Monday, 13 December 2010

Showing Three Inches of Steel

[Donate to the EMPU Pike River Miners Families Support Trust here]

The Japanese are, we’re all supposed to agree, a people much given to inscrutability, indirection, politeness and platitudes. Consider, then, this excerpt from a speech from miners’ union activist Minami Sukematsu, delivered to a meeting immediately before the Ashio riots in 1907. The speech - to set the tone for the evening - had the nicely inflammatory title “Showing Three Inches of Steel to Minami Teizō”:

“If the cruel and arrogant Director Minami does not reconsider his actions now, I shall show him three inches of steel and suggest that he commit seppuku. If that does not make him see the error of his ways, then we shall not refrain from resorting to extraordinary measures.” (136-7)

Not the sort of language my union taught me at delegate training! If showing three inches of steel doesn’t count as an extraordinary measure, the mine bosses at Ashio were soon to find out what did. Another speaker at the meeting, Nagaoka Tsuruzō, outlined the kind of figures the union was dealing with:

“The director is an unfeeling, cold-blooded man. Once when he was crossing the Hoso-o pass in a litter, he ordered the bearers to hurry, and they had to run at top speed all the way without being given a single rest to get their breath! When the world gets such a glimpse of the man, it’s not difficult to see the cruel and harsh manner in which he treats Ashio workers!” (136)

Working people don't have enough to eat!

That cruel and harsh manner detonated, in the days following this meeting, an intensive period of rioting, street fighting, arson and rebellion, which transformed the copper mining town of Ashio, and working-class politics in Japan more generally.

I’ve taken these quotes from Nimura Kazuo’s The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining in Japan, an immensely rich document of historical reconstruction, sociological analysis and political inspiration. Nimura - part of that extraordinary group of scholars grouped around the Ohara Institute for Social Research at Hosei University - has dedicated many decades of work to rescuing the miners of Ashio from the “enormous condescension of posterity.” His research restores to us a sense of the miners as historical agents, and places the riot within the context of labour choices, and labour strategy.

Nimura’s work is an extended polemic against what was, before his own pioneering studies, the dominant historiographical view of the riots: that they were a spontaneous event borne out of frustration and atomization. On the contrary, Nimura shows, the “leading participants in the riot belonged to brotherhoods, labour organizations akin to craft guilds, which had traditions going back to Tokugawa times. Totally unorganized workers would not have had the strength to start a riot.” (139) The fighting around Ashio reflected the difficulties the activists faced winning changes in the mines, and the intransigence of the mine bosses: their strategy of escalation, then, was one based on political calculation, not thoughtless despair.

The Ashio riot offers plenty of detail to deepen our understanding of combined and uneven development, too. Nimura criticizes historians who have looked at early labour unions in Asia only to measure them against “organizational forms that were standard in the West”, claiming that “they were not looking to examine concretely their actual function, but rather to hanging dismissive labels on them such as ‘feudalistic’ and ‘premodern.’” (138).

Events at Ashio, however, showed how the highly advanced and the premodern existed together, and shaped one another. Mine union groups grew out of older Tokugawa-era secret brotherhoods and wanderers’ groups, using these traditions in conversation with socialism and Christianity coming in from Tokyo-based intellectuals and activists, while the bosses maintained older guild and lodge systems alongside these. Of the lodge system in particular, Nimura observes, “the premodern character of the labour force continue to exist within the capitalist structure, as long as it enabled capitalist managers to exploit their workers effectively, and it was used by management only as long as it did not contradict that purpose.” (174). Just as Ashio was the most advanced mine in Japan yet had an unresolved and ancient problem at its centre - how to actually extract ore - so too the workers’ organizations combined far-sighted political consciousness and radicalism with older rituals, symbols and patterns.

Reading about Ashio produces one of those strange senses of distance and proximity I often feel reading labour history. With so many of the details, it’s hard to imagine a social world further from my own than the Ashio of the middle of the Meiji era. And yet, across that distance, just listing the issues the miners’ leaders thought to strategise over reveals a world uncannily similar to our own: casualisation, migrant labour patterns, authoritarianism in the workplace, management bullying, wage rates, stability, conditions.

There’s a final insight the Ashio miners have to give our movement now. Capitalism is well established by 1907 but, at this stage in the Meiji era, it isn’t yet within a class society adept at pretending not to be one. Tokugawa-era attitudes persist, and not just among the elite. The miners’ case is reported in two major journals, one, Shakaishugi, named for an idea (socialism), another, Shūkan heimin shinbun, a group: it’s the “commoners’ weekly.” That combination of idealism and insight served the miners well, and their self-identification with the “commoners” (rise with your class, not out of it!) still makes more sense than contemporary third-way blether about the aspirational.

I’ll end with the best and the worst of the story in the miners’ words themselves.

The worst, of course, was what they had to endure before their riots:

To be able to get any white rice or miso paste from the company store, you have to go down the mine, and you can’t make ends meet. When you go into debt because rice and miso paste cost more than you earn, you get money from your reserve fund…before you know it you’re in debt to the boss. If you can’t raise the output, the only thing you can do is get out. When you’re sick, no matter what the size of your family, you’re never given more than five days’ supply of rice…so in the end you starve.

The best was what the struggle made of the men and women who opposed this set-up. Here’s Nagaoka Tsuruzō again:

I went on to Innai silver mine in Akita prefecture in the winter…worked hard until the summer of the following year and made a lot of money, but lost it at gambling as usual and was dirt poor. I couldn’t stand it, so partly out of despair and partly because I liked a good fight, my greatest pleasure was in getting into scrapes with any number of other fellows. Once - I was reading The Seven Spears of Shizugatake at the time - a fight broke out amongst a bunch of miners. Fancying myself as the hero of the book, Katō Kiyomasa, and with only three others on my side, I waded in to a group of about twenty. We were so strong that they all lost heart, and we won the fight. In those days I used to love throwing others around in a fight and generally making a nuisance of myself, but now I prefer to suffer for others; I like working, spilling my blood, and enduring poverty to help improve their lives. This is what gives me pleasure now. (242)


I’ve taken these images from the website of the Ohara Institute for Social Research, Hosei University, a wonderful resource for anyone interested in the history of the workers’ movement in Japan.

Nimura Kazuo has made a number of his writings available in English here. You can buy his book The Ashio Riot of 1907: A Social History of Mining in Japan, ed. Andrew Gordon, trans. Terry Boardman and Andrew Gordon (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997) here.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Dead Man's Ember

Silence here this last month, not for want of things to say - if only! - but due to all sorts of time pressures and deadlines and, ahem, life changes, personal and professional, all of which managed to organize themselves to fall together all at once.

One fun pressure, though, was organising with Liam McIlvanney a symposium down in Dunedin for St Andrews day, on poetic relations between James K Baxter and Robert Burns.

I had such a good time down there, and the symposium was as good an event as I could have imagined it being. Important details first: the day was free and open to the public, thanks to the generosity and democratic ideals of the folk running the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies. That makes for a tough, well-read and exacting audience, all the more so given Dunedin's historical connections with both figures. It’s also, it seems to me, like free and open publishing online, one of the material pre-requisites enabling the kind of work - and audience - we need in the humanities.

All the speakers were stimulating and left me with plenty of pondering to be getting on with. There was so much research and reflection supporting all the presentations, and they fed into one another in useful ways. I’m grateful to them all for the obvious work they’d put in, and the effort of engagement that went in to the day and the conversations surrounding it. There were writerly reflections; on national bards and poetic form from Ian Wedde (about whom I’ve enthused over earlier); on debt and influence from Jeffrey Paparoa Holman, on Burns and animals from Keri Hulme. We had careful scholarship from critics John Dennison (whose JNZL piece on cross-cultural poetics you should read if you haven’t yet), Paul Millar, Lawrence Jones and Geoff Miles, and historical work from John Stenhouse and Penny Griffith.

Oh, and on Burns: do look up the latest International Journal of Scottish Literature, a special issue on Burns at 250. It’s another free and open venture, in keeping with today’s theme. All the articles are worthwhile; I want to draw your attention in particular to Liam McIlvanney’s editorial, which rehearses a few of the points he made during the symposium, and Jeffrey Skoblow’s two talks on Burns, the first of which is a particularly fine and free-wheeling set of reflections on song and the nation.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Zen Flesh, Zen Bones

Amidst all the Islamophobia and shrill ‘new atheism’ thrown up by the war on terror, it makes for a striking contrast to consider the reputation of Buddhism in the West. From the Beats to the Beastie Boys, Buddhism’s kept its reputation in the West as the progressive’s choice in faiths, the peaceful and tolerant religion, glossed by Damien Keown in his Very Short Introduction like this:

Buddhism also seems in harmony with the other dominant contemporary Western ideology, namely secular liberalism. Buddhism is undogmatic, even to the extent of instructing its followers not to accept its teachings uncritically, but always to test them in the light of their own experience…Buddhsm is more concerned with the development of understanding than the acceptance of creedal formulas (OUP, 2000)

A nice reminder then, via Jerryson and Jurgensmeyer’s Buddhist Warfare, of the fact that, like all religious traditions, Buddhism’s been shaped by - and has in turn shaped - the history it has developed within. That’s a history of class society, so a history of war.

Here’s Takuan Soho (沢庵 宗彭) from the Rinzai School of Zen, on the philosophical uses of war, and the Buddhist values of violence:

The uplifted sword has no will of its own, it is all of emptiness. It is like a flash of lightning. The man who is about to be struck down is also of emptiness, and so is the one who wields the sword. None of them are possessed of a mind that has any substantiality. As each of them is of emptiness and has no ‘mind’, the striking man is not a man, the sword in his hand is not a sword a sword and the ‘I’ who is about to be struck down is like the splitting of the spring breeze in a flash of lightning.

I’m not knocking the bloke, naturally; he’s had a delicious side dish named after him, and stars in the manga バガボンド, so there’s a legacy there I need to acknowledge.

But historicising’s important, yes? Anyone who’s read their D T Suzuki with any attentiveness shouldn’t be surprised here. Religious discourse and organization are a part of the totality of their social world - from Hong Xiuquan’s Heavenly Kingdom to Korean Christianity in the democracy movement of the 80s to Falung Gong today - and their contradictions and insights are inseperable. We can’t pick and choose what aspects of traditions we want to acknowledge and, more importantly, a pseudo-progressive mystical Orientalism is still an Orientalism.

So watch out for the uplifted sword!

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cold Racism versus Memory

It feels so long since those few months when, just a year ago, Hatoyama’s election brought with it the feeling there were new opportunities for Zainichi. Hatoyama made a great play of his appeal to voters as “citizens” and not “members of the nation,” and planned extending some voting rights to some non-citizens (although, of course, DPRK citizens were excluded from all this with the scorn and conceit to which we’re all accustomed). The autumn of 2009 was alive, in the Zainichi activist circles I moved in, with a sense of possibility: whatever the (massive) cynicism of Ozawa and Hatoyama, their commitment to electoral reform was of long standing, and the introduction of these topics into official discourse above opened spaces for contributions from more radical voices below.

Times change, yes? Obama humbled Hatoyama over Okinawa; Ozawa’s had, shall we say, problems; the question of relations with China, and half-heartedness at best amongst big sections of the DPJ itself, have eclipsed Koreans’ democratic rights as the political questions of the day.

Meanwhile, all the crap of ages continues. Jamie has written about the offensive and violent antics of the creeps in 'Zaitokukai' (在日特権を許さない市民の会), all that stalking of school-children and picketing of playgrounds no doubt an expression of innately Japanese dignity and somehow showing 和 at work. It’s important to stress, as Jamie does, that this weirdness isn’t an aberration from standard conservative norms but is, instead, their expression, the end-product of what Ranciere has described as ‘cold racism’:

The racism that we have in today's case is a cold racism, an intellectual construction. It is primarily a creation of the state. We have discussed the relationship between the state of law and the police state. But it is the very nature of the state that it is a police state, an institution that fixes and controls identities, spaces, and movements, an institution in permanent struggle against any surplus over its account of identities, that is to say it also struggles against that excess to the logic of identity that constitutes the action of political subjects.

Jamie’s post draws an important connection between this ‘cold racism’, the passion from above, the antics of the far right, and the crisis of historical memory in Japan, the product of the decades-long project of revisionism and state-sponsored denial.

So much of this struggle seems to be over the status of victimhood, who gets to claim it, and how, hence, among other things, the popularity of Kobayashi Yoshinori’s conservative manga, with their reassuring message that a sorting out of the facts will reveal the (implied) reader to have been among the victims all along.

One, important, way to counter this framing of victimhood as a rightist political mobilizing category is to insist on the historical record and honest accounting. That’s necessary but, I suspect, insufficient: a complementary approach, drawing on those moments when memory has played a central, and transformative, role in Japanese politics, has insisted on contesting the right’s ownership of the category of victim itself. Records of the horrors and the impact of the Pacific War and, sometimes, of the shock of the realization of war guilt and complicity, have been used by artists to create a sense of commonality between ordinary Japanese victims of the war and people in the colonized nations. Against “cold racism” from above – and its noxious by-products – the project of historical memory has held out the chance for the oppressed in Japan to re-imagine their relations to the forces above them.

John Dower’s Embracing Defeat reproduces a waka from a village poetry magazine from 1947:

The crimes of Japanese soldiers
who committed unspeakable atrocities
in Nanking and Manila
must be atoned for.

Another reads

Vividly, the traces
of the Japanese Army’s atrocities are shown.
Suddenly, a sharp gasp.

One of Saeki Jinzaburo’s poem on atrocities in China was censored by the occupying forces for mentioning regret at losing the war:

So full of grief is this day
that it made me forget
the vexation of the day
we lost the war.

The next great moment of historical memory was the 1960s and 70s, spurred by the radicalism of the student movement. It’s the readership of this era’s war works I find the most interesting to think about, with so many settled into middle age and with decades’ of coping and managing of memory behind them. Most well known internationally is Nakazawa’s はだしのゲン (about which now see the autobiography of Barefoot Gen): so often consumed as an account of the bomb and of war’s depravations, the tale is also an insertion into ‘official’ memory of the story of anti-war and leftist families, victims with an awareness of the victimizing occurring across Asia.

Shizuko Go waited thirty years to write レクイエム (Requiem), her account of the bombing and destruction of Yokohama. Its primary purpose, decent and vital, is to serve as another ‘report on experience’:

People walked abruptly out of one another’s lives. A friend who’d waved goodbye on Kawasaki Station platform died the same night in a firebomb attack; a kindly factory hand who’d given the girls a share when the workers had received a ration of frozen mandarins received his draft papers and wasn’t at his bench one morning. As each day began, the exchange of greetings was full of the joy of having met again, while eyes meeting in farewell each evening held the sorrow of knowing this might be the last time (90).

In representing this in the 1970s, though, Go was also intervening in that political moment, stressing the “ugliness” (98) of the truth of Japan’s war record, the “free-for-all” (98) of Nanking, the “vile acts” (99):

That beautiful something to believe in was not to be found. Not in the turmoil of Yokohama Station, nor in the emptiness of the silent factory; there was no consolation, no answer to her prayer. The divine wind that should have saved the nation from peril had failed to blow…all the things she had believed had disappeared without trace and only the elderly teacher’s tears, with her plea for forgiveness, had poured into the hollow of her heart. (100)

In today’s constricted political spaces, and in the face of a concerted, and largely successful, right-wing offensive, honourable if embattled artists continue in the tradition of Nakazawa and Go. The far right use the category of victim as a ploy and as a tool with which to victimize others. We can look to political strategy to combat this victimization. At the same time, thinking about the experience of victimization, and of the challenge of reconstructing and representing difficult historical memory, offers inspiration and example. The shrillness and theatricality of today’s far right point, I think, to the brittleness of the political categories they’re trying to mobilize with and around. There’s more than one way to be a victim, and more than one way to remember or contest a history.


I’ve taken quotes from Geraldine Harcourt’s translation of Requiem (The Women’s Press, 1985). The poems are from Dower, Embracing Defeat (New Press, 2000), pp 507 – 508.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

You're Writing What You Know

Elif Batuman’s polemic on Creative Writing courses in the last LRB was good fun, especially the sketch she attempts of the ideology at work in the talk around ‘programme fiction.’

I’m not so interested in that seemingly endless debate about whether the programmes are for the good or not (see the sensible responses from several interested parties, and try finding similarities in Carl Shuker and Tusiata Avia the next time someone tells you writing courses produce a homogenized literary voice). The programmes, and the expansion of higher education more generally, are part of new post-war social-institutional formations, like the salon or the coffee shop in centuries past, so – no surprises here, either – historicizing is in order. What’s the general ideology and authorial ideology within this literary mode of production? Batuman’s much too elegant a critic to use terms of that sort, but an aside of hers points in those directions:

Many of the problems in the programme may be viewed as the inevitable outcome of technique take as telos. The raw material hardly seems to matter anymore: for hysterical realism, everything; for minimalism, nothing much. The fetishisation of technique simultaneously assuages and aggravates the anxiety that literature might not be real work. McGurl writes of the programme as a manifestation of ‘the American dream of perfect self-expression.’ Taken as an end in itself, self-expression is surely sensed, even by those who pursue it, as a somehow suspect project, demanding shame and discipline.

This way of talking about talking about literature and literature in higher education – historicizing all that vital chatter and self-publicising as well as the self-consciously ‘critical’ statements – presents an opportunity to consider the relations between schools, book markets and ideologies of writing, a more interesting matter, if nothing more, than forever pondering whether writing can be taught or not (after all, as Robert Crawford’s The Modern Poet demonstrates, there’s been anxiety on these scores since the 1750s).

It’s not just the question of writing, either, but of reading too. Batuman, in an aside after quoting a writer’s description of their material, notes that "literature is best suited for qualitative description, not quantitative accumulation. It isn’t an unhappiness contest, or an unhappiness-entitlement contest.” That the well-to-do have always loved exotic tales of others’ misery is part of the point here, to be sure; another ought to be that diversifying the range of experiences fed into the contemporary novel, perhaps a useful step, leaves only part of the process explored or expanded. The other question is who’s reading, and how. Now, none of that feels so far away from Brecht’s questions, or some of his answers.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Number Two Home

Reading Nobuko Adachi’s recent essay on “Japanese and Nikkei at Home and Abroad” over at Japan Focus prompted me to dig out my copy of Noreen Jones’ Number Two Home: The Story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia.

I found Number Two Home at the second-hand book fair during the Marxism conference in Melbourne last Easter – for $1, no less! - and got caught up in its story during the flight home. Plenty of Victorian and wild, almost Dickensian detail to this history – the first Japanese to visit Australia were acrobats; pearl diving was the main trade the community built around in Western Australia in its early years – and plenty of reminders of the grubbiness of the colonial settler state’s racist history, those petty and mean little details that sustained White Australia.

Jones reproduces documents from stories that range from the tragic (families separated and imprisoned through the war, businesses seized). the frustrating and vexatious (Murakami Yasuichi denied a driver's license to use his car as a taxi in 1912, for reasons which seemed to be all about the council's meanness).

I love local detail like this, and I hope I learn from it. Whatever the fantasies of White Australia, the continent's working class has never been 'racially' homogenous. The only constant, it seems, has been the hypocrisy of its enemies:

The Japanese who traveled or ventured inland tended to work in itinerant occupations, for example as cooks or labourers, whilst those who stayed in the smaller towns either operated or worked in small businesses such as market gardens or laundries. They were often mistakenly thought to be Chinese by the European population. There were indeed also many Chinese in those occupations. For example, at Marble Bar there were both Chinese and Japanese market gardeners. When the Anglo-Australians in the district met around 1893 to discuss the removal of Asians from the settlement, the proposal excluded those employed as gardeners and domestic servants. The white population objected to the Asiatic presence, but did not want to be deprived of their fresh vegetables, cooks, and laundrymen.

Noreen Jones, Number Two Home: the Story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia (Freemantle Arts Centre Press, 2002), p. 37.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Satoshi Kon [1963 - 2010]

I have very clear memories of the first time I saw Satoshi Kon’s work, and of that sense of elation and excitement that comes when you feel like you’ve made a personal discovery and come into contact with an artist who will mean things in your own life for a long time to come. The self-conscious brilliance and exuberant madness of Paprika’s opening sections help secure that memory, as does having seen it at Canberra’s National Film and Sound Archive, a movie theatre which seems to appear out of bush-covered nowhere, thus adding to the dislocation and otherworldliness of it all.

Tributes have pointed out the massive intellectual dexterity of his films, all the off-the-cuff references and quotations and philosophical and literary sophistication. These films are useful ammunition if you ever get stuck in that tedious argument about anime not being a serious form: the way Kon managed to range from David Lynch and Philip K Dick to John Wayne and Ozu puts paid to all that.

His themes and obsessions – with the de-centred subject, with mediated memory, with images, copies, and originals, with anxiety about ‘true’ representation in a digital era – are so obviously our moment’s themes and obsessions that it seems clear to me we’ll be talking about these films for some time yet.

If that critical discussion is to have value, though, there will have to be a clear-sighted acknowledgement of the feelings energizing what I think we have to call Kon’s moral critique. Each of his works – most obviously the series Paranoia Agent and Perfect Blue – has at its core a persistent moralizing stance, a need to document and condemn what is presented as the sickness and degeneracy of modern, media-saturated society. Kon’s films are full of stray details stressing the connection between contemporary representation, technology, and falsity, miscommunication and lies. Think of his use of noise, background buzzes of malicious gossip or lies blending with the ‘buzz’ of technology and representational devices – Paranoia Agent and Paprika both make good use of this – and all those close-ups of pursed or slackly sneering mouths and made-up eyes, signifiers of an im-mediate communication lost, community habits gone sour.

Misogyny is the imaginative energy for this moral critique draws on and works within. I’m introducing the term not to give Kon a posthumous telling-off (although the aestheticisation of sexual violence in Perfect Blue, whatever its wider intentions, is appalling and should produce unease). Rather, it seems to me that the only way to get a useful reckoning of Kon’s aims and achievements is to make his misogyny central to the discussion, not as a lamentable detail incidental to the work but as its motivating and unifying structure of feeling. Women in Kon’s films stand in for the false, deceptive and untrue – think of the way prostitution as a topic and symbol appears in so many of the works, of those coldly sexual flourishes which appear so unexpectedly through Paprika, or of the way female voices and mouths figure so prominently in scenes of panic or chaos. Millennium Actress, Perfect Blue, Paprika and the Harumi Chono sub-plot in Paranoia Agent all revolve around the policing of femininity, the social and political work that goes into the creation of ‘woman’; this is their great interest, but its also the area where the heaviest moralizing work gets done, and where a symptomatic reading can be helpful. (It’s telling also that the least misogynist of Kon’s works – Tokyo Godfathers – is also the slightest). Kon recognized the importance of women for his own creative activity, even if the ideological work being done there remained obscure to him, telling an interviewer:

It's because female characters are easier to write. With a male character I can only see the bad aspects. Because I am a man I know very well what a male character is thinking. Even if he is supposed to be very cool, I can see this bad side of him. That makes it very difficult to create a male character. On the other hand, if you write a female protagonist, because it's the opposite sex and I don't know them the way I know a male, I can project my obsession onto the characters and expand the aspects I want to describe. However, my next film doesn't have one central female protagonist and until I made Perfect Blue I didn't describe female characters that much, especially in manga. Once I did, I found out it was easy to write them.

Susan J Napier is quoted in Kon’s NY Times obituary as placing Kon is a tradition of “humanist” directors and writers. This seems to me the opposite direction to the one criticism needs to be facing. (A comparison could be made with D.H. Lawrence criticism, most of which, until recently at least, if it wanted to rehabilitate Lawrence did so by trying to find a way to assemble a liberalism out of his work, without acknowledging that Lawrence stands or falls alongside his radicalism. Lawrence is at his most interesting and artistically successful when he’s at his most radically reactionary and illiberal. There's nothing to be gained from working our way around all that waywardness. Satoshi Kon feels the same.)

The anti-humanist power of these works is what I keep coming back to, the severity and relentless intelligence with which they take apart our myths of the centred subject, stable identity, coherent personal narratives. That there’s a gendered logic to all this matters. Elaborating how that logic works, and relating that logic to Kon’s wider project, might tell us about more than his own films.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Shakespeare's Seminal Economics

We must find means by Trade, to vent our superfluities
[Thomas Mun, A Discourse of Trade (1621)]

All sexuality is a matter of economy
[Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus]

For some years now David Bennett has been working on a history of the connections between sexuality and economics, tracing how “the discourses of money and sex became inseparable at a certain historical moment (and quite possibly remain so)” (Bennett 1999: 288). It’s an intriguing project and, going by the rehearsals of the argument presented so far, will make a rewarding book.

The “certain historical moment”, on Bennett’s reading, occurs early in the eighteenth century. It’s from 1700 or so that discourses around masturbation change their tenor and target. But, at a 2007 seminar of Bennett’s on metaphors of “sexual spending,” his discussion started me thinking about a piece of writing from a century earlier, Shakespeare’s fourth sonnet:

Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing, but doth lend,
And being frank she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largesse given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive;
Then how when Nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which, used, lives th’executor to be.

Is this image of the young man “spending[ing] upon” himself his “beauty’s legacy” a description of masturbatory ejaculation? As part of the early sequence of sonnets arguing for the young man to reproduce, it’s certainly surrounded by sexual imagery. Booth’s edition of the Sonnets glosses “having traffic with thyself alone” as having a sexual meaning (and echoing earlier sexual content in “all the treasure of thy lusty days” in sonnet two). The Bate and Rasmussen RSC Complete Works (surely the dirtiest-minded Complete Shakespeare to date) glosses “spend” as playing “on the sexual sense of ejaculate” (2436), and Patridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy offers a similar definition of spending (his quotation from All’s Well that Ends Well doesn’t bear thinking about, though). Kerrigan’s Penguin Sonnets offers no comment on spending, but does concede, rather snootily, that “some readers find in traffic with thyself a hint of masturbation; but the innuendo can be nothing more” (177).

Reader, I find that hint. What to make of it? I’m not a Renaissance literature specialist but, consulting some reasonably recent works from scholars alive to the resonances of economics and sexuality in early modern England, it’s clear that there is fascinating research being done. Shakespeare’s economic metaphors for sexual activity draw his sonnets into reflections on two of the major intellectual controversies of his time; the status of money and trade in creating value, and the proper place and movement of bodily fluids.

“Hippocrates had argued,” Jonathan Gil Harris summarises in his stimulating book Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare’s England, “that semen, like the froth of the sea, was a foam concocted from blood. Aristotle regarded sperma as refined blood, as did Galen. If Hippocrates and Aristotle saw semen as the end point in a process of sanguineous refinement that led to generation, though, Galen saw the semen as the origin of the male body’s perfection. The loss of semen, therefore, entailed a crippling or effeminization of the male body” (146).

Where later ideologies of gender extol sexual “spending” as evidence of masculine fullness and power, Renaissance figures are much more concerned about the imbalance an ‘excess’ of sexual spending may cause. Like pre-capitalist visions of money, part of the worry is that there just won’t be enough to go around.

There’s a 1597 translation of Aristotle, for instance, maintaining that moderate sexual activity is good:

bicause it doth expell the fume of the seed from the braine…the seed a man retained above a due time, is converted into some infectious humour (The Problems of Artistotle, cited in Smith, 87).

But then Marlowe’s Mortimer will say to Edward that “the idle triumphs, masques, lascivious shows / And prodigal gifts bestowed on Gaveston / Have drawn thy treasure dry and made thee weak” (2:2:156-8). We’re in the presence of a tension.

An added fascination is that much the same debate was going on at the same time about the status of money and trade. Did it create extra value, or were mercantilism and usury responsible for sucking wealth out of the kingdom? Bacon in his essay ‘On Usury’ summarises two arguments against lending at interest that “it is against nature for money to beget money” and that “were it not for this lazy trade usury, money would not lie still, but would in great part be employed in merchandising.” Money itself, and what finance means, is about to undergo a profound change through the English Revolution. That revolutionary process will also, in more complicated and unclear ways, transform how sexuality and the body itself is viewed.

Part of the reason for Shakespeare mixing economic and sexual metaphors, David Hawkes suggests, is that the sonnets are “guided in their reflections on homoerotic love by the conviction that sodomy and usury are homologous violations of natural teleology” (7). Hawkes argues that the sonnets “consistently deploy the imagery and logic of the usury debate in a sustained meditation on the ethical status of homoerotic desire” (97) and positions Shakespeare - the son of a money-lender and no fool himself financially - as a writer feeling the tensions of the shift in the debate on both terms.

In the same way that Bacon ends his essay by suggesting that it is “better to mitigate usury by declaration than to suffer it to rage by connivance”, Shakespeare’s economic metaphors in this sonnet seem to attempt a resolution via imagery of a contradiction that cannot be resolved at the level of ideology: nature’s “free lending” contrasts a profitable sexual ‘spending’ at interest (ie reproductive sexual activity, sperm which impregnates) with the “profitless usurer” whose spending, like Onan’s, spills upon the ground.

There has been plenty of writing produced on Shakespeare and same-sex desire and Shakespeare and economics already, but what I found so exciting about the research of Halpern, Hawkes, Gil Harris, and Smith is the way that these scholars bring both topics into conversation. For all the work on Renaissance sexuality, there’s much less on literature and Renaissance sex; the products of sexual activity, how its mechanics were viewed. These twin anxieties - about the proper place for the male body and its productions and potential productiveness, for the management of desire and about the ‘natural’ status and power of money - come together in curious ways. (Gil Harris cites several examples from early modern economic and dramatic texts where “purse”, “stones” and “jewels” are used as slang terms for scrotum and testicles).

I’ve found an awful lot of value in each of these books, and recommend them. The density of thought and allusion which can be unpacked and pondered over in a single image from one of the sonnets is another example of their power, and an interesting aside for those of us trained to think the Renaissance period in terms of the Marxist account of a social world about to come undone.


Richard Halpern, Shakespeare’s Perfumes: Sodomy and Sublimity in the Sonnets, Wilde, Freud, and Lacan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylania Press, 2002.

Jonathan Gil Harris, Sick Economics: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare’s England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature 1580 - 1680. NY: Palgrave, 2001.

Bruce R Smith, Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England. University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

This World, This Path


Buoyed by good news this morning from the campaign in Australia for equal rights for same-sex couples, I want to share a detail from a detailed and rewarding book I’ve discovered. Mark McLelland’s Queer Japan from the Pacific War to the Internet Age is a rich layer-cake of analysis, history and examples from “this world” (この世界), the diverse communities of queer Japan.

McLelland’s two main scholarly-political points have relevance beyond Japanese studies. Sexuality doesn’t work to a timetable, whereby countries like Japan can be chided for being niggardly in ‘catching up’ with the West and its putative Enlightenment (something of this is used, with greater or lesser degrees of shame-facedness, in the liberal defense of murder justifying the war on terror). Instead,

Japan was never a passive recipient of western influence. The Meiji period did not see the sidelining of original or authentic Japanese sexualities by new notions imported wholesale from the west. Rather, sexuality was constituted through a highly complex and contested process in which traditional terminologies were continually being overwritten by new meanings and in which foreign loanwords and ways of knowing were strategically redeployed to serve local uses. (221)

Secondly, the proliferation of discussions about and explorations of sexual minorities, identities and subjectivities in the ‘perverse press’ of the post-war period in many ways anticipates queer theory’s emphasis on social construction, fluidity, and sexual stories over fixed identities.


Walking ‘this path’ (この道), then, is not so much about catching up with a solid Western identity as it is about negotiating – and struggling over – how sexualities are forged within a given social formation. “Globalization,” McLelland argues, “results in creative indigenization and cultural admixture much more than it does in any unilateral imposition of western sexual identities.” (221)

Intriguing here are the relations between the fixing of names – a vexed enough process anywhere – and the act of translation. McLelland maps out the genealogies and differences between homo, homosekushuaru, gei, okama, bian, rezubian and rezu, each identity position shaped by and shaping a particular historical and social moment.

The history of “gay” as a term in Japan is particularly interesting. Now used much in the same way as it is in English-speaking countries, gay as a loan word fed into older Japanese discourses of sexuality. The katakana loanword ゲイ is a homophone of the kanji 芸 – arts or artistic accomplishment, used as in geisha – and so the term gei boi from the post-war period had connotations of both the “gay boy” and Tokugawa-era sexualities and patterns of same-sex desire. “Gei boi (homosexual)”, McLelland points out, “elides into geisha boi (entertainer), such that the stress is not on sexual orientation so much as artistic performance.” (110).

[But don't you know that we've changed so much since then / Oh yeah / We've grown]

Impatience with these definitional complications can have damaging effects on people’s lives, as McLelland’s chapter on transgender identities makes clear: to see oneself as a nyuuhaafu or transgendered is quite a different matter from accepting a diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (sei douitsusei shougai) and the rigid definitions and stigmatisation that label brings. The limits to our ability to self-create and self-define and negotiate our sexual identities are the limits of our homophobic and heteronormative social formations: whatever the inability of the terms ‘man’ and ‘woman’ or 男 and 女 to encompass the range of human gender identities and bodies, the patriarchal power of the family register and the law’s definitions shape us in ways we’re unable to fully resist or avoid.

So, as always, there’s work still to be done. Walking this path is about discovery, and it’s also about struggle.

Further Reading

McLelland edited a special issue of Intersections on Queer Japan in 2006 which is full of fascinating articles. An earlier article of his on Orientalism and coming out narratives is also well worth your time. You can order a copy of Queer Japan here.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Sōseki's Books

The Chase is a fairly unremarkable middle-class street off a fairly unremarkable stretch of parkland on Clapham Common, and all that unremarkable clean drabness suited my purposes perfectly last week. I was visiting the Sōseki Museum, an intriguing site of non- or anti-experience.

The Museum is a weirdly precise reminder of the impossibility of the immediate, literary tourism turned into its opposite, quantity into quality, a recreation of Sōseki’s London showing no such thing exists, a monument to anti-travel. I mean none of these terms to disrespect Tsumematsu Ikuo, the Museum’s founder and funder; his love and effort are apparent in each detail and item, and the staff member at work when we visited was friendly and helpful. But it’s this sense of missed experience that’s stuck with me from the visit, an uncanny play between the objects and the world they recreate. Doublings, traces: the mediated memory of Sōseki’s London produced by the Museum finds fascinating – for me, anyway – echoes in his own work.

For starters, this is a shrine to Sōseki that acknowledges its own artifice and construction. It’s the Sōseki House but not the Sōseki House, which is across the road. The books are Sōseki’s but again not his, being identical editions bought reconstructing reading lists the author kept. A Sōseki shrine in London is ironic in obvious ways, too, when we remember how much he hated the city: “I lead a most miserable life amongst the English and felt like a dog thrown into the company of wolves.” We come to Sōseki’s London through his writing, where one of his most memorable stories considers the Carlyle House, now host to a disproportionate number of Japanese visitors, “lured by Sōseki’s mystical depiction” [Flanagan, 160].

Sōseki’s London tales are some of the greatest works of metropolitan Modernism, detailing the bewildering and destabilizing effects of anonymity and mass urban life, the dislocation of the subject amongst pictures wearying out the eye and “unmanageable sights”, but of course – as Damian Flanagan points out – these dislocations for us now provoke images of Tokyo far more than the sleepy affluence of Clapham. The Museum guide offered me large-scale reproductions of Booth’s famous social maps to add to this sense of dislocation (Franco Moretti on Booth: “it is the confusion evoked with fear and wonder by most London visitors; confusion, in cities is always a problem”).

The confusion here, though, is in traveling to last century’s London in order to imagine today’s Shinjuku:

Last night, throughout the night, I heard a pattering echo above me pillow. This is thanks to having the great station of Clapham Junction in the neighbourhood. In the course of a single day, over a thousand trains crowd into this junction. If one tries minutely dividing that, it means that about one train comes and goes here every minute. In times of deep fog, each train signals that it is on the brink of entering the station by contriving to rise a firecracker-like noise. [Fog]

The Museum’s recreation of Sōseki’s lodgings, its doubling of across the road, recreates something of the sense of anonymity and urban loss the prose worries around:

As I walk along, I recall the houses I have just left. The strange street, with the same four storeys and the same colour everywhere, seems somehow distant. I feel like I would have no idea where I should turn and which way I should walk to get home. Even if I did get back I probably would not be able to pick out my own house. Last night the house had stood in the midst of utter darkness. [Impression]

I felt a silly excitement handling these books: how great that Sōseki liked books I like!

Or, if not books I like, then books folk I like liked, such as Burns’ favourite Man of Feeling.

A more uncomfortable and unwelcome personal echo, though, when I learn from Flanagan that social nervousness made Sōseki convince himself that buying and reading books was a better use of his time than socializing or getting to know Londoners (“Over a two-year period he appears to have spent a third of his entire salary on books and bought as many as five to six hundred volumes, all crammed on to the shelves, table and floor of his boarding-house room until he could ship them safely back to Japan with him” Flanagan, 13).

Stranger doublings and echoes again in these examples of Japonisme.

Within them Sōseki may well have read examples of the clichés and Orientalist tropes which would come to dominate the Western imagination’s approach to Japan.

Sent to England in order to engage in intensive study of English Literature, Sōseki returns with all sorts of items bearing with them the mark of those first contacts in the Meiji Era.

This journal, which Sōseki subscribed to up until his death, was particularly beautiful.

There’s a fascinating article by Chris Gosden at Material World, which argues that “museum objects to some degree conceal the mass of relations that lie behind them, ranging from the people who originally made and used the objects, to all parties to their trade and transfer and ending, for now at least, with the curators, conservators and visitors who make up the museum community in the present” and which makes the case for a new kind of relationship and Museum.

The Sōseki Museum attempts none of that; these are items for the fiction of a preserved moment. What makes it uncanny, then, is the way these relations are submerged so deeply that, like the man digging his way to China, they somehow appear out on the other side: a writer on London’s past sets you thinking about Tokyo’s present, a shrine to immediacy sets off thoughts about mediated memory, a writer whose work ironises journeys to the House of a great writer finds his own hated lodgings turned into a site for similar tourism.

And some other things never change:


All quotes are from Damian Flanagan’s translated collection The Tower of London (Tokyo: Tuttle, 2005). Flanagan’s long introduction is an excellent, and detailed, contextualisation of Sōseki’s London work. He’s a neat proselytizer too (Sōseki’s “a finer writer than Tolstoy, Proust, or Joyce”).

The Moretti quote is from p. 78 of Atlas of the European Novel 1800 – 1900 (London: Verso, 1998).

Monday, 21 June 2010

Anthems for Nowhere

i.m. 29.5.37 – 24.6.89

Like the stream, time, gently, little by little, goes by

Two funerals from twenty-one years ago, both consumed then and now as quintessentially ‘Japanese’ moments. The Shōwa Emperor and Misora Hibari, high culture and low populism, national essence and national sentiment, both representing tradition and unique qualities, matching one another as sites of national memory and mourning.

The tragedy of Misora’s early death – she was only 52, and still a powerful performer – and her life story of poverty and struggle make this mode of consumption all the stronger. Hard times – and the upbeat attitude and determination of the ‘Tokyo Kid’ – were one of the truths of the Shōwa era, and, amidst the desolation and frenzied transformation of the post-war Japan, it’s easy to see how the perfectly pitched nostalgia of Misora’s music created its audience.

Still, something’s missing. There’s more work with memory to be done, more effort needed.

To live is to journey, searching for the dream world

Love, and awe at such beauty, were my initial responses, and they remain my main feelings about her music. That quavering, almost failing sound the best enka singers battle with Misora manages to push further than others, and to add to it a roughness, a strength and precision of sound I find, more and more, moving. She does wonderful things with what Barthes calls ‘the grain of the voice’ and, instead of working on the stage expressiveness of the pheno-song and its ‘meanings’, Misora’s art is of the geno-song,

the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the language where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where melody really works at the language – not at what it says, but at the voluptuousness of its sound-signifiers, of its letter – where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work.

I hear Misora when reading Barthes’ lines on the erotics of ‘the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucus membranes, the nose,’ the jouissance of the grain of the voice. (This, incidentally, is why Kim Yon Jya, whom I usually admire, is so unwise to issue recordings of 川の流れのように: her emotionality and attempts to ‘communicate’ the material, so often effective, have here to compete with the listener’s aural memories of Misora; the effects are damaging).

With these feelings I’m hardly alone: sometime during the 1990s ten million people voted 川の流れのように the great Japanese song of all time.

I find myself to have been leading a life
 without even a map for guidance.

It’s that status as the great ‘Japanese song’ which suggests productive – and political - comparisons between the cultural events of the passing of the Shōwa emperor and Misora’s death. We consume the imagery and spirit of both figures – and the cultural logic of what they’ve been used to found, solidify, set in motion – in particular and determinate ways, ways that point to how the post-war settlement sustained itself.

In a short-hand version: it’s important, and far from accidental, that the greatest Japanese performer of all time was Korean.

Takayuki Tatsumi argues, in Full Metal Apache, that the Shōwa Emperor was “the ultimate cyborg, [who] constituted the essence of postwar Japanese body politics.” His transformation into from religious officiator to gentleman general to dapper chap through to virtual salary-man matched the shifting positions of Japanese capitalism and its self-presentations and, if the famous photo with McArthur represents one moment of national humiliation, each further photo imaged and staged how national rebuilding and repositioning was to look. After the initial post-war years of social upheaval and chaos – mass rallies on May Day, a Communist Party ascendant, riots and street battles in Ueno – the Shōwa Emperor is ‘reprogrammed’ into a new mediated, cyborg body politic formed by US and ruling-class Japanese interests: ‘pure’, stable, national, ordered, timelessly Japanese. His image tracks a political project of exclusion.

Isn’t Misora the presence shadowing this process, its Other somehow hiding in plain sight? Isn’t her Zainichi status – like Rikidozan’s when he redeemed Japan in the pro-wrestling boom - the obscene supplement, her music excess to the Shōwa Emperor’s superego?

It’s not just that she was Zainichi, a Korean, even though that does matter and is enough to enrage many a Japanese nationalist and xenophobe (cf here the appallingly racist ‘debates’ on her ethnicity at her Wikipedia entry). That biographical detail matters, naturally, and its erasure from public commemoration and celebration is an indictment of official Japanese racism. What’s more intriguing is how, like the Shōwa Emperor’s ‘cyborg’ transformation, Misora’s Zainichi, outsider status was precisely what enabled her to take part in the creation of the ‘typical’ Japan for which she is now remembered. As John Lie argues

She became the prototype of all idols (aidoru) in postwar Japanese culture. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Misora personified what was ‘authentically Japanese’

Personification: again, like the Shōwa Emperor, there’s something about the ideology and mystique of bodily representation at work here. Misora’s life as an actual human being fits very uncomfortably with the mediated memory of her as the image of Japanese ‘Misora Hibari’: the racism and poverty her Zainichi family experienced would make her childhood unrecognizable to many, and her persecution by NHK for her brother’s alleged gang connections kept her for many years from taking part in the Red and White Song Battle, surely the marker of a singer’s status and presence. There’s bad faith, naturally, in her current veneration. (That bad faith, incidentally, isn’t without its own unitended ironies: the last time I was in Nagasaki I saw a Misora Hibari-themed pachinko game, nicely eliding a Zainichi image mainstream Japan can’t acknowledge as Zainichi with a vice of its own it can’t stop from associating with Koreans).

Her role in the creation of a unique Japan goes deeper still; as Lie argues, Enka, which reached its peak of popularity as Misora reached hers, so often presented as the ‘quintessential’ Japanese musical form – with Misora as its quintessentially Japanese practitioner – draws on and relies upon elements of Korean traditional music and European light music, to say nothing of the many Korean and Zainichi Enka stars who populate its top ranks.

Without knowing it I have been walking 
along a long and narrow path

A number of historians – Sakai Naoki and John Dower among them – have produced work in recent years arguing that our image of Japan as a monocultural society is a product of the post-war period, and that the reality of human interaction and culture on the archipelago is a much messier one than this image allows.

What’s striking, though, from a view to the history of culture, is how important outside elements have been to this monocultural self-presentation. From Rikidozan to Misora, the cultural monuments of Shōwa Japan are ‘Korean’ as much as they are ‘Japanese.’ There’s an anxiety to the nationalism and xenophobia of the Shōwa era, an excess to its exclusions that demonstrate their futility and falsity. It’s wholly appropriate that Misora Hibari provides the soundtrack to those gestures at the same time as she undoes them.

Looking over my shoulder toward my home village far away

Those scare quotes a paragraph ago aren’t, I think, an academic affectation: part of what’s useful in remembering Misora’s story now is the chance she offers us to unpack national certainties. There’s nothing to be gained if we replace Japanese ‘ownership’ of this great singer with Korean ‘ownership’, as in the DPRK biography of Rikidozan entitled I am a Korean!, an anxiously insecure move if ever there was one. South Korean nationalisms have been as unjust towards Zainichi experience as Japanese ones through the years and, under the Park dictatorship, some forms of traditional Korean music sounding like enka were banned for their suspect debts to Japan.

Lie is closer to what I think is important when he writes that “national purity cannot be found in music, sound does not respect musical borders.” The grain of that voice makes a first, distancing or clarifying, appeal.

Misora remembered this way might also re-position her in our thoughts for the future. It’s not that Misora doesn’t ‘belong’ to her Japanese fans anymore, or that her unacknowledged Zainichi heritage changes its place in Japanese culture, memory and nostalgia. The hope, rather, is that we might highlight how that Zainichi place has always been there, and how it might offer a position from which to move beyond the sterile (and US driven) nationalisms of the region. This is partly, to be sure, a question of acknowledging multiplicity and reality, partly also a chance to imagine new political positions and loosened loyalties.

The most insightful comments on that possibility I’ve read so far come not from a philosopher or a singer, but from a footballer, DPRK striker Jong Tae Se:

"My homeland is not Japan. There's another country in Japan, called Zainichi, [and] none of these countries - South Korea, North Korea and Japan - can be my home country, because I'm a zainichi and therefore Zainichi is my native land."

That ‘native land’ is nowhere, and the richer for it. What’s so moving about Misora Hibari’s art, the precision in the grain of her voice, is the way it inhabits that impossible land.


Roland Barthes, ‘The Grain of the Voice’ in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977).

John Lie, Multicultural Japan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

Takayuki Tatsumi, Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006).