[Book] ‘Lost Japan’ (1996) by Alex Kerr

LostJapanReading this book was like having a long conversation with a sophisticated, level-headed observer of Japan who has spent decades digesting the country’s culture and history. Alex Kerr (1952 – present) is a rare mind who possesses a deep appreciation of Japan’s aesthetics and is nonetheless not blind to her darker, dysfunctional sides. In addition to being a Japanologist (he did Japanese studies for his undergraduate degree at Yale), he also has the unique advantage of being also a Sinologist (afterwards he did Chinese studies at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar). In addition to being a scholar and aesthete, he also has the uncommon experience of having also worked as a businessman during the Bubble Era. Only someone with his background could have had the insight and authority to say things like:

I will surely be criticized for making broad generalizations about the nature of Japanologists and Sinologists – but I can’t resist. Lovers of China are thinkers; lovers of Japan, sensuous. People drawn to China are restless, adventurous types, with critical minds. They have to be, because Chinese society is capricious, changing from one instant to the next, and Chinese conversation is fast moving and pointed. You can hardly relax for an instant: no matter how fascinating it is, China will never allow you to sit back and think, ‘All is perfect.’ Japan, on the other hand, with its social patterns designed to cocoon everyone and everything from harsh reality, is a much more comfortable country to live in. Well-established rhythms and politeness shield you from most unpleasantness. Japan can be a kind of ‘lotus land’, where one floats blissfully away on the placid surface of things. […]

This is partly because of the country’s insecurity about itself, which results in everyone being seen as either a ‘Japan basher’ or a ‘Japan lover’. People think they need to approach Japan with a worshipful attitude in order to gain access to its society and culture. The conversion mentality is something I often run across in Kyoto: foreigners studying the arts there tend to mouth tea-ceremony slogans such as ‘Harmony, Respect, Purity, Solitude’ with the same zeal that born-again Christians talk about Faith. Sometimes I think ‘Japanese Studies’ would be more accurately described as ‘Japan Worship’.

I can attest that what he says is also true in my own experience. I have come across my fair share of students of Japan who approach the country almost as a cult object. They tend to see things in simple black and white and display the ‘either you are with us or against us’ mentality. Students of China, on the other hand, tend to see things in ever expanding shades of gray; they tend to be free of illusions or strong opinions about absolutes.

The book is brimming with keen, well-crafted observations as these – all drawn from the author’s wide-ranging experiences. I was really delighted with it. It was originally written in Japanese entitled Nihon no Utsukushi Zanzou [美しき日本の残像], and only later was it translated into English by its author. The revised 2015 edition was published under the Penguin label, a sterling mark of quality.

Alex Kerr is now of 64 years of age, and he wrote the first Japanese edition of this book in 1993 when he was only 41. Since Lost Japan, he has published things few and far between in Japanese, and I think it a pity that he has not published more. I for one have become a confirmed fan of his.


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