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).


  1. Fascinating, insightful and informative ... all of this and more. Thanks very much for writing and posting this. I loved listening to Misora Hibari's voice and to read what you've written of her life and death adds to what I am slowly gleaning about that intriguing place / society / culture of Japan.

  2. Thanks for this very kind comment Kay, and I'm happy to have shared Misora Hibari! She's an intriguing figure from an intriguing time, to be sure.