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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.

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