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Number 1 Shimbun

The Empire of Signs

 

 

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Blots on the landscapes: Alex Kerr imagines what the Piazza della Signorina of Florence would look like if it was in Japan.


 

Does Japan deserve to be ugly? Alex Kerr injects a little

humor in the battle against ubiquitous concrete and

destructive public works.

by Tim Hornyak

 

Only a few years ago, the banks of the Tama River near Futakotamagawa Station were thick with pine and cherry trees. As the sun sank over Mt. Fuji to the west, it was a scene that could have inspired Hiroshige. Today, those trees are all but gone, replaced by an artificial embankment that’s part of the new Futakotamagawa Park. It’s an unsightly concrete mound – topped, of course, by a Starbucks – with new condo towers next door built by railway conglomerate Tokyu.

This is the sort of development that makes Alex Kerr cringe. The longtime Japan resident and award-winning author is well known for his 2001 book Dogs and Demons, which excoriates the destruction of the country’s environment and its addiction to covering everything from seashore to mountainside with layers of concrete. He has attacked disastrous public works projects and architectural monstrosities, bemoaning the government’s endless attempts to try to build its way out of economic stagnation. In 2015, there’s no shortage of targets: construction recently resumed on the ¥450 billion Yamba Dam in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, a project for a 116-meter-tall structure that began 63 years ago amid public protests.

 

Signs are one of those things

that have made Japan so

irredeemably ugly,” Kerr laughed.

 

Some may see him as a modern day Don Quixote tilting at windmills, and he has drawn his share of criticism from some academics for engaging in what they see as Japan bashing. But Kerr is unrepentant. His newest book, Nippon keikanron (Theory of Japanese Landscape), was published in Japanese by Shueisha Shinsho. It begins with an introduction of his mountain farmhouse in the remote Iya Valley of Tokushima Prefecture, which he has used as an example of how Japan’s heritage buildings can be successfully restored instead of demolished, before chronicling the country’s visual blight: the armored hillsides, cemented riverbeds, trees pruned to skeletons, exposed power lines, ubiquitous billboards and signs that endlessly warn or inform an apparently clueless population. The latter he contrasts with a tiny sign at Oxford’s Bailliol College, where he was a Rhodes scholar in the 1970s, asking people to keep off the lawn.

Signs are one of those things that have made Japan so irredeemably ugly,” Kerr laughed during a recent interview in the FCCJ’s Main Bar. He was fresh from a meeting with Japan’s first lady, Akie Abe, one of the elites whose ear he’s had since he was appointed to a government-backed international tourism advisory committee in 2006. “I have a lot of fun in the book where I count the signs – it’s sometimes three of the same sign, all saying the same thing.” The French critic Roland Barthes, who observed in his 1970 book Empire of Signs that Tokyo surrounds a "sacred nothing," would no doubt argue that all the signs are in fact meaningless.

Indeed, Japanese Landscape favors satire over invective. The penultimate chapter presents a series of photoshopped images of what foreign landmarks would look like if they had the Japanese treatment. Michelangelo’s David and Notre Dame in Paris are festooned with hideous signs, a Venetian canal is a five-lane highway, the Hawaiian coastline is a giant concrete wall and St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City is a bus parking lot. The book ends with a call for preservation and restoration of Japanese heritage.

 

The reason I did these montages is that Japanese don’t see these things because they’ve gained immunity,” Kerr says. “If Japanese go abroad and see a bit of the landscape, that’s just gaikoku (foreign countries). They come back to Japan and the same rules don’t apply. But if you apply the Japanese rules to what they’ve seen abroad, this suddenly brings it home in a way that has never been done before.”

Japanese Landscape was based on talks Kerr has been giving for a decade, and he says attendees have repeatedly told him how the proverbial scales fell from their eyes. The response to the book has been as strong. It sold out on Amazon Japan, has gone through a second printing and made the front page of the Nikkei. “In the real Japan, most of the tourist spots and historic sites look exactly like these photos,” the Nikkei noted of the montages, calling for heritage buildings to be repaired and damage to the landscape reversed. It echoes the reaction to Dogs and Demons, whose most avid readers, says Kerr, were Ministry of Land bureaucrats.

 

The prime minister’s wife, meanwhile,

has spoken out publicly against proposals

to protect Japan’s northern coasts from

tsunami with giant seawalls.

 

He has been encouraged by the formation of a group in the Diet looking at clearing some of the spaghetti mess of utility lines that hangs over the cities; posh districts such as Tokyo’s Ginza and Marunouchi, deemed important enough to beautify, are rare exceptions. He was also mentioned in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s address to the legislature’s 187th session in Sept. 2014. In pushing for more inbound tourism, Abe noted Kerr’s comparison of “Japan’s landscapes in their original state” in the Iya Valley to the utopian Peach Blossom Spring of Chinese myth. The prime minister’s wife, meanwhile, has spoken out publicly against proposals to protect Japan’s northern coasts from tsunami with giant seawalls.

Finally, they’re catching on to the fact that this is something that’s got to get done,” Kerr says, calling for a change in thinking. He cites Grand Central Station in New York as an example of how American thinking evolved decades ago. In the late 1960s, the terminal was threatened with the same fate that befell the ornate old Pennsylvania Station – demolition – until the Supreme Court affirmed its designation as a landmark, protecting it from developers.

 

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I call it graduation. Every developing and developed country has destroyed beautiful city centers and torn down historic buildings and built badly planned public works. And then, when people reach a certain level, they look back and realize what was precious in their heritage. Then they learn the technology of bringing these things into the modern age, a way to keep a beautiful old structure, for example, but make it perfectly livable and workable.”

Kerr wants public spending in Japan to change from what he calls “the institutionalization of budgets,” the way governments and entities they work with are addicted to building projects because they see no alternative. The central government engaged in record-high spending in the 2014-15 budget, earmarking 5.96 trillion yen for public works, up from 5.28 trillion yen a year earlier. That means more concrete, which is made by dismembering mountains for their limestone, gravel and crushed rock.

“Let’s accept as a given that you don’t cut back on public works,” he says. “You change the content of it. Instead of building the useless road and using the destructive mountain concrete, what if you buried phone lines, restored old houses, removed out of date or misplanned dams and removed all the other junk that clutters the countryside? You’re pouring money toward the people who need it because that’s the way the system is, but you could be benefitting the country instead of harming it.”

 

Ironically, the work has made Kerr himself

a public works contractor --

but one who restores instead of builds.

 

It would be easy to dismiss Kerr as an armchair critic, but he has completed a number of projects to revitalize heritage structures. Aside from his 18th-century farmhouse, dubbed Chiiori, he has worked with various groups and local governments to restore old houses in various parts of the country, especially lesser-known regions that are scenically blessed but economically depressed. One is the remote island of Ojika off Sasebo, Nagasaki, where he has helped restore eight houses that are now available for rent. He has also done projects in Kyoto, Nara, Fukui, Kagawa and Ishikawa. Nearly all the restorations have been supported by government grants and have the support of local groups such as NPOs.

Ironically, the work has made Kerr himself a public works contractor – but one who restores instead of builds. Bringing in people to visit areas of Japan that are off the map creates a relationship with local municipalities and is a form of sustainable development, he adds. It’s slowly having a ripple effect.

There is really a public groundswell,” Kerr says. “There are NPOs and civic groups who are fighting to save something. In the old days, they didn’t exist. Now I meet them all the time.

There might be enough people in this country now starting to say, ‘Wait a minute. This isn’t what we wanted. This really is a mess.’”

Tim Hornyak is Tokyo correspondent for IDG News Service, a global information technology newswire.

 

Published in: February 2015

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