Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Philosophy of Japanese Wartime Resistance: A Reading, with Commentary, of the Complete Texts of the Kyoto School Discussions of 'The Standpoint of World History and Japan' by David Williams

Reading David Williams’ The Philosophy of Japanese Wartime Resistance is a frustrating enterprise. Or it has been for me, at least. The author would probably attribute my exasperation to seemingly obfuscating “liberal reasons,” reasons that cloud my rationalising faculties, that render them powerless, that deviate my judgement from a purely empirical strategy — reasons which he seeks to dispel over the one hundred-page prelude before he allows us to plunge into his compelling translation of what constitutes the essence of this book: three round-table discussions between high-profile members of the Kyoto School held on 26 November 1941, 4 March 1942 and 24 November 1942 and later published in Chūō Korōn, a prominent journal which continues to appear to this day. 

For my part, I attribute my frustration to the author’s tone and to his troublesome arguments captured in, I believe, a shaky methodology. In all sincerity, I only pass such a subjective assessment with great reluctance because I still think that Mr. Williams raises some valid points in regard to liberal imperialism as he successfully broadens the critique of the interpretation of history, particularly of the Pacific War episode, from the victors’ point of view. However, by the time I reached the translations of the Kyoto School discussions of “The Standpoint of World History and Japan” I was so exhausted by the author’s countless tirades against Woodrow Wilson’s ideological inheritors and, most acutely, against liberal historians of Japan like Bix and Dower, that I could not but be in agreement with James Heisig evaluation of another book by Mr. Williams. In this particular instance Heisig says of this book that “it falls in the genre of sophisticated journalism that makes you so angry you eventually become embarrassed at your own reaction and are forced to stop and rethink some of the things you took for granted.” Indeed, the title I’m about to review also made me angry and it made me stop reading but only because I was rethinking the author’s dubious intent in writing this book and the unresolved ways he went about to achieve his pre-stated aims. 

Before I head into the contents of the book, I must mention that Mr. Williams is not new to a revisionist interpretation of Japanese history. Other titles in his oeuvre include Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science and Defending Japan’s Pacific War: The Kyoto School Philosophers and Post-White Power. I have not read anything else by Mr. Williams but his provocative titles and synopses about their contents, in addition to this book under review, have made me curious.

But I have to pause here and insert a few words about revisionism. Revisionism carries a stigma, particularly among orthodox disciples of any field of study. Revisionism disturbs, short-circuits and transfigures deep-seated beliefs. Some see revisionism as progressive, others as reactionary. As a methodology, it is either embraced or condemned. Certainly, revisionism tends to raise up alarm bells in the field of history whenever it is mentioned. I do not hold such a stringent view. I think sweeping, heterogenous discussions are necessary to keep any academic field alive, interesting and complex. The problem with revisionism lies in its aim, specifically when it acts in the service of ideological power mechanisms designed to defend against any criticism or to sway public opinion into one direction. In my view revisionism takes on inimical connotations when it seeks to conceal and to disorient: one should be wary of revisionism which doesn’t speak truth to power. Mr. Williams’ objective in this book is not necessarily a negative one. He may be challenging, occasionally upsetting and uncompromising but he raises issues that complement the variegated field of Japanese Studies in ways that need to be engaged with and properly debated. Hence I see his revisionism as a healthy dose of intellectual endearment. 

Nevertheless, I still part ways with Mr. Williams for a number of reasons which I will examine below. Although I will make a few critical observations about the translation of the symposia contained in the second part of the book, I will not delve here into this important subject, however grandiose it may be, all heavily annotated, thoroughly explained and outstandingly referenced. The second part may be the best part of the book, one which I cannot insist enough that it ought to be read. The following thoughts concern only the first part which serves initially as an introduction or, as I see it, as a platform for Mr. Williams to express again and again his dissatisfaction with liberalism, either political or academic. There is no way one can escape this: it’s virtually included in every paragraph, as if Mr. Williams was afraid his readers could lose focus of what’s really at stake by the time they get to explore the philosophers’ interesting discussions. 

So what’s the book about? The main corpus contains three texts of three lively debates among members of the Kyoto School which, in Mr. Williams’ opinion, represent the ultimate Confucianist manifesto of opposition to Tōjō and the Pacific War and the only relevant and exemplary source for resistance to Japan's tragical historic course of action. For Mr. Williams,

In this clash of ideas as a battle for discourse hegemony, the Kyoto School provides the empirical and theoretical foundations for a more plausible understanding than any hitherto offered of the nature of Japanese wartime resistance to official attempts to suppress internal criticism and thus thwart efforts to dislodge Tōjō from power.

Finally, the book is a strong, passionate defense of the Kyoto School against the prevailing “liberal” view which sees it as an official apologist and preserver of Japan’s fascist, imperialist ventures and the ideological parent of the East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere. The author argues that the academic world has failed to see the contrasting, real picture of what the Confucianist intellectuals were trying to do because all scholarly interpretation of Japanese history, following the Allied victory in 1945, was and still is, “the product of the Moral Revolution of our liberal century and the propaganda needs of a wartime emergency do not allow us to read the writings of the Kyoto School with clarity, confidence and accuracy.”

Mr. Williams insistence that the Kyoto School carried the voice of interwar dissent comes apart mainly due to his seething opposition to the forms of “hegemonic” liberalism of historical interpretation. Here I must confess that I’m seriously confused what liberalism is, even after being told again and again that the hegemony of liberalism provoked Japan’s heavy-handed response in China, Korea, and at Pearl Harbor. The author never provides a concise definition as it is usually customary when discussing philosophy — something that, nevertheless, he consistently and admiringly points out is the universal practice employed by the Confucianist philosophers of the Kyoto School. All I know about this form of contemptible liberalism is that it can be traced back to President Woodrow Wilson and is rooted in the terms of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 when “the theory of just war was revived and became the mainstay of the Western liberal approach to international law.” Mr. Wilson is justly aggrieved that an ideology that has the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as its conceptual foundation has morphed into a regular global aggressor which seeks to destroy and reform by force everything that it sees as illiberal. It is with this accurate view in mind that he maintains that “‘Japanese resistance’ [pre- and inter- WWII] must be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as a predictable, rational and human response to the enforcement of global suzerainty by post-Wilsonian liberalism.” But his rancor fails to elicit any sympathy when he mistakenly portrays conservative personages like Margaret Tatcher and Ronald Reagan and even George Bush as liberal aggressors. While these individuals were ardent champions of the economic ideas associated with neoliberalism (ideas which, in my opinion, cannot be divorced from liberalism in and of itself) to include them as representatives of liberalism seems to me a failure of academic integrity. More dubiously, the author even gives credence to the view that the Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation was a “template for liberal annihilation.” Therefore it is difficult to make sense of what the author sees as liberalism and this is counterintuitive since, like I already mentioned above, liberalism is attacked in one form or another on every page of the introduction.

Moreover, the author maintains that liberal readers are incapable of grasping the true essence of the symposia due to moral limitations. The underlying assumption is that the regular reader has been intoxicated (or brainwashed) by a prevalent moralist, humanist worldview that prevents him or her from making a sound, empirical interpretation of any Japanese wartime text. It is for these reasons that the author decides not to offer a literal translation of the Kyoto School discussions; instead he produces a meta-text, one that is able to render our feelings inert and awake a scientific understanding that lacks the pitfalls of moral partiality. 

The truth of this whole affair is that because we liberal readers, as liberals, are morally incapable of being faithful to the original, any translator of this text would be condemned to betray it. It may simply be the case that it is still too early to attempt to translate the three manuscripts that travel under the informal flag of convince that is the theme of ‘the standpoint of world history and Japan’ because we are not ready, that is, not mentally and morally prepared, for the leap of understanding required. While a translation would have faltered over the attributes of the text, my reading aims to provide only the essence of the thing.

The author’s tone here is very patronizing. And it doesn’t help that he later adds “I do believe that I have identified a reliable framework of interpretation, one that is impartial in a way that is true of none of its rivals.” I find that the above statements only manage to disperse with impartiality and to cast doubt on the objectiveness of the texts, an objectivity which the author maintains is the singular valuable characteristic of the Kyoto School as a whole. But we have to take his word for it. Those who cannot read the original Japanese documents are at the mercy of the translator who, in this case, casts even more aspersions on the authoritativeness of the translation by exhibiting a hyperbolic admiration for the philosophers under scrutiny. In general, this is not an entirely damaging factor but readers of this book are made only more skeptical when the author engages in the following characterizations:

All born during the first decade of the twentieth century, that is, the final decade of the Meiji era, these four thinkers bring to their discussions something more than a rigorous philosophical tradition. They are intimate with a vast corpus of European writing on a huge array of topics, from literature, anthropology and history to politics, military strategy and technology. Their shared horizon allows them to rehearse established lines of argument with economy while developing new ones almost as they speak. They can discourse at length, confident that they will be patiently listened to. They gracefully cut across each other’s remarks (despite their differences in age; differences that require sensitive navigation in Confucian East Asia) and tease each other’s intellectual pretensions. They share a sense of humor. One would invite all of them cheerfully to a dinner party because they appear to be such good company.

The author is trying too hard in this fragment and that’s all right because he obviously likes and sympathizes with his subjects. But I believe that the subjectivity of personal descriptions could have been left to the reader’s imagination, not imposed from above. At other times I feel that the author is not entirely honest about the partakers of the symposia, or is purposely misdirecting the reader.

Their instincts are sound and, despite their reactionary reputations, their opinions will unsettle the prejudiced liberal critic. They treat arguments for the importance of blood purity with well-judged skepticism at a time when black soldiers were apparently not allowed to give blood transfusions to white soldiers in the US armed forces. These Japanese thinkers celebrate the place of women in history, praising the demise of polygamy while upholding the domestic decencies of the monogamous family and the dignity of women within it.  

I see in this and other fragments what I consider to be Mr. Williams biggest flaw in his defense of the Kyoto School. For the record, I’m not saying that the Kyoto School shouldn’t be defended but I think other books such as Christopher S. Goto-Jones’ Political Philosophy in Japan: Nishida, the Kyoto School, and Co-Prosperity do a much better job without teetering on the brink of raging vexation or getting caught in contradictions. When I mention contradictions I have in mind the particular factors which Mr. Williams employs in order to describe the distinctive nature of the “true” empirical historian. This particular type of historian produces empirical history by looking at the facts and by making generalizations. These generalizations are accepted “with confidence because the facts inform the general conclusions drawn.” But then the author also makes the absurd claim that “with moral or liberal history, one is subject to a series of surprises or shocks because the ethical generalization is ultimately never confirmed by the historical record.” I think that the pitfall of the overall argument is that Mr. Williams much too often confounds moral history with liberal history. And if the liberal historian is a moral historian, does that make Mr. Williams amoral? Is he above the sentimentalism or moralism which exhumes from the liberal historian’s work? Because I see evidence on the contrary whenever he mentions the firebombing of Tokyo and the extermination of large swaths of civilian populations by the Allied armies during WWII. I also see Mr. Williams engagement with moralism on every page, specifically when he invokes the aggressiveness of the liberal world order which needed and still needs to be thwarted.

My confusion is also aggravated by the failure to define the meaning of the term ‘liberalism’ as it appears numerous times in the pages of the book. The lack of this crucial definition allows me to declare with absolute conviction that the liberal historian is not a moral historian in toto. The liberal historian also generalizes and also works with facts. But Mr. Williams is quick to cover his bases: “At best, moral history is a form of general history that generalizes or abridges selectively from the historical record.” He then recounts the best method to approach the philosophy of the Kyoto School:

First, the liberal-minded researcher’s urge to deny and ignore the facts on the page must be overcome. Second, Confucianism has to be acknowledged by our self-bracketing liberal as a respectable form of ethics. If liberalism is exhausted, the post-liberal historian must seek out and then elaborate convincing East Asian schemas of interpretation to organize his  data. 

Does he mean to say that liberal historians aren’t using the full facts? Does he want to say that “liberal” historians like Bix or Dower do not interpret correctly East Asian history because they do not utilize fully East Asian schemas of interpretation? What is an “East Asian scheme of interpretation?” What does “convincing” entail? Who are the people that this strategy is supposed to convince? Only Mr. Williams knows for sure. 

Such accusation of the interpretation of history could very well be brought to the Kyoto School philosophers and to Mr. William himself — from the other side of history. I am not convinced that Japanese imperialism was a response “to the arrival of a hostile liberal world order.” Nor do I think that the motivation for the Kyoto School thinking, grounded in “creating an alternative to European suzerainty over Asia, deflecting the thrust of American power across the Pacific, and blunting Chinese nationalism” is a correct, even realistic one. Mr. Williams forgets that territorial expansion and nation building proceeded more or less simultaneously in 19th century Japan. He forgets that Japan expands into Korea as early as the 1880s; then it colonizes Taiwan (known as Formosa) in the 1890s. At the same time it is involved in the first Sino-Japanese War. It fights a war with Russia over control of the Korean peninsula in 1904-1905. Mr. Williams and the philosophers he defends gloss over these events or regard them as imperative to nation building by portraying them in an overly optimistic way and by aggrandizing the colonial achievements. They forget that Chinese and Korean people are angry and unhappy at the abuses perpetrated by a foreign government which for all intents and purposes is Confucianistically-oriented and educated. They forget that Japan’s reputation and image after its successful imperialistic incursions were lifted in western eyes: the yellow peril image of Japan was not an exclusive or prevalent representation. Hence the liberal West doesn’t seem to be such a significant singular threat. 

Domestically, the Kyoto School ignores the social, political and economic discrimination of minorities. It ignores the status of women who pre-1930s could not run for political office, vote, speak at rallies or other political events, much less be present at such gatherings (this status was accorded by the philosophical inheritance of the Confucianist government which sought to subordinate women in an inferior position to the patriarchal man whenever it could). It ignores the forceful integration of Okinawan and Ainu people into the nation state by the removal of all indigenous cultural traces. It ignores the Thought Police and the laws and regulations enabled to suppress popular dissent. For Mr. Williams this fact is an inevitable, necessary reality of the development of a Confucianist order where only the intellectual elites have the right to effectuate change. Breaking this mould “would be to turn one’s back on everything that is moral and decent, rational and practical.” (But, methodologically, isn’t this precisely what the author is doing, breaking the ‘mould’ of liberal historical interpretation? Why is this okay in his case?) Overall I find Mr. Williams and the philosophers of the Kyoto School in their ivory tower from where they plotted and prepared for Tōjō’s removal, to be quite removed from the “empirical” social realities on the ground.

What would Japan look like had it not been for liberal opposition? I would assume not a very pleasant place. A police state where dissent and disloyalty towards the higher echelons of power would be thoroughly expunged and the resisters punished. A place where militaristic discipline coinciding with blind devotion to the emperor would be the only school experience a child could get. A place where women, according to the old Confucian model, would be forever subordinate to the will of the patriarchal male. A place there the cultural product would be carefully regulated and censored. But I think the more resounding question is what would Asia look like had it not been for liberal opposition? Where would China, Korea, Vietnam and the rest of the nations that fell under Japanese occupation be had it not been for a strong, global response? These are not the correct questions to ask, according to Mr. Williams, as they’re tainted by pre-inculcated liberal, moralistic values.

In the illiberal world evoked by pre-1945 Confucianism, Mr. Williams’ book or, at least, the first part, would serve as the official organ for persuasion (“propaganda” is too loaded a term). What kind of moral values could we, the liberal readers, then retain in such a setting, if any at all? The clues are in the book, according to the author. Somehow I have the feeling that pacifism is not included in there. “Pacifism in academe has served to undermine the objectivity of the human sciences and their capacity to tell the truth about the world as it is.” But what does that say about the Japanese people who made and continue to make pacifism as their truth? What does it say about those people during the Meiji, Taishō and Shōwa period who suffered or perished for upholding pacifist views? Evidently, as I’m asking these questions I’m aware that in Mr. Williams’ eyes I already fail to be a promising, capable reader of the book. 

Works cited:

Heisig, James W. "Reviews: Defending Japan's Pacific War: The Kyoto School Philosophers and Post-White Power." (2005).

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Marginalia: Osmanthus by Ozaki Midori

Ozaki Midori's short story Osmanthus (published for the first time in Nyonin Geijutsu in March 1929) appears numerous times throughout Miriam Silverberg's work. It is mentioned in two different instances in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense - The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times and in an article which I previously covered. The content of the story and its symbolism are emblematic of the complex properties which modernity, variously defined and manifested, appeared in the eyes of Japanese people in the early 1930s. In the span of just four pages, Silverberg detects the predominant process behind the creation of personal identity, a process reasonably distant from government interference and control. Despite an increasingly authoritarian environment, all subjectivities (political, sexual, female, male, working, non-working, etc.) were consistently defined by the unintended appropriation of “outsider-influenced" fantasies proliferating through the mass media. Nowhere is this more evident than in Ozaki’s work. As Silverberg insists, 

Ozaki Midori was able to communicate the emotional pull of the movies more than most Japanese critics writing about the modern. Although she refused to speak for other moviegoers, her representation of her own fantasy world gives a sense of how Japanese filmgoers allowed themselves to be erotically enveloped by images of movie stars and their gestures.

In the story we find that the protagonist moves through the mundaneness of Shōwa daily life under the auspices of a borderline obsession for Chaplin movies. “Chaarie” or “Chappurin-kun” was truly the object of female desire during the 1920s and 1930s as the mass-production and mass-consumption of Chaplin-themed objects from that period demonstrate. But what is not very well known is the transformative effect that movies had on identity-formation, especially on the subject of eroticism, a primary concern throughout Silverberg’s work.

On that account, I decided to post here Ozaki’s story in its entirety. This version was translated by Silverberg herself and appeared in Manoa 3, no. 2 (Fall 1991 issue).

Work cited: Midori, Ozaki, and Miriam Silverberg. "Osmanthus." Manoa (1991): 187-190.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times by Miriam Silverberg

The content of Miriam Silverberg’s crowning scholarly achievement Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times has been covered by Japanese Studies pedagogues, philosophers, historians and casual readers ever since it appeared in print in 2006. The internet is full of glowing reviews. Here are a couple of remarks I managed to snap up from the JSTOR panoply:

With its wide-raging perspective, its elegant use of theory, and its rich bibliographic citations, Silverberg’s volume will no doubt become an essential resource for scholars and students interested in almost any aspect of Japanese society in the 1920s and 1930s. (Jeffrey Angles, Western Michigan University) 

Reading Miriam Silverberg’s book on “erotic, grotesque, nonsense,” a popular catchphrase for Japanese urban mass culture of the late 1920s and early 1930s, brings you into a seductive world of popular magazines, ethnographic commentary, social surveys, novels, and movies that depicted the popular culture of everyday life in the entertainment districts of Tokyo… What she gives us is a timely and provocative challenge to the master narratives of interwar and wartime Japan, highlighting the political and social possibilities opened up by popular culture of the 1920s and 1930s, a moment more typically identified as the gathering of fascism. (Louise Young, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

So what else is there to say about the book? Nothing I will write in the following paragraphs will appear new. Silverberg’s opus is the child of a grand vision, one that aims to convey a theoretical and thematic unity. It reveals a particular concern with the representation of Japanese mass culture during the 1920s and early 1930s and it details the political implications of this representation and, in particular, the public’s responses to it. Silverberg shows us that multiplicity of ideas and behaviors was the fundamental characteristic of this remarkable period in Japanese ‘modern’ history, even though at the time the establishment figures were caught in a struggle to consolidate their control over the population by re-affirming (and occasionally by brutally imposing) time and time again the unity of the people, the congruity of national spirit and the moral integrity of social order. This moralism imposed from above couldn’t stand a chance against the emancipatory cultural transmutations that took place under the aegis of rampant consumerism and rapid industrialization and reached their historical peak just before Japan committed itself fully and tragically to its imperialist ambitions. The haphazard ambience of social and cultural disorders or disequilibriums during the Taishō and early Shōwa periods and the ensuing urban reconfigurations were unified under the label of ero guro nansensu. But this is my own simplified definition of this cultural and historical Event (I’m using Badiou’s broad application of the term), one that requires deeper examination, something that Silverberg’s book successfully delivers over more than 350 pages. 

I first encountered the idiomatic expression in Ian Buruma’s Inventing Japan, 1853-1964 where he compared the atmosphere “marked by a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism” of Taishō Japan to Weimar Berlin. In this setting, ero guro nansensu (or ‘erotic grotesque nonsense’) was characterized by a collective of contrasting images:

Longhaired young men in roido (from Harold Lloyd) glasses, bell-bottom trousers, colored shirts, and floppy ties would stroll down the willow-lined avenue with young women in bobbed hairdos. The more earnest ones, who gathered in “milk bars” to discuss German philosophy or Russian novels, were known as Marx boys and Marx girls. A few years later, the fashionable young would be renamed mobos (modern boys) and their flapper girlfriends mogas (modern girls). Aside from the milk bars, the Ginza abounded in German-style beer halls and Parisian-style cafés, with waitresses who were free with their favors — for a modest fee. Many patrons of these establishments, with such names as Tiger Café and Lion Beer Hall, were journalists, who, like the cafe waitresses, were a feature of this bright new age of mass media and entertainment. Up the street, near Hibiya Park, where the riots of 1905 took place, Frank Lloyd Wright was building the Imperial Hotel, where people would take their tea and eat ultrafashionable “Chaplin caramels.”

Cafés, waitresses, mogas, mobos and Chaplin also feature prominently in Silverberg's book. While Buruma utilizes a variety of English-based reputable works to render his account of an exciting, decadent Tokyo, Silverberg is far more rigorous in her research: the extensive biography which includes innumerable Japanese primary sources stands proof of her comprehension of the book’s intricate topic and her brilliancy as a Japanese Studies scholar. 

And not just as a Japanese Studies scholar. Like she did in her other articles, and because she believes the cultural to be inseparable from the political, Silverberg references extensively from Perry Anderson, Mikhail Bakhtin, Pierre Bourdieu, Judith Butler, T. J. Clarke, David Harvey, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Raymond Williams and others in order to support her research. Japanese political theorists are not ignored either. She cites liberally from a list which includes hundreds of scholars, fiction writers and journalists. A capable theoretician and ethnographer, she blends the ideas of all these influential thinkers and more and, in the end, she gives a picture of the Japanese mass culture of 1920s and 1930s as complete as it will ever be.

In the following lines I want to take a closer look at the theoretical foundations and influences behind the larger narrative of the book. I will not go into details about the contents of each chapter; instead I want to investigate the “gateways” which lead to the fantastic, multidimensional universe of Taishō mass culture as it appears in the pages of Silverberg’s life’s work. All of the important theoretical constructs which she employs again and again (including in articles and essays not included in this book) can be encountered in the short introduction and in Chapter One. I will hence ignore an overview of Silverberg’s documentary-style collages (as entertaining and compelling as they are) a narrative device used in the development of each chapter and in the crafting of the book’s overall argument. 

But what is the argument? This is premised on the notion of the titular expression ero guro nansensu. Silverberg states that this expression was used typically to attack and vilify what was seen as Japan’s moral ruination brought about by an unwavering consumerism and a mass culture imported from “outside,” mainly from the West. Such culture was celebratory of its own degradation and its consumption was felt by the higher echelons of power to distract the population from taking part in the socio-political “uniformization” of the nation. On the other hand, militant activists for social change criticized this consumption as sidetracking the people from emancipatory action, even while they indulged in its seductive offerings or used it as a means to disseminate their message. In spite of its contrasting, contradictory nature, ero guro nansensu underlined the ubiquitous forms of modernity and social change from the Taishō to early Shōwa period. In Silverberg’s words, the culture of this timeframe “in no small part included fantasies, language, and gestures sold and created by ‘consumer objects,’ including those rendered down and out by the vicissitudes of capitalism.” The predominant delight in consumer culture and the individuals’ identification with it was the motor for social and cultural organization, even when the government came crushing down on these “acts of insurgency.” 

One tends to examine Japan from the 1920s to the 1940s with a critical eye to the diminishing democracy, various forms of political oppression, populist violence and the incursions into Korea and China as glaring precursors to the Pacific War. Silverberg however dissects this view “from the top” by reading into the mores and behaviors of regular Japanese people “a popular mobilization that offered an alternative to the state ideology of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, albeit one positioned from within capitalist structures of domination.” In what is probably a most radical judgment of the general Japanese urban population from that time, Silverberg announces that

The consumer was both a subject of the emperor and a subject with agency acting as autonomously as the imperial system would allow. Japanese women and men were both privy to a network of pleasures offered within mass culture and subject to an increasingly tight web of state controls on freedom of expression and consumption. And when considering them as imperial subjects, we must also recognize that not only was the imperial reign said to span countless generations, it also covered the contemporaneous geographic terrain of empire.

Hence even as the government strengthened its control, the people as consumers could still express and fulfill their desires under a constricted form of freedom. Far from being de-politicized, the masses, by partaking in the corporal (fleshly) consumerism of the capitalist order, found themselves inadvertently mobilized in a culture of play that ran counter to the government’s requirements. The re-imagining of identity and the sense of belonging captured by individuals spending the bulk of their existence in cafés, boulevards and parks — in the company of café waitresses, dancers and prostitutes, among mogas, mobos, foreigners, freaks, hawkers, juvenile delinquents, beggars and vagrants — could be viewed as emblematic acts of resistance against the authority of the school system, the military and the religious institutions. The Imperial Rescript on Education and its ideal notion of filial piety towards family and, by extension, towards emperor and empire, was being re-defined as often as it was being disregarded. It was in this setting that the emancipated woman, the Modern Girl (Silverberg refuses to use the term moga) outgrew from a commodified cultural construct essentially relegated to an objectified, inferior position by the ryōsai kenbo (good wife, wise mother) ideology into a working woman, a militant, an uninhibited consumer of and participant in mass media. 

There is a lot more to say about Silverberg’s methodology but right now I just want to make a few observations on the imperious figure of capitalism, a major protagonist in the book, the “hero” which facilitates the emancipation of the consumer subject. I think that the legitimacy which capitalism yields in her book is an accidental characterization. Silverberg’s sympathies are evidently towards leftist writers and rebels, people who challenged the oppressive, increasingly fascist system through concrete acts of resistance. But it is noteworthy to mention that even these iconoclasts or dissenters were big consumers of mass culture. In 1930s Japan, social and economic inequalities were glaring and undisguised. These were caused not in small part by the global breakdown and, at the height of the ‘Yellow Peril’ current, by Western isolationist policies. In the eyes of the West, Japan was being viewed as increasingly assertive and belligerent. This negative opinion was not represented in the Japanese consumerist economy of the time. In fact, through a process known as code-switching (covered in part here) Western artifacts were blended into the Japanese mass-marketed cultural output for increased popularity. It may have bothered the traditionalist dogmatists and the ultra-conservatives — to the point where they forcefully introduced legally punishable measures against their use — but Western-influenced merchandise and ideas were in vogue. Because they were seen as misdirecting people’s attention from state-imposed values and practices, consumption of these objects was branded as opposition, even hostility to the state. It may appear strange at first that Silverberg equates consumerism(s) with acts of political resistance. But as Aijaz Ahmad put it subtly, politics aren’t as much an object of opposition as they are acts of solidarity:

…it is always much less problematic to denounce dictators and to affirm, instead, a generality of values — ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ — but always much harder to affiliate oneself with specific kinds of praxis, conceived not in terms of values which serve as a judgment on history but as a solidarity with communities of individuals, simultaneously flawed and heroic, who act within that history, from determinate social and political positions.

In their embrace of ero guro nansensu culture, the people of Japan did come together and formed communities that, in the long run, were viewed by the authoritarian government as dangerous to its self-preservation. It’s no wonder that by the early 1940s ero guro nansensu completely disappeared from cultural output, being replaced by subservient expressions of patriotism and reverence towards the imperial nation and its head figure, the emperor. Despite this unfortunate development, as Silverberg wrote in the last lines of her book,

The history of modern Japanese culture was suffused by meanings and tensions, created, consumed, and then not forgotten by the women, the men, and the children who went out to play in the city streets, and who were then sent to war, before they were told not to remember.

Today the English-speaking world can remember because of Silverberg’s unparalleled research and exceptional insight. 

Works cited:

Angles, Jeffrey. "Erotic, Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Time. By Miriam Silverberg. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. Monumenta Nipponica 63.2 (2008): 434-436.

Young, Louise. "Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Time. By Miriam Silverberg. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006. The Journal of Asian Studies 67.02 (2008): 731-733.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New Publication: Routledge Handbook of Sexuality Studies in East Asia

This collection brings together cutting-edge work by established and emerging scholars focusing on key societies in the East Asian region: China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam. This scope enables the collection to reflect on the nature of the transformations in constructions of sexuality in highly developed, developing and emerging societies and economies. 
Both Japan and China have established traditions of ‘sexuality’ studies reflecting longstanding indigenous understandings of sex as well as more recent developments which interface with Euro-American medical and psychological understandings. Authors reflect upon the complex colonial and economic interactions and cultural flows which have affected the East Asian region over the last two centuries. They trace local flows of ideas instead of defaulting to Euro-American paradigms for sexuality studies. 
Through looking at regional and global exchanges of ideas about sexuality, this volume adds considerably to our understanding of the East Asian region and contributes to wider discussions of social transformation, modernisation and globalisation. It will be essential reading in undergraduate and graduate programs in sexuality studies, gender studies, women’s studies and masculinity studies, as well as in anthropology, sociology, history, cultural studies, area studies and health sciences.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New Publication: We Can Make Another Future: Japanese Art after 1989

Chronicling the art of the Heisei era, which commenced in 1989 with the ascension of Emperor Akihito, the book features major works by artists including Yayoi Kusama, Lee Ufan, Takashi Murakami, Yasumasa Morimura, Daido Moriyama, Yoshitomo Nara, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Yukinori Yanagi. The era coincides with the peak of the Japanese economic boom and its later contraction, which led to the ‘lost decades’ of the 1990s and 2000s, but also the rise of Japan as a cultural superpower. QAGOMA’s collection of contemporary Japanese art is the most extensive in Australia and is uniquely positioned to shed light on this fascinating period, exploring various aspects of culture and society in Japan through the work of its leading artists. Accompanying the exhibition of the same name, We can make another future includes essays by QAGOMA curator Reuben Keehan and Japanese curator Shihoko Iida, as well as a detailed chronology spanning 25 years of Japanese art in the context of wider culture and society.


Friday, September 12, 2014

New Publication: The Great Transformation of Japanese Capitalism

In the 1980s the performance of Japan’s economy was an international success story, and led many economists to suggest that the 1990s would be a Japanese decade. Today, however, the dominant view is that Japan is inescapably on a downward slope. Rather than focusing on the evolution of the performance of Japanese capitalism, this book reflects on the changes that it has experienced over the past 30 years, and presents a comprehensive analysis of the great transformation of Japanese capitalism from the heights of the 1980s, through the lost decades of the 1990s, and well into the 21st century. 

This book posits an alternative analysis of the Japanese economic trajectory since the early 1980s, and argues that whereas policies inspired by neo-liberalism have been presented as a solution to the Japanese crisis, these policies have in fact been one of the causes of the problems that Japan has faced over the past 30 years. Crucially, this book seeks to understand the institutional and organisational changes that have characterised Japanese capitalism since the 1980s, and to highlight in comparative perspective, with reference to the ‘neo-liberal moment’, the nature of the transformation of Japanese capitalism. Indeed, the arguments presented in this book go well beyond Japan itself, and examine the diversity of capitalism, notably in continental Europe, which has experienced problems that in many ways are also comparable to those of Japan. 

The Great Transformation of Japanese Capitalism will appeal to students and scholars of both Japanese politics and economics, as well as those interested in comparative political economy.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Remembering Pearl Harbor, Forgetting Chaplin, and the Case of the Disappearing Western Woman: A Picture Story by Miriam Silverberg

     The only reason why I move so slow through Miriam Silverberg’s Erotic Grotesque Nonsense - The Mass Culture of Japanese Modern Times is the book’s singular flaw (solely in terms of affecting my reading speed, that is) which is also its greatest asset: the endnotes. Virtually every paragraph will turn you to the back of the book. And things are not any different with her articles or essays: in Remembering Pearl Harbor, Forgetting Chaplin, and the Case of the Disappearing Western Woman: A Picture Story more than 10 pages out of a 53-page commentary are endnotes. 53 is also the exact number of endnotes in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. In hindsight, it doesn’t seem that big of a number. And content-wise, the book will indeed press you — no, actually engage you — to turn to the back for an exciting read of extracts, references and added insight concerning the plethora of ideas that Silverberg blends into her argument with sheer refinement and analytical prowess. Like the true intellectual that she was (she passed away in 2008) and still is through the enduring exceptionality of the work she left behind, Silverberg prods the reader to extend his or her knowledge beyond the confines of the main narrative. The endnotes encouraged or rather strengthened my already-obsessional impulse to investigate a surplus of primary and secondary material covering Silverberg’s main topic — and that was a good thing.

     This post is not about her book, but about the essay I introduced above. Remembering Pearl Harbor… is part of a series of debates on a subject that preoccupied much of Silverberg’s illustrious career: Japan and the modern or the “modan," which was the term used during the Taishō and early Showa period. This is a polymorphous concept of considerable historical and sociological weight and it is more carefully scrutinized in her masterpiece Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. In this book, Silverberg returns with added emphasis to demonstrate how the constantly-shifting modan permeated every aspect of all subjects of Imperial Japan. As such, the article that I’m about to examine functions as a good introduction to her oeuvre and I recommend everyone to read it before heading into her lengthier works. In the following paragraphs I want to summarize the main theoretical constructs employed by Silverberg in her investigation of modernity, consumer habits and, above all, the contradictory notion of identity at a time when Japan found itself at the height of its colonizing power.

  To start with, here, just like in her book, Silverberg uses a specific definition of the main concepts of modernity and identity. She uses the term "modan" in order to underscore the specificity of the associated Japanese history, and to distinguish this term from the wide-ranging philosophical, literary, and historical English-language literature on the variants “modern,” “modernist,” and “modernization…” She then alludes to a number of historical and literary anecdotes to reinforce her argument that modernity and identity are interrelated and in constant flux, despite or in spite of the presence of a coercive nation-state apparatus that sought to homogenize and change the mores of the population, both at home and in the new colonies. 

  The first anecdote involves the 1937 meeting between Yamaguchi Yoshiko (later known as the Hollywood starlet “Shirley Yamaguchi”  who married sculptor Isamu Noguchi, served for 18 years as a Diet member for LDP and, at the present time, she is still a popular TV personality in Japan) and Kawashima Yoshiko, “the Mata Hari of the Orient,” cousin of the puppet emperor Pu Yi and famous spy, eventually captured and executed by the Kuomintang. When these two meet, in a funny exchange that reveals the complex interplay between two shifting identities, Kawashima, who is the eldest and dressed like a boy, is surprised to find out that Yamaguchi, who is dressed in Chinese garb to fit with her idol persona of Ri Ko-ran, is actually Japanese:

“Oh, so you were really Japanese!” The Manchurian woman, doubly cross-dressing as a Japanese male, then turned to the younger Japanese woman, who was dressed as a Chinese female. Addressing herself in masculine, familiar terms as “Boku,” this woman, then over thirty, flirtatiously asked Yoshiko to “call me big brother!”

Yamaguchi Yoshiko and Kawashima Yoshiko

  In this fateful encounter, Silverberg discovers a new dimension, one reminiscent of a Platonic event. Gender identity, supposedly of a fixed nature in a traditionalist setting, is put into question or, in Silverberg’s words, is “up for grabs.” As a spy in the service of an empire which simultaneously boasts misguided pan-asiatic ambitions on the international stage and reactionary policies at home, Kawashima Yoshiko is assumed to follow conservative values among which a clear division between male and female genders is absolutely indisputable, if not inviolable. Instead, she clearly identities herself as a male, not only by dressing as a boy but also by using specific language signifiers that only boys use. Although she does not engage in the sort of conservative discourse mentioned above, Kawashima is still a national hero. The notion of identity is complicated even further by Yamaguchi Yoshiko’s nationality as a Japanese national who, “like the state of Manshu” (two years earlier), “was made by the hands of the Japanese.” Yamaguchi becomes the Chinese idol Ri Ko-ran (or Li Hsiang-lan) and is accepted as such to the degree that her actual Japanese nationality is cast into oblivion (as shown earlier by Kawashima’s confusion). This circumstance enforces Silverberg’s original position that Japanese identity is never static but constantly fluctuating and self-defining, notwithstanding the many racist declarations by various politicians (past and present) who try to paint it as one homogenous, unchanging totality.  
This notion of “identity-in-flux” cannot be separated from the consumption of images within a culture of modernity which was most prominent during the time of Japanese colonialism. In this setting, the consumers of images also built their own individual identities through the availability of choices that the interwar age of mass-consumerism offered in the form of “photographs and advertisements in the mass press, in posters, in movie programs, and in the movies during the 1920s and 1930s.” As Silverberg demonstrates by using Ozaki Midori’s short story from March 1929 issue of Nyonin geijutsu the protagonists’ fantasies about Valentino and Charlie Chaplin contain mechanisms for identity formation, independent of what the government prescribed or popular consumption demanded (even though they cannot escape the scope and background of these two entities/institutions). 

Because she’s dealing with a Japan in the midst of empire-expansion and colonization, Silverberg diverges from the main narrative to offer some painstaking references to objectifying attitudes towards Koreans, the most noteworthy ones involving the image of Korean people — especially that of cafe waitresses (jokyū) who can be considered “a chilling harbinger of the ianfu  [or comfort women] history” — in Moro Genzo’s 99-volume series Shin Chosen Fudoki published in 1930. In this chronicle, counterfeit reasons for the annexation of Korea into Japan abound, such as the claim that Korea lacks folk culture (minshu bunka). But most surprising are the frequent declarations of admiration for the simplicity and preservation of Korean traditions, in contrast to the aggressive modernism of mainland Japan, which has managed to supplant traditionalism in favor of an infatuation with European and American culture. These feeble attempts at national identity-formation by casting the colonizer as the colonized were furthermore complicated by the country’s entrance into WWII and by the modern citizens who, like all consumer-subjects of their time, were beset by a multiplicity of images that created confusion and contradictions.

Elsewhere I mentioned that Silverberg uses Charlie Chaplin’s 1932 visit to Japan as an effective hook to lead people into the bedazzling universe of Taishō mass-culture. In this article too, Silverberg mentions Charlie Chaplin’s visit but focuses on the effects of mass production and consumption that it elicited. We find out, for example, that Chaplin’s visit was an overwhelmingly marketable media event: anything from hard-boiled eggs and tempura to chocolate, straw hats, fountain pens, poems and even the spirit of the Japanese army — all of this was advertised in the mass media with the accompaniment of Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp” persona. His glorious reception at all levels in the capitalist interchange between consumer and producer stood proof that “Chaplin’s appeal crossed class boundaries in modan Japan.” 

Charlie Chaplin in Japan

This is also where we encounter Silverberg’s concept of code-switching. Code-switching is a key notion which is used repeatedly to emphasize the appropriation of foreign elements in the representation of indigenous Japanese cultural artifacts as they appear in various forms of mass media. A better definition of code-switching is revealed in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense:

The cultural articulations of the Japanese consumer-subjects constantly juxtaposed distinct ideas and entities in such sites as magazine layouts, theater costumes, and language, because culture was seen as fragmented in time and space. [Code-switching is] the active and often sophisticated process of moving between pieces chosen from various cultures within and outside Japan…

In Silverberg’s essay, code-switching emerges in a montage of newspapers featuring photographs and articles moving between western to eastern topics. More than 30 interesting photographs are used to drive home Silverberg’s argument that “the fluidity of identity in modan Japan” and “the relationship of movies to Japanese fantasies” was at the heart of the Japanese Empire, even while it was being exhausted and decimated in the battles of the Pacific War. The photographs show the habitual use of Western objects alongside Japanese elements. Some of them will be revisited in Erotic Grotesque Nonsense along with the concept of code-switching.

During the WWII, this type of images largely disappeared from the mass media due to government censorship. However, as Silverberg points out in the last paragraph of the article, shades of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times still had an impact on some Japanese movies, like in the scene of a sushi-machine running out of control. And when she asked a film archivist how he felt once images of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin disappeared from public view, his response was: “It was lonely.” 

Works cited and images source:

Saturday, September 6, 2014

New Publication: Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan

      I want to announce a new entry in the Michigan Monograph Series, Number 76, published by the Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan: Peter D. Shapinsky's Lords of the Sea: Pirates, Violence, and Commerce in Late Medieval Japan.

Lords of the Sea revises our understanding of the epic political, economic, and cultural transformations of Japan's late medieval period (ca. 1300–1600) by shifting the conventional land-based analytical framework to one centered on the perspectives of seafarers who, though usually dismissed as "pirates," thought of themselves as sea lords. Over the course of these centuries, Japan's sea lords became maritime magnates who wielded increasing amounts of political and economic authority by developing autonomous maritime domains that operated outside the auspices of state authority. They played key roles in the operation of networks linking Japan to the rest of the world, and their protection businesses, shipping organizations, and sea tenure practices spread their influence across the waves to the continent, shaping commercial and diplomatic relations with Korea and China.

Japan's land-based authorities during this time not only came to accept the autonomy of "pirates" but also competed to sponsor sea-lord bands who could administer littoral estates, fight sea battles, protect shipping, and carry trade. In turn, prominent sea-lord families expanded their dominion by shifting their locus of service among several patrons and by appropriating land-based rhetorics of lordship, which forced authorities to recognize them as legitimate lords over sea-based domains.

By the end of the late medieval period, the ambitions, tactics, and technologies of sea-lord mercenary bands proved integral to the naval dimensions of Japan's sixteenth-century military revolution. Sea lords translated their late medieval autonomy into positions of influence in early modern Japan and helped make control of the seas part of the ideological foundations of the state.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Marginalia: Langston Hughes in Japan

     In my previous post I described how African American social activists and artists visited Japan during the interwar period. During this interval, contacts between these two ethnic groups were at an all-time high and benefitted extensive cultural exchange. Among those who visited was Langston Hughes (1902-1967), an eminent Harlem Renaissance leader and campaigner for political and social change. In the article I covered for my essay, Prof. Yukiko Koshiro describes the importance of Hughes' visit in the following way:
Langston Hughes, though never a member of the Communist Party, was one of the African Americans who cultivated close ties with Japanese leftists. In 1933, during a tour of Moscow, Hughes met Sano Seki, a communist exile from Japan, a renowned theatrical producer, and also a friend of Ishigaki Eitarō. Sano arranged Hughes' visit to Japan on his way from Moscow to Beijing. Once in Japan, Hughes was overwhelmed by the welcome given by Sano's former colleagues at the Tsukiji Mini Theater, then a center for leftist avant-garde performances, and also by Japan's leftist intellectual artists, writers, and journalists. To his surprise, Hughes found his portrait featured on the cover of the September 1932 issue of shin-ei-bungaku [the newer spirit in british and american literature] (the original title featured all lowercase letters), the Japanese proletarian literary journal, which had placed such literary laureates as James Joyce, Aldous Huxley, and Sinclair Lewis on its cover.
Unlike [W.E.B.] Du Bois, Hughes flatly rejected Japan's Pan-Asianism. Hughes was disturbed that Japanese media reports on crimes committed by Koreans placed an unnecessary emphasis on their racial character, just like the American media's treatment of African Americans. He recognized Japanese racism against other Asians as a fueling force for their aggression. Due to his insights into the nature of Japan's Pan-Asianism, Hughes did not receive the Japanese government's welcome extended to Du Bois. On the contrary, on his second visit to Japan after a several-week sojourn in China, Hughes was detained by the Japanese police and questioned about the purpose of his visits to China and Japan and also his relationship with Japanese leftists. Until his departure from Japan two days later, two plainclothes police officers followed him everywhere. One Japanese was also arrested for his contact with Hughes during his first stay in Japan. 
     I decided to look into Hughes' own account of these events and so, in my research, I stumbled upon his autobiography, I Wander as I Wonder. I'm rendering below an excerpt related directly to his troubles experienced in Japan. I decided to ignore his pleasant accomplishments as a tourist (concisely and eloquently described in the sixth chapter entitled Color around the Globe) and to focus more on the negative aspects of the visit, including Hughes' criticism leveled at the racism behind Japan's imperialistic exploits, already summarized by Prof. Koshiro.

Works cited: