Wednesday, July 13, 2005

A first comment on Dogs and Demons

One chapter down, 14 to go. Well not really since I intend to read the first chapter again to try and absorb a little more. So far, the book is quite interesting, offering great insight into the psyche of Japan.

The first thing which grabbed me was the title: Dogs and Demons, The Fall of Modern Japan. What's up with this Dogs and Demons thing? Well the way I understand it, the author is saying there are two major categories of things a country needs to deal with. First there are Demons, the big picture if you will, the Economy, Trade, etc. Then there are the dogs. These are the small, nitty gritty things of day to day life such as drinking water for the population, infrastructure and other basic things. Not quite as flashy as the Demons but in most cases much more relevant for the people. Kerr is saying that Japan has been focused on fighting the Demons in today's world while practically ignoring the dogs which have been let to run wild through the streets. A good example of this is the billions spent on cementing the rivers for "flood control" while leaving the streets littered with haphazardly placed utility poles with electrical wires hanging everywhere. How can it be that what is seen as the most technologically advanced nation in the world can't even bury their electrical wires? It's an interesting position to take and I'm curious about what lies ahead in the book.

Another thing which struck home for me was in the Prologue. Mr. Kerr talks about when he first got the idea for writing this book. He was sitting on the terrace of a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand in 1996 having coffee with a friend. Looking around he could see a group of German businessmen discussing a new satellite system for Asia, an Italian man reading an Italian language newspaper and a few tables away a group of Americans and Thais planning a trip to Vietnam. It hit him then that this scene had no counterpart in Japan. Not many foreigners visit anymore, practically none of them are planning new businesses and as he says "It is hard to find a newspaper in English in many hotels, much less one in Italian."

Coming from Ottawa, the capital of one of the most multi-cultural countries in the World in my opinion, I can see a marked contrast between the integration of foreigners in Japan and Canada. While Ottawa is full of authentic foreign (Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Greek, etc.) restaurants run by foreigners, I've only found one here in Utsunomiya, the Chinese place near work is actually run by a Chinese family. On the other hand, the Italian, Mexican, French and others are owned and run by Japanese people. I'm not saying that Japanese people shouldn't run foreign food restaurants, but I find it interesting that no foreigners have had the opportunity to start up their own. It's also quite rare to see a foreigner driving any kind of motorized vehicle, especially a car. And although Utsunomiya is only a 40 minute Shinkansen ride from the center of Tokyo, the presence of a foreigner automatically warrants a double-take whether it be from children, business people or restaurant owners. It's certainly quite interesting considering the variety of cultures I'm used to seeing. In my neighbourhood, the convenience store was run by a Serb, there's a Filipino woman who owns a house two doors down and a middle-eastern store a few blocks away. I've worked with Chinese, Lebanese, Iraqi, Iranian, Germans, Scots, South Americans and even dear Rudelle from Barbados. Here, outside of the English teaching community, and the African fellows who run the Hip Hop stores, you'd be hard pressed to find foreigners in Utsunomiya, much less ones who own land or run businesses.

While I realize comparing Utsunomiya to Ottawa may not be warranted and that there are in fact plenty of foreigners in Tokyo, a majority of those are teachers or US military personnel. As for the size of Utsunomiya, you can go to any similar sized Canadian cities (Barry, London, Windsor come to mind, all in Ontario) and find a similar variety of cultures intermingling.

I guess what makes this so fascinating is that the World IS such a small place today with air travel and the Internet and yet Japan still seems to be a relatively closed society. They like French foods and American music but you get the feeling it's only a fashion thing not an actual interest in foreign cultures. This certainly makes for an interesting place to live as a foreigner. We seem to live in some kind of limbo, uncertain if it's a good thing or a bad thing to be gaikokujin in Japan. Some days we're treated like movie stars, others like pariahs. I've actually had cars (3 now) filled with young people roll down their window to share the few lines of English they know with me. Usually this is limited to Hello, how are you and then fits of giggling, especially from the girls in the car. On the other side of things, Scott has been denied service in some places because he was a foreigner, it makes for a rather odd mix, but certainly for an interesting day-to-day life.

I think I will give Scott back his book and go buy my own... I have an urge to mark it up and attack it with a highlighter, it certainly makes one think... and that was just the Prologue!!!

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