In 2009, the last year I lived in Japan, it was 新 – the new – that became word of the year: a new government, with the Liberal Democrats defeated and in disarray, and new hopes. How long ago that feels now. The ruling Democratic Party, split and demoralised, is a confused gaggle of its old right wing, while the Liberal Democrats, under former Prime Minister Abe, are exploiting nationalist rhetoric. To their right a lashed-up grouping of noxious reactionary populists make gains, even as the Communist and Social Democratic Parties stagnate. The muck of ages.
That this year’s kanji is 金 – gold – may be due to all those medals at the Olympics. A hike in consumption tax is another possibility, linking Japan’s ongoing economic troubles to the political compromises and betrayals that led to the Democratic Party’s chaos and collapse. (All this will have echoes for Australian readers: who remembers Kevin ’07?)
I’ve written here on the anti-nuclear movement already, and have a longer piece on the movement’s politics coming out in Marxist Left Review early next year. That movement’s not gone, not by any account – anti-nuclear concerns are the most common topic in Twitter messages on the elections, and actor-turned-activist Yamamoto Taro is using the campaigns as a platform to set the message alive. But the old gulf – one I’ve stumbled around, as I’m sure many of you have, too – between what the streets can mobilise and what the parliamentary process restrains has opened up again. It’s a difficult distance to ponder.
I keep thinking about the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing social disasters both brought. The difficulty is in telling where real concerns, solidarity and fellow feeling slip into prurience. Late one night, doing yet another distracted trawl through YouTube for NHK footage of the tsunami, I realised it had to stop: the delusion of immediacy hurts yourself and, by extension, the chances of understanding others. Distance matters.
For Wago Ryoichi, a poet from Fukushima City, there are intimacies made possible only by respecting certain necessary distances. Monkey Business, an English-language journal of new writing from Japan produced in collaboration with the original Japanese Monkey Business, collected statements one month on from March 11 about what people wished they had in Japan. Wago’s answer was ‘time’:
An evacuee was granted permission to return for a brief, two-hour visit to her home, located inside the twenty-kilometre exclusion zone around Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant. What did she bring back with her from this precious visit home after so long? It turned out she had touched nothing and came back empty-handed. What was the matter, someone asked. ‘I just stood in the living room and wept,’ she said. ‘Think of it like this,’ a bystander said: ‘You went home in order to cry.’ If we had only had just a little more time – just thirty seconds or a minute – we might have had time for one more heavy sigh.
Monkey Business is one of my discoveries from 2012 – there’s so much of value in this volume, including the Brother and Sister Nishioka’s manga adaptation of Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’.
One writer who negotiates the inevitable tension between the intrusions and upset outside questioning can bring and needing to have a situation documented, a story told is David McNeill, a journalist living in Tokyo. Lucy Birmingham and McNeill published Strong in the Rain, a collection of narratives telling how people survived the earthquake and tsunami. It’s journalism at its best. Following the lives of six survivors, Birmingham and McNeill combine evocation and ‘thick description’ with measured, careful, sustained political outrage. No polemical text, Strong in the Rain sends you looking for further analyses. It deserves to be read as a tribute to all those who have suffered in the aftermath of this disaster.
Justin McCurry and Michael Condon’s short documentary on surviving the earthquake – After the tsunami, one father’s struggle – will show at Flickerfest in Sydney next month, and, based on McCurry’s writings to date, is bound to be worth seeing.
I called this blog Bungei Sensen as a homage to the great journal of proletarian literature and political radicalism from 1920s Japan. Bungei Sensen – the name means ‘Literature Battlefront’ or ‘The Literary Front’ – was the site of all sorts of polemical battles around the League of Proletarian Writers, the Farmer-Worker grouping, modernist polemicists and others. It represented one of the cultural peaks of Japanese communism, before the increasing repression of the early Showa years brought silence. I wanted – and hope I’ve managed, in some minor way – to stretch our sense of where location and literary and political relevance, to carry out a low-key bit of Verfremdungseffekte, seeing what Japanese materials and interests might add to an Australasian leftist literary scene.
Politics matters to Overland, enormously and obviously: Stephen Murray-Smith pulled the journal away from the Communist Party of Australia over the Stalinist repression in Hungary, and it’s stayed independent ever since. But what are the connections between the ‘politics’ and ‘literature’ of that too easy coupling? I’m pondering (still!) Rjurik’s tentative answers in the latest issue of Overland. One answer, for me anyway, is to do with distance and the historical view. I’ve a political home elsewhere; what the literary adds in a journal of literature and culture is to do with literature’s own demands and expectations.
Novelist Asao Daisuke expresses some of this in his answer to Monkey Business’s questionnaire. His wish is that Japan could have more literature, and for unexpected reasons:
Past and present, some powerful force, invisible, uncontrollable, and lethal, has always confronted the protagonists of works of literature. Rereading the humour they are able to muster in the face of that looming presence, I sensed a deadly urgency, as if the writers had been pushed to the very extremes of literature, forced to the brink of the final precipice, and were fighting desperately to rally and claw their way back. And when through closed eyes an image came into my mind of the beautiful Sendai Plain being swallowed up by the black sludge of the tsunami as it surged over tidal walls, and I found myself tempted to add, ‘like watching dominoes toppling,’ it was the voice of literature that called out to me and said, ‘you can’t do that.’
Two other books I’d recommend from this year that commit to this longer view are John Dower’s splendid Ways of Forgetting, Ways of Remembering, a collection of essays on Japan in the modern world, and Setsu Shigematsu’s Scream from the Shadows, a history of Uman Ribu, Japan’s bracingly militant and uncompromisingly radical women’s liberation movement.
What journals like Overland can offer is a sense of this wider history and, in good Brechtian opportunist fashion, scraps and leftovers from discarded bits of history. Collate them, because we’re never sure when they’ll come in handy again. We were, we are, we shall be.
A sense of the future, in a land as damaged as Japan, has more of a political charge, and is less of a banality, than it might at first seem. Kishimoto Sachiko told Monkey Business that her wish was for Doreamon – the hero as political activist:
Just the mere fact that he was visiting us from the future would be enough. Then we would know that we really do have a future.