Dogs and Demons: book cover

Book Info:
Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan
By Alex Kerr
Publisher: Hill & Wang Pub; ISBN: 0809095211; (March 2001)

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Alex Kerr's Biography
Lost Japan: Alex Kerr's First Book
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A Sneaky Attack on Japan
The Once-Rising Sun Hasn't Set Yet
By: Paul J. Scalise

Surprise, surprise: Japan is not perfect. Make way for Alex Kerr, the latest plaintiff in the ongoing case to put Japan and its Western fan club on trial for misrepresentation, sloppy journalism and downright fraud. In his new book, Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan, even the subtitle suggests an anecdotal polemic confronting one of the most controversial subjects in Asian studies: What is the true Japan?

Mr. Kerr, author of Lost Japan and winner of the Shincho Gakugei Literary Prize for nonfiction, cracks open the country's golden coconut only to taste sour milk. But rather than the usual explorations into the seedy underbelly of Tokyo's red-light district, yakuza-ridden boardrooms or "dual economy" of competitive exporters and uncompetitive domestics (something any graduate student can now recite with ease), Mr. Kerr conducts a page-turning tirade on what he sees as Japan's dysfunctional value-system.

Alex Kerr's Japan is a land fraught with contradictions and misspent opportunities: "nature lovers" who concrete over their rivers and seashores; financial regulators who mismanage waning stock markets; technocrats who fail to warn against preventable disasters; and the world's largest creditor nation concealing a national debt approaching 150% of GDP.

These problems do not stem from "neo-mercantilism" per se; Mr. Kerr has little interest in ideology and academic details of U.S.-Japan trade frictions. Nor will readers bracing themselves for a lengthy discussion of corporate governance and its "neo-Confucian" origins have much to worry about. Politics, economics and business might be indicted, but the author's real obsession is the emptiness of post-modern culture.

...After reading Dogs and Demons, no one can accuse Alex Kerr of not caring about Japan.As for always being the source of accurate information, that's another matter....
As the author explains, "Dogs and Demons" (from a Chinese metaphor) paints the simple things of everyday life that the West has taken for granted (Dogs) but are seemingly difficult for Japan: "zoning, sign control, the planting and tending of trees, burial of electric wires, protection of historic neighborhoods, comfortable and attractive residential design, environmentally friendly resorts." The difficult things (Demons) are ostentatious and expensive surface statements; symbolic gestures rather than substantive commitments. Their signs are everywhere: museums without artwork, monuments without honor, roads without destinations.

In short, Mr. Kerr ascribes "culture" as the end-all source of Japan's malaise some hundred years after sociologist Max Weber first tried to explain away China's backwardness in similar fashion. "The problem is not that traditional values have died," Mr. Kerr writes, "but that they have mutated. Frankenstein's monsters taking on terrifying new lives."

Most readers comfortable with the constant barrage of negativity towards environmental politics, cinema, finance, education, architecture and business will appreciate the keen observations that crop up along the way. It is interesting, for example, that Japan's houses are either old or new, but never renovated. It is startling how Japan has no law against asbestos flooring. It is thought provoking that more than 10% of Japan's workforce is employed in the construction industry—twice the number in America and Europe.

After reading Dogs and Demons, no one can accuse Mr. Kerr of not caring about Japan. As for always being the source of accurate information, that's another matter. Several minor errors (for example, he mistakes a Dreamwork film, The Prince of Egypt, for a Disney movie) could be overlooked by the fastidious reader. Sweeping generalizations are more troubling. For example, Mr. Kerr tells us "Japan is the world's only advanced country that does not bury telephone cables and electric lines." The idea is to show that Japan's city-planning lags behind practice in most Western cities. In fact, Tokyo's 23 wards boast 90% of its transmission and 42% of its distribution cables buried under ground, while South Western England only records roughly 39% in total. (Click here for Japan's Underground Installation Rate and here for the UK's Underground Installation Rate.)

In discussing how Japan's insular values have isolated its cinema, Mr. Kerr also declares that "there has never been a successful joint Western-Japanese or Asian-Japanese film, or any highly regarded Japanese film set in another country." But this is another example where hyperbole crowds out easily accessible information. Tora! Tora! Tora!, a 1970 American and Japanese co-production that meticulously dramatizes the attack on Pearl Harbor, garnered an Academy Award for best visual effects in film and was voted one of the 10 best films of the year by the National Board of Review Awards.

Indeed, the intriguing question that arises as one reads this book is why Mr. Kerr insists on gilding the lily. It seems that for the longtime Japan resident and Oxford-educated businessman, it is not enough that Japan faces dire economic straits—thanks in part to weak political institutions—the entire country has to be seen as completely backwards, childish and incompetent. This tendency is not just a criticism of this book but of current thinking on Japan, where well-meaning authors seeking to correct the faulty "Japan Inc." imagery of the past two decades counter with the opposite extreme.

But sooner or later, the sensible reader will wonder: How acceptable would a book portraying modern-day Brazil be if it only described "the culture" in terms of massive foreign-currency debts, supposed deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, AIDS, street children, authoritarianism, business fraud, polluted beaches and inland areas, male chauvinism, a patriarchal class system and latent racial discrimination? While each of these subjects offers us shades of the Brazilian mosaic, they hardly describe the country in toto. So it is with Dogs and Demons—a passionately entertaining, but sadly imbalanced read.

Paul J. Scalise. ďA Sneaky Attack on Japan: The Once Rising Sun Hasnít Set Yet.Ē The Asian Wall Street Journal. October 26, 2001. Pg. W7.

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