Many first time foreign visitors to Japan arrive with an impressive set of delusions about their new surroundings, but American writer Alex Kerr avoided that fate by spending the best part of several decades there, from 1960s schooldays to middle age in the compelling and award winning Lost Japan (1993).
The upshot is an eclectic, insightful and very enjoyable collection of essays which take the reader into areas such as kabuki, calligraphy, to his sterling efforts renovating an abandoned old farmhouse in rural Japan.
He beautifully weaves intellectual curiosity with personal frustrations and trenchant opinions about contemporary Japan and its shortcomings (e.g. Kyoto). “After centuries of political intrigue ... the people of Kyoto have developed the technique of never saying anything.”
He unravels myths and celebrates the best aspects of his adopted country in a chatty and engaging style. Along the way, the reader is introduced to some key friends and associates who shaped his understanding such as his first Japanese teacher in America who chastised him in an early lesson for introducing himself as “Alex-san” (i.e. Mr Alex) because “san” is a value-laden honorific suggesting a degree of self-promotion that would not go down well in modest, ego-suppressing Japanese society.
One impressive feature of Lost Japan is the way that pan-Asian perspectives, whether Burmese mandelas or Chinese temple design, are dropped in to remind the reader of a much larger context beyond Japan. He states: “I realised I could never understand Japan if I did not know something about China.”
This book is a gloriously honest and passionate piece of writing which repays multiple readings. So, should you be lucky enough to find a copy, let “Alex-san” take you on a memorable journey up, down and through one of the most fascinating places on the planet.
About the reviewer
Lloyd Wright is an under-employed EFL teacher who values engagement with students and others from across the globe – Chile to China – and especially their quirky views about British life. He writes occasional articles for diverse outlets and was briefly on the Disney payroll while writing about the unfolding drama of the 2002 World Cup.
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