Kerr, Alex 1952-
KERR, Alex 1952-
ADDRESSES: Home—Bangkok, Thailand. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Author, business consultant, art dealer, manager of cultural events, and calligrapher. Exhibitions: Pasadena Center, Shumei Hall Gallery, 2002.
MEMBER: Oomoto Foundation.
AWARDS, HONORS: Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for the best work of nonfiction published in Japan, 1994, for Lost Japan; Rhodes scholar.
(Translator and editor) Clifton Karhu, Kyoto Rediscovered: A Portfolio of Woodblock Prints, Weatherhill/Tankosha (New York, NY), 1980.
Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo, Shinchosha (Tokyo, Japan), 1993, translated and adapted as Lost Japan, Lonely Planet Publications (Oakland, CA), 1996.
Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 2001.
SIDELIGHTS: Author and business consultant Alex Kerr first experienced Japan as the twelve-year-old son of a naval officer stationed in Yokohama in the mid-1960s. Since then, Kerr has become completely immersed in Japanese landscape and culture. He has lived in Japan since 1977 and speaks and writes the language fluently, producing his books and conducting lectures in Japanese. He participates in a number of Japanese arts, including calligraphy, and is associated with the Oomoto Foundation, a Shinto organization dedicated to teaching and preserving traditional Japanese arts. Kerr is also a collector and dealer in East Asian art. As part of his business, Kerr manages cultural events throughout Asia, including Singapore, Thailand, and Cambodia.
A passionate and knowledgeable advocate for Japanese culture and the country's centuries-old traditions, Kerr laments the gradual loss of these traditions and the inexorable encroachment of modernization in his book, Lost Japan. Kerr "makes the case that Japan's modernization has been so rapid and thoughtless that it has come at the price of some of the most valuable features of the national heritage," commented Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times. Kerr "is scathing, in the book and in conversation, about many aspects of the arts, society, and government in Japan, but nobody accuses him of being a Japan-basher," Kristof observed. "Presumably that was because his book—and his life—are infused with love for Japan and its traditional arts."
Assembled from a series of columns that Kerr wrote for a Japanese newspaper, Lost Japan explores a variety of aspects of Japanese art and culture. He delves into the intricacies of Kabuki theater, explores the details of the Japanese tea ceremony, and discusses his interest in Japanese calligraphy. He relates his experiences of the business side of Japan, and also confronts what he sees as the contradiction in Japanese aesthetics that allows his adopted countrymen to ignore the industrial landscape and focus on the remaining greenery. "Sometimes the most perceptive critics are outsiders looking on from the inside," observed a reviewer in Asiaweek. A Time International critic called Lost Japan "an opinionated and thoughtful read."
The original Japanese version of Lost Japan won the prestigious Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for the best work of non-fiction published in Japan; notably, Kerr was the first non-Japanese writer to win the award.
Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan presents "a remarkable portrait of modern Japan, virtually no part of which is flattering," remarked Richard J. Samuels in New York Times Book Review. "As his subtitle indicates, he goes out of his way to catalog the dysfunctions that dominate an unhappy and declining country." In the book Kerr "confidently cuts a broad swath across the worlds of architecture, education, politics, cinema, business, and the environment to make the case that Japan has fallen victim to its own success," Samuels commented. Form takes precedence over function and purpose in all aspects of Japanese society, Kerr observes. As a result, "what is left is empty: memorization without learning, design without context, building without purpose, information without knowledge, finance without the production of value," Samuels stated.
Kerr offers a variety of relevant observations and facts to support his polemic. Having long ago run out of needed public projects, the Japanese continue to build, expand, and pour concrete over their ever-diminishing open land. Public works spending in Japan exceeds that of the United States by as much as 400 percent in a country with a twentieth of the available land area. Bureaucrats are more interested in creating profits for pet industries and securing their own jobs; officials caught up in demands for accountability have been known to openly and defiantly destroy records and evidence of any wrongdoing. All but three of the country's 113 rivers have been dammed or diverted, and more than sixty percent of the Japanese coastline is drowned in concrete. Public education stresses rote memorization over the learning of critical thinking and analysis skills. The country's bloated construction industry lies at the heart of most of Japan's problems, but it is so inextricably bound to the economy that changes would be financially and economically disastrous—so, the buildings continue to rise and the concrete continues to flow.
"Much of this book is provocative, and deliberately so," noted Newsweek International reviewer Andrew Nagorski. Even so, it is "a product of tough love," Nagorski observed. "Instead of simply dismissing the book as a condemnation of their society, as many will, Japanese readers might do well to examine its many valid criticisms and take them as a powerful exhortation to chart a new course." Dogs and Demons is "nothing less than a sweeping indictment of a nation gone awry," commented Ann Scott Tyson in the Christian Science Monitor. The book "is a must read for anyone with even a cursory interest in the rise and continued fall of postwar Japan," wrote Michael Judge in the Wall Street Journal.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kerr, Alex, Lost Japan, Lonely Planet Publications (Oakland, CA), 1996.
Asiaweek, June 24, 1996, "Narrow View," review of Lost Japan.
Booklist, February 15, 2001, David Pitt, review of Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan, p. 1112.
Christian Science Monitor, May 3, 2001, Ann Scott Tyson, "A Culture of Cheap Industrial Junk—Japan's Economic Woes are Just the Beginning of Its Troubles," p. 20.
Economist, February 10, 2001, "Concretely; Japan Observed; Observing Japan," p. 7.
Ideas on Liberty, March, 2003, Victor A. Matheson, review of Dogs and Demons, p. 60.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 2001, review of Dogs and Demons, p. 94.
Look Japan, November, 2003, Tony McNicol, "Calling Back the Children," p. 38.
Newsweek International, June 25, 2001, Andrew Nagorski, "A 'Misguided' Country," review of Dogs and Demons, p. 33.
New York Times, September 5, 1996, Nicholas D. Kristof, "A Fervent Traditionalist in Japan (An American?)."
New York Times Book Review, April 15, 2001, Richard J. Samuels, "Land of the Setting Sun?," review of Dogs and Demons, p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, February 12, 2001, review of Dogs and Demons, p. 197.
Reason, March, 2002, Charles Oliver, "Tales from the Dark Side: Divining the Causes of Japan's Economic Nightmare," p. 71.
Time International, November 9, 1998, review of Lost Japan, p. 8.
Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2001, Michael Judge, review of Dogs and Demons, p. W10.
Holtzbrinck Publishers Web site,http://www.holtzbrinckpublishers.com/ (October 4, 2004), "Alex Kerr."
Lonely Planet Web site,http://www.lonelyplanet.com/ (October 4, 2004), "Alex Kerr."
Shumei Arts Web site,http://www.shumeiarts.org/ (October 4, 2004), Patricia McNaughton, "A Finite Brush with Time" (interview).*