The Most Extreme Music in the World

A review of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, David Novak, Duke University Press, 2013.

japanoiseI am an adept of extreme audio practices. From teenage youth to adult age, I went all the way from progressive rock to experimental music to various forms of electronica and to sound art. I explored the universe of sound with an open mind and a taste for novelty. But when I encountered harsh Noise, also known as Japanoise, I hit a wall. Here was something completely unexpected. There was no precedent to what I experienced, and there was no beyond. Here was a music without beat, drum or rhythm, without tone, tune or pitch. Noise music is exceedingly difficult to describe. Its components – extreme volume static, amp distortion, Larsen effects, audio feedback, industrial hissing and screeching, only give an idea of the bits and pieces that enter its composition, but their description cannot convey the impression made on the auditor.

Describing noise

Here I have to borrow the words of David Novak, an ethnographer and long-time observant of the Noise scene, listening to a piece by Merzbow. “The track begins with a one-second blast of sound, which shifts sharply downward in pitch before abruptly cutting out, as if taking a breath before releasing the long, harsh, continuous scream of Noise that follows. Sounds are split between the left and right speakers, creating two separate but interrelated layers of texture; other sounds are quickly panned between the two speakers to create a sense of movement in the flat landscape of the stereo field. Filters sweep across the distorted sound field, rippling through a stream of harsh frequencies. Beneath these timbral changes, there is another loop of sound, which repeats a two-second fragment of muted static. The distorted feedback begins to break up as some amplifier in the chain reaches the limit of its capacity. A microphone feedback is introduced in the background, and the sound begins to short out as a thin hissing sound momentarily fills both channels. A new loop lurches into both channels at once, emitting a spitting chatter for two seconds and then submerging into a low hum. A vocal sound, like a moan, appears underneath the layers of feedback; it is unclear to me whether this is actually the sound of a human voice or some resonance created in the feedback process, or by a filter, or another pedal. Suddenly the Noise just ends, leaving me suspended in the buzzing stillness. A final burst blasts through the system, as if I’ve been unplugged from myself.”

If Noise music is difficult to describe (you have to hear it to believe it), Noise performances make for vivid descriptions. Here again, are some excerpts from David Novak’s Japanoise. “The performance seems to emerge from within the technical arrangement of the gear: sounds just begin to emanate from the pile as Greenwood (the Noise musician) reaches around, plugging things in and turning knobs. He straps on a rubber military gas mask containing microphones, concealing his face entirely, and attaches other electronic pieces onto his body. He dashes back and forth in front of the equipment he has amassed in the center of the floor, turning on switches, pushing buttons, pulling cords out of one area and pushing them into another, pulling things apart. Occasionally he bends forward at the waist, drops to his knees, reels backward, or falls to the floor in front of the heap of gear, a shout becoming audible from inside the mask. Holding onto some piece of the assemblage, Greenwood jerks his body back and forth violently in front of his machines. It is unclear how the machines function–which pieces are altering the sound, which are not, and which are disconnected or never worked at all. As the performance builds, sections of the pile of gear collapse or are pulled out and thrown to the side of the stage. Somehow, this dismantling process doesn’t seem deliberate–though it must be–as he smashes things together, punching parts, grabbing cords, and moving the telephone receiver around in a buzzing feedback loop.

Extreme performances

The origins of Japanoise are shrouded in obscurity and have since become the stuff of legend. Hijokaidan, a Kyoto group, became infamous for their early performances during which they augmented their Noise by smashing up stage equipment, shattering floorboards and attacking the audience with fire extinguishers. Yamataka Eye, another performer, was also known for his extreme practices. During one performance, he cut his leg open with a chainsaw and terrorized the audience with flying chunks of metal. In the most infamous episode, in 1985, Eye destroyed a Tokyo club by driving an abandoned backhoe through the room. Enticed by rumors of blood and auto-destruction, audiences grew in number and in determination to be assaulted by sound. Artist profiles and mythologized tales of performances were disseminated in fanzines while cassette tapes documenting live recordings and bedroom studio experiments were bartered across oceans. These artifacts were quickly consumed by like-minded listeners in America, Europe and elsewhere, prompting the moniker “Japanoise.” North American tours, especially by Merzbow and Masonna in the mid-1990s, allowed select fans to experience Japanese Noise live and relate legendary stories for those who missed the chance. In the following decade, videos of Noise concerts began to circulate on the internet, and materials as well as information about the genre and its key performers began widely available. As live Noise became extinct, discourse began to proliferate on the dead body of sounds, including academic treatises and movie documentaries.

As other late converts, I encountered Japanoise in a Japanese context, and for me there was no question that Noise was a Japanese genre. Of course, I knew it had branched into other countries and cultures – like many devoted fans, I acquired the “US-Japan Noise Treaty” CD, and I heard of extreme sounding practices coming from post-soviet Russia. Through Youtube videos and the Sub Rosa anthology, I also discovered Chinese Noise, which bears a direct influence from Japan’s–one founding member of Torturing Nurse, one of my favorite act on the Shanghaiese avant-garde scene, is from Japan. But what I discovered in Novak’s book is that “Japanoise” was in fact an American invention, which became Japanese through a familiar process of gyaku-yunyu or “reverse importation”. Japanoise surfaced in North America from within a larger framework of reception that included not just Noise but “noisy” Japanese music. Many recordings picked up by North American audiences in the 1980s were by punk, hard rock, and hardcore groups from the Kansai region, especially Kyoto and Osaka. Overseas networks of independent music distribution began to magnify some aspects of the local underground scene. The invention of the term Japanoise further supported the North American belief that the distant Japanese Noise scene was bigger, more popular, and more definitive of the genre. Learning that they had become “big in America”, Japanese artists reacted differently. Some, such as the underground rock band The Boredoms, rejected the Noise moniker and went on to produce progressive rock or “puro-gure“. Others, such as Yamataka Eye, emphasized the avant-garde aspect of their production and accented the defining features of the genre. Yet others went on unaffected by the noise surrounding them, continuing their dogged pursuit of antisocial, antihistorical, anti musical obscurity.

Is the Japanese brain wired differently?

There may be cultural explanations for Japanoise. It is said that the Japanese brain is wired differently, and that Japanese speakers process certain sounds such as insect noises using the left brain, which is also the dominant language hemisphere of the brain, whereas most humans use the right brain, which also serves to interpret music. And indeed, the sound of an insect is as much appreciated as the song of a bird, and the Japanese language has many words (gitaigo: mimetic words) to describe sounds from nature. On a hot summer evening, the roar of thousands of cicadas screeching together can be as deafening as a steaming machine. Similarly, the crystal echo of a glass bell softly ringed by a soft breeze brings a sense of freshness in hot summer days. Japanese traditional music also comes into a category of its own. Gagaku, the imperial court orchestral music, is strangely dissonant and may sound like noise to the newcomer. Many sounds from Japanese traditional instruments fall outside the realm of music: the sharp clap of the bachi plucking the shamisen’s cords; the wind-like character of the shakuhachi flute; the atonal sounds of drums, gongs and clappers; etc.

But again, Japanoise comes into a different category, closer to the machinery sounds of industrial Japan than to the sounds from nature or musical expressions. If there is a cultural explanation to be made, it is not by invoking the theories of Japanese distinctiveness or nihonjinron, but rather the idiosyncrasies of the Kansai region and especially from the city of Osaka, where many Noise bands originated. As David Novak notes, “Osaka’s citizens have historically been recognized within Japan for their outspoken aggressiveness, direct local language, hedonistic enjoyment of leisure, and outrageous sense of humor. Given this outgoing expressive character, it was not surprising that extreme, intensively performative musical styles were associated with the city.” Japanoise also finds its origins in the otaku culture of people obsessed with a narrow field of subculture, and who go to great lengths to feed their obsessive interest with all the materials and information they can get. Once he distances himself from the group, the individualist in Japan lives in a self-centered world and maintains only minimal contacts with his peers. Although there are many bands in Japanoise, the most striking performances are made by solo performers like Masonna or Otomo Yoshihide. Noisicians also sometimes turn their back to the public, or operate from behind a screen. Nobody can be more distant from the rockstar idol than the Japanese noisician, who avoids media contacts and disseminates his sound recordings through audio cassettes or CDRs that don’t enter commercial circuits.

New musical forms have always first been heard as noise

Another way to “explain” Japanoise is to use the categories of art history and avant-garde aesthetics. As Novak notes, “in the annals of musical history, from Stravinsky, to jazz, to rock, to rap, new musical forms have always first been heard as noise.” Modern artists have often taken the exact opposite of accepted norms and conventions, and music is no exception. Claiming that “we don’t care about music anyway” (as does the title of a French documentary about the Japanese avant-garde scene) is a sure way to gain entrance into the annals of music history. The music of “no music” only reproduces the “anti-art” slogan of the Dadaists or of Marcel Duchamp, who rejected cultural conformity and devised the opposite of established art forms. And indeed, noise music finds its ancestry in the futurist avant-garde of the early twentieth century, when artists recorded or transcripted the sound and fury of war and industry.

At this point, cultural critics often make a reference to Jacques Attali’s book Noise: The Political Economy of Music. For the French public intellectual, noise can prophesy social futures and become an oracle of cultural change: “what is noise to the old order is harmony to the new.” Social change implies noise: the clamors of revolutions, the hubbub of modern cities, the mechanical blast of industry, are the symphony that accompanies the advancement of mankind. Noise is the foundation of human expression before it becomes absorbed in the forms of cultural production. It is the irreductible element that will forever resist the recuperation by the system of late capitalism. But, although Attali’s essay remains popular in Japan, it cannot account for the emergence of Noise as a form of expression. Japanoise is not a sound residue or a white noise that exists outside of technological mediation. It circulates along various transnational routes and feeds back into existing musical practices.

At the edge of circulation

David Novak’s aim in writing Japanoise is not to offer a history of the genre. As a cultural practice, Noise escapes history. It cultivates anonymity and obscurity, and obfuscates its inscription in stable, unbending supports. Groups frequently change name and lineup, labels eschew publicity, and artists reject technological advances such as computers or digital equipment. Even by the early 2010, many well-known Japanese Noisicians do not yet have websites, and only a handful of Japanese labels have developed web-based sales portals. Noisicians’ rejection of digital technology is illustrated by the anachronistic revival of the audiocassette, which has become the token of a mail-based exchange system. In relying on this old media, noisicians are reconnecting with the origins of the Noise culture, antedating the birth of the internet. They are returning Noise to its marginal position at the edge of circulation. For Novak, the figures of the circuit, of the feedback loop, and of the saturated distortion not only define the sonic features of Noise as a musical form. They constitute the theoretical apparatus of his book, and allow him to expose the genre in the same terms that define the sound processes used by Noisicians. Beyond Japanoise, the model offered by David Novak can be used to outline a new theory of culture in the global age. Global culture is formed in circulation through feedback, amplified reception, and distorted re-emission. Its fragmented publics are connected through productive mistranslations and biased perceptions. Like noise in information theory, cultural products that circulate through global channels can be very loud, but they do not convey a useful signal.


Between Marx and Anthropology

A review of The Structure of World History: From Modes of Production to Modes of Exchange, Kojin Karatani, Duke University Press, 2014.

Karatani.jpgThere is a tradition of contemporary Japanese philosophers drawing from anthropology (the names of Shinichi Nakazawa and Akira Asada come to mind). There is also a Japanese tradition of philosophical re-readings of Marx (with Kozo Uno or Makoto Itoh). I am interested in the first tradition. I regard the second as negligible. In The Structure of World History, Kojin Karatani combines the two approaches. He offers a broad synthesis on the origins of the state, the market, and the national community, based on the works of classical anthropologists. And he provides a close reading of Marx’s texts in order to construct his own philosophical system, encompassing the whole of human history. I found the first part based on anthropology most valuable. I only skipped through the second part. Below are a few reading notes and commentary intended to provided a cursory reading of Karatani’s book.

A Japanese rereading of Marx

Marx, like Comte and Hegel before him, saw the history of the human race as neatly divided into historical phases. He identified five such phases: the primitive horde, Asiatic despotism, the ancient classic state, Germanic feudalism, and the modern state under capitalism. The principle of that division was to be found in modes of production and the type of labor relations they generated. The stateless clan society was characterized by primitive communism: there was no private property, and goods were shared among all members of the clan. It was followed by the Asiatic mode of production in which the despotic king owned everything and his subjects nothing. Then came the Greek and Roman slavery system giving power to a minority of citizens, followed by the Germanic feudal system with its relations of allegiance and serfdom, and modern bourgeois capitalism characterized by the opposition between capital and labor. Thus Marx famously proclaimed that all history was the history of class struggle, and that it necessarily tended towards the advent of communism, in which class would disappear and the state would wither away.

Other authors, mainly inspired by Marx, offered their own classification of social formations. To the five modes of production identified by Marx, Samir Amin added two others: the trade-based social system seen in various Arab countries, and the social formation based on the “simple petty-commodity” mode of production seen in seventeenth-century Britain. Building his own theory of world systems, Immanuel Wallerstein described a succession from mini-systems that preceded the rise of the state, to world empires that were ruled by a single state, and then world-economies in which multiple states engaged in competition without being unified politically. The modern world system of global capitalism itself went through the successive stages of mercantilism, liberalism, and imperialism, each dominated by a single hegemonic power: first Holland, then Britain, and then the United States.

Stages of development

Yet other thinkers identified various stages of development by the dominant world commodity or technology: the wool industry in the stage of mercantilism, the textile industry in liberalism, heavy industries in imperialism, and durable consumer goods such as automobiles and electronics in the stage of capitalism. Our present times may witness the rise of a new stage in which information serves as the world commodity. Still for others, each historical phase is characterized by the dominant mode of energy supply: from biomass and wood to windmills and hydropower and then to coal and steam, then electricity and the oil engine, followed by gas turbines and nuclear power or renewable energies. These periodicizations are only variants of a dominant scheme that locates the crux of world history in the realm of production.

While offering his own teleology based on modes of exchange as opposed to modes of production, Karatani introduces variants and correctives in these classifications in order to paint a more complex picture of world history. For instance, he argues that societies existed in the form of nomadic bands before the rise of clan society, and that the real turning point came with the adoption of fixed settlements, with its accompanying institutions of property, religious rituals, and political coercion. Contrary to the standard view of the Neolithic revolution that associates sedentarization with agriculture, he argues that fixed settlements preceded the appearance of agriculture, and first took the form of fishing villages located at the mouth of rivers and trade routes. Stockpiling was first made possible through the technology for smoking fish, not piling grain or herding livestock. Nomadic tribes on one side, and clan societies on the other, engaged in different modes of exchange and redistribution: pooling of resources and “primitive communism” for the first, and the logic of the gift and the forms of trade described by classical anthropologists for the second. Along with Pierre Clastres and Marshall Sahlins, he agrees that primitive societies were “societies against the state”, and actively resisted the concentration of power through warfare and reciprocity of exchange.

The Asiatic mode of production revisited

Karatani also develops a more nuanced picture of the Asiatic state, considered by Hegel and Marx as well as by Karl Wittfogel as the symbol of despotism. Contrary to the vision of tyranny and oppression, he argues that the Asiatic social contract was based on a form of redistribution. People were not simply coerced: they voluntarily undertook to work for the sake of their king-priest, driven by religious beliefs and the offer for protection. State power is based on a specific mode of exchange, distinct from the first mode based on the reciprocity of the gift. Drawing resources from large-scale irrigation systems, the Asiatic state developed the first bureaucracies, created the first permanent standing armies, and organized long-distant trade with other communities. Through his bureaucrats, the despot was expected to rule, administer, show concern for, and take care of its subjects. It was not the Asiatic community that gave birth to the Asiatic despotic state; to the contrary, it was only after the establishment of a centralized state that a new community would emerge.

Karatani also offers a revision of our understanding of Greek and Roman antiquity. As he demonstrates, political theories and philosophy did not first emerge in the Greek polis, as is sometimes alleged. The formation of Asiatic states was associated with intense philosophical debates, as in the Warring States period in China which saw the emergence of the Hundred Schools of Thought. This is because the appearance of the state required a breaking with the traditions that had existed since clan society. Greece and Rome existed at the periphery of Asian empires and retained many aspects of clan societies. Rome in the end did become a vast empire, but that was due if anything to its adoption of the Asiatic imperial system, which survived the fall of Rome with the Byzantine dynasty and then the Islamic empires. For this reason, historians should regard the despotic state that emerged in Asia not simply as a primitive early stage, but rather as the entity that perfected the supranational state (or empire). Likewise, they should regard Athens and Rome not as the wellspring of Western civilization, but as incomplete social formations that developed at the submargins of Asian empires. Drawing from Karl Wittfogel, Karatani sees a subtle dialectics between civilizations-empires at the core, vassal states at the margins, independent polities at the submargin, and out-of-sphere communities that retained their nomadic lifestyle.

From modes of production to modes of exchange

Moving to his third mode of exchange, based on money and commodities, Karatani enters classic Marxian terrain, and offers vintage Marx analysis. That is where he kind of lost me, and my reading of this part is wholly incomplete. Drawing from the classic formulas M-C-M’ and M-M’, he argues that the world created by this third mode of exchange is fundamentally a world of credit and speculation, and that it still needs the backing of the first mode (based on reciprocity) and the second mode (drawing from the social contract offered by the state) in order to sustain itself. My attention also lapsed during his discussions on world money, world commodities, and world systems à la Wallerstein. It was only revived when he described the different schools of socialist thinking, seeing great commonality between Proudhon and Marx as well as with the Young Hegelians who first developed a theory of alienation of the individual through a critique of religion, state power, and capital.

Karatani then introduces his fourth mode of exchange, labelled mode D, which marks the attempt to restore the reciprocal community of mode A on top of the market economy of mode C, and without the state structure of mode B. Although this mode of exchange is an ideal form that never existed in actuality, it manifested itself in the form of universal religions and expressed the “return of the repressed” of the primitive community’s mode of reciprocal exchange in a higher dimension. His analysis sometimes borders on the bizarre, as when he warns of a looming ecological catastrophe and generalized warfare that may take humanity back to the stage of the nomadic tribe. His description of Kant as a closet socialist advocating the disappearance of the state and of capital also seems far-fetched. But it is his reading of Marx and Hegel through Kant that may provide the greatest food for thought to modern philosophers such as Slavoj Zizek, who quotes Karatani eloquently in his books. Based on solid anthropological data and a re-reading of Marx’s classic texts, Karatani’s work may generate a thousand theoretical explosions, placing the construction of world history systems back at the heart of the philosophical agenda.

War, Grief, Mud.

A review of Precarious Japan, Anne Allison, Duke University Press, 2013.

Anne AllisonIf we include Japanese sources, there is such an extensive literature on Japan’s economy and society that the bilingual observer is often at a loss. She can make this literature accessible to non-Japanese readers—by translating, summarizing, contextualizing. Or she can collect her own primary data—especially in the field of ethnography, where the main insights are supposed to originate from fieldwork. Anne Allison’s book does both, but in an unsatisfactory manner. Its topic—precarity and precariousness—doesn’t lend itself easily to fieldwork. How do you observe a feeling, a mood, a sentiment, or a lack thereof? How do you assess the way—as Allison defines her topic— “relations with others—of care, belonging, recognition—are showing strain but also, in a few instances, getting reimagined and restitched in innovative new ways”? Having had limited time to conduct fieldwork, Allison had to rely on other people’s observations: activists, commentators, social workers, or critics. But she fails to give proper credit to these domestic observers of precariousness—and in particular to build a theory informed by local categories and debates. Instead, she imports the latest fads in social critique and peppers them with Japanese terms to add local flavor, without engaging Japanese thought seriously.

Precariousness everywhere

How do you observe precariousness? The answer, for anyone living in Japan, is pretty straightforward: open a newspaper, and you will read many accounts of life at the edge. The “shakai” (society) section of newspapers is full of reports on precarious employment (dispatch, contract, day labor), on elderly people living and dying alone (kodokushi), on young people withdrawing from society (hikikomori), on poverty gnawing at the life of the most vulnerable: single mothers, school dropouts, foreign workers, social outcasts, laid-out salarymen, etc. “Life, tenuous and raw, disconnected from others and surviving or dying alone: such stories cycle through the news these days,” remarks the author. Next to the serious reporting on social ills come the sensationalized news items making headlines: “mothers beheaded, strangers killed, children abandoned, adults starved.” Japan is the country where social pathologies bear indigenous names: “otaku” live in a fantasy world of anime characters and online chatrooms; “hikikomori” retreat in the private space of their room, withdrawing from school or workplace and avoiding social contact; “netto kafe nanmin” are mainly flexible or irregular workers who, with unsteady paychecks and no job security, are unable to afford more permanent housing and dwell in PC cafes for a low fee.

Likewise, there is not a lack of social commentary, of people analyzing these trends to draw general lessons or recommendations for Japan’s future. According to observers, “Japan is becoming an impoverished country, a society where hope has turned scarce and the future has become bleak or inconceivable altogether.” Precarity not only affects labor conditions but life as well: it is “a state where one’s human condition has become precarious as well.” There is a rich vocabulary that describes the difficulties of life (ikizurasa) in contemporary Japan: the insecurity (fuan, fuantei), dissatisfaction (fuman), the lack of a place or space where one feels comfortable and “at home” (ibasho ga nai), the connections (tsunagari) and sense of belonging disappearing from society (muen shakai), the poverty of human relations (ningenkankei no hinkon), the withering of social links (kizuna), the incapacity to achieve an “ordinary lifestyle” (hitonami no seikatsu), the absence of hope (kibô ga nai), the despair (zetsubô). For the Japanese, these terms are highly evocative, and together they paint a bleak picture of a society that has lost its balance. For non-Japanese speakers, the Japanese words add a new repertoire of social conditions that may help put their own society into perspective.

Metaphors of war, grief, and mud

Anne Allison uses several metaphors to describe the current state of Japan under precarity. The first is a bellicose one, a paradox in a country that has banned war in its constitution. Japan is a society at war with itself. More specifically, the country is at war with its own youths, sacrificing them as refugees. According to human rights activists, it is a war that the state is waging by endangering and not fulfilling its commitment to the people—that of ensuring a “healthy and culturally basic existence” that all citizens are entitled to under Article 25 of the Constitution. When the outside world is seen as a war zone, people take refuge at home or in an imaginary world. In 2007, the monthly magazine Ronza published an essay titled “Kibô wa sensô” (Hope is War), in which a young part-time worker described all the humiliations his generation had to endure and concluded by placing his hope in a nationalist war that would restore his sense of masculine dignity and pride. Nobody really advocates war and the return to militarism in Japan; but nationalism is clearly on the rise, and right-wing extremism has found in Internet forums and discussion channels a new venue to vent its regressive agenda. Social scientists describe this reaction as paranoid nationalism: “when, feeling excluded from nation or community, one attempts, sometimes violently, to exclude others as well.” The most extreme form of this self-destructing drive is given in the random murder incidents by demented youths who kill passersby as a form of protest.

The second metaphor that runs through the text is the idea of grief and mourning. Here the author draws from Judith Butler, the famous feminist scholar who, drawing herself from Jacques Derrida, has written about the grievability of all life and lives. As Butler writes, “there can be no recognition of a person’s life without an implicit understanding that the life is grievable, that it would be grieved if it were lost, and that this future anterior is installed as the condition of its life.” Without grievability, there is no life or, rather, there is something living that is other than life. But not all lives are equally grievable: when people live and die alone, nobody is there to register their death (as in the case of the “missing centenarians”, who were found to be deceased and unreported by their families who kept the pension payments for themselves.) What counts and who counts as having a grievable life is increasingly dependent on economic calculation and state action. It is the prerogative of the modern state to “make live and let die” (Foucault), and never is this new biopolitical landscape more apparent than in the neoliberal injunction to pursue self-reliance, self-independence, and self-responsibility (jikô sekinin) as a positive agenda.

Shoveling mud and cleaning houses in Ishinomaki

The third metaphor that creeps in the last chapter is the invasion of mud. The author was knee-deep in it when she volunteered to clean ditches in Ishinomaki after the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tôhoku region on March 11th, 2011. As Allison aptly describes it, “the tsunami rendered the entire northeast coastline a cesspool of waste: dead remains and dying life entwined—animals, humans, boats, cars, oil, hours, vegetation, and belongings.” Cleaning up the mess was devoted to the Self-Defense Forces—whose members in uniform had never been so conspicuous in Japanese society—, assisted by the US Armed Forces engaged in Operation Tomodachi and other, smaller contingents dispatched by friendly nations. Then a slew of NGOs, volunteers, and private cleanup operations (many of them employing precariat workers) took on the job in a great upsurge of solidarity. Cleaning the mud from homes and ditches, sweeping it from photographs and personal belongings, is described by the author as an exhilarating experience, a kind of return to a primal scene where social barriers disappear and a new sense of community emerges. This regression to an infantile stage of scatological pleasure is also a move away from the political. The author recognizes it herself: “while tremendously moving, the work we do moves little in fact.” But the important thing is “being there”: “stress is placed on the immediacy of the action and on the ethics of care.” Riding a bus to Ishinomaki, an NGO team leader wondered why people made street protests against the government’s nuclear policy: “why not come here and shovel mud instead?”

But there is a politics in shoveling mud, grieving lives, and opposing social warfare. Anne Allison never discusses her adherence to a progressive agenda broadly aligned with the Japanese left. The media she relies on (the Asahi newspaper, mostly), the intellectuals she quotes, the social activists she associates with, and the activities she participates in, are all identified with a segment of Japanese politics. Like it or not, this segment has been on the decline in Japan for the last two decades at least. The moment Allison did her fieldwork, which corresponded to the time politicians from the Democratic Party of Japan were in power, was only a parenthesis in an era dominated by the conservative Liberal-Democratic Party. Japanese conservatives of various stripes have themselves offered comments and remedies about the rise of precariousness and exclusion in contemporary Japan. These views fill the pages of right-wing magazines such as Shokun!, Seiron, Voice, or WiLL. Reflecting these views, which also find echoes among members of the precariat (remember the Ronza article praising war as a solution to poverty), would have provided ethnographic value: we don’t need to be reminded about what people like us think. It would also have helped us understand the future: as mentioned, these people are winning the day in contemporary Japan.

A limited use of local sources

Indeed, the range of sources Allison uses and the scope of her fieldwork appear limited. Although the book claims to be based on participant observation, one has to wait until page 124 to begin to see real ethnographic work. And fieldwork is mostly limited to on-site interviews with well-known social activists: Yuasa Makoto, one of the leading figures advocating rights for precarious workers, dispatch workers, the homeless, and working poor; Amamiya Karin, a former suicidal freeter and author in her mid-thirties who dresses in goth; Genda Yûji, the founder of “hope studies” (kibôgaku) at Tokyo University; Tsukino Kôji, a performer and founder of Kowaremono, a music band where each member self-identifies as having a handicap; etc. The Japanese books that are quoted—and there are quite a few in the bibliography—are only scanned in a superficial way, and there are no close readings of key texts that would have given a conceptual framework to the topic at hand. Indeed, it is significant that when Allison needs theoretical references, she turns to English sources and authors like Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Michel Foucault, etc. There is a division of labor by which Japanese sources provide first-hand observation and commentary, but the real concept work—the theory of the theory—is done by Western authors. Allison quotes in passing a few Japanese philosophers who have tried to address issues of social justice and identity politics in innovative ways: Azuma Hiroshi, Asada Akira, Kayano Toshihito, and others. She could have relied more on them to provide a locally-grounded, theoretically relevant and ethnographically innovative account of the rise of precariousness in Japan.

The Anatomy of Akogare

A review of Women on the Verge: Japanese Women, Western Dreams, Karen Kelsky, Duke University Press, 2001.

FKaren Kelskyorty years ago, Japanese psychiatrist Takeo Doi wrote The Anatomy of Dependence (or Amae no Kôzô, literally: “The Structure of Amae“). In this book, as in everyday Japanese language, amae refers to the feelings that all infants at the breast harbor for their mother–dependence, the desire to be passively loved, the unwillingness to be separated from the object of desire and cast into a world of “objective” reality. Takeo Doi’s basic premise was that Japanese men nurture these feelings well into their adult life, much more so than men raised in the West. For him, the concept of amae goes a long way in explaining the basic mentality of individuals and the organization of society in Japan.

What Takeo Doi did for amae, Karen Kelsky achieves it for akogare

What Takeo Doi did for amae, Karen Kelsky achieves it for another distinctly Japanese concept: the notion of akogare, translated variously as longing, desire, attraction, or idealization, in the context of Japanese women’s feelings toward the West. The approach is different: it is grounded in social anthropology, not popular psychology or essayism. Whereas Takeo Doi espoused the then dominant approach of nihonjinron, or theories of Japaneseness, Kelsky takes a critical perspective on broad categories such as “the Japanese.” Theoretically, Doi drew his inspiration from Freudian psychoanalysis and the Oedipus complex (as interpreted by American psychologists), whereas Kelsky builds upon the notion of Lacan’s desire that arises from a fundamental lack and finds expression in a partial object or fetish. Kelsky’s book is therefore more attuned to postmodern sensibilities and critical perspectives that today dominate cultural studies in academic departments. More fundamentally, whereas amae was centered on Japanese men and their relation to their mother, akogare revolves around Japanese women and their sentimental or sexual attraction toward white men.

This makes Women on the Verge a profoundly disturbing book. Kelsky means to upset and to unsettle, as she herself was put off balance in the course of her research project: “I was told, more than once, that this was not an appropriate topic of academic enquiry”. An early research paper on the topic of promiscuous young office ladies traveling abroad, and the wave of indignation they caused when the offending term designating them  (“yellow cabs”) was popularized by the tabloid press, particularly came back to haunt her, with American men tracking her on the internet to confess pathetic details of their own sexual experience. But what makes the book even more disturbing is that it addresses issues every Western foreigner in Japan has encountered in a way or another. Business executives have all been exposed to assertions about Japan’s egregious “sexism” that “forces talented women abroad.” The media and the advertising industry reinforce stereotypes about idealized mixed couples–invariably, a white man and a Japanese woman–whereas the other combination–Japanese men marrying Western women–has much less social visibility and even faces negative prejudices–or at least that is what the author surmises, based on her own experience.

The Japanese Woman and the Western gaze

What keeps this book from stereotype, and the reader from voyeurism, is the rich theoretical apparatus, itself backed by a firm feminist perspective. Desire, Karen Kelsky underscores, is always an expression of power. And power itself is unevenly distributed along gender, racial, and sexual lines. Focusing on figures such as Tsuda Umeko (founder of Tsuda College), Sugimoto Etsu (author of A Daughter of the Samurai) and Katô Shizue (a pioneer in the birth control movement and a strong supporter of labor reform), the author tracks the emergence of a women’s discourse about the West/United States as a site of salvation from what they characterized as a feudalistic and oppressive patriarchal Japanese family system. Therein dates the idea, still fervently accepted by some women today, that Japanese women’s independence and advancement lie in the command of the English language, and the image of America as home of women’s emancipation. But the fetishization of the figure of the other crystallized during what Kelsky calls the “sexual nexus of the occupation”: Japanese women were desired by American men, while Japanese men were rebuffed by both American men and Japanese (and American) women. As she notes, “Women were not only desired as exotic Madame Butterfly (although that image, of course, played a role); they were also quickly rehabilitated as the “good” Japanese who, in contrast to duplicitous and violent men, were imagined to be malleable and eager for democratic reform.”

Having covered the historical background, the author turns to fieldwork, and to a new version of women’s narrative of Western akogare. As she notes, “the turn to the West only emerged as a widespread and popular option for middle-class women with the growth of the Japanese bubble economy in the 1980.” Using the money generated by the Japanese economy to embark on a program of intensive consumption of foreign goods, food, and travel, young single women soon emerged as the most thoroughly “cosmopolitan” population in Japan. There was a broad and deep shift of allegiance (the author uses the word: “defection”) from what women described as insular and outdated Japanese values to what they characterized as an expansive, liberating, international space of free and unfettered self-expression, personal discovery, and romantic freedom. Language courses, studies abroad, work abroad, and employment at international organizations such as the United Nations or in foreign-affiliate (gaishikei) firms gave these new internationalist women a new set of options to resist the conventional tracks of the gendered economy and to enter into alternative systems of thought and value. But as Kelsky notes, this turn to the foreign occurred “within an overarching logic of capital”: women’s akogare is “anticipated and recuperated by commodity logic, a logic that operates in increasingly subtle registers.”

A profoundly disturbing essay

In a way, commodity logic, and the dialectics between desire and its object, can even affect the reception of a book such as Women on the Verge. The same happened to Takeo Doi’s Anatomy of Amae: rendered into popular discourse, it continues to feed the clichés that were served to the author by some of her informants (“Japanese men have their mothers take care of them and they expect their wives to do the same.”) There is a thin line between academic scholarship, with its conditions of production and reception, and popular consumption of cultural products, which responds to another logic. In writing about women’s akogare, Karen Kelsky has taken a great risk: her book could as well fall prey to the same shortcuts, and reinforce the very stereotypes she means to undermine. Maybe the advice the author received at the outset of her research was right after all: an anthropologist should not hang around in pickup bars and ask questions nobody wants to answer, let alone listen to…

Anthologies, Literary Prizes, and the Production of Literary Value

A review of Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature: Publishing, Prizes, and the Ascription of Literary Value, Edward Mack, Duke University Press, 2010.

mackThere was a change in the perception of literature’s social role in Japan between the Taishô and the Shôwa periods. According to Maruyama Masao, Japan’s foremost postwar critic, the average parent and teacher at the end of the Taishô era thought that “a middle school student who spent all his time reading novels was doing one of two things: avoiding his studies or corrupting his morals.” Progressively however, reading literature became a more respectable cultural pursuit, tolerated and even encouraged by schools and families. The social status of writers and the novel improved markedly: they became embodiments of the national spirit, and symbols of Japan’s entry into modernity. The possession of a national literature became a point of pride for citizens who wanted to see Japan ranked among the greatest nations of the world. A mass market for literary productions turned writing from an insecure occupation into a potential source of wealth, and transformed select authors into celebrities.

Bringing modern Japanese literature to the home of ordinary Japanese

Although many factors influenced the shift in the general public’s perception of literature’s value, one cause had a disproportionate influence: the publication, between 1926 and 1931, of the Complete Works of Contemporary Japanese Literature (gendai nihon bungaku zenshû). The series marked a watershed in the production, reception, dissemination, and preservation of modern Japanese literature. Thanks to its reasonably low price–only one yen per volume–, the series reached a much wider audience than the traditional readership of modern literary texts, clustered around Tokyo’s literary circles and coterie magazines. For many readers, the series was the first access they had to actual literary texts assembled systematically into a cultural entity known as modern Japanese literature. In many ways, the series created and defined the very entity it purported to describe. The anthology brought Japanese modern literature to the home of ordinary Japanese: it became a familiar presence, and the bookcase offered to customers who completed the entire series was used as a decorative piece of furniture in many living rooms.

Maruyama Masao describes the impact that the publication of this series, as well as other “one-yen book” anthologies, had on young students of his generation: “Whenever the latest volume of the series arrived, everyone was talking about it, even during recess at school (…) That might have been the case only because it was a middle school in a large city. Still, it was the case for everyone–not just students–that, whether you had read them or not, you had to at least know the names of famous Japanese and world authors and their works.” Many writers from the early Shôwa period confessed the central role the collection played in their early literary education. One publishing historian wrote: “literary anthologies were the fundamental materials through which world and national literatures–centered on the novel–were systematically absorbed in Japan.” As an example, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables was published in the first volumes of the Anthology of World Literature, and became widely known through the translation by Toyoshima Yoshio under the title “aa mujô” (Ah, No Mercy).

A commercial enterprise

Advertising was central to this commercial enterprise. In addition to posters, leaflets and banners, the publisher sponsored nationwide lecture tours in which prominent writers were mobilized. Akutagawa Ryûnosuke was quoted as complaining that he “had been made to stand before the audiences in place of a billboard.” The exhaustion from his tour may well have hastened his mental and emotional collapse that led him to commit suicide in 1925. Akutagawa’s reputation, bolstered by his inclusion in the anthology, was strengthened further when a critic established in 1935 the Akutagawa Prize in recognition of a major work of literature published during the year by a Japanese novelist.

The promoters of the series were also interested in the “noise” (zawameki) of the period, not just by a narrow band of highly polished literary productions. Their anthology included minor genres such as juvenile literature or travel essays, as well as texts not usually classified as literature, such as newspaper columns or “domestic fiction”. But by the finite nature of the list of published authors, the anthology created a “static canon”, a closed shop of consecrated authors and works. The act of creating such a series demanded a ranking of writers, a banzuke as in a sumo tournament, even when the head editors were consciously trying to create as inclusive a collection as possible. Minor authors were consecrated, and prominent ones were left out. The choice of published material often had more to do with the ease of negotiating copyright or other extraliterary factors than the simple consideration of their literary value. Even when literary considerations came into play, they were more often inspired by whim and fashion, or by personal likings and dislikes, than by objective factors and rational arguments.

The influence of the Complete Works of Contemporary Japanese Literature was not limited to the Japanese territory. Immigrants to Brazil or to the US took the volumes with them so as to keep a connexion with the homeland’s national culture. The one-yen book series also sold well in the colonies and in the territories under Japanese influence. Uchiyama Shoten, a Japanese bookstore in Shanghai that opened in 1920, was a popular spot not only for Japanese expatriates but also for Chinese intellectuals such as Lu Xun, who had lived in Japan as a foreign student before becoming a figure of the May Fourth Movement. The poet Kaneko Mitsuharu, who lived in Shanghai in 1928 before moving to France, wrote that Uchiyama Shoten was the “teat from which Chinese received their intellectual nourishment.” In Korea, even before the Japanese imposed a strict policy of forced assimilation, some Korean intellectuals were drawn to the model of expression offered by modern Japanese literature, and chose to write in Japanese instead of in their national language.

Pure literature vs. popular literature

The history of Japan’s most popular prewar anthology forms only one chapter of Edward Mack’s Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature. Other chapters include the consequences of Tokyo’s 1923 earthquake over the publishing industry; the literary debates by which Tokyo intellectuals struggled to define the nature of literary value; the creation of the Akutagawa Prize for pure literature and the Naoki Prize for mass literature; and theoretical discussions on the history and sociology of literature. Edward Mack’s basic idea is that “the ascriptions of value that attend works are neither natural nor inevitable because they do not emanate in any simple way from the texts themselves.” In the anthologies, in the Akutagawa Prize selection process, or in the literary debates about the “I-novel” as a specifically Japanese form of literature, a variety of both literary and extraliterary factors were at play in deciding which works would enjoy consecration and which would not. A few individuals, such as the critic Kikuchi Kan, possessed a disproportionate amount of influence on the course of literary production. Of particular importance in the formation of literary value was the rhetorical opposition between “tsûzoku“(vulgar, mundane) novels and “junbungaku” or pure literature. What was considered pure or vulgar changed over time and was a matter of personal appreciation, but the binary opposition structured the forces at play in the literary field.

Although reading this book does not require previous knowledge of modern Japanese literature or of literary theory, it is an extremely rewarding experience on both counts. The text begins with the most mundane–the material conditions of literary production such as printing presses, movable fonts, paper sheets–and ends with the most speculative–deconstructing the categories of “modern,” of “Japanese,” and of “literature.” Prominent figures of Japanese literature are featured, such as Akutagawa Ryûnosuke or Kawabata Yasunari, along with minor authors and critics. Mack exhibits a mastery of Japanese texts and of epistemological tools that is rarely found with such balance in a Western scholar. The author borrows from Pierre Bourdieu the notions of symbolic capital (resources stemming from talent, prestige, or recognition) and of the literary field (defined as “the constellation of competitive relationships among literary producers and consumers who struggle for various forms of capital”). Mack draws inspiration from cultural studies and post-colonialism by questioning the link between literature and the nation-state, and by placing Taishô democracy in the context of the Japanese empire. He avoids the trap–conspicuous in the writings of Harry Harootunian, the editor of the series in which this book is published–of pure speculation that loses sight of empirical material. Manufacturing Modern Japanese Literature opens avenues for future research–some suggested, some implicit–, and should be read by all readers interested by Japanese literature or by literary criticism.

Ghost in the Shell

A review of The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry, Duke University Press, 2013.

the-soul-of-animeIn my opinion, The Soul of Anime should be read in business schools. It provides a wonderful case study of a particular industry, and it can teach management practitioners many things about globalization, creative industries, and flexible labor. Unlike what is stated in the book’s subtitle however, the story of Japanese anime is not a success story. As Ian Condry states in the introduction, “in terms of economic success, anime seems more of a cautionary tale than a model of entrepreneurial innovation.” Judged from a management perspective, the anime industry is in many ways a case of failure: a failure to globalize, a failure to create value on a sustained basis, and a failure on the side of market participants to reap profits and secure employment. But management can learn from failures as much than it can learn from success stories. What’s more, the anthropological perspective adopted by the author points towards a different theory of value creation: for cultural content industries, value is not synonymous with profits, and the relation between producers and consumers cannot be reduced to monetary transactions and economic self-interest. This is the intuition that the founders of anthropology developed when they analyzed trading relations among primitive tribes in terms of gift-giving and reciprocity; and this is the conclusion that this modern anthropology book reaches when it describes the popular success of this particular case of industrial failure.

A failed success story

Why didn’t anime transform itself into a profit-making machine for Japanese media groups? Why didn’t studio Ghibli—the producers of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away—develop into a franchise akin to Walt Disney’s? Why didn’t stories based on manga series—the main source of inspiration for Japanese anime—give birth to blockbuster movies the way that Marvel Comics did? For all its popular success and—in the case of Ghibli production—critical acclaim, Japanese anime production remains in many ways a cottage industry. The studios in which the author of The Soul of Anime did his fieldwork, with names such as Gonzo, Aniplex, and Madhouse, are small-scale operations that continuously stake the house on their next production. Even the biggest players such as Studio Ghibli, Production I.G. and Toei Animation are limited in size and do not generate extraordinary profits. As Ian Condry describes it, a studio can employ anywhere from fifteen to a few hundred people, and relies heavily on local freelance animators as well as offshore production houses located in South Korea, China, and the Philippines. Like other segments of the Japanese industry, the anime sector has been “hollowed out”: by some estimates, 90 percent of the frames used in Japanese animation are drawn overseas.

The work that remains in Japan is not very well-paid and is precariously flexible. Long hours are the norm, and many animators work freelance, moving from project to project, often without benefits. Visiting a studio is more like entering the den of a manga production house, with papers piling up everywhere and people working frantically on deadlines, than witnessing the cool working environment of a high-tech start-up. Indeed, manga stories provide most of the content later developed in anime movies, and the two worlds are closely interconnected. Osamu Tezuka, the creator of Astro Boy otherwise known as the “god of manga,” used to quip that manga was his wife, while animation was his mistress. Like manga, anime now attracts a cult followership across the globe, and fans are present on every continent. They often start to watch anime from a very young age: by some estimates, 60 percent of the world’s TV broadcasts of cartoons are Japanese in origin. Despite its global reach, the anime industry failed to give rise to corporate giants that could have become global actors. Even Studio Ghibli’s biggest overseas success, Spirited Away, which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, scored much less on the international box office than U.S animated productions of much lower quality. Mamoru Oshii’s cult film Ghost in the Shell reached number one in DVD sales in the United States in 1996, but failed to generate profitable spin-offs and lucrative sequels. Toei Animation’s original ambition to become the “Disney of the East” has failed egregiously.

The Galapagos syndrome

In a way, the failure of anime to globalize is just another case of the Galapagos syndrome: many globally available products take a local form in Japan, a variant that is sometimes more advanced and attuned to the local ecosystem, but which diverges from global trends. This isolation from the global market acts as a form of protectionism, allowing species to develop in unique ways, but leaves Japanese companies ill-prepared for global competition. Although cultural content industries such as manga, anime, video games, music, and films are being promoted by Japanese authorities for their ability to attract foreign audiences, the fact is that creators, drawers and scenarists mostly have a domestic audience in mind when they design their stories. The scorecards that manga readers send to weekly magazines to rate their favorite episodes is a case in point: it makes manga scenarios highly receptive to the reactions of the public, as unpopular series are discontinued and only the most popular manga stories survive and evolve according to their readership’s taste. But the system also makes manga series dependent on the whim of a group of core fans or otaku that do not necessarily reflect the national public, let alone global audiences. Copyright and intellectual property rights may also be an issue: Japanese companies reap hefty profits on the domestic market where IPR protection is strong, but are pilfered in neighboring countries through copycats, illegal downloading, and video streaming. Yet another argument that explains anime’s parochialism is that the global slot of blockbusters and megahits is already occupied by American productions, leaving only the niche markets of national cinema and sub-culture.

There are many reasons anime didn’t go global the way Walt Disney did. But perhaps we are using the wrong yardstick. Perhaps the value that anime generates belongs to a different class that is more diffuse and evanescent. As Ian Condry notes, “so much of what makes media meaningful lies beyond the measures of retail sales, top-ten lists, and box-office figures.” Anime cannot be gauged solely by examining what happens onscreen or by how it is marketed by studios. Instead of analyzing the cultural content of particular series or the business strategies of anime producers, Condry looks at the role of fans, the circulation of anime series and the dynamics between niche and mass market. He shows how the unexpected turnaround from failure to success for the Gundam franchise was linked to the energy of amateur builders of giant “mecha” robots and fans forming “research groups” into “Minovsky Physics”, an invention from the sci-fi series. He follows hard-core fans in sci-fi conventions, cosplay contests, and other fairs where amateurs distribute home-made manga and otaku videos. He focuses on fansubbing, the translation and dissemination of anime online by fans, which is governed by complex rules that are not always hostile to copyright protection. He considers how people can express strong affection or “moe” for virtual 2D characters with and sees it as “pure love” with no hope for a reciprocal emotional payback. This is a multi-sited ethnography, based on participant observation or “learning by watching” (kengaku), in which the author attempts to assess how value arises through the social circulation of media objects.

Follow the soul

Economists follow the money; anthropologists follow the soul, the energy, the mana. In his classic study of the Kula trade among the Trobriand islanders, Bronislaw Malinowski described the complex rules by which shell necklaces and trinkets circulated around a vast ring of island communities to enhance the social status and prestige of leaders. Kula valuables never remain for long in the hands of the recipients; rather, they must be passed on to other partners within a certain amount of time, thus constantly circling around the ring. French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, author of The Gift, reconceptualized this analysis of the Kula trade to ask: ”What power resides in the object given that causes its recipient to pay it back?” His answer was that Kula objects were invested with a certain property, a force binding the receiver and giver that he called the ‘hau’ or life-force. Another Polynesian notion that Marcel Mauss used was the ‘mana’: a form of a spiritual energy or charisma which can exist in places, objects and persons. Applying these notions to the Japanese context, we can say it is the ‘hau’ of anime that makes fans devote some of their time to give back to the community of anime lovers through writing subtitles or designing cosplay costumes. By summoning the ‘soul’ of anime, Ian Condry reconnects with some basic concepts of the discipline, and renews the inspiration of two of the great founders of anthropology. Both Bronislaw Malinowski and Marcel Mauss tried to build theories of exchange and the economy that went beyond monetary transactions and the economic interest of rational individuals. We find that same attention on how energy flows, reputations accumulate, and people collaborate in the production and circulation of anime.

Management scholars can also learn a lot from reading this modern anthropology book. The concept of ‘co-creation’ used by management scholars and sociologists is close to the ‘collaborative creativity’ used by Ian Condry to describe emergent structures of creative action in which both anime studios and fans play an important role. Similarly, “platforms” are a hot topic in management studies. Business scholars see platform industries as embodied in technologies that allow open collaboration and value creation on an unprecedented scale. Economists see platforms as multi-sided markets having distinct user groups that provide each other with network benefits. Rather than viewing technologies or markets as the platform, the anthropologist draws our attention on the circulation of emotions and meanings that define and organize our cultural space. Observing script meetings for a particular children TV series, Condry describes how a logic evolving around ‘characters’ and ‘worlds’ form the basis on which anime scripts are constructed and evaluated. Characters and worlds are trans-media concepts: they make a particular design or atmosphere move across media and circulate among people. They attract and connect, without being tied to any particular story or media. A well-known example is Hello Kitty, a character which exists independently from any storytelling and which has become an icon of a world of cuteness or ‘kawaii’. But characters are ubiquitous in Japan: they advertise anything from government agencies to city wards, and ‘character designer’ is a popular profession among the young generation.

From niche to mass market

Anime is often considered as the land of otaku, the realm of geeks, the kingdom of nerds. It is segmented into different categories or sub-genres, and a series’ appeal is generally limited to one single age group, as even the biggest successes very seldom straddles generations. It is, in essence, a niche market. Very seldom can it hope to reach a mass audience. But as Condry argues, the path from niche to mass may first involve jumps from niche to niche. Indeed, this might be the key to a more accurate definition of mass: to see it as network of niches acting in unison. The notion of “media success” often hinges on a movement from something small-scale that expands to become large-scale, yet niche has a chance in the context of global popular culture, free downloads, and viral videos. This is a new world after all, a world where the music video of an obscure rap singer from South Korea can be viewed over 2.5 billion times on YouTube, or where a gore movie such as The Machine Girl, whose schoolgirl heroin has a machine gun grafted to her amputated arm, can feature among the most often downloaded films on some media sharing platforms. Management should better pay heed to the otaku out there—or, in Steve Jobs’ words, “to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Ian Condry also redefines what we mean by social media. As he remarks, “today, media forms are more than something we simply watch, listen to, or consume; media is something we do.” Social network services like Facebook or Twitter have demonstrated that media could be a platform for participation as much as an object of consumption. What makes “social media” new is not the technology as much as the idea that media is not something to consume from a Network (like ABC) but something we participate in through our (small “n”) networks. Social network services or SNS make real what is virtual by making virtual what is real. In other words, Facebook-like platforms project onto the virtual world structures of relations between people and objects that form the basis of our day-to-day interactions; and by doing so, SNS show the materiality of the invisible bonds that connect components of the real world. Social media has helped put back the social into the media; but as the story of anime illustrates it, the social has been there all along. Anime’s success as a media form relies on the feedback loops between producers and audience. This brings us back to the energy around anime, which arises through its circulation and the combined efforts of large number of people. We might think of this collective energy as a kind of soul. The social in the media is what the anthropologist calls the soul. It is like a ghost in the shell: it animates real and virtual bodies, it moves across media platform and licensed goods, it makes energy flow from producers to consumers and back again. Anthropology is a very useful means of capturing these dimensions of our social reality that are ghost-like and often spirited away, because fieldworkers can gain access to that which is most meaningful to people through persistent engagement and critical questioning. This is why, in my opinion, anthropology should be taught in business schools.

Thinking Deep about Hello Kitty

A review of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty’s Trek across the Pacific, by Christine R. Yano, Duke University Press, 2013

Jhello-kittyapanese pop culture is not just a consumer fad or a passing attraction. It has become a research topic worthy of academic lectures and scholarly publications. This interest for new things Japanese was demand-driven and linked to transformations in North American and European universities in the past twenty years. Students enrolling in Japanese language classes or Japanese studies departments grew up alongside anime figures and manga characters coming from Japan. Their early exposure to Japanese popular culture and commercial products led them to request teachings that would reflect their childhood experience and teenage interest. Anthropologists and cultural studies scholars were better equipped to address this new demand than the literature scholars and historians or political scientists that have traditionally dominated area studies departments. Rather than working on texts and archives, they use ethnographic fieldwork as the preferred means of data collection. They are interested in the production and circulation of cultural objects as bearers of meaning and values. They do not draw a sharp distinction between high and low culture, between marketized commodities and authentic creations. For these new scholars, observers of the contemporary should not reject the mundane, the commercial and the transient. Rather, they should pay attention to everyday objects and popular productions as “goods to think with.” By doing so, they are able to notice emerging trends and societal changes that have broader implications for the understanding of contemporary societies.

Can Christine Yano prove she’s a real anthropologist?

Even so, choosing Hello Kitty as a research topic may have raised some eyebrows in Asian studies departments. Sanrio’s merchandising icon is the archetype of what scholars usually brush off as irrelevant for their studies. The commercially-driven, superficial and childish phenomenon of this kitten figure adorning various consumer products surely cannot be taken as the topic of a serious academic study. It can at best provide a case study for a business class on brand marketing, or an illustration in an introductory course on Japanese culture’s global reach. But certainly no book can be published on such a mundane topic. Or can it? Christine Yano is aware she took risks in choosing Hello Kitty’s reception in the US—what she calls “pink globalization”—as the focus of her study. As a nasty comment gleaned over Twitter puts it, “some years ago anthropologist Christine Yano proved #hellokitty wasn’t a real cat, which made many readers doubt she was a real anthropologist.” Such remarks may have been inspired by the jealousy of colleagues who saw Yano reach popular success, not really in terms of book sales, but through invitations to give lectures, attend fan conventions, and curate exhibitions—all activities that usually lie beyond the ambit of most anthropology professors. Critics may also point to some flaws in the methodology—this is a research-lite, easy-fieldwork book that is overly reliant on Internet sources—, lack of fact-checking—Yano takes at face value the anti-Hello Kitty rant found on a satirical parody website based around a fake fundamentalist Baptist church—and writing style that mixes professional jargon and journalistic catchwords.

How can the author prove she is a real anthropologist while at the same time remaining true to her chosen topic? Her first impulse is to take Hello Kitty very seriously. Her book won acceptance in a prestigious university press series by showing all the trappings of serious scholarship—the footnotes, the bibliography, the references to theory and drafting of new concepts. At the beginning of every chapter, Christine Yano raises theoretical issues by way of rhetorical questions, and then purports to answer them based on accumulated data and complex reasoning. She pays tribute to past scholarship and quotes from all anthropologists who have studied Japanese popular culture—Anne Allison, Laura Miller, Thomas LaMarre, Brian McVeigh, Jennifer Robertson, Marc Steinberg—as well as from many cultural critics and feminist scholars. She discusses key concepts in detail, presenting the genealogy of popular notions such as pink, cute, cool, and kitsch, as well as exotic words such as kawaii, asobi, fanshii guzzu, kogyaru, shôjo, and kyarakutâ. She offers her own theoretical constructs: “pink globalization”, “Japanese Cute-Cool”, “the wink”. She knows that in doing so, she loses some readers along the way—some Internet comments lambast her book as “a boatload of jargon”, and particularly resent her savant references to Adorno and to Marx. But this is the price to pay to gain admission in the exclusive circle of cultural critics and anthropology scholars.

A multi-sited ethnography

More specifically, Christine Yano, who is identified on the book’s back cover as Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, anchors her research in the discipline of cultural anthropology. Her book is what scholars describe as a “multi-sited ethnography”: she didn’t do fieldwork in a single community or location, but collected data and observations in various places, mostly in Hawai’i and in San Francisco, but also in other cities where her professional assignments took her. As she describes it, “Hello Kitty became a research hobby: whenever I traveled to another city, I searched Sanrio stores and fans… Every year when I taught the course on Japanese popular culture, I surveyed students about their knowledge of Hello Kitty.” She also scanned the Internet for testimonies and contacts on her research topic. She conducted structured interviews (thirty-one in total) with various informants: Sanrio managers in Japan and in the US, shop salespersons, Kitty adult fans, goods collectors, and artists. She includes long excerpts of these interviews in her book. Again, this is standard practice in anthropology, where the notes and recordings of the ethnographer are often reproduced in extenso. But this may rebuff some readers, for various reasons that the author herself acknowledges in the following: “some readers may feel that the fan interviews I quote here represent an overload of sentiment, a barrage of capitalist frenzy, a besotted attachment to a commodity. Without apology, I agree, and suggest that these readers skip over the interviews themselves and head to the conclusions I draw from them at the end of the chapter.”

This curious self-denial points to another discursive strategy by which the author affirms her credentials as a serious scholar. At many junctures, she tries to distance herself from corporate lore, marketing ploys, and naive adherence to what Hello Kitty represents in order to offer her own critical interpretation. She responds to critics by incorporating their viewpoint and giving them a voice within her own analysis. For instance, she concludes her chapter on Sanrio’s corporate strategy with the following: “a company ethos of happiness tinged with pink sounds like a hugely naive, manipulative enterprise, and that, in fact, may be exactly what it is.” She devotes a whole chapter on “Kitty Backlash”, reflecting the views of Hello Kitty’s detractors which she mainly found on the Internet. This leads her to her enormous blunder when she takes at face value the discourse of a parody Baptist church that reads the word “Hell” in “Hello Kitty”. Although Sanrio’s cat is primarily a child’s character, Yano focuses exclusively on adult consumers of Kitty products—and even on adult products, such as the infamous Hello Kitty massage wand. She also devotes much place to cultural productions and artistic expressions that play with Hello Kitty in creative and imaginative ways. Art, like anthropology, has a complex and troublesome relationship with commerce and capitalism. In her way, her whole book structure reproduces her ambivalence with Hello Kitty as a scholarly pursuit—from finding Kitty at home in Japan, to following her through global marketing strategies across the Pacific, describing her ubiquity, giving voice to Kitty detractors, and then showing that subversion and, ultimately, art, essentially “get it.”

We find this mix of adherence and critical distance in the juxtaposition of fan testimonies and anti-Kitty hate speech, in the contrast between interviews and commentary, and even in the author’s own writing style, which mixes scholarly jargon and popular expressions. Christine Yano claims for herself the right to write at times like the editor of a girlie magazine, while in the next paragraph using difficult words and complex reasoning like a tenured professor. Like her character, she can be both cute and cool at the same time, and she writes with tongue-in-cheek humor. Her sentences often mix the serious and the playful, the elaborate and the obvious, the obtuse theorizing and the plain reasoning. Even her main theoretical concepts (cute, cool, kitsch, pink, kawaii, etc.) are borrowed from plain language and everyday expressions. This makes Pink Globalization an easier and more pleasant read than most anthropology books published in the same publisher’s series. This also makes it risky business: her theoretical apparatus and critical commentary may lose plain readers along the way, while scholars of a more classical bent may be put off by her choice of topic in the first place. But again, there is a market for critical analysis of Asian pop culture, as evidenced in the many publications that now address the topic, and cultural anthropologists are better placed to claim this market segment for their discipline.

The philosophy of “the wink”

Beyond Hello Kitty, is there anything that non-Kitty fans can take from this book? I mentioned the creative use of simple notions such as cute and cool, the way they relate to ordinary people’s lives, and the value added that theory brings. More than pink globalization, the key concept Christine Yano wants to offer as her personal contribution to social theory is the “wink”. This is, of course, a Kitty gesture: Hello Kitty, in some of her modern renderings, winks at her viewers, thereby complicating the blank stare and expressionless face she is so much remembered for. The wink defines the very fetishism of Hello Kitty. It is a symbol of friendship, playfulness, and intimacy. It creates the possibility of two-way interactions, of double meaning, and second degree. The wink resolves logical inconsistencies—between cute and cool, child and adult, kitsch and art, pink and black. It allows for subversive uses of Hello Kitty. The wink also includes the viewers into the circle of those who “get it” and assume what Kitty stands for. More importantly, “wink as play” holds the power to silence or incorporate Kitty’s critics. In turn, adult consumers wink back at her and use Kitty in minimalist acts of subversion, performing feminity or sexiness. For Christine Yano, the wink is also a theoretical gesture. It is her personal answer to those in faculty committees and scholarly associations who raise eyebrows at her research topic and question her credentials as an anthropologist.

Lost and Found in Translation

A review of Nature in Translation: Japanese Tourism Encounters the Canadian Rockies, by Shiho Satsuka, Duke University Press, 2015.

nature-in-translationHow do you translate nature in Japanese? The obvious answer—the word “shizen” is the dictionary translation of “nature”—is not so obvious, at least for historians of Japanese thought. Shizen is a Japanese pronunciation of the Taoist concept of ziran, drawn from Laozi. It describes the condition of artlessness or a situation happening without human intention. Its opposite is the notion of “sakui”, or “invention”, the forces of human agency that intervene to create social order. The opposition between shizen and sakui, between the natural way of heaven and earth and the power of human creation, was revived after the Second World War by public intellectual Maruyama Masao when he tried to identify the responsibility for Japan’s wartime aggression. In order to exonerate the Emperor who remained in place as a symbol of the Japanese nation, the war was narrated as if it happened “naturally”, and ordinary Japanese people were framed as the victims of the war. For Maruyama, who chose to emphasize the forces of sakui as first conceptualized by Confucian scholar Ogyû Sorai, the ambiguity in the notion of shizen, and the difficulty to find a proper translation for human subjectivity, was precisely at stake. In order to reenter the international community as rational agents, the Japanese needed to establish a new spirit of individual autonomy, or shutaisei, and to overcome nature as shizen. Only so could they find a proper sense of freedom—another concept that was difficult to translate, as the word jiyû retains the meaning of its origin in the Buddhist expression of jiyû jizai, which designates liberation as self-detachment.

For Shiho Satsuka, translating nature takes a different meaning. Trained as an anthropologist in the intellectual hotbed of the University of California at Santa Cruz, she did her graduate fieldwork training as a travel guide in the Canadian National Park of Banff, a destination favored by Japanese tourists. Her book, drawn from her PhD thesis and published in 2015, analyzes the way Japanese tour guides translate ecological knowledge into lived experience. Translation of nature involves much more than finding proper Japanese equivalents of English notions. As Shiho Satsuka states, it “concerns what counts as human, what kind of society is envisioned, and who is included in the society as a legitimate subject.” The focus of the book is on the tour guides, not on the tourists they accompany. In classic anthropological fashion, the author elaborates from her field notes to describe how the guides left Japan and came to Canada to live in “magnificent nature”; what image they held from Canada and how it contrasted with the reality they found there; how they went through training and transformed themselves into service workers; and how they negotiated issues of gender, cultural difference, knowledge politics, and personal identity. The book mobilizes a vast array of authors and theories, Western and Japanese, while staying close to the lived experience and worldviews of the tour guides that the author befriended during her anthropological fieldwork.

Narratives of freedom

Japanese guides offer “narratives of freedom” to account for their departure from Japan and their adoption of a new lifestyle in the Canadian Rockies. Their decision to leave Japan coincided with a period of national angst and crisis. In a newly established neoliberal environment, the meaning of “freedom”—remember the ambiguity of the Japanese term—became a contentious issue. The furitâ—the free individual living on small jobs or arubaito—captured the imagination of a generation aspiring to detach itself from the secure but constrained environment of the corporation. Becoming a furitâ was often a choice born out of necessity, or necessity made virtue, in the context of widespread liberalization of corporate regulations and labor laws that resulted in growing youth unemployment and precariousness. In the midst of economic change, as the Japanese economy moved from bubble years to prolonged depression, a growing number of young adventurers “escaped” from Japan to go overseas for self-searching travel. In their pursuit for freedom, they chose to drop out of, or not participate in the Japanese corporate system. A number of them found in Canada and its national parks a convenient site to reinvent themselves and establish their new subjectivities. Some thought guiding was their dream job, while others only considered it as transitional work until they found what they really wanted to do with their lives.

Their aspirations were projected onto “magnificent nature”: Canadian natural environment offered the canvas on which they could reinvent themselves, unfettered by national boundaries, cultural norms, and social rules. Moving to Canada offered them what they couldn’t find in their home society: the opportunity to pursue freedom and the choice to live one’s own life as a self-standing individual. Japan was perceived as oppressing the true, authentic self with layers upon layers of social rules and obligations. Escaping to the West was a way to take back control of one’s life and to embrace the centrality of the individual. At the same time, Canada provided a version of Western subjectivity distinct from the American model, an alternative space in which nature played a significant part in the guides’ construction of subjectivities. Japanese candidates to Canadian immigration were often attracted by mere pictures, anecdotes, or TV shows depicting life in the wilderness. They embraced the image of the natural park’s guide as a figure of independence and freedom—a person who had a solid sense of her own subjectivity and the ability to move beyond national, social, and cultural boundaries. Shiho Satsuka tracks the construction of this imaginary space in the work of a value entrepreneur, former politician and popular television entertainer, Ohashi Kyôsen, who provided his readers with the dream vision of “living one’s own life” free from the company and nation, the two most important social contexts in shaping a sarariman’s life. Although Ohashi’s main target was more the young male retirees whose corporate alienation had left them bereft of any social ties, his vision was also influential among young office ladies and freeters who found that the corporate ladder was closed to them and chose to escape to a world of unbound possibilities.

Co-modification of the self

What they discovered in Canada was that work was still work, and that becoming a tour guide entailed what the author labels a “co-modification of the self”. As service workers, they were enjoined by their training manager to become a commodity, in the sense that their public expected to consume a commodified performance similar to the one offered by an artist or an entertainer. Co-modification also designates the modification and production of self through interactions with nature and with the public who came to see the guides as a reflect of their environment. Becoming a commodity therefore had a quite different meaning from that of the commodification of labor that Marx saw as a centerpiece of capitalist exploitation. If anything, the commodity or shôhin implicit in this process of self transformation retains the qualities of premodern craftsman’s production. There was a tension between the unique skills and personalities of each guide, their obligation to act with “sincerity” and “authenticity”, and the demands of mass tourism which asked for a standardized level of comfort and quality of service. Each trainee was therefore encouraged to build his or her unique narrative, while assimilating the rules and procedures listed in a hefty manual. There was a Zen-like quality in their apprenticeship, as the trainees had to guess what the managers and senior guides had in mind even though they did not spell out their intentions. They were invited to blend with nature and transform themselves into locals, while retaining some traits of “old-style” Japanese behavior. For their instructor, the perfect match between a person and his or her surrounding was the foundation for attaining “freedom”, in the sense that the Buddhist tradition gives to the term jiyû jizai. To achieve this notion of freedom, it is important to train one’s own body and mind, and let oneself detach from one’s self-interest in order to become one with nature.

The guides’s performance as “Japanese cosmopolitans” were the result of this co-modification of self and environment. For the Japanese tourists, the guides embodied the cosmopolitan dream of escaping the standard course of stable yet constraining lives of salaried workers in order to live a frugal yet fulfilling life in nature. Despite—or because of—the stereotypical association of outdoor activity and masculine culture, female outdoor guides played a particularly significant role. They performatively constructed their subjectivities as people who could transcend the dominant gendered norms. By doing so, they produced a charismatic aura and presented themselves as mediators with the special ability to go back and forth between the everyday world and an elsewhere, imaginarily staged on Canada’s vast natural landscape. Shiho Satsuka draws the portrait of three of these charisma guides, referring them to familiar gender figures in Japanese pop culture: the male-impersonating female found in girls’ high schools or Takarazuka plays; the tomboy who refuses to grow up and fall into assigned gender roles; and the girl medium fighting to save the world as in video games or anime movies. The ambiguous characteristics of female tour guides who straddled various sets of two worlds—male and female, adult and child, and human and nature—exemplifies the limits of standard binary frameworks used for categorizing human beings. It shows that being female is not a “natural fact” but a cultural performance: choosing a gender category for oneself or others is not necessarily based on a biological body, but on a person’s social role and position in everyday interactions. Here the author makes reference to the work of Judith Butler, but her “gender trouble in nature” is devoid of any militant charge, and gender ambiguity is presented as an everyday fact of life. If anything, the gender roles performed by female outdoor guides are more “natural” than the artificial roles assigned to young women in Japanese society.

A matchmaker between the tourists and the landscape

Japanese outdoor guides offer “nature in translation”: they are expected to tell the stories of nature as if they were national park interpreters. In the park managers’ view, ecological science is the basis of understanding nature’s language. Guides play a role of environmental stewardship as a result of a neoliberal privatization process that has outsourced nature’s protection to the commercial sector. But nature and science take on different meanings in English and in Japanese. The Japanese guides’ participation in an accreditation program revealed discrepancies of worldview that locate humans in relation to nature. Japanese participants asked more questions about plant and rocks as opposed to animals, they did not laugh when their instructor ironically hugged a tree, and they had trouble translating notions like “nature interpretation” or “stewardship” into Japanese. In their view, the guide was not a decoder of nature’s true message but more like a matchmaker between the tourists and the landscape. They let nature do the talk. This doesn’t mean that Japanese guides were not interested in environmental science and technical knowledge as dispensed in the training program: on the contrary, they were keen to update themselves with the latest research by the park scientists, and embraced the principles of environmental conservation. But they insisted that nature was much larger than any person’s ability to grasp it, and their questioning suggested that the dividing line between nature and society varies across cultures. The notion of stewardship, which implies that man is accountable for this world and has to answer to a higher authority about its management, is not easily translated into other religious and knowledge traditions.

Japanese outdoor guides offer “nature in translation”: they are expected to tell the stories of nature as if they were national park interpreters. In the park managers’ view, ecological science is the basis of understanding nature’s language. Guides play a role of environmental stewardship as a result of a neoliberal privatization process that has outsourced nature’s protection to the commercial sector. But nature and science take on different meanings in English and in Japanese. The Japanese guides’ participation in an accreditation program revealed discrepancies of worldview that locate humans in relation to nature. Japanese participants asked more questions about plant and rocks as opposed to animals, they did not laugh when their instructor ironically hugged a tree, and they had trouble translating notions like “nature interpretation” or “stewardship” into Japanese. In their view, the guide was not a decoder of nature’s true message but more like a matchmaker between the tourists and the landscape. They let nature do the talk. This doesn’t mean that Japanese guides were not interested in environmental science and technical knowledge as dispensed in the training program: on the contrary, they were keen to update themselves with the latest research by the park scientists, and embraced the principles of environmental conservation. But they insisted that nature was much larger than any person’s ability to grasp it, and their questioning suggested that the dividing line between nature and society varies across cultures. The notion of stewardship, which implies that man is accountable for this world and has to answer to a higher authority about its management, is not easily translated into other religious and knowledge traditions.

Nature as a constant process of translation

Multiculturalism and environmental protection are two key areas in which Canada has assumed a self-assigned leading role in the world. They have become pillars of Canadian national identity, a source of pride and attractiveness in a world where these two values are put under stress. But nature conservation is seldom seen with the prism of multiculturalism. Instead, ecology has adopted the language of science, with the underlying assumption that scientific knowledge is culturally neutral and universally applicable to people with diverse backgrounds. By following the trail of Japanese tour guides in Banff, Shiho Satsuka shows that nature needs to be understood as a constant process of translation. Ecology as a language is inseparable from the politics of knowledge translation: notions such as nature, freedom, work, or identity are constantly renegotiated in distinct social contexts. The Japanese guides portrayed by the author occupy a liminal space away from mainstream Japanese and Canadian societies. But these service workers have much to tell us about what it means to inhabit nature as cosmopolitan agents seeking freedom and independence in a globalizing world. This book, the first one published by the author, also demonstrates the proper value of a graduate education in anthropology. Anthropology is a discipline that adresses big issues—the relation between mankind and nature, the political economy of neoliberalism and flexible work, the definition of freedom and subjectivity—in a located and situated manner. Theory—and this is a theoretically rich book—always come as a tool to understand our present in concrete situations. Her graduate education has provided Shiho Satsuka with a rich toolbox of concepts and references, but more important to her was the patient learning and questioning accumulated during ethnographic fieldwork. This book marks the birth of a great anthropologist.