Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

Black Friday

Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the May 28th, 2010

The aftershocks of the Hatoyama cabinet’s capitulation today on the relocation of U.S. bases in Okinawa will continue for some time. Social Democratic Party leader Fukushima Mizuho, who had been Minister of Consumer Affairs, was fired by Hatoyama this evening for refusing to sign the cabinet statement accepting the proposal to move the Futenma Air Force base from the center of Ginowan City (where it poses serious safety and enviornmental risks) to Henoko near the existing Camp Schwab. Hatoyama had pledged in the election campaign last year to revise that plan to lessen the burden on Okinawa, but has now reneged on that promise. The flip-flop has sent his support ratings down into territory last seen in the waning days of the George W. Bush presidency.

It’s a terrible decision–bad, of course, for the people of Okinawa, which comprises less than 1% of the territory of Japan yet hosts two-thirds of the American troops stationed in the nation. Bases take up 11% of the prefecture’s land, and after a half century of actual and virtual military occupation, people there are completely fed up and just want the bases shut down. But it’s also a terrible decision for Japan and the U.S. The attempt to continue the untenable status of Japan as an American client state will lead to a huge drain on the Japanese budget (Japan pays most of the cost of the U.S. bases located on its soil), to resurgent right-wing nationalism in Japan, and to further U.S. entanglement in neo-imperial imbroglios across East Asia. In the long term, this decision weakens the U .S.-Japan alliance, and it bolsters anti-American sentiment in Okinawa, Japan, and elsewhere.

The whole fiasco reminds me of the 1994-96 Murayama cabinet. After decades of conservative LDP rule, the Japan Socialist Party finally took over the reins of power–and its only significant accomplishment was to implement the regressive national sales tax proposal that the LDP had been unable to push through on its own. Hatoyama’s DJP cabinet seems to have repeated the favor, finishing up the dirty work to implement the unpopular relocation plan originally foisted by the LDP.

There are perhaps two silver linings in this dark cloud. First, the Social Democratic Party (the molehill that’s left of the JSP after that Murayama fiasco) has actually stood up for its principles and may perhaps start rebuilidng itself as a progressive voice in Japanese politics (provided, that is, it carries through with its threat to withdraw from the cabinet). Second, it should be increasingly clear to all now that what is needed is a long-term plan to close all U.S. bases in Okinawa. WWII is over, the Cold War is over, and the end of the American occupation of Okinawa is long overdue.

[Updated on 30 May 2010: At Japan Focus, Gavan McCormack has just published an important three-part article on the past fifty years of the U.S./Japan security relationship. You can read part one, including links to the remaining installments, here.)

Engaging Commodities: The Photographs

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the May 25th, 2010

The good folks at Altamira Pictures and Altamira Music, who manage The Golden Cups, have posted a series of photographs from the Cups’ visit to Chicago and our conference this past weekend, including some nice shots of Alan Merrill as well. They promise to post more in the near future, too. Check it out here.

[Update on 29 May 2010: And here are some more photos; see if you can spot me….]

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Engaging Commodities, Day 2

Posted in Art,J-Pop,Japanese film,Music by bourdaghs on the May 23rd, 2010

Yesterday was the second and final day of the conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art.” We began in the morning with a panel on “Engaging Cinematic Commodities,” with papers from Junji Yoshida (University of Chicago postdoctoral fellow) on the ways wartime memories were commemorated via jokes in 1960s popular films, Stephanie DeBoer (Indiana University) on the flows of people, technologies and forms between Tokyo and Hong Kong in the musical film genre, and Richard Davis (University of Chicago graduate student) on the depiction of advertising, both visual and aural, in 1960s film.

After lunch, we had a panel on “Radical Visual Culture in 1960s Japan” with Jonathan Hall (Pomona College) situating Okabe Michio’s remarkable 1968 film Crazy Love in dialogue with Susan Sontag’s writings on camp, William Marotti (UCLA) on the significance of early 1960s avant garde musical performances by the Group Ongaku, and Miryam Sas (University of California-Berkeley) on a variety of experimental animated films from the period.

Our last panel covered “Music in Film,” with Daniel Johnson (University of Chicago graduate student) looking at changing modes for representing romance/sex and sentiment/irony in Nikkatsu action films, Michael Raine (University of Chicago) discussing how we might rethink the practices of reading that 1960s popular films seem to suggest as their proper modes of use, and Junko Yamazaki (University of Chicago graduate student) on the use of avant garde musical forms in the film soundtracks composed by Mayuzumi Toshiro.

The conference ended with a screening of the remarkable 1964 Toho musical, Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru (You too can get ahead!, dir. Sugawa Eizo), a marvelous film that brings together many of the themes we had been talking about over the course of the conference. It was a stimulating, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting two days, and I’m grateful to all of the participants and to all of my colleagues for making it possible.

Here’s a trailer for Kimi mo shusse ga dekiru:

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Engaging Commodities, Day 1

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the May 22nd, 2010

Our conference, “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art” got off to an exhilarating start yesterday. In the afternoon, we had our first panel, “Popular Music as Engaged, Popular Music as Commodity.” James Dorsey (Dartmouth) spoke on how the censorship of protest folk singer Okabayashi Nobuyasu actually generated new opportunities for creative agency on the part of musicians, audiences, and the music industry. Christine Yano (University of Hawaii) presented on the great enka diva Misora Hibari as a figure of “jet set culture,” in whose work a musical cosmopolitanism existed in tandem with an increasing sense of cultural nationalism. Michael Molasky (Hitotsubashi University) explored the changing meaning of “jazz” in Japan from the late 1950s through the 1960s, especially with an eye toward the rise of the “jazu kissa” (jazz coffeehouse) as a crucial institution in the rise of the “modern jazz” of such figures as Miles Davis and Art Blakey.

The evening program began with a talk session with musician Alan Merrill, who was active in Japan from 1968 to 1974. He told remarkable stories about his days with the Group Sounds band The Lead, as a solo performer under the management of the all-powerful Watanabe Pro agency, and as the founder of the pioneering glam rock band Vodka Collins. He wrapped up his presentation with a terrific acoustic set of some of his best-known compositions, playing “Sands of Time” and “Automatic Pilot” from his Vodka Collins days before closing with a high-energy rendition of “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the song he wrote and recorded with his band The Arrows in 1975 and that later became a worldwide hit for Joan Jett and others.

Alan brought down the house–and we were just getting started. Following his set, we screened the terrific documentary, The Golden Cups: One More Time, about the legendary Yokohama Group Sounds band. This was followed by a lively question-and-answer session with three original members of the Golden Cups: Eddie Ban (lead guitar), Louise Louis Kabe (bass), and Mamoru Manu (drums). We had a large delegation of Cups’ fans in the audience, including people who had traveled from Japan, Florida, and elsewhere to be there, which all added to the sense that something very special was happening. The evening closed with a jam session between Eddie Ban and Alan Merrill, as they performed “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Namida” (Alan’s 1969 solo hit), and finally “Route 66.”

I’m extremely grateful to Alan Merrill, the Golden Cups, the people from Altamira Pictures and Altamira Music who made the arrangements to bring the Cups over from Japan, the fans and scholars: everyone who made this memorable day possible. Next up is day two, when we turn our focus to film and art….

Alan Merrill with Vodka Collins, “Sands of Time” (1972)

The Golden Cups’ astonishing 1968 recording of “Hey Joe”; pay special attention to Louise Louis Kabe’s blazing bass lines:

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Arakawa Shusaku

Posted in Art by bourdaghs on the May 21st, 2010

When I was a visiting professor at International Christian University in Tokyo (2005-2007), on my way home from campus I used to walk past a queer building. It was obviously an apartment building of some sort, but it was a striking conglomeration of strange shapes and vivid colors, like something designed by Dr. Seuss. My curiosity was piqued, and some on-line exploration told me that this was in fact Reversible Destiny Mitaka, a new art project by Arakawa Shusaku and Madeline Gins.

The press is reporting today that Arakawa passed away on Wednesday. The news is both sad and ironic: Arakawa vowed that his work was “architecture against death,” and he and Gins famously announced for an exhibit that “we have decided not to die.” It is also ironic, because today at the University of Chicago we begin “Engaging Commodities: Crossing Mass Culture and the Avant Garde in 1960s Japanese Film, Music and Art,” a conference exploring figures like Arakawa, who troubled the boundaries of art, commerce, and scholarship to generate a remarkable moment in global cultural history.

Of course, Arakawa lives on — in his impact, in our conference, and, surely not least of all, in the Reversible Destiny Mitaka buildings:

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Vodka Collins, “Automatic Pilot”

Posted in Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the May 17th, 2010

Alan Merrill, leader of the legendary Japanese glam rock band Vodka Collins, will be speaking at the University of Chicago this coming Friday. Also on the bill: The Golden Cups. To RSVP for a seat, click here.

Here is Vodka Collins with the classic Merrill composition, “Automatic Pilot,” from 1972. No wonder David Bowie stole their costume designer….

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Midway Point at the Kokugikan

Posted in Uncategorized by bourdaghs on the May 16th, 2010

The current Summer Sumo tournament in Tokyo has reached the halfway point. It’s been insanely busy around my house, so I’ve managed to watch just a couple of days–and then only by using the fast-forward button judiciously. It’s not the best way to watch sumo, since you lose touch with the ritual pacing that is so central to the sport’s charm. But skipping past all the time between bouts also allows you to condense an entire day’s worth of top division matches, which in real time takes ninety minutes, into about fifteen minutes.

The most poignant fact about the current tournament was reported in the press (Japanese-language only) just before it got underway. If you’ve ever visited the Kokugikan to watch matches, you’ve seen the grand array of enormous (3.17 by 2.28 meters) portraits of past champions hanging around the upper tier of the arena. There are 32 in all, and with each tournament they take down the oldest and replace it with a portrait of whomever won the most recent title. As a result, with six tournaments a year, the display gives you a nice snapshot of the last five-plus years in the sport’s history. Here’s an article about the portraits.

(Image source)

Just prior to the current tournament, to make room for Hakuho’s portrait celebrating his victory in Osaka this past March, they took down the portrait of Kaio commemorating his championship in the Autumn 2004 tournament. As a result, right now of the 32 portraits hanging in the Kokugikan only one is of a Japanese wrestler–Tochiazuma, celebrating his upset win in the 2006 New Year tournament. The rest are all Mongolians–with the exception of one that portrays Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu. It’s all enough to make a nationalist weep.

It isn’t going to change this time around. Mongolian yokozuna Hakuho has things firmly in hand so far with an 8-0 record. The brand new ozeki Baruto (from Estonia) has displayed hesitant, sloppy sumo, but has managed to hang in there at 7-1. Everyone else, including all of the domestic wrestlers, is basically mincemeat at this point. The closest thing there is to a Great Japanese Hope is sekiwake Kisenosato, who has a decent 5-3 mark.

If you were to push the fast-forward button to skip through the last five years of sumo, make sure you don’t blink. Otherwise you’ll miss your one chance to see a Japanese wrestler hoist the championship banner and trophy. The way things look, your next chance to see that sight might be several years away….

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What Happens When You Order Stew’s New CD

Posted in Music,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the May 14th, 2010

Yesterday, I ordered Stew’s new CD, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, from the good folks at CD Baby, a terrific clearinghouse for independent music. Below is the shipping confirmation e-mail I received from them this morning, a brilliant parody of customer service that in fact performs brilliantly as customer service. Bravo!

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved “Bon Voyage!” to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, May 13, 2010. We hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. In commemoration, we have placed your picture on our wall as “Customer of the Year.” We’re all exhausted but can’t wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!
We miss you already. We’ll be right here at, patiently awaiting your return.

CD Baby

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The Inimitable Stew

Posted in Music by bourdaghs on the May 13th, 2010
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Posted in Current Events by bourdaghs on the May 13th, 2010

David Brooks is one of the more thoughtful and interesting conservative voices on the current political scene (then again, given the Neanderthal-like quality of much of the competition, that’s sadly not saying very much). But his column in the New York Times this week strains credulity. So far as I can tell, he is arguing that Elena Kagan is unqualified to sit on the Supreme Court because she is, well, too judicious.

She is apparently smart, deft and friendly. She was a superb teacher. She has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.

Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable.

After years of belly-aching about radical judicial activism, the right now wants to demonize cautious, middle-of-the-road pragmatism?

My favorite response to the nomination so far comes from Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, who asks the burning question, “Who’s more likely to be gay? Unmarried, middle-aged woman or televangelist/family values pol?”

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