Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon


War Trauma in a Comic Novel

Posted in Books,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the October 20th, 2014

There’s an unsettling moment in Sasaki Kuni‘s novel, Bonjinden (The Life of a Mediocrity、1929-30). Sasaki (1883-1964) was a celebrated humor writer, as well as a translator of Mark Twain, Cervantes, and others. I’m not aware of any English translations of his work. When I read earlier this year that Kondansha had brought out a bunkobon (pocketbook) edition of Bonjinden, I picked up a copy.

凡人伝

The hook with which the novel begins is that, although we have countless biographies of great men, we have few of mediocrities. In a mode somewhat reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse, the first-person narrator launches into an account of his schooldays, first off in the provinces where he suffers abuse from classmates for the sin of being the headmaster’s son, and then at Meiji Gakuen, a Christian mission school in Tokyo. We follow the misadventures of our anti-hero and his chums, including their crises of faith–but it’s all played for laughs. References to actual historical events allow us to place the story at around the time of the Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5.

The unsettling moment comes near the end. The hero is teaching at a school way out in the provinces where there is an elderly teacher who happens to bear the same family name as he–a telling detail. To avoid confusion, their colleagues call the protagonist “Young Kawahara” and his senior colleague “Old Kawahara.” Old Kawahara is a former soldier, a veteran of the internal warfare that erupted at the time of the Meiji Restoration. His junior colleagues at the school joke about his main claim to fame as a warrior: his heroic capture of the enemy commander’s leg.

Young Kawahara has heard his colleagues talk about this. One evening, he goes to visit Old Kawahara at his home and nudges him into telling his war stories. Old Kawahara obliges and relates how he came across the corpse of the enemy general on the battlefield. Somebody else had already taken the head, so he lopped off the leg. It’s a gruesome image, but the scene is played for laughs.

But then things get serious. Old Kawahara’s face grows dark, and he starts to tell of another battlefield incident, one that he’s never previously recounted for his colleagues. He was on patrol duty one night near Aizu, enforcing a curfew, when a beautiful young woman appeared in front of him. One of his fellow soldiers yelled out to Old Kawahara to cut her down. He tried to let the woman escape. But just as the woman turned to run away, his comrades saw what was happening and yelled out that he was a coward. In a moment of panic, Old Kawahara slashed out with his sword across the woman’s back. He later learned that it was all a misunderstanding, that the woman was an innocent bystander.

As she fell to the ground, the woman glanced back at Old Kawahara with a vengeful look that has haunted him his whole life. Decades later, he still has nightmares about the woman he killed. She was about twenty, Old Kawahara tells Young Kawahara. He’s certain that she is the reason both his own sons died at the age of twenty: she placed a curse on him so that none of the children in his family would live beyond the age of twenty.

It’s a chilling scene, unlike anything that has come before it in the novel. But soon the narrative shifts back into a comic mode. Old Kawahara has one child left, an unmarried girl who will soon turn twenty. He begs Young Kawahara to marry her immediately so that by the time she turns twenty, she will no longer be his daughter (her name will be shifted from the family registry of Old Kawahara to that of Young Kawahara) and hence will escape the curse. The whole story seems to have been a set up to trick Young Kawahara into marrying the daughter. In fact, Young Kawahara is only too willing to do so, and so the narrative reaches a happy ending.

In other words, this horrific story of traumatic war memories is used as a comic device. I can’t help but wonder how this sequence struck its original readers back in 1930. There were earlier fictional works in Japan that depicted the horrors of war, but almost always the violent scenes in them depict Japanese soldiers as the victims rather than the perpetrators of atrocities. By the late 1930s, and especially after 1945, we started to get many novels that depicted ugly battlefield incidents, including those committed by Japanese troops–but I can’t think of a work that puts such a scene to use for comic effect.

I suppose it makes a difference that the war depicted in Bonjinden is a civil war rather than a foreign war. But I still can’t quite get my mind around the way the scene is used in the novel. Did this sequence disturb readers in 1930 Japan, or did they simply fly past it without a second thought? Was the scene warning them about horrors to come, or was it preparing readers to laugh them off?

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My Viennese Summer

Posted in Art,Books,Classical,Fiction,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the September 28th, 2013

I hope that you had a good summer, wherever and however you spent it. Classes at UChicago start Monday, so let me try to recap my own summer. For me, 2013 was the summer of Vienna, in imagination and reality.

The July 31 free concert by the Grant Park Orchestra in Millennium Park helped get things started. The program consisted of a single piece: the rarely performed Symphony No. 2 by Viennese composer Antonio Bruckner. It’s a delightfully sweet composition, especially in the slow movement, and the performance on a fine summer evening captured it quite gracefully. Mentally I was already walking alongside the Danube, the Blue Danube.

Around the same time, I began my background reading: two fine cultural histories of Vienna: Frederic Morton’s A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889 (1980) and Carl E. Schorske’s Fin–de-siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (1980). From there, I moved onto Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday (1942), an elegiac memoir of the novelist’s life in Vienna that he completed in exile in South America, the day before he committed suicide. I also read Vienna Idylls, a collection of short stories by Arthur Schnitzler. It’s easy to understand why Freud loved Schnitzler: his fiction throbs with repressed desires and unspoken impulses. His characters say one thing, but clearly mean something entirely different. They think they desire one object, but obviously covet the exact opposite. Modernity in a nutshell.

On the morning of August 6, we arrived at the airport in Vienna, took the express train into the city and then the subway to Graben. The moment we emerged at the top of the escalator from the Stephansplatz underground and into the ancient plaza was stunning–as was the heat. We checked into our hotel and began a dazed four-day visit. The highlights for me were visiting Berggasse 19–the apartment where Sigmund Freud lived and worked from 1891 until 1938, when he went into exile after the Nazis took over Austria–and the Prater amusement park, home of the famous Ferris wheel. I’ve always loved carnivals and fairs (a few weeks after Vienna we made our annual pilgrimage to the Minnesota State Fair), and I especially liked Prater because it was the only time during our visit to Austria that we mingled with working class, immigrants, teen-agers: ordinary folks, out like us for a good time on a pleasant summer night.

Another highlight was the Secession museum, where we spent half an hour in the company of Klimt’s Beethoven freize.
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The Secession was also hosting an exhibit of the work of Thomas Locher, inspired by Jacques Derrida’s writings on Mauss and the gift–which have been enormously influential on my own scholarship. We had to rush through that exhibit, though, as the museum was closing. After exiting we wandered through the outdoor night market that lies just outside the museum.

In the two months since we returned from Vienna, I find myself stumbling into references to Vienna everywhere. Summer’s gone, but I’m still walking alongside the Danube.

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Upcoming Japan-related Events at the University of Chicago

Apologies for the dearth of posts recently: it’s been a busy couple of months. The coming weeks and months promise to be just as busy, with many exciting Japan-related events on the horizon here at the University of Chicago. If you’re in the area, please consider joining us for some of the following events:

March 11: William Marotti (Associate Professor, History, UCLA) will be giving a public lecture on “Perceiving Politics: Art, Protest, and Everyday Life in Early 1960s Japan” (5:00 p.m., Wieboldt 408). He’ll discuss his new book, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan (Duke University Press, 2013).

March 15-16: Remediations II: A Japan Anthro Workshop. Michael Fisch has organized this exciting event, featuring presentations by a number of up-and-coming Japan scholars. I’ll be a discussant for Panel 2: “Rethinking the War Machine: Remediations of Violence.”

April 22: 2013 Najita Distinguished Lecture in Japanese Studies with Ueno Chizuko(5:00 p.m., International House). A public lecture by the respected sociologist and influential feminist critic, one of Japan’s leading public intellectuals.

April 25-26: “The Cold War in East Asia,” a conference organized by our graduate students featuring a number of guest speakers. I’ll participate as a respondent for one of the panels.

May 10-11: “The Russian Kurosawa,” an innovative event organized by Olga Solovieva that brings together specialists in Russian literature, Japanese film, and other disciplines to reconsider Kurosawa Akira’s film adaptations of Russian literary works. The event will include free screenings of several of Kurosawa’s films.

Spring quarter will also see screenings and events surrounding the films produced and distributed by Art Theater Guild, the primary force in independent Japanese cinema during the 1970s and 80s.

October 18-20: The Association for Japanese Literary Studies Annual Meeting: Performance and Japanese Literature. The call for papers and other information are available here.

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Reading Bob Mould

Posted in Books,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the January 12th, 2013

I recently finished reading Bob Mould’s See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody. Most of the reviews I read praised the book, but complained that it focused too little on Mould’s days as leader of the seminal hardcore band Hüsker Dü and too much on his recent activities, especially his description of growing into the identity, social and sexual, of a mature gay man.

My own response was the opposite. I appreciated the chapters on Hüsker Dü–especially since they allowed me to relive a part of my youth. I never became a huge Hüsker Dü fan, but I was a year behind Mould at Macalester College, lived in the same dorm and even had one class with him (“Introduction to Sociology,” about which I remember nothing else). I remember in particular one fiery early performance by the band at a kegger in the basement of Doty dorm. I shared many of the places Mould writes about (Cheapo’s Records, Northern Lights, Ron’s Randolph Inn, Seventh Street Entry, etc.) and I knew a number of the people that show up in his story. Reading the book was a nostalgic experience, and of course it got me digging out my copies of “Flip Your Wig” and “Warehouse.”

But it was the later chapters that really fascinated me. In part the appeal came from the sympathetic insider’s account of a scene that I don’t know: Mould helped me get a feel for what everyday life is like in a different corner of the universe. Even more than that, though, I was struck by his description of what it means to grow up, to take on and live out fully the identity that one has pieced together. The book is a real anomaly: a thoughtful, fearless account of what it means for a rocker to become a middle-aged adult. We’re not all rock stars, but we all grow old, and Mould writes well about how to do that with grace, joy, and intelligence.

I am sorry, however, that he left out my favorite Hüsker Dü story. There was a thriving underground music scene in the Twin Cities circa 1982-3, and it was starting to get mainstream media attention. Local television reporters, after getting their vaccinations updated and donning protective gear, would pay hesitant visits to the subculture and report back in half-curious, half-terrified fashion about what was happening. So the mass audience learned that something was going on in the clubs of downtown Minneapolis, but the knowledge came with real anxiety. Did we have punks in Minnesota? Would they act rude and say bad words? Were they like us?

At the time WCCO-AM radio was the most mainstream of mainstream media. One of the old clear-channel stations allowed to broadcast at 50,000 watts, it dominated the airwaves. WCCO utterly owned the local radio audience ratings–at its peak, it had twice the listeners of its nearest competitor. If you grew up in Minnesota in the 1960s and 70s, like me, you can probably still remember all of the announcers, the farm reports, the Boone and Erickson comedy routines, etc. (A nice sample of air checks is available here).

WCCO’s position had begun to slip by the early 1980s, but it was still a powerhouse. One day in 1985 a WCCO deejay risked playing the latest record from the celebrated local punk band, Hüsker Dü. It was on one of the station’s afternoon shows aimed at housewives, as I recall, and the record the deejay chose to play was the cover version of “Love is All Around,” the opening theme song from the old “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” The station’s phone bank lit up: calls flooded in from around the state. People absolutely loved the record. Hüsker Dü might be punk, but by taking up the theme song from the beloved “Mary Tyler Moore Show” (set in Minneapolis and a source of immense pride for WCCO’s audience), the band showed they were part of “us.” The cover was an affectionate joke, and WCCO’s audience got it. The station ended up having to play the record over and over again during the following weeks. All over Minnesota, housewives and their preschool offspring got their first exposure to hardcore punk, all thanks to “The Good Neighbor” (the station’s promotional slogan), WCCO-AM.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part Two)

July brought many exciting developments. I was promoted to full Professor and became chair of my department at the University of Chicago. The Japanese translation of Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon came out from Byakuya Shobo. At around the same time, the discovery I helped make of some previously unknown 1950 Sacramento concert recordings by Misora Hibari, Kasagi Shizuko, Yamaguchi Yoshiko and many other Japanese singing stars became big news in Japan. I was apparently a featured item on television “wide shows” for a couple of days; I’m told that at least one of the shows introduced me with a photograph that was not actually of me. The Japanese edition of the book was well received, too; dozens of newspapers and magazines ran favorable reviews.

The whole family flew to Tokyo in late July. I spent a couple of days doing press interviews at my publishers’ offices in Takadanobaba. On July 29, Satoko and I were able to participate in one of the largest anti-nuclear demonstrations of the year, a march that started from Hibiya Park and ended up surrounding the Diet building. We celebrated the children’s birthdays up in Sendai with Satoko’s parents. With the help of a reporter from the Kyodo Tsushin wire service, I was able to get a copy of the 1950 wire recording of her Sacramento concert to 92-year-old Yamaguchi Yoshiko, who gave an interview about how delighted she was to hear it. As a result, once again I showed up in newspapers across Japan.

We returned to Chicago in early August. I recorded a segment for public radio’s “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” which was broadcast nationally later in the month (you can listen online here). We brought the whole family to a terrific play,”The Death of Harry Houdini,” at the House Theater. We ran up to Minnesota again to celebrate what would have been my father’s 75th birthday on August 15, and while there I saw another ballgame at Target Field. I also got to see one of my old favorite local bands, the Flamin’ Oh’s, play a show at Mears Park in downtown St. Paul. Back in Chicago at the end of the month, we attended the opening night “Tribute to Ella” with Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee, and Spider Saloff at the Chicago Jazz Festival. I returned again on the last day of the festival to catch stellar sets by the Steve Coleman Group and Pierre Dørge And The New Jungle Orchestra–two more favorite musical discoveries of the year.

In September things started gearing up in my new role as department chair, but on a stormy night we saw Bruce Springsteen give a fine concert up at Wrigley Field, and when the Twins swung through town early in the month I ran over to New Comiskey Park to take in a game. Late in the month I filled my car with grad students and drove to Kalamazoo for the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs meeting at Western Michigan University.

Classes started in October. I taught two seminars this past fall–one on Japanese literary discourses of “furusato” (hometown), the other on Japanese cultures of the Cold War. As usual, I learned a great deal from the students in both. Extracurricular activities slowed down as I resumed full-time teaching, of course, but I still managed to get out now and then. In early October, I saw a nice set by guitarist Wayne Krantz at Martyr’s and later in the month caught an intriguing performance by shamisen composer Kimura Shunsuke. In October, I attended the Association for Japanese Literary Studies meeting at Ohio State, reconnecting with many old friends and meeting some new ones. I also enjoyed the opportunity to make a presentation about the 1950 wire recordings at the annual Humanities Day celebration here on campus in Hyde Park.

We had a quiet Thanksgiving at home, with me preparing the turkey as usual. In December, we enjoyed a show by Leo Kottke up at SPACE in Evanston, as well as a terrific performance of Barber’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony by the CSO. I made another trip to Los Angeles to give a talk at UCLA and to film an interview about the 1950 wire recording of Misora Hibari for a television special which was broadcast in Japan on the BS-TBS network on December 7. We spent Christmas with family in Minnesota, quiet and relaxing. On Boxing Day, we went ice skating with a big group of my cousins and their children.

Later today we’ll bring our 2012 cultural calendar to a close by attending the acclaimed production of “Annie” at the Paramount Theater in Illinois: the last few years, our family has made a tradition of attending a musical in the week between Christmas and New Years. We also have tickets to see the opening night of Buddy Guy’s annual stand at his own blues club downtown later this week, and we’re off to Second City a few days after that for some comedy.

It really has been a blessed year for us: writing this up has helped remind me how lucky I am. I’m surrounded by a supportive family, wonderful friends and colleagues, students who keep me on my toes, and a city that bustles with creativity and energy. As usual, I have compiled a long list of New Years’ resolutions, but I won’t bore you with those. Suffice it to say that I am looking forward to 2013.

Let me end by wishing you joy, peace, and health in 2013. Thanks for stopping by.

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Looking Back on 2012 (Part One)

I have several projects with looming year-end deadlines. I really should be working on those this morning. Which, of course, makes this an excellent time to devote instead to an update here. 2012 is fast winding down. What kind of year was it?

A fine and memorable one, thank you. Not without its bumps and bruises, of course, but those just help remind me that I’m alive. I end the year feeling gratitude and hope.

The first half of 2012 found me on sabbatical. In early January, I flew to Seattle for the MLA convention. I saw old friends, sat in on some good panels, caught the film “The Descendants” in a cinema across from the hotel–and accepted the Scaglione Prize for the translation I co-edited of Natsume Soseki’s Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Later that month, I flew up to Ann Arbor to participate in a faculty workshop, and a week later I presented a talk at another faculty seminar at Northwestern University. The month ended with Satoko and I enjoying a performance by Westside blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater at SPACE, the little-club-that-could up in Evanston.

In February, we caught Ricardo Muti conducting the CSO in Franck’s Symphony in D minor and then, a few days later, I attended the University of Chicago Folk Festival, featuring Billy Boy Arnold. The most exciting event of the month: my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, came out from Columbia University Press. I heard many nice things about it from people–to the point that I started to worry that it must not be very good. If something you write doesn’t piss anyone off, how interesting can it be? But later I heard through the grapevine that a number of senior scholars in my field hated it. I felt reassured. In late February DePaul University hosted a fun workshop based on the book for Chicago public school teachers.

On the first day of March we watched Pierre Boulez lead the CSO in a wonderful performance of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The next morning I was off to NYC for meetings. Then on March 10-11 I co-hosted a conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who retired at the end of the 2011-12 academic year. “What March 11 Means to Me” brought together an amazing group of public intellectuals from Japan for personal and philosophical reflections on the first anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster: Amamiya Karin, Komori Yoichi, Ryusawa Takeshi, Takahashi Tetsuya, and Yokoyu Sonoko. The following week, I traveled to Toronto for the AAS annual meeting, where I chaired a roundtable discussion on the 1950 wire recordings of Japanese performers in concert in Sacramento (more on those anon).

In April, I was back in NYC for a lecture at Columbia University. While there, I saw the acclaimed revival of “Death of a Salesman” with Philip Seymour Hoffman and caught up with a few old friends. Back in Chicago, we attended a lively concert by Rodrigo y Gabriela and a fine performance by the Alvin Ailey dance company a few days later. Later in the month, I drove up to the Twin Cities to visit family and friends, catching a Twins game while there and a Beloit Snappers minor-league game on the drive home. During the month, I also finished up an article on Natsume Soseki’s conception of world literature, which appeared in the May/June issue of the Iwanami Shoten journal Bungaku.

On May Day I joined the protest march that started out from Union Park and made its way past the site of the Haymarket Massacre (the historical origin of May Day) before ending at a rally downtown. A few days later, we caught a live performance by one of my favorite musical discoveries of the year: Kids These Days. The group manages to combine rock, funk, jazz, and hip hop and make it all work; their debut album Traphouse Rock came out later in the year and was one of my favorite records of 2012.

Later in May I attended the Atomic Age II conference at Chicago. It featured a keynote address from Koide Hiroaki, one of the most important critics of Japan’s “nuclear village.” The next day, we joined a group to visit the nature preserve in the western suburbs where the remains of Chicago Piles 1 and 2 (the world’s first nuclear reactors) are buried. Later in the month we caught a surprise cameo appearance by Ray Davies at a public television benefit concert, and then I was off to Tokyo for a quick one-week visit. During that trip, I attended the May sumo tournament, met a number of scholars, visited libraries and bookstores, and stopped by an exhibit of photographs by Mike Nogami. After coming back to Chicago, I survived the NATO conference shut-down of the city, dragged the kids to the reunited Beach Boys concert at the Chicago Theater, and enjoyed a Millenium Park performance by Kelly Hogan (another key musical discovery of the year). We ended the month by catching Court Theater’s production of “Angels in America” with Larry Yando’s memorable turn as Ray Cohn.

As June began, I flew to Los Angeles to join in the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the UCLA Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies. It was lovely to catch up with old friends from UCLA, and while there I got to meet and chat briefly with one of my childhood heroes, Daniel Inouye (RIP, Senator Inouye). It turned out that he was one of the 442nd veterans involved in inviting Misora Hibari to Hawaii in 1950 for a charity concert–which led in turn to the 1950 Sacramento concert recordings. Another quick trip to Minnesota followed, and I was back home to catch the last day of the Chicago Blues Festival, including an uplifting headliner set by Mavis Staples. During June we also caught the CSO a couple times, including an eye-opening public rehearsal led by Ricardo Muti, and we visited the Roy Lichtenstein exhibit at the Art Institute. But the cultural highlight of the month was the acclaimed production of “The Iceman Cometh” at the Goodman Theater, with an ensemble cast so strong that the supposed stars, Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane, mostly just blended into the scenery.

July is when things really got busy. I’ll write about the second half of the year tomorrow. In the meantime, I really should get hopping on those year-end projects….

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This and That

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Japanese literature,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the November 10th, 2012

Apologies for the lack of updates these last two months. Not only have I returned to teaching from my sabbatical, I’ve also become department chair. Life is busy, in other words–but it keeps me off the streets.

This has come up rather suddenly, but I’ll be giving a talk at UCLA next week (Friday, November 16) on “Tokyo Boogie Woogie in California: The 1950 Sacramento Recordings in Japanese and Japanese-American Cultural History” (details available here). In the presentation, I’ll introduce the collection of 1950 concert recordings of Japanese musicians (Misora Hibari, Kawada Haruhisa, Yamaguchi Yoshiko, Watanabe Hamako, Kasagi Shizuko, among others) that I helped authenticate and that were in the news in Japan this past summer (see, for example, here and here). The man who discovered the recordings has now donated the entire collection to the UCLA library. While in Los Angeles, I’ll also be filming an interview for a television special about the recordings that will air later this year. I’ll post details about broadcast times when they become available.

I was also recently a guest on the NPR radio program “To the Best of our Knowledge,” talking about my book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop. You can listen to or download my segment here. And don’t forget about the online companion for the book that I’ve put together: I’ve heard from a few people who are teaching the book this all that the webpage was very useful.

The Japanese translation of the book continues to do very well, with nice reviews coming out in many magazines and newspapers (for example, here and here).

In the meanwhile, I am moving on to other scholarly projects: co-editing a two-volume series of new scholarly essays and translations related to early postwar Japanese literary criticism, finishing up a translation of Karatani Kojin’s magnum opus The Structure of World History (Sekaishi no kozo), and returning to a longstanding project that involves rethinking Natsume Soseki in relation to the problems of modern property regimes and world literature.

I’ll try to blog here a little more regularly in the coming months, too. It keeps me off the streets–the wild, wild streets.

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Wish I’d Had These Books in Hand Back Then

Posted in Books,J-Pop,J-Rock,Jazz,Music by bourdaghs on the July 19th, 2012

I finished writing my book Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop in late 2010. Chapter Five, on 1970s New Music, was the last one I worked on; the other chapters were mostly finished (and published separately as articles and chapters) years before that. I was able to make a few last-minute revisions in the summer of 2011, but for the most part my work on the book was finished in 2010. Since then, several important new books have appeared in Japan. I wish I’d had these available to me when I was doing the research for the project. They would have not only made my job easier, they would have made the book better.

Sakoguchi Sanae’s (砂古口早苗) Bugi no joo: Kasagi Shizuko (『ブギの女王・笠置シヅ子』) (Gendai Shokan, 2010) is the first biography of Kasagi Shizuko, Japan’s early postwar “Queen of Boogie Woogie” (excluding a quickie autobiography that Kasagi published in 1948, which I do cite in the book). It includes many photographs and a useful chronology of Kasagi’s life. Sakoguchi’s book fills a definite need: I wonder why it took so long for someone to write up the remarkable story of Kasagi’s life?

Ue o muite aruko (『上を向いて歩こう』)(Iwanami Shoten, 2011) by Sato Go (佐藤剛) is another long-overdue study, this one on Sakamoto Kyu’s 1963 worldwide hit, “Sukiyaki,” which I take up in my chapter three. There are several other books out about Sakamoto’s life, which I cited, but this is the first book-length study to focus on the cultural repercussions of Sakamoto’s global smash, both inside and outside of Japan. Like me, Sato is interested in Sakamoto’s relation to contemporary Western popular music, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

Yuasa Manabu (湯浅学)is a prominent music critic in Japan–and one of the participants, along with Hagiwara Kenta, in the taidan dialogue that was included in the Japanese translation of my book. Ongaku ga orite kuru (『音楽が降りてくる』 (Kawada Shobo Shinsha, 2011) is a collection of his articles and liner notes. It opens with a series of essays on 1970s New Music (Happy End, Hosono Haruomi, Endo Kenji, etc.), including the “rock in Japanese” debate that I write about. The other chapters range widely across genres and styles: Misora Hibari, Nakajima Miyuki, Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, etc.

Wajima Yusuke’s (輪島裕介) Tsukurareta ‘Nihon no kokoro’ shinwa (『創られた「日本の心」神話』)(Kobunsha Shinsho, 2010) is a critical history of postwar Japanese popular music centered on the genre of enka. The winner of the Suntory Gakugeisho book prize, it starts off with a question I explore in my own book: was Misora Hibari really an enka singer?

All of the above are highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject. When I started studying the history of Japanese popular music back in the late 1990s, I was shocked by the paucity of reliable scholarship on the topic available in Japan. As the above titles suggest, the situation has improved considerably since then, and I think it will continue to get better as writers and scholars in Japan continue to reassess the crucial legacy of music in Japan’s modernity.

If you know of any other useful recent studies of Japanese popular music, please drop a line in the “Comments” section.

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Revisiting Dodsworth

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Fiction,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the June 17th, 2012

My father was raised in Minnesota during the 1940s and 50s. This predated the rediscovery of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and so Sinclair Lewis, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for Literature, was the celebrated hometown author. I remember visiting Lewis’s boyhood home in Sauk Centre during a family vacation in the late 1960s and I can vividly picture the squat pocket-sized editions of Lewis’s novels in Dad’s bookshelf: Babbit, Main Street, Elmer Gantry, Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers….

I read them all as a teenager. I was particularly struck then by Dodsworth (1929). It was likely the very first rendition of the jaded-American-reawakens-in-Europe plot I ever encountered, and it seemed quite brilliant to me at the time.

Sinclair Lewis’s stock has fallen considerably in the last few decades. It had been many years since I read him, but this summer I picked up (more precisely, downloaded) a copy of Dodsworth. I returned to it after this long absence with a sense of curiosity: would it still speak to me as powerfully as it did when I was sixteen?

The answer: yes. The novel feels dated in places. There is a misogynistic tinge to the portrayal of Fran, Dodsworth’s narcissistic wife, and there is some gay-bashing and some discomfiting ethnic stereotypes–though not as cringe-inspiring as in many other works from the period.

But the novel also includes much deft, sly writing–not something I usually associate with Lewis. Here is his description of Sam Dodsworth’s first encounter with the woman who will become his wife, at a party in 1903:

If she was an angel, the girl at whom Sam was pointing, she was an angel of ice: slim, shining, ash-blonde, her self-possessed voice very cool as she parried the complimentary teasing of half a dozen admirers; a crystal candle-stick of a girl among black-and-white lumps of males.

What really strikes me, though, is Lewis’s portrayal of his hero Dodsworth, a type of man that Lewis must have despised.

Samuel Dodsworth was, perfectly, the American Captain of Industry, believing in the Republican Party, high tariff, and so long as they did not annoy him personally, in prohibition and the Episcopal Church. He was the president of the Revelation Motor Company; he was a millionaire, though decidedly not a multimillionaire; his large house was on Ridge Crest, the most fashionable street in Zenith; he had some taste in etchings; he did not split many infinitives; and he sometimes enjoyed Beethoven. He would certainly (so the observer assumed) produce excellent motor cars; he would make impressive speeches to the salesmen; but he would never love passionately, lose tragically, nor sit in contented idleness upon tropic shores.

The verb “to bully” appears repeatedly in the novel, usually with Dodsworth as its subject. We follow this unpromising personality, who “was extremely well trained, from his first days in Zenith High School, in not letting himself do anything so destructive as abstract thinking,” as he loses his position after selling his company and as he confronts his own utter loss of identity: “He had no longer the dignity of a craftsman. He made nothing; he meant nothing; he was no longer Samuel Dodsworth, but merely part of a crowd vigorously pushing one another toward nowhere.”

We plumb the depths with Dodsworth and experience the despair of his middle-age crisis. We watch his marriage disintegrate. But then we gradually float back to the surface with him, as he reawakens to the joy and possibilities of life, thanks in large measure to the “contented idleness” he enjoys during a sojourn amidst the humane culture and earthy landscape of Naples. Lewis depicts Dodsworth’s decline and rise with remarkable sympathy, complexity, and good humor. We can’t help but like this Dodsworth, for all his bullheaded dundering.

It is a novel, finally, about a bully’s redemption. How many of those do we have?

Takahashi Tetsuya on Fukushima and Okinawa: Japan’s “Sacrificial” System

Posted in Books,Current Events by bourdaghs on the June 2nd, 2012

Takahashi Tetsuya (University of Tokyo) is one of contemporary Japan’s leading philosophers and public intellectuals. I’ve just finished reading his most recent book, Gisei no system: Fukushima Okinawa (The sacrificial system: Fukushima and Okinawa; Tokyo: Shueisha, 2012). It builds on Takahashi’s earlier work on the postwar Japanese social system as one grounded in systematic sacrifices and scapegoating. In other words, Takahashi finds in both Fukushima and Okinawa paradigms for the problematic structure of postwar Japanese society.

Here’s how Takahashi defines a “sacrificial system”:

In a sacrificial system, the profit of one person (or persons) is obtained and maintained through a sacrifice in the living conditions (life, health, everyday life, property, respect, desires, etc.) of another person (or persons). The profit of the sacrificer cannot be obtained or maintained without the sacrifice of the sacrificed. This sacrifice is ordinarily either repressed from view or aestheticized and legitimated as a “noble sacrifice” carried out for the sake of the community (sate, nation, society, company, etc.) (my translation, e.g., p. 185)

Takahashi, who was raised in Fukushima, traces the ways this insidious logic led to the concentration of nuclear power plants in rural areas such as Fukushima, as well as to the concentration of U.S. military bases on the small province of Okinawa. Each is an instance of a kind of colonization, he argues, and each has been recently aestheticized and praised by national politicians as a kind of “noble sacrifice” carried out for the benefit of the nation.

Takahashi is particularly good at tracing out the complexities of responsibility that lie behind the still-unfolding nuclear disaster in Tohoku. No one is completely innocent here, not even residents of Fukushima prefecture, and yet some people–particular those politicians, bureaucrats, scientists and industry leaders who formed Japan’s now-notorious “nuclear energy village”–bear particularly deep responsibility for the disaster.

In one particularly interesting chapter, Takahashi unpacks the ethical implications of statements by such figures as Tokyo governor Ishihara Shintaro claiming the 3/11 disaster was “divine punishment.” Takahashi sees such claims as forming a particular kind of ideological obfuscation. He reads them in relation to earlier statements by the Christian intellectual Uchimura Kanzo writing in response to the 1923 Tokyo Earthquake and Nagai Takashi responding to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

As Takahashi unpacks the logic of the sacrificial system, he never loses sight of the pressing ethical demand it posits. We can’t simply mourn the victims or celebrate the beauty of their sacrifice (as Takahashi notes, this was the dominant tone in coverage both in Japan and abroad of the workers who remained inside the Fukushima complex during the disaster, trying frantically to try to bring it under control). Fukushima and Okinawa instead demand that the sacrificial system as a whole must be dismantled.

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