18 years after the first red cartridge I’m reading Anne Allison’s Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. I’m trying to figure my childhood. Always I am struck by the extent to which it was structured by Japan’s cultural power (bunka pawā). Allison writes of a Japanese reporter feeling pride to find Pokémon cards sold at a U.S. grocery store. “Products,” the reporter says, “are the currency by which Japanese culture enters the United States.” How ought one marvel at the fact that the folklore of one fault-line nation was packaged in code, silicon, and plastic and shipped over the Pacific to the children of another? To Toys-R-Us, in California, on the ring of fire, came Jinmenju by means of Exeggutor , Sougenbiby means of Gastly , and all manner of other yōkai, spirits of the archipelago, by means of all manner of other Pokémon, pixel-spirits of the Game Boy.
Which is not even to mention Dragon Warrior Monsters’ Voodoll, an animate Jōmon-era clay figure:
So I played these games, I folded squares of paper into intricate shapes, I was happily subject to the bunka pawā of Japan. I knew nothing of Japan’s subjection to the military power of the United States. U.S. encroachment was a primary cause of 1868’s Meiji Restoration, when Japan began rapidly to industrialize; the Allied Powers occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952, and Douglas MacArthur drafted its constitution; the military needs of a U.S. at war in Korea then Vietnam were a primary cause of Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” of soaring GDP.
Now I’d like to tell you about the manga artist Shigeru Mizuki. I’ve read three of his books. The first, Onwards towards Our Noble Deaths, is an anti-war ode to the South Pacific by a brilliant botanical draftsman:
The second, Nonnonba, is an ode to rigorous metaphorical education, that the body cannot be known but through metaphor, as Mizuki relates the lessons, often yōkai-animated, that he learned from Nonnonba, an old woman of his fishing town, Sakaiminato (and in the process Mizuki reacquaints a modern Japan with its folkloric past, folding the indigenous into the pop). [Read right-left]:
And the last, Showa: A History of Japan, is that most sensual thing, a personal/national history that discloses the past, and its gorgeous infinity, in total, subtle ravishment. I realize that I leave out much of Mizuki’s narration of the war here, both its major battles and his own story, of losing an arm, nearly dying of malaria, and finding solace in an indigenous Tolai village near the township of Rabaul. It seems that I, like many, still can’t really see it. But here’s some of what I did photograph:
I do think these pages speak for themselves. Reading Mizuki is a chorus of reward. That last page is drawn from a photograph. Note the difference in detail between Mizuki, in the yellow sweater with one sleeve dangling, and the rest of those watching. This is as good a description of the relation of the self to history as I’ve encountered.
What is the good of history? For me so much of the purpose of its study have been the new metabolic chambers it affords the soul. This starts for me as a gay man coming of age in an era scored by the terror of AIDS. My body took to that cloud of disgust. It has been a long scour since–and the broad, beautiful homosexualities of every era gleam a healing glow. But it’s more than that, of course. In Mary Austin’s Earth Horizon, her autobiography that engages the national-prophetic mode as does Mizuki’s, she writes about Frances Willard and the beginnings of the temperance movement, that much of its motivation came from hearsay passed woman-to-woman about the boardrooms of liquor companies where whiskey titans plotted advertising campaigns to sweep the youth of the nation into their saloons. So one learns that temperance was as much against marketing as it was against alcohol–or that the licentiousness of consumption has more to do with a new form of mass-production than with drunkenness per se. And so one’s rabid anger at every poster on the subway is redeemed.
But now I wonder what to do with all this beyond the personal solace. I am feeling these days that my soul is pretty well equipped with metabolic chambers to digest what haunts. There’s all manner of thought on Japan, of concepts developed to map its development. I’m reading a documentary history in which of course gems are many–an ambassador to the U.S. in 1860 remarks on Buchanan’s shabby dress, his lack of two swords, his lack of sovereignty. An intellectual in 1903 writes that Japan cannot Westernize without adopting Christianity, that monotheism is the basis for science and industry, that animisms like Shinto cannot cultivate the love of truth. Matches struck against a rough terrain, all, and all to be necessarily extinguished, swallowed by the throats of the concepts that follow. Here then it’s time to head to the land itself. At times it seems indulgent still to believe in the virtues of exploration, that exploration may be conducted without conquest. Perhaps I am only rehearsing that same desire so adeptly answered by Pokémon and other virtual spaces like it. A child of the Golden State, the Pacific the frontier’s end. Earlier this year I read some of the diaries of Carl Linnaeus, the inventor of binomial nomenclature. As a young man he set out from his Swedish town and walked north, sliding down a hill on his butt to the village just past, there to gather wildflowers and speak to the people who made sixteen foods from reindeer milk. The world is mapped, it’s here on my phone, but equally it’s mapped not at all. New knowledges abound to be sensed. So I’m going on a trip. What is exploration under globalization? I’d love to hear from you all while I’m gone. Please email me. I intend to post photos and some writings during the trip but I might be too busy looking out the window.
The following is a skeletal itinerary:
7/2-7/5 Shanghai; 7/5-7/6 Qufu; 7/6-7/10 Beijing
7/12-7/14 Sapporo; 7/14-7/16 Daisetsuzan; 7/16-7/17 Hakodate; 7/17-7/18 Mutsu; 7/18-7/19 Kakunodate; 7/19-7/21 Tsuruoka; 7/21-7/23 Kanazawa; 7/23-7/28 Kyoto; 7/28-7/30 Sakaiminato; 7/30-7/31 Hiroshima; 7/31-8/1 Kagoshima . . . and then it gets hazy, but I’ll be heading back to Tokyo for a final week in the capital, passing perhaps Himeji, Osaka, and Kamakura along the way.