In an ancient tale, a Chinese emperor asks his court painter about the easiest and most difficult subjects to paint. The painter replies, "Dogs are difficult, demons are easy." To Alex Kerr, a longtime resident expert and observer, Japan's "dogs" are the vital activities that sustain an ecologically and culturally responsible economy, while the expedient "demons" are the million-dollar boondoggles that have bulldozed and cemented over so much of Japan today.
Dogs and Demons offers tales from the dark side of Japan's well-known modern accomplishments. For Japan's problems go far beyond the failures of its banks and pension funds. And Kerr discusses subjects that are all too often disregarded in the Western press when the focus is on finance and business: Japan's endangered environment (seashores lined with concrete, roads leading to nowhere in the mountains), its "monument frenzy," the decline of its once magnificent cinema, the destruction of cities such as Kyoto and construction of drab new ones, the attendant collapse of its tourism industry.
It is Kerr's contention that all these unhealthy developments show the devastating boomerang effect of an educational and bureaucratic system designed to produce manufactured good—and little else. This is what he calls Japan's "failure of modernism," and a mere upturn in economic growth will not quickly remedy it. He assails the foreign experts who, often dependent on Japanese government and business support, fail to address these internal signs of illness, and warns of the dangers of ignoring the monument parks, the garish comics and Pokémon gizmos, the bridges to nowhere, the Ponzi schemes that enrich the bureaucrats but impoverish the people. Kerr himself is willing to confront these demons, however, and the mixed blessings of Japan's outdated notion of what modernity is. "How Japan went bonk is one of the strange and terrible tales of the late twentieth century," he writes.
Meanwhile, what of the Japanese people themselves? Kerr, who has lived among them for years, writes of the Japanese with humor and passion, for "passion," he says, "is part of the story. Millions of Japanese feel as heartbroken at what is going on as I do. My Japanese friends tell me, 'Please write this—for us.'"