Book: Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Excellent on culture but praises the past beyond its merits

Lost Japan
Alex Kerr
Lonely Planet
ISBN 0-86442-370-5

I don't know just why I picked up Lost Japan in my neighborhood bookstore. I'm generally impatient with arguments that the past was better than the present because for almost everyone it wasn't. I'm also generally impatient with Japanese history because it's almost unremittingly boring. But I read a page or two in the bookstore and found that Mr Kerr's writing was delightful enough to make me want to ignore any impatience I felt. Reading the whole book bore out that impression.

Not only is Mr Kerr's writing a pleasure to read, his cultural observation and insight are keen, and he has no lack of interesting and entertaining stories. Not everyone has a story to tell in which they're mistaken for a god. Mr Kerr's knowledge of Japanese history is considerable and, happily, when he delves into it he generally manages to make it less tedious than most authors do.

I enjoyed the book very much but I suspect that Mr Kerr wants the reader to regret the things he describes Japan as having lost much more than I did. Most of those things were lost because people don't want them. It's  not hard to guess why there aren't very many roof-thatchers any more. I prefer my indoors dry. Still, as with any country, there are some sad aspects to modernization and the book is delightful whether you agree with Mr Kerr entirely or not. He does sometimes go over the top, as when he says on page 125, "People of ancient times were more cultivated than we are today and had greater leisure time." But more representative is a story he tells of a folding screen that he bought that had been altered somewhere in the course of its history (page 249):

        I took the screens to my mounter Kusaka and asked him
        what he thought of them. He looked at the paper and said,
        "These screens have been completely changed from their
        original intent. Just removing the gold ink is going to take
        two years. Perhaps you should leave them as they are."
        By which, being a Kyoto-ite, he meant that they should be
        restored at once.

Mr Kerr is an American expat who has lived in Japan since the 1970s. He wrote Lost Japan originally as a series of articles in Japanese and while he edited and re-wrote them into book form, he did not do the translation himself. There are a few small infelicities in the translation but they detract hardly at all from the book.

The book is printed on paper that's stiffer than necessary and bound in a way that makes it stiffer still. That makes the book more difficult to handle than it needs to be. It's only a minor nuisance, but it's one that could easily have been avoided.

Posted: Sun - November 16, 2003 at 09:04   Main   Category: