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Authors: Alex Kerr

Lost Japan

BOOK: Lost Japan
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Alex Kerr

Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan

Translated by Alex Kerr and Bodhi Fishman


Chapter 1 Looking for a Castle

Chapter 2 Iya Valley

Chapter 3 Kabuki

Chapter 4 Art Collecting

Chapter 5 Japan Versus China

Chapter 6 Calligraphy

Chapter 7 Tenmangu

Chapter 8 Trammell Crow

Chapter 9 Kyoto

Chapter 10 The Road to Nara

Chapter 11 Outer Nara

Chapter 12 Osaka

Chapter 13 The Literati

Chapter 14 Last Glimpse

Afterword: About Alex


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Alex Kerr was born in Bethesda, Maryland, USA, in 1952. He first came to Japan when his father, a naval officer, was posted to Yokohama from 1964 to 1966. He has lived in Kameoka, near Kyoto, since 1977. Alex holds degrees in Japanese Studies from Yale University and Chinese Studies from Oxford University, and is a passionate and knowledgeable collector of East Asian art.

In the years after purchasing the house Chiiori that appears in
Lost Japan
, Alex went on to restore dozens of old houses in Kyoto and across Japan in an effort to revive beautiful but declining rural regions. The non-profit organization he founded, Chiiori Trust, today manages restored houses in Iya and in several other prefectures.

Alex writes and lectures in Japanese, and is author of many books, including
Dogs and Demons
(2000), outlining the impact of public works on Japan's landscape;
Living in Japan
(2006), introducing old and contemporary houses; and
Bangkok Found
(2010), describing the city as Alex experienced it since first visiting Thailand in the 1970s.

The original edition of
Lost Japan
, written in Japanese, won the 1994 Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize for the best work of non-fiction published in Japan. Alex is the first foreigner to win this prestigious award. After publication in English based on a translation by Bodhi Fishman, the book won the Asia-Pacific Publishers Award, Gold Prize for Best Translation of 1996.

Japanese Historical Periods

Jomon 10,000–300

Yayoi 300

Kofun 300–710

Nara 710–794

Heian 794–1185

Kamakura 1185–1333

Muromachi 1333–1576

Momoyama 1576–1600

Edo 1600–1867

Meiji 1868–1912

Taisho 1912–1926

Showa 1926–1989

Heisei 1989–

Chinese Dynasties

Zhou 1100–221

Qin 221–206

Han 206

Three Kingdoms 220–280

Jin 265–420

Southern dynasties 420–589

Northern dynasties 386–581

Sui 589–618

Tang 618–907

Later Liang 907–923

Later Tang 923–936

Later Jin 936–946

Later Han 947–950

Later Zhou 951–960

Liao 916–1125

Song 960–1279

Western Xia 1038–1227

Jin 1115–1234

Yuan (Mongol) 1271–1368

Ming 1368–1644

Qing (Manchu) 1644–1911


It has been twenty-four years since I sat down in January of 1991 to write the first of the articles that were later to become the book
Lost Japan
. I would like to say that since then I've learned and seen much, and now have a new perspective on it all. And yet, looking back, nothing has changed!

Twenty-four years later, I'm still just where I was when, hiking in the hills of Iya Valley in 1973, I pushed open the door of the house Chiiori and saw the dusty black floors and huge old beams sweeping overhead. But I've got the math wrong. That was forty-two years ago.

I found Chiiori just in time. During the ensuing years, I was to witness the gradual disappearance of Japan's delicate natural landscape and old towns of wood, tile, bamboo, and thatch. If anything, the pace of change increased in scale and speed in the 2000s, leaving Iya Valley and Chiiori as remnants of a vanished world. I still own Chiiori, and after all these years, on entering that old room and smelling the smoky
floor hearth, my heart
leaps up as it always did. In the intervening years, I've seen dozens, hundreds, of old houses, and never found anything else like Chiiori.

Lost Japan
itself has lived on. It's still in publication in the original 1993 Japanese version (titled
Last Glimpse of Beautiful Japan
), and with the exception of this last year as it transited between publishers, the English version never fell out of print. For the translation, I'm indebted to Bodhi Fishman. Starting in 1994 I set out to do an English translation myself, but found that not even one paragraph would go into English acceptably. When I wrote the original articles, I was thinking exclusively of a Japanese audience. For readers outside Japan, the text would have to be radically revised. It was a sobering experience for someone who had spent decades blithely translating other people. Baffled by my inability to translate myself, I let the book sit for almost two years. Finally, in 1996 Bodhi came to my aid with a translation that captured the mood of the original. I revised this, cutting some chapters and expanding others; Bodhi edited the revision; and that's how
Lost Japan
came to be.

The book has brought thousands of visitors to Iya, and many friends into my life. Two decades and several books later, the world described in
Lost Japan
is still my starting point.

If anything has changed, it is that in recent years I've had the chance to put into practice what I had merely dreamed of and spoken about in the 90s. This was made possible by the business experience gained when Trammell Crow dragged me into helping with his real estate investment ventures in the Bubble Era of the late 80s. That bit of time I spent working in the real world allowed me to build, eventually, the ‘balance' that Tamasaburo describes in his Afterword.

Starting in 2004 I began restoring old
town houses in Kyoto, not as historical showpieces, but fitted out with modern amenities – heating, cooling, nice baths and toilets and so forth, so that people today could enjoy them in comfort. We rented
these out for visitors to stay in when they visited Kyoto. After that I went on to restore houses in rural areas around Japan, and finally Chiiori itself in 2012.

Chiiori today looks exactly as it did back in 1973. When we did the restoration, we picked up the ancient black floorboards, numbered them, and after shoring up the foundations, and installing plumbing, gas, electric lines, insulation, and underfloor heating, we put the boards right back in their original position. Meanwhile, the corridor behind the house features bathrooms with all the latest in Japanese toilet technology and a lovely cedar bath of the sort we never imagined possible in Iya. Today a freshly thatched – and thoroughly modernized – Chiiori welcomes a new generation of visitors as it enters its fourth century.

In 2004, we established a non-profit organization centered on the house, called Chiiori Trust. It's staffed by young people coming from Tokyo and other big cities who would like to do something for Iya, which continues to age and depopulate. My old neighbour and friend Omo passed away in 2012.
Today our challenge is how to bring a new community into the valley.

The other worlds described in
Lost Japan
– Kabuki, calligraphy, Kyoto, Nara, Tenmangu, art collecting – these continue more or less as before. I still live in the grounds of Tenmangu Shrine in Kameoka, outside Kyoto, and the little emerald-like frogs still hop around in June. I still write calligraphies, some of which appear as chapter headings in the book.

As for art collecting, prices for Japanese art plummeted after 2000. Behind this change in the market was China's rise and the passing of the last generation in Japan who knew what these old things were. Just when I thought I could put an end to my compulsive collecting, a whole new opportunity came my way. How could I refuse a pair of screens by an important eighteenth-century calligrapher that had found no buyer at auction and was now selling for a song? So I'm still buying, because I must.

Tamasaburo, now in his sixties, has been designated a Living National Treasure, but in some sort of miracle of nature, remains as meltingly beautiful as he was when I first saw him so many years ago. But slowly he is cutting down the more energetic pieces in his repertoire and no longer dances the
Heron Maiden

Tamasaburo and I once promised each other that in our old age we would not turn into our crabby old mentors. For me that was American drama critic and ‘saviour of the Kabuki' Faubion Bowers, and for Tamasaburo it was the celebrated older
Nakamura Utaemon VI. Faubion and Utaemon spent their later years grumbling bitterly about the new generation.

But I at least couldn't live up to that promise. First with the book
Dogs and Demons
published in 2000, and then with later publications (some only in Japanese) I continue to write and speak about the destruction of precious places and things I see going on around me. For consolation I think back to the words of ‘the last
of the literati', Shirasu Masako, when I asked her why she had taken her fists to the artist Rosanjin over his bad kimono design. ‘If you really love something,' she admonished me, ‘then you should get angry about it.'

Lost Japan
concludes with a metaphor from Kabuki, in which I keep getting pulled back to Japan in the same way as the protagonist of the play
finds himself dragged back onstage by the long bony fingers of dead Kasane's ghost.

These days I have a new metaphor. Again, it's from a play that I once saw Tamasaburo perform in, called
Demon Pond
). A young ethnologist travels to a remote village where there's a legend that if the temple bell is not rung every evening at sunset, a dragon princess who lives in the pond will rise up and flood the village. The young scholar moves in with the old bell keeper and stays, eventually marrying the bell keeper's daughter. One day the bell keeper falls dead. It's late afternoon. Soon someone must ring the bell. Although he's a city boy who doesn't believe in old superstitions, the scholar does so. He has become the bell keeper.

There is one big thing that did in fact change since I wrote
Lost Japan
. Time passed, and with it the people who understood and transmitted the lore of old Japan – aesthete David Kidd, Naohi the Mother Goddess of Oomoto, Faubion Bowers, Kabuki
Jakuemon, Shirasu Masako, Omo, art collector Hosomi Minoru, screen and scroll mounter Kusaka – they're all gone now. That leaves me – a foreigner, and like the scholar in
, not really a part of the tradition – stuck with the job of ringing that old bell.

I think the one thing that you want to do when you've really loved something is to pass the memory on to others. That's why
Lost Japan
is still so important to me. I'm delighted that Penguin is reissuing the book, with a new cover and fresh calligraphies at the head of each chapter – but with no other substantive changes.
It brings me joy to think that a new generation of readers can experience the mists of Iya, the moment of walking into Chiiori, the first view of a young Tamasaburo on stage, the wit of David Kidd, ‘the moment before glory'.

Alex Kerr, 2015

BOOK: Lost Japan
9.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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