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!

spring 2014 @ UCLA: urban ag, again



Because I grew up in the middle of big big-scale corn and soybean farms, I have to admit that sometimes, I have qualms about the term “urban agriculture” or “urban farming.” The scale here just seems different–less vast, but responsive to different things. I think we need a new term, like we need a new term to displace the awful eradicating phrase “food desert,” which we should know better than to use in LA! Maybe this Quarter we will find a way! The link to the course blog is here.

Coming up

I am very excited to be part of this upcoming conversation in New York on “blackness in Japan.”

Poster for upcoming NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s
Poster for NYU symposium on blackness in Japanese lit and culture/s

Lots of people know there is a pretty vibrant hip hop scene in Japan. But when people think about links between Japan and the “west” they tend to think the “west” was a single monoculture. Few people know, for example, that the talent on the “black ships” piloted by Matthew Perry that barged into Yokohama harbor was a minstrel show.

An example of how Japanese culture was greeted with many multiple kinds of “west” is English-language instruction. Many people who have taken part in the English industry in Japan know the politics of hiring–it is easier to get and keep a job if you look like a familiar version of an “American” whose image might be seen on TV ads or in imported blockbuster movies.  The legacies of English, though, are more multiple: the very first e-kaiwa (English conversation) teacher was a half-Scot, half-Chinook man named Ranald McDonald who hailed from what is now known as Canada. In any case, this symposium promises to situate Japan in a more interesting series of routes between itself and not only the west–the US. But it also connects Japanese people and places to the different ports of call both literal and figural that wrote black culture into a world system. Encounters on different scales–personal, regional, national, global.

The event was put together by Will Bridges (Japanese lit) and Nina Cornyetz (Japanese lit/film), and sprang from a panel at the Association for Asian Studies in 2012, in Toronto. The panel also included Shana Redmond (American studies/Afr Am history) and Yoshinobu Hakutani (American lit), who will be reprising their papers to incorporate an additional year and a half of thinking.

The initial run of this panel was really exciting for a couple of reasons. The first was the array of new materials–new to me–and new contexts. I had read works by each of the presenters before, but the liveness brought a new dimension to the table–really impressive considering that the works all contained close readings of dense verbal/literary texts or images. This was by far the most engaged and engaging panel I have seen at an AAS, so I am looking forward to hearing from participants past and present!

Et in Arcadia Ego

From an arcade-ful of cool refrigerated kitties on a hot day in Arcadia. Photo: Dan W
Grab the ball, not the kitty! From an arcade-ful of cool refrigerated kitties on a hot day in Arcadia. Photo: Dan W

No, not death, silly (as in the famous paintings with the skull casting a shadow on the pastoral scene of what should otherwise look Arcadian), but kitties kitties everywhere, especially here in Arcadia, tucked away in a coffee bar–literally, an end-to-end row of pink kittyness whose vanishing point leads you to a giant plush panther.

Pardon the radio silence. I’m mostly on hiatus, translating up a storm, teaching media translation to wonderful Japanese exchange students and industry people, and diving into the slowly ratcheting heatfest that is full-on summer. Oh, and I started a small press, to launch this fall, so stay tuned.




Griffith Park observatory, sunset, December 21

Griffith Park observatory, sunset, December 21

With about a bazillion of my fellow Angelenos, temporary and trans-planted, I walked up to the top of the Griffith Park lookout to watch the sun set on December 21, down to the last cloudy filaments. Then kept going for a bit, till true darkness fell. I’ve been doing this a number of years, and the solstice hike is one of my favorite urban nature rituals. This year there was an extra kick because of the Mayan calendar turn–essentially the reset back after 144,000 days. Pretty awesome that it happened on a solstice.

I’m kind of susceptible to the idea, because Japanese calendrical systems affect everything from reign names and their gloss on auspiciousness to formal letter salutations. In language school, for example, we learned one such gloss of season (in these days of brisk cold…etc.), that was delinked from its poetic context and the saijiki manuals that might give you seasonal words for haiku, to be bundled with an apology for returning a late library book. How ever will one apologize with the proper amount of rigor if global climate change causes a rupture in ritual relation to accepted calendrical time? I guess it has already happened once, in 1873, when the Gregorian calendar was introduced for the purposes of commerce, and “new year” calibrated to January 1.

on hiatus, mostly

“A man made of books.”
Source here, but first seen courtesy of Jon Abel.

Taking some intermittent down-time away from the blog, to do some reading, writing and long thoughts about early twentieth-century literature and social movements. I will be posting on my urban ag/academic projects, but less frequently.

a tale of two engines

It was a bright Friday morning, and I was puttering around the farm at Muir Ranch, the 1.5-acre working garden at John Muir High School, in Pasadena. Temperatures hovered at about 98, but students on their lunch hour were milling around the vacant field part of the campus, waiting for the Endeavour space shuttle to fly by. A couple of teachers were there, having hollered to people to come out, and this is what it looked like.

The shuttle, as it buzzes in to salute JPL, the motherland of sorts. Yes, the shuttle itself is deliberately a bit hard to see in this photo, while the humans are foregrounded.

As I watched the shuttle go by, I have to admit I was a bit disappointed. Mostly because it just looked like a couple of piggybacked airplanes and not a futurist vehicle; I suppose that boils down to a feeling that a certain kind of pragmatics trumped imagination. The conveyance that passed by looked a lot like what we see on the tarmac at LAX any day of the week. There were, though, people on the nearby freeway who stopped–a lot of them, on the 210. It seems there was enough consensus that this was an “event” that no one got slammed.

I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent, though. Pasadena, as a city, has more students in private school than any other city in the country–36%. Never mind the “digital divide,” the kids in public school in the remaining 64% are cordoned by literal mountains from the technology that is literally flying by them.

It really made me wonder: what are people slowing down for? what are they in awe of? Given that my discipline is founded on the results of the atom bomb, it is a professionally relevant question–it is entirely possibly to revere something absolutely awesome that is really not in your best interest, such as Little Boy or Big Bertha.

I think that what bothered me is that it is some abstract notion of “technology” that holds sway; this vision celebrates technology as a sublime force of big budgets. Socal has a long attachment to the aerospace industry, especially in the South Bay. The Pasadena public radio station focuses quite keenly on goings-on at JPL. It’s nice to see a locally-sourced transportation infrastructure that works, in these days where 60% of LA sidewalks are broken and “carmageddon” hysteria is hobbling the westside commute. The element of civic pride sparked by spotting the Endeavour was visible in the way its visit affected the traffic on nearby freeways–people pulled over on the 210, put on their blinkers, and just watched, motors humming. There was clearly enough of a consensus that it was an “event” that no mad honking or pileups occurred, even on a typically impatient Friday.

My worry is that while everyone is mobilized to admire the shuttle in a blue sky that belongs to no one, something else is being celebrated. This “something” is actually a faith in exploration of faraway unknowns at the expense of locally present terrains that, in fact, may be equally unknown. That to “explore” is actually to abandon. Rhetorical question: have we (rhetorical we) done so well with the resources on our planet that we merit carte-blanche access to any- and everyplace else? I am not sure about this.

I am sure the funding of space projects is complex and answers to many masters, a process that deserves close attention. I am sure that basic research generates many insights and practical applications of science and contributes to a more general archive of what we may know. What bothered me was not the dreamy attitude to an abstract future, but the concrete policy decisions of bringing the shuttle back “home.”

After it finishes its greetings to JPL and the rest of the coast, the Endeavour is scheduled to journey from LAX through S LA to its final destination, the CA Science Museum. A lot, a lot of trees will be cut down to make that that swath of transit possible in Inglewood and S LA. This is already a part of the city, a massive geographical part, that is green-poor, park poor, tree-poor. It’s been record-hot temperatures in LA this last week, just hot hot hot, and I can’t imagine why you would want to cut down any form of respite against that.

The repetitions of environmental racism that I am familiar with from “food desert” geography are depressingly chronic. Whack the trees, the promote the modern.

Yet, there are outliers. Along the lines of swords into ploughshares, I ran into an interesting concept the other day–swords into pizza ovens. Rather than summoning a bunch of at-risk high school students to genuflect to a bunch of resource-intensive technology they might never get a crack at, though it be next door, why not think about what a jet engine can do–given its druthers.

People, meet Sparky, the pizza oven, made from a re-tooled jet engine into a customized portable fire-breathing pizza-creating animal. I first heard of Sparky at a fundraiser dinner for Rootdown LA in S LA, an organization that teaches local kids to make and eat healthy food using quite cutting-edge “technologies,” like the pirate crate of molecular gastronomy. Its programming challenges the idea that a technology must be huge, expensive, and dependent on large institutions.

The full Sparky.

If not swords into ploughshares–an image which seems a bit too earthy and hippiesque for this era–why not engines into pizzas.



interim spaces / pasadena

The Woodworking Bus, part of the Alternate Routes project. Source:

Talking to urban planners, lawyers and urban ag/community health and garden advocates lately, I have found that opinions differ wildly on the value of vacant lots as interim spaces. One POV feels that any way in is a way in, and that finite contracts on a year-to-year basis that may be revocable are well worth the effort developing. Namely, this is because they allow something to be done NOW, and the benefits of urban gardening can be evident to all in the very near future. Another opposing POV feels that too many times urban gardening has reclaimed vacant and neglected spaces, remediated the terrible soil quality, introduced foot traffic, made the land productive both emotionally and in terms of mental/physical health payoffs, and made the formerly ratty and abject place a place where people want to go, as opposed to want to avoid~~only to be booted out when property values make developers lick their chops. I think opinions hinge also to some extent on the availability of said land (it being felt to be even lousier to be kicked out if there are few or no other options).

Enter…the mobile workshop and garden, a way of allowing some flexibility into this fairly strict-seeming set of options. Thanks to the kind invitation of my friend M, I toured an example of such movable thinking last night, night of the blue moon: an art opening at Side Street Projects in northwest Pasadena. Here is what the space looked like at about 5pm, before people started coming in.

Picnic tables, soon to be garnished with flowers, BBQ and homemade pickles. Airstream studios in the background (my finger in the foreground…oops!).

It must have been 100, 120 people at one point. I found that the project managers had done some very smart long-term thinking about how they occupied the land. It’s rented from the City, and sits between a Church’s Chicken and an old abandoned Victorian house that the City is going to move somewhere else, as it is historically significant. “Rent” is paid in sweat equity, through the workshops and open events that SSP sponsors. And as is typical with such arrangements, there some rules–no performances, for example, and most strikingly, no gardening. I think the fear is that people would get too attached to the space, and occupying the land would morph into Occupying the land. The design solution is to make many things mobile. Here is a picture of picnic-goer S doing his thing at a station in the Woodworking Bus, one of several types of movable teaching studio on the lot.

Desk-like stations, each outfitted with tools, line each side of the Woodworking Bus, which also includes a teacher’s station for use during workshops.

Other such conveyances include: a FEMA trailer that has been re-purposed into a hanging garden, and several Airstream trailers that serve as studios, workshop spaces, and gathering spaces for artists/community folks who may need to have meetings outside of their living spaces. Future plans include mobile raised-bed gardens that could be “transplanted” into a new space, in the event that their interim use expires.

The mobile spaces of the SSP presented some really inspiring solutions in a two-birds-one-stone way (sustainability, land use). Also, the pickles were sublime, and the crowd very amiable. So much so that I forgot to take any further pictures…

book talk, Friday May 18

Nakagami, Japan: The Life and Times of a Person and a Place

When fiction-writer Nakagami Kenji died in 1992, he was elegized with a chorus of “firsts” and “lasts.” He was the first Akutagawa Prize-winning writer born after the war, and he was the first big-ticket writer to self-identify as coming from a hisabetsu buraku background. The critical melancholy surrounding his death mourned him for being the “last” author, the final writer of pure fiction to command a mass audience while infusing his potboiler plots with the heavy lifting of the academic theory derived from anthropology and French philosophies that boomed in the “new academicism” of the 1980s via figures like Asada Akira, Yoshimoto Takaaki, and Nakagami’s longtime friend Karatani Kōjin.

Nakagami was a writer not shy to embrace paradox. He worked for years as a baggage handler, writing fiction in bathroom stalls during his breaks; later he would travel the world, weighing in on philosophy and public intellectual life with figures like Jacques Derrida and Kim Chi-ha. He has been critically cast as a masculinist writer powered by primitivist energy, yet collaborated with eminently feminist writers, and wrote a series of novels on found fraternities of pan-Asian brothers who leave Japan to form failed utopias. In the 1970s, the buraku activist movement heated up, and the economy boomed. At the same time, the ethnographic concerns that underwrote high theory in France had not landed in their Tokyo appropriations. Nakagami’s writings took on the challenges of both reckoning with a reboot of Japanese literature by writing obscured buraku cultural forms back into it, and by branching out into new modes of print and popular culture story-telling that perplexed many but were sought after by a variety of editors. I will situate his writing project in the context of my own fieldwork living, learning and working in Tokyo in the 1990s, as the very shapes of literature, writing, and fiction took on new forms.

To sort out the intellectual, fictional, and social milieu of the 1970s milieu that in many ways still echoes, I map out the trajectory and materials of my recent book, Nakagami, Japan, and suggest some ways that Nakagami’s writings prove useful not only as Japanese literature, but as ways to imagine the lived and material realities of “information society,” a concept whose social, political and aesthetic facets have preoccupied many from the 1970s to the present.

These include:
–what role language, and the lived reality of its effects, plays in the public realms of culture, criminal justice and the legal system
–how to exert “ownership” over language in high and low realms to effect social change and achieve sovereignty (a word common in many post-Versailles movements of ethnic self-determination)
–assessing the ups and downs of casting oneself as a “minor” player in a major context such as nationalism and national infrastructures
–how economic, technical and social relations must be thought, as an alternative to the individualist emphasis on “subjectivity” (shutaisei) promoted by early-mid postwar thinkers?
–how fiction and the larger world of “writing” have to invent new kinds of realism to engage with new kinds of realities found in modern times and the postwar era.