Lost Japan

Lost Japan, by Alex Kerr (Penguin, 2016)

*

Lost Japan is a sort of love letter to the author’s adopted homeland in the Far East. In this collection of essays (which are edited together pretty well into a coherent narrative), Kerr uses his many decades of expertise in Japanese history and art to let us know why Japan was such a brilliant and unique nation.

Japan is a treasure house of uniqueness. As an island off the Asian mainland, it was able to absorb cultural influences from China and Southeast Asia while at the same time preserving near-total isolation as a society. It became a sort of pressure cooker into which many ingredients went, but from which none came out.

He goes on for countless pages about the beauty of kabuki and the wonderful simplicity of Japanese homes and arts. It is not the lines on the page, nor the notes in the song, but rather than space between it all that is what makes everything so beautiful… 

However, his book is not just a love-letter to Japan. It is lament for the fact that Japan is now just about the ugliest place on earth, in his assessment. He observes the numerous ways in which Japan has been destroyed – and not by the Allies in WWII, but rather by its own people. Its arts and culture are all but dead, he says, and the “The wholesale collapse of the natural environment…will one day been seen as one of the major events of this century.” He tells us how the countryside has been raped by industry, how forests have been cleared and replaced by uniform pine trees, and how the cities are ugly cesspits marred by pachinko parlors.

But at least it’s not as bad as modern China…

It amazes me that Kerr won a prestigious award for this book back when it was first released – in Japanese – in the mid-1990s. I don’t mean to say it’s not a great book because it really is excellent. Rather, it’s so astoundingly critical of Japan that it’s hard to imagine people there accepting the word of a foreigner in such matters. Certainly, that could never happen in China or South Korea. Yet such is the clarity of his explanations and the passion for an old Japan long since ruined that readers could hardly deny his vision.

Homo Deus

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari (Harper, 2015)

*

What does the future hold for humanity?

This is a question that many writers, artists, and thinkers have tried to answer. In fact, predicting the future is a sort of industry. Beyond sci-fi, serious writers have attempted to map out the future of our species in daring works of non-fiction. Yet Harari’s is one of the most believable.

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian, and his previous book, Sapiens, is one of my favourite books. In that text, he masterfully explored the entirety of our species’ history, and in this one he looks into the near future. He often makes bold claims, but then tempers them with caution that no one could know the future, as well as offering tempting evidence to support his ideas. 

He starts off where the previous book left, by looking into the past. Here, he concludes – with the first of many seemingly shocking claims – that humans have defeated the problems that have tormented us since the dawn of time. We no longer suffer from disease, hunger, or war, he says. (Of course, he acknowledges that we do, but only in rather isolated cases and that, for example, more people die from eating too much than too little.)

For the first time in history, more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.

Thus, Harari turns to the future. If we have beaten the problems that have always plagued us, where now do we turn? We turn ourselves into gods, of course. That means humanity will in the future seek to achieve happiness, immortality, and divinity. (For some reason, he always lists his ideas and examples in sets of three.) This change, however, will not by conscious. We will not decide to do these things, but rather we will step-by-step graduate into them without realizing it, even if it happens quickly:

In pursuit of health, happiness, and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be humans.

The rest of the book sort of follows these ideas, but it wanders significantly into different but related territories. Structurally, it’s almost a stream-of-consciousness work as it wanders hither and thither, covering animal rights and artificial intelligence, the validity of human experience and the importance of data, and even speculating as to whether our world is real or just a simulation. He zips between the distant past, the present, and the decades to come in order to ask and answer questions about what we can expect humans to do.

Yet even if it goes off track a little, and is sometimes a bit repetitive, it is always readable. Harari knows how to explain very complex matters in simple language. He delves into deep science and philosophy, as well as areas from across the whole of human history, and the reader is not overwhelmed. It is a pleasure to follow his arguments.

Last Hope Island

Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War, by Lynne Olson (Random House, 2017)

*

Where we come from to a great extent determines how we view the past, and this is true even for major events like World War II. Although we might think that because it’s in recent memory and because there are so many records of what happened we know the whole story, sometimes our viewpoint obscures large swathes of the reality. If you’re American, you might view the story of World War II as revolving to a great extent around the Pacific and ending with the atomic bomb being dropped over Japan. If you’re British, you probably think of the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and Normandy.

In Last Hope Island, Lynne Olson tells the story of the war from a perspective many of us probably haven’t taken. She looks at the war through the eyes of six governments in exile from their homelands – Norway, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. After each country was quickly and violently taken over by the Nazis, their leaders soon found themselves attempting to coordinate resistance movements from London.

Olson’s book is beyond fascinating. Her wide-ranging narrative takes us to the exploits of the frighteningly incompetent intelligence agencies of England and the underground movements that helped downed airmen escape from occupied territory. She looks at the complex political jostling between nations even within nations, as well as exploring the incomparable value of the BBC as a tool for communicating with the subjugated peoples of Europe.

The book is heartbreaking, particularly in the case of Poland, which fought so bravely during the war. In the beginning, their pilots were mocked by prejudiced Brits, but soon they were the pride of the RAF. Yet by the end of the war, after giving so much, their nation was traded away to the Soviets, who took retribution against those heroes who fought for Allied Europe.

We all know that it was a brutal war and countless lives were lost. We all know that the suffering is hard to appreciate precisely because it was so great. Yet Olson’s book opens up stories we haven’t heard before and reminds us of just how terrible humans can be – but also how brave and wonderful they are. In her stories of lives lost so needlessly because of poor decision by government officials, we see beyond the façade of good guys and bad guys to the fact that, in this world, often people suffer because of inaction or poor choices.

Last Hope Island is a wonderful book and a must-read for anyone interested in World War II.