Review: Lost Japan by Alex Kerr ( 2015) Assessment 8 out of 10

Recommended; reading it made it less likely I shall return to Japan

 I read this book having cycled in Japan. Entranced by its beauty and the courtesy of its people, I wished to return.

The book is lyrically written by a Japanese speaking, Oxford educated, American. Throughout it is tinged with regret, for the damage done to the landscape, wild rivers dammed and channelled in concrete, road tunnels cutting through the hillsides, diverse forest replaced by uniform ranks of cedar, unburied electric wires scarring the cities.

There is sadness for the abandonment of thatch, which as a result became prohibitively expensive, and for the ubiquity of garish lighting replacing interior shadows.

Traditional Japanese houses had an adjoining kura, or storehouse. These contained furniture, screens and trays, set out in the house when needed with the seasons, the house otherwise left in an essentially stark emptiness. Subsequently, kura were periodically emptied and the contents sold through Kyoto auction houses. As the kura were emptied, the supply of art and antiques dwindled.

Kerr contrasts Europe, where the traditional continues to be occupied and adapted, with Japan, where it has been abandoned. He summarises Japan’s future as one of theme parks.

Westerners internalise their guilt. The Japanese only regret their actions if shame is externally imposed. There is a uniformity in education and behaviour stifling creativity. Debates in the Japanese Diet are dominated by tatemae, the official position, having precedence over hone, real intent. Culture has flowed one way from China to Japan, with very little passing back. Numerous Japanese practice traditional arts, the tea ceremony, calligraphy, flower arranging, but in formalised ways lacking creativity or, in Kerr’s view, appreciation of real beauty.

Traditional Kabuki theatre involves elaborate costume. The plots are of lords and their retainers, lovers, but never friends. All roles are played by men.

The performances involve elaboration between dancer and drummer, working together with delays in the dance and beat of the drum. Kerr describes an actor playing a princess, who wished to work with a drummer improvising the dance in the traditional way. However the drummer had been trained only to perform according to a fixed pattern and was unable to improvise.

Reading “Lost Japan”, I better appreciated those things, which are beguiling about Japan. I recommend the book both for its language and insights. Sadly, having read it, it is less likely I shall return to Japan.

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