(...Here, as promised, is the second part of my survey of the Japanese underground arts scene over the past 60+ years.)
"Threat level" of the underground- how dangerous is it?
The degree to which the arts underground is "threatening" to the Japanese authorities is hard to fully gauge, considering that one apparent strategy for its containment is based on outright ignoring it rather than publicly denouncing or misrepresenting it (more on this in a moment.) Before discussing any authoritative action to contain it or eliminate it from public life, though, it is worth approaching the 'threat level' from multiple angles for any response to it to be fully understood. Or, more accurately, it would be best to approach the overall situation by developing more of a typology of threats: the kinds of threats associated with live performances can be made against the dominant social order (e.g. spurring audiences to insurrectionary activity), against the public's psychological well-being (e.g. the showcasing of traumatizing contents), against personal property and infrastructure, against the smooth running of commercial enterprises, and against the natural living environment or ecology. Within all the works surveyed here, there are few acts that have touched on all of these particular bases, but most manage to check off at least two items on the list.
I. The diminished role of political violence…
Some journalist accused me for producing a record that was influenced by leftism. But I never intended producing [sic] such a kind of record nor expressing an idea of it in that record.
- Juntaro Yamanouchi[i]
If it is the job of local criminal investigators to determine who is a threat and to what, then they do not have a particularly easy job with the current performance underground in Japan. Unlike the New Left-affiliated groups of the 1960s, the membership of the underground from roughly the 1980s to the present is more atomized, less likely to provide audiences with clear explanations as to their motives (whether insurrectionary or no), and occasionally seems to be carrying out its more destructive rituals merely as an extreme form of catharsis rather than as a means of providing running commentary on socio-political matters. Because the common modes of performance also involve creators with dissimilar intentions (regardless of their close associations), the attribution of criminal motives to any one unit within the underground is difficult.
Politically oriented violence within the underground has diminished over the last few decades for numerous reasons, and mainstream consensus about the troubled future of Japan (once the sole provenance of "refuseniks" and the counter-establishment) should not be discounted as one of them. Whereas, in the mid-1980s, it could be said that the dominance of Japanese imported cars and the cornering of the computer chip market made “the United States […] more afraid of Japan than it had been since Pearl Harbor,”[ii], the “bubble crash” of the 1990s ensured that Japan would not become the world’s foremost economic power after all. Owing to a confluence of factors like aggressive speculation, the inflation of real estate and stock prices over the preceding decade, and a practically ‘no-questions-asked’ access to credit, Japan entered a still-unbroken era of economic stagnation - a secondary effect of which was an almost masochistic self-accounting that tied economical decline in with the declining Japanese birth rate, going so far as to prophecize the extinction of the Japanese race.
For young people just graduating from university, the 1990s represented the first period of full-spectrum uncertainty since the war years. Though it could be happily proclaimed in 1986 that "full-time, lifetime, large-organization employment, has become the workplace norm,"[iii] such "job for life" guarantees no longer exist, with higher and higher percentages of fresh university graduates taking on unstable employment as furiita [フリータ、a quirky, polyglot portmanteau of the English “freelance” and German “arbeit,” or “work.] Unemployment in some cities, such as Osaka, stands at 7%, which is comparable to the national U.S. average during the most recent recession - one of many salient facts that call Japanese exceptionalism into question.
Consider: it seems scarcely believable that, in the mid-1980s, someone with the clout of outgoing Tokyo prefectural governor Shintaro Ishihara could question the materialism of his people- one of his many controversial pronouncements was delivered in the wake of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake catastrophe, with a condemning tone more suited to the likes of Jerry Falwell: “America's identity is freedom. France's identity is freedom, equality and fraternity. Japan has no sense of that. Only greed. Materiality greed, monetary greed.”[iv] This is particularly scathing coming from a man who has built his identity upon propping up Japan’s virtues relative to these other countries (Ishihara co-authored, with Sony co-founder Akio Morita, the defining text on Japanese economic independence from the U.S., The Japan That Can Say No.)
Such governmental representatives would not be the only ones doing the criticism, though. Suspicion of the Japanese government's benevolence has also eroded considerably over the past twenty years, with the exposition of corruption at the highest levels (e.g. former prime minster Yoshiro Mori's receiving pre-listed shares of the company Recruit and then re-selling them upon the commencement of public trading for a million-dollar profit.) The government's incompetence in the face of disasters - again, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, and Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis - seems to be building this resentment further.
Finally, the attitude voiced during the 1960s and 1970s with regards to Japan-U.S. relations has been 'brought home' by numerous local scandals. The collision of the fishery training ship Ehime Maru with the USS Greenville in 2001, resulting in the deaths of nine Japanese crewmembers, stoked a considerable amount of local anger about the overreach and recklessness of U.S. military presence. The backlash against the 1995 rape of a 6th-grade girl by several U.S. Marines stationed at Okinawa was also not a peripheral news story, but a major event with lasting policy implications: Nicholas Kristof insists that "it helped end the taboo in Japan against discussing security issues and provoked a far-reaching debate about military ties with the United States," and, moreover "forced the United States to announce the consolidation and closure of some of its facilities on Okinawa, and it led the Japanese government to explore ways to treat Okinawa more equitably."[v] Such a success via protest was at least equal to anything the Anpo generation had achieved, making one wonder how much "agitation art" was really necessary to "awaken" the Japanese public in certain scenarios. This restlessness is, as of this writing, about to repeat itself owing to the local test-flying of MV-22 Osprey aircraft (a unique four-rotor VTOL vehicle that Okinawa residents believe is too crash-prone and thus likely to damage local property or cause fatalities.)[vi]
In all these cases, we see a Japanese populace that has not been unquestioning, since at least the late 1980s, of "Japan Inc."'s tendency to conflate the roles of government and corporations, a situation whose symptoms include increased militarism even in the face of international censure, and a painfully familiar authoritarian demand for public sacrifice of individual gains.
II. …but not violence, full-stop
Very much an obscene reflection of mainstream Japan's directionlessness, the 'scene' now has more of a reputation than ever for unpredictable acts of wildcat violence, whose roots lie less in political agit-prop than in personal existential disgust or simple thrill-seeking. It is intriguing that certain performances from the 1980s and onward were more destructive than much of what preceded them in the 1960s and 1970s, while having no discernible motive beyond acting as an extreme form of self-expression. This seems to be the case with Eye Yamatsuka's infamous mid-80s Tokyo performances as Hanatarash, "consisting entirely of on-stage destruction and utter disregard for anyone's safety," with the "most notorious incident [involving] Yamatsuka throwing junk around with a backhoe inside a venue."[vii] Another performance is worth mentioning for its "enter at your own risk" nature, which nonetheless did not prevent retaliatory action being taken against the group for their transgressions:
At a 1985 gig in Tokyo's Superloft, Hanatarash had the audience fill out forms relieving the band of responsibility for any possible bodily harm caused by the performance. The show stopped just as Yamatsuka was about to throw a lit molotov cocktail onto the stage, which was gasoline-drenched from a barrel. The performance cost the venue ¥600,000 ($6000) in repair costs.[viii]
One piece of black humor resulting from these demolition events was that, in spite of his role in one of the most popular Japanese musical exports (Boredoms), Hanatarash was even placed on the persona non grata list of the Osaka club Nanba Bears, which is now owned by Boredoms bandmate Seiichi Yamamoto.[ix] There is, amazingly, no mention of any arrest record for Yamatsuka to be found, though all of the accounts of his performance activity nonetheless note his permanent ban on further live activity as Hanatarash. One Hanatarash performance, which was stopped immediately before Yamatsuka attempted to throw a molotov cocktail onto a gasoline-doused stage, could have otherwise resulted in its initiator being punished for arson- a crime that, under Article 108 of the Japanese Penal Code, can be punished as follows: "a person who sets fire to and burns a building, train, tram, vessel or mine actually used as a dwelling, or in which a person is actually present, shall be punished by the death penalty or imprisonment with work for life or for a definite term of not less than 5 years."[x]
The Hanatarash affair is remarkable not just for its epitomizing a-political violence in the performance sphere, but also because Yamatsuka has since evolved into a considerably more peaceful proponent of a somewhat incoherent mysticism,[xi] characterizing yet another stage of the "post-political" underground. Though groups like the Zengakuren still exist as a potential agitational force within Japan, they can no longer be said they have any authoritative "voice" within the cultural underground, or at least not one comparable to what they might have marshalled in the 1960s. The loosely defined performance non-genre of "noise" - locally known as noizu-kei - comes out of an international post-industrial music scene that, as can be surmised by "zines" and other documentation from the pre-Internet 1980s, is far more introspective than the 1960s New Left, and less likely to think in a systemic manner that attributes all social ills to a single force (e.g. capitalism.) However, their actions do largely affirm Tarou Amano's suggestion of the previous Japanese underground that "they more often express in their work a personal critique of the rampant materialism in contemporary Japanese society."[xii] Otherwise, protests might not be holistic affairs directed at overcoming an entire political or economic system, but rather whatever the artist interprets as the most damaging effect of that system: this is the case when noizu-kei champion Merzbow (a.k.a. Masami Akita) holds low-key street protests not against "rampant materialism" but against the junk food restaurants that engage in cruel practices for the sake of increased productivity (Masami Akita is a committed vegan who has, among other things, assisted with the 'Kentucky Fried Cruelty' protest campaign in Tokyo.)
One of the primary external influences on this noizu-kei scene, William Bennett of the 'power electronics' group Whitehouse, might have inadvertently pinpointed the ideological coordinates of this culture with his claim that "I don't like censorship of absolutely anything, I take libertarianism to an extreme."[xiii] Elsewhere, the anarcho-libertarian influence William Burroughs, with his revulsion for any form of coercive behavior and his perception of 'Control' as a kind of a parasitic alien lifeform, meshes comfortably with local hero Genpei Akasegawa's feeling of 'Power' as some sort of living entity acting apart from human agency. Even some of the performance actions of the most politically active years from 1960-1970 can have their polemical content shorn from them, if one so chooses: for example, despite the Left orientation of the Zero Dimension performance group, their motto of 人間の行為をゼロに導 ["nothing / zero follows from human action"] speaks to a far more nihilist and less utopian impulse than what has typically been associated with radical protest art. Likewise, the Happenings of Yayoi Kusama that Alexandra Munroe speaks of (which were against "capitalist materialism, political imperialism, patriarchy, and 'uptight' sexual morality"[xiv]) were also refered to as "Self-Obliteration" festivals, a title that could apply to the destruction of virtually any unwanted psycho-spiritual baggage.
As can be expected, the shift away from political agitation and towards seemingly misdirected violence was met with disapproval by those artists who see their artwork as an outgrowth of their politics. Some of the loudest voices here are (again, not unexpectedly) expatriates living in Japan and particularly within the Tokyo metropolitan area. Terre Thaemlitz, a transgendered electronica producer, performer and leftist firebrand, notes how
In Japan, where Leftism is traditionally unidirectional and still associated with antiquated images of extremists or terrorist organisations such as the Nihon Sekigun (Japanese Red Army), many Left-ish Japanese producers prefer political expression through the omni-directional momentum of […] artistic strategies. In other words, allowing their actions to be perceived as ‘artistic expressions’ subject to the ambiguities of art discourse makes it difficult to identify a coherent social agenda. Unfortunately, this clouding of thematic intent often results in a conflict of interest between a producer’s desire for cultural change, and a refusal to be seen as taking sides (let alone define what those various sides maybe).[xv]
Thaemlitz' exasperated protest, though it is directed primarily at the music-based portion of Japanese subculture and not the entirety of the 'underground,' is not that far off-base as a criticism for the underground en toto: though we can wonder if there's really anything wrong with using the former as a metonym for the latter. After all, the ecumenical nature of live music performances in the Japanese underground frequently allows for theatrical events to be incorporated into the musical performance, or to be featured as another "act" on the night's show bill (e.g. mergers of butoh dance and various forms of extreme music are not uncommon.) The 'live houses' intended for musical performance are also one of the few 'official' venues that can accommodate all types of underground activity, given the decline in popularity of the indie theaters or 'ciné-clubs' that occurred in tandem with the swell of pre-recorded home viewing media. As Chris Fujiwara reports, "the vibrant ciné-club movement that Tokyo enjoyed during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s has largely vanished, its supporters having succumbed to the pressures of jobs and families and the convenience of DVDs."[xvi]
Another point that is missed by Thaemlitz in her critique is that members of the 'new' underground are better assimilated into mainstream Japanese institutions than their forebears. By this I do not mean that their performance activities are accepted by those institutions, but that many of these individuals have found ways to successfully lead "double lives": the noise performer Toshiji Mikawa, for example, is a section chief at a major Tokyo bank, while his Kansai-area counterpart Jojo Hiroshige (of Hijokaidan) funds the losses of his eclectic record label and shop ['Alchemy'] with a successful trading card operation. As of conversations I had with his colleagues circa 2005, Masami Akita of Merzbow reputedly worked as a landlord for a number of apartment properties in the greater Tokyo region.
Perhaps the local press blackout on these groups (more on this momentarily) has had the silver lining of enabling these "double lives" by not bringing undue attention to them- by all accounts, performances of "noise"-affiliated groups took great liberties with acceptable norms of Japanese public decency, particularly the 1980s wave of performances that occurred before the surge in international, ethnographic interest generated something of a taming effect. As the multi-disciplinary artist and former Tokyo resident John Duncan relates in a radio introduction of the group Hijokaidan,
Hijokaidan is known for their performances, where one of the women who does vocals will also do actions like pissing on stage, or shitting on stage, and the rest of the members will sort of move around on the stage after this…in this…and play homemade electronics, and in the process destroy these homemade electronics […] as I said before, when I introduce Hijokaidan, people who are not familiar with their gigs when they first see them are rather skeptical that these people are office workers that they’re looking at on the stage. But then when they start playing, they shut up, and listen, and, well…change their minds, I hope.[xvii]
Duncan, perhaps the most controversial of the small number of expatriates that joined Tokyo's performing arts underground in the 1980s, was himself no stranger to performances of a deliberately jarring nature- his 1984 performance Move Forward featured about 20 minutes of roaring sound output within the darkened, concrete-walled ‘Plan B’ space in Tokyo, accompanied with film collage - of war atrocities, S+M ritual etc. - being projected onto a paper screen that covered the entire visual space of the forward-facing audience (the projection screen stretched from ceiling to floor and from the left wall to the right.) In an unmistakably climactic moment, this screen would be set ablaze by Duncan at the end of the film portion, its fire-consumed remnants then sprayed into the audience with a fire extinguisher.
So, it should come as no surprise that some threats manage to check off more than one (and sometimes all) of the aforementioned "threat type" boxes. It is also unsurprising that performances with such destructive potential would put performers themselves at risk. Zero Dimension is yet again worth naming here, as their bluntly self-abasing act of inserted lit firecrackers in their asses (in full public view, of course) certainly put them at greater physical risk than any bystanders or onlookers. It is difficult to find commentary on these actions that comes from the police perspective, though it is easy to imagine the dilemma they faced when confronting such performances- they could step in and disrupt the performances for the immediate good of the public health, or just step aside and let them burn themselves out on self-directed violence (thus guaranteeing a lower rate of recidivism.)
The author has personally witnessed a number of music performances, in both Tokyo and Osaka live spaces, that saw musicians whipping themselves into such a frenzy that a complete disregard for their safety, or maybe just an adrenalized sense of imperviousness to danger, could be assumed. This could also be coupled with a compulsion to see things through to their logical conclusion, lest the performers risk being seen as "inauthentic". Maso "Masonna" Yamazaki, famous within the underground for destructive 10-minute live sets that consist mainly of non-verbal howls and contact microphone feedback, hurls his body about on stage with an amusing recklessness (though he is still probably outdone by the 80s antics of Hanatarash, e.g. an occasion on which "[Yamatsuka] inflicted a deep wound on his leg with an electrical saw, but carried on with the show."[xviii] More amusingly are those events in which - like the nearly private 'psycho-motorik training tests' of the Viennese Aktionists - the potential for self-harm exists without the reward of having these acts witnessed by a full audience. Hide Fujiwara of the seminal absurdist punk act Ultra Bide mentions one such incident at the Kyoto Drugstore, a tiny 'record bar' whose maximum capacity was around twenty persons:
One night we came in and wired up our nabe pot to some synthesizers, so when you touched anything in the pot, it would set off sounds. Like, contact mics were put inside, just at the edge of feedback, so when you touched the food inside the pot –Whaaaaaaaa!!! There were all these sounds going off all the time from the synthesizers as people added things to the nabe. Actually, thinking back on it now, it was pretty dangerous![xix]
Nevertheless, the main concern here remains the underground's treatment of its audiences and the question of whether or not any maltreatment is intentional in their performances. Though performers like Merzbow have been known to perform with sound volumes and sustained frequencies that can cause not only hearing impairment but also nausea and other negative metabolic effects, these performances are rarely attacks on "unsuspecting" or even unwilling audiences. Concert listings for such performances, while available in major weekly cultural guides like Pia, are generally inconspicuous and rarely ever featured as a "critic's pick" as they might be in American urban weekly papers, while promotion for these shows (flyering, etc.) is typically limited to the closed circuit of friendly specialty shops and eating / drinking establishments. Attendees at concerts of Merzbow, Hijokaidan etc. are, more often than not, already participating in the underground as consumers, fellow producers or both.
(part three coming soon.)
[i] See http://www.artnotart.com/gero/info-int.rrr.html. Retrieved October 31, 2012.
[ii] See http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/10/11/lie_of_the_tiger. Retrieved November 7, 2012.
[iii] William W. Kelley, "Rationalization and Nostalgia: Cultural Dynamics of New Middle-Class Japan."
American Ethnologist, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Nov., 1986), pp. 603-618 (p. 604.)
[iv] In the original: “アメリカのアイデンティティーは自由。フランスは自由と博愛と平等。日本はそんなものはない。我欲だよ。物欲、金銭欲.” Asahi Shinbun, March 14.
[v] Nicholas D. Kristof, review of "Altered States: The United States and Japan since the Occupation" by Michael Schaller. Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 6 (Nov. - Dec., 1997), pp. 140-145 (p. 144.)
[vi] See http://original.antiwar.com/smurphy/2012/11/04/osprey-outrage-on-okinawa. Retrieved November 4, 2012.
[vii] See http://www.discogs.com/artist/Hanatarash. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
[ix] In the original: "ボアダムスとして長年活動を共にする山本精一が店長を務めていたライブハウス、難波ベアーズでさえもハナタラシのライブは禁止されていた。See: http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/ハナタラシ。”Retrieved October 18, 2012.
[x] See http://www.japaneselawtranslation.go.jp/law/detail/?id=1960&vm=04&re=02. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
[xi] The incoherence of which is too complex, and therefore distracting, to be broken down in this paper. A fairly good overview is, however, available in "Boredoms" by Hisham Akira Bharoocha, Bomb No. 104 (Summer 2008), pp. 53-58.
[xii] Tarou Amano quoted in Munroe, p. 72.
[xiii] William Bennett quoted in "Whitehouse" (various authors). Unsound Vol. 1 No. 5 (1984), p. 28.
[xiv] Munroe, p. 190.
[xv] Terre Thaemlitz, "GLOBULE of NONSTANDARD: An Attempted Clarification of Globular Identity Politics in Japanese Electronic ‘Sightseeing Music.’" Organised Sound, Vol. 8 No. 1 (April 2003), pp. 97- 107 (p. 99.)
[xvi] Chris Fujiwara, "Places and Other Fictions: Film Culture in Tokyo." Film Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4 (Summer 2008), pp. 42-47 (p. 45.)
[xvii] John Duncan, Toshiji Mikawa- Radio Code cassette side A, AQM, Amsterdam, 1989.
[xviii] See http://www.discogs.com/artist/Hanatarash. Retrieved October 14, 2012.
[xix] David Novak, "2.5 x 6 Metres of Space: Japanese Music Coffeehouses and Experimental Practices of Listening." Popular Music Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 2008), pp. 15-34 (p. 26.)