Alex Kerr: A Taste of a Better Japan


Alex Kerr has spent more than a decade restoring traditional houses in remote parts of Japan and using them to revive local economies. In recent years, he has written acerbic critiques about the destruction of the Japanese landscape, rooted in his expert knowledge of East Asian arts and culture, and continues to work to develop a new approach to Japanese tourism that will tap the potential of the nation’s rich traditions and help to keep them alive for future generations.

Alex Kerr

Born in Maryland in 1952 and first came to Japan at the age of 12. After studies at Yale and Oxford, moved back to Japan in 1978 and worked for the Oomoto Foundation, a Shintō association devoted to the teaching of traditional Japanese arts. Since 2005, he has lived half of each year in Thailand. Books include Lost Japan (Japanese, 1993; English, 1996) and Dogs and Demons (2001). Writes and lectures widely in English and Japanese on East Asian arts and the need to preserve Japan’s traditional landscapes and beauty before they disappear.

In 1973, American-born Alex Kerr bought an abandoned traditional thatched house in Iya, a remote, sparsely populated Tokushima Prefecture community. He converted it into a unique accommodation giving visitors from Japan and overseas an unprecedented chance to experience a slice of traditional Japanese life for themselves. Kerr has been involved in similar restoration projects in Ojika, an island in the Gotō Archipelago of Nagasaki Prefecture, in the town of Utazu in Kagawa Prefecture on the Inland Sea, where a traditional shopping street survives, and in the remote village of Totsukawa in Nara Prefecture. His projects aim to keep distinctive local culture and architecture alive and to help revive local economies through tourism. He is currently involved in diverse projects, in Okayama and Shizuoka Prefectures and in his own adopted hometown of Kameoka near Kyoto.

ALEX KERR   All the areas where we work were left behind during the economic booms of the twentieth century. These are places that most people would regard as antiquated and out-of-date. They have borne the brunt of depopulation and all the other problems affecting Japan’s rural areas today. People are often amazed how I ever manage to find such out-of-the-way places at all. But in today’s Japan, where the shopping streets and landscapes all over the country are becoming increasing standardized in the name of convenience and efficiency, the “inconvenience” you can still find in these places provides a useful corrective to the dominant values. Because they have remained largely untouched by modern development, their distinctive landscapes and architecture remain intact.

But what we’re trying to do is not just about preserving the buildings. We want to take the culture of living that the old buildings represent and give it new life in today’s contemporary world—and that means creating jobs in the community, bringing in income from tourism, and helping energize the local economy. We’re interested in quality, but it’s important to pay attention to the economic aspects as well as the cultural side.

In Iya, we’ve converted eight old traditional houses in a hamlet deep in the mountains. The local government takes care of the business side; the restoration itself is generally supported by government grants. In that sense, the project represents public spending of a kind, but it’s something quite different from the notorious white elephants that have characterized so many government outlays in Japan in the past.

The floors of the old houses in Iya are made from dark wooden floorboards buffed to a sheen by the wear of time. These represent a style of domestic architecture that was common in the days before tatami mats. All the old beams and pillars in the houses are also intact. But we’ve incorporated modern plumbing, heating, and insulation. By preserving the important elements of the traditional architecture and combining them with modern comforts, it should be possible to ensure that these distinctively Japanese landscapes are passed on to the next generation.

Exterior and interior views of Chiiori in Iya. The main room with its wooden floors is dominated by a traditional irori, or fireplace. The house is popular with families, who can rent the entire house and enjoy the experience of living in it for a few days as if it is their own home. (© Alex Kerr)

First Encounter with the Iya Valley

Kerr founded the private firm Chiiori Ltd. to come up with the overall framework of the restoration project and its funding, while the Chiiori Trust, an NPO, has been responsible for managing the house since renovation was complete. But nearly half a century passed between Kerr’s first encounter with the house and the project as it is run today. His current operations have been built on the back of many years of experience in Japan.

KERR   I first came to Japan in 1964, when I was twelve. My father was a lawyer with the US Navy, and the family came with him when he was relocated to Yokohama. During the two years we spent in Yokohama, I had an experience I’ll never forget. My mother took me one day to an antiques shop in the Motomachi area of the city. The sight of these old pieces of Imari porcelain being carefully removed from their straw wrappings filled me with a sense of awe. I became fascinated with Japan. After we went back to America I used to eat cup noodles and any other Japanese things I could get my hands on as a way of keeping in touch.

In those days, the only place I knew with a Japanese studies program was Yale, so I buckled down and worked hard to get in. I was desperate to learn more about Japan. I spent a year as a student in the Japanese language program at Keiō University in Tokyo. But I hardly attended class: I was too busy hitch-hiking to out-of-the-way places all over the country!

It was during that year that I came across Iya for the first time. As the national economy had boomed, people had been leaving these remote villages in droves, and there were a lot of abandoned houses. But when I looked into these empty homes, I was struck by the peace and the evocative darkness that still lingered inside. I still remember clearly the contrast when I reemerged and the light hit my eyes again. The mountains on the other side of the valley were covered in mist. It was like somewhere where a mountain hermit might live. It blew me away.

The famous vine bridges of the Iya Valley: a sight now to be seen only in out-of- the-way places in modern Japan.

I went back to Iya repeatedly, and explored over 100 old traditional houses. Then one day I found one that struck me as ideal. I bought the house for 380,000 yen with money I borrowed from a friend of my father. In the years that followed, Japan’s property bubble started and real estate prices soared all over the country. But not in Iya—one of the few places in the country where property actually went down in value in those years!

That house is the one we converted as Chiiori, which remains my base in Iya to this day. The chi in the name is a kind of bamboo flute. It's an ancient instrument related to the evocative flute of nō drama. But the word chi is quite unusual, so most people in Japan are somewhat mystified by the name, unfortunately...

Traditional Culture in Kyoto

After graduating from Yale, Kerr traveled to England as a Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford, this time specializing in Chinese studies. After graduating, in 1978 he found a job on the cultural staff in the international department of the Oomoto Foundation, a Shintō organization based in Kameoka just outside Kyoto, launching his professional life in Japan. In Kameoka, he found a 400-year-old wooden former shrine-keeper's house inside the precincts of the Tenmangu shrine, which he continues to use as his Kyoto base to this day.

KERR  When I found it, the house was quite dilapidated and haunted-looking. The first time the owner showed me around it was full of cobwebs and the floorboards were threadbare. I tried to open the screen onto the veranda, but the panels were rotten and the whole thing fell out with a clatter.

But in fact, that was the moment when I made up my mind to rent the house. On the other side of the screen was a garden green with moss, and beyond that a landscape a wood and a gurgling stream. When I saw that I thought, “What an amazing place to live.” I fell in love with it.

As well as my work with Oomoto, I started to get into all kinds of aspects of traditional Japanese culture, from the dances of the nō drama to calligraphy and the tea ceremony. I became obsessed with the performances of the kabuki actor Bandō Tamasaburō, and started to visit him in the greenroom of the Minamiza theater around this time, which marked the beginning of an important relationship with him.

A keen art collector, Kerr is a frequent visitor to antique shops specializing in Edo-era texts and the traditional Japanese arts.

At Iya, the house was clogged with soot and I decided to start work on the major project of replacing the thatch. This was my own choice, but it was hard work. But I’d fallen in love with the house and that helped me get through, even though there were times when I had to ask myself what I had let myself in for.

Public Works and the Destruction of the Japanese Landscape

Around this period, Kerr found a job as the Japan representative for the US real-estate developer Trammel Crow and started to work in big business for the first time. But in the early 1990s, as the bubble economy came to an end, Kerr looked around one day and realized that the Japanese landscape he loved had undergone a sudden, dramatic change.

KERR  The period in the 1970s when I first became interested in Japanese culture was a turning point. Those were the years when the economy came to depend heavily on civil engineering projects and a massive construction frenzy swept the whole country.

Under the name of regional regeneration and job creation, big new roads were built in remote areas that led nowhere, huge carparks sprouted all over the place, and tons of concrete were poured into the nation’s mountains and rivers. And nowhere in any of these projects was there anything of the subtle esthetic sense you find in Japanese art. Even in old parts of Kyoto, where old machiya houses still survived, new buildings went up that didn’t fit their surroundings at all, and the harmony and balance of the old streets was quickly destroyed.

Japan has one of the most educated populations in the world, as well as many places of natural beauty and rich cultural traditions. So why, despite this, had the country chosen to move in a direction that was causing so much damage to this irreplaceable heritage? As I started to research the reasons for this, I came to understand the distorted nature of public works spending in Japan.

A survey done at the time showed that public works spending made up around 4 to 6 percent of the annual budget in the United Kingdom and France, and around 8 to 10 percent in the United States. In Japan, it was as high as 40 percent. Once the state has built up an economy that is centered on doling out subsidies to construction like this, it’s very difficult to change it.

But I knew I couldn't just give up. Simply criticizing a country’s systems is not going to solve anything. Aspects of a better, more beautiful Japan still survived, and I thought it was the duty of those who had noticed the problem to remind people of what they were losing and try to ensure that some of this old beauty was passed on to the next generation.

At work restoring a traditional house in Iya. Kerr keeps a close personal eye on the restoration work.

A Love-Hate Relationship

In the early years of this century, Kerr started a new project to convert surviving machiya houses in Kyoto into accommodations visitors could rent for a unique experience of traditional Kyoto living. With private accommodations becoming more popular as tourism booms, many owners and businesses are now starting to find new uses for these traditional buildings, but as a pioneer Kerr faced many headaches before he could make the project a success.

KERR  Fire laws, building standards, laws about cultural heritage, accommodation and hotels—all these laws and regulations are under the control of different government bodies, and they stand in the way of a new undertaking of this kind. I think most people would probably have given up. “Forget about preserving these old houses; let’s just replace them with more comfortable modern ones.” And I completely understand that feeling. But I was determined to carry on. I didn't want to compromise.

It was anger and grief that kept me going.

Every time I came back to Japan after a trip I could see the landscapes and urban scenery of Japan being destroyed before my eyes. It made me despair. While many people in Japan thought of their country as Asia’s number-one economic powerhouse, other Asian countries were far more progressive and forward-looking about preserving their traditional landscapes and developing tourism in a balanced way. It made me angry: Why did Japan have to be this way? Why couldn't more people see what was happening?

On the subject of anger—one of my teachers in the Japanese traditional arts was author and critic Shirasu Masako. She was quite strict, and a little bit scary. I remember she said to me once: “If you love something, you can’t help being angry when you see it being destroyed.” I think she was quite right. And that’s why it’s important to try to channel that anger and make it into something constructive for the future. That’s been one of the biggest drivers of our work to regenerate these traditional houses, and it continues to drive us to this day.

Globalization and Cultural Preservation

Kerr’s work in Kyoto and Iya inspired a variety of activities to preserve landscapes and revive communities around the country. A decade on, these projects are now popular with many visitors who enjoy the distinctive travel experiences they provide. The maturity of the domestic market and the rise in inbound tourism have led to more diverse styles a new set of values for travel and tourism. One result is the development of a new, distinctly Japanese tourist industry.

KERR Since setting up a base in Bangkok in 2005, I’ve done more work as a tourism consultant and cultural event planner. I spent time in Naples as a child so I have ties with Italy and often travel there, as well as other countries in Europe, America, China, the Middle East . . . I’m always on the move. I’m basically a nomadic personality. I seem to find it difficult to settle in one place. That’s one of the reasons I was so determined to put down deep roots in Japan.

Recently I’ve been getting a lot of offers to give more lectures on top of the house restoration work, so I’m busier than ever. In 2014, I put out a book in Japanese called Nippon keikanron [Theory of Japanese Landscapes], in which I wrote critically but also, I hope, with a certain irony and black humor, about some of the things that so often disfigure the landscape in Japan: the exposed power lines and utility wires, the ubiquitous billboards and signs, and all the concrete and plastic sheets that seem to cover the country. The response to the book exceeded anything I had imagined.

I thought when I published the book that if these criticisms came from the perspective of a foreigner like me who’s lived in the country for a long time, I might get some pushback. But once the lid was lifted, I was amazed by how many people have approached me to say they feel the same way.

One person approached me after a lecture and said: “I knew that Japan had changed from the way it used to be, but until now I couldn’t have said exactly what the problem was in concrete terms.”

“How the techniques of Japanese tourism can be used to liven up boring foreign tourist sites.” These sardonic photo montages were made for Nippon keikanron, Kerr’s book on the Japanese landscape, as a humorous way to show readers the scale of the problem. (Courtesy Shūeisha Shinsho; © Alex Kerr)

In writing this critique of Japanese landscapes, I didn’t want to people to think I was simply bashing Japan, which is a place I love very much. So I tried to use humor and to get the problems across in such a way that people would be interested and inspired to do something about it.

It’s the same with the house restoration project. Part of the reason for the sorry situation in some of these villages are the various problems that are only growing more serious as globalization progresses—things like international competition and profound changes in the structure of industry and the economy. But this makes it more important than ever to preserve as much of these Japanese landscapes, towns, architecture, and culture as we can before it’s too late. Sustainability will be a crucial part of global society in the twenty-first century, and economic growth will happen as an outgrowth of that. I believe my work can offer one model of how that can be achieved. It might also be a small-scale touchstone for forecasting the future of Japan.

(Originally written and published in Japanese on July 24, 2017. Interview and text by Kiyono Yumi. Photos by Kusumoto Ryō, except where otherwise noted. Banner photo: Alex Kerr on a visit to traditional fishermen’s houses in the town of Ine, Kyoto Prefecture—one of the traditionally Japanese landscapes he loves so much.)


tourism traditional house culture architecture