home in Kameoka, Kyoto Prefecture. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

Rebuild it and they will come?

In the city of Kyoto, where Kerr pioneered the business of restoring old homes, there has been a mini-explosion in renovating old townhouses and converting them into tourist accommodation.

When Kerr first cut his teeth at restoring machiya, as the traditional wooden homes are known, he was going against the grain. Restoration was something that was done, if at all, on castles. Demolition was the modus operandi. Fast-forward 30 years and Kerr estimates there are between 300 and 400 restored machiya in the city, the majority of them restored as tourist accommodation.

Although Kerr and his business partner have accepted a project to restore three homes in Kameoka, they’re not interested in restoring homes in Kyoto city. Business aside, his most recent book in English, “Another Kyoto,” is a paean to hidden Kyoto.

Altogether the Chiiori group, the company he founded, has renovated, or is in the process of renovating, close to 40 houses, spread throughout western Japan and Shikoku. The most recent projects are in Kameoka and Tsuyama, a city in northern Okayama.

“The interesting business challenge is places like Tsuyama — putting somewhere like Tsuyama on the map. And it’s fun and you have a sense of achievement because Kyoto doesn’t need it but Tsuyama needs it, and so did Ojika (in Nagasaki), and so did all the other remote places,” Kerr explains.

The restoration projects are always done in partnership with local and regional government, and always at their invitation.

“What I never do is go in and try to convince anyone to do anything,” he says. “They come to us. Because you can’t be some outsider and go in and wag your finger, so they come to us.”

The Chiiori group is thorough to the point of fastidiousness. For this reason, Kerr says that there have been plenty of proposals that didn’t pan out. Kerr and his business partner also have a strong philosophical and aesthetic bent. They’re in the business of re-creating beautiful homes and revitalizing communities that are running out ideas and people.

“I like to think that we are the iPhone of the industry in the sense that we have a philosophy of how we do it, and we’re pretty clear-cut and severe about it, and a lot of it has to do, like the iPhone, with beauty.

“And that’s one of the big differences between what we do and what others do,” Kerr says. “Because you’ve got to love beauty, know beauty and incorporate beauty with the modern touch. That’s what Steve Jobs did and it’s the difference between ‘Oh, what a charming, nice place to stay’ and ‘Oh, my heart is here.'”

While this might sound like lofty self-praise, it’s something Kerr feels and believes in strongly. They’re rebuilding for the future — not just homes but also communities.

Toward the end of our interview in the large tatami-floored living room, Kerr prods some of the leaves he has gathered from his tree-and-moss garden and suspended in a dish of water. The room is decorated with antique screens and calligraphy paintings, including some of his own.

Kerr segues into a historical vignette about how the blotched autumn-colored leaves remind him of a painting technique known as tarashikomu, or drip painting, favored by followers of the Rinpa school, which blossomed in Kyoto during the Edo Period.

“For decades I was this voice in the wind,” Kerr says, referring to his decades-long restoration conversations with anyone who would listen. “Now, very late in my life, the time has come. So am I going to turn it down and say ‘Well no, I am tired, I don’t think I’ll do it’?

“You know, my moment came. It’s not at an opportune time, but it came and now I need to go through with it.”

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