Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Crisis in Korea

When quizzed about what drew them to political activity, friends my age often bring up the sanctions against Iraq as an example of a world event that forced them into action. It was hard, observing that ongoing criminal brutality through my teenage years, and, later, learning of Madeleine Albright’s obscene justification of that cruelty, not to see in these figures a symbol for all that was wrong with US power and privilege. Hundreds of thousands of children dead was an acceptable price for a proponent of ‘humanitarian intervention’ to pay. What did she purchase for this price? The results of that are visible to this day.

The sanctions against North Korea, though, receive far less attention and draw far less outrage; it’d do us well to ponder why, and to consider consequences. Until the early 1990s, when they were still, loosely, part of the world around the Soviet Union, the North Korean economy was in something like a reasonable shape. Isolated following the Soviet collapse, and in the face of a programme of US-drive sanctions, the results for ordinary people in the North have been catastrophic. Almost 18% of North Korean children are malnourished. The regime of sanctions, unsurprisingly, and like elsewhere, serves no purpose other than hurting the weak, the poor, and the vulnerable – in a grisly irony, though, this piece of US war by other means is in turn used now to justify further US threats and interventions, all bolstered by claims that the North is a ‘failed state’ unable or unwilling to feed its own people. Having denied the possibilities for trade and food that might lift living standards in the North, the US now uses the misery it has created as a spur to further aggression and threats.

The political class in the West, in other words, whilst happy to circulate decontextualised and well-nigh racist accounts of North Korea as a ‘bizarre’, ‘secretive’ rouge state, plays an active role in the region’s subjugation. The Koreas are still at war, and the tragic history of colonialism, imperialism and occupation on the Korean peninsula plays and active, and determining, role in shaping its deformations and sorrows. And yet one could read great stacks of works about the peninsula, putatively scholarly as much as journalistic, and never learn anything of this historical and geopolitical context.

Tim Beal’s important new book, then, Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War, is especially welcome. This book is insightful, careful, and considered – rare enough qualities in commentary on Korean affairs – and I have learnt a good deal from reading it. For some decades now Beal and a small group of co-thinkers have been compiling reports, documents and analysis trying to give a sober view of the dynamics of the Korean Peninsula, and this latest book is an intervention into a situation Beal sees, convincingly in my view, as extremely dangerous. That this work is carried out from the obscurity of New Zealand is nicely appropriate, New Zealand having played, after all, a grubby and bloody role both in the Korean War and in the oppression and sometimes forced removal of Koreans from Japan after World War Two.

Crisis in Korea describes the North as an “autocratic Confucian state”, one that survives because it is “an expression of Korean nationalism”. Opposing wilder stories of Kim Jong-Il as an unpredictable evil genius, Beal shows that the North’s ruling class are trying to do what ruling classes around the world try to do; survive, trade, and stay secure. The North – with tens of thousands of US troops at its borders, and facing the hostility of the world’s largest nuclear-armed state – can have nothing beyond defensive ambitions. Beal documents how, when faced with compromise from Washington, Pyongyang has in turn compromised; when faced with aggression, however, they have responded in turn.

Two factors complicate this situation now, though, and in worrying ways. One is the rise of China. Beal writes that “in the long term, especially with the reconnection of rail and road links, ROK-China economic interaction will be to the benefit of the DPRK” (2005, 73), and it is obvious how direct land links between Seoul, China and the European continent would suit capitalists in all three areas. It’s precisely this prospect, though, that encourages hawks in Washington. If there is to be a confrontation between a declining US hegemon and a rising Chinese one, the Korean peninsula is the obvious place for this confrontation to take place. That’s an obvious tragedy for the Koreans, north and south.

Another complicating factor Beal ponders is how Korea fits in the Obama administration’s plans. George Bush had a coherent, if terrifying, Korea policy – he and John Bolton talked up the prospects of war, included the DPRK in the “Axis of Evil”, and generally pursued the grand strategy of the American Empire via provocations and swagger. This was a disaster for the peninsula, undoing many of the gains worked up slowly through the years of the ‘sunshine policy’, but it did have a kind of narrative coherence and clarity. Bush chose Korea as one of the places a neoconservative US imperialism could gain the edge over its Chinese rival.

The Obama years, in contrast, Beal argues, have been characterised by “strategic paralysis.” Distracted by domestic opposition, and bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, Obama and Clinton have, on Beal’s reading, offered little in the way of Korean policy. In this gap Lee Myung-Bak has pushed an aggressive, and confrontational, line, for his own political ends and geopolitical ambitions. South Korea, like Japan, may have started out as a client state of US imperialism – Beal shows how its economic growth spurs some in its ruling circles to imagine moves that may benefit them without the US overlords being as keen.

Central to these recent years, and to this tension between a distracted White House and an ambitious Blue House, was the sinking of the Cheonan. This has been widely reported as an open-and-shut case of DPRK aggression, motivated by the succession issue. Beal unpacks the detail of the sinking, and its aftermath, and shows how unlikely this explanation in fact is: the DPRK has scarce motive for carrying out the attack (it has cost the North millions, Beal reports, in lost revenue as a result of sanctions following the sinking), and the circumstances of the sinking are unclear and confused. Some of Beal’s reviewers have painted him a conspiracy theorist, but this is unfair: Crisis in Korea doesn’t posit a villain for the Cheonan incident. What it does, rather, is show how suspicious – and swift – the apportioning of blame was, and whose interests it served.

Besides, why, if they wanted to use the incident to bolster Kim Jong-un’s credentials and threaten its neighbours, would the North then deny they were responsible?

This book – like his North Korea: the Struggle Against American Power – makes for difficult reading. In part this is due to the subject matter, which is complicated in upsetting ways and full of examples of useless suffering and the needless waste of empire. Beal’s a pedestrian stylist at best, too; what makes the book so difficult, though, is also what makes it important. He has set himself the task of generating a kind of anti-narrative, unpacking the assumed wisdom and detail of the mainstream reports of the DPRK, insisting on the complexity and context underneath all the fervid speculation about Kim Jong-Il’s consumption tastes or fairy tales about a rogue state set on world war. Where other books might be breezier and easier to follow, Beal’s work insists on stray details, difficult or unsatisfactory explanations, and complex motives. If, at times, this feels like reading a book of marginal glosses and commentaries, that may be no bad thing: if the conventional account has this many inconsistencies and problems, what does this tell us about the standard of mainstream reporting?

Those fairy tales have consequences: 52% of Americans surveyed in 2009 felt that North Korea posed a “very serious threat” to America’s security. The very great virtue of Beal’s book is that, if read carefully, it demolishes each and every assertion on which that fear and concern has been generated.

The agonies of the Korean Peninsula, in almost Beckettian ironies, reflect the absurdity and grisly strangeness of the global order. Were the stated goal of the US military presence in the South to be realised – a peacefully united Korean peninsula – this would generate a crisis for the US itself, undermining the justification for its mass of bases in the region and bolstering its rival China. The north’s most vociferous opponent – George Bush Jnr – who made so much of his enemy’s dynastic succession, himself is part of a political dynasty. The South was long ruled by Generals eager to take up civilian titles as Presidents; the North has a leader and leader-in-waiting who both have military titles but no experience as leaders of armies. The US possesses weapons of mass destruction, and has used them, and produced a concoction of lies to justify invading Iraq, but the North’s weapons, and the strange bombast of its public statements, are used as reasons for US aggression.

These ironies fit a more sinister pattern, for, as Beal argues “those who want an authoritarian society in the South also want one in the North to justify it and they also want a continued state of tension” (2005: 165).

This book is an essential resource for those who want to understand, and argue against, that state of affairs. It’s in imagining the alternatives to the present, though, that I’m in least agreement with Beal. He taught for many years in a business school, and this current work – deeply informed, useful, and scholarly – reflects that background in good ways as well as bad. At one point he remarks that “only the left uses the term ‘imperialism’, and since the left does not remotely influence US foreign policy there is little point spending much time on it here.” (2011, 59). He goes on to remark that imperialism is “ultimately the most important construct for analysing America’s interaction with the world”, but the tension is evident.

Most of Crisis in Korea documents the history and geopolitics of the peninsula as seen from above, from the corridors of power. But what of the self-activity of ordinary Koreans, of the workers’ movement and so on? The great developments of recent Korean history – democratisation, the end of the rule of the generals, the rise in social movements that could sustain the Sunshine Policy – all came about through mass mobilisations, and through political formations determined to, as the saying went, be realistic and demand the impossible. Those dynamics will be, hopefully, as significant in any resolution of the Korean War as the machinations from above.

In Beal’s conclusion from his last book, though, a conclusion this latest book only reinforces, I’m in full agreement:

We can hope that peace, and prosperity, will prevail, but we cannot be confident. All we can be sure of is that the decision will be made in Washington. Not without outside constraints and influences, to be sure, but ultimately the power for Korean peace or war, for continued privation or for economic growth and transformation, lies with the United States. And that is where the responsibility rests as well.


You can buy both Crisis in Korea (2011) and North Korea: the Struggle against US Power (2005) here. A radical publisher like Pluto faces all sorts of business constraints and challenges, and we need more heterodox and dissident voices on Korea being heard, so, if you can’t afford to buy this book, I would try and get it into your local library. Beal’s an important critic, and I’m glad his work is available.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Drifting into a certain vein of thought

I’ve always been hostile to what Seamus Heaney, following Wilde and “The Decay of Lying”, calls “the Japanese effect, the evocation of that precise instant of perception” that stands in as the legacy of Imagism in so much contemporary poetry, for which we “are ready to grant such evocation of the instant a self-sufficiency of its own.”

This is what accounts for the ghastliness of so many poetry readings, where you’re expected to keep your features frozen in pretence of rapture as someone offers loving details of their refurbished kitchen, recent meals or other suitably ‘sensitive’ and alive experience. Direct confrontations with Japanese material compounds the situation, and, as I’ve argued elsewhere, poetic responses to Japan have sustained older rhetoric as much as they’ve offered new ways of seeing.

Field of Autumn Leaves

Haiku, responsible for so much of this mess, have irritated me as much for their effects elsewhere as they have for any individualised failing. Besides, don’t those rules – the seasonal word and so on – seem somehow to exclude so much that’s important, and exciting, and true? Why settle for sakura when you’ve got Akihabara?

Frederick Seidel, whose poetry I still remember discovering in the LRB one sweaty morning, crushed in the rush hour of the Tokyu line, captures my desire for Tokyo:

Tokyo is low
And manic as a hive.
For the middle of the night they have silent jackhammers.
Elizabethan London with the sound off. Racially pure with no poor.

Mishima himself designed the stark far-out uniform
His private army wore, madly haute couture. He stabbed the blade in wrong
And was still alive while his aide tried in vain
To cut his head off as required.

Moshi-moshi I can’t hear you. I’m going blind.
Don’t let me abandon you, you’re all I have.
Hello, hello. My Tokyo, hello.
Hang up and I’ll call you back.

What Seidel’s creepy energy points to is the exhaustion and slackness in so many English-language haiku, the ponderous and deadly self-importance that blights even innocuous and inoffensive observation. Where, amidst all these heavy-handed nature poems, is the English equivalent of the senryu (川柳) the short poem with wit or humour?

The pathos of things

Roland Barthes’ lectures on the haiku felt, at first, like they were going to help sustain my antipathy:

Second problem: “poetic” translations of haiku. Some translators have sought to translate the 5-7-5 syllables into (unrhymed) French verse (cf. Etiemble). But to do so makes no sense. Our ability to detect a meter, a beat, a syllabic rhythm is dependent on having already had the metrical formula whispered to us by our poetic culture, on the code functioning like a route, a path, imprinted onto, incised onto our brains that’s then retraced, recognised in the performance of the poem; there is no rhythm as such; all rhythm is cultural; otherwise, the formula falls flat (it isn’t a formula): it doesn’t work, it exerts no fascination, it fails to send us to sleep. What I mean is: the function of all rhythm is either to excite or to calm the body, which, on a certain level, at some, distant, profound, primitive point in the body, amounts to the same thing (25)

The poetic is the enemy of poetry here, as in so many other instances, but Barthes’ case for the haiku has led me back to the form. More than the “Japanese effect” being a case of imagism assimilating to some sort of impressionism, Barthes demands that the haiku be read as “the conjunction of a “truth” (not a conceptual truth, but of the Instant) and a form.” The combination of image and observation, for Barthes, should startle, not settle, a reader: “a good definition of the haiku: it doesn’t stabilize movement; it divides Nature up rather than abstracts it.” (51) To work in languages other than Japanese, this approach demands more than a sing-song stillness.

Dorothy Molloy has composed a haiku that, I suspect, Barthes would have taken great pleasure in reading:

Sunlight in a gutter,
butterbright, apricot, peach,
October, leaf-theif.

Paul Muldooon’s sixty-first “Hopewell Haiku” managed a similar sort of fun and inventiveness:

Bivouac. Billet.
The moon a waning of lard
on a hot skillet.

These two poems are among many delights in Our Shared Japan: an Anthology of Contemporary Irish Poetry put together by Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods. Irish-Japanese literary engagement has been intense and sustained since the late nineteenth century, and the works in this collection show how much energy and inventiveness contemporary writers – in both English and Irish – are able to take from Japanese literary and social material. Ireland hasn’t the complicated history of racism and violence marking its connections to Japan that still burden imaginative relations in the white settler colonies of New Zealand and Australia so, in some ways, the poets’ tasks are simpler. They go, look, and listen. There is, though, a sophisticated awareness of what to avoid apparent in a number of the poems collected here (Ciaran Carson: “Investing in the Zen is inadvisable”), and a good sense of exploration.

The pleasure of an anthology, too, is that, after a while, it doesn’t matter so much which poet you’re reading; the poems themselves do more of that work of recognition. Barthes linked this sense to the productiveness of the haiku form itself:

in haiku, ownership trembles: the haiku is the subject, a quintessence of subjectivity, but that’s not the same thing as the ‘author.’ Haiku belong to everyone in the sense that it can seem as if everyone’s writing them – in that it’s plausible that everyone could be writing them. That is what convinces me that the haiku is of the order of Desire, in that it circulates: in that ownership – the auctoritas – is passed on, circulates, takes turns, as in Pass-the-Parcel. (33)

In keeping with his own training and outlook, Barthes recognised in the haiku the potential for something like alienation effects, poetic shifts in register that force a new way of seeing from the reader:

Classical schema: perception via one of the senses conveys a generic sensation: a sound conveys music, etc. Now, haiku can reroute these circuits, make “faulty” connections: a sound will convey a tactile sensation (heat, cold); a kind of heterogeneous, “heretic” metonymy.

Here’s Paula Sheehan:

My head in the clouds
in the bowl of Akiko’s
mother’s white miso.

At its best, though, an alienation effect will do more than alter seeing; it will also demand new thinking. Barthes: “Between haiku and narrative, a possible intermediary form: the scene, the little scene. Cf. Brecht, street scenes and the gestus.” (88) The “Japanese effect”, deployed this way, is of use not in its access to prettified description, but in the way it offers short-cuts to representations of History. Tony Curtis manages this in his “Northern Haiku”:

On an Antrim bog
a wall divides the wet land,
planted in the past.

Shot twice in the head.
Once in each astonished eye.
History is blind

Over the dark Foyle
the bark of Kalashnikovs,
an old Derry air.


All quotes I’ve taken from Roland Barthes, The Preparation of the Novel, trans Kate Briggs (NY: Columbia UP, 2011). This is an English translation of notes from his Lecture Courses and Seminars at the College de France 1978 – 79 and 1979-80.

Seamus Heaney’s phrase, and all the poems quoted here, are from Irene De Angelis and Joseph Woods (eds.), Our Shared Japan (Dublin: The Dedalus Press, 2007). You can buy Our Shared Japan here. Wilde’s account of “the Japanese effect” is much cleverer, and funnier, than the use I’ve put it to here: you can read “The Decay of Lying” online.

The editors maintain an extremely useful website documenting Japan in English-language verse: Emerging from Absence.

Fredrick Seidel’s “My Tokyo” I’ve quoted from his Poems 1959 – 2009 (New York: FSG, 2009), p. 350.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Occupied City

The violence dealt out to the Occupy movement – from Oakland to Melbourne – indicates the worry it’s causing our rulers, and the productiveness of its disruptions in ordinary civic life. The Occupy assemblies have been a place for frustrations to be aired, and for strategy to get debated: the refrain that the movement “lacks demands” misses the point that it’s precisely the paucity of established political demands on offer that calls for protest. Links with labour movements are being made – most excitingly in the United States – and old political questions and traditions re-examined. All this is exciting, and enormously welcome.

Amongst the excuses for bringing in the cops to hurt and harass, the argument that public spaces aren’t to be occupied is common, fanciful, and insulting. Ignore the question of democratic space for a moment (so many of these Occupations are happening on land that was public but has, in recent decades, had its status changed in favour of business interests) as there’s useful writing on that elsewhere. What’s different about the Occupy events – and thus unacceptable to power – is the class formations of those occupying, and their confidence and self-activity. Because city centres are always, in the normal run of things, occupied, it’s just that they’re occupied by those at the margins, those the police feel confident beating up and bullying at a whim. Its the collectivity and connections of the Occupy movement that unsettles - were any of hte individuals involved to be left, on their own and in difficult circumstances, on the streets, then there'd be less outrage from on high. Visible resistance offends.

The homeless are – liberal protestations of horror to the contrary – an acceptable part of any modern city, swept away only for major events. The Occupy movement’s visibility contests precisely these sorts of decisions over urban space – and the class rule and class democracy behind them – and so forms a political demand all of its own.


Raymond Williams, in a celebrated passage on Jane Austen in The Country and the City, writes of the Austenian world of country houses that

Neighbours in Jane Austen are not the people actually living nearby; they are the people living a little less nearby who, in social recognition, can be visited. What she sees across the land is a network of propertied houses and families, and through the holes of the tightly drawn mesh most actual people are simply not seen. To be face-to-face in this world is already to belong to a class. No other community, in physical presence or in social reality, is by any means knowable.

Ideology works upon us, often against our self-presentations. My first time in Yoyogi Park, walking alone in late afternoon of the autumn of 2007, I spent several minutes feeling the strangeness of being in a deserted area in the middle of a city as large as Tokyo. It took a shocked change in perspective to realise that there was movement all around me; at the edges of my vision were tarpaulin sheets and bundles of sticks, signs time in Japan would teach me to associate with homelessness.

Later in the same day at Ueno Park I thought I saw a political demonstration, only to realise closer up that it was a crowd of homeless people queuing for a meal. Ueno is a difficult area to visit without some unsettled sense of complicity, and Walter Benjamin’s thesis on the philosophy of history that “there is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” never feels overused . The path to the Tokyo National Museum and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum runs straight through the main site of homeless occupation. The National Museum – site of so much Meiji-era imperial ambition – is full of documents of civilisation. The place of barbarism in official discourse isn’t so clear.

(The park as an ideological fantasy. From the Tokyo Metropolitan website)

Family registers, family values

The homeless, most works from the archive are at pains to convince us, symbolise personal collapse, disastrous life choices, irresponsibility and the damage of alcohol and drugs. The familiar narratives are all to do with personal, individual choices and chances. Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathers presents his characters are transformed through the chance of something like nuclear family life.

Akihiko Nishizawa’s research into the changing face of homeless in Tokyo in the modern era suggests a more complex situation. The Meiji government’s family registration system – the koseki, still more-or-less current today – provided, Nishizawa argues, “a standard for exclusion.” Urban populations without the identity the koseki demanded could be, in this new system, driven from both state responsibility and state recognition. The ‘ideal’ citizen – in a nuclear family unit, tied to a stable address and work pattern – was thus not just an ideological construct but also a product of a particular system: “the state welfare system…maintained standards that assumed all citizens would exist within families and therefore excluded non-ideal citizens who didn’t.” Wanderers, foreigners, people who don’t fit the heterosexist demands of family life all become vagrants in this set-up. It’s one that, as any Zainichi with koseki problems could tell you, causes problems in people’s lives through to today.

Homelessness, then, Nishizawa argues, “is the result of the social and systematic exclusion of fluid and non-family peoples” (200). It is a result of Japanese government policy and strategy.

This strategy had a racial, and racialising, component. Journalist Gennosuke Yokoyama’s “The underclass of Japan” (1899) called unregistered children “no nationality”, while in the 1930s, a high proportion of working-class Korean immigrants to Japan found themselves amongst the ranks of the homeless.

An urban underclass?

The misery and difficulty of homelessness are obvious, if difficult fully imaginatively to comprehend, but, sometimes, a stress on the suffering and weakness of the homeless can distort our view. The oppression is real, and painful; it provokes a complex response, and is part of a complicated class relation.

Because Japan’s slum-dwellers and homeless can and do resist, and have done so many times. In Osaka’s Kamagasaki slum, over 2000 residents rioted for many nights after one of their community was left dying without ambulance attention following a road accident. In 1990 and again in 2008 there were major riots, the uprising in 1990 lasting some six days. The poor and marginalised in Japan, as elsewhere, actively resist their marginalisation.

Understanding the class position of the homeless is essential, too, and often confused by phrases like “underclass” or lumpenproletariat. Japan’s homeless – especially in a centre like Kamagasaki, with thousands of residents - are part of its working class. Nishizawa cites research from the 2000s showing that 50 to 80 percent of Tokyo homeless were day labourers and construction workers. The ‘net cafe refugees’ of recent times represent a new, and youthful, form of homelessness; they too are connected to the working class through their casual employment, involvement in contract work and service industries.

Japan’s ‘outside’ homeless tend to be male, middle-aged and associated with construction and day labouring. Their vulnerabilities are clear, and often commented upon: intimidation and the chance of abduction and slave labour with the yakuza, health problems from the cold sleeping in parks, police harassment. The homeless of the ‘net cafe refugee’ generation are younger, white collar, and, often, refuse the label of homeless and its potential solidarities (Nishizawa discusses the label nakama, or comrades, that homeless men use for one another).

Both groups, though, whatever fragmentation and alienation in their current situation, are connected, through labour, to the wider Japanese working class. The state that refuses to recognise them as full citizens needs to rely, in other contexts, on their efforts as workers. The challenges they face, then, can be connected to challenges facing the Japanese labour movement more broadly: the shift to casualised labour, the need to organise those without traditions of organisation, the importance of developing politics of independence instead of collaboration.

The title of Kenji Hashimoto’s 2007 book gives us a good sense of direction: New Class Society, New Class Struggle. Hashimoto is alive to changes within Japanese capitalism, and his analysis is fresh and unafraid of revising old assumptions. But his perspective is clear; those on the margins, whether they’re in parks or netcafes, need brought in to the centre, and it’ll be via struggle that this is achieved. Other countries’ construction industries have proud fighting heritages – there’s no reason for one not to re-emerge in Japan.

That project demands politics, and intellectual and social ambition. Some of the energy, and audacity, required, is visible in the Occupy movements the world over. They’ve made the invisible visible and, in doing so, pose a challenge to the smoothly ‘post-political’ neo-liberal order.


Akihiko Nishizawa’s excellent chapter is in Richard Ronald and Allison Alexy, Home and Family in Japan: Continuity and Transformation (London: Routledge, 2011).

Hashimoto’s newer book isn’t available in English yet, but Transpacific Press brought out his Class Structure in Contemporary Japan.

Shannon Higgins has a photo portrait of Kamagasaki here.