The Dogs and Demons of Joetsu

The small coastal city of Joetsu on Japan's north coast highlights some of the problems facing modern Japan.

Taking a break from the mountains of Myoko our small party headed into Joetsu to rest our legs and visit a ‘real’ Japanese city rather than the well-traveled tourist regional capitals.  By this stage we were fairly familiar with the Japanese cities from a distance; we’d watched dozens slide past in fast-forward from the window of JR trains. But up close, and at walking pace, the effect was somewhat more unsettling.  Joetsu was a  maze of tightly-packed low-rise houses without gardens or street trees interspersed by windswept concrete plazas and big, blocky commercial buildings.

The whole shoreline was lined with artificial breakwaters and the schools were more or less indistinguishable from the shopping centers in terms of outward appearance.  The atmosphere wasn’t helped by the fact that the streets were empty and the weather was dismal but even on a good day I got the sense that it wouldn’t have been a very pleasant place to live.

But in many ways Joetsu was indistinguishable from great swathes of Tokyo, Nagano, Kyoto, Osaka and, presumably, countless other Japanese cities. It wasn’t that Joetsu was an outlier- rather it represented a more concentrated form of the typical urban landscape in Japan.

After I got home I sought out information related to urban planning in Japan. I wanted to know how that style of architecture had come about whether those austere suburbs were simply a cultural preference I didn’t understand or if there was a deeper issue at play.  The most comprehensive source I came across was a book by Alex Kerr titled Dogs and Demons; The Fall of Modern Japan which offered an exhaustive critique of urban planning, culture, environment, education and economic policy in Japan.

Mermaid statue in Joetsu, Japan.


The argument put forward by Kerr is essentially that Japanese society has been caught up in a vicious cycle of construction and economic stimulus feeding further construction in an effort to grow and ‘modernise’ at any cost.  The picture Kerr paints is one of rampant bureaucracy throwing vast sums of money and labour into massive construction projects simply to maintain budgets and employment rates.

When the book was published in 2001 Japan was spending about 9% of its GDP on public infrastructure projects.  Australia, like the US, and most other OECD countries, was spending a little over 1.5%.  Kerr blames the blandness of Japanese cities on a rush to remove any trace of traditional and old-fashioned architecture and a set of archaic planning regulations that make it almost impossible to construct more comfortable living spaces or preserve traditional districts.  From a chapter entitled ‘The Construction state’;

The Japanese often use the word kirei, which can mean both “lovely” and “neat and clean,” to describe a newly bulldozed mountainside or a riverbank re-done with concrete terraces. The idea that smoothed-over surfaces are kirei is a holdover from the “developing country” era of the 1950s and 1960s, when most rural roads were still unpaved- one can imagine the people’s joy at having rutted dirt lanes overlaid with smooth asphalt, and rotting wooden bridges replaced by reinforced steel. That feeling of joy has never faded; the nation never stopped to catch its breath and look back, and the result is that Japan has become a post-industrial country with pre-industrial goals.

Sweeping generalisations like this abound in Kerr’s essay but they have the ring of truth to them when you examine the landscape. In Nagano I came across lines of tortured looking limbless trees on traffic islands in the city. Later I learned that pruning like this occurs in most cities at the end of summer in order to prevent falling leaves from cluttering up the footpaths and roads.

One particular passage gave me pause;

Foreign observers, too, are seduced by the crisp borders, sharp corners, neat railings and machine-polished textures that define the new Japanese landscape, because, consciously or unconsciously, most of us see these things as embodying the very essence of modernism.  In short, foreigners very often fall in love with kirei even more than the Japanese do…Smooth industrial finish everywhere with detailed attention to each cement block and metal joint: it looks ‘modern’; ergo japan is supremely modern.

From a blog post following a 2012 trip to Japan; here’s me gushing about air conditioning units.

…unlike Bangkok, Hong Kong or a host of other SE Asian cities, the architectural clutter isn’t just the gradual accruing of layers of repairs and modifications. Instead it seems like each additional building façade, fire escape and stairwell has been carefully designed and customised. You find AC units nestled into a carefully tiled wall amongst fire alarm panels, vents, piping and sliding timber-framed windows and cantilevered balconies all neatly woven together.

Nothing matches but everything fits.

Tetrapods in Joetsu, Japan


Another chapter deals with environmental degradation starting with a post-war plan to clear-cut mountainsides and re-plant commercial timber.  The project snowballed until, by 1997, Japan had re-planted 43% of its forests with a monoculture of Japanese cypress.  These ‘sugi’ plantations have decimated the wildlife in Japan and caused erosion by preventing the growth of ground cover and reducing the amount of water reclaimed by the soil.

Allergy to sugi pollen, an ailment almost unknown a few decades ago, now affects 10 [wikipedia says 20] percent of all Japanese. Dr. Saito Yozo, an allergy specialist at Tokyo Medical and Dental University, observes that there is no medical treatment to eliminate pollen allergy, though he recommends wearing protective gear such as masks and goggles. And, indeed, masks and goggles are what you see on the streets in the springtime in Tokyo. Some of the mask-wearers are trying to avoid contracting or spreading the common cold, but hundreds of thousands of others are trying to protect themselves from the man-made plague of ‘sugi’ pollen.

But one of the most clear-cut examples of Japan’s construction frenzy is only noticeable if you visit a coastal city like Joetsu.  More than 55% of Japan’s shoreline has been armored with giant concrete ‘tetrapods’.  According to Kerr;

Tetrapods, which are supposed to retard beach erosion, are big business.  So profitable are they to bureaucrats that three different ministries – of transport, Agriculture, Forestry and fisheries, and of construction – annually spend 500 billion yen each, sprinkling tetrapods along the coast like giants throwing jacks with the shore as their playing board.  These projects are mostly unnecessary or worse than unnecessary.  It turns out that wave action on tetrapods wears the sand away faster and and causes greater erosion than would be the case if the beaches had been left alone.

But Kerr’s essay is not a foreigner’s attack on Japanese society or a treatise on the merits of The Western Way.  Rather the tone is one of exasperation that Japan’s history and culture have been so roughly handled in the last century. His essay is, as one reviewer phrased it, an account of “the tragedy of a scrupulous and well-intentioned people cursed with a headless system of government”.

Recently the city of Melbourne only narrowly avoided being dragged into a major civil infrastructure project designed only to temporarily boost employment and boost the bottom line of the construction industry. Clearly no society is exempt from irrational stimulus construction projects but Japan provides a cautionary tale of what happens when this practice is allowed free reign.  Perhaps, in the future, Japan’s politicians will seize on the opportunity to keep people employed re-seeding the mountains and removing the concrete from the rivers and shorelines and training a new generation of workers in the art of deconstruction.

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the dark side of Japan by Alex Kerr

Run-down building on the coast of Japan Chrome pipe junction Kyoto metro A platform at Kyoto Station Kyoto station roof and skywalk

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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