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.

on the road

@ Wellesley College, Saturday October 22

The 38th Parallax: Nakagami Kenji Writes Home from Korea

the line, first proposed by Japan in 1896, that roughly demarcates N and S Korea

photos by Araki Nobuyoshi from the photo-prose novel *Monogatari, Seoul*

When fiction-writer Nakagami Kenji died in 1992, fellow writers mourned him as “the last Japanese writer.” Others remembered him as the most important writer born after WW2. These mourners and others have esteemed Nakagami’s work for its fierce wranglings with Japanese national literature (kokubungaku) at every level. My talk turns away from this standoff with Japanese literature, to explore Nakagami’s writings on, about and from Korea–thematically, these comprise the largest cluster of writings in his oeuvre. These works appear primarily as photo essay-novels made in collaboration with renowned photographers (Araki Nobuyoshi, Shinoyama Kishin) and published between 1978 and 1985. In this talk, I explore how Nakagami turned to Korean cities and literature as models for a kind of historically alive and politicized modernity that Japan had abandoned or spurned during its own era of high-speed economic growth. I suggest that Nakagami’s late writings advocate a parallax vision of Japanese literature as belonging to Japan, but also connected to the global South, including Korea.