Lost Japan (Alex Kerr): Still applicable?


For me Japan is the country I hope to spend the rest of my life and therefore care a lot. By chance I came across the book “Lost Japan” by Alex Kerr again and I was wondering whether the content is still applicable after more than 14 years after first publication. Like his other book “Dogs and Demons” he shows the actual Japan and is not solely praising Japan like as if seen trough pink glasses. Seeing the reviews on Amazon, some even argue that Alex Kerr’s viewpoint is cheap Japanese journalism and that he has apparently gone native. Personally I believe in many cases he has an interesting viewpoint and his arguments make sense to me. Let me share some aspects of the book that still are very much true for me.

The importance of an official opinion instead of speaking one’s mind:
“Why did stagecraft develop to such a level in Japan? At the risk of oversimplification, I would say it was because Japan is a country where the exterior is more valued over the interior. One may see the negative effects of this in many aspects of Japanese life. For instance, the fruits and vegetables in a Japanese supermarket are all flawless in color and shape as if made from wax, but they are flavorless. The importance of the exterior may be seen in the conflict between tatemae (officially stated position) and honne (real intent), which is a stable of books written about Japan. Listening to the debates in Japan’s Diet, it is abundantly clear that tatemae is given preference over honne. Nevertheless, this emphasis on the surface is not without its positive side, for Kabuki’s unparalleled stagecraft is a direct result of such prizing of the outward.”

I often heard the same comments about the difficulty to make friends as Japanese:
“There are the people you know in high school who remain bosom buddies for life. Everyone you meet after that cannot be trusted.”

Although the attraction of Japan compared to China does not apply to me – at least I think so – still there is some truth in it. Personally I think living in Japan is more comfortable than anywhere else I had experienced:
“I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds…..China will never allow you to sit back and think, “all is perfect.” Japan, on the other hand, with its social pattern designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is much more comfortable to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness.”

As for the last quote, I see some truth in it and now I am still wondering whether truly education could be the origin for the commonly complained lack of creativity and originality. At the same time from Japanese perspective my drive and desire for constant improvement could be my disadvantage for finding truly happiness as being average:
“It has often been pointed out that the Japanese educational system aims to produce a high average level of achievement for all, rather than an excellence for a few. Students in school are not encouraged to stand out and ask questions, with the result that the Japanese become conditioned to a life of the average…Americans are taught from childhood to show creativity. If you do not “become a unique person”, then you are led to believe you have something wrong with you… I sometimes think that the requirement to “be interesting” inculturated by American education might be a very cruel thing. Since most of us lead a commonplace lives, it is a foregone conclusion that we will be disappointed. But in Japan, people are conditioned to be satisfied with average, so they can’t fail but to be happy with their lots.”

Basically I think the message of Alex Kerr is still correct that a lot of cultural knowledge and goods are lost in Japan, but I need to say that this is not only a Japanese phenomenon. Although time has passed, I still recommend “Lost Japan” as a book with great insights for foreigners and a wake up call for Japanese.

Brought to you by Sibylle Ito (シビル伊藤)

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