2015年3月5日木曜日

Dogs and Demons, Land and Environment

While I was reading Dogs and Demons, I decided to Google Alex Kerr and see if he had any Youtube presence. Sure enough, I found a TEDx presentation he made about the houses he has renovated in the remote area of Iya Valley, on the island of Shikoku. The title of the talk is "Sustainable Tourism".


It's clear from the video, and from reading Dogs and Demons, that Kerr is very much concerned with the environment and with how Japan has modernized. In chapter one of Dogs and Demons, he writes about the state of Japan's construction industry and how Japanese government policies at the local and national levels have promoted an out of control "construction state". He says that Japan's government has no "brakes" for policies that don't work anymore, and although Japan's technology in certain fields has modernized, Japanese people are still stuck thinking like people in a developing nation, rather than a developed nation. Technology has advanced while cultural advancement has lagged.

He asks the question, "What happens if developing countries never become developed countries?" (P29) As proof that the Japanese have not acknowledge their status as those living in a developed country, he writes,

Japan suffers from a severe case of "pave and build" mentality. "Pave and build" is the idea that huge, expensive, manmade monuments are a priori wonderful, that natural surfaces smoothed over and covered with concrete mean wealth, progress, and modernims. Nakaoki Yutaka, the governor of Toyama Prefecture, summarized this attitude when he argued, in September 1996, for the construction of a new railroad line to rural areas, although there was no apparent need for it. Building the new line, he said, "is needed to develop the social infrastructure so that people can feel they have become rich."

In fact, there are some westerners that similarly feel that Japan is richer when they look at construction projects.

In my own experiences traveling around Japan, going to Kagoshima, Kyoto, Osaka, etc., I've found a rather large amount of construction. Although I have at times felt the rivers and streams to be quite odd, to my eyes, I never considered them especially ugly, but that may be because I didn't have a chance to see then before their makeover by the Construction Ministry.

When it comes to Kerr's thoughts on Japan's destruction of nature, I have often felt he was exaggerating. That is especially true when he describes Japan as a land of extremes most accurately portrayed in anime and manga. Although many people in Japan may maintain some rather third-world views of nature, my feeling is that the aesthetic problems Kerr writes about are bad, but not necessarily as bad as he makes them out to be.

However, when it comes to his observations on the government quite mind-boggling. He paints a picture of systemic corruption, crony capitalism, and backwards-thinking. He often compares Japanese policies to American policies, something that he has been criticized for by some people reviewing his book. I agree, partially, that Kerr perhaps uses the US too much as a model for Japan to follow, but I certainly wouldn't defend the policies or corruption within the Japanese government. The issue of crony capitalism is a reoccurring theme throughout the book, and it often mirrors what happens in the US as well.

Perhaps more disturbing is what Kerr writes about when it comes to the environment in chapter two, because it is there where Japan's political corruption becomes most apparent. There have been multiple, infamous examples of the Japanese government and industry working together to cover up incidents of pollution that caused severe damage to the health of many people, turning a blind eye to illegal dumping of waste, simply letting industry off with almost no penalty at all, or even downplaying the severity of certain cases of pollution.

The government and big business colluded to hide the pollution that caused itai-itai disease and Minamata disease for 40 years. In order to hide it, they hired the yakuza to threaten and even injure people that brought attention to the problem. The government took away government grants from professors that spoke out about it. Eventually, victims sued, and had only a tiny victory. The government was found not guilty of any kind of negligence, and only a small group of the people that sued got a tiny award in the case. Again, the theme here is crony capitalism. The "rich country, poor people" strategy employed by the Japanese government at the beginning of the Meiji restoration has continued, sacrificing not only the people's money (through subsidies for wasteful government spending), but also their health and the health of the environment.
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