Lost Japan: A Personal Journey

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr 276pp $10.70


by Kanako Matsuda

Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan is a deeply personal journey through what he views as a dying Japan. As such, this book is not a mere travel guide on the myriad facets of Japanese culture, but an intimate exploration of the country as experienced by one person. Despite the fact that Lost Japan is essentially a compilation of seemingly unrelated articles, Kerr conveys a common theme which ultimately serves as his message for the readers. Using vivid, flowing details, historical analysis, and above all, passionate dialogue, he successfully incorporates this message: his despair at the modernization of Japanese culture, while simultaneously capturing the beauty of Japan.

His experiences are certainly unlike any other. From the first chapter, “Looking for a Castle”, he makes clear his wild enthusiasm for traditional Japanese architecture, one which he cultivated as a child. He even fashioned for himself a “castle” in Iya Valley, Shikoku, during college, renovating an abandoned home in the mountains. His interests soon evolved to encompass kabuki theater, calligraphy, antiques, and inadvertently, the business world of Tokyo. However, Kerr does not merely express a fleeting curiosity in these subjects; he takes it upon himself to amass as much in-depth knowledge as possible, significantly more than an average traveler, and even indeed, a native. He familiarized himself with the backstage scenes of kabuki, apprehended the rich, connotative styles of kanji characters, and imbibed the plethora of quirks and habits associated with Japanese traditions. Readers will finish this book acknowledging that Kerr is not only a gifted writer, but also a specialist in the “old” Japanese culture.

Kerr describes Japan with such loving, enticing detail that it allows his audience to form an indirect yet strangely genuine connection with his story. In a way, it is heartbreaking. After 1974, Japan undergoes a period of modernization which renders all he valued obsolete. His nostalgic tone then vacillates to hate and bitterness as he outlines the advent of technology. As mentioned before, his careful word choice and tone are a key strategy towards connecting, and almost coercing, the readers into his point of view. Not every reader will have the same attachment as he did to the Buddhist temples or the quaint villages, but with his heartfelt descriptions he can compel the readers to care immensely about the decaying “old” Japan. Thus, when he describes his hatred of technology, the readers will most likely find themselves agreeing with his impassioned argument.

Comparisons are a key component of this book: old versus new, beauty contrasted with ugliness, permanence against ephemerality. He views Kyoto’s attempt at modernization, the construction of the Kyoto tower, as a “symbolic stake through the heart”, because it symbolizes the “new” encroaching on the “old” (192). Kyoto no longer represents scenic elegance, but soulless, gray blocks of buildings. Technology is not progress, but a destructive force. However, once again, Kerr writes with such conviction that it is hard to remember that this view is entirely subjective. Is modernization such a monster he depicts it as? The telephone wires crisscrossing the skyline of the inaka (countryside) are not picturesque, but are entirely necessary for communication. The Gion Matsuri (festival) which he attended in his youth did not showcase yomise (stalls) as they do now, but buying gifts and merchandise is a form of enjoyment in the present. Kerr antagonizes modernization so heavily that he ignores the benefits which it brings.

Once again, Lost Japan is a personal journey for Kerr. No one else can truly understand the depth of his feelings over the changing structure of Japan. No one else can comprehend Japan as he experienced it. Thus, he makes several bold statements which readers may not entirely relate or agree with. One memorable quote, “In Japan, people are conditioned to be satisfied with the average” (122) is used to explain the Japanese educational system. Another is used to justify technology, that “the Japanese are haunted by the insecurity of their cultural identity” (106) and therefore needs progress and identity in the form of modernization. In numerous other general questionable statements I completely disagree with, Kerr insinuates that the Japanese youth lack in individuality and therefore, do not and cannot appreciate “old” Japan. His mistake, in my opinion, is that he stereotypes the Japanese youth as “haters”, when he has no basis for saying so. He should not assume that he accurately perceives every thought of every individual. This is the only time I regard Kerr as a true traveler, a tourist. Even if he has mastered the tea ceremony or developed his own unique style of calligraphy, his understanding of Japan as a whole entity, is lacking in my opinion.

Even with my dissatisfaction with Kerr’s analysis, this book is valuable in that it provides insight into an unfamiliar, disappearing world on an emotional level.  Not many people have the connections which Kerr had to be able to travel Japan in the way he did, which makes his narrative that much more worthwhile. Just with his words, Kerr allows the readers to enjoy Japan as he did, to participate in foreign, exciting practices, and crushingly, to feel the loss of it all. Despite the depressing tone of this book, Kerr ultimately imparts with a glimmer of hope: “At the moment of its disappearance, Japanese traditional culture is having its greatest flowering” (263). Nothing is permanent, but with endings come new beginnings.