Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

March 11: One Year Later

Posted in Current Events,Japanese film,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the February 29th, 2012

Next week marks the first anniversary of the March 11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. In recent days, we’ve been learning that the situation was in fact far more dire than the government or Tokyo Electric were willing to admit at the time. It’s come out recently that the Japanese government was even considering an unthinkable scenario: evacuation of Tokyo. The New York Times:

in the darkest moments of the nuclear disaster, Japanese leaders did not know the actual extent of damage at the [Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power] plant and secretly considered the possibility of evacuating Tokyo, even as they tried to play down the risks in public.

Just today, a newly issued scientific report concludes that the total amount of radiation released into the ocean near Fukushima was likely much greater than previously estimated. The Asahi Shinbun:

A mind-boggling 40,000 trillion becquerels of radioactive cesium, or twice the amount previously thought, may have spewed from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant after the March 11 disaster, scientists say. […] The figure, which represents about 20 percent of the discharge during the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is twice as large as previous estimates by research institutions both in Japan and overseas.

The disaster touched our own family in many ways. My wife was born and raised in Sendai, a city in the center of the affected region. I have lived there on three different occasions. In the early morning hours of March 11 last year, we watched in horror live pictures of the tsunami sweeping over neighborhoods that we know well. Fortunately, none of my in-laws were injured or killed. We did lose some very dear friends, though. And in the year since, we have watched old classmates, colleagues, and friends cope with the loss of children, spouses, parents. Their resilience has been nothing short of astonishing.

We are marking the anniversary with a number of events here at the University of Chicago. Earlier in the year, we hosted an exhibit of photographs from the region, highlighting the scale of the disaster and the enormous energy that has gone into the rescue and recovery efforts. (The same exhibit will be on display at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, March 4 through April 15: details here.)

On March 9 (7:30 p.m., Coulter Lounge in International House), we’ll host a free public screening of an acclaimed new documentary, “Fukushima: Memories of a Lost Landscape” (『「相馬看花」-奪われた土地の記憶』) with director Matsubayashi Yojyu in attendance. Details are available here.

Then, on March 10-11 we’ll host a major conference in honor of my colleague, Norma Field, who will be retiring from the university this summer. “What March 11 Means to Me: A Symposium in Honor of Norma Field” will feature five prominent public intellectuals and activists from Japan, each speaking on the personal and pubic dimensions of the disaster and its ongoing impact. The line-up of speakers is simply amazing:

  • Amamiya Karin: a prominent activist in the “precariat” and anti-nuclear movements

    Komori Yoichi: scholar of Japanese literature and leader of the movement to preserve Article 9

    Ryusawa Takeshi: former editor-in-chief of Heibonsha, one of Japan’s most important publishing houses

    Takahashi Tetsuya: a native of Fukushima and one of Japan’s leading scholars of ethics and philosophy

    Yokoyu Sonoko: a well-known clinical psychologist and advocate for children’s rights

  • A schedule for the event and profiles of the participants can be found here.

    Finally, on May 5 we will be hosting “Atomic Age II: Fukushima,” with two very special guests from Japan: Koide Hiroaki of the Kyoto University Reactor Research Institute, a scientist who became something of a public hero for his willingness to speak frankly about the risks of nuclear power, and Muto Ruiko, an activist in anti-nuclear citizen movements from Fukushima. Details are available here.

    Remarkable progress has been made in recovery over the past year. People from the region I’ve talked to express deep gratitude for the support they’ve received from around the world. But the disaster continues: rebuilding efforts in the tsunami-affected region have barely begun, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster is still unfolding, despite glossy governmental declarations that the situation is under control. Shutting down the reactors and decontaminating the area will take decades. It will take many years to assess the real human cost, too: I dread thinking about what rates of cancer incidence in the region will look like six or seven years from now.

    I hope you can join us for some of these events. Please keep the people of Tohoku in your thoughts. One way we can help is to make sure that we all learn the lessons that the disaster is trying to teach us.

    Detroit Metal City

    Posted in J-Pop,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the February 26th, 2012

    This 2008 film came up in a discussion yesterday following a workshop I led at DePaul University for K-12 teachers on using Japanese popular music in the classroom. I did a little web surfing after getting home and learned that it is now available on DVD in North America.

    It’s a funny, cartoonish (not surprising, since it’s based on a successful manga) movie about a sensitive singer-songwriter (Matsuyama Ken’ichi) who wants only to record sunny Shibuya-kei style ballads about love and trendy Tokyo lifestyles, but who ends up trapped as lead singer for a death metal band. His fans worship him as the spawn of Satan, but all he cares about is trying to win over the squeaky clean girl (Kato Rosa) he’s had a crush on since college. Gene Simmons turns in a nice cameo appearance as the legendary American death metal icon who challenges our hero to a final showdown for supremacy.

    Everything is played in a silly, over-the-top manner, dulling the emotional impact when it tries to go sentimental at the end. But the pop and metal songs are fun, affectionate parodies of the two genres. Around the time the movie came out in Japan, they actually released CDs purporting to be music by the fictional bands from the film.

    Mark Schilling’s review for the Japan Times is available online here. Here’s a trailer for the film:

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    Re-Staging “101st Proposal” in the Edo Period?

    Posted in J-Drama,J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the February 23rd, 2012

    As unlikely as it may seem, the hit 1991 Fuji Television series 101st Proposal (see chapter six in my Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon) is being revived next month as a stage play in Fukuoka. Takeda Tetsuya and Asano Atsuko will revive their roles from the original series–but the story is being reworked into a jidaigeki: a samurai drama set back in the Edo period.

    The Asahi newspaper reports (Japanese-language only) the play will run at the Hakata-za theatre in Fukuoka, March 2-28, with possible runs in Tokyo and elsewhere to follow. No word on whether the piece will include a shamisen version of the theme song from the show, Chage & Aska’s “Say Yes.”

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    Now Available: Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon–The Book

    Posted in Books,J-Pop,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the February 20th, 2012

    My new book, Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon: A Geopolitical Prehistory of J-Pop, has just been published by Columbia University Press. It’s available in paperback through your local neighborhood bookstore, and there’s also a Kindle e-book version. Readers in Japan can order it through You can also order it directly from the publisher here.

    Stay tuned: I’ll soon be adding a web feature over at including sound samples and other online resources relevant to the book.

    Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here’s Kasagi Shizuko (the heroine of chapter one) performing her signature number, “Tokyo Boogie Woogie”:

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    Second City in Japan Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Osaka

    Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the February 16th, 2012

    The Chicago Tribune is reporting this morning that Second City, Chicago’s legendary comedy improv theater (originally founded by University of Chicago students back in the day), has signed an agreement with Yoshimoto Kogyo, one of Japan’s oldest and largest entertainment management firms (whose origins, incidentally, are in Osaka), to open an improv school and theater in Tokyo.

    According to Aki Yorihiro, the CEO of Yoshimoto Kogyo’s U.S. operations, the time is ripe for such a move. “We have very strong comedy schools in Tokyo and Osaka,” Yorihiro said, “but the style of comedy is our own style. There is no improv-based training in Japan.”

    The new partnership is being worked out in phases, beginning with the school this summer. Yorihiro said that the whole notion of Second City will be introduced to the Japanese public by a TV documentary, to be filmed in Chicago this spring. By the fall, he said, the goal is to have the professional company in place, followed by a permanent resident show in Tokyo.

    Will manzai survive the challenge of the improv Black Ships? Next thing you know, there’ll be a McDonald’s and a Starbucks on every corner in Japan.

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    Rockin’ Out in Pyongyang

    Posted in Current Events,Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the February 13th, 2012

    Everyone else is sharing this recent video, so I suppose I should follow suit. Here’s a North Korean accordion band turning in a fine rendition of a-ha’s “Take on Me.”

    For fun, here’s a piece I originally posted here in October 2009 about my own East Asian encounter with a-ha:

    Newspapers in the West and in Japan are reporting that the Norwegian rock group a-ha have announced they will disband next year after a farewell concert in Oslo. Back in 1985, they had one of the first really cool MTV videos with “Take On Me,” and they’ve soldiered on since. Remembered here in the States as primarily a one-hit wonder, they’ve always had a solid following in Japan.

    In 1987, my wife worked briefly at the front desk of the Plaza, one of the best hotels in Sendai. It was where touring musicians usually stayed when they passed through town for a show. A friend of mine used to own a ramen shop in front of the Plaza, and his walls were lined with signed photographs of pretty much every artist you can imagine, Japanese or Western, who had dropped in for a late night snack after the show. One of my favorite stories about his shop is the night Bob Dylan stopped by–and the high school kids working the late shift behind the counter didn’t recognize him.

    Anyhow, in 1987 I was going to stop by the Plaza one evening to pick up Satoko after work and take her out for dinner. I get to the hotel and see maybe a hundred teen-age girls milling around outside, as well as a handful of police officers keeping an eye on the crowd. That’s when I remember that a-ha are in town for a concert that night. It’s kind of fun, I think.

    So I keep walking toward the front entrance of the hotel. Suddenly there’s a stirring in the crowd and I realize: here I am, blonde, tall, moderately handsome, and about the same age as the guys in the band (in fact, I was born the same week as guitarist Paul Waaktaar-Savoy). Every teen-age girl in the crowd has spotted me and I can feel them wondering: is he one of them?

    The moment lasts for maybe three seconds. Then, all at once, everyone realizes that I’m just an ordinary bloke. I continued on my way into the hotel, picked up Satoko, and we had a lovely dinner. But for a few seconds there, it was a-ha and me.

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    The Current Reading List

    Posted in Books,Fiction,Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the February 3rd, 2012

    Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860). One of my current reading projects is to catch up on Turgenev, whose work was enormously influential on Meiji Japan. This novel, for example, is cited repeatedly in Tayama Katai’s “Futon” (1907), a landmark in modern Japanese fiction. I can see the attraction On the Eve held for Japanese writers: the bold and beautiful heroine Elena, the lamentations over the weakness of Russian men (the hero is a foreigner, a dashing Bulgarian nationalist eager to die for his country), and the wry social commentary that dots the narrative. The story ends rather mysteriously, though there is a suggestion of hope in the air, as the work’s title suggests. I read the classic Constance Garnett translation, first published in the 1890s: it’s probably the same version that Tayama Katai knew.

    Rabindranath Tagore, The Home and the World (1916). Tagore’s another writer I’m catching up with, in part because I’m interested in reading him alongside his contemporary, Natsume Soseki. This one contains many Soseki-like themes: multiple narrating voices, a love triangle in which two men compete for the same woman, disputes over family property accompanied by fears of treachery and theft, with all of this personal drama played out against a social field of dramatic change and discontinuity. Tagore’s understanding of the double-edged erotics of nationalist passion is prescient: here, the desire for fraternity can shift registers in an instant to become bloodthirsty rage. The translation (by the author’s nephew, with close attention from Tagore himself) feels creaky in places, but that might say more about my limitations as a reader of Bengali fiction than it does about Tagore’s talents as a novelist. If you’re interested in this book, by the way, you should catch “Last Harvest: Paintings of Rabindranath Tagore,” a fine exhibit of Tagore’s visual art from the 1920s and 30s, on now at the Art Institute of Chicago through April 15, 2012.

    Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn (2010). My father died in late 2010; this was the last book he read. Frustrated for years by a brain injury that impaired his memory and mobility, Dad had a hard time following complicated narratives, but this epic novel of the Vietnam War cut straight through the cognitive fog to reawaken the passionate reader in my father. He devoured this repeatedly in the last months of his life and it was all he wanted to talk about. Dad had a lifelong connection to the military stretching from the late 1950s, when he enlisted as a teenager in the Minnesota National Guard and then the U.S. Army, to his retirement from the Veterans Administration in the late 1990s, where he counseled ex-soldiers suffering from PTSD. In other words, he’d lived his life alongside the sort of people depicted in the novel, even though Dad never served in Vietnam. I’m about halfway through the book now. In some ways a conventional war narrative (we accompany a heterogeneous group of soldiers through a series of increasingly dangerous missions, each member of the band representing a different socioeconomic, ethnic, and regional type), it is a gripping narrative, its impact aided by the knowledge that it is based on the author’s own experiences in the war.

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    Counterfeiting China in 1930s Japan Pop Songs

    Posted in J-Pop,Music by bourdaghs on the February 2nd, 2012

    An article I wrote about “continental melodies,” a 1930s genre of pop songs from Japan that mimicked China and Korea, has just been published. Taking their cue as much from Tin Pan Alley Orientalism as from contemporary “Yellow Music” on the continent, these seductive tunes enjoyed massive popularity in Japan during the early years of its war with China.

    My essay, “Japan’s Orient in Song and Dance,” is included in the volume Sino-Japanese Transculturation: Late Nineteenth Century to the End of the Pacific War (Lexington Books, 2011), edited by Richard King; Cody Poulton and Katsuhiko Endo. In it, I try to rethink the genre through the lens of recent cultural studies work on American black-face minstrel shows. Here’s how I set up my interpretation of the genre:

    Here, I take up a popular music genre that was closely associated with Ri Kōran [an enormously popular wartime Japanese singer and actress who “passed” as Chinese], but which aimed at a subtly different effect. I will look at three singers in particular: Watanabe Hamako, on whose hit song the movie Shina no yoru was based; Hattori Tomiko, who played a Japanese woman in that same film (for which her brother Hattori Ryōichi composed the score); and Kasagi Shizuko, who as Ryōichi’s protégé would emerge in the postwar era as the Japanese Queen of Boogie Woogie but who began her recording career a decade earlier. All three recorded tairiku merodei (大陸メロディ, continental melodies), a genre that enjoyed enormous popularity in the years following the 1937 Marco Polo Bridge incident. These songs incorporated Orientalist elements, both musically and lyrically, to signal fantasy forms of Chineseness. Moreover, Hamako and Tomiko in particular would sometimes appear in Chinese dresses with Chinese hairstyles and all three would occasionally sing phrases in Chinese. Hamako even recorded cover versions of Chinese songs. Despite these Orientalist flourishes, though, no one would ever mistake these singers for Chinese. Their performances included elements believed to be Chinese, but unlike Ri Kōran they made no attempt to “pass.” In fact, a large part of the enjoyment of their performed Chinese-ness lay in the unmistakable fact that the singers were Japanese. In other words, these performers engaged in a game of masquerade, and their songs produced pleasure by openly acknowledging their counterfeit status. What sort of Japan-China relationship did this genre of explicitly counterfeit culture entail?

    You can watch Watanabe Hamako, the “Queen of Continental Melodies” perform her signature number “Shina no yoru” (China Nights, 1938) here.  You can also listen to jazz singer Kasagi Shizuko’s delirious “Hotto Chaina” (Hot China, 1939) here. And let me leave you with a contemporary performance by Hattori Tomiko of her 1938 hit “Manshu Musume” (Manchurian Girl), with Tomiko decked out in full Orientalist trimming:

    The Occupation That Never Ends

    Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the February 1st, 2012

    The top story on tonight’s NHK 9:00 p.m. news (following a breaking report about an avalanche in Akita Prefecture) was of the latest outrage from Okinawa. The Japanese government, supposedly the representative of the will of the people, has been caught trying artificially to manufacture that will. Over the last two days, repeated acts of interference by the Tokyo government in local Okinawan elections have come to light. The Japan Times:

    A senior Defense Ministry official came under suspicion Wednesday of not only trying to tamper with the upcoming mayoral election in Ginowan but taking similar action in 2010 for a vote in Nago — the two cities in Okinawa deeply connected to the controversial relocation of the Futenma U.S. air base.

    (Read the rest of the story here).

    Given the ugly history of American and Japanese manipulation of Okinawa, this is hardly surprising. Neither Tokyo nor Washington is willing to admit what has become obvious: the U.S. military occupation of Japan’s southernmost prefecture needs to end. People on the political left were the first to realize this. For example, in a recent update published on Japan Focus: The Asia-Pacific Journal, Gavan McCormack, Sakurai Kunitoshi, and Urashima Etsuko recap recent developments in the attempt to force Okinawans to accept a highly unpopular proposal to relocate the Futenma air base to the environmentally delicate Henoko coast.

    It seems that folks on the political right are also starting to see the light. Last week, Doug Bandow, Senior Fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and a former Reagan administration official, published “Give Okinawa Back to the Okinawans” in that radical rag, Forbes:

    Rather than resist Okinawan demands, the U.S. should voluntarily reduce its military presence on the island. Jeffrey Hornung of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies observed: “Given how much problems this is causing in Okinawa, it’s finally time to rethink things.” […] The U.S. should end its security guarantee and then remove, rather than relocate, its military facilities in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan. Indeed, instead of augmenting its forces elsewhere in East Asia, such as in Australia, Washington should withdraw and demobilize troops and close bases throughout the region. World War II ended 67 years ago. America no longer need guarantee the security of its many prosperous and capable allies.


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