Sparking Joy in the Journey Ahead: What Interested Me in Marie Kondo

Welcome back, dear readers! I hope you’re having a wonderful Monday. I’m both happy and sad to announce that this post will be my last post of the semester – and of my graduate career! That’s right, I’m officially graduated as of today! It’s been an amazing journey over the past two years, but now I’m ready to step into the working world (and begin looking at Ph.D. programs, of course). 

For this last post, I figured we would look at something a little more lighthearted than the novels and short stories we’ve discussed previously. I’d been dying for an excuse to read Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing since Cathy Hirano translated it into English in 2014, and I’m grateful that I was finally able to read it so that I can share my thoughts on it with all of you today. With that being said, let’s get started!

A photo of the cover of Marie Kondo's book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up
Photo from

I’d like to begin my discussion of this book with you by telling you all about the slight panic attack I had when I discovered the Japanese translation of the word “magic.” Please feel free to laugh with/at me! So, before I read any Japanese novels in the English translation, I always look up the Japanese titles to see if there are any differences (like there was in “Betty-san” from two posts ago!). Well, I discovered that instead of using the kanji and word for magic that refers to a magic trick (tejina;手品 ), since the folding and organizing that Kondo does is similar to an illusion, Kondo uses the kanji and word for magic that is more associated with witchcraft and sorcery (mahou; 魔法). Of course, because of the West’s previous association of the East with Orientalism and exoticism, both of which have associations with witchcraft since “oriental” women were believed to have the power to seduce Western men *eye roll intensifies*, I scared myself into thinking that Kondo was utilizing her book as an Oriental tool to bring Western attention to Japan. 

However, as I began reading the book itself, I noticed that Kondo primarily associates magic with the phrase “life transforming,” which makes much more sense. You can’t make a true transformation if you’re just hiding behind an illusory trick. Kondo’s method, known as KonMari, is a true lifestyle change, and for those who were previously struggling and decide to take on her method to see if they can improve their lives, the drastic difference they see after undertaking her advice and program truly can be magical. Now that my silly blunder is out of the way, I want to tell you about how much I truly enjoyed this book, from the way her prose is written, to the way the book is organized itself (by chapter, then by section, with a full index at the end of the book).

I found it interesting that on the first page of the book, she notes that her approach “contradicts conventional wisdom” (1). Right away, she acknowledges that her methodology isn’t something Westerners will be used to; if they can understand that her way of life is different and are willing to go against their own traditions, then they will be able to successfully complete the program and tidy up their lives. She isn’t telling them that they have to adopt her method and get rid of everything – she’s just acknowledging that KonMari may be a bit difficult for Westerners to understand at first. This is why I was so confused at the uproar on Twitter in 2019; people were tweeting about how Kondo’s methods were a sham and that she wanted them to just throw out everything and buy her organization products, even though that’s not the case if you read the book. One critic, Barbara Ehrenreich, even made racist remarks about Kondo’s language barrier and defended clutter in a now-deleted tweet. Most recently, food critic Alison Roman accused Kondo of being a sellout and “slap[ping] [her] name on shit” people can buy in this New Consumer article. So many Westerners appropriate Kondo’s methodology and words instead of trying to understand them, despite the fact that she is perfectly clear when she says the items should spark joy to you personally. If you want to keep 100 books because they all spark joy, go for it! If you want to keep a few photo albums of your family because they spark joy, great! But, it you have 47 toothbrushes and none of them spark joy, then you should feel free to let them go. Kondo does not force her methodology on anyone, and I think that’s the reason why KonMari is so effective. She explicitly states on page 5 of the book that her goal is for people to have “fewer belongings” and be surrounded by “only things they love,” not for them to throw out everything and buy her merchandise as a replacement. Her line of organizing tools is an added bonus, not a requirement to the KonMari method. I personally think that Kondo absolutely outdid herself in explaining her methods to an audience that extends beyond her native country, and here’s why.

Since Kondo herself was a miko (shrine maiden) for five years, it is expected that she would incorporate Shinto practices into her own personal life, as well as into the KonMari method. Kondo did an outstanding job explaining Shinto principles in plain terms so that those who do not practice Shinto can understand the why behind her methodology. Three specific sections come to mind when I think about how Kondo explains Shinto in plain terminology (though there are countless others throughout the book). The first one that really struck me was her section on the essence of effective storage, in which she explains, “the point in deciding specific places to keep things is to designate a spot for every thing… the reason every item must have a designated place is because the existence of an item without a home multiplies the chances that your space will become cluttered again” (131-132). This explanation immediately reminded me of shrine rituals and how specific they are. Miko cannot stray from the established rituals, as one thing out of place will cancel out the meaning of what is supposed to be occurring and can even anger the gods; when you invite disorder into the shrine, you invite disorder into your life. The same can be said for clutter. 

The second section in which Kondo did a great job of explaining Shinto principles so that Western audiences can understand them is when she talks about personal shrines and altars. Kondo notes, “although I use the word ‘altar,’ there is no need to worry about the direction it faces or the design. Just make a corner that is shrine-like…a power spot filled with pure energy” (161). Since Shinto family altars in the home are very specific, Kondo takes care to explain to her readers that they do not have to have the exact same kind. Rather, they should do what works best for them, which is why she uses “pure energy,” a concept that most people – religious or not – can understand, to help her readers better visualize what kind of shrine is possible for them given the space they have. Again, Kondo does not tell her readers what to do and how to do it, she merely explains her own altar using a sort of universal language so as to encourage her readers to engage without making them feel like Shintoism is being thrust upon them (looking at you, Christianity through colonization).

The last section that stood out to me as one that underscores Kondo’s ability to address multiple audiences in ways that allow them to understand her principles occurs when she talks about how a person’s living space can affect their body. She writes, ‘I think the main reason tidying has this effect is because through this process people come to know contentment. After tidying, many clients tell me that their worldly desires have decreased…once they selected and kept only the things that they really loved, they felt they had everything they needed” (195). This statement immediately reminded me of the importance of harmony to the Shinto tradition. This is because one of the core beliefs of Shintoism is that everything (even rocks and trees) has its own energy, called kami; all kami are interconnected and harmonize to create a peaceful state, also known as pure energy. So, if you do not have harmony in one aspect of your life, say tidying up or organization, the rest of the energy around you will be unbalanced and become tainted, which can lead to harmful practices (like hoarding, in most of Kondo’s cases). In connecting her statement to the material world, Kondo is able to explain to her readers that the reason they feel empty is because they do not know what they need, and that the KonMari method can help them find it and finally achieve that pure energy and contentment so that they no longer have to go shopping and hoard items to make up for that imbalance.

Overall, I found that Kondo’s use of client success stories and personal anecdotes added a friendly touch to make the book more approachable to Japanese and non-Japanese alike. I’m now planning on watching the Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, to see how well Western TV producers are able to explain her methods and capture the magic we find in her book. Dear readers, I hope you are able to find as much joy in her book as I did. 

Until next time.


The Sound of Me Ignoring My Instincts and Picking Up Mishima…Again

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re enjoying this much-needed break from the rain. It’s been wonderful being able to have the windows open to enjoy the fresh air. Today, I figured that in honor of passing my thesis defense this past Thursday, we would talk a little bit about my work with Mishima and where it’s headed! Since I was originally planning on working with two of his novels, but ended up having to cut the second one, I figured that this would be the perfect place for me to iron out my ideas in case I ever want to take my Mishima paper to a conference. So, without further ado, let’s begin!

Before we jump into today’s pick, The Sound of Waves, let me quickly give you a breakdown of what I explored in my thesis paper on Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion. My central argument was that by examining instances of othering and isolation in Mishima’s novels, we can get a feel for how Western readers are guided into thinking of Japan only in terms of how Mishima presents the country – a pretty limited view, right? I then explained that most Westerners focus on how Mishima mirrors the plot of the novel with some of the events in his own life, as well as his incorporation of easily-recognizable-but-not-entirely-accurate aspects of Japanese culture, like Zen Buddhism. 

My literature review confirmed that Western Japanese Studies academia indeed fell prey to this same limited view, as no articles about Mishima have been published in approximately 20 years; articles that were published primarily examined Mishima in terms of how he implements Zen Buddhism. Ultimately, the goal of my paper was to underscore what Westerners overlook when they read Mishima, which is primarily his establishment of cultural nationalism through portraying Mizoguchi as a social outcast or “other” around which Japanese readers can base their own identity as a collective. Thus, because Westerners primarily focus on what they already know about Mishima, rather than learning about and understanding what they don’t know, they perpetuate existing fallacies about Japan, which negatively impacts both Japan and Mishima’s reputation. Keeping all of this in mind, let’s switch gears and begin looking at how Mishima does the same thing, albeit more subtly, in The Sound of Waves

A photo of the cover of Yukio Mishima's novel, The Sound of Waves
Photo from Blackwell’s

Similar to Temple of the Golden Pavilion, a literature review for The Sound of Waves revealed that is was even rarer to find in Western Japanese Studies articles, with only two authors very briefly mentioning it. In both instances, the authors’ main arguments concerned Shintoism and where it occurs in Mishima’s novel. So, my main argument for The Sound of Waves is similar to that of my argument in Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Essentially, I am arguing that Western readers and critics are unable to read past Mishima’s incorporation of Shinto principles to see that he is fostering cultural nationalism by physically isolating the island and depicting it in a pre-Restoration state.

I then began examining The Sound of Waves for instances of isolation and othering, and I realized that the strongest connection between Mishima’s techniques between the two novels is physical isolation. Whereas the Golden Pavilion is physically isolated by its distance from the rest of Kyoto (so as to not disturb the monks practicing mindfulness), Uta-jima is physically isolated because it’s an island more than 200 miles away from Mt. Fuji (which is even further away from Tokyo). Since the island is so small and is vastly separated from any other civilization, with the population being less than 1,400, Uta-jima is almost lost in time. Readers are only given brief glimpses at modern Japan, most of which are associated with Chiyoko, the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who is studying in Tokyo. Otherwise, Mishima portrays the island in a pre-Meiji Restoration (1868) sort of state, with the residents living simply and being very in tune with nature through Shintoism.

One way in which Mishima seeks to establish Japanese cultural nationalism is by utilizing isolation and the depiction of nature on the island to his advantage. He depicts Uta-jima in a sort of pre-Restoration state, with one of the best examples occurring when he notes how “the islanders enthusiastically entered into an alliance with nature and gave it their full support” (80). All the residents of Uta-jima rely on nature on the island for their livelihood, as the majority of them are fishermen, farmers, or diving women. Every one of them is fit and used to performing hard manual labor, even though modern farming and diving gear are available and would make their jobs easier. 

I think this is why so much emphasis is placed the residents praying at the various Shinto shrines carved into the side of the mountain, as well as in them praying at the ancestral shrines in their own homes (this is because praying to ancestral shrines and leaving offerings can ensure prosperity in the home, which then extends to occupation – especially in farming). I also think it is the reason why Mishima spends the first few pages of the book describing how Shinji knows the island and path to the lighthouse so well that he could traverse it blindfolded, even though the path is treacherous. 

The idea of a pre-Restoration state is further underscored by Mishima’s musings on the thoughts of the schoolchildren who visit the main island on a field trip to see the city. He notes that “once they had seen reality, once the novelty of astonishment was gone, they perceived clearly how useless it had been for them to try to imagine such things, so much so that at the end of long lives spent on the island they would no longer even so much as remember the existence of such things as streetcars clanging back and forth along the streets of a city” (56). Even the children on the island are not interested in modern technology associated with Modernized-because-Westernized Japan, as the majority of them instead choose to return to the island and forget all about the city. 

Although there are bound to be some exceptions, like Chiyoko, even her goal is to return to the island after school, marry Shinji, and become a housewife. Their entire lives are centered around the island and what it provides; they do not need Western technology to continue doing what their ancestors have done for hundreds of years because it makes their lives “easier.” The islanders take pride in doing the same work taking care of the flora and fauna on the island and in the surrounding sea, and in return nature takes care of them. But, instead of focusing on how Mishima uses the natural state of the island and aspects of Shinto to depict the islanders (and by historical extension, Japan’s) disenchantment with modern technology, it seems as though Western readers focus primarily on the presence of Shinto in the first place because it is familiar.

There are several other techniques that Mishima uses in The Sound of Waves to establish cultural nationalism, including defining Shinji and Hatsue as “others” around which Japanese readers can form their collective identity, but I’m going to cap this post here so that you, dear readers, can form your own opinions about Mishima now that you know there’s more to his novels than what can be gleaned from the surface level. As much as I love/hate Mishima, if I had to recommend one of his novels to someone who has never read him before, I would definitely recommend The Sound of Waves. In my opinion, it is beautifully and painstakingly written, and was the first (and last!) novel of his that I enjoyed. He truly knows how to set the scene and double code his language; I learn something new about him or about the novel each time I reread it. 

While there are so many other aspects of this novel that I’d love to talk about, including hydro-colonialism and Mishima’s depictions of the sea, I think I’ll save those for an article or a conference presentation. I’m preparing a few abstracts now, so stay tuned for updates in the future! Thanks for being along with me for the thesis-Mishima-love-hate-ride. 

Until next time.


The Tragedy of how Yūko Became Betty-san

Welcome back, dear readers! I hope you’ve had a lovely week. Today, we’ll be tackling Michiko Yamamoto’s 1972 short story, “Betty-san,” which – to me – felt more like a novella. However, the length of the story gave me the time I needed to fully understand Betty and her thought processes, which I feel would’ve been lost had it been shorter. I really enjoyed getting to know her and was able to empathize with her by the end, and Yamamoto’s writing styles and topics even reminded me of my own experience with my host mom in Japan (but we’ll get to that at the end of the post, ne?). So, if you’re ready to jump into academia with me for the next few minutes, let’s get right to business!

Separated into 9 parts and spanning close to 70 pages, “Betty-san” follows the life of a middle-aged Japanese woman living in Australia in the late 1960s. Married to a white soldier who swept her off her feet after WWII (much to her family’s disapproval), Betty-san struggles to find happiness in the person she has become. For several years, she feels like something in her life is missing – even after the birth of her three sons – and she eventually comes to rely on visits from Japanese sailors in the summertime to help her feel connected to the Shikoku countryside where she grew up. Cut off from the majority of her culture without ever being allowed to return home to visit, Betty-san is stranded in an Australian wasteland and left to fend for herself in a world that is not her own.

Photo taken from GoodReads

The first thing I’d like to address today is the title of the story, as “Betty-san” is the English abbreviation of the full title. Yamamoto’s original title for the short story was “Betei-san no Niwa,” which roughly translates to “Betty’s Garden.” I found it interesting that the translator, Geraldine Harcourt, simply shortened it to Betty-san. At first, I attributed it to the story being translated very early in Harcourt’s career, before she developed her relationship with Yuko Tsushima and truly found her footing in translation. But, the longer I thought about it, I began thinking that maybe Harcourt shortened the title to “Betty-san” to further underscore Betty’s feelings of separation; since the garden is really the only place Betty-san has to herself in her own home, cutting her off from that garden in the short story title would add to that separation and help readers develop empathy. However, the change in titles is also something to which most Western readers wouldn’t be privy, so I’m not sure how much more potent shortening the title would be in that case. Since Harcourt passed away in 2019, her method is something that I look forward to going back and exploring through old interviews and through her work with Tsushima.

Switching gears, let’s focus a little bit on Betty-san’s garden, as it is one of two places (the other being the docks) where Betty-san can be unapologetic in her Japanese identity. Even though she visits the docks every day during the three months when the fishermen are in Australia, her garden is the only space in which Betty-san can truly connect to her culture back home on a daily basis. Betty-san grew up in the countryside with a large garden of her own, containing several plants, trees, and fruits – including the citrus fruit, Yūko, after which she was named. While her garden at her home in Australia is much smaller, it still affords her the opportunity to plant the seeds of Japanese vegetables and fruits that the fishermen bring from home for her, as well as allows her to host parties for the fisherman so that Mike does not become upset about their presence in the house. 

Her garden is lively and full compared to the rest of her surroundings, with Betty-san lamenting about the Australian countryside that “neither trees, nor grass, nor birds, nor wind, nor sky: not one is mine. There’s no comfort wherever I turn. This isn’t my country. I don’t want any part of it. I can’t take it… How cold the landscape looked. As if nature and humanity had set their faces against each other” (62). Although she makes this statement towards the end of her story, he homesickness and feelings of separation (and by extension, lack of belonging) are evident from the beginning, as she notes early-on that the only place in which she feels she belongs in this country is her home (12-13; 36). While she does have Japanese items in her home thanks to the fisherman, the home itself is still not her space because it ultimately belongs to Mike. She is not allowed to make Japanese food or play records unless the fisherman are there, and even then, all Japanese festivities get moved outside to the garden. Thus, the garden signifies the only space in which Betty-san can be her authentic self.

On a related note, I found that the most interesting aspect of the story were Yamamoto’s changes from the overarching third-person point of view found throughout the story to very brief first-person points of view. Throughout all nine parts, the shifts to “I” when Betty is allowed to convey her opinions to readers directly only occur four times and never last longer than three lines. The first instance occurs in the first few pages of the story, when Betty describes what made her fall in love with Mike and how she “wanted to make him a good Japanese wife, attentive to every need” (10).  The second occurs when she is getting ready to translate for a young Japanese woman who has been detained at the airport, with Betty noting, “I was in such a flap over meeting this woman. I fixed my hair, put on makeup, dressed to look presentable, and here I am…” (19-20). In these two brief passages, readers are allowed to peek into Betty’s mind and look at her uninfluenced thoughts, really getting a feel for who she is as a person since the story is otherwise told from an objective third-person point of view; but, the third and fourth instances in which readers get to peek into her mind show how her thoughts have been influenced by Mike and her children, showing how the Australian lifestyle and disconnect from her culture and family have made her feel as though she belongs solely in the home and like she needs their “watching over” in order for her to survive (46). When comparing the first two “I” passages to the second two “I” passages, it is immediately apparent that Betty has been broken down over the years by her husband’s patronizing gaze and unwillingness to acknowledge her Japaneseness, as he never bothered to learn her native language (nor was she allowed to teach it to her sons); in short, Mike wanted a foreign “exotic” wife without having to deal with the culture that came along with it.

I think that Betty-san’s name change post-Christianization further helps underscore the idea that Mike wanted an “exotic” wife minus the “exotic” cultural aspects that come with it, as Betty is the only Japanese wife in Australia who did not keep her Japanese name. Her Christianized name supports the idea that Betty is not allowed to have her own unique Japanese identity and agency, and is instead referred to as “Mike’s wife,” “Mrs. Cochran,” and “Betty-san” by even the other Japanese characters. Her Japaneseness is often questioned by other Japanese, including the woman for whom Betty must translate at the beginning of the story, because Betty does not “look” or “act” Japanese outside of her parties for the fisherman – she isn’t allowed to. On the rare occasions where Betty does partake in Japanese culture or language outside of the garden (usually in her home), her family looks at her – and the other Japanese with her with disgust – and causes her to question her belonging even in her own family (47; 57). Thus, Betty does not have her culture to fall back on as she tries to navigate a foreign country in which she does not feel welcome; while the other Japanese women are easily able to transition to life abroad, like Haruko, because they are able to visit home whenever they want, Betty is trapped in her own mind to seek a comfort that often doesn’t come. 

Similar to Betty-san, my host mom Shizuyo also lived abroad for several years when she first got married (albeit to a Japanese man who spoke fluent English). Because she was traveling around the same time as when “Betty-san” was written, I was able to see some of her struggles paralleled in the story. As we sat at the dinner table late at night, she would tell us stories about the different countries she lived in; while she enjoyed the traveling, she got homesick often because she couldn’t speak English well, and they often went several years without returning to Japan. She felt so isolated for so long that she began losing who she was as a person, quitting all her hobbies (beading, singing, and watercolor painting) and becoming a recluse; when she realized what had happened to her, she finally gave him an ultimatum to move back to Japan or she would leave (this was during a time when divorce was still very taboo in Japan). While he acquiesced, their relationship was damaged beyond repair after that. However, I was really proud of her when she said that she would rather have a bad relationship with him and live in Japan than give up who she was so that he could be happy. She then told me she planned on using his room as an art studio when he died so that the cat would stop drinking her paint water. 

The point of me telling you all of this is to remind you that it’s incredibly cruel and unfair to ask a person you supposedly care about to give up everything for you; but, because Japanese women are expected to be quiet and submissive based on old stereotypes that are still perpetuated by both Japanese and American media, what happened to Betty-san and my host mom still happens pretty frequently. While the women’s rights movement in Japan is doing great work to change the stigma around female workers and beauty standards, we can only hope that other old stereotypes about Japanese women get addressed with more rigor (and eventually become eradicated) soon too. 

Until next time.


Your Religion. Your Agency. Your Name.

Welcome back, everyone! I hope you’re having a wonderful day. I decided to take a break from novels and short stories this week, switching up my academic game plan with what I thought would be a nice, whimsical animated film. Let me just preface this post by saying that the film I watched, while absolutely amazing and visually stunning, was neither “nice” nor “whimsical.”

I was really excited to watch this film initially, as I had forgotten there was a reason that I swore off Japanese fantasy drama films; that reason is because I absolutely suffered through Isao Takahata’s animated World War II film Grave of the Fireflies (1988) about ten years ago. In my opinion, Grave of the Fireflies is absolutely one of the best animated films ever made (an opinion with which critics agree based on the film’s 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes), but the subject matter is so dark and heavy that I renounced the fantasy drama genre for an entire decade. 

Nevertheless, I decided to break my boycott and watch Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016). Because a few years since its release had passed and the film was popular both internationally and in Japan, I somehow thought that it would different. Safe, even… I was wrong. Although its subject matter was very different from Grave of the FirefliesYour Namehurt me and made me suffer in the same way (and by hurt and suffering, I mean I sobbed the entire time) because it was so, so sad even though it was funny at times and had a happy ending. So, without further ado, let’s dive into Tokyo and the fictional rural village of Itomori in 2013, 2016, and 2021.

Photo taken from

For those of you who have never seen Your Name before, the film follows 17-year-old high school students Taki Tachibana, a boy working as a waiter in Tokyo who is quick to anger and has an unrequited crush on his coworker Miki Okudera, and Mitsuha Miyamizu, a miko (Shinto shrine maiden) skilled in the arts of cord braiding and making kuchikamizake (mouth-chewed sake) who longs to leave Itomori and live in the city. One morning, the pair begin inadvertently waking up in each other’s bodies and must resort to keeping handwritten notes and diaries on their smartphones; after a while, the body swapping almost becomes normal, with Mitsuha helping Taki land a date with Miki, and Taki helping Mitsuha gain popularity at school by standing up for her to class bullies. However, Taki does not understand the references to the Tiamat Comet that Mitsuha mentions in her notes and, upon trying to find her by searching for Itomori on the supposed night of the comet, he discovers that Mitsuha was living in an alternate timeline; the reason they stopped swapping bodies the day after the comet passed through is because she was killed in her timeline when the comet split in half and decimated Itomori three years ago. Utilizing the information about Shintoism and the family shrine that he learned from Mitsuha’s grandmother when he was in Mitsuha’s body, he sets out to go back in time and save Itomori.

There are two related topics I want to discuss in this post today: Shinkai’s use of Shintoism/traditional Japanese customs and his portrayal of his female characters, especially the Miyamizu women. The reason I say related is because only the women in Itomori are associated with tradition and spirituality, and even then, its primarily the Miyamizu women who partake in and perform these ceremonies and customs. Though the female students in the village attend the religious festivals and show up to Mitsuha’s family’s temple to watch the traditions, they still bully and make fun of Mitsuha for her temple duties and shrine association. The majority of the men in the village, especially the older men (surprisingly!), seem unconcerned with tradition and spirituality; I think this phenomenon ties in directly to Japan’s patriarchal society and better social and economic advancement opportunities for men, which we see occur with Mitsuha’s father. But we’ll circle back to that in just a bit!

I want to start by looking at the names of the female Miyamizu family members: Hitoha, Futaba, Mitsuha, and Yotsuha. Hitotsu (1), futatsu (2), mitsu (3), and yotsu (4) are words used for counting things or ideas, and are generally not used for counting people. The -ha and -ba endings of all four names share the same kanji, which roughly translates to leaf; so, Mitsuha’s name translates to 3 leaves. At first glance, it appears as though the naming of the women is simply a generational tradition that is intended to be handed down to Mitsuha and Yotsuha’s children, with the “leaf” part of their name referencing the family shrine in the clearing under the large tree. However, considering that even in 2013 (which is when Mitsuha was 17 years old in her timeline) gender inequality was still very much rampant in Itomori. 

Thus, I began to get the feeling that the counters in the Miyamizu women’s names also reflect their status as mere objects whose primary purpose is to not only carry on tradition in the village, despite Hitoha noting that the meaning of their festivals was lost more than 200 years ago, but also to make Mitsuha’s father (who is the mayor) look good so that he is reelected. For example, when Mitsuha passes by one of his town speeches in the beginning of the film, he uses the microphone in his hand to yell at her to fix her posture, which wins him favor in the eyes of the villagers. It doesn’t matter to him that he embarrasses her in front of her friends and half of the town as long as he is re-elected, and the fact that both the men and women in the crowd agree with his terrible behavior suggests that they too see Mitsuha as an extension of him, rather than as her own person. This is why I found it especially interesting when in response, Mitsuha’s friends, Tessie and Sayaka, muse, “Things must be rough for Mitsuha… She takes center stage.” The stage reference strengthens the idea that Mitsuha is an object, as she is not only used by her father, but also by the people in the town as a source of entertainment. Being a miko does not make Mitsuha happy, but she is forced to take on the role anyway as long as her family remains on the island.

Unlike her father, who was initially a Shinto priest that left the shrine to pursue a career in politics after the death of Mitsuha’s mother, Mitsuha does not have the option to quit. She is bound by filial piety (oyakoukou) and her duties as a miko, and does not have the same power to remove herself from the Shinto religion; this is what leads to her shouting, “I hate this town! I hate my life! In my next life, please make me a handsome Tokyo boy in my next life,” and subsequent body swapping adventures with Taki. As Taki, Mitsuha finally gains the agency to do as she pleases and move however she wants, but she chooses to go about living Taki’s normal life because she is so excited and overwhelmed at her ability to be normal. No shrine duties, no Itomori social expectations, no overbearing-yet-absent fathers. 

Meanwhile, Taki begins acting out as Mitsuha because he sees how heavy the weight of her object status us; he sets out to improve Mitsuha’s reputation with her peers by standing up for her, which originally backfires because everyone thinks Mitsuha has gone insane. Eventually, people get used to Mitsuha’s strange outbursts and begin treating her the same as normal, except for her father who tries to have her committed so that she doesn’t ruin his reputation as she spouts off “nonsense” about the comet. Only Hitotsu recognizes that Mitsuha is not herself because Taki as Mitsuha does not remember their religious background or customs.

In lesser words, the point I’m trying to make is that all her life, Mitsuha was raised in a society where women were subservient to their religion and to their men; she is only able to get her own agency after she begins experiencing life a as a boy and learning to live for herself, rather than for societal expectations of what she should be. While the argument could be made the Mitsuha lives for Taki, as she feels like something is missing even though she cannot remember him for the next 8 years after the comet is diverted in the new timeline, I think that Taki is just a small missing piece to the puzzle Mitsuha dreamed of putting together in her original timeline. Of course, she is happy to see him when they do reunite in 2021 (and they are implied to be dating in a later Shinkai film), but at that point she is already living out her dream of being independent in Tokyo and separating herself from Itomori religious customs and social order. Taki is just the icing on the cake, so to speak.

The last thing I want to look at today is Shinkai’s use of religion in the film independently of the characters. I found it interesting that he mixed old Shinto customs, like kuchikamizake (which hasn’t been performed in almost a hundred years), with a modern Japanese take on ancient Chinese folklore, the red thread of fate (which, in this case, turned out to be Taki’s bracelet), in order to create the fictional town of Itomori. Because I’ve been examining Japanese nationalism for so long now, I couldn’t help but wonder if this mix in culture and tradition didn’t reflect Japan’s modernization and transformation into a global superpower by means of its own imperial conquest. As Japan has largely historically considered itself to be the most superior country in East Asia, and subsequently taken on a leading role in East Asian international politics, I wouldn’t be surprised if the re-telling of Chinese folklore in a new Japanese context emulated the rockiness of China-Japan relations in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It seems as though cultural nationalism is a common factor in most of the readings/analysis I’ve done on Japanese work up until this point, and for my last three blog posts, I’m excited to see if this trajectory continues, or if we break off into a different direction. Stay tuned to find out!

Until next time.


Bizarre World, Human Condition

Greetings, everyone! I hope you’re all taking advantage of the nice weather before it rains this evening. We’re back this week with one of my favorite contemporary Japanese authors, Haruki Murakami. Instead of discussing one of his novels that I haven’t already read (which is a very short list nowadays), I decided to look at his collection of short stories titled Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I purposely focused on the three short stories in the collection of 24 that had never been published in English before, as I wanted to make sure my reactions and initial analysis were genuine.

Before I begin analyzing these stories, let me just say that this book was like a breath of fresh air – not because the content doesn’t have its usual grim postmodern outlook on the state of the world (because it very much does), but because Murakami’s style is so captivating. Between his changes in point of view and the varied structure in his prose, I simultaneously felt like an objective reader and the third person narrator. Once I picked up the book, I wasn’t able to put it back down; I read all 24 stories in about four hours, give or take. While each story is very distinct, all of them are woven together through Murakami’s portrayal of the human condition in scenarios that blend the monotonous with the bizarre. Although the stories we’ll be discussing tonight depict vastly different scenarios, all three of them converge on one common factor: confronting the self. So, without further ado, let’s get started!

A picture of the book cover of Haruki Murakami's Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Photo taken from Amazon

“The Mirror” happened to be my favorite short story, as it possessed elements both paranormal and psychological horror films; it actually reminded me of the end us Ugetsu when Genjuro discovers that Miyagi is long dead, even though he had just spoken with her the night before. In the story, an older man recounts his strange experience working as a night watchman in a middle school after having recently graduated from high school in the late 1960s, refusing to go to college because he was “part of the hippie generation” and “impetuous” (56). As he finishes up his 3 a.m. round as usual, he passes by a mirror and notices that the “reflection in the mirror wasn’t me. It looked exactly like me on the outside, but it definitely wasn’t me… It was me, of course, but another me. Another me that never should have been” (59). He then shatters the mirror in the dark, hearing the glass break, but when he returns in the morning, he discovers there never was a mirror at all. He ends the story by musing that ever since that night, he has never kept mirrors in his house because “the most frightening thing in the world is our own self” (60). There are a few things I’d like to unpack in this story, the first being the story’s time frame.

If you look back at my last post, you’ll remember the US-Japan Mutual Cooperation Treaty of 1960. This treaty had to be mutually renewed every ten years, so from 1968-1970 there occurred several protests both by anarchist and student groups in favor of breaking the treaty. Other young adults fresh out of high school chose to rebel by not attending college in favor of drifting, much like our protagonist. What’s really interesting about this section of the story as the narrator recounts his post-high school years is the language that Murakami has him use pertaining to the man’s decision not to go to college. He specifically uses words like “impetuous” to refer to himself, as well as several phrases such as “I guess,” “pretty fun,” and “pretty sure” in reference to how he spent his time and made his decision (56). Did you notice that none of those phrases have a definite/sure tone? This lack of concrete certainty about the decision is what made me begin to think beyond the possibility of the person in the mirror looking back at him simply being a ghostly doppelganger. Instead, I think that the reflection in the mirror was the narrator’s projection of the person he resisted becoming, who he was supposed to become, or rather the him/self that “never should have been” (59). To me, the narrator projecting and then breaking this mirror self of who Japanese society at the time believed he was supposed to be demonstrates how he truly regrets his decision to not go to college or go right into the corporate workforce as a salaryman. 

The Japanese have consistently prized college education and company longevity, and by going against that societal pressure, the narrator can’t help but feel terrified or distraught, as he (unlike his college and full-time working peers) has no certain future lined up for him. This is supported by the narrator’s word choice pertaining to his decision, as well as he choice to never put mirrors up in his house again – as long as he doesn’t have to look in the mirror, he doesn’t have to face the shame and fear that comes with rejecting Japan’s collectivistic idea of what a successful future looks like. Thus, the narrator chooses not to confront his sense of self because he knows that it is fragmented, torn between what he believed was “righteous” and what society believed was righteous, cracked like a mirror.

Confrontation of the self, or lack thereof, is similarly present in the next short story, “New York Mining Disaster,” although the situation in which this new narrator finds himself is much more bizarre. The story opens with the narrator explaining the quirk of his friend, whose hobbies include visiting zoos in the middle of a typhoon and changing girlfriends every six months, as he goes to borrow the friend’s suit for a funeral. One funeral soon turns into five in one year, but the narrator still does not relent and buy his own suit because “I feel like if I buy funeral clothes I’m saying that it’s OK if somebody dies” (35). After he returns the suit for the last time, the narrator attends a New Year’s Eve party.

At the party, he meets a woman who claims she knew someone who looked exactly like him that died five years ago around the same age. As their strange conversation ends, the final paragraph of the story abruptly cuts to a group of miners trapped underground turning their lights out to conserve oxygen as people outside frantically try to dig them out “like a scene from a movie” (44). While there are so many different aspects of this story we can address here – why would anyone go to the zoo in monsoon season of all things? What? – the main aspect I’d like to focus on is the narrator’s strange conversation with this mysterious woman. 

When they meet and she first tells him that he reminds her of someone she knew, the narrator replies, “If he’s that much like me, I’d like to meet the guy” because he “had no idea what else to say… [and wants to] see what it feels like to meet someone who’s exactly like me” (42). As soon as he responded this way, I immediately got the feeling that he actually wanted to meet this person because the narrator does not have a sense of self. Here’s why – the entire story, the narrator spends his time talking about his friend, borrowing his friend’s suit, spending time watching TV with his friend, and listening to his friend’s philosophical thoughts; during this conversation with the women, he is even reminded of his friend when she mentions animals. 

The reader never gleans any information about the narrator aside from the fact that he has several other friends who have died, whom he describes in detail, and that he doesn’t want to buy his own suit. I suspect that the real reason for not wanting to buy his own suit is because in doing so, he is forced to own up to his lack of self. In his own suit, the narrator would have to fully accept the grim outlook posed by his other friends’ deaths at young ages, but in his friend’s suit, the narrator is able to be detached from the funerals by the sheer fact that the funeral process and feelings associated are disrupted by having to go to pick it up and return it after the funeral is over. This sentiment is further supported by the wording the narrator uses to address the funerals and deaths, calling it “the Year of Funerals” in which his friends died “one after another, like ears of corn withering in a drought” (35). The lack of humanization in the language shows no emotion, and the tone reads in the same tone as the following paragraphs in which he compares dying between the ages of 21 and 24 to being a rock star. 

One would think that losing five people who were close to you in a year would elicit some emotion, but the narrator is able to successfully distance himself from the situation by borrowing his friend’s suit and refusing to acknowledge sense of self. It appears as though the narrator has experienced what his friend calls “ways of dying that don’t end in funerals. Types of death you can’t smell,” or in other words, an emotional/spiritual death (40). Since the narrator is looking back on this event and recounting it for the readers, I think that not having a suit for the first funeral may have been the cause; but we’ll never truly know because the narrator never lets the readers see glimpses of himself.

Moving on to the final story, I thought that “Nausea 1979” was the most bizarre yet. The protagonist, Mr. Murakami, recalls a conversation he once had with a young illustrator who received mysterious phone calls and vomited for 40 days straight from June to July 1979. The illustrator had a habit of sleeping with the girlfriends and wives of his friends but refused to get a girlfriend of his own. The incident occurs after he drinks whiskey and sleeps with a friend’s wife the night before; he initially writes his strange sickness off as a hangover, but when it persists, he sees several doctors who find nothing wrong with him. He himself did not feel unwell when he vomited, noting that it was more like “everything in his stomach came gushing out the way a magician pulls pigeons or rabbits or the flags of the world from a hat” (154). During the phone calls, a voice the illustrator does not recognize simply says his name and hangs up; it is only the final call that differs, as the caller also asks, “Do you know who I am?” (161) before hanging up. Afterwards, the illustrator’s vomiting spells and mysterious calls stop abruptly and never return.

What I found the most interesting in this story is that the illustrator, unlike the previous two protagonists, psychoanalyzes himself to try and figure out what is wrong with him. It seems as though he knows who he is and has a self, but briefly became disgusted with that self, triggering the phone calls and vomiting; this is because the spells and calls never happened when he was with his friends’ women, waiting until he was alone to pick back up. The illustrator theorizes, “Maybe I had thought I heard the phone ring, and when I picked up the receiver I had thought I heard the voice saying my name, but in fact there had been nothing at all” (157). 

My theory is that the reason the illustrator never recognized the voice because the voice was his own. It’s difficult to recognize your own voice unless you know it’s your voice – it reminds me of how a person will never truly know what they look like because they are only ever able to see a reflection of themselves. So, this voice was the illustrator’s reflection on his own misdeeds, as he even admits to his “conscience [not being] entirely clear where [his] love life was concerned” and that it’s possible his “own guilt feelings—feeling of which I myself was unaware—could have taken on the form of nausea or made me hear things that were not there” (161). Even knowing this, however, the illustrator does not change his behavior and learn from the experience, choosing to continue being sleazy, sleeping around, and betraying his friends; but, because he owns up to his terrible behavior and admits that that terrible person is who he is, the illustrator successfully confronts his self (however harmful), allowing the 40-day long incident to cease.

So, what’s the moral of the stories here? Don’t lie to yourself about who you are. In Japan, it’s common to have two faces: honne, the true feelings you keep to yourself, and tataemae, the façade you show to the world around you. I think it is clear that in Murakami’s stories, when you have neither or deny the two faces, you risk losing your grip on your self and your reality until you experience a metaphorical death in the form of regret, guilt, and shame. A pretty bleak outlook on life, yes, but it serves as a reminder of what makes us human.

Until next time.


What Does Football Have To Do With Crying?

Hello again, everyone! I hope you’re all having a wonderful evening. I’m back this week to revisit the concept of nationalism in Kenzaburo Oe’s novel The Silent Cry, literally translated as Football in the Year of Man’en, which was initially published in 1967. 

I was originally supposed to include this novel in my undergraduate senior honor’s thesis because my committee believed it fit well with my other selections – which included both Ichiyo Higuchi and Yukio Mishima – but I ran short on time and had to cut him from the proposal. So, I was super excited to finally read it and see what I’ve been missing out on. If you’re ready to jump into academia with me once more, then buckle up because here we go!

A picture of the book cover of Kenzaburo Oe's The Silent Cry
Photo taken from Amazon

So far, in all of the Japanese literature and media I’ve consumed since I began my foray into the Japanese Studies discipline, post-Restoration U.S.-Japanese history has consistently been present in some form, especially in the characterization of the show or novel’s protagonists (including Boku No Hero Academia, Yukio Mishima’s novels, Ichiyo Higuchi’s short stories, Psycho-PassUgetsu, etc.). Thus, it came as no surprise to me when this history unfolded yet again in Oe’s novel in both the relationship between Takashi and Mitsu. For this reason, I found their relationship dynamic to be the most interesting aspect of the novel.

Mitsu is the older of the two brothers and has never left Japan. He is a college professor of English in Tokyo who is blind in one eye and is married to Natsumi, an alcoholic who resents him and begins an affair with Takashi. From the beginning of the novel, Mitsu is skeptical of his family history, believing that their great-grandfather’s younger brother started the 1860 peasant revolt and then vanished, leaving his comrades to perish in battle and living a nice life in a different country. The entire time they spend in the village on Shikoku, he works to disprove Takashi’s beliefs and holds contempt for his brother; although Mitsu refuses to disclose the reason for his contempt (which eventually leads Takashi to commit suicide), it appears to be rooted in his dying mother’s statement to boys’ mentally-handicapped sister, “Mitsusaburo will be ugly and Takashi will be handsome. People will like Takashi and he’ll lead a successful life. You should get on good terms with him while you can and stick with him even after you grow up” (26). When she does die, Takashi and Mitsu are taken in by an uncle, but Mitsu is presumably left in the village as he is close to college age. It seems as though her declaration made Mitsu want to pursue his education further to achieve that successful life, and even though he is able to do so, he is miserable in his marriage and constantly tries to find ways to disconnect from his past, and even the world itself; less than four pages later, Mitsu realizes that he was unconsciously trying to bury himself alive in the hole that has been dug for his septic tank by pulling the bricks out from the foundation.

Mitsu’s younger brother, Takashi, is the polar opposite, as he is a young right-wing member of a demonstration group that goes to the United States to protest the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960. Strongly believing that his great-grandfather’s younger brother died a hero’s death and lived by his ideals until the end, even though his out-of-context letters initially suggest otherwise. He returns to their village on Shikoku under the guise of selling the family store house and land to the Emperor but is actually planning a peasant revolt of his own (disguised as American football training) in order to destroy the Korean supermarket and distribute goods forcibly taken from the Japanese families who have lived in the village for centuries. Before his suicide, he reveals to Mitsu that the reason their sister killed herself was due to him ending their incestuous relationship, and when Mitsu refuses to tell him the reason for his contempt (which he claims isn’t because of his relationship with their sister or his affair with Natsumi), Takashi writes on the wall in red pencil “I told the truth” (351). While his message can initially be understood as an admission of guilt for the incestuous relationship, after the great-grandfather’s brother’s bunker is discovered under the family store house, Mitsu realizes that the truth also pertains to his beliefs about the 1860 revolt. Thus, Takashi himself died a hero’s death, both for staying true to his beliefs until the end and being able to admit his faults, unlike Mitsu. 

So, why should we pay attention to the brothers’ relationship dynamics? Because the Japanese history and nationalism are very overt; Takashi and Mitsu are essentially pitted against each other as representatives of Japan and the U.S., respectively. The peasant revolts of 1860 coincided with both U.S. occupancy in Japan and Japan sending its first ambassador to the U.S., whereas the1960 treaty is what provided the U.S. with reasons to maintain its military presence in Japan. Some of the biggest groups who protested the treaty included farmers, teachers, theatre troupes, and student organizations; since Takashi is a young student, Oe portrayed him as a protestor, which is why he constantly looks back on an era before full U.S. occupation (one that did its best to fight it) and is similarly set on being a hero against the foreign presence in his own community: the Korean emperor. Since Japanese occupation of Korea only ended in 1945, tension and feelings contempt between the two counties were still very much present, which I suspect is why Oe depicts the Emperor in such a negative, destructive manner – and also why Mitsu’s first though of the Emperor as “contemptible” (365) like Takashi did. 

At first, it was hard for me to see Mitsu as representative of the U.S. – and then it hit me. Mitsu’s affiliation with the U.S. is not direct like Takashi’s. Instead, it is more subtle, which emulates the wording in the 1960 treaty that supposedly gave Japan equal say in its own military dealings, despite the U.S. military presence remaining intact and relatively unchanged. Originally established and signed in 1950, the wording in the 1960 treaty appears as though Japan is given more say in its own military business, as it states that both Japan and the U.S. must resolve international disputes peacefully and that they must make mutual agreements/decisions before any actions were carried out or changes were made to the agreement; however, even with the mutual agreements in place, the U.S. was able to keep its strong military presence in Japan and serve as the primary mobilizing force if taking action became necessary. 

To me, it sounds as though the treaty just gave Japan the equal rights to its military that it should’ve already had. The two moments in the novel that stand out to me in which Mitsu’s affiliation with the U.S. are the most obvious, the first in his job being a successful English professor. To the Japanese who accepted Westernization and Modernization, English, America, and whiteness all become synonymous with “success.” This explains why Mitsu is so hesitant to believe in his great grandfather’s brother like Takashi. My take is that Mitsu prized education in a colonizer language because he would never be able to be successful in the way that Takashi was by sticking to his roots, a point made obvious by his mother’s comment; so, the only other way to success was to appropriate colonizer culture and language in the education system. 

The second moment occurs towards the end of the book with Natsumi (who has sided with Takashi, and by extension Japan). Specifically, Natsumi says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that under your influence I’ve let you share responsibility for a whole lot of my own decisions… I’m going to start thinking again—about the baby in the institution, about the baby that’s not born yet. Thinking for myself, independently of you,” (384). Up until this point in the book, Mitsu/U.S. has taken the lead on making decisions in the family, including putting his mentally-handicapped child in an institution and selling the family storehouse to the Emperor so that he could demolish it. Natsumi/Japan has finally had enough of him making decisions for her, as when she was with Takashi, she was free to decide whatever she wanted for herself. Natsumi takes a stand and decides to raise both children, suggesting that Mitsu take up a teaching job in Africa, which he then decides to do as the novel ends. With Natsumi and Mitsu both making their own decisions and living their personal truths, their relationship reflects how the 1960 treaty defines the future of U.S.-Japan relationships.

I’m interested to see how much more Japanese history shows itself in contemporary works, especially now that I’m beginning to see themes in common with the section of my thesis on nationalism in Yukio Mishima novels. For homework, I’m going to do more digging to see if Oe has his own opinions on nationalism and Mishima – if I find anything (and I’m starting to think I will), I’ll link it in the comments below so we can discuss it!

Until next time.


Feudal Ghosts in the 20th Century: Ugetsu

Hello again, everyone! I hope you’re keeping warm on this damp, windy evening. While the weather isn’t ideal for sitting outside and enjoying the recent warm spell that seemed to have hit, it is perfect for something else: ghost stories. Tonight, we’ll be diving into Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film Ugetsu. The film’s main plot is based on two ghost stories, “The House in the Thicket” and “A Serpent’s Lust,” from Akinari Ueda’s 1776 book Ugetsu Monogatari, while its subplot is based off of Guy de Maupassant’s short story “How He Got the Legion of Honor.” 

Set in the late 1500s, Ugetsu follows the demise of two peasant farmers and their wives during a period of civil unrest. Rice farmer Genjuro desires to become rich selling his pottery, leading him to leave his wife, Miyagi, and son, Genichi, behind in their war-torn village while he travels to the capital. There, he is seduced by Lady Wakasa, a demon inhabiting the run-down Kutsuki Manor, while his family struggles to survive back home after being attacked by soldiers. When he is eventually saved by a priest and returns home, he discovers that his wife, who greeted him upon arrival, has been dead for months and that he encountered her ghost. Genjuro’s neighbor, Tobei, accompanies him to the capital to help sell pottery, then runs off with the money he has earned to buy armor and weapons so he can become a samurai; his wife, Ohama, follows him to try and stop him from pursuing what she is sure will be his death, but fails and ends up becoming a prostitute to survive after she is raped by a group of soldiers. Although Tobei does become a samurai and receives his own small army after stealing the head of an enemy general and presenting it to the daimyo, he realizes that his success only came at the expense of his wife and he is forced to buy her from the brothel and give up his samurai dream.

Considered a masterpiece by several film critics, as demonstrated by its rare 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, there are several aspects of the film that are interesting and worth talking about, including the setting, the soundtrack, and the lighting choices; but, for this post I’d like to focus primarily on how the plot was constructed, as well as the function of Mizoguchi’s female characterization. Without further ado, let’s get started! 

Front Cover of the Ugetsu DVD box set
Photo taken from

The first thing I want to address are the short stories on which the film is based. I found it interesting that the main characters (Genjuro, Lady Wakasa, and Miyagi) were based on traditional Japanese ghost stories, whereas the characters of the sub-plot, Tobei and Ohama, were based on a Western tale; in addition, the Ueda short stories were explicitly credited at the beginning of the film, but the de Maupassant short story was not. As I noticed this lack of credit, I thought that it could be due to one of two reasons: 

  1. that basing Tobei’s subplot off a Western tale (in which a desperate wannabe general is too stupid to realize that he only receives the Medal of Honor at the end of the story due to his wife’s infidelity) is Mizoguchi’s way of showing that Japan is recovering from WWII and will once again regain their national cultural pride by rejecting Western ideals and instead supporting the unique Japanese identity.
  2. that Mizoguchi combined Western and Japanese influences to demonstrate how even though the Japanese cinema industry was heavily influenced by Western classical Hollywood films, Japanese cinema had slowly begun to gravitate towards what would become the New Wave film movement, which rejected classical film techniques and introduced new stylistic methods.

Now, let’s look at some context for both options and see if we can’t come to a conclusion about which one (or both) might be more likely, ne? 

Beginning with the first reason, Ugetsu was produced in 1953, which is when Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) fully implemented its industrialization strategy. Relaxed anti-monopoly laws, combined with the economic contributions the U.S. was making to Japan as it fought the Korean War, allowed Japanese conglomerate groups called keiretsu to emerge and push out foreign companies from several industries (including the film industry, which allowed the New Wave filmmakers to begin experimenting with their own unique styles more openly than before). Japan quickly experienced an economic boom in 1954 that subsequently became stronger in the 1960s and 1970s, eventually obtaining the country status as a global superpower. 

So, because Mizoguchi was making a film on the cusp of this economic boom, it is possible that he foresaw Japan’s economic resurgence and incorporated a Western tale in his subplot – which does not have a happy ending – to demonstrate Japan’s eventual rise to power once again. This time, the rise to power was not due to forced Westernization; instead, it was due to Japan’s own economic strategies, which is why Genjuro, whose plot is based off of traditional Japanese ghost stories, gets a happy ending. Even though Miyagi has passed away, he still has his son, was able to see her one last time (even if only as a ghost), and heard her ghostly voice say that she, “[is] always with [him],” before the final scene fades to black. 

Moving onto the second reason, I’d like to add film critic Donald Kirihara to the conversation to help explain Japanese cinema and its influences over time – I think he’s able to sum it up much more concisely than I. In his article, “Reconstructing Japanese Film,” he explains that from the 1920s to the 1960s, “[Japanese] filmmakers closely studied classical style, constructing narratives hooked together by causal chains and propelled by goal-directed protagonists. Contemporary accounts, reminiscences by creative personnel, and surviving films all point to principles of story construction and the supportive role of style that were standardized in Hollywood style by 1917” (Kirihara 517). 

In being forced to Modernize and Westernize, Japanese filmmakers of the early 20th century gained access to advanced film techniques and camera apparatuses used by classical Hollywood directors; in doing so, they had no choice but to study Western cinema in order to gain a stronger idea of how to use it effectively. Kirihara further explains that Japanese filmmakers of the 1930s and 1940s, including Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa, continued to use “a range of traditions with considerable facility, building off classical practices rather than opposing them” (516). Utilizing classical Western techniques is what eventually helped Kurosawa achieve international acclaim for Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), two of his most popular films to date.

While it is clear that Mizoguchi also utilizes Western film techniques and literary influences (via his short stories) in Ugetsu, he also demonstrates techniques that would eventually be associated with the Japanese New Wave film movement, which would come to be utilized by directors like Shohei Imamura and even Takashi Miike. The main technique we see in Ugetsu is what I call the utilization of “dream sequences,” both of which occur within the first hour of the film. The first happens with Miyagi, during which Genjuro imagines himself buying an expensive kimono for Miyagi and her loving it, all while Cinderella-esque music plays in the background. The second sequence occurs with Lady Wakasa, as Genjuro listens to Lady Wakasa’s ghostly singing as she dances in the same expensive kimono that Genjuro dreamed about earlier as they picnic, the Cinderella music playing in the background once again. Although we discover he is not dreaming, despite the music cue suggesting that he is, Genjuro states, “I never dreamed pleasures such as this existed” before the scene abruptly cuts to Miyagi and Genichi hiding in the woods as they hear the screams of other villagers. 

Both sequences focus on the beauty of the female and how her body looks as she shows off her expensive kimono; but, the fact that the second sequence is not actually a dream, in combination with its juxtaposition with Miyagi’s struggle, demonstrates how Mizoguchi is utilizing one of the New Wave techniques to explore women’s struggles, whereas classical Hollywood techniques do not allow for that exposition. I found these sequences especially interesting, as I was immediately reminded of how renowned Japanese horror director, Takashi Miike, also utilizes dream sequences in his films to subvert patriarchal film techniques that objectify women. It seems as though Mizoguchi is doing the same, albeit in a more subtle way so as to still make the film popular among Western audiences (and he succeeded, winning the 1953 Silver Lion award at the Venice Film Festival for Ugetsu).

The other aspect of the film I’d like to address is the treatment and characterization of the three main female characters. Despite being set in feudal Japan, much of what these women experienced in the film is still very relevant to Japanese women today. Generally, Japanese women are associated with submissiveness, purity, and serenity – all traits that are supported by their portrayal in films (like Kissy Suzuki in You Only Live Twice), anime (such as Hinata from Naruto), and even in music (as it’s the entire premise of girl group AKB-48). Of course, there are exceptions to this portrayal, but Japanese women are typically depicted as though they cannot survive (read: live like a normal person) without a man; this is why Miyagi must die and Ohama is disgraced when Genjuro and Tobei leave. What I find interesting, however, is that Lady Wakasa was already dead and existing on her own when Genjuro met her.

Lady Wakasa’s characterization (as compared to Miyagi and Ohama) suggests that Mizoguchi took a feminist stance in his portrayal of her. While Genjuro is submissive to her because she is of a much higher class, the only thing that allows Genjuro to defeat her and break the spell is an intervention from an outside influence: a priest who paints protective symbols on Genjuro’s back that allow him to physically attack and Lady Wakasa. Without that influence Genjuro would have become trapped and completely submissive to Lady Wakasa’s influence, allowing her to kill him. Even when Lady Wakasa’s father’s disembodied voice is humming in approval, it is Ukon, Lady’s Wakasa’s elderly nurse, who says, “he sounds pleased,” rather than Lady Wakasa herself; Lady Wakasa never mentions wanting to please her father – yet another trope that befalls Japanese women – which implies that she has just a bit more agency than the other women in the film. Maybe it’s because she can afford it due to her class status, or maybe it’s because Mizoguchi utilizes feminist tactics. I believe it is the latter, as at the end of the film Ohama is the one who makes Tobei throw away his samurai armor. In doing so, he finally relents and listens to her when she tells him what he must do for the rest of his life: “Don’t let my suffering be in vain. Pull yourself together and work hard.” After, Tobei gets right to work in the fields and helping Genjuro with his pottery. In comparison to the short stories on which the film is based, most of the women in Ugetsu are given much more agency than their story counterparts.

If you’d like to watch Ugetsu yourself, be sure to check out the box set released in 2008, as it comes complete with a short booklet that includes the stories for you to read beforehand. Also, let me know what your favorite Japanese ghost stories are in the comments below, and I’ll add them to my list of quarantine reading materials! 

Until next time.


In the Shade of Strategic Essentialism

Hello again, dear readers! I hope you’re all healthy and staying home as much as possible considering the recent circumstances. In order to help get your mind off your worries (and if you’re like me, your cabin fever), I’m here to take you halfway around the world and back in time to1890s Meiji-era Japan. That’s right, we’re back to talk about a few short stories by one of my favorite Japanese authors, Ichiyo Higuchi. But first, let me tell you a bit about her life. 

Born in 1872 to parents from farming families, Higuchi did not receive the majority of her acclaim as an important Meiji writer until shortly before and after her death in 1896. Higuchi’s father, Noriyoshi, was able to elevate the family status beyond the peasant class by selling all of his possessions to move to the city and work as a porter for Sennosuke Mashimo until he was able to buy a low-level position as a jikisan, a low-level samurai retainer. When she turned 14, Higuchi was briefly able to study classical poetry at the acclaimed Haginoya poetic conservatory under Utako Nakajima, who specialized in conservative Heian court poetry. However, the first short stories she wrote and published in small newspapers between 1891 and 1892 failed because of such a heavy Heian influence. It wasn’t until Higuchi, her mother, and her sister were forced to move to a poor neighborhood in 1893 (due to her father investing all the family’s money in a business venture that failed miserably) that her writing truly blossomed. This is when Higuchi began to write about the nearby akasen (English translation: red light district) known as the Yoshiwara, which informed all of her most famous works.

A Map of the Yoshiwara district in Tokyo in the 1890s
Photo taken from Danly’s book In the Shade of Spring Leaves (link at the bottom of the post)

My first encounter with Higuchi occurred when I studied abroad in Japan and took a Japanese literature course. We only read one short story then – “Takekurabe,” to be specific – but that short story ended up influencing me so much that I used it in my senior honors thesis once I got back to the U.S. Until now, I’d never had the time to read her other short stores, so I’m excited to see how they compare to “Takekurabe,” which many critics proclaim as her greatest work.

I’ve decided to focus on three specific short stories written between 1895 and 1896 for this post because they all have very similar themes, even though they vary in length and in characterization. “Nigorie,” “Juusan’ya,” and “Wakaremichi” all criticize the attitude of the Meiji middle class because it stigmatized the residents of the Yoshiwara, as well as resist the idea of risshin shusse (English translation: success in life, comparable to what we know today as the “American dream.” The American dream was introduced to Japan through Westernization post-Restoration (1868), and while the term and its definition weren’t popularized until the 1930s, it’s sentiment can be traced as far back as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782). In the first three letters, Crèvecoeur outlines the differences between European and American society, then describes in further detail how American identity is constituted. He depicts America as a melting pot of different cultures, but his main focus is on praising agrarianism; in this focus, Crèvecoeur ultimately sets forth the idea that even an individual of low class status can be successful so long as he works hard. It is this idea, or rather the refutation of this idea, that readers see in Higuchi’s work.

A picture of Ichiyo Higuchi circa 1895
Photo taken from the National Diet Library

“Wakaremichi,” the shortest of Higuchi’s stories, is perhaps the best example of how she contradicts the idea that all can find success regardless of class status. To do so, she introduces Kichizo, a 16-year-old apprentice at an umbrella shop who is teased constantly for his height. He is enamored with Okyo, a beautiful woman in her twenties who barely gets by as a seamstress. Okyo is one of few people who have ever showed Kichizo any kindness, as the others have either passed on or moved away – acts that Kichizo views as abandonment. Okyo meets with Kichizo one night to tell him she is leaving the neighborhood because she is going to become to mistress of a wealthy distant relative, tired of having to overwork herself; Kichizo immediately resents her and thinks lesser of her for giving up her lowly profession as a seamstress. Kichizo initially claims he is content with his life and “never did expect to be successful” as an umbrella salesman at the beginning of the story (288). But, by the end he laments his position in society: “how pointless everything turns out. What a life!…  Why should I be surprised, I suppose? What am I but a boy who oils umbrellas. So what if I do the work of a hundred men? I’m not going to win any prizes for it… ‘All things come to those who waits,’ they say, but I wait and wait, and all I get is more unhappiness” (294). Kichizo’s despair over the situation suggests that he expected to find happiness with Okyo because she is also of low stature and has no method of upward mobility. So, when Okyo does find success and upward mobility, even though it requires her to sell her body, Kichizo is upset because he has no way to stay with Okyo because he cannot advance alongside her. His monologue demonstrates that hard work will not bring success to those of meager beginnings and the lower classes – whatever class you’re born into is generally where you stay unless you get lucky. By having Kichizo use the shortened Americanized version (mateba kanro) of the Japanese proverb “mateba kanro no hiyori” (English translation: wait and sunny weather will appear), Higuchi makes the argument that the American ideals Japan adopted during forced Modernization (and Westernization) are not all universal, risshin shusse/American dream included.

Just like in “Wakaremichi,” Higuchi utilizes traditional Japanese proverbs in her other stories to show that the American dream idea introduced to Japan is not attainable for most Japanese because of cultural and societal differences. This is especially true for women and is the case of “Nigorie’s” Oriki, a popular geisha of the Kikunoi house in the Yoshiwara district. As she tends to a new patron named Yuki Tomonosuke, Oriki slowly reveals to him that she was previously engaged to a patron named Genshichi, a middle-class bedding salesman. However, Oriki broke off the engagement when she discovered Genshichi was married and had a child so that he didn’t waste all the family’s money on her (unbeknownst to her, Genshichi had already spent too much and had to move the family into a run-down shack behind the Yoshiwara). The last readers hear from Oriki is that she finally spends the night with Yuki, after which the point of view changes to depict Genshichi telling his wife and child to leave, and then finally to the Yoshiwara residents discussing a “love suicide” implied to be Genshichi and Oriki (240). Due to Oriki’s feelings for Genshichi fading over the course of the story and her involvement with Yuki, readers can infer that Genshichi most likely attacked her because he was upset that he lost not only her love, but also his money and any potential for upward social mobility. This idea is further supported by Higuchi’s use of the Japanese proverb, “no one meets purely by chance (English translation: even the touching of two people’s sleeves is preordained)” (226). Her incorporation of this proverb in particular suggests that Japanese society, even though it was influenced by the West, is still very much set in tradition – a tradition that relies heavily on social class and the people in them following the rules. By having Yuki being the character who makes this statement to Oriki, Higuchi is demonstrating that happenstance and chances/luck are things only the rich can say since they have opportunities to become rich. This is why Oriki refuses to tell him the rest of her story on that night – she realizes that he doesn’t understand her struggle as a low-class prostitute. Once again, Higuchi is able to refute risshin shusse but showing that upward social mobility is only possible for those born into classes known to have those possibilities, and as evidence by the end of the story, once you move backward the loss in status is akin to death.

Moving on to our final short story of this post, “Juusan’ya” is probably my favorite of all three. It follows Oseki Harada, a beautiful woman from a low-class family who marries above her rank and then suffers at the hands of her emotionally abusive husband, Isamu. She goes to ask her parents’ permission for a divorce late one night, having resolved to abandon her son to a step-mother of a higher class so he can live a better life, but her father tells her that other women suffer and that she must continue to do so as well because her brother will lose his job as her husband’s apprentice otherwise. Dutifully, Oseki takes a rickshaw back home, which happens to be pulled by her childhood crush, Roku Kosaka. At the end of the story, both continue to live their miserable lives and part ways, but are left wondering what would have been if Oseki had never gotten married. The persistence of classism and Higuchi’s disdain for the Meiji middle class are already highly evident not only in the abusive things Isamu says to Oseki because she is lower class, but also in Oseki’s father’s prioritization of her brother’s newly elevated class status. In addition, Higuchi deploys a Japanese proverb to show that connections and class status persevere over hard work, refuting the American dream/risshin shusse concept: “they say the light a parents sheds on his child is sevenfold (English translation: the favors and influence of one’s parents is sevenfold)” (248). Of course, Oseki listens to her father and resigns herself to her cruel fate in order to keep ensure her brother’s job is secure, as the low status of her parents does not afford him upward social mobility otherwise. And even though Oseki was able to experience upward mobility, it does not truly benefit her because she does not belong there and desires to go back to being low class; this fact alone implies that even if a low class Japanese person was able to somehow gain upward social mobility, the struggle to fit in with that class alone could lead them right back down to their own class.

Higuchi also manages to incorporate other traditional Japanese proverbs that are not explicitly stated, but fully evident based on the short story plots. For example, jigou jitoku (English translation: you get what you deserve [based on your class]) is evident in both “Wakaremichi” with Kichizo and “Nigorie” with Oriki and Genshichi. By using these traditional proverbs in negation of a Western-introduced concept, Higuchi is engaging in what post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls strategic essentialism, which is when “signifiers of indigenous (native) cultures are privileged in a process of negative discrimination. Such a strategy may allow these societies to better resist the onslaught of global culture that threatens to negate culture difference or consign it to an apolitical and exotic discourse of cultural diversity” (Ashcroft et. al 159). During the time Higuchi was writing her short stories, Japan was struggling to Westernize without fully assimilating, as the country wanted to retain its cultural uniqueness unlike its other East Asian counterparts. Higuchi’s contribution to this endeavor was through her writing, making sure that the ancient Japanese proverbs in her work fought against universalism and globalism to help others retain their sense of Japanese pride (cue all my work on nationalism, including the section of my thesis on “Takekurabe”) and realize that not everything Westerners introduced could apply to Japanese culture.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed the time I spent with Higuchi today, and if you’d like to read her short stories, you can find them in Robert Lyons Danly’s In the Shade of Spring Leaves: The Life of Higuchi Ichiyo with Nine of Her Best Short Stories

Until next time.


Abnormalize: The Covert Sphere and Psycho-Pass


I spoke of Hamid’s Exit West, addressed my change in thought process concerning non-Western writers, and explained my intentions to continue studying Japanese literature before signing off of this blog for what I thought would be the final time. Well, guess who’s got A THIRD English project? That’s right – it’s me!


Hello again, everyone! I hope you’ve had a wonderful winter break and are ready to dive deep into the depths of Japanese literature with me, aka the “Pain Train 3.0.” As I progress through my final semester of the master’s program (deep breaths, Sam), I’ll be composing nine blog posts as part of my Japanese Literature & Culture independent study.

To kick off this first post, I’ll be analyzing an anime series to ease us into cultural differences and set up what will hopefully become my final research paper. The anime in question is the first 11 episodes of season one of Naoyoshi Shiotani’s and Katsuyuki Motohiro’s Psycho-Pass (2012), to which I’ll be applying Timothy Melley’s “The Postmodern Public Sphere.” I was absolutely in love with this series when I watched it as it aired, and I’m even more in love with it now that I was able to go back, perform close analysis, and see what I missed the first time – and let me tell you, I missed a lot. So, if everyone is ready to join me, then buckle up because here we go!

Of course, this wouldn’t be a classic™ blog post if I didn’t start with a key term of the week. This week’s term is the “covert sphere,” which Melley defines as “a cultural imaginary shaped by both institutional secrecy and public fascination with the secret work of the state… an array of discursive forms and cultural institutions through which the public can ‘discuss’ or fantasize the clandestine dimensions of the state” (5). That sounds like a lot to handle, so let’s break it down, ne?

In plain terms, the covert sphere is an imaginary bubble of knowledge/rumors that surrounds the real covert sector of the government (think CIA, black ops, etc.) While the covert sector of the government does its best to keep people like us in the dark about what it does overseas – and even on US soil –, information leaks from the covert sector make their way into the covert sphere and subsequently cause us to think we know what goes in secrecy, even though we really don’t. Hence, much of what the public knows about covert operations comes from the covert sphere’s fictional depictions of the covert sector. For example, Melley names films like Zero Dark Thirty, authors like Margaret Atwood, and even video games like Call of Duty: Black Ops as fictional depictions of the covert sector that give the general public a peace of mind, or a sense of “knowing,” about covert operations, even though they do not accurately depict what the covert sector does. 

For me, what comes to mind is the difference between the real SEAL Team 6 and the CBS television series SEAL Team, which has captivated my dad since its pilot (meaning that everyone in our house is also forced to watch, oh joy). These shows help people like my dad gain a better picture of what goes on in foreign covert operations – or rather, it helps them think they know what goes on. No matter how convincingly David Boreanaz may portray fictional Master Chief Special Warfare Operator A Jason Hayes, aka Bravo 1/1B, it still doesn’t change the fact that the show contributes to the covert sphere, allowing the public to speculate and debate the actual happenings within the covert sector. To put it plainly (and in familiar Althusserian terms), the covert sector is the actual repressive state apparatus, and the covert sphere is the ideological  apparatus through which the public can construct a picture of the covert sphere to make themselves feel better, even though this picture is not holistic or fully accurate.

So, how does the covert sphere function in Psycho-Pass? Very, very well, I believe. This is because Psycho-Pass, which was inspired by films like Bladerunner (1982) and Ghost in the Shell (1995), is set in a futuristic Tokyo in which every single person’s emotions, job prospects, and even thoughts are somehow curated by the government through the all-knowing (and covert) Sybil System. Unbeknownst to the general public, the Sybil System is actually a hive mind of the brains of approximately 237 individuals who are criminally asymptomatic and possess a Crime Coefficient of 0, despite many of them having committed crimes punishable by death themselves. But, because no one knows how the system operates, the Sybil System is able to utilize the covert sphere and control its own image.

One of the most noticeable ways in which Sybil gains this control is through its use of holo-technology. In the very first episode of the series, the main female character, Inspector Akane Tsunemori, arrives at a crime scene for her first day on the job only to be greeted by life-size holographic mascots being displayed by police robots (“Crime Coefficient”).  These holo-mascots display a constant happy smile and speak to the crowds in a soft female voice, asking them to go home despite there being visible police further off in the distance. The crowd does begin to listen, as they know that the Sybil System will easily be able to find the criminal using the Dominators (which we later discover is not always the case), and some begin leaving. These same mascots show up again in episodes 2 and 7, but this time with actual people walking around underneath them; however, on both occasions the crowds show no alarm even though they know it indicates some type of a police presence. The ambiguity of the person or robot underneath holo-mascots is a prime example of Melley’s “public secret,” or how the covert sphere allows the covert sector to operate in plain sight without worrying the public because the public knows that it is operating (13).

Another way in which Sybil is able to utilize the covert sphere to operate within and even control the general public is through the Psycho-Pass hue checks. In episode 7, Makishima explains the rise of what he calls “living corpses” when explaining what happened to Rikako Oryo’s father that suddenly caused her to want to kill: 

For some time, it’s been understood that stress has beneficial effects, for example it stimulates the immune system. As they say, it’s a motivation in your life. You can even call it a reason for living. However, once Psycho-Pass checks became routine, people found their sense of stress numbed so much that patients who can’t even recognize stimulation itself started appearing (“Symbolism of the Bletilla Striata”). 

To this, Makishima’s accomplice replies, “So, humans care for themselves so much that they’ve actually regressed as a living being, huh?” (“Symbolism of the Bletilla Striata”). Essentially, Makishima is implying that the Sybil System has taken over the Japanese’s’ daily life so much to the point where people stop living their lives because Sybil is able to live it for them. Viewers are then able to reflect on this statement and realize that Makishima, one of the worst villains in Psycho-Pass history despite possessing a Crime Coefficient of 0, isn’t wrong. I immediately thought back to all of the times where cut scenes showed street scanner robots dispensing emergency medication and prescribing therapy for people on the spot, even though they “haven’t done anything yet” (“Those Capable”). Because the public perception of the Sybil System is so positive, Sybil is able to get away with its public “covert” operations of turning people into medicated zombies in the name of “self-care.” Makishima even notes that the information about living corpses and the average lifespan of Japanese people actually decreasing “will probably never be made public,” further solidifying that the covert sector is able to use the fictive covert sphere to operate strategically as a repressive state apparatus and control its own image. (“Symbolism of the Bletilla Striata”).

The final example I’d like to discuss today occurs in episode 9 when Enforcer Masaoka is explaining the public misconceptions about how the Sybil System worked when it was first implemented to Akane. He notes,

terrible misunderstandings and rumors about latent criminals were common in those days. If a family member happened to show a high crime coefficient, that alone caused the rest of the family to be treated as if they were the same… when a detective gets deeply involved in an investigation, in the end the Sibyl System starts keeping an eye on them like it does the criminals. There were many detectives who were diagnosed as latent criminals like that (“Paradise Fruit”). 

Based on Masaoka’s explanation, it is clear that the Sybil System purposely created the Enforcer-Inspector program that it has now using this method of stalking detectives. The system knew that the detectives would become isolated once they became latent criminals during the “old” days because of the sheer novelty of the term, and used this isolation period to make sure none of them could be rehabilitated with therapy and emotional support. Afterwards, the system created the Enforcer position to utilize these detectives’ intuitions, but then used the Inspectors (and eventually, holo-technology) as the calm, public face of the police so that the system’s reputation increased. This way, Sybil was able to gain unconditional public trust and create an effective police system; in fact, the system is so effective that it was allowed to flag Enforcer Kagari as a latent criminal at the age of 5 despite him doing nothing wrong. It’s truly terrifying that no one so much as questioned the system until Akane began working at the MPWSB, and as the series continues, it only gets more so.

There’s so much else that I’d like to examine in this series, especially in the second half, but I’m going to save those for my paper (which I’ll link here at the end of the semester)! If you’re interested in watching Psycho-Pass yourselves, you can check it out on Hulu.

Until next time.


Exit, Semester

Happy harvest, dear readers! I hope you’ve had a lovely weekend and can look forward to taking a well-deserved break over the next few days. Self-care is such an important aspect of both academia and the working world that often goes overlooked, so make sure you take some time to recharge if at all possible. Being that this is the last post of the semester, I know I’m looking forward to doing just that before gearing up to write my final paper (detailed at the bottom of my last post). 

Also, before we get into this week’s material, I want to take a minute to remind you that this Thursday (what many of you may call Thanksgiving) is not a holiday for everyone; many Indigenous people instead see it as a day of mourning, as the only reason we can have Thanksgiving now is because of the treachery, deceit, and genocide that occurred when settler-colonizers first took this land hundreds of years ago (despite what elementary school may teach us). In addition, as the capitalist system has encouraged more and more retail chains to begin Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Eve, businesses have subsequently forced their low- and working-class employees to give up their own family time and come in to cater to miserable customers. For example, the three years I worked at Pichael’s Craftz Barne* (name changed to protect store privacy) *, ALL employees were required to work both a Thanksgiving Eve and a Black Friday shift – no exceptions. You could volunteer to work more than one shift each day if you wanted, but you were required to work one at the bare minimum. I pulled 12-hour days on both days all three years because I personally don’t care to participate in a holiday that celebrates literal murder and don’t have very strong family ties, but my other coworkers were devastated because they missed out on valuable time with family members they didn’t see but once a year. So, if you decide to go out shopping on Thanksgiving Eve this year, I hope you keep this in mind and are nice to the cashiers and sales associates, even if they don’t seem very nice themselves – they have a good reason not to be. 

Now, let’s move on to the reading! Speaking of capitalism, I found Arif Dirlik’s “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism” a bit hard to comprehend at first; but, once I got into a groove, I was easily able to see how capitalism, globalism, and imperialism all fit hand-in-hand. Please bear with me – I know this all sounds overwhelming at the moment, which is why I’m bringing back the key terms of the week to help us understand the basics before we jump into the theory.

The first key term I’d like to address is “dependency theory,” which Ashcroft et. al. define in Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts as “the continued impoverishment of colonized ‘Third World’ countries on the grounds that underdevelopment is not internally generated but a structural condition of global capitalism itself” (67). What they mean is that countries generally designated as “third world” (read: African and Asian countries) are actually restricted from becoming independent because the “First World” countries establish them as producers of raw materials, thus preventing them from acquiring the mass production and capital necessary to become a “First World” country. Take, for example, Thailand; Thailand is one of the largest producers of U.S. and U.K. clothing materials, yet the country is still considered “Third World” because much of its land is poor and undeveloped (or fam land). The modern- and industrialization that it did experience was not widespread enough to decrease its overall poverty levels (read: sweat shop work doesn’t pay very much). In short, the capitalist system – which in itself is a world system, as capitalism spread with Western imperialism and has since become the dominant economic and political system on a global scale – ensures that non-Western countries remain “Third World” countries so that “First World” (read: white) countries can keep their power and ideology in play. 

The second key term I’d like to address is related to the ideas of the world system and dependency theory, as well as how they function on a larger scale. “Globalization” is “the process whereby individual lives and local communities are affected by economic and cultural forces that operate world-wide. In effect it is the process of the world becoming a single place” (Ashcroft et. al. 110). Basically, globalism boils down to a familiar (single) story: the erasure of distinct cultures and societies with their own capital systems in favor of forcing them into a new system of global capital controlled by colonizers. Globalism arose from imperialist doctrines and impacts each culture differently, despite its aim to incorporate them into a universal system, and its operations are still centered within the West today, especially in America. 

In “The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism,” Arif Dirlik expands on globalism and its relationship to capitalism further, referencing the existence of “global capitalism” and its history of analysis within the PoCo realm. Dirlik notes that in many ways, PoCo as a discipline has failed to account for how modernization and globalism have harmed both the “Third World” countries that were forced to adopt and contribute to the world system and the marginalized peoples within “First World” countries themselves, as well as how globalism affects each culture differently (568). He calls for the discipline to “repudiate all master narratives, and since the most powerful current master narratives are the products of a post-Enlightenment European constitution of history and therefore Eurocentric… foremost among these master narratives to be repudiated is the narrative of modernization, in both its bourgeois and its Marxist incarnations” (565). The way I understand this quote is that we need to stop applying Western/First World terminology to countries that are not Western or “First World.” We cannot truly understand the pain and suffering these people experience if we think only in terms of colonizer and imperialist definitions; each of these countries had their own unique capital system before Westernization and imperialism were thrust upon them, which is what we need to consider if we’re going to try to advocate/serve as allies for them and make sure their voices are heard. The fact that the discipline uses “First World” terminology to begin with indicates not only that the PoCo discipline is situated primarily in the “First World” when it really shouldn’t be (the First World-Third World binary is what we’re trying to dismantle in the first place), but also that it is not truly aware of the atrocities happening to “Third World” countries – or how each country is affected differently – in the name of global capitalism. 

Dirlik goes on to further describe global capitalism, noting that “Fundamental to the structure of the new global capitalism is… ‘a new international division of ‘labor;’ that is, the transnationalization of production where, through subcontracting, the process of production (of even the same commodity) is globalized” (577). This division, however, is less of an actual division than it is a prime example of dependency theory, as “First World” countries force “Third World” countries to make their products so that they can sell them and retain 80% of the capital (while paying the “Third World” workers next to nothing). Global capitalism and transnationalization are why places like sweat shops still exist; production is globalized at the detriment to the non-Western countries it affects, with corporations like Walmart and Calvin Klein only paying attention to it (and saying that they’ll change – they don’t, actually) when mass fires break out and native people are outraged that their friends and families are dying, causing them to stop working. While Dirlik notes that it is hard to point to one center of global capitalism, he does hint that much of the power is still very much found in the West (especially Europe) and white countries. 

I’d now like to begin applying aspects of Dirlik’s theory to Mohsin Hamid’s 2017 novel Exit West, which enacts much of what Dirlik discusses while also incorporating aspects of magical realism to simultaneously soften the blow and sharpen the reader’s understanding of modern emigration and the crises that refugees face around the world. One quote in particular that I think is widely exemplified in Exit West pertains to definitions of “First” and “Third” world countries. Dirlik writes, “Parts of the earlier Third World are today on the pathways of transnational capital and belong in the ‘developed’ sector of the world economy. Likewise, parts of the First World marginalized in the new global economy are hardly distinguishably in way of life from what used to be viewed as the Third World” (579). Parts of the “First World” that are reminiscent of what is generally considered to be “Third World” especially come to light in Hamid’s depiction of the fall of London and the development of Dark London. Dark London in particular is described as “the worst of the black holes in the fabric of the nation” (Hamid 129) as vacant houses, parks, and plots of land begin to be inhabited by migrants from all over the world, the majority of whom are coming through magical doors to escape the horrific war-like environments of their hometowns. Soon, the power is cut to that specific area and London natives begin attacking migrants, causing what was once a beautiful, upper-class part of London to turn into a warzone not unlike where Nadia and Saeed came from. All of these migrants formerly of the Third World have now become the marginalized within the first world, their only choice at living a somewhat peaceful life being contributing to the existing capital system (read: white-dominant system) by building a pipeline at a worker camp in the London Halo.

Yet another aspect of Dirlik’s theory that I found to be exemplified in Exit West concerns the temporal limits of postcolonialism. Dirlik notes that “in a world situation in which severe inequalities persist in older colonial forms or in their neonational reconfigurations, moreover, ‘the unified temporality of ‘postcoloniality’ risks reproducing the colonial discourse of an allochronic other, living in another time, still lagging behind us, the genuine postcolonials’” (573). Upon looking up the definition of allochronic and realizing that it means something along the lines of ‘not able to exist at the same time/same timelines,’ I came to understand this quote as saying that the danger in the definition “post-colonial” is that the “post” signifies that colonialism is over and not affecting anyone anymore, nor will it be able to affect others in the future. I think this is why Exit West and its doors always looked to the future and why each future, though it may have been better than the past, was still riddled with the same problems. Nadia and Saeed continued to struggle with relating to each other culturally (as he was much more conservative than she), as well as connecting with the “natives” of the various places they inhabited. Their struggle with identity and belonging was still present in the future, even if that struggle was less pronounced. I think this is why both of them ended up back in their hometowns like “hawks returning to their nests” (Hamid 230) at the end of the novel after having separated fifty years prior. Settler colonialism is still very much happening in both the United States and Japan (and undoubtedly many other countries), and even in places where it may not necessarily be happening anymore, those people are still affected by imperialism’s and capitalism’s legacy. 

Overall, I think the novel did a great job at re-presenting the lives of migrants and refugees in a modern world to an audience that may not have been open or accepting to them. Readers are able to see how the dominant system that works for them cannot always work for other people, and that what is happening in “Third World” countries with which they don’t associate is also happening right in their own backyards – they just have to open their eyes (and their hearts) to see it. In Monika Bulaj’s amazing, though short, TED Talk, she leaves us without an answer to a crucial question that follows the same line of questioning/concern as Dirlik and Hamid: “What do we know about the country and the people we pretend to protect?” The answer to this, in my opinion, is that we don’t know anything due to universalism, essentialism, racism, sexism – you name it. We get so caught up in “First World” dominant languages and ideologies that we end up skipping right over or silencing the voices and people for whom we’re trying to advocate and support. If there is one thing to take away from globalism, it’s that we need to remember how it affects people at different lengths and is not always (if ever, really) a positive thing for non-Western/white people. 


With this semester coming to a close in the next two and half weeks, I can honestly say that this course has changed/improved the way I look at non-Western literature and authors; I think I’m now better able to make connections between my work with East Asian concepts to other Asian and new African countries without worrying about whether or not I’m talking about Japan/China/Korea too much. I’ve learned that it’s okay to draw parallels without minimizing the struggle of one country for another. We were given the opportunity to expand on concepts we learned in Indigenous Rhetoric, as well as to learn about new theories that go beyond the scope of the Western world and Western problems (even if the West was the one causing said problems); this was an opportunity for which I am grateful, as it is my goal to become a globally competent scholar who understands that struggles and consequences are diverse, even in their similarities.  

Next semester, I intend to take another independent study with Dr. Vogel to focus more on Japanese literature and non-Western criticism, so I hope to come back to scholars like Bhabha and Said, as well as to add more knowledge of scholars like them to my well of information. I think I’d like to begin looking at Japan through a post-colonial lens, as Japan has experienced both sides of colonialism and – I think – has developed a unique method of both coping with and denying that past. I’d be grateful for any suggestions on scholars or theories within that realm, though I fully intend to do my own research and come up with theories to investigate that I can incorporate into the independent study proposal. But for now, I’m going to dive deep into nationalism and am excited to explore its utilization and effects in India through the work of Arundhati Roy. Thank you for your patience and for a wonderful semester, everyone.