Alex Kerr is one of those writers you have to end up reading when you live here. There's this book and Dogs and Demons
, which invariably tend to signal the end of the Japan Honeymoon for any long-time resident.
To explain - for a lot of people who come here, Kerr included, there's a kind of romantic idea of Japan that keeps people here. It's the Zen and the temples, the red torii gates, the yukata and the festivals. It's the Japanese Mind and the Far East attitude, so different from our own, that entrances us and keeps us here.
Then along comes the moment you realize that, as with so many things in this world, the romantic ideal doesn't match the reality. That's where Kerr comes in.
He's lived here for many years, and spent all of that time getting to know Japan and its culture, and like so many people who study Japan's culture, he mourns its demise. He longs for the simplicity of hidden valleys, of wabi tea bowls and the days when you could buy really good calligraphy cheaply at auctions. He has en entire chapter entitled, "Kyoto Hates Kyoto," about how the city, so desperate to be a Modern City, is tearing down everything that made it the cultural center of Japan. He sees Japan in a state of flux, and he's really worried that it'll go the wrong way.
This book is a series of essays about his life in Japan, the things he's seen that he doesn't see so often anymore. It's pessimistic, to say the least, though not quite so pessimistic as Dogs and Demons is. This kind of harsh eye has led to Kerr being labeled as a Japan-basher, which is a very odd thing to say about someone who's spent most of his life studying and living in Japan.
As he notes, though, there are certain fundamental forces in Japan that resist change, and not the least of those forces are the Romantics who refuse to admit that Japan, the land of philosophy, tea ceremony and Zen, is royally screwing itself up.
He is hopeful, though. He believes that this is another age of transition for Japan, and knows - or at least I think he knows - that no age, however glorious, can last forever. Many of the things he loves about this country will indeed be lost, in the fullness of time. All we can really hope for is that amazing things will arise to take their place.