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Home > Books & Journals > Book Review Last Updated: 14:22 03/09/2007
Book Review #40: November 11, 2002

"Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan"

edited by Alex Kerr

Reviewed by Hiroko Kawai (GLOCOM)

Title: Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan
Editor: Alex Kerr
Date/Time: 2001
Pages: English text 432 pages (Paperback)
ISBN: 0141010002


This book is an alarming and impressive volume on modern-day Japan. It conveys furiously in many directions how Japanese "cultural malaise" came about due to a severe mismatch between Japan's bureaucratic system and the realities of modern life, and it reveals how Japanese bureaucrats have poisoned and ruined nature in Japanese culture.

Although over the decades a considerable number of studies have been made on Japanese "modernization" by Western supporters of Japanese economic success, these authors failed to notice that in the pursuit of this modernization the Japanese had turned their country into a degraded, concrete shambles - a wilderness of bad planning and corruption. The central thesis of this book is that Japan's errors during the 1990s spring from exactly the opposite problem, "a failure to modernize".

Kerr found in his research that Japan's problems have their roots in the 1880s, when the country first opened to the world. The basic policy of sacrificing everything for industrial growth never changed. Distortions and hidden debts have accumulated and turned into a profoundly troubled state in the 1990s.

The author lists example after example, though anecdotal, but also based on local news reports to support his claims. He starts off decrying the country's politics and the durability of the construction state, which has led to severe environmental destruction, with more and more roads, railways, and bridges to nowhere, merely to boost construction company profits and politicians' electability. Closely linked is the sheer corruption involved, and the inherently secretive and reactionary bureaucracy. He also insists that the core of the entire problem can be explained with the concept of "Japan at the extremes." Led by bureaucracies on automatic pilot, the nation has carried out certain policies that in many ways are terrifying.

Kerr concludes that the bureaucracy serves as a cancer of Japanese society, and obstructs economic and cultural development.

He also explains that the title Dogs and Demons comes from the historical Chinese idea that the commonplace things around us, like dogs, are difficult to recall in detail, whereas it is easy to conjure up demons from our imaginations. This is a metaphorical expression of the issues that face Japan: It is more difficult to deal with everyday problems in a realistic way, so they are dealt with instead by creating "Demons" like massive construction projects that go beyond real need.

The author admits that the purpose of this book has been to describe present reality in order to bring a greater number of people to that point of awareness. However, Kerr believes that the prescription for Japanese malaise is getting back in touch with reality. Japanese must recognize that their "Dog and Demon" monuments are a sort of defensive bulwark.

Although this book might be a bit pessimistic, it is worth reading for every Japanese politician and Japan watcher to understand Japanese problems.

The table of contents is as follows:
1. The Land: The Construction State
2. Environments: Cedar Plantations and Orange Ooze
3. The Bubble: Looking Back
4. Information: A Different View of Reality
5. Bureaucracy: Power and Privilege
6. Monuments: Airports for Radishes
7. Old Cities: Kyoto and Tourism
8. New Cities: Electric Wires and Roof Boxes
9. Demons: The Philosophy of Monuments
10. Manga and Massive: The Business of Monuments
11. National Wealth: Debt, Public and Private
12. Education: Following the Rules
13. After School: Flowers and Cinema
14. Internationalization: Refugees and Expats
15. To Change or Not to Change: Boiled Frog

The following is from the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ)'s web site:

For more on Alex Kerr's presentation and photos, follow this link.

The following is from the publisher's website:

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