ahorbinski: A DJ geisha (historical time is a construct)
Bibliographic Data: Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Main Argument: Allison argues that several things were different about the "J-cool" boom that began in the 1990s, beginning with the fact that it had a far greater level of influence on the U.S. marketplace than did previous Japanese cultural imports. Allison believes that fantasy, capitalism, and globalism are conjoined and (re)configured in Japanese media mix properties [the term is anachronistic to her book], and that the "polymorphously perverse" play they engender (and embody) is key to their appeal--both at the level of practice and at the level of the media mix itself.

Pokemon, Power Rangers, Sailor Moon, tamagotchi )

Critical assessment: I would have liked this book much better if I had read it before I read Marc Steinberg's book, which I think offers a much better grasp on much of the same territory. Admission: that is because I am not an anthropologist, and because I am allergic to culture as a primary causal factor in anything for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture but which can be symbolized by the assertion that culture changes damn quick when people want it to. The "techno-animism" argument, frankly, I think is better explained by simply saying that Japan moved into a new mode of capitalism before other countries; this is Latour's "parliament of things" in a capitalist inflection. But also, I don't like Freud, and Allison is very much a Freudian, albeit in a feminist inflection. Sidenote: WTF is with feminists liking Freud? Freud does not like you, ladies! Freud does not even believe that queerness exists! Vomit. That said, once Allison gets away from all that and into her analysis of capitalism, I think she's basically on the money, albeit in a different and frankly somewhat dated idiom. A worthwhile book, for sure, but very much not the whole story.

Further reading: Steinberg, Anime's Media Mix; The LEGO Movie

Meta notes: Gotta catch 'em all! Also, what does "New Age" even mean anymore?
ahorbinski: hulk smash male privilege! (hulk smash male privilege)
Bibliographic Data: Soh, C. Sarah. The Comfort Women: Sexual Violence and Postcolonial Memory in Korea and Japan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Main Argument: Soh's main argument is that "the personal tragedies of Korean comfort women arose, in part, from the institutionalized everyday gender violence tolerated in patriarchal homes and enacted in the public sphere (including the battlefront) steeped in what I call 'masculinist sexual culture' in colonial Korea and imperial Japan." Additionally, "the majority of Korean comfort women survivors were not mobilzed as cheongsindae." (3) In other words, the comfort women system cannot be properly understood outside of the structural gender violence prevalent in both Korea and Japan which allowed it to flourish as a transformation and extension of prewar sexual practices.

The Comfort Women )

Critical assessment: On the whole, this is a strong, necessary book, one that presents what I do think is an important revision to the common understanding of the comfort women system by situating it in a patriarchal culture common to both sides of the Korea Strait and by connecting wartime military sexual violence with its decedents (prostitution as well as outright sexual violence) in the postwar period. For these reasons alone, Soh's book deserves to be read.

That said, Soh's treatment does feature persistent infelicities in framing which, while never rising to the level where they outweigh the value of Soh's arguments, do prevent a strong study from reaching true excellence. The first, as might be forgiven of an anthropologist writing a profoundly historicized study, is a series of bizarre gaps in Soh's background reading--I looked in vain for Cynthia Enloe's Bananas, Beaches, and Bases in the bibliography, or for almost any historical treatment of what Soh terms Korea's colonial modernity. The second, less obviously, is that this is a profoundly sex-negative book, which viewpoint Soh never quite states explicitly. Instead, she persistently frames her discussions so as to foreclose the possibility of women ever being desiring (sexual) subjects in their own right. Instead, in Soh's view, for women sex is always sexual labor, whether in marriage or in prostitution (and indeed, these seem to be the only venues in which women have sex).

For all that Soh discusses, rightly, structural violence and its role in propagating the comfort women system, she seems to be unwilling to discuss the role the structural violence of the Japanese imperial army, which is very well-documented, may have played in the comfort women system. For instance, the fact that imperial soldiers were not granted leave, ever, would seem to deserve more than a single mention in passing in explaining the widespread nature of the comfort women system.

There are other niggling errors, such as Soh's misunderstanding of the nature of war crimes--it's fine to argue for a different conception of war crimes, but to do so you need to contrast your definition explicitly with the one that is agreed upon in international law. She also gets the English name of my home institution in Japan, Doshisha University, wrong, which is the sort of thing that unfortunately leads readers to question your accuracy in general. It's also odd to read her relate her experiences being harangued by many of the South Korean activists with whom she used to work: the subaltern can indeed speak, and it's surprising that Soh doesn't seem to realize how many grenades she's lobbing into the discourse by calling out both sides of the debate.

Indeed, I'm told that Soh burned every bridge she had to write this book, which is part of the reason I wish it were an unqualified success, but regardless, this is a strong and important study that deserves to be the standard work on the subject.

Further reading: Bruce Cumings, Korea's Place in the Sun: A Modern History

Meta notes: This book sits oddly in the Chicago Press "Worlds of Desire" series, which focuses on "sexuality, gender, and culture"--none of the other books in the series appear to take on comparable subject matter.
ahorbinski: A DJ geisha (historical time is a construct)
Bibliographic Data: Allison, Anne. Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Main Argument: Hostess clubs, and in particular the company-paid outings that frequently take place there, are sites of both work and play in which male corporate workers of a certain echelon construct themselves as a group of men together through the conduit of the woman, the hostess, who is paid to attend them. Although the habit of visiting hostess clubs is said to be 'natural,' hostess clubs in fact constitute an artificial site in which corporations are able to manipulate their employees' subjectivity, desires, and identity, suturing them tightly to their jobs.

Hostess clubs & salarymen )

Critical assessment:
This is a courageous, insightful book, with a lot of important points to make about work, money, gender, play and sex in contemporary Japan--if Andrew Gordon's The Wages of Affluence documented the creation of a gyroscopic political and social hegemony through a construction of union labor, Allison's book is concerned with how that same hegemony operates on and genders salarymen, who are nominally better off than factory workers but whose worklife regularly extends to midnight or later in hostess clubs. Though Allison makes no bones about her own feminism, and deploys feminist analysis to great effect in this book, in the end her analysis mirrors hostess clubs themselves, in which men are the focus and women are merely conduits for men to build themselves up amongst their peer group. This in itself, however, is highly valuable, and the book gains as well from Allison's determined engagement with several 'scholars' of Nihonjinron ('theories of Japaneseness') whose culturally essentialist explanations for the behaviors of salarymen at work and at play simply treat hostess clubs as natural and leave it at that.

In class discussion a lot of my male colleagues objected to Allison's final points about impotence and the salaryman--while I agree that Lacanian theory can seem suspicious after a while, my own reading of the book and their reaction is that they objected out of a discomfort that hit rather close to home rather than to the actual content of Allison's arguments in this respect, which are not meant to be universal. I think to some extent this is a reflection of the fact that at this point in academia we are fairly well acquainted with the idea that male privilege exists, but we are much more prone to perceiving how society operates on and structures "women" than we are prepared to acknowledge that it does the same to "men." And that, I think, is the real and uncomfortable truth that Allison's work here exposes, above and beyond her conclusions about the suturing of work and identity for male corporate employees in Japan. (Though for someone who has no truck with the social fiction that mahjong is not played for money, it seems bizarre that Allison fails to realize that pachinko is played for--quite a lot of--money too.)

Further reading: Anne Allison, Permitted and Prohibited Desires, Millennial Monsters

Meta notes: It would be really interesting for a male anthropologist to do field work in a host club today--the fieldwork in this book is 30 years old, and some of the details are clearly out of date. In particular, exploring what the women who patronize host clubs (and they do; host clubs and hosts are a visible presence in many Japanese cities, to say nothing of butler and maid cafes) are doing there would make a fascinating counterpoint to this study.
ahorbinski: A DJ geisha (historical time is a construct)
Bibliographic Data: Kondo, Dorinne K. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender, and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Main Argument: Dorinne Kondo, a Japanese American, Harvard-trained anthropologist, spent nearly two years in Japan working as a part-timer in a small confectionery factory in the shitamachi of Tokyo's Arakawa ward. Her experiences there suggest that identity is multiple and relational and that the famed Japanese ideology of the workplace as a family does not go uncontested by workers, who are quick to resist it and to use it to criticize their bosses on its own terms.

Crafting selves at work )

Critical assessment: This is a good, thought-provoking book that emphasizes a number of points about (gendered) labor in Japan that bear emphasizing. That said, it needed an editor hard-core; there are several sections in which Kondo provides altogether too much background information than is relevant, and she--well, in her review Jennifer Robertson said that Kondo's experiences frequently came across as too general and stereotypical, which I would certainly agree with based on their basic similarity to many of my experiences doing research in Japan. Given all the things that separate me and Kondo, this "terrible familiarity," in my advisor's words, is not felicitous. Similarly and in the words of another reviewer, Kondo often comes across as--naive is probably too strong a word, but she takes a number of phenomena at face value that ought to be further unpacked, perhaps most obviously when she refuses for the entire book to call the confectionery workers' exploitation exploitation. It's a tough balancing act to tread the line between researcher and participant, but I think she tends to err on the side of participant most of the time.

All of this is not to actually discuss the book's merits, namely its unpacking a workplace that is far more typical in Japan than that of the salaryman or the permanently employed union worker. Still, Kondo's analysis is focused almost monomaniacally on this one particular enterprise, to the point where her analysis is not readily generalizable; given that there is literally nothing to set this particular confectionery apart, that seems questionable. Still, she succeeds in making her central argument about identity, which doesn't seem as radical as it may have in 1990, and in interlacing theory with her account, even as she leaves some aspects of it undertheorized--all in all, a worthwhile read.

Further reading: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

Meta notes: 家 being read uchi is a metonym for 内.
ahorbinski: kanji (kanji)
Foster, Michael Dylan. Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Youkai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

I read this book as background material for my panel at Sirens 2010, and it's excellent. Foster, an assistant professor of folklore and East Asian Languages and Cultures at Indiana University, wrote this manuscript as his dissertation; he tracks the history of youkai as a cultural phenomenon from their first taxonomy in the Edo period to their most recent haunting of media in contemporary urban Japan. Foster ascribes two different components to youkai as they are experienced culturally: the mysterious, which refers to "things that defy established regimes of knowledge" (2), and the weird, which "invokes strangeness of form but is also bound up with the eerie and the supernatural" (24).

Youkai are, broadly speaking, the monsters, supernatural creatures, and weird phenomenon that have haunted Japan since the emergence of Japanese culture in the Heian period, if not before; generally speaking, more and more youkai have come to be recognized over time, though a few major ones--tengu, kappa, kitsune, tanuki--have historically had the lion's share of the attention and have even shown up beyond Japanese borders, particularly the kappa (remember Harry's third-year Defense Against the Dark Arts classes?) and the kitsune. They are Japan's answer to fairies, and the popular attitude towards them reveals many of the same fluctuations in belief and fascination with fairies experienced in western European countries at similar stages of modernization and industrial development. Rather than offer an encyclopedic examination of youkai themselves, Foster concentrates on youkai as a broader cultural phenomenon, examining how youkai were considered at four distinct cultural moments and thereby illuminating, ultimately, how the Japanese nation at that moment considered itself. It is a well-written, frequently brilliant book.

The panel I'm on at Sirens is "Are There Faeries Outside Western Europe? Exploring Fey Folklore from Around the World," and on the basis of this book I'm inclined to think that strictly speaking there aren't "fairies" in Japan--generally speaking, the concept of "fairies" generally includes some powerful fey who are human-esque in form, if not in thought or motivation, whereas while some youkai have the ability to shapeshift (notably tanuki and kitsune), those forms are not necessarily human, and there is absolutely no emphasis on beauty as an intrinsic part of youkai transformations, whereas the Fair Folk are fair (and the double meaning of both beautiful and pale there is not accidental) by definition. Now, why the kitsune in particular has seen a lot of uptake outside the Japanese context, and why the kitsune is inevitably a foxy Asian (or not) woman in human form, says a lot more about the expectations writers outside Japan bring to kitsune than about kitsune and other youkai themselves.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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