Entries in Alex Kerr (2)



   Back when I did a lot of translation work, there was a phrase that I was forced time and again to render into English: utsukushii shizen ni megumareta (美しい胃自然に恵まれた, lit. “blessed with beautiful nature”). I would translate it in a variety of ways, such as “The prefecture is blessed with bountiful nature”, “The city is surrounded by lots of natural beauty”, or “The town is surrounded by beautiful nature.” Or even, “It is located in an idyllic natural setting.” I found that if I took too much poetic license in my translations, they invariably came back to me with “You left out ‘beautiful’” or “You failed to mention ‘nature’ in your translation”. Whatever.

   The thing that killed me when I was doing these translations is that I would look out my window at the jumble of telephone wires and cables, the lack of trees, the concrete poured over anything and everything, the gray balconies and staircases stretching as far as the eye could see and shout, “Where the hell is the ‘beautiful nature’? Tell me!! Where is it?!?!”

   Having grown up in the west coast of the United States, I know what unspoilt nature is supposed to look like. In my twenty years in Japan, however, I have yet to find a place that has not been touched by the destructive hand of man despite having seen quite a bit of the country. Mountains that have stood since time immemorial are now “reinforced” with an ugly layer of concrete; rivers and creeks are little more than concrete sluices; and Japan’s once beautiful coastline is an unsightly jumble of tetrapods—concrete blocks resembling jacks—that are supposed to serve as breakwaters but do very little in reality.

   The uglification of Japan has been well documented in Alex Kerr’s excellent and highly recommended books Lost Japan and Dogs and Demons.

   "Today's earthworks use concrete in myriad inventive forms: slabs, steps, bars, bricks, tubes, spikes, blocks, square and cross-shaped buttresses, protruding nipples, lattices, hexagons, serpentine walls topped by iron fences, and wire nets," he writes in Dogs and Demons.

   "Tetrapod may be an unfamiliar word to readers who have not visited Japan and seen them lined up by the hundreds along bays and beaches. They look like oversized jacks with four concrete legs, some weighing as much as 50 tons. Tetrapods, which are supposed to retard beach erosion, are big business. So profitable are they to bureaucrats that three different ministries — of Transport, of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and of Construction — annually spend 500 billion yen each, sprinkling tetrapods along the coast, like three giants throwing jacks, with the shore as their playing board.

   These projects are mostly unnecessary or worse than unnecessary. It turns out that wave action on tetrapods wears the sand away faster and causes greater erosion than would be the case if the beaches had been left alone."†

   One of Japan’s recurring problems is that once something has been set into motion it is often difficult to change course. As a result, by the early 90s more than half of Japan’s coastline had already been blighted by these ugly tetrapods. I dread to know what the figure is today.

   One of first of my imaginary political party’s[1] campaign promises is to form a Ministry of De-construction that would remove unnecessary dams, tetrapods, concrete reinforcements, and so on. The idea is to put the ever so important general construction industry to work by undoing all of their mistakes. Second, where the dams, reinforcements and tetrapods were truly necessary, they would be concealed in such a way to look as natural as possible. Third, the electric cables would be buried. Fourth, there were would be stronger zoning and city planning to reign in urban and suburban sprawl. Create compact, highly dense cities that were separated from each other by areas of farming, natural reserves, and parks. (One thing I can’t get is how in a country with as large a population as Japan’s and land as limited put vertical limits on construction—Fukuoka City once had a limit of 15 stories). Fifth, reintroduce diversity to the nation’s forests. No more rows upon rows of cedar that not only look ugly, but give everyone hay fever in the spring.

   Unfortunately, none of these things are bound to happen anytime soon. The Japanese are so accustomed to being told in speeches and pamphlets that their town or city is blessed with beautiful nature that they have come to believe it despite what they surely must see with their own eyes.

   Familiarity sometimes breeds content.


[1] I call my party Nattoku Tô (なっとく党, The Party of Consent/Understanding/Reasonableness). It is a play on the sound of the local Hakata dialect and with the right intonation can me “You got that?” “Can you assent to that?”

Kerr, Alex, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001, p.289.



   There are a number of themes that run through the average Japanese person’s life. Not wanting to cause other people trouble (meiwaku o kakeru koto) is one; being mindful of other’s feelings or needs (ki o tsukau koto) is another. These two alone dictate how one acts among strangers and colleagues. A salaryman will forego taking time off to vacation with family because he is loath to make his co-workers work extra while he’s away. A Japanese student who speaks fluent English after having lived abroad will refrain from correcting her English teacher’s mistakes so as to not embarrass the teacher. And so on.

   The most pervasive theme influencing the lives of the Japanese, however, is gaman--that is, patience, endurance, and perseverance. Alex Kerr writes of this in his excellent study of the failings of modern Japan in Dogs and Demons: “There is one more important lesson to be learned: schooling in Japan involves a surprising amount of pain and suffering, which teaches students to gambare, a word that means ‘to persevere’ or ‘endure.’ On this subject Duke writes: ‘To survive, the Japanese people have always had to gambare--persevere, endure--because life has never been, and is certainly not now, easy nor comfortable for most Japanese.’ Definitely not. Even when suffering is not naturally present, schools add it artificially. Elementary-school students must adapt their bodily functions to the rules--or suffer.”[1]

  Having lived in Japan as long as I have, I’m quite familiar with the silliness that masquerades as discipline. Understand the Spartan vein that runs so very deep within the Japanese psyche and you’ll start making inroads into understanding the often inscrutable behavior of the Japanese people around you. That said, I still find myself flabbergasted by the things I sometimes hear ordinarily reasonable Japanese say.

   Take my wife, for instance.

   Yesterday, she announced that she was going to wean our nine-month-old son off breast milk. Good idea, I thought. After six months or so, the health benefits of a mother’s milk are negligible and the sooner we start weaning him the easier it’ll be on all of us.

   I envisioned a gradual disengagement, a steady decrease in the number of breast-feedings over a period of time, much like the conditions-based withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. My wife, however, had a very different idea.

   Weaning, I’ve just discovered, doesn’t quite translate into Japanese as neatly as you might think. Whenever I say, “wean”, I tend to include imaginary hyphens and spaces between each letter of the word: w - e - a - n. (The truth be told, at forty something years of age, I still haven’t completely w - e - a - n - ed myself off of the tit. But, that’s another story.)

   For my wife weaning was a matter of all or nothing. The baby was supposed to go cold turkey. One day he’s breast-feeding, the next he isn’t. Full stop. The word she used for this was interesting: sotsunyū (卒乳), literally, graduation from the breast. Our son had graduated from the breast and he was now going to have to persevere, that is gaman.

   “Utter nonsense,” thought I, as I reached for Dr. Benjamin Spock’s classic book on childcare off and started to thumb through the section on breast-feeding.

   While we’re on the subject of gaman, permit me to tell you a little story.

   I was riding the “highway bus” from Iizuka back to Fukuoka yesterday afternoon when a young woman sitting in the row just in front of me took her cosmetics out of her handbag and started to do her face.

   This doesn’t bother me the way it can rile some Japanese, older Japanese women in particular, who think these younger women should avoid causing trouble to strangers (meiwaku o kakenai koto) by showing some self-control and refraining from putting their faces on in public (gaman suru) as it might upset the people around them (ki o tsukau). Got that?

   Well, as this young woman was putting the final touches on, she pulled out a bottle of perfume and gave herself a couple of shots, the second blast hitting me right in the face. Had it been one of your better scents, I might have been able to stand it, but the little bugger’s choice of perfume was awful. It was toilet water in the very literal sense of the word.

   When I opened the window a few inches to clear the air, a man in his sixties who was sitting across the aisle from me immediately told me to shut it. Not wanting to hurt the young woman’s feelings by saying out loud that she stank like a five-dollar whore, I gestured to the man that it smelled bad and I would close the window in a mo . . .

   “Shut the window!”

   “I will in a moment.”

   “Shut it now!”

   “Just five minutes,” I said.

   “Everyone’s cold. Shut the window!”

   The old man’s suggestion that I was causing trouble for the other passengers (our friend meiwaku o kakeru koto, again) by opening the window and ventilating the cabin really ticked me off, so I turned to him and rather forcefully said, “Gaman shité kudasai.” (Please be patient.)

   Oh, the look on the old man’s face!

   “W-w-what did you say?” he blustered.

   “Gaman shirō!” (Deal the fuck with it!)

   And deal with it he did. Quietly.


[1] Kerr, Alex, Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan, London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001, p.289.