Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Culture of Cheap Industrial Junk ; Japan's Economic Woes Are Just the Beginning of Its Troubles

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Culture of Cheap Industrial Junk ; Japan's Economic Woes Are Just the Beginning of Its Troubles

Article excerpt

"Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan" is nothing less than a sweeping indictment of a nation gone awry.

In chapter after chapter, Alex Kerr describes an oppressively backward-thinking, corrupt, bureaucratic state that is trashing Japan's environment and culture while exploiting the self- sacrificing ethos of its obedient people.

Kerr admits that his deeply troubling depiction of Japan is so remote from Western experience that it "strains credibility." Yet his bitter and somewhat exaggerated conclusions cannot be written off as Japan-bashing, if for no other reason than his obvious love for and profound knowledge of Japan.

Kerr first went to Japan in 1964 as a 12-year-old boy, the son of a US naval officer, and has spent some 35 years as a resident observing the country up close. Fluent in Japanese, he holds a degree in Japanese studies from Yale and is an avid collector of East Asian art. In 1994, his book "Lost Japan," written in Japanese, became the first by a foreigner to win the prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literary Prize for nonfiction.

At the heart of Kerr's argument in this latest book is that Japan still functions on a set of outmoded ideas and social principles that underpinned its development strategy after the shock of World War II. Central among these is Japan's old policy of "poor people, strong state," the author writes, which has led Japan to subordinate the quality of life to the overarching goal of challenging the world with industrial power and economic expansion.

Driving this policy is a massive, secretive, authoritarian bureaucracy that is largely unresponsive to Japan's public but cozily tied to leading industries, Kerr says. Lacking accountability, bureaucrats on "autopilot" have gone to extremes in ordering make-work projects and meaningless regulations that in turn secure industry profits, ministry budgets, and their own employment sinecures.

The results, Kerr says, are devastating Japan: The majority of its rivers, streams, and sea coast are dammed or lined in concrete, its native forests have been clear-cut and replaced with monotonous cedar, and its lands have been polluted from uncontrolled toxic waste. …

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