Category Archives: discourse

ruins – the past, the real, the monumental, the personal

Did I ever tell you about one of my favorite buildings in the world? It’s a public housing project named Kaigan-dori Danchi 海岸通り団地 (not to be confused with the type of projects one finds in the US, it was perfectly desirable housing in its time). This particular danchi (“community housing” or – generally public – housing project) was located smack in the middle of the richest section of Yokohama, between Kannai and Minato Mirai, perhaps one of the richest areas of the Tokyo region. Here it is in all its dirty, dirty glory, with Landmark Tower in the background.

Yes. This is Kaigan-dori Danchi, one of the grossest “ruins” (haikyo 廃墟) I had ever seen. Or, I thought it was a ruin. You know, an abandoned building. Because it looked too much like a shell to be anything else.

Then I got a message on Flickr.

In it, the messager wrote that he grew up in Kaigan-dori Danchi and now lives in New York City. He advised me that yes, it’s still inhabited, and thanked me for putting so many photos of it on Flickr. (Yes, I went for a photo shoot of this complex, more than once – hey, it was on my walk home from school!) He felt nostalgic at seeing his boyhood home and was interested to see what it looked like now.

In other words, what I’d felt vaguely strange about as some kind of ruins voyeurism – the same kind of ruins porn that takes hold of nearly everyone who wants to take photos of Detroit, for example – turned out to be a two-way street. It wasn’t pure voyeurism; it was a way to connect with someone who had a direct experience of the past of this place, a place that was still alive and had a memory and a history, rather than being some monstrosity out of time – as I’d been thinking of it. I saw it as a monument, not an artifact.

So this was in 2008, a half year after I’d become obsessed with Japanese urban exploration photography, which was enjoying a boom in the form of guidebooks, a glossy monthly magazine, calendars, DVDs, tours, photo books, and more, in Japan at the time. (Shortly thereafter, and I CALLED IT, came the public housing complex boom. I do have some of the photo books related to this boom too, because there’s nothing I love more than a good danchi.)

As part of the research for a presentation I gave on the topic for my Japanese class at IUC that year, I’d done some research into websites about ruins in Japan (all in Japanese of course). These were fascinating: some of them were just about the photography, but others were about reconnecting with the past, posting pictures of old schools and letting former classmates write on the guestbooks of the sites. There was a mixi (like myspace) group for the Shime Coal Mine (the only landmark of the first town I’d lived in in Japan). The photo books, on the other hand, profoundly decontextualized their objects and presented them as aesthetic monuments, much the way I’d first viewed Kaidan-dori Danchi.

So I wonder, with ruins porn a genre in the United States and Europe as well, do we have the same yearning for a concrete, real past that some of these sites and photographers exhibit, and not just vague nostalgia for the ruins of something that never existed? How much of ruins photography and guidebooks are about the site in context – the end point of a history – and how much is just about “hey I found this thing”? How much of this past is invented, never existed, purely fantasy, and how much of it is real, at least in the minds of those who remember it?

These are answers I don’t yet have, but I’ve just begun on this project. In the meantime, I’m happy to share Kaigan-dori Danchi with you.

politics and anthologizing

In this past year, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how the form of the anthologies I study (literary individual author anthologies in Japan at the turn of the 20th century) impacts possibilities of reading and interpretation. I’ve also commented at a couple of conferences that the narratives of who these authors “belong” to have been shaped and guided in these anthologies, and have written that taking works out of their original contexts fundamentally erases a part of their meaning (in terms of the ways readers encounter them) and simultaneously alters the work in terms of its received meaning.

After doing some reading this morning, I realized that one thing links these various threads in anthologies, and it’s a word I wasn’t using: politics.

I want to talk specifically about the example of Higuchi Ichiyō. For much of her career, she wrote for the magazine Bungakukai (among others) which was a driver of the first Romantic movement in Japan. In her anthologies, of course her serial works from that magazine are included as whole pieces, as though they were wholes from the outset, which has its own implications for reading. But the other piece of this is that just as the editors were writing the Bungakukai coterie social and ideological connections out of her career in their prefaces, they simultaneously erased this connection – this fundamental supplier of meaning – from her works by taking them out of their original Romantic context.

The first readers of Ichiyō’s works would have seen them embedded in theory and poetry heavily influenced by western Romanticism, including translations of English works and illustrations of faded ruins and statuary. The readers of her individual anthology, as well as reprints in wider circulation magazines such as Bungei kurabu before her death, would have encountered a very different context: in the magazines, other “modern” mainstream Japanese literature (presented as unaffiliated with any coterie or group other than the influential publishers of the magazines), and in the anthology, Ichiyō’s own works as a cohesive and self-contained whole. No longer would her work be infused, by virtue of proximity, with the politics of literature at the time she wrote in the early-to-mid 1890s. She becomes depoliticized, ironically despite the heavily social and what I would call political themes of her work: that is, the plight of the lower class and the inequity of Japanese society at the turn of the 20th century.

Especially in her second anthology, published in 1912, Ichiyō becomes a timeless woman writer, an elegant author of prose and poetry whose works are infused with tragedy – just as her poverty-stricken life was, to paraphrase the editors of the two volumes. Yet it is not a structural tragedy that pervades society, as it is in her work, but a personal, elegant, and heart-wrenching individual tragedy, one that makes her work even more poignant without necessarily having political implications. I can’t speak to the Romantic movement’s attitude toward this kind of theme found in Bungakukai, not being as familiar with its politics as I should be, but I can say that Kitamura Tōkoku – the founder of Bungakukai – basically started his career with the publication of Soshū no shi, a piece of “new-form” poetry about a prisoner, written at the height of his political involvement in the late 1880s.

So there is an association, simply by virtue of publishing in the same venues, between Ichiyō’s politics and those of Tōkoku, and the literary politics of the Romantic movement vis-à-vis the multitude of other ideologies of writing that existed at the time. Yet in her anthologies, this politics disappears and her context is lost entirely, in favor of a new context of Ichiyō alone, her works as something that stand alone without interference from the outside world. It is a profound depoliticization and something to think about in considering other anthologies as well, both early ones in Japan, current ones, and those found elsewhere in the world.

blog link: the inferiority of blackness as a subject

I don’t do nearly enough (or any) linking to other inspiring blog posts. Today that will change. I came across an eloquent and inspiring (not to mention blood-pressure-raising) post today critiquing a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post that clearly should never have been published – which attacked doctoral students’ dissertation titles as a statement on the illegitimacy of black studies departments as a whole. Seriously. Picking on PhD students, by someone with no graduate education, as though black studies is a complete waste of time because it doesn’t meet the writer’s standards of legitimate, relevant topics. By the way, did you know that racism is dead? We’ve got a black president! Clearly studies that focus on race are no longer relevant. Especially topics in black studies that are written on by, you know, black scholars.

Anyway, what I will link to is not that offensive and – hey – less than worthwhile post. I link to a much better one.

“The Inferiority of Blackness as a Subject” at Tressiemc <– Click that link; read and weep for humanity. Get mad. Sign the petition. Share to your own audience. Let’s not put up with this kind of thing being posted at Chronicle of Higher Ed.

disciplinarity and undergraduate education

I have a quick comment on a recent blog post I read: “The Politics of Disciplinarity at the Undergraduate Level” (Natalia Cecire) This is adapted and expanded from a lengthy comment I left at said blog.

I have an admission to make: I was a naive, stereotypical computer science major. How so? I looked down, so very much, on the humanities – on what I perceived to be the humanities. Soft, vague, insular, self-interested, and ultimately irrelevant to my (or anyone else’s) life. “Learning for learning’s sake” was my hobby, but somehow it seemed ridiculous as a university course. How would humanities majors get jobs? Perhaps it’s partly my humble background, but majoring in something that didn’t have a definable endpoint in a career that would make up for the investment in a college education just seemed worse than pointless. It seemed irresponsible and naive.

Yet I was the one who was naive, along with my fellow CS majors who mocked MBAs and even the information science students. They were the ones who couldn’t hack it, right? If you’re not in a hard science or engineering (and we counted ourselves among them), you’re just playing around; you can’t make it to our league.

Who was I kidding? Myself.

I am now, as you know, in a humanities PhD program. I’m in an area studies department but study the history of the book, and came to it via literature (and before that, via a very social-science oriented history department, which is also partly the explanation for my attitude toward things like cultural studies and other vague humanities, including history departments with this bent).

It’s been a hard road, admittedly, for me to come to terms with this. I’ve never felt fully at home in the humanities and it’s because of the carryover of this attitude. And yet at the same time I’ve been doing a dual degree in information science, the very discipline I used to mock along with my CS buddies as for the kids who couldn’t hack our program, who couldn’t move from pseudocode to real programming, to real work.

And as you may guess, I’ve changed my mind in that I’ve become less naive (I would hope) and much more broad-minded about what can mean. Of course it’s more difficult to get a job that translates directly from a humanities degree to something concrete – but that doesn’t mean that one’s degree isn’t widely applicable and doesn’t prepare one for a variety of life paths. I know that’s often considered a platitude uttered by career counselors at universities everywhere (not to mention tenured professors who don’t understand undergrads’ lack of appreciation for “learning for learning’s sake”) but it’s true.

One of the things that was lacking from my CS education was a strong dose of critical thinking. It wasn’t until a few years into my humanities PhD program that I could think critically about the science discipline that I had come from, about  the inability to be truly objective but rather the ability to recognize and be aware of one’s own biases, and about how the questions we are able to ask, the problems we are able to pose, are not self-evident. Thinking critically about code, about programming, about application design from the very concept of applications to the endpoint of execution, was not in my DNA until I had already left the field and joined the legions of critical thinkers that inhabited another.*

The blog post referenced above speaks to the implications of politics at the “academic” level about disciplinarity having perhaps unintended consequences for attitudes at the undergraduate level, and so I’m sharing my undergraduate attitude, and gradual attitude change, above. Below, I’d like to address another consequence that the author brings up: the possibility of differential undergraduate tuition that could reflect perceived value of various “hard” versus “soft” majors. This is what I had to say in my comment on her blog:

One school, at least, has already implemented the policy of differential undergrad tuition: University of Michigan (where I am currently a student). The tuition varies by college, with Engineering being the best example, but since Computer Science is in the college of Arts & Sciences but veers toward the money-making assumption about engineering, it also gets differential (higher) tuition at the upperclassmen level.

I was a computer science major as an undergrad, and this kind of system would have strongly discouraged me from pursuing the degree. As a woman who was often the only woman, or one of perhaps two or three, in a class of 40-60 students, this has serious implications for the demographics of the major, which are already an issue. I also have to say that as a computer science undergrad with a double major in history, I held that unfortunate attitude: CS is “real work” whereas history is something fun I did on the side, something not really relevant to anything but history and academia itself.

I’m now a PhD candidate in the history of the book (within an area studies department – humanities, in other words), and I see now the patronizing and narrow-minded attitude I have. But it is so prevalent that even I – and I naively considered myself broad-minded – held it for a long time, and actively mocked those outside the “hard” sciences because of it.

It’s so pervasive, and I’m glad that you addressed the fact that what is often written off as academic squabbles and pissing matches impact undergrads profoundly as well.


* That’s not to say that everyone who majors in the humanities ends up being able to think critically. I meet many who get by completely unable to do so. But here I speak from my own experience and say that it is what allowed me to do so.

android slashdot reader: 和英コメントで言語学び!

Now that I have an Android phone and have found some pretty great things on the Android Market for getting ahold of Japanese content, I would like to start sharing with you all what I’ve been using and whether it’s worth downloading.

First up is my favorite new find: Slashdot Reader. Yeah. It’s an RSS feed reader for Slashdot. Why so great?

Well, can you imagine my reaction when I read its description and saw images of posts from and showing up all mixed in together? Then I read the description: “just a feed reader, nothing more” – for both Japanese and English Slashdot.

It’s like I found an app made by my doppelganger. Really.

If you don’t want one or the other of the languages, it allows you to toggle both, Japanese only, and English only.

Because it’s a feed reader, you only get the headlines and leads from Slashdot, but can easily click through to the full story, and therein lies the amazing language learning tool that somehow never really occurred to me.

All of these years, I could have been learning Japanese through Slashdot comments! That’s right. Of course it’s not textbook Japanese. I already know how trolls (荒らし) talk after just a minute or two of reading. How nerds talk. (They always use が and never けど, although they do use ね sparingly for emphasis. A certain language teacher from several years ago who forbid us from using けど in class for an entire semester would be proud.) And how random users talk.

I also know how they’re basically saying exactly the same things that commenters do on Slashdot in English, only they’re saying it in Japanese. (open source != free as in beer, anyone? I seriously just read this. 無償 is free as in beer, and note that it’s not the same as the widely-used word for “free” 無料 – so I just learned something new about software licensing.) So if you’re a Slashdot reader, this is going to help you immensely. It’s all about context.

Yes, so there are people out there who would disparage the idea of learning language from internet comments. But I counter that with: it’s real language! And this is a specific forum where you know what is coming: some nerdspeak, some posturing, some trolls, some reasonable people, talking about a rather limited set of topics. So you are going to learn voices, not just “Japanese.” You are going to learn what people say in a certain situation, and also what not to say. I can’t think of anything more helpful than that!

And here you go: Slashdot Reader for Android (this takes you to Android Market).

Showa 40s vs 1970

I was listening to a podcast interview with a favorite author just now (Kakuta Mitsuyo if you’re wondering) and I came to a realization about Japanese and Western calendars. From Meiji onward, I have come to crave dates in Japanese reign years when using Japanese, crazy as it sounds – I want to ditch Western years altogether!

Why is this? Frankly, Western years take a mouthful to say and are much harder to pick up when you’re listening, especially if the speaker is talking quickly. 2009 becomes “the year two thousand nine.” Try 1999: “the year one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine!” Do you see the problem?

Well, many learners of Japanese hate the confusion of having a separate, less often used Japanese reckoning of years according to emperors’ reigns. The infamous Hirohito is known as the Showa emperor in Japan and the Showa period starts with his coronation in 1926. I was born in Showa 56 – 1981. Incidentally I know this because the high school where I taught my first year in Japan functioned on Japanese years and one needs to know one’s birthday! For most official forms, you are still expected to write your birthday in Japanese years. If you want to impress a functionary, learn this and write it proudly. They will be unnecessarily astounded.

In any case, the author was talking about her childhood and said “In the Showa 40s…” I actually sighed with relief! When the host breezed over that day’s date in Western years at the beginning of the podcast I had simply stopped listening, but Showa 40s – it just clicked. 1965-1975. It just makes sense to me somehow.

As you may know, I study the Meiji period (1868-1912). Specifically, it’s the Meiji 20s, or 1887-1897. I find myself writing dates as Meiji 20-something all the time. Why? I can’t explain it. It’s certainly in part because publication dates in the books I read are all in Meiji years – it was still the norm then to use Japanese years. But I can convert easily now from studying it for so long. So, why?

Really, it’s not me becoming accustomed to Japan. No normal Japanese person born after the Taisho period (1912-1926) would do such a thing. I think it’s much simpler: I am a nerd who studies literary history. It’s the sad truth. Well, a happy Heisei 23 to you all then!

(By the way, why no pre-Meiji reign years for me? They’re too short, numerous, and confusing. They sound the same. I just can’t take it. But if I studied early modern? I bet I’d be using Bunka-Bunsei like it’s 1821!)

new manga: a bride’s story

I was clued in to a newly translated manga by Mori Kaoru via Feministe: A Bride’s Story, the tale of an arranged marriage set in 19th-century central Asia.

'A Bride's Story' cover, vol. 1
A Bride's Story, vol. 1


To summarize briefly, it is the story of a woman sent to a neighboring village in an arranged marriage – naturally, without meeting her new husband first. It turns out that she is 20 and he is 12, making the situation even more awkward than usual. I haven’t ordered a copy yet (the first volume came out May 31, 2011), but between the detailed, grand artwork and the fascinating premise, I’m looking forward to reading it myself.

Beyond having a relatively unique setting and focus (I hear that much time is spent on women’s lives and communities within the villages), I have to say I’m in love with the role reversal. An arranged marriage of a young woman and older man is too familiar, and the surprise of the same age would be too boring, too ideal. To reverse the aspect of arranged marriage that can be most scandalous to Western (European and North American) sensibilities – the age difference – is the most intriguing part of the story.

What typically happens in a tale of older man, younger woman (even girl)? Not all situations are painted in a positive light, but I can think of few cases in which the younger party is not tremendously sexualized, far beyond what is often considered appropriate. (Then again, given the sexualization of even young teenagers in contemporary America – let alone historically – maybe this is not so surprising.) Sex is assumed no matter how young the bride. And rare are the stories – fiction, I’m talking about here – where the relationship doesn’t take on a weirdly romantic cast, or even an explicit gradual romance.

I’m looking at you here, Shining Genji. I was once in a graduate-level course and the professor threw out the question: what was it that happened to Murasaki? Unbelievably a woman in the room threw out “grooming” as the answer. Grooming for ideal sexuality. The professor cut her right off with “statutory rape at best.” Thank you. But if this could be the automatic answer for such a sick situation, one that is portrayed romantically even by a woman writer in 1000 AD – well, doesn’t that say something about conditioning?

In any case, I’m giving this background to highlight the unique situation of a much older bride and a groom that is still a child. I would argue that although this happens, we don’t have such an automatic social narrative for their relationship. If someone talked about “grooming” with regard to the boy, we would cut them off with “no, it’s sick. THAT is sick to even imagine.” Right? It’s creepy. I think that we’re more ready to imagine a developing romantic relationship between a much younger girl and an older man – I’ll dig up our favorite Shining Genji raising Murasaki to be his future wife as my example again. Can we imagine this bride in A Bride’s Story raising her child husband to be the perfect sexual object in the same way? I would say no. No way.

So I’m very interested to get my hands on this manga to see how this is treated. From the Feministe post, I gather that there is a warm relationship with a fondness developing on the part of the bride. But I would like to see for myself: there is no way she can’t participate in raising the boy, in some way, as an older woman who has come into his family’s home. But what is her role, and what is the intention? Does she raise him as a loving family member would raise any boy to be a proper man, or does she have something else invested in it, a la Genji and his child bride?

We’ll see. If any of you have read this in Japanese, let me know your thoughts. (Incidentally, I would kill to be able to go to Book Off right now and just buy this series used!)

the linked, linear, serendipitous Web

I’m taking a course on Web archiving for the second half of this winter term at U of M, and from the very beginning our major project has got my brain going on theoretical issues and implications of technology and our offline assumptions as they impact our approach to the Web.

Here’s the thing about the Web. (And let’s distinguish it from “Internet.” I am only talking about the Web.) Perhaps the most wonderful, inspiring, and revolutionary aspect of hypertext and hyperlinks are their difference from print, and from scanned book images or e-books treated as paper books. I am talking about text that means something to the computer (in a sense, in that it’s manipulable), rather than the image of words on a page, which is also how I’d describe print media.

How are hypermedia different? Two words: linked, and linear.
Continue reading the linked, linear, serendipitous Web

who is ‘anonymous’?

Given that I write about issues of anonymous, collective, and pseudonymous authorship, a headline this morning couldn’t help but grab my attention.

Guessing Who the Anonymous Author of ‘O’ Is” (New York Times, 2011.01.19)

This headline is terrible, and not just in terms of grammar and flow (not to mention catchiness). By terrible, I of course mean that I would rewrite it. Let’s try this.

“Media Freaks Out Over Not Knowing Who Wrote Work Published Anonymously; Writers Overcompensate By Insisting Loudly That They Didn’t Do It” (I have no idea if my capitalization is right. So maybe you can burn me for grammar too!)

The article begins with this great statement that pretty much sums up the attitude of journalists and critics toward a kind of entitlement to making a direct connection between attributed author (here, “Anonymous”) and a single writer or team of writers.

The publisher of “O,” an anonymously written novel about a 2012 presidential campaign, made a brazen request of journalists and other writers in an e-mail on Tuesday: if anyone asks whether you are the author, please decline to comment.

I couldn’t have made up anything better. It’s brazen! The nerve of that publisher to emphasize the authorial identity of “Anonymous” as complete in itself rather than something that demands to be linked to the private identities of the writer(s). Of course, it’s not just the possibility of “Anonymous” in itself being an author: it’s also the context of past political novels (here, Primary Colors) attributed to that very same author, although here the “Anonymous” is quite different in that it is tied to a completely separate political novel.

I often ask when studying writing in the 1880s and 1890s, what did it mean to read a work that has no writer’s name attached, and one attributed only to Anonymous?

Continue reading who is ‘anonymous’?