Friday, 29 June 2012

Anthems for Nowhere (II)

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. 

Misora, like Godzilla and Rikidozan (Bourdagh here follows Yoshikuni Igarashi), helps produce ‘the unnameable,’ little remnants of Korean and Chinese cultural contact the ideological ‘truth’ of post-war that 日本人論- the untranslatable, the unique, the de-historicised – wishes so earnestly to deny. Personal ancestry doesn’t matter here so much as musical context: enka, in its appeal to ideals of unique Japanese national essences always contains within itself echoes of the kind of cross-cultural work that went in to producing its possibility.


Bourdagh’s target isn’t so much the ‘real’ Misora, then – whether Zainichi or ‘real’ Japanese – but what she means:


No other person so fully embodies the entirety of post-war Japanese song. And while many previous critics have sought in Hibari the archetypes of a national essence, I am more interested in exploring what her putative Japaneseness tells us about the geopolitical imagination of popular music during this period – about the pleasures that the Cold War opened up for Japanese music lovers, as well as those that it closed off.


One of those pleasures was Misora’s transformation from symptom of U.S. cultural and political dominance (she built her career as a canny imitator of an older boogy-woogy star) into what Bourdagh calls ‘a powerful icon of musical decolonization.’


Enka can’t emerge properly, Bouradgh suggests, until the world it claims to represent is safely distanced. Nostalgia never can be what it used to be – as an increasingly urbanized audience settles in to the consumer society of the long boom, then Misora and others can perfect their laments for rural Japan, traditional simplicity, and country ways. Always, and at each stage of her career, at the very pioneering edge of recording technology, Misora used that space to construct fantasies of the past.


Fantasies of the past. It’s at this point that my own readings become more awkward. I recognise some of that nostalgia in my own listening habits; enka became ‘hearable’ for me only once I’d left Tokyo, and only once I became able to place it as the location of another, desirable, Japan-based life, one I’m coming to realize won’t ever be mine, and would cease to be desirable as soon as it became possible. Enka's themes of loss and longing capture that so well it's hard to imagine them without some 'other time' as projection and referent.


Fantasy projections, there, for sure, but pleasures too.  These are still my anthems from nowhere, not least because of the rumours that sustain them. Zainichi remains the un-named country in Asia – its Utopia, in the spirit of Wilde's map – and Misora’s re-inventions might as well grant her citizenship there.




Michael K Bourdaghs Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012) really is a fabulous book. Buy it if you can, or see if your library can order it in. The other chapters – on Sakamoto Kyu, jazz, rockabilly, folk, and more, are each as illuminating as the other. 

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