Theory Teacher's Blog

Tokyo Diaries 7: Who is, whose right?

I’m afraid I’m going to be dashing off this last blog post about Japan rather quickly and carelessly because I’m leaving for Kenya in just a few days, and I have at least a million things to do between now and then. But I wanted to get this last post out before I left, and hopefully I will be able to blog from Kenya a “Nairobi Diary.”

Sorry for that apologetic preface, but here goes what may prove to be my most convoluted, rambling blog post ever…

IMG_1384I want to talk a little bit about the experience my students and I had at the United Nations University, when we attended the Africa Day Symposium (thanks to the gracious efforts of our host university), but since we experienced this event in the context of a study-abroad in Japan, I want to relate the United Nations University experience to two other things: Japanese culture more broadly understood and — you may be surprised about this one — the work I do with the Oromo, whom I’ve blogged about several times previously [here], [here], and [here]. Yes, yes, of course it all connects, yes, yes, of course it does — why else would I be blogging about it? — and of course the connections are also full of disconnects, as I aim to make clear once I finally stop with the prefatory remarks and get on with the story.

So, that’s the topic, but instead of just saying what I’m saying, I’m going to make my usual sideways, theory-dork kind of move —  in other words, a bit more of my obnoxious prefacing. So, preface number two: those who know me know that nothing irritates me more than statements such as “Muslims all think in such and such a way,” or “In order to understand why Japan was successful in the 1980s, you have to understand the Japanese mind.” Two things bother me about these kinds of claims. First, they are culturally deterministic in really simplistic ways, as if one’s very mind were a product of “culture” the same way a piece of pottery, poem, or pop song were a product of culture. Second, they posit a bizarre unity to a culture, as if all people belonging to a nation, ethnic group, or family think and act the same. When I consider how different I am from everyone I grew up with in Orange County, California (including my own family members), such statements intuitively make no sense to me.

So, just to point out something curious about Japan. The same country that has the Hiroshima Museum and Monument to World Peace (which I blogged about a week ago here) and hosts the United Nations University also has the Yasukuni Shrine, a shrine which insists on controversially defending and celebrating war criminals [see here]. Next to the shrine is a War Museum, which includes things like vintage machine guns and the famous Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. Ironically, the name “yasukuni” literally means “peaceful country.”

I took my students to the Yasukuni shrine because I felt they would get a skewed image of Japan if we only visited the monument to peace and the UN University. And my point here is rather obvious: it’s stupid to make claims about a national culture when cultures have so much diversity and contradicitory sensibilities within them. For example, as I mentioned before in my blog about Hiroshima, my students and I read the poetry of Sadako Kurihara, who was writing poetry against the war as early as 1943 and was protesting Japanese imperialism well before that. Certainly she was a minority view in Japan in the 1930s and 40s, but her view eventually became closer to the majority view by the 1970s.

And of course, I’ve already been blogging repeatedly about the “old” and “new” forms of culture in Japan. I personally find it amusing to take a group of American students who know hardly anything about American history to a history museum in Japan with a group of Japanese students who know hardly anything about Japanese history. One might expect bringing the Japanese students along would be useful because they could help my American students understand what they are looking at, but no, not really. As one of my colleagues recently pointed out to me (and as my students noticed while they were there), Japanese television tends to be dominated by happy, cheerful programs about delicious food at quaintly designed restaurants. And of course, likewise, I doubt my American students would be able to offer much help to any Japense tourists visiting an American history musum. In other words, culture means what?

Now back to the United Nations University experience. What was immediately cool about this is that we got to sit at these desks and put on those earpieces and get the simulcast translation. IMG_1387We all felt a little cooler than we actually are at that moment, as my student pointed out in his blog [here]. Some of the people speaking were some major, major dudes such as a former Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori. However, there was a creepy consistency to the all of the speeches. First, the non-creepy consistancy was that all of them pointed out that the current economic crisis has already begun to affect Africa and will cause more problems there than it is causing elsewhere in the world. This was the theme of the conference. Second, Japan is one of the only countries to actually increase its aid in response to the problem and actually delivers the aid that it promises. (A side note,  in contrast, the United States under George Bush notoriously promised a lot of aid to Africa but delivered little — a fact all of the speakers were too polite to mention, but which I am not too polite to mention.) A lot of my students were bothered by the amount of self praise the Japanese were doing, as well as the seemingly obsequious praise the African speakers were heaping on Japan, but I wonder if my students would be similarly bothered if they heard Americans bragging about American aid to Africa on American television. But the third thing — and one of the most troubling things — was how consistently all of the panelists believed that market intergration was a solution to Africa’s problems. My students were struck by the lack of diversity of viewpoints represented, and were also struck that nobody mentioned how the world market is affected by disparities in power except for the representative of UNICEF’s children’s fund (whose presentation was by far the best for all sorts of reasons.) Let me repeat, only the person representing children mentioned the rather obvious and important fact that the economy is political.

Now, don’t mistake me. I’m not some protectionist against market integration. Market integration certainly gave Africa’s economy a boost this past decade, but the past twenty years of integration is partly resonsible for how easily the contagions of America’s housing flu could contaminate the economies of Africa. In other words, being for or against market integration is like being for or against trade in general, which is like being for or against breathing. It makes no sense. Rather, the real issue is how one goes about doing it — what regulations, rules, social safety nets, and protections need to be in place to ensure that market integration doesn’t lead to mass starvation and violent cultural upheaval. In order to ensure that the wide variety of rights are protected — rights that are economic, human, cultural, and environmental.

So, what’s the point of all this? You can probably tell that I’m struggling to tie together all the threads of this blog, but let’s return to the question, how do we understand this Africa Day Symposium in terms of the broader experience of Japanese culture? Is it even possible? Clearly, as I’ve just discussed, the symposium was dominated by the neoliberal logic of market integration and free trade. There’s certainly nothing Japanese about that; rather, this fact simply underscores the ways in which culture needs to be understood in the context of a very, very political economy. Japan and America’s interest in defining Africa’s troubles in terms of market-based solutions may have something to do with Japan and America’s powerful position in the world market rather than with Japan and America’s cultural traditions.

Now, at the beginning of this blog I promised to talk about my work with the Oromo. While in Japan, I visited an NGO, whose name I won’t mention here, as a representative of Sandscribe Communications, in hopes to raise money for a media school in Ethiopia. There was a genuine interest on the part of the people I talked with in the work Sandscribe wants to do. Also while in Japan, I gave a lecture at our host university on how American literature has, historically, represented Ethiopia since the 17th century to the present. I want to present a rather self-congratulatory contrast here. While the UN University emphasized the overview perspective of large governments, international institutions, and multinational corporations, my work represents the grassroots efforts, the view from below — and please notice that both overview and underview include cross-cultural communication as well as the transnational transfers of knowledge and capital.

So, back to my question… culture means what?

And instead of answering that oh-so-difficult-to-answer question, let’s go back to the Yasukuni shrine, which has more to do with the United Nations than you might think. After the war, various Japanese generals and higher-ups were convicted of war crimes by the international community. Now, at the Yasukuni Shrine is a statue of the International Military Tribunal’s dissenting judge (from India, incidentally), who protested that convicting these people of war crimes was unfair, considering the nature of war. And he has a point. Nobody was prosecuting Europeans or Americans for the horrible things they did to Native American, African, South Asian, and South-East Asian populations for centuries. Nobody was prosecuting the United States for dropping an atomic bomb. What counts as a war crime here? Who is right here, and whose rights are we talking about when we talk about the protection of rights, liberties, and… well… life?… All of which is the whole point of the United Nations, the point of my work with the Oromo (many of whom are not all peace-and-love types, but see violence as an acceptable tool in their struggle for political liberation), and… ultimately… and I’m afraid I’m going to get a bit sappy here… the point of study-abroad programs in the first place.


June 4, 2009 Posted by | Japan | 1 Comment

Tokyo Diaries 6: Race, Class, and Gender in the “Experience” of Japan

In my last post “Things Not Blogged,” I listed some of the experiences that I had in Japan but did not have time and/or inspiration to blog about. And some of my friends and family told me they hoped I would get around to narrating those experienes, but what about the experiences that I didn’t have? Aren’t the experiences I didn’t have just as important (or even more important) than the ones I did? I think it’s all too easy for tourists, students, and business people to take their experience of a foreign country as a true experience, and to come away from it full of judgements and summary characterizations. Even such visitors who are self-conscious enough to realize the many epistemological and social limits of experience will still form generalizations about a place based more on their experience than on a sociological study, a history book, or even a novel. Sometimes such limits are obvious; for instance, when one spends a few days in a posh, beach-side resort in Mexico, one knows that this isn’t the “real” Mexico, but in contrast, when one goes on a study-abroad trip to Japan and makes an effort to study the culture and spend time with ordinary people there, one can come away with an overestimation of one’s sense of things.

And this is why concepts such as race, class, gender, and Other, among others, are still useful for critically evaluating the limits of one’s experience and of one’s perspective. But even more useful might be a novel that explores those categories of existance and the parts of Japan that no tourist would ever experience. So, on the airplane back home to America, my students and I read one of my favorite novels: Out, by Natsuo Kirino. The novel was first published in 1997 — shortly after the collapse of Japan’s economic bubble and during the Asian financial crisis — about the same time that I arrived in Japan to begin a two-year position as an English conversation teacher at a Japanese prep school, and it was later made into an award-winning movie in 2002, and finally published in English in 2003.  Comparisons have been made to some of my favorite American crime novelists such as Walter Mosley [here] and James Cain [here].

The novel is about four women who work the night shift in a factory that makes obento (boxed lunches) for convenience stores. The setting is the outskirts of Tokyo — an area of poor neighborhoods and old, abandoned factories which it never occured to me to visit during my two years living in the center of Tokyo. While most of the part-time employees at this factory are women, most of the full-time are Brazillian immigrants, some of whom have Japanese ancestry. When one of the women kills her absusive, philandering husband, the rest come together to help and are all transformed by what happens next. Over the course of the novel, Kirino comments on relations of gender, class, and race as the four women and one of the immigrants seek liberation from the drudgery of their lives. Needless to say, this is not the Japan that I or any of my students encountered, except in form of the cheap obento that we all frequently bought from convenience stores.

While reading this novel, I also read an essay on “The Spirit of Productivity: Workplace Discourse on Culture and Economics in Japan” by Christena Turner, which is included in the 1993 collection of essays, Japan in the World. In it, Turner focuses her attention on the famous motto of post-Meiji-era Japan “wa kon yo sai” — or “Japanese spirit / Western learning,” and her argument opposes the simplistic theories in the mainstream media that locate the source of Japan’s economic success and productivity in a “mysterious cultural ability” or “Japanese spirit.”  Instead, she analyzes three different work environments to see how workplace identity is socially constructed and observes a range of factors including how national and regional identities are imagined in contrast to various cultural and economic others. Such identities, she argues, are fluid, heterogenous, and contested rather than homogenous and determinate. Since much of Kirino’s novel was about relation between the factory life and home life of these four women, I thought reading this essay alongside the novel might be interesting.

What is missing in Turner’s analysis, but which is carefully shown by Kirino’s depiction of the daily lives of her characters, are the desperation and loneliness of the workers, the presence of immigrants whose cultures are obviously excluded from the “mysterious cultural ability” of the iconic Japanese worker but nevertheless contribute to the success of the company, the welfare system and child-care support that some of the characters relied upon, the forms of education available to the workers’ children, and the legal system for managing debt at a moment of national financial crisis. Perhaps most trenchantly, the condition of women when they are abused or abandoned by men and the condition of immigrants who are socially excluded and ignored by a still racist Japan. Kirino doesn’t just show how the various social forces sometimes bring women together in solidarity with each other (and in solidarity with their immigrant co-workers); she also shows how those forces can pull women apart from each other.

Considering that this novel is set during Japan’s financial crisis, and considering that we are now experiencing America’s financial crisis, it might be a timely and illuminating read.

How does all of this relate to my experience of Japan? Is it simply the case that the novel by Kirino and the essay by Turner are about the Japan I did not and could not have encountered? Or was I simply unaware of the true nature of what I was encountering?

May 31, 2009 Posted by | Japan | Leave a comment

Tokyo Diaries 5: Things Not Blogged

It’s my last night in Japan, and there are still quite a lot of things that I haven’t blogged about yet. Too many things, too little time. Should I blog about them when I get back to the United States, or should I let them be?

For instance, going to the Sumo wrestling tournament, attending the United Nations University Symposium on Africa, visiting the museum of modern art, and then the infamous Yasukuni Shrine… attending our host university’s anniversary celebration (at which I gave a short speech in Japanese), having impromptu dinner parties at our dormitory with my students and my host university’s students, giving a lecture (in English this time) today on American literature’s relationship to Ethiopia, seeing old friends that I haven’t seen in 9 or 10 years….

May 27, 2009 Posted by | Japan | Leave a comment

Tokyo Diaries 4: “When We Say Hiroshima”

Sometimes the most important or meaningful things to write are the hardest. As I mentioned a few days ago, my students and I traveled to Kyoto and Hiroshima, and my previous post on the Zen of Hybrid Technology was about the Kyoto part of the trip, and so this one will be about Hiroshima. Although I visited the Peace Park and museum in Nagasaki way back in 1999, and although I have read the first-hand account of the atomic bomb by Tamiki Hara, I was still not prepared for the emotional impact of this visit, my first to Hiroshima. It’s hard to put all the emotions I felt into words, and so I am impressed that writers who witnessed the bomb were able to write about it so quickly after the event, with incredible immediacy, honesty, circumspection, and artistry.

The museum and the memorial in Hiroshima provide a very balanced and complete history of the events that precipitated the bombing on August 6, 1945, as well as the effects of the bomb such as the radiation burns, melted flesh, and radiation poisoning, and finally also what has happened since with regards to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and efforts to disarm them. The images of the devastation and its effect on human bodies was horrifying. In addition to horror, I felt immense shame, guilt, rage, and sadness, but also hope. My students and I were so stunned and emotionally exhausted, we could barely talk to each other — some of us (including me) were struggling to choke back sobs — and we still have not really talked about it except to admit how hard it is to talk about it.

Of all that I saw and felt, two in particular stand out. First, when we arrived, we discovered an entire class of junior high students standing in front of the Children’s Peace Monument, which is also called the “Tower of a Thousand Cranes.”

Childrens Peace Memorial

Children's Peace Memorial

As the story goes, a young girl named Sadako Sasaki was exposed to the bomb’s radiation at age 2 and developed leukemia ten years later. Hearing the old story that the person who folds one thousand paper cranes will be granted a wish, she began to do so, but died before she could finish. After her death, children around the world raised money for the memorial, and elementary and junior high school classrooms continue to donate their own collections of paper cranes. And this is exactly what we witnessed — a class of children, all in uniform, standing before the monument. The teacher and several students gave moving speeches about why it was important to remember the dead and work towards world peace (at least, the speeches seemed moving, but admittedly I could only understand some of the Japanese), and then the students presented their own colorful wreath of cranes. Around the base of the monument are several containers filled with such wreaths. What is particularly moving about all this is how out of such horror and despair could arise such a spirit of hope and dedication, and I think the sculptor of the monument rightly emphasized the transcendent spirit rather than the tragedy.

Memorial Hall for the Victims

The second thing that stood out was the Memorial Hall for the Victims — in particular, the names and photographs of all the victims. The faces are all so different. Some young, some old. Some dressed in traditional garb, and some were obviously progressive and modern men and women. Most were Japanese, but many were not, as some 10% of the victims were Koreans, and some others were foreigners living there, and even some American prisoners-of-war. There were so many, each one individual and unique, all so different from each other except for one thing — all died the same way.

The next day, back in Tokyo, my students and I met with a professor at our host university who explained to us his work with UNESCO and with the United Nations University, the latter of which is based in Tokyo. My students and I will visit the university tomorrow to see this symposium on the effects of the current economic crisis on poverty and relief organizations in Africa. Both my experience in Hiroshima and what he taught my students gave me the inspiration I needed for a speech I was required to give yesterday for my host university’s 85th birthday celebration. In it, I tried to explain — first in English, and then in Japanese — why the relationship between our two universities was so important, and of course, such institutional relationships, the scholarly work that comes out of them, and the pedagogical work that goes on there every day are essential to building a peaceful world. I was worried that my students might leave Hiroshima only despairing of the inevitability of war, but the very institution that brought them to the question of Hiroshima is also part of the answer they were desperately looking for. As one of my students remarked, what was most depressing was the end of the museum when he discovered that all but two members of the United Nations had signed a disarmament agreement — and one of those two is his own country, the United States.

The title of my blog is the title of a poem by Sadako Kurihara, a poet, political activist, and survivor of America’s dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. One of her most famous poems, she wrote it in 1972 to encourage us not to use tragedies as an alibi, but to recognize both our own complicity in human suffering and our power to do something about it. In other words, when we say Hiroshima (or likewise, when we say 9/11 or Auschwitz or…), we should not imagine ourselves simply as victims without recognizing the ways we have been victimizers. Kurihara’s challenging ethos is also in one of her other most famous poem, “Let Us Be Midwives” which she wrote in September, 1945, just one month after the bomb. The question, in the face of horror and despair, is what to do and how to remain ethical. Kurihara’s poetry is an exemplary answer to that question.

May 24, 2009 Posted by | Japan | 1 Comment

Tokyo Diaries 3: the Zen of Hybrid Technology?

I just spent the past three days traveling to Kyoto and Hiroshima, and my students and I did so much in those three days that if feels like more than a week. And so, for your convenience, I’m going to split up my blog about this excursion into two posts — today I’ll write one about Kyoto, and then on Sunday I’ll write one about Hiroshima.

As my title indicates, the question I will explore in today’s blog post is the continuity and/or discontinuity between older and newer forms of Japanese culture, a question that will become obvious as I describe what we did on Tuesday.  We woke up early in the morning to subway it over to Tokyo station, got on the 6:30 a.m.  shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train), one of the fastest railroad systems in the world, traveled about 300 miles, and arrived in Kyoto just three hours later, ready to begin a tour of the city.



We left our bags at the Ryokan Hiraiwa — a ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style hotel, and Hiraiwa is both nice and inexpensive — and then walked over to the gorgeous and ancient Buddhist temple, Kiyomizu-dera. Then we took the bus up to peaceful Nanzen-ji and walked up the Philosopher’s Walk to Ginkaku-ji, also known as the Temple of the Silver Pavilion (not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, made famous for international readers of literature by Yukio Mishima’s classic novel.) In addition to showing my students two of the most lovely temples in Japan, my pedagogical goal was to illustrate the difference between two kinds of Buddhism — the more pietist Amida at Kiyomizu-dera and the more meditative Zen at Ginkaku-ji. By looking at the architecture and layout of the gardens, my students could very easily see why Zen was favored by the 15th-century samurai warrior and supported financially by the wealthy for its self-discipline and intellectualism in contrast to the the straight-forward piety of Amida that appealed to other socio-economic classes of Japanese from the 8th century and still today. It seems to me that Americans tend to idealize Zen and ignore its high-class pretentions and its historical connections to a militaristic, feudal culture.



After Ginkaku-ji and some cold refreshments on a hot afternoon, we hopped on the bus to return to our ryokan. At this moment, one of my students noticed that the engine of the bus seemed to turn off when it stopped, and we all realized that the public buses were hybrid, and then the student remarked about the contrast between the ancient temples we visited and the modern, environmentally progressive technology we used to visit them.

And my student’s question is one of the questions that has been discussed and debated by philosophers, novelists, and scholars since the end of the 19th century (including Junichiro Tanizaki, whom I mentioned in my previous blog post.) Quite a few scholars have remarked on Japan’s ability to incorporate new forms of culture, such as Buddhism in the 6th century and capitalism in the 19th, and yet still retain its own distinct identity —  a cultural hybridity of sorts. But to return to the question both my student and Tanizaki raised, how do we conceptualize this relation between old and new?

Some have argued that the new forms of economy and culture mark a radical break (or discontinuity) with the past. In other words, Zen temples and hybrid buses have nothing at all to do with each other.  But others admire the continuity of the old with the new — implying that the unusual economic success of Japan in the 1960s-1980s was due to the unique qualities of its traditional culture. So, in other words, for this view, the same culture that produced Zen discipline and samurai loyalty is also what produced the most advanced hybrid motor technology in the world.

How do we reconcile these two opposite views? Well, it just so happens (not at all coincidentally), that my students on this trip are also reading a collection of essays edited in 1993 by the highly regarded theorist and critic of globalization, Masao Miyoshi: Japan in the World. In his introduction, Miyoshi lucidly deconstructs the many contradictory views held about Japan over the past 150 years, revealing the extent to which the West’s image of Japan has more to do with the West’s own fears and desires than it does with the reality of Japan.

In the case of our own experience on this trip, it might be worth considering that all of these temples and monuments were reconstructed after World War II as part of a deliberate effort on the part of the American occupation and Japanese government to establish continuities between the past and the present. If Japan was to become America’s ally in Asia, then its exceptional cultural identity had to be emphasized and promoted. Thus, the fact that we experienced Zen temples, quaint gardens, bullet trains, and hybrid buses all together is not accidental. It takes the postmodern forms of economy and technology to maintain a particular kind of ethnocentric Japanese cultural identity.

There’s more to say about the question of continuity and discontinuity, and how our perception of continuity and discontinuity is socially constructed in a globalized political economy, but this blog is long enough, and I have to go grocery shopping — my students and some students from our host university are having a little dinner party at our dorm. For more about our trip in Kyoto, check out this blog that one of my students is doing.

May 22, 2009 Posted by | Japan | 2 Comments

Tokyo Diaries 2: My Old Legs

My students and I arrived in Japan on Tuesday; it is now Saturday night, and it has been an intensely busy past few days, with quite a lot of walking. I am exhausted; my students are exhausted. And to punctuate that exhaustion, one of them walked into the common room area of the dormitory shortly after dinner last night and announced that he had just fallen asleep while typing on the keyboard and pointed to its imprint on his forehead. So, I hope you’ll forgive me if I have nothing witty to say. We have been packing in a lot of stuff.

And I’m going to summarize that “stuff” in a moment, but before I do, I guess I should mention that I once lived in Japan — from 1997 to 1999. I visited again in 2000. And so, now in 2009, it does feel strange to be back here. Some things are the same, but it took me a while to remember how everything works and how I was able to “get by” way back then. And then some things are vastly different. For instance, this blog is obviously new … as well as things like FaceBook… ooohhh yes, the magical internet. When I first arrived just 12 years ago, I simply assumed that I wouldn’t be in frequent contact with my friends and family. I wrote — which is to say, I wrote by hand with a pen — letters once in a while, and essentially that was it. But now in the year 2009 my students are constantly on FaceBook or Skype or whatever. It’s fun to watch them posting photographs of their daily tour through Tokyo onto FaceBook, and then sharing the photographs not only with friends and family back home, but with each other. Please picture in your mind three people sitting just inches from each other, communicating simultaneously through the computer and through voice. So, obviously, in some ways, my experience 12 years ago is different as I was relatively cut off from America. But in other ways, it is the same, as the basic form of sociality for both me back then and for them right now is the institutional setting — where we go to school and/or work.

To put it another way, while new technologies certainly do lead us to new forms of social interaction, we shouldn’t get so excited about the new that we loose site of the enduring power of the old. In both my case in 1997 and their case in 2009, the school is probably what shaped our experiences the most, because it is what brought us together in the first place, and also what brought us into contact with all of the Japanese people who are helping us. To put it briefly, place matters, and history matters.

I believe that’s what the author Junichiro Tanizaki was getting at in his essay In Praise of Shadows, first published in 1933 — a book that I just recently re-read for the third time because my students on this trip are reading it. In it, he reflects on the changes to Japanese architecture and daily experience as it rapidly westernized. Through witty, idiosyncratic contrasts of East and West — starting with the difference between the shadowy, meditative space of Japanese toilets vs. the gleaming, white, antiseptic space of American ones — he reveals how our feelings are shaped by the spaces which we inhabit, move through, and depart from. He often sounds nostalgic for the past, but ultimately he is working through the past to influence Japan’s future.

So, with that sense of place in mind, I will summarize the recent activities. On Wednesday morning my students and visited the quite and restful Nezu shrine, which is just five minutes walk from our dormitory. Then our host university held a reception for us, and then we explored the local area, ending up near the Tokyo Dome baseball park and an izakaya (Japanese pub) for dinner to sample the variety of small dishes typically served in such places.

On Thursday, we woke up at the ass-crack of dawn so that we could visit the Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in the world, which is most active between 5:00 and 7:00 in the morning. We caught the very first subway at 5:04 a.m. (yes, the trains and subways here are not only frequent but always exactly on time, predictable to the minute), so we got there at 5:45, just in time to see the famous tuna auctions. I was then eager to stop in at one of the sushi places nearby for some of the freshest sushi you’ll ever find, but my students from central Minnesota didn’t quite have the stomach for that, so we walked from Tsukiji towards the Imperial Palace through the ritzy shopping district Ginza (whose name derives from the word for silver, as Ginza is where once upon a time silver coins were minted in Tokyo), which was of course all closed up at 7 in the morning. After a brief exploration of Hibiya park, the first European style park in Japan, and a brief rest at a bagel place (one of the few places that wasn’t Starbucks and that was open this early in the financial district we had wandered into), we made it over to the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace and crossed into its enormous East Garden, which remains separate from the well-guarded grounds of the emperor’s residence.

For those who have never been to Tokyo, it is a rather strange city. While the much older capital city, Kyoto, is organized clearly according to the grid pattern dictated by Buddhist and Confucian principles, the newer feudal capital of the Shogun is organized around the imperial palace.  Long ago, all roads led in to it, and the many way-stations and postal stations on those roads became their own neighborhoods — their own centers. So, in effect, what you get in Tokyo is a chain of individual town centers that circle around a big empty space. And what this feels like when you’re trying to navigate is a chaotic mess. Even the taxi drivers have a hard time finding things, and I noticed when I got here that they rely on GPS to map their routes.

All told, we probably walked several miles, so we took the subway home and took a nap so that we would be well-rested for Kabuki theater, back at the Kabuki-za in Ginza. As it turned out, we weren’t exactly well-rested enough for the dramatic arts, but we got dressed up anyway. And after three hours of feudal-era theater in a foreign language (and we really should have rented the headsets with the simulcast translation),  we met up with several Japanese students from our host university for a late dinner…. That was Thursday.

Friday, I let the students explore on their own, because I had a meeting across town with a non-profit organization whom I hoped to convince to support a media arts school in Ethiopia — Sandscribe Communications (which I mentioned in my blog here). And at meetings such as these, it always amazes me how my credentials as a professor pave the way for a whole set of interactions I couldn’t have before, even though I don’t feel all that much smarter or more knowledgeable. I think the meeting went well because during our idle chit-chat, they discovered that I am teaching a novel by Natsuo Kirino to my students, and I discovered that they have worked with her before. Our mutual admiration was a happy coincidence. Meanwhile, while I was doing that, my students decided to walk all the way to Akihabara (a.k.a. “electric city” where anything having to do with electronics can be purchased) and to nearby Ueno park, where they randomly witnessed some kind of traditional ceremony. When they got back, I took them out to dinner for some soba noodles and tempura.

Yesterday, the eight of us met up with seven Japanese students and headed over to the Asakusa neighborhood for the Sanja festival — a festival which happens once a year. We walked through many stalls selling touristy stuff and arrived just in time to see the gods taken out of the shrine and paraded around the neighborhood. Then we could eat classic festival food — yakisoba and my favorite, takoyaki (a.k.a., octopus balls.) Following that, we went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which graphically narrates the history of the town from its beginnings in the 16th century to the post-World War II era. My hope was the museum, which is interactive and excellently designed for pedagogical purposes, would give some life to the rather dry history book I assigned them to read, but they were too tired to appreciate it, and we spent only an hour there. A few  of the Japanese students came back to our dorm with us, and we made dinner… there’s more to say about that, but perhaps in another post.

Tomorrow morning, several other Japanese students will come over to take my students to the shopping districts of Shibuya and Harajuku. If you want an amusing image of Shibuya, see the music video by Camera Obscura that I blogged about a few weeks ago here. I will not participate on today’s Shibuya-Harajuku adventure  because I have other things to take care of, because I think my students can have more fun without me, because I know they will be in good hands with the Japanese students… and because I am just too tired. My old legs need a rest.

But to get back to my original point about space and history, what has most structured our activity from the beginning is the school in the United States that we came from and the school in Japan that is hosting us, as I hope you can see from the nature of our trips and from our constant interaction with our host. And for me personally, this trip is quite different from my time here ten years ago, simply because the social position I occupy this time around.

May 17, 2009 Posted by | Japan | 2 Comments

Tokyo Diaries 1: Japan vs. Swine Flu

I just arrived in Tokyo last night, with seven students for the beginning of a 17-day study-abroad adventure that I have been planning for months with my usual stressed-out inefficiency. What I didn’t plan on was Japan’s paranoia about the H1N1 virus, a.k.a. “swine flu,” and it was stupid of me not to plan on this considering that I was forewarned about it by our diligent and conscientious host here in Tokyo and considering that every other country on the planet, including my own, hs been behaving… well… batshit crazy about swine flu for the past few weeks — yes, that’s right, I said that: in my opinion, batshit crazy. Before my experience yesterday, I wasn’t going to blog about my theories about the swine flu, in part because it’s almost too easy to demystify and so not really worth the effort... and in part because my theories are even more batshit crazy.

So here’s what happened. We had to fill out a form on the plane, a form that looked like it had been typed up by a student intern at Japan’s Ministery of Health and photocopied. The English version had all sorts of strange grammar, that is common on… for instance… a Japanese students composition for 11th grade English… or a mom & pop restaurant’s attempt to include English on its menu, but really odd for a Japanese government document. One question was barely legible, but basically the whole of the document wanted all the passengers on the plane to answer the question, “might you have swine flu?” The irony of this line of questioning is who’d want to admit any symptoms and risk getting quarantined? After we landed, we had to stay in the plane and close all of the windows, and then a troop of young people with goggles, surgical masks, and plastic gloves descended upon us to review our filled-out forms passenger by passenger. Meanwhile, another man came in with what looked like a fancied-up video-cam-corder but was apparently some kind of scanner that could read our temperatures.  He walked up and down the aisles pointing it at each of us, and looking at us from behind his goggles. After they finished their sweep and collected all the forms, they discovered a problem. One form was missing. Who hadn’t turned in a form? So we all had to wait until they figured it out…. Then they handed out certificates of passing the exam, a complementary mask, and… bade us good day.

Now, before I go further, I’m going to apologize for not doing what I usually do before I post a blog — a little bit of research on the old internet. But I’m in a foreign country, the computer in the dormitory we are using is all in Japanese (which is why my formatting is messed up), and… it’s four in the bleepin’ morning. The only reason I’m even blogging right now is because of jet lag. But from what I understand, this sort of scanning has been pretty common around the world, not just in Japan. What impresses me most is how expensive this kind of surveillance and policing of national borders must be. I sat there the whole time calculating the cost: six or seven personnel… for an hour of work… for every single international flight…. And all for the flu.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for the World Health Organization policing diseases and solving medical emergencies, but I’m sure that if you read this blog you’re all knowledgeable of the data here. On average, millions of people around the world get the flu every year, and thousands die from it… and this is all everyday reality. Now in the case of swine flu in the United States, we’re talking just a few hundred cases and just two deaths, and both deaths were to people with other health problems. Certainly all death is tragic, but what makes this swine flu cause for such alarm?


I have this batshit crazy theory that wacked-out medical emergencies are ways for the public to displace their fears about other things onto more conceptually manageable problems. In fact, my research on medical discourse in the eighteenth century has uncovered this kind of metonymic displacement and metaphoric condensation going on back then: for instance, the notion of small pox vaccinations really freaked people out, and so did diseases associated with transatlantic trade.

What we have going on right now is economies around the world in recession, unemployment rates rising… and the causes of this recession seem to be somehow caused by the chaotic nature of global capitalism. In other words, bad things are happening and these things are beyond our full comprehension and our control. So, enter a conveniently named disease: swine flu. The disease would seem to me to be a metaphor for the challenges of globalization, as stock markets and job markets struggle to risk being “infected” by the sub-prime loan virus.

And so it’s not surprising that nations respond to the disease the same way they respond to the vicissitudes of global capitalism… by being nationalistic. So, the tenor of the rhetoric in Japan goes something like this: “we don’t have such health problems here in Japan; that’s a problem lesser countries have… see how diligent and careful and clean we are here… how pure.”

And how else do we explain the government of Egypt’s batshit crazy decision to ban all pork. It’s one thing when the general public confuses the cause of the disease with its name, but when a government completely ignores scientific fact, the clear and present question on everyone’s mind should be, “what the fuck?”

Now, again, I apologize since unlike in other blog posts, I’m just talking here, and I haven’t done my research, but my guess is that banning pork in Egypt is yet another case whereby the response to a disease is just as much an expression of national identity as it is an expression of legitimate medical concern… just like in Japan. (And I’m not saying it’s not a legitimate concern, just that the response seems to express something else as well.) In the case of Egypt, Muslims don’t eat pork anyway, so banning pork isn’t a policy that anyone would call “radical” for a predominantly Muslim country. Like in the United States, banning the eating of whale meat didn’t exactly bother anyone.

So, the upshot of this blog post is that medical responses to disease sometimes seem to be as much about the reproduction of national identities and the displacement of other anxieties as they seem to be about the medicine.

May 12, 2009 Posted by | Japan | 8 Comments

Found in Tranference

There are two inspirations for this post. First, an acquaintance of mine circulated on one of those “online social networks” a YouTube clip of this music video “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” by the band Camera Obscura, in which the boy and the girl dance through the shopping district of Shibuya in Tokyo for no sensible reason at all. Second, I’m going to be leading a three-week study-abroad trip in Japan this May, and since I don’t really have anything to blog about this week, I thought I’d blog about something that relates to my upcoming trip… even if the music video doesn’t really relate to my trip… or relate to anything at all.

Except maybe it does…. I’m going to try to say something immensely clever by the end of this post. What that will be, I don’t know yet. I hope you’re as excited and shaking with anticipation as I am about it. Anyway, here’s the music video, which my aforementioned acquaintance from the unnamed online social network claimed would be an “optical seducation.”

Oh, oh, so fun, so fun, indeed — a seductive frolic through color and 60’s kitsch. I’d never heard of the band Camera Obscura before, but because of the location in Shibuya, I was reminded of the movie, Lost in Translation. And if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you should. And if you don’t think you should, then it’s quite possible that you’ve got, um, you know… “issues.”

That movie came out in 2003, and the song about Lloyd came out in 2006, and so maybe the people in Camera Obscura saw the movie… but so what? Who cares that the synapses of my distrubed brain connected one thing with the other?

But here’s the thing — the thing of the two things. The two things are opposites. The music video is the reverse of the movie.

What? Is this the clever thing I promised?… Hold on.

The movie of course is about two characters — Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanson — who are “lost” even before they get to Japan, but who are even more lost in Japan where they don’t know the language or the culture. Obviously the whole “being lost” thing is a metaphor for how meaningless their lives had become before they even arrived on the scene. But they don’t realize their existential lostness until they encounter a literal lostness — similar to the TV show Lost.  (Except the literal lostness is actually the metaphorical vehical to explore their existential lostness.) Although the movie seems at first to be about their confrontation with the “other” foreign culture, we eventually realize that the real other is their own self.  I’ve written about the American fascination with Japanese otherness before [here]. Eventually Murray and Johanson become friends, come to like being in Japan… and find that their lives have meaning. In other words, they translate themselves. That is to say, it is their confrontation with otherness, with strangers, that allows them to reconcile themselves to their own internal otherness — to the fact that they had long before become strangers to themselves.

The music video “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” [lyrics]  would seem to be the total opposite. Instead of a confrontation with the other, the music video is fantasy escape into total otherness — the Shibuya skyline, the retro-60s clothing and furniture, the ecstacy, etc.  This is what Freud calls “transference” when you redirect your libidinal desires or feelings onto an idealized object. In this case, the idealized object is the metonymic symbolization of perfect happiness, and I’m using the word somewhat differently than Freud. For him, the object of transference was the doctor himself — the One who knows all,  the one who knows the secret cure. But the culture industry is in many ways a substitute doctor. And in the case of the music video, the singer longs to be the happy, skipping blond couple who seem to have some secret knowledge of the way to happiness. This is the solution to her identity, which is why she sings, “I know you can stay a girl by holding a boy’s hand.” The knowledge of this secret happiness is key, especially since the singer clearly knows that she does not know it. And in a sense, she doesn’t want to BE them at all (because who would want to, really?); she just wants to know what they know. She is “ready to be heartbroken.”

This is the secret to happiness, she believes… a secret she wants but doesn’t really want… but of course the writers of the song don’t really believe that. They are playing the standard love narrative, which soons becomes uncanny and strange, when the couple skips past the allusion to Andy Warhol’s famously postmodern Brillo boxes and we discover how completely reproducable Lloyd is. Immediately after the Brillo/Lloyd boxes we enter a Hollywood cinemascape from a 50s musical. The “boy” is, like the Hollywood romantic musical, a fabrication — a substitute for another, a constructed thing that confers identity on the girl. There is no unique “him” that is needed. Any “him” will do.

So, on the one hand we have Lost in Translation, with its fearful confrontation with otherness that leads the characters out of their psychological feeling of void. And on the other hand, we have the music video, with its desire for otherness that reminds the singer (if not also us) that her life is not the idealized one — an other that seems to be not just difference, but the big Other. The big Other with a capital O (according to Lacan) is the symbolic order that demands the subject not necessarily conform to it, but — at least — relate to IT somehow, whatever IT is, which of course we don’t really know because we only know that by holding the boy’s hand,  the girl gets some kind of status conferred upon her.

So, I’m almost done, amost done trying to sound clever. So, here’s the thing: in a sense, the music video is the flip side of the movie. What does this dialectic between two opposites teach us? Search me, I’ve lost myself.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | global, Japan, movies, race | Leave a comment

the psychology of a postmodern global hit

What makes a global hit? Certainly, there is no denying that the quality of the artwork is important, but is something appealing globally because its appeal is universal? If we think psychoanalytically, maybe we can discern some other factors besides quality and a supposed universality that make something a global hit.


As an example of what I mean, I’d like to analyze some popular videos on YouTube. Unlike artworks such as pop songs and novels, whose popularity is in many ways created by a large corporate media industry, the popularity of a video on YouTube would seem to depend purely on the tastes of ordinary people on the internet. So, in that sense, it is interesting to wonder why one YouTube video might become a huge global hit rather than another. Take a look at this video “Yatta!”  which originally appeared on a Japanese sketch comedy show “Silly Go Lucky” in 2001. The word “Yatta!” literally means “I did it!” in Japanese, usually with the connotation of “hooray!” or “yes!” It can also have the same sexual pun as “I did it” does in English. In the song, the vocalists express their happiness over shallow accomplishments (such as having a cute dog) in spite of Japan’s recession in the late 1990s.

After “Yatta!” circulated on YouTube, it became so popular that it was immitated by amateurs in the United States, France, and Sweden, and translated and performed by a pop music group in Argentina. Later, it even appeared on the TV show Heroes. You can find these by looking at the “related videos” on YouTube. Eventually the comedy group made a new video that shows its own global appeal and translates the lyrics.

What is so appealing about this parodic music video? Other blogs have speculated that perhaps the reason is because it is a feel good, motivational song. Others have appreciated how its irony so beautifully satirizes global apathy. But I wonder, is the music video a global phenomenon because of the universal way it delights in its own innocent obscenity? In my opinion, the answer to that question is no. Its supposed universality of enthusiastic apathy and excessive innocence can’t be the reason, because “Yatta!” is not only very Japanese — it’s excessively Japanese (and not especially universal.) It very deliberately and obviously parodies the Japanese cute-boy bands of the late 90s that exemplified the shallow, materialistic, pop culture malaise at the time. And so, I argue, this video became a global hit because of the world’s fetishization of Japan as an “other” — a fetishization that this video indulges.

But what was the time? Before I continue with my psychoanalytic reading of “Yatta!”, we need to follow Freud’s advice and consider the context for the song. The song actually reminds me very much of a conversation I had with a friend of mine named Hiroaki when I was living in Japan. In 1997, because of overspeculation by Japanese banks and because of the East Asian crash, Japan was experiencing a recession, similar perhaps to what the U.S. is about to experience now, and it is this event that the song Yatta! alludes to. However, two years after the “bubble” burst, in the spring of 1999, my friend Hiroaki pointed out something else entirely about the state of young Japanese white-collar workers. He observed that young people would stay at their companies until late at night only pretending to work — they knew they had to appear hard-working in order to get promoted, but they didn’t really know what they were supposed to work for. In his analysis, he explained that after the devastation of World War II, his parents’ generation worked very hard — almost neurotically hard — to rebuild their country. However, at the same time, they consciously repressed many of the other traditional social values of their country because of the deep shame they felt, shame not only at losing the war, but also shame about having started it in the first place. Consequently, Hiroaki argued, his generation came of age in a culture saturated with the pursuit of wealth but lacking any sense of meaning or social ethics beyond “getting promoted.” And this is why, perhaps, Japan was often observed to be the most postmodern nation in the world — if one defines the postmodern world as one saturated in meaningless yet recognizable signs.

What American and French theorists of the postmodern (Frederick Jameson, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, etc.) failed to notice (precisely because they were American and French and preferred to fetishize the Japanese rather than talk to any of them) is the painful repression of culture that was taking place — a repression that all Japanese were aware of, but did not know how to respond to. As the theorist Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, we are often aware of what we are repressing, but we rarely know what to do about it.

So, back to why this video has its global appeal. Consider first that it may have global appeal in part because the rest of the world loves to snicker at the shallowness of Japanese exuberance and material success. However, at the same time, we secretly recognize (as Barthes and Jameson did) that this postmodern exuberance is only the most extreme expression of our own French, Swedish, or American culture. After all, in parodying Japanese cute-boy bands, it also clearly alludes to iconography and style of The Village People. And this recognition in the Japanese other of our secret desire to be this exuberantly apathetic — our secret desire to be Japanese, to be excessively innocent (an innocence symbolized by the Edenic leaves), and to repress the shame of our own history — is the pleasure of the music video, a music video that is perhaps even more pleasurable if we do NOT know the lyrics than if we do. In other words, we know that it’s Japanese, and we take pleasure in the performance of shame. As two different Japanese friends each said privately in e-mails to me about this video, “How embarrassing!”

Let’s consider another example.  This global sensation that combined the “levan polkka” by the Finnish group Loituma with a clip from the Japanese anime series, Bleach. The character Orihime Inoue is spinning a negi, a Japanese vegetable similar to a leek. Even Public Radio Internationl was compelled to cover the story here.

The temptation, perhaps, is to assume that a music video becomes a global hit because of some “universality” or “worldly resonance with the zeitgeist” or “technical superiority” or “authentically human quality” or even just simply a “basic-ness.” And one could easily argue that the trance-like sound of Loituma’s polkka is universally basic to the human soul.

However, I want to make the same argument here that I made about “Yatta!” Few people knew about Loituma until its sounds were combined with the happy Asian leekspinning girl. It was the happy Asian leekspinning girl that made the Finnish song a global hit!!! The image of innocence that we simultaneously laugh at and desire to escape into is what gives us pleasure. And the images we select are of course almost always of foreign spaces. Why is Reggae the global music par excellance? Because of its Pan-African politics? I don’t think so. It’s a beach party, ya’ll. It’s popular now for the same reason that the Caribbean so fully captured the European imagination four hundred years ago.

March 1, 2008 Posted by | global, Japan, music | 2 Comments