Lost Japan – Alex Kerr

In preparation for a vacation to Japan, my mother gave me this one to read. Its main themes are about the loss of important Japanese cultural traditions and the uglification of both the body and the soul of Japan. The author is an art collector, calligrapher, Japanologist and long time resident of the country. Kerr decries modern Japan as filling with concrete, electricity poles, neon pachinko parlors and ugly rooflines while her inhabitants have become conformist, dull and unimaginative.

I found the book quite interesting in parts. His stories of finding and buying an old house in a secluded valley, of the inner workings of kabuki theatre, of unappreciated artworks and of the history of tea ceremony and zen are everything from fascinating to merely eye opening. Unfortunately Kerr does give a strong impression of being the kind of luddite who wishes for all old things to be preserved. By the end of the book, I had somewhat amended this initial impression. I think he does appreciate the need for change, even encouraging it. But he does not understand why there should be change for its own sake if the change only leads to worse things. As an ideal, there is of course nothing wrong with that. But in reality, things don’t really work that way. Change happens and decades or even centuries later people figure out what the actual causes and effects were.

One particularly annoying thing about this book is the constant name dropping. All the people described in the book seem to be maverick geniuses in their fields and Kerr is a close personal friend of every single one. It comes off as not a little pompous. Kerr has certainly led an interesting life, and it is through his life experiences that he can describe his “lost Japan” so deftly. However, this reader felt a bit put off by the tone.

I was also left wondering why, among all this horror at the disappearing culture of Japan, he does not spare even a moment for one of Japan’s most vibrant forms of modern literature, manga/anime cartoons. This art form is lauded the world over. One could even draw parallels to the kabuki described by Kerr, with its emphasis on single moments of resolution as opposed to the narrative continuitiy more emphasized in the west.

The episodic nature of the book works against it. It was originally a series of articles, and the disjointed nature of the whole is unfortunately quite glaring. All in all, the book gave me an eye opening view of Japanese culture through anectodes and strong opinions. I may not necessarily agree with the author, but I suppose that is as it should be. The text should serve as a brief and good introduction to Japanese culture through the eyes of a foreigner who has made it his own.

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