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.
Since sounding the alarm with "Lost Japan" four years ago, Kerr has moved his base to Thailand. From an elaborately furnished Bangkok apartment that also doubles as his antiques showroom, he juggles a portfolio of art dealing, cultural advocacy and ever-increasing news media commitments. He has just completed another book on the woes of contemporary Japan.
"Whereas my first book was a personal memoir largely based on feeling or intuition about the things that have gone wrong," he says, "my next book, 'Dogs and Demons,' tries to provide more scientific answers."
Answers to a particularly troubling question: Despite its lingering reputation of high-tech innovation, why is Japan surprisingly backward in critical sectors such as banking, computers, medicine and urban planning?
Not a few critics have placed the blame on the nation's sclerotic political system. An electoral setback this summer led not to new initiatives by a chastened leadership, much less to a new government, but to a cautious reshuffling of familiar and discredited personalities.
An apathetic public with no habit of grass-roots activism is partly to blame, but the boogeyman in the current national soul-searching is the bureaucracy. "Bureaucrats in Japan today," one of the nation's leading social critics, Taichi Sakaiya, scolds in a recent article, "are the owners, rule-makers, coaches and referees rolled into one."
To remedy the malaise, he calls for a radical reduction of the bureaucracy and the relocation of the capital away from Tokyo, where too much power has been concentrated. "Japan," he says, "needs a radical shock to break free from its inertia."
Although Kerr also claims to hear "rumblings of revolution," he sees few outlets emerging for political radicalism and offers few blueprints of his own. More likely, he thinks, is that the elite administrative organs will plod along experimenting with piecemeal solutions. "Revolution won't come until it's truly disastrous," he shrugs.
In the meantime, he will concentrate on matters closer to home: a Western-style environmental campaign to preserve the Iya valley, his small slice of Japan's fading beauty.
Pub Date: 9/07/98