When I picked up Lost Japan in my local Waterstones I was expecting to read a book about Japan’s fading past. Instead, I received a book of Alex Kerr’s lamentations about how his concept of Japan was being covered over by concrete. He frames the Japanese as a people deliberately trained to be passive and disconnected from their heritage. It is certainly a read that has polarised reader’s opinions of whether or not this is a book worth reading.
I can see why criticism is so easy to level against Kerr’s concept of Japan. It often appears that Kerr claims to know Japan better than the Japanese. He regularly laments how the Japanese people have been blinded by a world of concrete and neon light. Kerr frames the Japanese as a people who would rather play Pachinko and rake sand than embrace the beauty of their wild landscape and cultural heritage. It is easy for a reader to see Kerr as a decadent westerner that never went home after his grand tour. However, at the same time, he does have a point. Kerr claims that post-war Japan has been a nation taught to be ashamed of its heritage. It would rather bull-doze and rebuild than preserve, restore and remember. In Kerr’s world Japan is out of touch with itself and unwilling to abandon its artificially created protection against both itself and the outside world. Kerr’s Japan is paralysed between the pressure of the outside world looking in and a people trained to be afraid of looking out. When this book was translated into English in 1996 this must have been far more evident. Kerr’s Lost Japan was not yet transformed beyond recognition and the modern Japan of Kawaii had yet to emerge as a dominant scene in Japanese culture. For Kerr Japan’s beauty was in the mystery of its deep and rich past in a time before traditional arts had been sidelined as tourist attractions. His Japan was fleeting, rarely seen and infinitely beautiful in its complex simplicity.
So, is this a good read? I don’t know if I could claim that it is a good read but it is certainly contains an interesting way of thinking about modern Japan. It moves beyond the lights and buzz of Japan’s bustling cities and forces us out into the rural towns and villages where a Lost Japan may still exist.