Tag Archives: Japan

Thoughts on Sakaguchi Kyohei’s ‘How to build an Independent State’ 独立国家の作り方

Last week I attended the Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference in Paris. This was my first Crossroads conference and incidentally my first trip to Paris. I have many fond memories of France but the one time my family ventured into a major French city we ended up in a car crash. So it was much to my pleasant surprise that Paris was as beautiful as it is made out to be, and I was lucky enough to spend it with two very lovely people.

Unfortunately I missed the keynotes, but thankfully Jeremy Gilbert has posted his excellent discussion of the challenges of neo-liberalism on the OurKingdom section of openDemocracy (here). In it he argues that the various cultural and political movements of the 1960s represented a democratic surge that threatened the status-quo by asking a number of dangerous questions relating to the distribution of wealth, economic and military power and crucially how we live to together. The strategy of capital in response to this upsurge has, in Gilbert’s words, been to ‘meet precisely those amongst that set of demands which would not threaten the over-arching goal of capital accumulation, while determinedly opposing the realisation of those which would.’ People protested and demanded and critiqued. The market gave the people what they wanted, but in commodity form and on the market’s terms.

This is one of the major problems of critiquing capital. As a system it is incredibly resilient, precisely in this ability to give us what we want, but not on our terms (a mechanism well captured by the second part of Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ mini-series). It is this adaptability in the face of critique that leads Gilbert, near the end of his article, to note that:

‘Almost everything I was afraid of happening over the past 30 years has happened. Everything my political mentors warned might happen, since I was a boy growing up on a poor council estate (that’s a housing project, if you’re American) in the North of England in the early 80s, or a high-school student reading denunciations of Thatcherism in the left press a few years later, has turned out just as badly as they said it would. And yet I don’t wish I was living 40 years ago. The point seems to be: this is the world we were all afraid of; but it’s also sort of the world we wanted.’

One of the problems with critique is that there is no exterior to launch a critique from, seemingly no viable alternative. Communism, at least in its past forms, looks to be a dead end, and the nihilistic hope for some sort of terror led revolution by people such as Zizek leaves me queasy. This is the reason that some academics are keen to hold up groups seemingly untouched by capital relations. As one of the two lovely people said over a fine meal in a Parisian cafe at 11:30pm, the previously colonized subjects of anthropology are now being held up as models for the future.

This brings me to the book I am reading at the moment, ‘How to build an Independent Country (独立国家の作り方)’ by Sakaguchi Kyōhei. In all honesty I bought it because I liked the title and wanted something to read on the Shinkansen from Fukuoka to Tokyo, but it ended up in the bottom of my bag. I fished it out again on return to the ‘long toothache’ that is the UK, and am about a third of the way through it now. Although I was pretty skeptical at first, I am finding it quite interesting for at least two reasons. The first is that it offers up a model of a different attitude to living derived from a group that has fallen through the cracks: homeless people living in Tokyo. The second is that his argument so far has been a lot less about theorizing and a lot more about getting on and doing something.

So to begin with I was skeptical. Its all very well and good holding up homeless people as paragons of virtue but (a) shouldn’t the state have stepped in to make sure they didn’t become homeless in the first place and (b) wouldn’t the homeless people themselves rather be, you know, home-d? Both these points are still niggling away as I read the book, but lets put them to one side for a moment and see what Sakaguchi has to say.

Sakaguchi’s main point is that the vast expense incurred by either renting or owning a house is actually, when you think about it, ridiculous. People grind away at work in order to pay that 100,000 a month rental bill or the equivalent in mortgage payments. For the majority of people outlay on their housing will eat up the lion’s share of their wages, meaning that they have to work harder and longer in order to provide for all the other things they need in life.  Indeed, Sakaguchi seems to suggest that this system was set up intentionally as a way of integrating people into the economy.

In this he is backed up by scholars such as Hirayama Yosuke. Hirayama argues that homeownership was vigorously promoted by the Japanese government in the early post-war period as the key means by which people could gain security for their old age. Japan is interesting in that it is one of the very few developed capitalist nations that did not produce a comprehensive welfare system. Provision of welfare was mostly left to corporations and security (in the sense of the long term prospect of stability) was promoted through the prospect of homeownership and a pension. As long as you worked hard and paid off your loan you could look forward to stability in your old age, drawing a pension and living in your fully paid for house.

However, since the 1990s this system has been breaking down. Neoliberal reforms and casualisation of the labour force have taken their toll. The rise in fixed term contracts, permanent part-time work and falling wages means that the prospect of living on one’s own, let alone buying a house, is becoming less and less achievable. The pension system is also under ever increasing strain due to the dual problem of an aging population and declining birthrate. For many young people the old social contract simply does not work anymore.

It doesn’t work, but it still has a ring of commonsense to it. In the book Sakaguchi notes time and again that the idea of paying lots of rent, or getting a 35 year loan to buy a house is hardly questioned in Japan (and I would argue that it is hardly questioned here either), even though it is increasingly difficult to do so. To a certain extent there is anecdotal evidence that attitudes to housing are changing and the notion of shared-living is getting some interest in the media (witness J-Pop phenomenon Arashi’s new segment on their show ‘Secret Arashi’, where they welcome guests into their own ‘share-house’ studio). However, renting an apartment and eventual homeownership is still the generally accepted norm.

So, Sakaguchi, a trained architect, sees the housing system as a transparent way of getting people to work and pay taxes. His solution to this problem was to look for ways to build houses that cost as little as possible and avoided the tax system. This is where Tokyo’s homeless come in. While walking around the Asakusa area Sakaguchi met with a number of homeless people who nevertheless had homes. Small, yes but homes nonetheless. These homes were built out of what he refers to as ‘gomi’ (rubbish), such as discarded pieces of wood and blue sheeting, but were also augmented with solar power generators and car batteries rigged to produce 100v electricity. Local parks offer water sources and toilets, libraries bookshelves, the local public bath in place of the shower. Food is a little more difficult — many homeless in Tokyo receive handouts from restaurants and supermarkets — and I doubt many people would be comfortable with this arrangement. However, the idea was there in principal: a radical rethink of what is needed to live and the relationship between the public and the private sphere.

It is this relationship that Sakaguchi continues to probe in the book. He refers to the bureaucratic world of Japan as ‘anonymous’ (tokumeika sareta) and relates it to the proliferation of private house buying, and the concomitant steady encroachment of the private into the public. Part of his ‘mission’ (his words not mine) is in questioning this privileging of the private over the public and the effect this has on human relations.  Perhaps if there was a reconsideration of the relationship between private and public the anonymity of the system would be replaced with more enduring human relationships: going to the library to get your books means you have to talk to people and share a public space; likewise with going to public baths.  And perhaps with the cost of housing reduced more people would have time to sit in parks and talk to each other.

Of course there is also the problem of the law. But here Sakaguchi found that as long as your home has wheels it is not legally classified as a house and therefore it is not taxed. He also found that there are pockets of land in Tokyo where long running disputes over ownership have left them ostensibly free to use — something that he hasn’t talked about much yet but will, I am sure, make a reappearance later in the book. Anyway, armed with this information he built a small (3 tatami mat) house for around 30 000 yen (£250), put wheels on it and, after negotiating with the owner, set it up in a car park. He even got a Pizza delivered to the house as proof that it was actually a house.

The point that comes through here is that Sakaguchi didn’t come up with a clever theory of emancipation from capital relations. He just saw something that looked like a viable alternative and started an experiment. Now of course we could argue that he is still embedded in ‘the system’: the fact that he is pumping out books and making money would seem to undercut his efforts at extraction. He still bought his materials from a DIY shop. He still has an iPad and buys clothes from, you know, shops. Hypocrite, right?

I’m not so sure. Sakaguchi uses the strategies of homeless people as an example because they have been forced by the their situation to develop a new way of living, not necessarily outside capital relations but certainly on the margins. They have been forced to use their own resources by neoliberalism, incidentally what this particular ideology is all about, and in doing so they offer a model for something different. Again I can’t quite shake the feeling that the state should be stepping in to help, but perhaps state intervention that stops people from having to fundamentally rethink value systems is part of the problem. What Sakaguchi is doing is working through the consequences of a shift in perspective on the meaning of home, the relationship between public and private and the relationship between work, property and stability that comes from having to piece together a life on Japan’s streets. Lots to think about anyway, and I haven’t even got to the bit where he sets up his own country.

Here is a trailer for a documentary that follows his project:




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Vaguely topical, mostly drivel

After much searching and consideration I have come to conclusion that best place to buy Japanese DVDs in Japan is seated in my minshuku in Kyoto from America via Amazon UK.  Thank god that the good people of Greece voted to stay in the Euro — financial crisis, trade tariffs and the subsequent re-erection of national barriers could have seriously imperilled by  DVD purchasing enterprises.  However, according to THE MEDIA, we aren’t out of the woods yet and so I decided it most prudent to go on a credit fuelled spending spree before it all goes tits up.  My rationalisation is based on the demands of research and teaching, i.e. I’m (1) doing it for science and (2) for the kids.  Therefore I have no choice.  Poor me.

In other news I tweeted for the first time in ages yesterday.  My tweet commented on how awesome tatami mats are.  I reiterate on the eve of my second night in Kyoto:  Tatami mats are awesome.  They smell nice and invite you to sit on them.  Like in Hotaru no Hikari you find yourself overcome by the urge to roll around.  Its wonderfully liberating.  Indeed, over the last two days I have actually come to believe that furniture is the enemy.  Look at the way it just sits there and glares at you, judging your every move.  Furniture thinks you’re fat and barely conceals its contempt when you sit on it.  You cant roll around a room full of furniture either as you are very likely to bang your head on a chestefield or smack your ankle on a wing back.  Furniture is crap.

I cant think of anything else to write so have some photographs of tatami.  You will notice me sitting on furniture but I promise you it didn’t last.

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I am now the proud owner of two volumes of Red by Yamamoto Naoki, analysis of which will form a part of a paper on contemporary representations of the United Red Army.  DVDs and a few novels are awaiting purchase, but should it all go to pot and I fail to find them, I will have to plump for Amazon and their exorbitant shipping fees.

Yamamoto Naoki is an interesting chap who probably deserves some closer investigation himself.  He caused a bit of stir in the early 1990s with a manga called Blue (1991), that has the dubious honour of being designated ‘dangerous material’ (有害物)under the Youth Protection Law and being a reference point in the ensuing debate.  I know very little about this debate of dangerous comics, and it is fair to say that Japan has its fair share of racy illustrated material, but it seems Yamamoto Naoki is no shrinking violet when it comes to his themes.

It seems that Yamamoto first started writing about terrorists with a serialised manga called Believers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Believers), which was inspired by both the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack and a book on the United Red Army (yet another thing to buy I suppose).  I haven’t done any research into the motivation for Red, but I assume it was a continuation of this original interest.  What I have read of the first volume has been very compelling, and also quite eerie, with the reader being told in advance how long the characters have left to live, or how long it is until they will be caught by the authorities.  Some of the characters are also numbered, which in an ominous indication of the fate that awaits them…

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Made it to Japan (only just)

We started our much anticipated Japan trip in the best way possible: missing our connection in Vienna, being rerouted to Paris then flying with ANA to Narita.  It took about 6 hours longer than it should have and they managed to lose one of our bags in the process, but we made it.

Our first two days have been uneventful but rather pleasant. This is the first time either of us has been to Asakusa and we are both rather smitten by the atmosphere, little back streets and of course the shrine. On our walk back from Ueno yesterday we passed an apartment building from Showa 4 with amazing cracked walls and dark wooden balconies.  It is quite inspiring to see architecture from this period, especially given that I now lecture on Taisho, early Showa Japan.



We also went to Akihabara to get a charger for Jo’s camera and took the opportunity to wander around the shops.The overriding impression is how hellishly expensive everything is!  It is very strange being in a 120 yen to the pound Japan, it seems that we are getting a taste of what it was like to live here in the 1980s.  However, we are taking the opportunity to exercise our setsuyaku (節約)muscles — major success of yesterday was obento for 290 yen each!

Finally, I bought my first book of the trip, かっこにっぽんじん by Tachibana Akira.  It purports to be a rethinking of the nihonjinron in the age of globalisation and I look forward to seeing what this guy has to say….

Oh, SKY TREE!!!!

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It cant be helped?

Fight fire with fire?  Maybe it can’t be helped…

On the 5th of April 2009, after a few false alarms, North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile, with the (supposed) intention of putting a communications satellite into orbit.  In the end the missile passed over Japanese airspace, the first stage dropping in the Sea of Japan.  The launch was the latest episode in turbulent North Korea – Japan relations.  It also marks a possible turning point in political moves towards revision of the peace constitution.  Here I want to show how television programmes contribute to the framing of events so that revision takes on an air of inevitability in the general public.

Earlier that morning I watched two programmes that carried comment on the potential launch: a current affairs news corner (a segment in TBS’s Sunday Morning waido show) called kaze wo yomu (風をよむ) and another Sunday morning waido show called Sunday Japon (サンデージャポン).  Kaze wo yomu can be considered a ‘hard’ news segment with one presenter and a panel made up of academics and journalists.  Sunday Japon, on the other hand, can be considered a ‘soft’ news programme, with a much more diverse panel of guests and comedians acting as presenters.

For kaze wo yomu, which means literally ‘read the wind’, a reporter was sent out to ask the public about Japan’s stance towards North Korea in the context of a potential missile launch, and other questions about securing peace with Japan’s military in general.  The people interviewed all replied in the same fashion, which can be summarised as: ‘as Japanese we don’t want to use force but in these times it can’t be helped.’  The finally refrain of this sentence was expressed in a multitude of ways, with the interviewees using terms such as shikata ga nai, shou ga nai or yamu wo enai, which can all be roughly translated as meaning ‘it can’t be helped’ or ‘there is nothing that can be done’.  The programme picked up on this refrain and put its findings to a panel of political experts.

The experts, a collection of academics and journalists, were stunned by this general lack of contestation.  They all expressed the view that military action could indeed be helped, and that not enough diplomatic work had gone on to warrant such a fatalistic point of view.  They all bemoaned the lack of public debate over the North Korea issue, as well as the precarious position of military use in relation to article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which renounces the right to wage war.  It was agreed that public debate over the best way to approach North Korea and international security, as well as on the status of the constitutional ‘peace clause’ was needed.

So the question to be asked is: why is there such a split between the opinions of the people on the streets and the panellists?  This is an important question, because the fatalistic attitude towards military engagement opens up a gateway for the government push through constitutional reform.  If nothing can be done about the dangers present in the world, other than addressing them with force, then revision of the peace clause in the constitution would be commonsense and therefore beyond questioning.  Framing issues in such a way that only one option seems conceivable is to set the limits for debate and potential outcomes.  Furthermore, by strategic utilisation of threats and claims to act in the name of ‘national security’, dissent can be stigmatised as ‘unpatriotic’ or worse just plain foolishness.

Media coverage of events surrounding the missile launch produced two complimentary discourses – one of threat and one of powerlessness – that make military responses commonsensical while shutting down other avenues.  Both of these discourses were present in Sunday Japon.  Sound, image and language combined to frame the North Korean rocket as something to be unequivocally feared, as well as present Japan as a hapless and panicked victim ill-prepared to deal with the ‘real’ world of international threat.

Sunday Japon, aired by the TBS network, describes itself as ‘a comedy variety news programme bringing issues to you on a Sunday morning’.   Like most variety shows broadcast in Japan, it takes the form of two presenters, usually comedians, a female continuity announcer, and a panel of guests drawn from the geinoukai (world of entertainment) and one or two political ‘experts’.  Sunday Japon runs through the news of the previous week one segment at a time and invites the panellists to make comments.  Each news segment begins with a VTR presentation followed by the panellists’ discussion.  Typically a small box will be laid over the VTR where images of the panel and presenters watching the presentation will be displayed.  News stories covered included the North Korean missile, the wedding of two celebrities and the election of the new Mayor of Chiba-ken, who promised to make Chiba the number one prefecture in Japan.

Sunday Japon carried directly on from the earlier kaze wo yomu and this particular episode, because of the impending missile launch, began with the same news story.  A composite VTR presentation was shown that discussed the North Korean rocket and recapped some of the news coverage from earlier in the week.  It is here that the missile launch was framed and narrated in terms of ‘threat’.  This was achieved through both linguistic and non-linguistic means, such as use of sound, colour, image and lighting.  This discourse left little room for any counter explanations as to why the rocket was being launched and also the potential for pieces of the rocket actually falling on the Japanese island of Honshu.  What follows is a short description of some of the methods through which the effect of ‘threat and powerlessness’ was achieved.

The VTR presentation was assembled from interviews with ‘ordinary people’ and experts, North Korean news broadcasts and images of North Korean weapons, images of Japanese defensive weapons and a short segment from the day before when the early warning detection system had thrown up a false positive.  The last section of the presentation featured comments with a military ‘expert’ known as Terrence Lee.

First, fast-paced music played throughout the video, which a certain points rose to crescendo not unlike the last few seconds of an action movie trailer.  At this point the video would switch to another subject and the music would start again.  With the music providing a background of mounting tension, we see interviews with people living in Akita-ken, where it was feared that part of the missile would fall.  The video showed comments from an Akita fisherman and numerous middle aged mothers, one of whom expressed the concern that ‘even if I ran I wouldn’t know where to go because it [the missile] could fall anywhere.’  These interviews were juxtaposed with images taken from North Korean news broadcasts of a female announcer relaying information about the launch subtitled in red.

Images of the Japanese Self Defence Force (jieitai) setting up PAC3 defensive weapons were also accompanied by tension filled music.  PAC3 interceptor missiles were deployed in Akita prefecture and Iwate prefecture, as well as in Tokyo.  The deployment of these anti-missile missiles drew some criticism in newspapers on the day after the missile launch, although questioning voices were restricted to small opinion columns.  The Mainichi Shimbun carried a small piece, nestled next to a picture of panicking officials in Iwate prefecture that called form a calm response to the missile launch that suggests the deployment of PAC3 missiles was over the top, arguing that ‘now is the time to stay calm’.  Another critical comment article appeared on the front page of the Tokyo Shimbun.  The piece noted that PAC3 interceptors were set up less than 100 metres from skyscrapers in the capital without any explanation offered about the potential risks posed to the surrounding area from debris and radar.

At one point in the VTR presentation images from a government office in Morioka city, Iwate prefecture, were shown.  As information of a possible North Korean missile launch came in from the national warning system the office descended into panic.  The camera followed the action closely.  It later turned out that the information was incorrect (gotanchi), although a second possible launch (also incorrect information) sent the office into panic again.  The overall effect of this segment was to represent a room of scared people held hostage by the spectre of the missile.  It is this picture of chaos that contributes to an overall impression of powerlessness as the people, living in a state of apprehension, could only react to information as it arrived.

Finally, the VTR cut to an interview with Terrence Lee, who was presented as a military expert.  Terrence, an imposing figure wearing sunglasses, was bathed in red light and shot from a multitude of angles. He expressed the opinion that this missile launch was only the beginning of the threat, and that Japan has much more to fear from North Korea.  At random points in the interview the audio was manipulated to sound like a conversation taking place over military walkie-talkie, further adding to the militaristic overtones emanating from the music and conspicuous shots of military hardware.  Also, the editing style was replete with quick cuts and when coupled with the aforementioned odd camera angels generated a sense of panic that complimented the earlier video taken in the government offices.  Terrence appeared as the personification of the military option, tough and pragmatic.

Fear sells.  It is exciting: missiles, military hardware, fast music and menacing red lettering make good television.  But media coverage of this kind, the way in which the issue is framed, may be contributing to a general feeling of fear and powerlessness.  If real threats abound, then a more militaristic stance may by unavoidable: shikata ga nai, shou ga nai, yamu wo enai.  The above mentioned opinion column in the Mainichi Shimbun notes that after the last missile launch from North Korea the missile defence (MD) programme was pushed through with little debate.  The people hate North Korea, they fear the missile: what do they want this time?  ‘To fight fire with fire?’ the journalist muses.

This might not be what the people want, but it may be the only option that makes sense.  After all, the argument goes, with so much danger all around, it cannot be helped.  There is of course another way of looking at the situation – the diplomatic option that the panel on kaze wo yomu suggested, or, as one of the panellists argued, a stance that recognises relations between common peoples rather than opposed states. But the more threatening North Korea appears, the more commonsensical a military move is, and the less debate there will be. Whether reluctant or not, the potential outcome is one further step towards constitutional revision.

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