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The Fall of Modern Japan by Alex KerrThere are two well-established traditions when writing about Japan: uncritical praise, and now far more commonly, passionate criticism. I like to think of myself as in the latter category: I love Japan as a country and I love its society, but there are many things wrong that we simply cannot ignore. Alex Kerr loves Japan too, or rather its potential, but despairs of its current state of being. Dogs and Demons (Penguin, 2001) is Kerr’s cry for help on Japan’s behalf. It is dark, pessimistic and woeful.

In contrast to most books by Europeans and Americans on Japan, this one has avoided the words “Japan must” and “Japan should,” for I do not believe that foreigners should make demands on Japan (p. 380).

Kerr does not explicitly say what has to be done, but Dogs and Demons is a liturgy of the country’s ‘modern’ faults. Over the course of 15 chapters, Kerr underlines Japan’s primary failure: its inability to change its mindset from modernism to post-modernism, my terminology; Kerr prefers to talk of modernism thus:

A friend of mine once remarked, “What is modernism? Its not the city but how you live in the city. It’s not the factory but how you manage and maintain the factory.” Technology involves far more than products running off an assembly line or computer software. It could be defined as the science of managing things properly. How to design a museum exhibit, how to manage a zoo, how to renovate an old building, how to build and operate a vacation resort – these all involve very sophisticated techniques and fuel multibillion-dollar industries in Europe and the United States. None of them exist in Japan except in the most primitive form (p. 161-162).

The knock-on result is seen in all strands of Japanese life. Kerr labours over the finer parts of Japanese architecture (namely the ubiquitous use of modern materials such as concrete and Bakelite) and the education system (universal education but underdeveloped further education establishments). This latter point is arguably manifested in the lack of Japanese in the world’s top public intellectuals, and the former in the lack of domestically-established Japanese architects having success abroad (although what I know about such things could be written on the back of a postcard).

Kerr’s consistent theme is of a dystopia held hostage by bureaucratic politics. He seems particularly furious at the rise and perpetuation of the construction state (doken kokka). Anyone who has spent any time in Japan will know what he means: endless over-engineering of rivers, hillsides, and coastlines.

True to their reputation for efficiency, Japanese ministries have done an extremely good job of enlarging their budgets by meticulously observing the principle that each ministry should get the same relative share this year that it received last year. The allowance for construction in the general budget for 1999 was thirteen times larger than it was 1965, around the time of the Tokyo Olympics. Although more than thirty years have passed since that time, when small black-and-white television sets were common and most country roads were still paved – years during which Japan’s infrastructure and lifestyles have changed radically – each ministry continued to receive almost exactly the same share of construction money it has always had, down to a fraction of a percentage point. “Bureaucrats are very skilled at spending it all. It is a fantastic waste, done in a very systematic way that will never stop,” says Diet member Sato Kenichiro.

Budgets that must be spent and programs that must expand in order to maintain the delicate balance among ministries – such is the background for the haunting, even weird aspect of Japan’s continuing blanketing of its landscape with concrete. The situation in Japan enters the realm of manga, of comic-strip fantasy, with bizarre otherworldly landscapes and apocalyptic visions of a topsy-turvy future. This is what the Construction Ministry is busy building in real life: bridges to uninhabited islands, roads to nowhere honeycombing the mountains, and gigantic overpasses to facilitate access to minute country lanes (p. 23).

It is when Kerr writes of bureaucratic politics driving construction and destruction that he is at his best. Throughout the book, he necessarily reverts to anecdotal evidence in light of a lack of intense critical study into the darker side of Japanese modernity. However, even in the weaker portions of the book, namely chapters 13 and 14 (‘After School: Flowers and Cinema’ and ‘Internationalisation: Refugees and Expats’ respectively) where he appears to draw out the foundations of his argument past their elasticity, he is convincing in his passions.

For students of Japan, this book forms an excellent introduction to the history of Japanese modernisation, even if warts-and-all has become especially-warts. Furthermore, it makes a fine introduction to the foundations of Japan’s administrative reforms from the Mori cabinet onwards (backsliding excepted). The book clearly elucidates the role of amakudari and ‘special public corporations’, as well as the thinking behind the amalgamation of the Japanese ministries. However, after reading this book, you can expect to be left deeply concerned for the country’s future. Perhaps former Prime Minister Abe’s ‘beautiful country’ (utsukushii kuni) concept missed the point: to be a truly beautiful country, Japan has to erase years of bureaucratic excess. At least if they did so, the ministries could satisfy the bureaucratic pressures that maintain budget expenditure.

North Korea is taking on the world, and we have no choice but to respond.

Nuclear Showdown (2005) is journalist Gordon G. Chang’s conclusion to his contribution to the study of North Korea as a East Asian and global crisis.

It was Chang’s chapter on Japan and the abduction issue that first caught my eye. I found the book as I flicked around the shelves of my local store and immediately I knew I had to buy it. I picked up the 2007 Arrow edition, which includes a new foreword addressing the October 2006 nuclear test.

Chang eases you into the book and takes you along a wandering argument that climaxes with an acknowledgement of the dangerous times in which we live. He is even-handed and incisive throughout, even if his somewhat flowery prose may grate at times. He writes well, although whoever decided to forego conventional footnoting for the bizarre system employed might need rounding up and shooting: finding the relevant comments and references is a pain in the ass.

Chang’s conception of North Korea is of a regime fighting to stay alive as capitalism wells up at the grassroots-level. Chang criticises the US for being to soft on North Korea’s past transgressions, such as the capture of the USS Pueblo in 1968, and for not negotiating and controlling North Korea’s nuclear rise in a consistent and firm manner. He also criticises America’s over-generosity to China who should now look to become a responsible world citizen by reining in its client state, or preferably abandoning it altogether. He criticises South Korea, particularly former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, for sustaining a fragile regime that relying on foreign aid for its survival while snubbing market reform as a result of the brewing bottom-up revolution.

On the issue of Japan, Chang is sympathetic to the country’s more immediate concern of attack: the pressing threat posed by North Korea acts more strongly on Japan than the US. He also notes the overwhelmingly political nature of the abduction issue and its emotional underpinnings. Japan is most at risk from a North Korean nuke, and as a result it is struggling to stay confined to the bounds of the constitution imposed upon it by the American post-War authorities. Despite that, it must: a Japanese bomb would create a whole new arms race and set of global tensions.

It is to this tension that Chang so skilfully leads the reader. For him, the North Korean problem highlights the challenge posed to the global hegemon, the US. Chang finds WWII to be apogee of US power, and from then on it has been relatively weakened as the destroyed nations around it have rebuilt. He is not implying that the US is by any means facing the end of its history, but rather that it has a chance to solidify its position.

Chang believes that the US should reinvigorate the non-proliferation norms and regime by carrying out what it committed to in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: the destruction of its nuclear stockpile. Chang suggests that even a wholesale, yet incomplete, dismantling of the US arsenal would show the state’s good intentions to the currently less-than-impressed non-nuclear powers. “The American president can give the order to eliminate all life on this planet several times over. If he decides to reduce his arsenal so that he can kill everybody only once, are his constituents any less safe?”

Chang is encouraging the US to take the bold step to make an example of North Korea. By unilaterally reducing its nuclear stockpile it will show its commitment to a non-nuclear future. He also encourages the US to be tough on North Korea in the Six-Party Talks and place all the issues on the table: from human rights to counterfeiting. By doing so, the Chinese and South Koreans will be forced to take sides (all the while under pressure from the international community to take the most reasonable side, that of the US). Ultimately, however, Chang believes that the US should be prepared to make an example of North Korea by committing itself to a possible use of force. “But if there ever were a reason to go to war, it is to save the nonproliferation treat and the global arms control regime. No other justification for conflict comes close.”

Chang’s argument is bold in and of itself. He is pessimistic for our future, and quite rightly so. At the moment, his work is still relevant. In the three years since Nuclear Showdown was first published, little progress has been made. Whether one accepts his conclusions is down to the individual, but the claims presented are well-linked and researched and show a broad understanding of the North Korean crisis in the context of global security.

Maybe our struggle with [Kim] is not the clash of good and evil, as some would have it, but it is at the very least a fight to preserve the liberal international system that has been responsible for so much global progress.