Alex Kerr

by Vivienne Kenrick

The name Alex Kerr is well known in many contexts, as he is a person of many parts. He is a scholar, linguist, specialist and prize winner, accomplished in diverse fields.

The heart of the man Alex Kerr may be illuminated by the sentiments he felt when he was still in his teens. In his book “Lost Japan” he wrote: “When I think back on the natural beauty of Japan at that time (1971) it brings tears to my eyes. With its abundant ‘rainforest’ vegetation, volcanic mountains with delicate leafage of its native flora, Japan was perhaps one of the most beautiful countries in the world. . . . This environment is now a thing of the past, but . . . I doubt that the lost beauty of Japan’s mountains and forests will ever fade from my memory.”

Alex first came to Japan in 1964 when his father, an American naval officer, was posted to Yokohama. As a 12-year-old, Alex explored his neighborhood, then farther afield in daylong trips on his own. He loved many aspects of Japan and especially its houses. The family returned to the States in 1966. After high school, Alex entered the Japanese studies program at Yale University. During the summer vacation of 1971, he came to Japan and hitchhiked from Hokkaido to Kyushu. In Shikoku he found the Iya Valley, which he later made the object of his senior thesis. An exchange student, he spent the academic year 1972-73 at Keio University. Often he returned to Iya. In January ’73, he found what he was seeking: an abandoned traditional-style house that he determined to buy and care for. Local children helped him choose the name Chiiori (House of the Flute).

From his observation he had a fair idea of what he was letting himself in for in restoring the old house. He hadn’t allowed for the major project that re-thatching the roof turned out to be. To minimize the cost of acquiring materials, he bought another abandoned house, stripped it of its thatch, and with friends and neighbors carried bundles of it on their backs to Chiiori. Within a few years the roof was leaking again. Alex faced a completely new re-thatching, which eventually cost 12 million yen.

From graduation at Yale, Alex was designated a Rhodes scholar, and went to Oxford for Chinese studies. Whilst he was there, and his money was running out, he entered an essay competition and won the Oxford Chancellor’s English Essay Award. This was a prize once won by Oscar Wilde. Alex’s Tibetan teacher at Oxford was Michael Aris. He and his wife, Aung San Suu Kyi, were “two of the most memorable people” he met.

The year before he finished his Oxford degrees, Alex attended a seminar near Kyoto for foreigners in traditional arts. That led to his employment a year later in the International Department of the Oomoto Foundation. He helped to manage the Oomoto school of traditional Japanese arts, translated, and interpreted at many world interreligious conferences. Experience with Oomoto in devising a unique way of teaching traditional Japanese arts to modern people continued for 20 years. During this time Alex made himself an authority especially on calligraphy, and developed on his own account art collecting and dealing.

Alex embarked on an unplanned business career when the American company Trammell Crow Ventures appointed him consultant for the company’s art collection, then representative in Tokyo. Alex founded the company Chiiori Ltd. to cope with the demands made on him. His next book, “Dogs and Demons,” became a study of finance and the bureaucracy with cultural issues. A Chinese edition of “Dogs and Demons” is now launched in Beijing. The association with Trammell Crow ended in 1993. In the following year, “Lost Japan,” originally written in Japanese, won the Shincho Literature Prize for nonfiction. Alex was the first non-Japanese to win this prestigious prize.

He continues to originate and to implement. He writes prolifically, appears on TV and radio and is a public speaker. He gives exhibitions of his calligraphy. His company Iori is dedicated to preserving old “machiya” town houses. Six of them in Kyoto are available for visitors and cultural programs. Alex has hosted Laura Bush and appeared on TV with Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara. Unexpectedly, he was invited to join a committee at the prime minister’s residence to advise Junichiro Koizumi on Japan as a tourist destination.

Alex has extended his sphere of influence to Thailand, “a really exciting cultural treasury.” He said, “My greatest dream is the Origin Program of Traditional Asian Arts,” run by his company, for which he is reviving in two centers in Thailand the Oomoto way of teaching traditional arts. Nowadays he thinks of both Thailand and Japan as home.