Our lost cultural heritage - art, city and landscape
My comments to the interview of Mr. Alex Kerr by Sentaku

Lost Japan

The October issue of the monthly magazine "Sentaku" (Option) opens with an interview of Mr. Alex Kerr. Mr. Kerr argues that the Japanese tourism sector is outdated. He criticizes the inability of the Japanese tourism industry in particular hotels and guesthouses to flexibly adapt to the guests' requests on the one hand and the ugly landscape as a result of negligence of precious traditional landscape and heritage on the other. branch.

Immediately after having read the article, I wanted to write a counter argument, because rebuttal of criticism against Japan has been a part of my life and in particular because I hate the stance of Japanese intellectuals to always seek for guidance from Westerners even for our internal affairs. However, I had a second thought, because his interview was only a short one and I wanted to know the background of his opinion. I then ordered a copy of his book "Lost Japan" through Amazon.co.jp and read it through in Japanese. That was a wise decision. I could understand much about his thoughts behind his advice to the Japanese tourism.
(about the Japanese tourism sector)
Generally speaking, I fully agree to his argument in the interview related to the Japanese tourism industry. I am personally irritated from time to time about the rigid services of hotels and the lack of intelligent guidebooks. I should mention that more Japanese people travel nowadays not in groups but as individuals and the style of services undergoes certain change. However, probably the majority of people in tourism sector attach more importance to the mass tourists from China and other Asian neighbors, as they bring more profit.

I lived many years in Europe and am fully aware of the importance of traditional and exotic attractions in order to appeal to intellectual tourists from the Western world. But, the guests from the West are less important for business if the large number of Chinese tourists and their large expense are taken into account.


I believe that the second bunch of problems, why we neglect our cultural heritage and let our once beautiful cultural landscape get awfully ugly, has the room for argument. I also believe it desirable if we can keep our traditional landscape while at the same time solving imminent problems we face in the present time. However, I believe that the natural and cultural conditions of Japan do not allow it that Japan adopts the same solution as the Western advanced countries.

I well understand the irritation of Mr. Kerr about the decay of traditional landscape and lifestyle in Japan. I also strongly miss the environment I enjoyed when I was a child in the 1950s, i.e. much earlier than the first experiences of Mr. Kerr in Japan.

(Attractive life style of the past)
Though my hometown Chiba was largely destroyed by the American air raids shortly before the end of WWII, lots of traditional wooden houses were still preserved in the city area when I was a child. There were even some geishas for high-class restaurants. Paddy field existed up to the vegetable garden of my parents’ house and I could enjoy tiny animals living there. If I took a walk for several minutes, I could find straw thatched farmhouses with traditional wooden gates and courts. Festivals of community shrines were still popular and I trembled violently with fear when a long-nosed goblin visited our house.

We had no high-tech appliances. Each room had only one light bulb and the family had one radio. But we had neither TV, nor fridge, nor air conditioner, nor car, nor home bath, nor electric oven. We used special mosquito nets during the summer time and went to a nearby public bath instead. Mother used traditional cooking stoves using firewood and it took a long time for her to prepare meals.

I understand that Mr. Kerr likes the world I described here. At the beginning of the 1950s General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers and Mr. Bowers had saved Kabuki a few years ago. The similar situation existed till the Olympic Games in 1964, when Mr. Kerr came to Japan accompanying his father on his transfer and got his first experience in this country.
(Was it good for inhabitants?)
I believe that the situation at the time was still exotic enough for the Westerners to feel enchanted. However, for us who lived a real life at the time, it was not such a comfortable time as he might imagine. I said before that I miss it, but it is just nostalgia and maybe I cannot endure the inconvenience of the life in the 1950s any more.

I would like to add that my family was average, though it appears very poor from the present standard. Some of my class mates lived in slam like houses without tap water and often several people slept in one or two small rooms. Green snot hung out of nostrils of many children due to malnutrition. There were usually no flush closet and only main streets were paved though with many hollows.

The housing and hygiene conditions were worse in the earlier time, say, before WWII or earlier. Small barracks and simple people with their archaic smiles might have satisfied curious foreign visitors, but behind the scenery which enchanted innocent visitors many people were suffering. Straw thatched houses might appear attractive, but their interior life was miserable. It is only natural that the inhabitants wanted to have a clean and comfortable life if they could afford.

Traditional houses are usually dark(*) in their inside, without tight partition between individual rooms, badly insulated, and fragile against natural hazards such as fire, earthquake and typhoon. It needs tremendous investment to realize a modern and comfortable life using the old frameworks. These are the special conditions we have in Japan in comparison with Europe. Therefore, it is natural that many people decided to tear down old and inconvenient small houses and build new ones instead, when they had possibility to do so. The authority might be able to save old houses, but their possibility is also limited to the important architectures because of financing.
By the way, our eyes are rather resilient against strong sunshine, but do not work as well in the darkness as the eyes of Caucasians. When I studied in Germany, I was sometimes surprised to find friends reading books in for me complete darkness. Many Japanese people have similar experiences.

Cityscape (continued)

It is also the tradition of Japan to destroy old things and build new thing on their ruins; Ise Shrine is destroyed every 20 years and built anew. In our natural conditions the method of preserving tradition is different. It is wiser to keep invisible skills or know-how than to keep visible buildings(*). This strategy is successful not only in case of Ise Shrine, but also in such cases as Noh theatre (created in the 14th century) and Gagaku (**).
If we check the list of world heritages of UNESCO, this imbalance of visible and invisible heritages between Europe and the rest of the world is clear. I believe that Western people must realize that their conditions are special in the international context.

The oldest part of Gagaku was already introduced in the 6th century and the present form was finally established before the 10th century.
(No city planning including cityscape)
The real issue is the creation of a new and beautiful city- and landscape under the present conditions. Here I agree to some extent to the opinion of Mr. Kerr. For example, I feel much disturbed by electric, telecommunication and other cables hanging in the air like "entangled spaghetti" and ugly utility poles supporting them. But, the fundamental problem is that there seems to be no city planning with some sort of integrity in any part of Japan.

If we see Tokyo, for example, we can immediately notice that the areas between Ginza and Asakusa are relatively well planned, but the streets in residential areas such as Setagaya and Meguro are really labyrinth. The planning of the first part was done by Tokugawa shogunate in the 17th century. The development of the second part was done after the Meiji Period and especially in the 20th century, probable without any reliable plan.

Maybe Tokyo expanded too rapidly for the government to take any effective measure to control the direction of development. But, if the government cannot take effective measures, why does not the community take a lead instead for city planning?

I believe that traditional rural communities were able to plan things for the sake of the whole community. However, our rural communities have los their capability because of depopulation. On the other hand, no community mind has developed in urban areas, because most inhabitants are new and they do not feel to belong to their communities but to their companies. As a result we have no cityscape based on a good city planning, individual egoistic rights supersede everything and chaotic cityscapes emerge everywhere.

Now I try to convince myself with some resignation that the chaotic cityscape of Japan is the expression of the Asian vitality. We can discover similar chaos in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Ho chi min city or elsewhere in Asia.


Our past created rich cultural heritage indeed. However, only the cream of the society could have money and time to enjoy "art". Also the Westerners could enjoy the Japanese culture, because those people were usually rich and more privileged than the most of the privileged Japanese people to have access to every corner to the society.

However, Japanophiles tend to limit the scope of their sponsorship to the traditional art. Tradition is unconsciously defined as something exotic. The more the objects are unrelated to the Western culture, the more the Westerners can feel exoticness. When the people in the exotic world try to innovate on their art with the stimulus coming from the encounter with the West - which is often the case, I believe - such a trial is refused as deviation from the tradition.

On the other hand, they - also unconsciously I believe - replaced the value system of the countries concerned with the Western value system. As a result, Buddha statues became the objects of aesthetic observation and Ukiyoe and Kabuki were enhanced to the level of art.

"Old Japan hands" or Japanophiles intervene in the Japanese tradition and try to grip the favorable Japaneseness under their control. I believe, those people have found their fairly land in the traditional Japan - an untouched dream land like Tahiti for Gauguin - and simply want to keep it as it was. They see the past and want the reproduction of past in the contemporary context.

(Creation of contemporary culture)
But, culture changes as time goes on. Different generations have different things to express and different environments stimulate people to create different things.
Creation is more important than preservation, I believe, and creation is made in Japan not in the "art" front but in the front of vulgar and daily consumption.

At least after the 17th century, the most important part of the Japanese culture is the pop culture created and consumed not by elites but by ordinary people, like Kabuki, Ukiyoe and Sumo in the Edo Period. This trend continues and now the most important creation takes place in the world of pop-culture, most notably manga and anime, though Mr. Kerr did not mention them in his book. However, young people have discovered even in foreign countries the fascination of the new pop culture of Japan. Their stance to the Japanese culture is different from the traditional Japanophiles; no exoticism but pure affection.

Though this new attitude of foreign young people to Japan is more important, Japanese intellectuals still tend to seek for the authoritative opinions from the Western intellectuals, so that they can represent the corresponding position within Japan as authority. Kabuki and Ukiyoe have been authorized by foreigners of their cultural value in exchange with their vitality as creative art. Then the appreciation of the Japanese intellectuals follows. Nowadays, manga and anime have acquired as sort of recognition from the Western intellectuals and are gradually elevated to the level of art. Ludicrous!

So I am not concerned at all about the situation of the Japanese culture. I would like Mr. Kerr to see not only Kabuki but, for example, one of the thousands of small theatre or dance companies in Japan. Though most of them are amateurish, he might find a diamond among tens of invaluable pebbles.


Ugly cityscape is acceptable so far as it is limited within urban areas. On the other hand, we should be more mindful about our "symbiosis with nature". I do not simply mean the appearance of human intervention in the nature such as the landscape with utility poles, but the preservation of sustainable nature which allow us to live long on this archipelago or on the earth.

Unfortunately, the Japanese people destroyed too much nature, in particular during the course of the rapid economic growth and on the path to an economic power, I agree.

However, I do not think that the people behaved particularly worse after WWII in comparison with the earlier times. I only think that the people in the past did not possess technical powers to destroy the nature in such a massive way. "White beach with green pine trees" was quoted by Mr. Kerr as an example of beautiful Japanese nature. But, this is also a manmade landscape. Without human intervention Japanese coasts would be all covered by sub-tropical plants like jangle.

As Mr. Karr duly pointed out, concrete facilities along the coast lines have destroyed the traditional landscape, though we should not fail to acknowledge the role of engineering to save people form natural hazards. Japan is unfortunately rich in typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, flood and other hazards.
However, it is regrettable that unnecessary engineering works have damaged lots of our rich nature. Once we have a destructive power, we have to learn to control it.

Even dumping of garbage wound not have created much problem to the nature as long as the number of humans was limited and the volume was small enough and the contents of garbage were simple enough not to adversely affect the environment. Nowadays, if I take a walk along the coast, I can easily find tons of used pet bottles, fish lines and other artificial materials which are not easily dissolved in the nature. This is not only the problem of appearance but of reproduction of precious marine resources and of sustenance of nature.

We have come to the turning point to change our value system and pattern of behavior to control our activities within the limit of the nature of our mother earth.

"White beach with green pine trees" was made by humans to protect their houses and fields against wind. As a result of long and tedious labor input, the typically Japanese cultural landscape is created and its beauty is appreciated by many people without much destroying the surroundings. We have to find a similarly effective nature and technology mix to keep a productive nature and serve the needs of humans.