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Review: Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark side of Japan

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Japan, everyone knows, is a highly advanced society: technologically savvy, economically prosperous, possessing a glamorous history, socially harmonious, in tune with nature -- indeed, their culture is even Buddhist! There was that whole militaristic expansionism phase with the invasion and conquest of most of Southeast Asia, but that's all behind us now. This glamorous image of Japan, as an island Camelot in Asia, is laid quite to rest by Alex Kerr's impressive Dogs and Demons, a study of foundational problems in Japan's national life. He argues, persuasively, that the social problems which surface in the English-language papers of Japan are not merely temporary or deviations from Japan's norms, but simply symptoms of chronic disorders.

Examining a range of Japanese social problems, Kerr spends nearly 400 pages discussing a few powerful social tendencies and the ways in which these have distorted Japan's modern development. I should note at this point my gravest reservations about the idiotic documentation system employed in Kerr's book. Because of the fact that all of Kerr's figures, quotes, and references are simply jammed into a notes section at the end of the book, divided there by chapter, and indicated merely by the page on which they appear, the text of Dogs and Demons appears wholly undocumented, or unresearched. Editors who permit this sort of thing have a special place on the Cornice of Sloth, I'm sure, which hopefully involves Very Bad Things as penance. In spite of the appearances, however, the notes do appear to be complete and give all due credit; Kerr and/or his agent should spend some extra time every week on the phone screaming at the editor(s) about the notes, though.

Back to the text. Kerr has 14 chapters devoted to different problems (for example: economics, urban development, public works, education). The specific problems are in themselves daunting policy and social challenges; tendencies he discusses in Japanese context can be seen in the USA as well, for instance, but together, on the scale he demonstrates, they indicate a confluence of what I will summarize as three major tendencies. (This is an oversimplification of Kerr's argument, but will indicate to the reader major points.) First, Japan is largely governed by the bureaucracies of the major ministries (Finance, Forestry, etc.), and these bodies act in the interests for the ministries as a group. Policies set by the ministries are ossified, largely unchanged since the 1960's, and are largely defensive in nature. The results are that government serves almost no real needs for the Japanese. Kerr calls "The Construction State" the most visible aspect of this problem. Second, a problem symbiotic with the first: the information problem. In chapter 4, a number of astounding examples show an endemic problem for goverment and business in the fabrication of statistics and figures. Companies disclose almost no financial data, and make extensive use of shell companies and circular transactions to show favorable outcomes; government agencies may plead ignorance or actively thwart those prying into ministries' affairs (this is related to the previous point). Kerr remarks, "In short, everywhere you look you find that information in Japan is not to be trusted. I will admit to a twinge of fear myself, for this book is filled with statistics whose accuracy I cannot gauge." (p. 162)

Third, there is a theme which is bound to be controversial in summary: cultural/social rigidity. My interpretation of Kerr's description is that many Japanese have been shaped by the Japanese educational system to such a degree that conformity and a lack of creativity paralyze the society as a whole. The rigidity and rote nature of Japanese education, and the problem of ijime, bullying, are known to some extent outside of Japan, but as Kerr argues, because of Japan's economic success, the educational system is assumued to be "working", since the economy keeps succeeding (though we have seen above the problems with assuming this from the statistics). Kerr argues that two lessons are visible from the very first day of kindergarten in Japan: One, the importance of moving in unison, and Two, it is a crime to be different (with the natural corrolary - xenophobia) (p. 285-7). Although this could simply be seen as an exaggeration or misunderstanding of a society which has a stronger social structure than the individualist US or UK, Kerr again follows through with an extensive discussion based on Japanese sources as well as expatriate perspectives. In Kerr's words:

There is no doubt that Japan's educational system produces a dedicated workforce, and that these "corporate warriors" are the engine behind Japan's tremendous industrial strength. Obedience to authority, instilled in people from the time they are small children, makes Japanese society work very smoothly, with far less of the social turmoil and violent crime that have plagued other countries. All this is on the plus side of the balance. But there is a minus side, which like so many other modern Japanese problems, has to do with once-good ideas carried too far.
Many of the behaviors fostered in the schools continue not only in higher education, and the workplace, but in the personal and social lives of Japanese; the problem, then, isn't just a maladjusted educational system, but is truly "the Dark Side of Japan". Just as the fruit of this 'dark side' is seen socio-politically in the bureaucracy and information problems, it is visible socio-culturally in personal and cultural petrification; Kerr devotes chapter 13 to examples of the problem in social groups, hobbies, and cinema. (I'm sad to say he's rather negative on the mighty Godzilla series that I love so much, but he has a valid argument even there (p. 325-7).) The slippery problem of language, and the tatamae aspect of discussions about culture contribute to the redefinitions of reality:
Slogans require a certain amount of care in handling, since their true intent is often far from their surface meaning. Take, for example, the term "symbiotic unity," kyosei, used by Hasegawa Itsuko to describe her metal-and-plastic trees. Kyosei literally means "living together," and it is a rallying cry for modern Japanese architecture, made famous by Kurokawa Kisho, who used it to justify proposals like the one for filling in Tokyo Bay by razing a mountain range. Kyosei, in other words, is exactly the opposite of "symbiotic unity with the environment."
(p. 249)
Is this the counsel of despair? A gallery of horrors, one which could perhaps be written, with variations, on any country in the world? I think not. Kerr writes, as he says from the outset, from a deep sense of loss for the aspects of Japan that he loves. And there is much to love, and therefore to salvage, from Japan's present condition.

This is why I most highly recommend Dogs and Demons: it is a hard look at the reality of Japan's condition at the turn of the century. Specialists or closer observers of Japan may be able to criticize Kerr's contribution on a variety of grounds, although given his consistent documentation of his sources, I believe that it will be very difficult to simply dismiss him as a naysayer. (Feedback from those with such experience is welcomedin the comments!) As one who is interested in working in Japan, I was glad to find a book on Japanese society which moved beyond 'geisha and sumo, Godzilla and Sony' to the issues that face the Japanese themselves.

Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. (Hill and Wang, 2001) ISBN 0-8090-9521-1

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