Alex Kerr sounded the alarm bells 25 years ago. Has Japan Listened?

Perched high in a settlement above the town of Yusuhara in Kochi Prefecture, the Arcadian surroundings couldn’t be more perfect for catching up with author and japonologist Alex Kerr to discuss the continued relevance of his title of 1996, “Lost Japan”.

Originally published in Japanese in 1993 under the title “Utsukushiki Nihon no Zanzo”, the English edition was first published by Lonely Planet in 1996 and then again by Penguin in 2015.

“Lost Japan” is a combination of a warning bell for the demise of a beautiful and ecological way of life, and a deep dive into aspects of Japanese culture that are often closed to all except the most popular circles. more intimate. Over the past 25 years, has anything changed?

“Lost Japan” first came from a place of concern, as Kerr observed that lifestyles and landscapes were being altered just to fill government budgets, and that many fine arts of Japan were lost to depopulation and the emphasis on a “practical” life took hold.

“In a traditional society, the sudden onset of modernity can be very destructive, because the ways people did things suddenly seem irrelevant,” says Kerr.

Thatched-roof houses such as “Chiiori” – the 300-year-old farmhouse in the Iya Valley of Tokushima Prefecture that Kerr bought and restored – were generally considered “poor and dirty”.

Twenty-five years later, Kerr has witnessed a number of major societal changes.

“First of all, the depopulation. It was only just beginning when I wrote (“Lost Japan”), but now it’s a nationwide problem, ”Kerr says. “We have also seen a massive change in the role of non-Japanese in society. For most of (Japan’s) history, (foreign residents) were irrelevant, but there are now a number of expatriates playing an important role in the preservation of traditional arts. This is great, because the older generation of craftsmen sometimes find it difficult to go beyond the old rules and techniques. Foreigners enter with great respect for craftsmanship, but also have a sense of freedom to play with tradition a bit, bringing a modernization that makes the arts relevant again.

However, the biggest change the author has seen in the country is the tourism boom, with both positive and negative impact.

“Tourism has transformed Japan and awakened many cities to see that the old houses that they saw as a burden are seen as beautiful by visitors,” he says. “In many places, this has been a true angel of salvation, as visitors bring income, provide a new market for endangered traditional crafts, and also revive local food industries.”

Unfortunately, the effect has not been exclusively positive.

“Like any industry, (tourism) has its toxic byproducts,” he says. “The bureaucracies involved are still asleep, and the failure to manage the number of tourists is causing destruction of the environment and community life in many areas.

Author Alex Kerr chats with washi maker Rogier UItenbogaart in Kamikoya, Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

The once abandoned Kerr farm is featured as a character in its own right in “Lost Japan”, with the author even referring to it by name several times during our conversation.

“When I bought and restored Chiiori at the time, people thought I was really weird… even though my neighbors were friendly and kind about it,” he laughs.

Over the past 25 years, spurred by the boom in tourism, the restoration and preservation of farms, townhouses and other traditional structures has become a new national pastime, as a quick internet or YouTube search confirms. .

“But even so, with so many villages left behind as the aging population dies, for every building brought back to life, there are 10 that fall into disrepair,” Kerr explains.

Kerr has since saved dozens of homes across the country, preserving the beauty and framing of every building while redeveloping them for the 21st century and making them comfortable.

There is a term of Japanese tea ceremonies, miter, that is to say, using an object differently to renew its meaning. That’s what Kerr brings to the buildings he restores.

“It’s normal in Europe, but when I first explained this concept in Japan, people thought it was amazing. I don’t want to keep these homes as museum pieces, ”says Kerr, who believes making changes to meet modern needs is the secret to making traditional homes attractive to new generations.

Mitate is also the secret to reviving cities facing depopulation, ”he says.

Author Alex Kerr practices calligraphy at Washi Studio Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture.  |  CHIARA TERZUOLO
Author Alex Kerr practices calligraphy at Washi Studio Kamikoya in Kochi Prefecture. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

There are glimmers of hope amid the gloom, as some visionary cities embrace their pasts and attempt new experiences. In addition to his farm in the Iya Valley, Kerr also highlights Kamiyama, Taketa, Onomichi and, in particular, Yusuhara.

“Yusuhara was an early adopter, and walking around the city, the combination of respect for the ancient and the avant-garde is clear,” he says.

The town of just under 3,500 residents is dotted with modern buildings designed by architect Kengo Kuma and crafted with local cedar to blend in with the landscape.

The power lines along the main street, lined with attractive houses, are buried so as not to block the mountain views, and much of this electricity comes from renewable sources such as solar and wind power.

With three schools, a hospital, and all the necessary amenities (including a cafe and several restaurants), it’s clear why people are interested in living in this revitalized community.

“The sad reality is that cities can compete with big cities, but they have to make advanced decisions and have a vision,” he says. “There are a lot of young people who want to go back to the countryside, but cities have to make some changes, big and small, that allow them to do so. Cities that adapt, like Yusuhara, will thrive. Those who can’t get out of the rut won’t.

Kerr currently divides his time between Japan and Bangkok, a second home he captured in his most recent title, “Another Bangkok: Reflections on the City” (July 2021). Other recent works include “Finding the Heart Sutra” (November 2020) and a Japanese-language book titled “Nippon Junrei” (“Pilgrimage to Japan”), which focuses on hidden hamlets across the country.

He is currently writing a new book tentatively titled “The Trees of Japan” – one of his favorite subjects – which will show how the country’s natural landscape has changed over time through the context of trees.

But the work that is most important to him remains the Iya Valley, where he hopes to bring the depopulated area back to life.

“I want to bring in the culture and nature hippies,” he says, “people who want to learn and contribute, who have skills that can breathe new life into our community. Come be my neighbor.

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