Lost Japan

"Lost Japan" by Alex Kerr is a great read for all Japan fanatics. The book gives an personal yet indepth look into the Asian leader's culture, art and literature world while shedding fragments of light on the country.

To be precise, it is a collection of autobiographical essays that describes the experiences Kerr accumulated since he stepped into Japan as a boy in 1964. And having stayed there since then, he shares his observations of how the country has changed as well as the direction it is heading towards on top of his deep knowledge of Japan's tea culture, kabuki and the concept of zen among others.

One of my favourite and fitting passage about the country's culture in the book goes like this: Japan is like an oyster. An oyster dislikes foreign objects: when even the smallest grain of sand or broken shell finds its way inside the oyster shell, the oyster finds the invasion intolerant, so it secretes layer after layer of nacre upon the surface of the offending particle, eventually creating a beautiful pearl. However, while pearls may vary slightly in size or luster, they all look very much alike. In the process of coating, not a trace remains of the shape or colour of the grain of sand inside. In like manner, Japan coats all culture from abroad, transforming it into a japanese-style pearl. The finished pearl is a thing of great beauty - often, as in the case of the tea ceremony, more refined than the original – but the essential nature of the original is lost.

Now, you might be thinking why read a foreigner's take on the country instead of a local's? Well, as a foreigner we might interpret things differently from that of a local and might identify better with the initial outsider. Besides, it is an interesting new perspective to read.

Also, this guy really knows his stuff! Kerr studied Japanese in Yale, and Chinese and Tibetan as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He has also lived a great part of his life in the country. And hence the great knowledge and fitting descriptions of Japan in his book, which won him the  Shincho Gakugei literature award in 1994 – the first ever by a foreigner.

In all, "Lost Japan" by Alex Kerr is the perfect read before travelling to Japan, and especially as a gift to someone who would be staying there for awhile.

Related links: Alex Kerr website, The Elephant Vanishes
Buy the book: Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

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