The high price of modernization Japan: The natural beauty fades, the environment is plundered, the traditional arts are neglected. An American social critic details the cultural costs in 'Lost Japan.'

Sun Journal

September 07, 1998|By Stefan Sullivan | Stefan Sullivan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANGKOK, Thailand -- With the yen sinking, unemployment rocketing and its banking sector saddled with as much as a trillion dollars in bad loans, Japan's current woes might seem to be all economic. But amid the recent obituaries for Japan Inc., an equally damning indictment has emerged: Three decades of mismanaged growth have tarnished Japan's natural beauty and traditional arts.

Bad planning, public indifference and a zealous use of cement have conspired to create an ugly little island. The country's once hazy, delicate landscape -- immortalized in those famously Spartan strokes of black ink -- has been bulldozed, tweaked and pruned, paved over, dammed up and micromanaged into oblivion.

Old homes and temples have been left to rot. The ancient arts of calligraphy, tea ceremony and kabuki theater die a slow death as homogeneous youth flit from trend to trend in neurotic pursuit of entertainment. And the many hobby practitioners of the ancient arts rarely penetrate the decorative veneer to the wealth of symbolism beneath.

This grim account comes not from the lips of local elders, but from the pen of Alex Kerr, a 46-year-old American whose popular book "Lost Japan" has vaulted him onto a soapbox for cultural reform.

The son of a U.S. naval officer stationed in Yokohama in the mid-1960s, Kerr informs his autobiographical account with memories of the pre-Sony era, a Japan of green hills, tiled roofs and romantic mists rising from mountain gorges. Although traditionalism all but drove the nation to a collective hara-kiri in World War II, the country remained very much connected to its past.

But Kerr provides more than a nostalgic lament. Drawing upon a 25-year residence in Japan during which he wore many hats -- from bohemian calligrapher to corporate real-estate executive -- he passionately documents the losing battle of environment and culture against reckless modernization.

The fulcrum around which the story revolves is the author's home hidden away in the remote Iya valley -- the deepest gorge in Japan -- on Shikoku island in Japan's south. Found abandoned and overgrown with moss and ferns, while Kerr was still a college undergraduate, the house was restored with the help of local craftsmen. It became the subject of a magazine article, which grew into a series on the decline of traditional arts, and finally a book. Originally written in Japanese, it received the prestigious Gakugei Literature Prize in 1994, the first time it was awarded to a foreigner.

At first glance, the highly ritualized art forms Kerr describes -- calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging -- seem to the uninitiated outsider too refined to act as potent vehicles for cultural criticism, let alone reform. They seem to betray a typically Japanese preference for surface beauty: passive, codified, caged and frozen.

But Kerr's account appeals, thanks to a wealth of personal anecdotes and historical research that unveil the meaning behind the pretty things. Wise words from crusty mentors impose solemnity on the small objects and painstaking ritual. One learns of the cool simplicity of wabi tea bowls, the spontaneity of wine-loving Zen calligraphers, and the intensity of kabuki actors still in character backstage. And, in a classic example of how a hyperabundance of detail can captivate rather than repel, he lavishes most of a chapter on the mechanics of thatching the roof of his Iya valley home.

Typically, it all serves a larger purpose. The meticulous description of the thatcher's art -- the weaving and frame-building, the six different types of bamboo, the layers of dried suzuki grass -- leads Kerr to a more general conclusion: "This ability to make sophisticated use of humble natural materials was one of the defining characteristics of Japan's tradition. In that light, the loss of thatching is not just a quirk of modern rural development: It is a blow to the heart."

The abuses that have been heaped on the environment -- the concrete river beds, forests converted to dreary tree factories, mountainsides scarred by concrete retaining walls and utility pylons -- are, in Kerr's view, the offspring of self-serving bureaucrats and an indifferent public.

Though one-thirtieth of America's size, Japan every year pours twice as much cement as the United States. Forty percent of its national budget goes to construction, compared with 8 percent to 10 percent in the United States.

Kerr has little sympathy for the modernization excuse, the idea that the environmental degradation was a necessary byproduct of Japan's rapid leap forward. On the contrary, he argues, Japan's problem is that it is not modern enough. Whereas Europe and the United States have already absorbed environmental awareness and historical conservation into the political mainstream, Japan is mired in an early-1970s vision of modernity, replete with architectural growths disembodied from their surroundings and an economy still largely based on heavy industry and manufacturing.

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