I still love Misora Hibari, and always will, but I’m not sure I can keep putting her to such easy discursive work as I have until now. A few years ago here I tried to position her songs as ‘anthems for nowhere’, songs for the stateless, music from Japan’s unacknowledged (and well-night un-acknowledgeable) Zainichi community. There’s so much packed in to that reading – and such comforting assurance that personal taste and political commitment align – that I’m loathe to let it go.
But Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Japan, Michael K Bourdaghs’ fabulous, beautifully written and spritely new book, a 'geopolitical prehistory of J-Pop', forces me to do just this. I first heard of Misora’s Zainichi status from friends in Korean groups in Tokyo and, when reputable English-language sources repeated their claims, felt comfortable repeating the affiliation as fact. Bourdagh felt that way once too, but, in the process of researching his book, he’s become more circumspect. Misora was public and open about all sorts of other damaging aspects of her life – drinking, gang connections, pain in love, disappointment following the river of life – so why should she have been reticent about any Korean heritage? The sources Bourdagh follows – and his footnotes show he’s a diligent and serious scholar – all lead him to false ends, further rumours, unspecified memories.
All of this, for the cultural historian, isn’t such a problem, though; Bourdagh is as interested in why certain rumours persist as he is in their truth and provenance. Part of the great pleasure of his book is the way it marries the academic and the popular: as ‘area studies’ in Cold War-era US universities successfully translated the Japan of the English-language imaginary from barbarian threat to beautiful ally, so too local Japanese popular cultural practices worked to exclude the recent past (Japan’s colonial project) in order to construct an American-Japanese cultural relationship at the expense of messier politico-cultural remnants.
The concealed past of Asianness in Japanese pop reemerged in other ways too. Like a return of the repressed, it flickered in and out of view like a ghost or a shadow, a kind of monstrous apparition.