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.