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  • Alex Kerr on being a “Yokoso Ambassador” for the GOJ

    Posted by Dr. ARUDOU, Debito on February 3rd, 2008

    Hi Blog. Based upon the Japan Times article immediately below, Alex Kerr, author of DOGS AND DEMONS and famous social commentator (who incidentally has written before for Debito.org about his statements on my activism, which had been willfully misinterpreted by the axe-grinders on Wikipedia), has been chosen as a GOJ tourism representative. The Community interest group had a number of questions about what this meant (reproduced below).

    Alex was kind enough to answer them, and give his permission for his clarifications to be reproduced on Debito.org. Have a read. Thanks Alex. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

    ///////////////////////////////////////

    17 tapped as Welcome to Japan envoys
    Kyodo News/The Japan Times: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008
    http://search.japantimes.co.jp/mail/nn20080123f4.html

    The government has appointed fashion designer Junko Koshino and 16 other people as Welcome to Japan ambassadors for their contributions to draw foreign travelers to Japan.

    On selecting the 17 Yokoso! Japan Ambassadors, a selection committee of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry took into account two aspects — building infrastructure in the hardware side to accept foreign travelers and transmitting Japan’s attractive features in the software side.

    Koshino was selected because she has transmitted fashion that embodies Japanese-style images to the world, the ministry said.

    Hotelier Kenichi Kai was picked because he served 10 years as the chairman of a committee in Beppu, Oita Prefecture, to attract foreign travelers to the hot-spring resort area and for his activities such as making hotels capable of exchanging yuan and five other foreign currencies.

    American Alex Kerr was selected as he is working on renovating traditional houses in Kyoto and undertaking business to have foreigners experience lodging in Japan.

    The ministry will introduce the 17 on its Web site as “role models” and consider holding symposiums, according to the officials.

    The Japan Times: Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008
    ///////////////////////////////////////

    QUESTIONS RAISED ON THE COMMUNITY:

    Friend Olaf Karthaus (who brought it up) wrote:
    ===============================
    Alex Kerr, an American is among them.
    What is his stance on fingerprinting?
    Especially on fingerprinting PRs, a group he himself belongs to, I assume.

    Anybody knows?
    But I doubt that he would have been chosen as an ‘ambassador’ if he
    wouldn’t be 100% backing the government’s line in that matter.
    ===============================

    Friend Todd wrote:
    ===============================
    Is that not the same Alex Kerr who authored Dogs And Demons (for
    those unfamiliar, a legendary and scathing critique of Japan)?
    ===============================

    Friend Matt wrote:
    ===============================
    This reminds me of a quote I saw online recently that was attributed
    to Chomsky:

    “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly
    limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate
    within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident
    views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going
    on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being
    reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
    ===============================

    To which Todd responded:
    ===============================
    Which is *exactly* why it would be so surprising for the authorities
    to appoint Alex Kerr to such a position.
    ===============================

    SO I ASKED ALEX:

    Alex, this is a fundamentally sympathetic crowd (I can vouch for
    them), so would you like to make any comment about what your job
    entails? I will also blog it if you like, just in case there are
    others out there who would like to know what’s going on. In this day
    when the GOJ is seen is fundamentally NJ-unfriendly (what with
    fingerprinting at the border and all), the question will probably
    come up anyway sooner or later. Bests, Debito in Tokyo

    AND HERE IS HIS REPLY:

    ///////////////////////////////////////

    February 3, 2008
    Dear Debito,

    Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. The issue people bring up deserves a serious answer. Unfortunately, I’m so busy on the road right now that I don’t know if I can do it justice. Here are a few words:

    Dear Debito

    I understand why some people might wonder why I’ve accepted designation from the government as a “Yokoso Japan! Ambassador.” There can be indeed a process of co-option whereby foreign critics mute their voices when they get too close to the agencies they write about. As I’ve written in Dogs and Demons, I think many foreign academics suffer from exactly this problem.

    I’ve therefore always tried to remain sensitive to this danger. That said, I don’t believe in absolute black-and-white on this issue. I am certainly opposed to numerous government policies, for example finger-printing, which I’ve personally had to undergo. But that doesn’t mean that one should never cooperate with any branch of the government on anything. That would be like saying that because one doesn’t approve of the Iraq war, one shouldn’t work with the US National Park Service.

    The “Yokoso Japan! Ambassador” designation was presented by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport. I’ve repeatedly criticized this Ministry (in its present guise, as well as its former reincarnation as the Construction Ministry) for its damaging public works projects. Nevertheless, it happens that Japan’s tourist department (to be upgraded to the Tourism Agency by the end of this year) is located inside this Ministry. It’s this department that I’m working with.

    I work with them because it’s my strongly held belief that an increase in international tourism can have great benefits for Japan. It makes regional economies less dependent on government construction projects. It brings home to people the financial merits of preserving their cities and countryside as tourist assets. And, not least important, the inflow of foreigners, can act as a powerful aid in “internationalizing” Japan in the true sense of the word. Many of the issues discussed in your blog will hopefully improve once people in Japan have an increased experience of actual foreigners traveling (and spending money) in their communities.

    As for being “co-opted,” I’ve no intention of letting the rest of the Land, Infrastructure, and Transport Ministry (or Fishing and Agriculture Ministry, or so many others branches of the government, who go right on sponsoring wasteful and damaging construction projects) off the hook. Anyone who has heard my recent talks or read recent interviews would see that I continue to say (and illustrate with photos) exactly what I’ve been saying for years in Dogs and Demons and elsewhere.

    In fact, this year I’m planning to do an illustrated photo-book which shows visually what the damage has been. It will feature ill-considered public works in the form of environmentally-harmful roads, dams, and so-called erosion control, destruction or mis-management of old houses, old towns, and cultural assets, visual pollution in the form of bad signage (including official propaganda signs from police departments and municipalities) and failure to bury electrical lines, tourist developments that are eyesores or adversely impact the environment, absurd public monuments, weird civil engineering projects (large and small scale) that transform rivers, mountains, and sea coasts, etc. I appeal to anyone on this website who’d like to give me a hand with this, since I don’t have time to go around the whole country collecting all the photos that I need.

    Best wishes,
    Alex
    ENDS

    21 Responses to “Alex Kerr on being a “Yokoso Ambassador” for the GOJ”

    1. Sean Says:

      Alex – I’m a keen photographer. I love photographing Japan but find it harder and harder to do because of all the electric cables, ugly concrete, and pointless signs everywhere. I’d love to help.

    2. ThePenguin Says:

      What’s the best way of contacting Alex with the information / photos he needs? I’m sure I’ve got a couple of interesting pictures in my collection I could send in.

      –KEEP POSTING TO THIS BLOG ENTRY, EVERYONE. I’LL LET ALEX KNOW DIRECTLY. THANKS. DEBITO

    3. Kimpatsu Says:

      Alex, you are cooperating with this racist government on fingerprinting. You should have refused point-blank, sa “Yokoso! Japan” is a lie until such time as this racist fingerprinting is ended. It really is that simple.

    4. Tod Matthews Says:

      Speaking of Wikipedia, your article seems to have been nominated for deletion:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Debito_Arudou
      However, it seems to have enough support for keeping.

    5. mashu Says:

      IMO all this seems as if the GOJ is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Appointing Yokoso Japan ambassadors AFTER the fingerprinting fiasco has the appearance of granting legitimacy to this practice. It also lessens the credibility of those involved (the ambassadors) to criticize the GOJ. Mr. Kerr, your USA/Parks service analogy is not applicable in this situation. The Yokoso Japan and fingerprinting issue are inseparable.

    6. scott lucas Says:

      Good on you, Kinpatsu. “Yokoso Japan”. “What a load of crock!” to steal Tom Sellick’s line in Three Men and a Baby. Japan just love’s it’s catch phrases, doesn’t it? I, myself, would feel like a hypocrite if I took up such a position as things currently stand. There is no “Yokoso Japan” or if there is then just add a little bit extra: “Yokoso Japan….but we don’t want you to stay too long”!

    7. Matt Dioguardi Says:

      Kerr stated, “I’ve therefore always tried to remain sensitive to this danger.
      That said, I don’t believe in absolute black-and-white on this
      issue. I am certainly opposed to numerous government policies, for
      example finger-printing, which I’ve personally had to undergo. But
      that doesn’t mean that one should never cooperate with any branch
      of the government on anything. That would be like saying that
      because one doesn’t approve of the Iraq war, one shouldn’t work
      with the US National Park Service.”

      Just for the record, this comparison is not quite apt, and it seems to only attempt to deflect the primary criticism.

      Alex Kerr is encouraging people to come to Japan. Kerr is fully aware that as a consequence of coming to Japan, foreigners will be fingerprinted. Therefore, Kerr is complicit and responsible in this. He can’t just shirk off his moral responsibility this way.

      My guess is that while Kerr doesn’t agree with the fingerprinting policy, he probably just doesn’t think it’s that bad. It’s acceptable to him, at least on some level.

      Also, in all fairness one has to consider the primary problem Kerr is concerned with. He is concerned with Japan losing its traditional culture. He wants to preserve and enhance these things. The more foreigners who visit Japan, the more he will be able to do this. The less foreigners who visit Japan, the harder his job will be. So, it’s certainly understandable that he wants to try and overlook the fingerprint policy and his own moral complicity in luring foreigners over here to be fingerprinted. The last thing he probably wants to do is *discourage* people from coming by taking a stand on this (i.e. quitting his job over it).

      In my previous post on this I posted a quote (found on the Internet and attributed to Chomsky):
      “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

      I want to note that this quote was not targeted at Kerr, but at the people who hired him. My guess is they are not trying to co-opt him morally, but to try make him seem irrelevant. (And succeeding. Kerr can say he’s against fingerprinting, but he has absolutely no moral authority on this as long as he maintains his role as Yokoso ambassador.)

      The leadership in Japan (if it can be called that) all agree with Kerr that things are a mess and need to be fixed … but *shikata ga nai ne* … it’s just the way things are.

      This is all too typical and sad.

      Best,
      Matt Dioguardi

    8. Kindaichi Says:

      I don’t think that Japan ever really wanted NJ to stay in Japan for very long. The point of the Yōkoso (*) campaign is to generate tourism profits. After sightseeing is over, xenophobic behavior inherited from the Edo period sets in and you are no longer welcomed.

      *”Yokoso” is not a word. The o is long: yoku koso > you koso > yo: koso > yōkoso. At least they spell it correctly at the airport.

    9. Benjamin Says:

      “I don’t have time to go around the whole country collecting all the photos that I need.”

      Well, I’m on a low-obligation scholarship and want to spend some time traveling around Japan, so I might. Let me know how I can help.

    10. Greg M Says:

      I noticed a “Yokoso Japan Weeks” advert on the Odakyu line last Friday. I thought that it was funny how 95% of the advertisement was written in Japanese with only short catchphrases in English, Chinese, Korean, etc.

      Either they are advertising to the tourists who are already here and read the adverts while riding the train (unlikely) or it is to increase domestic tourism (most likely).

    11. Kimpatsu Says:

      Scott (Lucas): To me, this issue is the same as when we boycotted tourism, travel, trade, and sporting participation of South Africa during the apartheid era. Japan has created an apartheid system, so it can suffer the same fate. Blockade the ports, and once the oil reserves get a bit low, watch a miraculous rethink on this issue from the racists in government.

    12. E.P Lowe Says:

      Good luck to Alex,

      maybe he can achieve something by working away in the background in his new position.

    13. Mark in Yayoi Says:

      Great to see some commentary from Alex Kerr, who works wonders with old buildings and is an inspiration to fellow restoration buffs like myself. (I visited Chiiori in the Iya Valley in 2002; had a great time.)

      I agree wholeheartedly with the Chomsky quote and find the fingerprinting to be a disgrace, but don’t see Alex Kerr as a turncoat or any such thing. For him, stopping the destruction of traditional culture such as old buildings is more important than stopping some of the other more unpleasant policies of government such as fingerprinting and alien cards. You pick your battles, I suppose, and until we see Alex actually saying that fingerprinting keeps society safe or some such syncophantic nonsense, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt.

      Kindaichi, I suspect that people know that it’s a long vowel, but either are using old computers that don’t have fonts containing letters with macrons, or don’t know how to enter them. (On the Mac, you can get them with the US Extended keyboard layout by pressing option+A for the macron and then the letter you want it to go over.)

    14. Andrew Smallacombe Says:

      Kindachi, there is an internet rumor that the bar indicating the long vowel over the o was not in the original version but was later added, to represent the disputed Northern Territories. (“O” as Hokkaido, “J” as Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu)

    15. vegetablej Says:

      Just a couple of points. I read Alex Kerr’s book and agreed with most of what he has to say about the ugliness of the countryside, where I live, and all the concreted areas. In fact the whole landscape except for a few mountains and shrine areas is completely grey and depressing. It would be great if the old houses were preserved instead of pulling them down to make yet another parking lot or high rise apartment.

      I’ve also visited the website of the houses which he nicely restored and is housing visitors in and introducing them to some basics of Japanese culture. It’s a business, so I think he has a financial interest both in supporting it, and maybe in making himself more visible and connected to official tourism. I see nothing out of the ordinary there but I still wonder why he has chosen to take this step at a time many of us consider the worst possible time to do so, a time when the NJ community is protesting what seems to be a growing xenophobia in government policy.

      He may be very involved in pursuing his business and cultural interests, but perhaps he might like to think about how useful he could be, as a well-known person, if he chose to take up this matter with government. Preserving culture is wonderful and laudable, but it doesn’t sit very well if it has to be swallowed down with a large dose of racism.

      I’ll be waiting to see what happens.

    16. PR Says:

      Fingerprinting and Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport

      Minister of Land, Infra and Transport Fuyushiba recently asked Cabinet clearance to submit a bill to the Diet limiting foreign ownership of soon-to-be publicly listed Japanese airports. Fuyushiba justified the bill by stating that airports with foreign equity would not exercise adequate immigration control. “Limiting foreign terrorists” is starting to become Japan’s Swiss Army knife of excuses, useful for any occasion. Nobody seemed to point out that immigration control,like customs, would continue to be exercised by the national government regardless of whether the airport operator is a bloated public authority with poor service and endless jobs for retired bureaucrats, or an entity operating on business principles.

      Fuyushiba was opposed by other parts of the Japanese Cabinet, who pointed out that it would not look good for Japan if PM Fukuda returned from his Davos Conference pledge to increase foreign investment in Japan and then introduced a bill to limit such foreign investment in the most visible places, airports.

      The point is that Minister Fuyushiba, at least, is publicly in favor of greater control of non-Japanese entrants. Yokoso, indeed !

    17. Another John Says:

      As usual, I’m late coming to a good party.

      There is nothing I can write in the next 30 minutes or so that can fully describe how detestable I find many of these comments. Most of you are so caught up in the drama of the fingerprinting thing that you are failing to see the larger picture of what Mr. Kerr is trying to do.
      The fingerprinting policy is a bad implementation of a bad idea, of course. It comes at a time when not only Japan, but the entire developed world, has caught the American Terrorist Paranoia. But face it: fingerprinting, as unpalatable and horrible as it is, is basically here to stay. Europe is going to implement their own version soon, too, and, if America has its way, Japan and the EU both will be taking a full set of 10 prints per person per visit. The policy is not rooted in racism; it is rooted in politics. Bad international politics. It was not conceived by some scared old men in Tokyo; it came about because the States started it. When they are willing to whistle at any perceived human rights abuses in the world, have you noticed just how the US has remained strangely silent on Japan’s policy?
      Mr. Kerr is doing the honorable thing. He realizes that policy is policy and the dynamics that guide this are far above where he sits. Thus, he is trying to make the best of what the situation is. He is a pragmatist and his analogy about the US gov’t/US Forest Service is perfectly valid. His goal is stated plainly in the 4th paragraph of his note.

      I work with them because it’s my strongly held belief that an increase in international tourism can have great benefits for Japan. It makes regional economies less dependent on government construction projects. It brings home to people the financial merits of preserving their cities and countryside as tourist assets. And, not least important, the inflow of foreigners, can act as a powerful aid in “internationalizing” Japan in the true sense of the word. Many of the issues discussed in your blog will hopefully improve once people in Japan have an increased experience of actual foreigners traveling (and spending money) in their communities.

      Sounds good to me. Standing on principle alone makes for a lonely pedestal and, sometimes, you gotta do some give-and-take to make things better. There’s much that can be gained by making a contribution and much more to be lost if these hogwash ideas of a “boycott” or “blockade” take place. Change in attitudes such as this starts at the micro level. As long as momentum is favorable, it grows and grows until, finally, one day, it hits critical mass and a different conventional wisdom becomes dominant. That may be years from now, but Alex is doing his part to facilitate that movement.

      Which is more than I can say for the majority of you.

      Cheerio,
      John
      Yokohama

    18. CJ Says:

      As someone who has worked in the Japan National Tourist Organization, I can tell you that they were against the fingerprinting policy from the start.

      It is painfully ironic that the Yokoso! Japan campaign is being carried out in the middle of the fingerprinting fiasco, but remember that it was the Ministry of Justice (and the Diet) that enacted the fingerprinting law. JNTO protested but it went into law anyway.

      So I see nothing wrong with Kerr’s cooperation; remember there is more than one voice, even within the Japanese Government.

    19. Jonny Says:

      Why isn`t Yokoso called “welcome” or even “benvenido” ?

    20. Evan Heimlich Says:

      An increase in international tourism can have great benefits for Japan, sure. But what benefits? For instance, potentially Mr. Kerr’s involvement could hurt rather than help historical preservation in Japan. That is, the powers that be might make Mr. Kerr himself an official institution, as an indicator that they are doing the right thing, while proceeding to concretize more of the archipelago.

      Relevantly, in the _London Review of Books_, 15 November 2007 (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/zize01_.html), the great critic Slavoj Zizek wrote relevantly as follows:

      “The big demonstrations in London and Washington against the US attack on Iraq a few years ago offer an exemplary case of this strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance. Their paradoxical outcome was that both sides were satisfied. The protesters saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimise it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government policy – will be possible also in Iraq!’”

      With due respect for a great researcher and writer (one whose work I think of when I drink Kobe’s tap water or look out my window), I’d like to offer some rebuttal to Mr. Kerr’s prediction of benefits one might expect to flow from increased tourism.

      First, maybe increased tourism does “make regional economies less dependent on government construction projects,” but it’s hardly clear that regional booms in tourism are going to slow down the Road Tribe.

      Next, tourism promotion maybe “brings home to people the financial merits of preserving their cities and countryside as tourist assets,” but this seems a somewhat roundabout way to make the point. Moreover, I am skeptical whether, to a significant degree, decision-makers here are going to start maximizing resources rationally, in lieu of following social pressures. If they were, then Japan would prioritize marketing its food to foreigners–because apparently, according a recent survey, tourists are coming for the food. But instead I suppose that culinary politics in Japan will continue serving nationalism–in the form of whale-cuisine, and gaijin-baiting about mad cows and toxic gyoza–to a far greater extent than serving tourists’s needs.

      Historical preservation, which is a great thing in itself, slightly will increase in Japan, one might predict, but for unwelcome reasons–because it suits the articulation of a timeless, monolithic essence of Japaneseness, in contrast to foreignness. Meanwhile I don’t think we’ll see Tokyo educating tourists much about the influence of Chinese architecture on Japan’s national monuments.

      One would still like to believe that xenophobia will decrease, “once people in Japan have an increased experience of actual foreigners traveling (and spending money) in their communities.” But recent historical trends seem to suggest the converse. That is, tourism’s already been increasing—in surges for the Olympics, World Cup, and World Expo; and overall. One sees worthwhile currents of sociopolitical benefit, but they seem overwhelmed by a tide.

      One could easily believe, during Japan’s 1990s boom of “internationalism,” that the increasing inflow of foreigners would act as a powerful aid in internationalizing Japan. However, Japan has not become more cosmopolitan, but instead, much more nationalistic. National policies, and a general mindset, increasingly have embraced the revolving door for foreigners. The tourist is the ideal.

    21. Paul Rivers Says:

      Why Westerners want modern Japanese to live in insect-ridden primitive earthquake-prone farmhouses that aren’t worth restoring is beyond me.You can’t heat them in winter or cool them in summer.They are 4 tons of clay,tiles and beams sitting on rocks in the dirt.Starting with a concrete foundation they cost US$200,000 plus to restore from scratch.What’s the point if you can have a new house?
      Corporations can restore and manage these places but will only do so if it is profitable.Alex is Chairman of a corporation that is doing just that and kudo’s to him.He is a bit of a darling to the Japanese establishment so what better way to see what is going on than to be a part of it.Only,be careful Alex.Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

      Paul Rivers.

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