siren songs of 1958

This is a short film made in 1958 by Alain Resnais, who would later become famous as the director of the short film Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard) and the feature film Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I have always admired the way his films use counterpoints of sound to show us what we, in fact, do not see–or what is no longer there to be seen, and has paid a price, usually of life and lives.

In this 13-minute pipeline to the past, I love the gap between the regal intoning, usually reserved for scarce luxuries in CMs and from old times, and the massive glut of plastic flow that comes from the factory, and is traced back to its origins in rocks and geological time. It’s a song of eternal nature and how to regard it as a human product, one that fits just right for our age.

This film, as opposed to others of Resnais and his crews, is full, and then some. I am riveted by it, to start, because of its mock-heroic narration. (This tone is preserved in a few English terms like “captains of industry,” but maybe the new world has not yet processed enough of its past deeds to have narrated its distance with such a full voice.) The script is an epic poem composed by Raymond Queneau, the alchemical poet of Oulipo who invented new words based on old forms for this script, to tell the epic story of The Origin of Plastics (plural, for the possibilities). This flexible medium also enabled the torsion of words into new forms, some kinetic, some just vividly imagistic, in the medieval and oral tone of alexandrine verse, the “leading measure of French poetry,” says 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica. A formidable explication of the film is found in Edward Dimendberg’s “These Are Not Exercises in Style,” originally published in October. Here is a rewarding passage from this exceptionally rewarding article (worth reading in its entirety for its close attention to form vis-ā-vis the experience of consumer ideology and ubiquity).

Already in its title Le Chant du styrène introduces intertextual allusion, manifesting what Michel Riffaterre calls the dual sign, the first of many in both poem and film.7 For as any speaker of French notices, styrène rhymes with sirène and proposes the collaboration of Resnais and Queneau as a contemporary song of the sirens. Its mermaids—the consumer products and industrial objects in the newly emerging culture of plastics in 1950s France—beckoned to both men with irresistible charm. Apprehending and granting them voice with ironic bemusement, Resnais and Queneau’s film simultaneously grasps the deeper stakes implied by the turn to synthetic materials. At once advertisement and public relations effort, a primer on the manufacture of plastic compounds that had begun to transform postwar French life, The Song of Styrene is also…an allegory of material and semiotic production. It provides a revealing window onto the French political and global economy of the late 1950s, rewarding close reading with a veritable return of repressed geopolitical relations.

Evoking the chansons de geste, epic poems of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that celebrated Charlemagne and recounted illustrious heroic deeds, Queneau’s narration for the film, his chant, basks in the incongruity between its style and subject matter (65).

This film came out in 1958, also something like the annus mirabilis of Japanese cinema–the year with the highest number of movie-goers, soon to cede slowly, if not epically, into the more home-bound realm of TV viewers. At present I am watching many science films from 1958 Japan, sponsored, like this one, by large industries, with bricolaged crews of artists, scientists, doc film people, and bureaucrats (or their business-like and educational equivalents). Many of these films, known as 科学映画 (kagaku eiga)、are now preserved on line at the Science Film Museum, where you may see them.

Talk at IWP

Full program is available here:

I’m extremely happy to be part of this gathering of writers and translators in Iowa City this month, in celebration of Japanese writing in/and translation. Pictured in the poster is the amazing poet and performer Yoshimasu Gōzō, and named are the fiction-writer Kyoko Yoshida, poets and anthologists Sawako Nakayasu and Lisa Samuels, fiction-writer and essayist Nakagami Nori, and Watanabe Eri, a scholar whose writing focuses on locating the writer Nakagami Kenji in 60s and 70s history and development, a field near and dear to my own interests. Me, I’m going to talk a short version of my book.

New Publication! March 10

Here’s the cover for a new book out on Duke University Press, in which I have a chapter. It’s edited by long-time colleagues Marc Steinberg and Alex Zahlten. My piece is about the artist Rokudenashiko, who has been challenging some of the highest laws of the land (Japan) with her hand-sized sculptures and other works. She uses her body in funny, plastic ways–molds shaped on the curves and whorls of her vulva–to make tableaux and art pieces. She was jailed twice for these pieces, brought up on charges of obscenity.

Rokudenashiko’s arrest and trial for transmitting the scanned data of her body to crowd-funding supporters is still ongoing. It has brought a new kind of art activism into the public arena, bringing humor and tenacity to the use of the body as an art form. For me, she approaches the “theory” of the book’s theme through the practice of speculative design, using plastic materials to challenge standards that regulate women’s bodies and want them to transform in ways useable for the state–standards that threaten to extend the definition of obscenity into the pre-artistic realms of data collection and transmission.

There’s other good stuff in the book, too, by way of introducing major figures and movements who have contributed to 20th/21st c. approaches to media in Japan!

Talk on food and place-making Nov 26

Poster for talk.

Poster for talk.

I’ll be speaking from 2-4pm on November 26th at the Suginami Ward Public Library on some of the food justice & community-building things I worked with in LA. While the concept of “food justice” doesn’t have the same ring in Japanese, and it is not as geographically based (e.g. food deserts) as in the US, many people are aware of stratified access to good, tasty, fresh affordable food. And are starting programs and informal orgs to deal with it. I touch on some of those common connections, and on some neat projects I found in a recent trip to Alaska, in this talk…no reading required, but a reservation is good–call the library at the # on the poster.

back to school

Shirayuri campus, in Sengawa.

Shirayuri campus, in Sengawa.

The higanbana, equinox flower, is the traditional back-to-school foliage in my part of the world. My campus used to be a medicinal herb garden for the Tokugawa shogunate. Even today, it is impeccably maintained, though more for passers-by than healers at this point. Though who is to say, really.

Higanbana‘s name is a compound of “the other shore” + “flower,” and the other shore is, of course, a metaphor for shades, the dead, and the marker of days that now gradate into more dark than light–the equinox. It blooms and dies within a few days. For obvious reasons, it is also a good marker for the return to school and the dwindling days, and light, of summer.

The toggling effect of the higanbana–poised between day and night, life and death, nature and culture–is one I tried to keep in mind as I made up this semester’s syllabi. As a patron flower, you could do worse than picking one that moves between two planes. A flower that, in other words, code-switches pretty effectively (and who knows what lurks on the other side, really…).

Code-switching was initially an idea in socio-linguistics, to refer to the ways that people moved between languages of genres of language (dialect, formality, etc)–and the ways that mattered, by fostering doubled identities and linguistic worlds in one person. More recently, it’s appeared in pop culture to point out how people move between different languages as they traverse different worlds of formal culture, informal culture, street culture, and/or subculture, especially as those worlds are racialized and work through different expressions of gender. It’s a pretty common feeling for anyone who has lived or been abroad, even if “abroad” is just down the street.

This semester I find myself teaching 2 grad research methods classes, in addition to 6 UG classes. A pretty typical Japanese-professor load, 8 all together. One is in what “professionalization” means for grad students starting out in English-based literary studies in Japan; the other is on eco-cinema, with films from Japan, US, northern/indigenous Canada, and China.

In literary studies, recent years have seen a mini-boom in the field of object-oriented literary studies. On one hand, this lit-crit approach is an effort to de-center the exclusive humanism of some lit-crit, to guide attention to relations in texts, and thus the world, that provide contexts for humans–not only history, per se, but objects such as one typically finds in realist lit, in categories like machines, tools, furniture, dwellings, non-human and non-animal beings.

This line of thought, often described as object-oriented-ontology (OOO, a fun acronym to add to typical academic prose!), has, understandably, been prominent in Romantic literary studies, which tends to privilege consciousness, imagination, and the vernacular human when it treats poetry and poetics. (Maybe it goes without saying, but the transcendental, in the age of the anthropocene, is mostly bracketed as a fiction in OOO, if not out of the picture altogether. Timothy Morton’s writings on “ecology without nature” are a good reference and his book of the same title does an awesome job of breaking down how modern Anglophone writing (including some non-western texts in English, and a separate body of Romantic-influenced, non-western, modern fictional works) understands “nature,” in great part, in ways that stem from Romantic poetics.

Personally, I’m not as interested in the ontological questions (nor do I have the philosophical/linguistic training to root out a lot of the textual disputes and work with them) that reprise things that, in the end, still seem idealist to me. Questions like: “What Is X?” or “What Is Being?”. Defining, therefore fixing, ontology seems at odds with making the new relations vis-a-vis the “natural” world, to keep up with things like climate change, population flows and displacements, and resource depletion. I’m more interested in how the meanings, and the undertow of narratives, are constructed, and arguments made (in abstracted systems, such as the voices, POVs, and textual moves we use to put narratives and reading experiences together.)

It’s a long way from a flower, per se, but natural objects as portals to alternate cosmologies is a familiar dynamic that traverses Japanese classical lit, to speculative fiction of today, to the edited film-objects that make up doc films that, in turn, put us as viewers into new relations to this world (or try to).  Many recent pushes in the “keep Humanities alive” trajectory involve treating texts as objects, within which other objects might be found, classified, and later read–so-called “Distant Reading.”

Being able to use Big Data to trawl for possible words and phrases across many texts, as first-stage research, is appealing, as one of many research tools. But it’s not a substitute for reading closely for patterns and style that are essentially genre-driven–all about context and fit with convention. This semester, I hope to keep that higanbana in mind, as a port of entry into another world, as I continue to read and watch stories of natural objects in a changing world, and work with my students to open, read, and re-link the archives to this world.

Press briefing after the Rokudenashiko verdict


Rokudenashiko’s new translation (in bright turquoise) and other books, as well as manko-chan figurines, decorate the table, as media members await the arrival of Nashiko and her legal team.










In early afternoon on a Monday, a crowd and an array of microphones and video-cameras assembled in the basement hall of the Hibiya Public Library, for a post-verdict press briefing on the three counts of obscenity that Rokudenashiko was charged with in 2014.

In this blog post, I pull together some contexts of the trial, some excerpts and observations from the press briefing, and some AV materials. Given that both prosecution and defense will appeal, it is not “game over” yet. At the end, I pull out some concepts that the academic- and activist-minded could use to help build a rhetoric of advocacy for the next stage of the game.

Mapping the space of conversation

The setting is the edge of Hibiya Park, a short walk from many government ministry and official buildings. The verdict of Rokudenashiko’s trial was scheduled for 1:00pm at the Tokyo District Court, one of these buildings; the press briefing started a little after 3:00pm. As we ponder the significance of the verdict, and how the de-briefing worked, let’s first look at the locations of these events.

A nine-minute stroll from the centralized legal sphere, the court, to a space where public sentiment has been displayed since the Meiji era, Hibiya Park.

A nine-minute stroll from the centralized legal sphere, the court, to a space where public sentiment has been displayed since the Meiji era, Hibiya Park.

Hibiya Park is a big chunk of greenspace in an otherwise heat-island prone part of the official paper-moving part of Tokyo, its ministries and government buildings. The city’s Bureau of Construction describes it as a “green oasis in a business town.” Tom Havens writes, in his book on parks in modern Tokyo since the 1870s, that “starting with the Hibiya demonstrations of 1905 some city parks also served as “spaces of representation.” He sees Hibiya Park through geographer Henri “Lefebvre’s terms, where commoners aired views on public affairs and reconfigured parklands to create geographies of opposition to officialdom” (5). A “geography of opposition” can mean many ways of inhabiting pre-existing urban space and forms. Hibiya Park is notable because the 1905 demos that Havens refer to catalyzed a large wave of public protest after a treaty was passed that left Japanese people holding the (money) bag at the conclusion of the Russo-Japanese War, and resulted in outrage after word reached the streets. As historian Andrew Gordon writes,

On September 5, 1905, a massive three-day riot erupted in Tokyo protesting the disappointing terms of the peace treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War. A decade earlier, after emerging victorious in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan had demanded and received a huge indemnity from defeated China. Although the war with Russia was far more costly in casualties and money, both sides were exhausted by 1905 and Japan was in no position to demand an indemnity from Russia. Because the Japanese public had been bombarded with reports of victory after victory, expectations of a profitable peace settlement were high and the outrage when this did not materialize was enormous.

In the case of Rokudenashiko’s trial and her team’s advocacy for her position, the “opposition” is less than it was in 1905 about streaming in from the outside and sparking damage to the governance who betrayed them, rippling into its environs. It is more about changing the terms of this governance that unjustly limits and stabilizes the meaning of sex and bodies by engaging with the legal structures that define and sculpt the kinds of representations–kinds of art and symbolic production–that are allowed in the public sphere.

As lawyer Yamaguchi Takashi noted, the imagined “character” (my word) of the trial, as we imagine its impact on a real person, is “a regular person” (一般人). It’s not the hypothetical person who has an appetite for niche kinds of pervy things (変態性欲), such as, say, a photo-book of powershovels. (An audience member in Q-and-A gave this example to maintain that anyone can be excited by anything, and defining sexual parameters is difficult. Yamaguchi said that this was not the definition the court sought.) The key point in this trial is a definition of morality for the typical, general, average person–who presumably is not turned on by powershovels. The definition attempts to assert, but not to expand, a definition of normal sexuality.

The venue itself

Some music and videos gave a feisty and slightly hectic vibe, playing to the room of reporters, writers and regular people. (I mention these types because they identified themselves as such in the Q-and-A period). Below is a version posted May 10, the day after the verdict. It incorporates the “split decision” nature of the verdict.

Draped over each empty seat was an A3-sized copy of the Manko shinbun (Pussy Paper), below. This issue is pretty text-heavy.


The text-to-image ratio actually reminded me of the weekly-magazine graphics like this one that Gordon includes in his article.

The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905. Source: MIT VIsualizing Cultures archive.

The Tokyo Riot Graphic, No. 66, Sept. 18, 1905. Source: MIT Visualizing Cultures archive.

I was curious what kind of entry the team would make, as the doors, like most auditoriums, were at the rear, and the venue was perfect for the sort of hip-hop triumph stride, or avant-garde theatre “surprise” stride down the aisles. But in fact, what happened was that most people read about the verdict on Twitter, some cameras vanished to get Rokudenashiko on film as they approached the venue, and the team walked in like regular people, before assembling on the stage, with computers (for fact-checking with Google-sensei), water bottles and regular professional gear.

The proceedings

Nashiko herself wore a modest but elegant black dress not inappropriate at a funeral, or a cocktail party. I had a pretty great viewing position, a clear shot to the stage, right behind Fuji TV and TBS cameras.


The legal team consisted of 7 people; lead lawyer Yamaguchi Takashi is pictured here to Rokudenashiko’s right. The sign reads “partially not guilty,” a paraphrase of the verdict.










…to be continued, when I have wrapped up some student projects and other deadline-driven work.

survival food

I got an alert on my phone yesterday from Yahoo weather–they’re the service I use to alert me of disasters, insofar as things can be broadcasted ahead of time. Typically, it’s about typhoons, but they also have a shaky-house icon they use after a major earthquake, anywhere in the nation. If you’re really close, your phone will ring. Sometimes in classrooms, a whole bunch of phones will go off, and get everybody into a tizzy, slightly before the earth starts to move in your exact vicinity.

The reason I got this new alert is to announce some changes to the settings. Apparently people in Kumamoto–which got hit by 2 big quakes recently–have been woken up night and day by the many, many aftershocks and settlings of these 2 bigger ones. Many people, especially older people, have now been living in temp housing for more than a week, spawning new outbreaks of old ailments, such as economy-class disorder, from people sitting inside immobilized, whether because of trauma, rain, fear, mobility difficulties, or all of the above. It seems like this communal life will be in effect for some time to come.

In addition to contributing in whatever way to volunteer efforts, it makes sense to think about how a similar disaster could play out in one’s home turf. Of course, nobody ever expected this to happen in Kumamoto, as Kyushu has never registered a level-7 quake before. But this is as good a reason as any to get things together at home, and to know what a range of possible realities is in various situations. One thing that’s clear is that canned bread and onigiri (the bulk of Abe’s promised 90,000 meals) may be comforting at first, but you can’t live on them for more than an immediate emergency.

I’ll be posting findings later on disaster food resources in Tokyo (and ones I brought from CA, where gourmet tech yuppies have ensured that REI and similar stores have an ample supply of coconut curries and various eclectic offerings that far outstrip what I have found here, at even higher prices.)

Here is an article I translated from a Nikkei publication, in which a reporter lives for a week on emergency foods, picks some better options, and finds some limits. Disaster, it seems, is bad for your stomach…so, all the more to support volunteer operations that are carting fresh food to underserved people in Kumamoto, as the physical and psychic costs of crappy nutrition are pretty apparent. Comments welcome!




What I Learned and What to Do About It—Canned by Canned Foods
2013/2/8 Nikkei shinbun Plus One

More and more households have started to stockpile supplies of emergency food since the 3/11 disasters. In the past, people had to make do with what they had on hand if they got stuck at home due to getting whacked by something like new strains of the flu. What kind of food supplies should people have on hand so they can get through a disaster of this kind?

This reporter (34) set out to see what it would be like to live on emergency foods for a week. I decided to keep the rest of my life “business as usual,” changing only my eating habits to fit the disaster scheme. On weekdays, I brought my emergency food as a bentō to work. I was lucky enough to spend my time in rooms with adequate heating, and to be able to jump in a warm bath—which I certainly wouldn’t be able to do in a regular disaster scenario, but I figured I would still be able to take some lessons from the situation.

Lifeline Sticking it out for 3 days

I spoke to professor emerita OKUDA Kazuko of Kōnan Women’s College, an expert in emergency food. She advised me, “you should experience what it is like to go three days without basic services (lifeline, in Japanese) like gas, water and electricity.” I decided to use a regular gas stove to heat my food after the fourth day, and to drink mineral water for the whole stretch of seven days.

At first, I had to think about what volume a week’s worth of food actually consisted of. SATŌ Kyōko, a nationally registered dietician from Sendai versed in emergency food, who advised me to eat, “staples like rice and bread, fresh foods like fish and meat, and side dishes featuring vegetables.” She added, “keep an eye out, as it’s easy to get constipation due to a lack of vitamins and fiber that you typically find in vegetables.”

I limited my food to those that had a shelf life of at least six months. As a reference, I used a menu plan for a week (21 meals) that Okuda-san made, and set out for a store that stocked a range of emergency foods. I was able to buy items that included canned bread and packaged food in pouches that you add hot water to. That cost about 10,000 yen (about $90 USD) for about a third of what I would need. It seems that things sold as emergency food are pretty pricey.

The rest I picked up at my local supermarket. Fish, like saba in miso, and canned vegetables like kiriboshi daikon were about regular price. I also bought freeze-dried spinach and dried fruits like prunes. Okuda-san also told me, “make sure to have some treats, sweet things that you like, to keep your spirits up,” so I also picked up some canned fruits, cookies and coffee candies.

You Can’t Drink Cold Minestrone

Chart of the reporter's food intake over 7 days, with comments.

Chart of the reporter’s food intake over 7 days, with comments. (If it is hard to read, you can see the original here. And the E-translation original is below.)

E-translation, 1 week of emergency food

Finally the big day arrived. I cracked open a package of congee (okayu) with ume (plum) sauce, some sweet braised chicken stew (鶏のうま煮) and some canned kiriboshi daikon. It was kind of cold, but I managed to get it down.

NAKAZAWA Takashi, of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, commented that “on a spacecraft, you eat that day what you want to eat from a set supply of food.” He adds, “you pick according to your mood.” I started with things that you can eat even when they’re cold.

There were some flops. Like the minestrone with an oil slick floating on top that was impossible to eat lukewarm. And the packaged curry that was advertised as “good to eat even cold” was pretty awful.

The best of the bunch was definitely the congee. It was good even when cold, and since it was full of liquid, it was easy to swallow. With bread you really need water, and I didn’t really like it cold. On the evening of the third day, I started to want to eat hot things. I tried to warm a package of congee by sticking it in my futon when I went to sleep, but it didn’t get warmed up.

On the night of the third day, I ate some packaged food warmed up with a heat pack. In about 30 minutes, my dinner of white rice and stew was piping hot, and I was able to eat a hot meal for the first time in three days. The heat conducted the cooking smell, and for the first time in a while it sparked a real appetite. It actually brought a tear to my eyes. Packaged food warmed with a heat pack is pretty expensive, but when you have no access to real heat it can make a difference. I vowed to make sure some of these were in my next stash of emergency supplies.

Sodium in Canned Foods—After 4 Days, My Stomach Hurts


Main takeaways from the reporter’s experience of living on emergency food for a week (translation below).


On the fourth day, I started to use a gas stove. I thought that would really give a boost to my eating habits, but just then my stomach started to hurt. When I consulted Sato-san, she explained, “you were living on salty canned foods for a while, so maybe your system just got tired.”

For the three days that I couldn’t use the stove, even when I didn’t have a real appetite I tried to keep a good nutritional balance, eating canned fish, meat and vegetables that I wasn’t used to eating. Without noticing it looks like I pushed it too far.

Satō-san recommended that I, “plump up some freeze-dried vegetables with hot water and add a little weak broth, to make a dish that’s easier on your body.” I felt a little better after I did, and this mild taste suffused my body.

Contrast to my expectations at first, I felt the worst around days 5 and 6. My stomach went back to normal, but I had no appetite. In my case, the intake of meat and fish was harder than vegetables. Even with the same canned product, the taste varies from brand to brand. I figured out that it would be best to start from the things that your family liked eating and work from there, so that you’re already eating things you’re used to.

Okuda-san says that, “eating things that are close to what your family usually eats helps give you strength to deal with things, especially in times of emergency.” My experience during this week really brought that idea home for me.

Reporter’s jottings

Time and time again I thought to myself, wow, I really had no idea. Before, what I had in the house for 3 people was 2 bottles of water, 10 packages of prepared “alpha” rice, and 2 packs of biscuits for kids. I had a portable gas stove, in but retrospect, that seems pretty optimistic.

When the end of my experiment with emergency food was in sight, I spewed complaints at my family. The whole experience really forced me to rethink how hard it is to live when you’ve been hit with a disaster. This has been a real learning experience for me.
–Sakamoto Yōko

Originally published in Nikkei Plus One, February 2, 2013

Modular futures, black robots in Showa Japan




…aaaand, below is the audio, in MP3 format. 3 versions–collect them all!

Text and audio from scratched talk @ UCLA, for a conference in June 2015 on robots, called Machine Dreams. It was a great event organized by Margaret Rhee with tons of poets, art people, scholars…a great event I was supposed to participate in, over these high wires. As it turned out, I got sick, for the first time in–15? 20?–years, and the new software and hardware I was learning to record the talk for broadcast only came together at the very last minute (neighbor’s dog going off during recording, my stupid dyslexification of the actual time difference, everything happening sooo slowly), and I showed up an hour late to my 2am time slot. I ended up delaying the whole thing, as they waited patiently, and then never gave the thing. So I blew it. BUT, it’s still a good summary of a book chapter I just published, and pulls in some current events from Japanese diplomatic use of robots, and is a decent archive.

Reconnecting to nature through food, 日本語版


text of talk Reconnecting to Nature through Food–日本語版

This is the Japanese text of a talk, with PowerPoint slides, that I did about a year ago, just after I arrived in Tokyo. My school has an active program in environmental humanities (環境人文学), of which this was a part. This year, we continue with projects–growing mushrooms, assessing the campus, screening films. This prez gives a sense of how I am translating some concepts from my time in LA, both in universities and in the field, to work in Tokyo.

road trip, osaka


Here is a shot of a neighborhood shrine, caught on the fly, walking down a hot noonday street. I went down for a workshop this week, the first road trip after my first official year of work/teaching was over.

It was the yellow “police line” protective barrier that caught my eye–the shrine is on the corner of a highway-esque main street as it turns into a small alley. One of those streets that is basically a 400-year-old road, now half a foot wider…I had to wonder at what brought on the neighborhood decision to shelter the shrine with this mild barrier…