exercises in compound storytelling

Friday, February 20, 2009

back in the USA

I am finally back sleeping in my own bed after three weeks away: two weeks in Singapore and most of one in Tokyo. I'm on a tight, somewhat difficult schedule for a project at work, so I will be gophering only occasionally over the next few weeks.

This was a fascinating trip and months from now I will probably still be trying to understand what I saw. Singapore is run by a dictator, but the people seem happy. Tokyo, on the other hand, is in principle a democracy but seems moribund at best, and people spend their entire lives at work but a lot of them just seem to be going through the motions.

I didn't realize it, but Alex Kerr (of Lost Japan fame) resurfaced in 2001 with a book called Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan in which he says essentially that Japan is a mess and getting worse and for deeply-embedded reasons: because their culture is so inward-looking and so much dependent on reaching consensus it's very difficult for them to change course. This manifests in two ways: when they have a good idea they tend to run it into the ground, and when they have a bad idea there's no shifting it.

I really have no idea if he's right or wrong: I read the book somewhat skeptically, suspecting that if he were talking about a culture I am part of I would have been inclined to marginalize a lot of the particulars he cites as being symptoms of a sick society: e.g. some nuclear plant had contamination because it was poorly run, not because Japan has a cover-up culture. And as a foreigner who doesn't speak Japanese I really have no access to information.

Regardless, Dogs and Demons is a fascinating book, and one of the strangest I've ever read. I highly recommend it if you can read it at the right price. Some of what he says hasn't stood the test of time: the economy here in the States is no longer the model of health it was (relative to Japan anyway) in 2001, so some of his comparisons don't have the force they had then. Nevertheless it's still an interesting read.

I also got to change planes in Kuala Lumpur on this trip. I had been somewhat concerned flying a Malaysian airline, and I have to admit the leg from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo was long and not especially pleasant, but on balance it was probably better than flying Delta.

I think Kuala Lumpur is the furthest I've been going west; I'm looking forward to finding an excuse to get back there again, and this time to visit the city itself. Patience patience.

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