Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Base and the Host

Recent news from Okinawa is good for all those concerned with seeing US military bases out of Asia, although, naturally, it would be foolish to imagine that peace is in sight for the residents anytime soon. This has been a long struggle and will continue for some time yet: Clinton and Obama have put the pressure on Hatoyama (who’s bound to be feeling it from his own ranks and is, besides, hardly an anti-establishment figure). The pro-US and pro-military voices from the Koizumi era (subject of Gavan McCormack’s precise dissections) haven’t gone away, and won’t: see, as an example of how calls to revise the Constitution aren’t the exclusive preserve of the Japanese right, this typically elegant but vapid puff-piece in praise of the US alliance from The Economist.

The people of Okinawa have suffered so much, and for so long now, all the while with the democratic process itself getting insulted and distorted: elect an anti-base mayor and, if past history’s anything to go by, chances are they’ll either get leaned on or ignored by Tokyo. Meanwhile the crimes keep happening, the environment keeps getting harmed, the eye-sore stays somewhere.

This is all the time a global problem, and a problem which requires a global perspective, and that aspect - its interconnection with other struggles in Asia and around the world, their potential impact on US policy elsewhere - is too often forgotten. This is also - for some of my habits at any rate - a representational problem of a quite peculiar kind. The problem, for those of us acting in solidarity with the campaigns in Okinawa and elsewhere through Asia, comes not from a paucity of representation but rather from its surplus: all that documented horror can paralyse, and all those examples of heroism and determination disable. We’ll never live up to those examples, so the old question returns: what is to be done?

It’s been in the spirit of trying to re-think this struggle globally these last few days that my mind’s gone back to images from Joon-ho Bong’s masterpiece The Host (괴물, 2006). Eschewing an allegorical treatment, Bong’s ‘host’ monster’s relationship to US imperialism and presence on the Korean peninsula is – unless you miss the first ten minutes of the film - made as clear as can be. There’s no getting away from the fact that what you’re watching is a direct assault on the US vision for the region. The Host has plenty of CG trickery and plays by the best rules of the horror genre, but its anti-imperialist theme was heard too: it drew a record audience of ten million people on release in the Republic of Korea.

That monster imagery - vital and accurate for the film, for Korea and for Okinawa - isn’t what I’ve been reflecting on this week, though. Bong’s representational triumph, in helping develop our understanding of and resistance to the US occupation of Asia, is his development of a kind of slob realism. Partly this is to do with getting a proper sense of the monster’s dimensions: Bong’s vision is expertly realised, but his aesthetic is a shabby one, its dominant colours brownish, sometimes like brackish water. This is a monster to be feared and loathed, not one to be secretly admired or given over to subconscious projections and investments.

A slob aesthetic offers political ways out of the representational dilemma too. The dilemma, it seems to me, when representing the monstrous US presence is that most artists have to choose between two equally undesirable emphases. Stress the power and horrors of the monster and we’re all left feeling as weak and vulnerable as we were before we encountered the representation. Stress the exceptional heroism and bravery of those resisting the monster (a bravery, I do want to stress, with ample historical examples to draw on), and we’re left with the full realisation of our own - and our historical moment’s - inadequacy and isolation.

Slob realism suggests the chance of a third way, and offers us one way of imagining agency without automatically excluding ourselves. Park, hero of the The Host, is an exaggerated version of normality. This isn’t Lukacsian typicality, either: he’s a bit of a loser, beset by family problems, out of shape, run-down. That he ends up helping bring down the monster - and that the whole fight keeps pace with a series of domestic sub-plots and dramas - restores a sense of perspective the other kinds of disaster-film or fantasy reconstruction often miss or distort.

One scene in particular stays with me: there’s a moment when Park is running from danger, and realising others in his family are in immediate danger. All of a sudden everything’s in slow motion and, without losing a real sense of risk and potential devastating loss, we’re made aware of the ridiculousness of it all, the films being referenced, the generic horror moment being hammed up. Our situation, those images suggested to me on first viewing, is desperate, not hopeless. The slobs (us, ordinary people, the guy on the screen), are going to keep bumbling through, fighting back. This was a scene from a struggle - fought by ordinary, weak, vulnerable but brave people - not a substitute fantasy of rescue by a super-hero saviour.

It was also, of course, a moment of physical comedy at the same time as it was the clearest statement there can be: there’s a monster occupying us, polluting our river, spreading disease and danger. Something has to be done. It’s not, as the cliché goes, that if you didn’t laugh you’d cry, but rather than you’re going to have to laugh and cry.

Thinking about the campaigns to come, it’s an image I’m glad to have still with me in memory.


Linda Hoaglund has made a very different kind of movie - a documentary, and a recovery of historical memory - dedicated to rediscovering the art and creativity of an earlier period of Japanese activism. It’s important; especially given the anniversary of the Treaty struggle this year, and the parallels we should all be drawing with our current situation. You can see a trailer for it here.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

You want me to count to three like they do in the movies?

Carl Freedman is, for my money, one of the best Marxist critics of SF writing today. Imagine my discomfort, then, reading his chapter on “Marxism, Cinema, and Some Dialectics of Science Fiction and Film Noir” in Mieville and Bould’s Red Planets.

Nothing scholarly about this discomfort, mind, just old-fashioned prejudice: I like film noir, and so Freedman’s (carefully constructed, intelligently argued, elegantly arranged) case for its ‘closing’ of imaginative-political possibilities against SF’s ‘opening’ powers is one I’m loath to entertain.

Distraction from that battle is at hand, thankfully, in the form of Mike Wayne’s review of Dennis Broe, Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood, a book “which seeks to reconnect noir with a largely repressed history of class conflict (repressed or sublimated in the films and in the commentary on the films).”

I’ve ordered Broe’s book and will try and post some thoughts up here after reading.

Monday, 25 January 2010

It’s coming yet for a’ that

Dante and Robert Burns ranked among his favourite poets and he would listen with great pleasure to his daughters reciting or singing the Scottish poet’s satires or ballads.

Paul Lafargue, Reminiscences of Marx, 1890


If you're at a loose end and kicking around the house killing time before your Burns Supper this evening, why not read an essay of mine from last year about James K Baxter's poetic relations with Burns?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Exodus to North Korea

"[The Japanese government] wishes to get rid of as many Koreans as possible and is not inclined to favour these comings and goings"
Inoue Masutaro, Japanese Red Cross Society

Taking the bus in from Nagasaki Airport to the city proper, I’ve never had much occasion to ponder the scenery. It’s a trip I’ve made many times, and the view is of a mixture very typical to that part of Japan: pointless and expensive ‘public works’ development rubbing up against ramshackle and inadequate housing, tiny patches of farmland dotted with small shrines, plenty of tunnels. My partner’s relatives live in Nagasaki city and so, passing through Omura on the way there, my mind is normally occupied with family thoughts.

Reading Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War changes all that. Now Omura - that hitherto uninteresting blur from a bus window - is charged for me with all sorts of historical resonance, none of it pleasant. That’s because Omura, which still houses a Migrant Detention Centre, was a notorious concentration camp used by the Japanese government for containing, mistreating, and, eventually, deporting Korean citizens, activists, and communists. Some were so desperate to leave that, in the 1950s, they signed appeals for attention in their own blood.

Exodus to North Korea tells an important story. Morris-Suzuki recounts the history of the close to 90 000 Koreans who were moved from Japan to North Korea from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. “Moved” is an ugly, bureaucratic word, but I can’t think of a better one to describe the complex process this book analyses. “Repatriated” won’t do, as most of the Koreans who moved to North Korea were originally from the south of the peninsula, and many others had been born in Japan and had lived their whole lives there. “Deported” sits even less easily, as this was a movement of voluntary, and willing, people. In covering the agonising complexity of their ‘move’, Morris-Suzuki generates insights into the mess and human disasters of the Cold War.

By all accounts, the vast majority of those who went were eager to go, and there were demonstrations of Koreans outside the Red Cross in Tokyo through the late 1950s demanding repatriation. From this historical distance, it is almost impossible to imagine how a group of people could want to live in North Korea, and the standard responses we have to hand would evoke brain-washing and ideological delusion and so on. There was, amongst some of those who moved, a great deal of ideological commitment, to be sure, and many had illusions that Kim Il-Sung’s state represented some form of socialism. But for many others their reasons for moving were more prosaic, and the more heart-breaking for that: poverty, discrimination, joblessness, despair. Anyway, compared to the South, from a perspective of economics and development alone, the North looked like the more dynamic society in the 1950s and 60s (for historical background see Kim Ha-Young’s important essays). One of the stories Morris-Suzuki tells is of a family who moved because they couldn’t get medical treatment in Japan for their seriously ill father. Another is of a family with an intelligent son whom they knew could never make his way amongst the racism of the Japanese education system. They’re stories that are easy to relate to imaginatively, even if their end result is so shocking.

Exodus to North Korea is so well-written, and so carefully constructed, that, drafting this appreciation, I kept wanting to write that it “read like a detective story.” But that would do a disservice to Morris-Suzuki’s own ethical project. I’ve illustrated this post with the kind of pictures we’re used to associating with North Korea: Exodus to North Korea, on the other hand, is full of pictures of ordinary people - couples, young children, families, groups - and the contrast between these images suggests some of what is so powerful about the book. In telling the story of ordinary people caught up in Cold War politics and power struggles, Morris-Suzuki restores to them some of the agency and dignity the forces of both ‘sides’ of that era had denied.

The layers of intrigue and manipulation surrounding this move are complex almost beyond belief. Many Koreans wanted to return home at the end of the war, of course, but many also had homes in Japan. Many must have felt torn between the two. These personal motivations mattered less, Morris-Suzuki shows, than the political ambitions of the ruling classes on both sides.

The Japanese government, Morris-Suzuki is able to show through her analysis of recently unclassified documents, had been, with the more-or-less tacit approval of the United States, wanting to organise some sort of mass deportation of the zainichi Korean population ever since the end of the war. Document after document quoted in Exodus to North Korea illustrates the deep racism of Japan’s ruling elites, and of their fantasy of the possibility that they might be able to achieve an ethnic cleansing of the country. Their dance of manipulation and collusion with the International Red Cross - and their creation of the ‘problem’ which required mass deportation - makes for sickening reading.

This isn’t a story which makes for easy Cold War moralising history for either side, though. If the Japanese government was motivated by its racist hatred of the victims of its colonial era, the ruling elite in North Korea were just as happy to manipulate the situation for their own political ends. Initially planning for the repatriation of a thousand of so, once the potential labour power of tens of thousands became more attractive the rhetoric and demands from the North changed. Throughout the story the main players - the Japanese and North Korean governments, the Red Cross, China, Russia, the United States - all used the existence of the Koreans in Japan as a chance to engage in their own games of rivalry. Morris-Suzuki writes that

Coexistence, it might be added, masked another sort of violence, too. In the interests of maintaining their own power, the powerful of both sides at times became in effect partners, tacitly collaborating in trampling on the rights of the powerless. (199)

This ‘parternship’, of course, led to unknown thousands of zainichi disappearing into North Korean prisons - or worse - as successive purges and attacks targeted outsiders.

In Japan, too, the results of the ‘partnership’ from above have been damaging to civil society and ordinary people.

Media-promoted panic, outrage and aggression about the issue of North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese nationals (admittedly a wrong that Kim’s government should right) has been used to promote a national historical forgetting: if the kidnapping of a dozen Japanese citizens is worthy of endless outrage and the most aggressive language against a neighbour state, what then of what was effectively the kidnapping of several hundred thousand Koreans during the colonial period? Informed historical writing needs to be read, progressive voices need to be heard.

More intriguing still, the ‘partnership’ of Japan and the North helped to reinforce the leadership of the least progressive groupings in the zainichi community. If bureaucratic fantasies that upwards of 60 000 Koreans in Japan were communists forever on the verge of rioting were wide of the mark, it is true that the 1950s saw activism within the community on a wide scale, an activism which was beginning to make links with left-wing organisations and thinkers in wider Japanese society. But the loyalists to the Stalinist regime, Chosen Soren / Chongryun (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan), opposed activism within Japan in favour of a focus on the North. Their role in the repatriation, a role helped along in no small measure by Japan’s anti-Korean elite, helped cement their leadership over the community. Morris-Suzuki:

This dangerous liaison went far beyond the personal level. In their pursuit of the goal of repatriation, key elements of the Japanese establishment promoted actions that greatly strengthened the power of Chongryun.

Repatriation enormously increased the influence of Chongryun over Zainichi Koreans and enhanced its profile in Japanese society at large. It ultimately enabled the organisation to extend its control deep into the Korean community, operating as migration agency and de facto network of consulates combined. Since many of those who departed for North Korea entrusted the property they left behind in Japan to Chongryun, the scheme also generated huge inflows of wealth into the organisation’s coffers.

Chosen Soren / Chongryun is now one of the key hate figures of the Japanese right, one of the most loathed and reviled groups in the Japanese media and popular culture. That their hegemony was built with LDP and state backing is a rich irony indeed. It’s an irony which, among other things, makes me admire all the more the bravery and intellectual clarity of my friends in KEY, a youth group which organises Koreans in Japan regardless of ‘North’ or ‘South’ citizenship, and which works within Japan on anti-racist campaigning and activism.

I’ve offered only a slight précis of the rich historical reconstruction which goes on in this book. Exodus to North Korea tells its story in all the detail and with all the human dimensions that it deserves. Morris-Suzuki is a beautiful writer, with an ear for telling examples, whether human or bureaucratic, and her book gave me a new layer to my understanding of the Cold War and the tragedy of the Korean peninsula. Some of her research on the topic is online. You can also watch a short video on her research and, later this year, Cambridge University Press is publishing her new work, Borderline Japan.

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Exodus to North Korea: Shadows from Japan’s Cold War (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Historical Manga

Do read Michele Mason's excellent essay on Kono Fumiyo's Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms and Nishioka Yuka's A Summer's Afterimage, two works from a new generation of anti-war and politically engaged manga artists dealing with the legacy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Nishioka's work deals with the Korean history of the tragedy in Nagasaki.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace Tokyo

I went last weekend to WAM, the Women’s Active Museum on War and Peace, in Nishiwaseda. It chronicles the experience of the so-called “comfort women”, victims of organised sexual violence at the hands of the Japanese army during World War Two. The Museum was opened on the 60th anniversary of Japan’s defeat, and has been an activist site hosting exhibitions, seminars, talks and resources since then. Given the subject matter, I was expecting a harrowing experience and, of course, the suffering and brutality the museum recounts is very upsetting. But, because of the Museum’s determination to pay tribute to the courage and solidarity of the women who have testified to their experiences, visiting is also an inspiring and moving experience.

Given the government and educational system’s silence and complicity with revisionist attempts to deny the brutality of Japanese imperialism in Asia, citizens’ and private museums in Japan play a particularly important role in keeping alive the memories and stories that need told. All of these museums and testimonies are valuable, and the volunteers and activists who staff them are people, often facing physical and professional risks for their integrity, who we should admire. Sometimes, though, the social marginalisation of these projects has a political impact, and their chronicling of atrocities and imperialist outrages can leave out the voices of the victims of this violence. It’s as if sometimes, in countering the mainstream’s determination to forget atrocity, the left manages only to reverse the terms and remember the atrocity only. What’s inspirational about the Women’s Active Museum is how it tells its history in a way which doesn’t leave the women at the centre of it as objects. Rather, its project aims to restore the “comfort women” to the status of subjects in their own story. Their survival and their struggle for justice are at the centre of this project.

Walking in to the Museum’s foyer, the visitor faces a wall of the names and photographs of women who have come forward to share their stories of the Japanese army’s violence. It’s a powerful testimony to their courage and determination, and asserts their own reality and the reality of their struggle (a struggle, of course, far from finished). The first impression you get of the space is that it is a place where solidarity, struggle and survival are going to be celebrated. The comfort women’s campaign has had to challenge all sorts of forces - not only their obvious enemies in the Japanese government and right wing, but also nationalist groupings who would subsume their own cause into a simplified rhetoric of Korean struggle, whether ‘North’ or ‘South.’ One of the bravest acts this museum chronicles is how the Zainichi (Korean residents in Japan) ‘comfort women’ have determined the course of their own struggle. Organising together, regardless of whether they hold passports from ‘North Korea’ or ‘South Korea,’ they label the border a “fiction” of the Cold War, and one which won’t divide their cause.

The current exhibition “Testimony and Silence” records the testimony of former soldiers describing their experiences and facing their own roles in the ‘comfort women’ system. Given the increasingly aggressive attempts in Japan to erase this historical record, their evidence is of particular importance.

Meanwhile - amidst continuing insults and historical falsification - the struggle continues. Survivors held their 900th protest outside the Japanese embassy in Korea on Wednesday. This photo is from the Hankyoreh’s coverage of that demonstration.

And these are from the comfort women’s demonstration I attended outside the Embassy back in 2008.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Another Loss

Daniel Bensaïd - inspired intellectual, outstanding miliant, enthusiastic anti-capitalist, long-term cadre of the LCR and one of the founders of the NPA - has died in Paris. He was only 63. You can read Alex Callinicos’ tribute here.

Eight years ago I first discovered Bensaïd’s writing through was a provocative piece of his on 21st century Leninism in International Socialism journal. Since then I’ve found so much stimulation, inspiration, and matter for debate and disagreement in his work. His death is a real loss to the movement.

Bensaïd’s open, non-dogmatic and amibitous project is best summarised, for me, in these lines from the introduction to his important book Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique (2002):

A theoretical-political legacy is never straightforward: it is not some position that is received and banked. Simultaneously instrument and obstacle, weapon and burden, it is always to be transformed. For everything depends upon what is done with this inheritance lacking owners or directions for use. (xi- xii)

That’s the situation we find ourselves in now with Bensaïd’s own work, which is part of that “theoretical-political legacy” to be inherited and put to use.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

JC Sturm 1927 - 2009

“Now ordinary / Starlight must be enough / To travel by”

(“New Year’s Eve", 1998, Postscripts, 2000)

It was sad to learn - via Pamela Gordon’s moving tribute - that JC Sturm, one of the last of that astonishingly talented generation of New Zealand poets born in the 1920s, has passed away.

The careful and intellectually intense short stories in The House of the Talking Cat were what first drew me in to her work. Read too quickly or too casually these stories won’t offer up much but, if it’s given the attention it deserves, Sturm’s realism can be devastating. “A way of looking, a way of feeling and a way of being” is how she described her re-recreation of particular dilemmas and exclusions in the social world and her strategy for representing the Maori experience of an era dedicated to excluding that representation.

It’s Sturm’s poetry, though, that I keep coming back to and delight in rediscovering. Learning of her passing brought to mind these lines from a verse letter she wrote to her long-time friend Janet Frame:

in the changing
Timbre of your voice…an excited curiosity
As though you had already joined
The queue before the exit sign,
Poised to look back one last time
With raised hand, a traveller’s
Flashing smile, before shuffling
Through the last gate
Eager to learn a new geography
Dwell in a different dimension.

(‘Under Threat, for Janet’ in Dedications, 1996).

Now Sturm is, to borrow the title of another poem from Dedications, “coming home” for good.


“New Year’s Eve, 1998” is from Postscripts, Steele Roberts, 200.
“Under Threat, for Janet” is from Dedications, Steele Roberts, 1996.

Sturm’s quote I took from Paul Millar’s entry on her in the Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature, p. 518.

The image is from the page dedicated to Sturm on the New Zealand Book Council Website . There's a very useful bibliography at the New Zealand literature files site too.