Sayonara Amerika, Sayonara Nippon

All I Know is What I Read in the Papers

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Japanese film by bourdaghs on the March 9th, 2010

There was an amusing editorial cartoon in the Chicago Tribune this past weekend by Scott Stantis. A mother sits at the breakfast table, reading the newspaper, and announces to her two children that the Post Office might stop delivering letters on Saturday. Her son, busy at his laptop, asks, “What’s a letter?” Her daughter, texting on her cellphone, tops this by asking, “What’s a newspaper?”

The state of the newspaper industry in Japan isn’t quite so grim as in America, but the numbers are still tumbling. The hard-right Sankei newspaper is taking the biggest hit, report Peter Alford and David McNeill in a very interesting article up this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus. Daily circulation figures for Japan’s major newspapers still dwarf those in other countries.

Slowly, however, the gravity-defying circulations appear to be heading for earth. ABC statistics on the main morning-edition circulation for 2006 to 2009 show that every Japanese newspaper recorded a loss of sales, except the business-oriented Nikkei. In relative terms, the declines are tiny: the world’s best-selling newspaper, the conservative Yomiuri is down from 10,042,075 to 10,018,117; the liberal-left Asahi from 8,093,885 to 8,031,579; the liberal Mainichi has taken a more substantial hit, from just under 4 million to 3.8 million. The Nikkei is up slightly from 3,034,481 to 3,052,929. Perhaps more indicative, and worrying, for the industry is the sharp drop in advertising revenues: from one trillion yen in 2007 to an estimated 600 billion in 2009, a year in which online advertisements continued to grow.

Those same newspapers are reporting just now (so far Japanese-language only, but I’m sure the English papers will be carrying this in a few hours) that film director Kitano Takeshi has just been awarded France’s highest cultural honor. This all coincides with a film festival and art show in Paris featuring his works.

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Summer Memories….

Posted in Change is Bad,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the March 7th, 2010

I graduated from high school in the summer of 1979. It was a private prep academy that I attended on a full scholarship: we were on various forms of public assistance during my teens, and my mother could never have afforded tuition. Primarily because of my sense of humor, my classmates elected me as the class speaker for our graduation ceremony. They expected a funny talk, but I was feeling rebellious. After four years of frustration over the elitism, status hierarchies, and general smugness of the local ruling class, I decided to let the school have it in my speech.

In my own narcissistic mind, this made me quite the heroic figure. Apparently, not everyone agreed. For starters, the speech didn’t make me very popular with school administrators or teachers (they launched a new policy requiring prior review of graduation speech texts the following year), and it angered a number of my classmates as well. But there were at least a few people who believed I’d gotten it right.

I met one of those at a party a few nights later. I’d arrived that evening with a couple of buddies, and we all immediately noticed an incredibly beautiful woman there, someone none of us had ever seen before. She was so attractive that we all sat around trying to figure out who she was: there seemed no point in talking about anything else. Someone said she was a friend of one of our classmates.

I was astonished a few minutes later when this angelic figure walked up to me and told me she had heard my speech and admired the way I had spoken truth to power. She introduced herself as Darcy Pohland, and to my great joy (and to my friends’ envy) we spent the rest of that evening talking. She gave me her phone number and we arranged to meet up again the following evening.

I was smitten. We quickly tumbled into a summertime romance. From the start, Darcy and I were utterly mismatched: she grew up in a well-to-do suburb and I in a working-class city neighborhood, she drove her own shiny red sportscar, whereas my family shared an old clunker–and in fact for stretches of my teen years we had no car at all. I was into underground punk rock, while her favorite band was the Doobie Brothers. I mean, come on: the Doobie Brothers?

But she was also overflowing with vivacity, intellectual curiosity, and a hunger for life. She had a role in a community theater production of “South Pacific” that summer, and I used to pick her up after rehearsals for a late night snack. I also remember taking her to a Minnesota Kicks soccer game out at Metropolitan Stadium and feeling more than a little jealous when every jock partying in the parking lot seemed to know Darcy.

It lasted maybe five or six weeks. I wanted a more serious relationship and she wasn’t ready for that. I left town on a road trip with friends through the western U.S. and when I returned to Minnesota in late July Darcy and I were finished as an item.

I never saw her again in person after that. I heard a few years later from a friend of a friend that she’d had a terrible accident: she’d mistakenly dived into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broken her neck. She would remain a paraplegic for life. How sad, I thought.

But then, a dozen or so years after that, I was up in Minnesota watching the channel 4 news when who should appear but Darcy Pohland. Despite the challenge of life in a wheelchair, she’d made it as a television reporter. Over the decade that followed, I’d see her news reports from time to time when I was back home, and from the way her on-air colleagues and interview subjects treated her, it was obvious that she’d earned tremendous respect. Through sheer determination, she’d managed to build a happy ending out of what could have been a tragic story.

I learned Friday morning that Darcy had passed away unexpectedly in Minnesota. The comments sections from the on-line newspaper reports are overflowing with affectionate tributes and show the love she’d earned from people across Minnesota.

My memories of that summer of 1979, those first months after high school graduation, come tinged with a shimmering glow, and Darcy is a part of that. Summertime, and the living’s easy…. The warm nostalgic feeling that now surrounds those memories helps ease the fact that in them I am also confronting my own mortality. I have one more thing to thank Darcy for: she became one of the models for the main female character in “Sister Carrie,” a short story I published many years ago.

Rest in peace.

[Postscript: WCCO-TV has now posted a nice story about Darcy Pohland’s high school days. Video here.]

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He Keeps On Rollin’

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Putting One Foot in Front of the Other by bourdaghs on the February 20th, 2010

In my freshman seminar on travel literature this past Thursday, we were discussing Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. We talked about the complexity of certain phrases or images in the book, how they take on multiple, often contradictory, meanings as the narrative progresses. For example, we looked at the meanings assigned to the Mississippi River, which Sal and Dean cross several times during the course of their travels. It is positioned simultaneously as that which both links and divides East from West in the spiritual and cultural geography of the book.

Then yesterday I was on an airplane flying from Chicago to Minneapolis. For a paper I’m writing on early Cold War culture, I was re-reading Lionel Trilling’s classic 1950 study of American literature, The Liberal Imagination. In his chapter on Mark Twain, he writes about the Mississippi, about how its brown, muddy presence functioned as something god-like in Twain’s imagination, a divine and sometimes vengeful presence that embodied the pure, natural power that Twain believed ruled in America prior to the high capitalism and corrupting influence of money that held sway after the Civil War. The antebellum Mississippi, Trilling writes, was a road that moved you, one that would crush you if you weren’t properly respectful of it.

As I was reading Trilling, the pilot announced that we were beginning our descent into Minneapolis-St. Paul. I looked up from my book to glance out the window and there it was: the Mississippi River. Of course it was white, flat and immobile now, a snowy ribbon twisting its way across southern Minnesota.

I’m up in Minnesota because we’re in the process of selling my mother’s house. It’s a trip full of various emotions. I write these words in the kitchen of the place I’ve called “home” since 1969, but it’s the last time I’ll be here. When we first moved in back when I was a third grader, we discovered to our delight that we were within walking distance of the Mississippi. As a grade schooler, I used to hike down to collect fossils from the limestone banks above the water. As a high school and college student, I used to pass evenings with friends down at the river’s edge, building bonfires and watching the barges slowly drift past. More recently, I’ve taken my own children with their grandparents down to the waterfront for picnics and to skip rocks across the river surface.

Change is bad. Luckily, the Mississippi has figured out a way around all of that.

God Save the (Cultural) Village Green

Posted in Books,Change is Bad,Current Events,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the January 31st, 2010

A few years back, as part of an ongoing project to rethink the works of novelist Natsume Soseki (1867-1916) in relation to the rise of modern regimes of property ownership, I wrote an article on him in relation to Mizuno Rentaro (1868-1949), chief architect of Japanese’s 1899 copyright law, a legal code that remained in effect — albeit with amendments — until 1970.

Under that law Soseki’s copyrights expired in the 1940s and his works entered the public domain. But in 1979, when Readers Digest Japan advertised a new series it was publishing that reproduced first editions of Soseki’s works, it found itself the target of multiple lawsuits filed by various publishing houses and other parties. The plaintiffs claimed that they held intellectual property rights in the physical appearance of those first editions. In essence, a moral right of authorship was being asserted for the acts of typesetting and printing of a book. As a result of out-of-court settlements in the Readers Digest Japan case, a new “right of reproduction” became standard in the Japanese publishing world. In a move the current U.S. Supreme Court would no doubt beam down upon with approval, the locus of the creative, original mental labor that was the original justification for copyright protection was shifted away from the personality of the author and onto the act of investment of the publishing house. Capital was granted the status of moral personality.

In a depressingly similar move, this week the NFL claimed ownership over the “Who Dat?” slogan used by fans of the New Orleans Saints football team. Though the phrase has a long history preceding the 1988 trademark registration filed by the team, the NFL is claiming exclusive authorship privileges and threatening to sue anyone who uses the phrase without permission. The NFL claim rests on very shaky legal ground; in fact, another business registered a trademark on the phrase several years before the Saints did, and the phrase has been in popular circulation for more than a century. But few small businesses or individuals have the financial capacity to engage in a court battle with a huge corporation like the NFL when it mounts this sort of intellectual enclosure.

This sort of situation is increasingly common in trademark law. Trademark originally was supposed to pertain only to specific, denoted meanings of a phrase, but increasingly legal decisions are expanding its domain to include secondary connoted meanings produced in the public commons by anonymous users of the phrase. Hence, McDonalds Corporation, for example, has claimed to own the nickname “Mickey D’s.” As legal scholar Rosemary Coombe notes:

The trademark owner is invested with authorship and paternity; seen to invest ‘sweat of the brow’ to ‘create’ value in a mark, he is then legitimately able to ‘reap what he has sown.’ The imaginations of consumers become the field in which the owner sows his seed—a receptive and nurturing space for parturition—but consumers are not acknowledged as active and generative agents in the procreation of meaning. The generation of new, alternative, or negative connotations are ignored, denied, or prohibited because patrilineal rights of property are recognized as exclusive: no joint custody arrangements will be countenanced.

(Coombe, The Cultural Life of Intellectual Properties: Authorship, Appropriation and the Law. Duke University Press, 1998, p. 71)

The author may be dead in literary studies, as we focus more on the dialogic process by which meaning is produced through the relationships between author, text, and the community of readers. But in trademark law, the High Romantic version of the Author as the seminal source of all Meaning remains alive–or, more accurately, undead, a kind of zombie creature that lives on by sucking the living blood of readers and, now, of football fans.

It’s another instance of what scholars like Kembrew McLeod (the man who trademarked the phrase “Freedom of Expression”) and James Boyle have attacked as the contemporary equivalent to the enclosure of public commons land during early capitalism. It’s depressing to watch Japan in recent years follow the lead of the U.S. (which in turn is following the lead primarily of the motion picture and television industry) and propose extending the length of copyright protection to seventy years. I’m not opposed to copyright per se, but we are seeing an alarming destruction of the public domain, assaults on the notion of fair use, and a general attempt to transform into private capital the cultural and intellectual discourse that by its nature must be shared in common.

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Structural Changes in the Japanese Economy

Posted in Change is Bad,Current Events,Japanese literature by bourdaghs on the January 8th, 2010

The last two decades have seen dizzying changes in Japanese society and culture. The truisms that I was taught about Japan in the 1970s and 80s largely no longer hold in the wake of the economic dislocation and the neo-liberal government responses to them that have taken hold since about 1991. The lifetime employment system is now largely a thing of the past, the celebrated education system has broken down, and it is no longer true that everyone in Japan considers themselves middle class. New lifestyles and new cultural forms have emerged in response to these changed circumstances, and the changes in the way people imagine their community are palpable to anyone who has spent time there.

Yesterday, my colleague Norma Field gave an interesting talk here on “From Literature to Labor in Contemporary Japan and Other Nonprofessional Reflections.” She connected her own scholarly work on proletarian literature author Kobayashi Takiji (1903-33) and the recent boom in interest in his writings in Japan with the drastic alterations in Japanese labor conditions, as well as with recent work by activists trying to respond creatively and effectively to the new harsher conditions. She also reflected on her own efforts to relate academic work to political activism.

These questions are being addressed by a variety of scholars from a variety of positions. Last September at the British Association of Japanese Studies annual meeting, University of Tokyo economist Genda Yuji gave an interesting talk on “Japanese Youth, Employment, and Hope.” While I had some qualms about the prescriptions for action that he proposed, Professor Genda pointed out some interesting structural factors in the economic changes Japan has faced. I’m doing this from memory and may have some of the facts off, but as I recall, he argued that the origins of the structural changes should be located not in the bubble burst of 1991, but rather in the decade before. Already by 1984, the single-person household had become the dominant domestic form in Japan, meaning that older familial support networks had largely disappeared by that time. Moreover, he argued, at around the same time the non-elite track for achieving economic security had disappeared: previously, large numbers of students dropped out of formal education after middle school and pursued apprenticeship-like positions in their late teens before moving on to establish their own independent small businesses in their twenties, but by the mid 1980s that pattern had entered into a decisive decline. Instead, such persons are now likely to end up in the precarious situation of being “freeters.”

Radical restructuring of the education system in Japan is both a cause and a result of these economic and cultural changes. Anthropologist David H. Slater has a fascinating article this week at The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus on “The Making of Japan’s New Working Class: “Freeters” and the Progression From Middle School to the Labor Market.” He explores how students in the lower rungs of the educational system get trapped into work roles that provide no security and little future. He also explicates the mechanisms that hinder the rise of a new sense of class identity among these workers.

In Japan, the educational system has probably been the primary institution most responsible for both of these functions. That is, schooling is the primary site for the development of shared patterns of representation and whole-culture forms so central to the integrity of adult culture and social cohesion, and at the same time, it is the primary mechanism for the social and cultural differentiation of different segments of the population into distinct class trajectories which is central to the reallocation of young people into a highly diversified labor market.

Change is bad: it’s one of the governing motifs of this blog. The last two decades of life in Japan provide a prime example. Structural changes also, however, create opportunities for creating new forms of community and new networks of mutual support (this was one of the main points of Professor Field’s talk yesterday). In other words, the process of change hasn’t yet reached any stopping point. I’m hardly the only one who feels simultaneously pessimistic and optimistic about the future in Japan–and elsewhere.

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