Affection through Attrition: Me vs. Tears for Fears


My partner and I disagree of very few matters of taste. Such is their rarity that these tiny rifts have been upgraded to perennial inside jokes. My loathing for post-Gabriel Genesis, my general distaste for 80s pop production––such is the glue from which lasting relationships are forged.

The first time I listened to Tears for Fears was because of a challenge; both of us were “assigning” music we liked but that the other didn’t know and gauging the reaction. Back then, I thought their titanically popular Songs from the Big Chair felt like a synthetic, operatic, and emotionally oversaturated album injected with irritating 80s production. That’s more or less the same evaluation I have now, except that my value judgment has changed. A number of explanations for this shift suggest themselves:

  1. My partner is a persistent and patient taste-manipulator who is slowly taking control of my very faculties of perception.
  2. I’ve mellowed out and allowed my taste to either broaden or become more lax and lazy, depending on my mood and your perspective.
  3. Tears for Fears’ old records were transfigured through some kind of divine intervention.
  4. Metal Gear Solid V’s constant stream of 80s music tapes have chipped away at my resistance to 80s pop and synth-heavy music in general.

I would accept at least three of these explanations as plausible “prime movers” in my shift in perspective.  Perhaps the deepest one, however, is the fact that, compared to three years ago, my entire emotional landscape has transformed. Partly because of the stresses of gender transition and partly because of getting older and more tired, I’ve become more receptive to works that are melodramatic/operatic. Yes, Metal Gear Solid V acclimated me to 80s pop over many hours of listening to it while dispatching fascist South African mercenaries with RPGs. But without this more basic internal change, I would probably just have ignored all those tapes and listened to ambient noise instead.

Once I had given Tears for Fears another real chance, downloading Songs from the Big Chair on a whim and listening to it under the moonlight (and the roof: it was raining outside). I came to the second track, “Working Hour:”

One of the most irritating trends in 80s pop music was the blatant abuse of the saxophone, both in its incorporation into songs and in the production process. During the decade of Sting’s solo work and Kenny G, saxophones, which I tend to welcome in songs from other decades, often feel as though they’re being used for cheap emotional ploys. And, indeed, this was my initial impression of “Working Hour,” which begins with a brief instrumental intro featuring a saxophone solo. Not only this, but it’s paired with harps and bright synth atmospherics. The introduction suddenly shifts at one point as the rhythm of the song itself takes hold and the song builds up layers of instrumentation until it takes full shape just before the vocals kick in at the two minute mark.

Everything that follows is somehow more resonant to me now, especially the sense we get that the narrator is held back and confused by fear, fear that originates from some vague point in space or time that we can’t grasp immediately. You could also read the song as a cryptic allusion to the alienation of wage labour, albeit presented in a misty fashion. As always, songwriter Roland Orzabal’s lyrics are are sung with clarity and intensity but don’t immediately make sense or, I would argue, need to convey their semantic meaning. Most of Tears for Fears’ appeal is about performance and drama, and in this regard “Working Hour” proves its quality.

To cautiously generalize my observations on this topic:

Taste, like desire, is clearly a highly variable facet of someonee’s personality, strongly affected by close relationships, family history, and their implication in larger class, cultural, and national structures. It has the capacity to change unexpectedly in response to a whole swathe of events and interventions, but curiously remains one of the ways in which people try to stake out identities for themselves. My encounter with Tears for Fears and my transition from a hater to an admirer is one small stream in the larger processes of culture and class formation going on all around me. Best not to take too much specific insight from it, but it’s a fun example of how changes in taste are usually part of larger changes in a person’s or community’s life.

Akira Narusawa: “The Social Order of Modern Japan”


Capitalism is first and foremost a mode of production, the division of society into an exploiting capitalist class whose existence is predicated on extracting surplus value from the proletariat. This mode of production, however, also generates social relations and ways of life that support its existence and help to produce people who are primed to either exploit or be exploited.

Akira Narusawa’s “The Social Order of Modern Japan” is a helpful exploration of the forms of life and regulation that suit capitalism in a particular place and time. Its focus is on the genesis of modern Japanese life during the period of the Meiji Restoration, roughly from the 1870s to just before the turn of the century. It explores the way that capitalism dissolves ways of living while imposing its own highly regimented systems to manage time, space, and the human body itself. Narusawa’s piece is a schematic look at how capitalism restructured Japanese society in the nineteenth century, forging a new social order that was in many ways unique while retaining some general features of capitalist social relations.

But why would the bourgeois ruling class care about time, space, and the motion of human bodies? This question feels somewhat obvious when we remember that capitalism is a dynamic system of production, distribution, and consumption that requires certain conditions to function. Namely, goods need to circulate, factories need to produce, armies need to manoeuvre, and people’s minds and bodies have to be conditioned for proletarian labour. Nature provides the vast resources that capitalists need to transform into capital, but capitalism’s demands on time, space, and people’s bodies are in many ways antithetical to traditional and natural patterns of growth and development. As a result, the state and social institutions are taken by the ruling class as weapons of persuasion and coercion, forcibly and painfully bringing the world of their dreams into being. This desperate need for favourable conditions colours the capitalist regulation of time and space. And in Japan, where there were outside pressures from the West to adapt to capitalist ways as soon as possible, there was a particularly acute need for this kind of social (re)construction.

To return to Narusawa’s piece, we see that methods of timekeeping in pre-Meiji Japan were largely tied to the cyclical rhythm of the moon and sun. Temple bells played some role in determining the workdays of servants and state officials, but the largely agrarian population’s entire life was oriented around these natural cycles. In 1872, the Meiji state replaced the old lunar calendar with a solar one, launching an assault not only on traditional conceptions of time but also on superstitious beliefs perceived to be insufficiently “modern.” Sunrise and sunset no longer determined the beginning and end of the workday, and this work discipline was increasingly enabled by the spread of artificial light.¹ Of course, capitalists could extract more surplus value from their workers if the working day could be lengthened past the boundaries of nighttime. Further, the state strengthened its hold over everyday life by creating a system of nationwide holidays that glorified the emperor-family system.

Capitalists use the technology afforded by science to destroy boundaries, but not for the sake of humanity per se but rather for their own enrichment at the expense of the people as a whole. We see another example of this in the realm of space: the abolition of restrictions on movement of goods and people across domain borders. At the same time it abolishes these barriers, it installs the spatial tyranny of landownership and private property anew, for example forbidding farmers from going up to the mountains behind their property:

“This, of course, presents a familiar view of the opening up o space by the modernization process, but there were…people subjected to new restraints on their movement…Such changes clearly established private possession of space and demarcated land borders. These people [farmers and other workers] were of no concern to the enlighteners.”²

In general, the Japanese ruling class encouraged the creation of “good order,” creating spaces that were meant to be functional and neat. Stipulations around neatness and orderliness were of course strong in military discipline but derivative rules were imposed in schools and factories. One of the contradictory aspects of capitalist schemes for rule, however, was that this concern for tidiness and bright, clean space only prevailed in the privileged central areas and did not apply to “undesirable” locations and people, who were more or less completely neglected. In reference to workers’ dormitories, Narusawa notes, “many of these facilities were extremely poor; there was a danger of fires and other disasters, hygienic conditions were bad, and many factories lacked even the space necessary to regulate the workers’ daily lives.”³ While certain parts of the population could participate in the aesthetic experience of modern cleanliness and order, people who were shunted to the side or considered as little more than organic machine parts were excluded from these aesthetic considerations.

Indeed, the entire spatial organization of capitalism in general is laid out in the book:

“The dirtiness swept out of the centre accumulated on the periphery,  but for order to sustain itself it was not sufficient just to remove the disorder to the outside. It had to be isolated and controlled there in order to prevent the invasion of the centre by this major disturber of order.”⁴

Here Narusawa is describing literal filth and unclean objects/spaces like cemeteries and places for the imprisonment mentally ill. Yet, one could talk about the capitalist treatment of the unemployed or homeless, the imperialist subjugation and military policing of peripheral states, the systems of isolation for refugees, exports of entropy like computer waste to countries like the Philippines, etc.

This ordering extended even to the body in Meiji Japan, as students and army troops alike participated in drills and physical exercises designed to regulate bodily movement and eventually inculcate a “correct” state of mind, one pliable to the needs of the capitalist state and mode of production. Laws forbidding nudity came on the books, which had never been illegal in previous periods of Japanese history. Every living and dead body was mapped onto a grid, intensively inspected for hygiene, encouraged to adopt Western diets, and bodily regulations as detailed as the position of the testicles inside one’s trousers were drafted, though how seriously any individual rule was taken must have varied. And of course a body of official experts arose to be the arbiters of all these new systems.

I’ve more or less summarized the content of the article and expanded on its meaning according to my own perspective. For example, although Narusawa’s perception is acute and his critical eye for matters of everyday life is useful, he actually neglects to mention capitalism much at all in the article. What we’re left with is an article that presents these facets of social order as emerging from pre-Meiji society and coalescing into modernity without any centre of gravity. It holds “modernity” responsible, rather than the productive/social engine that produced modernity for its own convenience and development. He tends to describe these social orders as products of “mass society” where large groups of people need to be coordinated, but neglects to mention, except in the case of the military, for what purpose people need to be coordinated and schematized. It’s an excellent article with a significant theoretical blind spot. Still, it produces some powerful insights into the fundamental sickness of this order in which Japanese people still live:

“Modern society…gives rise to excessive order. The more we process the nature we perceive as ‘disorder’ to make an artificial, ‘orderly’ order, the broader becomes the gap between nature and humans, and humans unconsciously or even gladly shut themselves into an artificial time and space.”⁵


  1. Akira Narusawa, “The Social Order of Modern Japan,” in The Political Economy of Japanese Society, ed. Junji Banno (Oxford University Press, 1997), page 202.
  2. Ibid, 215.
  3. Ibid, 217.
  4. Ibid, 214.
  5. Ibid, 236.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Talking Back to Our History

Hundred Thousand Names cover

“There’s a story in an ancient play about birds called The Birds

And it’s a short story from before the world began…

From a time when there was no earth, no land. Only air and birds everywhere. But the thing was there was no place to land. Because there was no land. So they just circled around and around. Because this was before the world began.

And the sound was deafening. Songbirds were everywhere. Billions and billions and billions of birds.

And one of these birds was a lark and one day her father died. And this was a really big problem, because what should they do with the body? There was no place to put the body because there was no earth.

And finally the lark had a solution.

She decided to bury her father in the back of her own head. And this was the beginning of memory.

Because before this no one could remember a thing. They were just constantly flying in circles.

Constantly flying in huge circles.”

–Laurie Anderson, “The Beginning of Memory”

When I saw Bugs Bunny cross-dressing, when I saw Laurie Anderson in drag, dug into my mind and found stories about miraculous transformations, writing myself into stories about growing into a woman’s body lying down in a faraway place, I was making circles. Like brushing fingers around and around erogenous areas, like the frustration of samsara, I was stuck in a circle. And running in a circle brought me back to the same point: birth and rebirth of pain and guilt, self-loathing as a perpetual motion machine. It’s not that I’ve left that circle behind, but I’ve found that people like me have a name, have a history, have a unique form of life that is worth protecting and fostering. Trans people, and trans women like me, have lived before me and left me their memories. Without these collective memories, I was condemned to aimlessness.

I recently met the dearly departed Leslie Feinberg and asked hir what she thought about my career of choice. Hir answer, though an echo of her words my mind summoned from a book, was piercing:

“Which side are you on? The hunter or the hunted? Historians sitting on a pastoral fence…doesn’t exist in reality. The fences are barricades. And barricades are a dangerous and impossible place to perch on during a battle.”¹

I was used to this idea, but for the first time it truly sunk in that I was one of the runners, one of the people who ran from the cops and clung to each other because our families were absent or oppressive. Self-created people who had to build ourselves “on the fly,” and had no business perching on fences. Such is the brutality of the hunters that they keep us from burying our dead in the back of our heads, and we have to pass this vertiginous chasm separating us from our ancestors.

It’s a staggering responsibility, looming in the back of my mind. But I kept listening to Les talk, and an uncanny feeling springs up in my guts.

“Transgender people are not dismantling the categories of man and woman. We are opening up a world of possibilities in addition.”²

But if after we have done all we are called to do, gender as a system still exists, gender as a faceless cartographer who plots us all on a map, with most of us being where there “be monsters,” what is it all for? I should laugh at myself. After all, I stand before many accused of reinforcing the gender binary by identifying as a trans woman. To return to the map metaphor, what comrade Les is suggesting is that we are working to tear down the fences and open up new territories, recognizing all these gender positions and spaces as valid. I’m still left uncertain. Why not just throw out the map? Don’t repeat the mistakes of trying to build an androgynous “gender-neutral” society but don’t reaffirm gender as a positive! Maybe we’re simply talking past each other about the same thing.

Well, we live in a country where white gay fascists can sleep undisturbed. Where the capitalist-imperialist vampires can take our hard-won concessions and brandish them as a weapon against our kin in Palestine, Afghanistan, and a hundred thousand other kill zones. Land speculators and gentrifiers push our working-class and homeless youth out to pull in the champagne-and-Human Rights Campaign crowd. Perhaps I should take hir advice and put my petty suspicions of people I think have the “wrong” identity and put them where my internalized transphobia and guilt should go: oblivion.

“There are and will be lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people on both sides of these barricades. How do we recognize our enemies from our allies?”³

We can’t simply scan someone’s gender expression or self-identification to tell who our friends are and who our enemies are. First, we define our goal: liberation of all and of each from all forms of oppression. Then we ask ourselves: for whom will that be a dream, for whom will it be a nightmare? Our movement will be the most advanced, a vanguard capable of uniting all of the exploited and oppressed, or it will be useless. Sie looked at me and asked another question:

“But on what basis will we form such a movement? Around what forms of desire? The ache of hunger? The desperate need of poverty and homelessness? The yearning for freedom from oppression?”⁴

I couldn’t answer, and I had finished the book before long, so I left it unresolved. At the same time, I know that it won’t come from spite, schadenfreude, mockery, or even thin and watery hope. Hope, always paired with fear and anxiety, is nothing compared to what will emerge from within history itself. Our liberation will come from within our bodies, which we hardly know, and from a history we will ourselves make. Whatever weapons and forms of love, war, and life we need to forge, we will.

Which is not to say we are assured of victory. Our lives are imperilled by many grave dangers and crises. But these will sit unresolved as long as we are scattered and divided. What Leslie Feinberg’s words, spoken and printed 20 years ago remind us is that a movement built on either cheap unity or calcified divisions is doomed either to fail or succeed in making our lives all the more miserable. “Constantly flying in huge circles.” Yes. At least until we remember all the names, far more than 100,000, and learn what history, what their voices, are telling us so insistently.


I gently adapted Leslie Feinberg’s words to fit a more dialogic format without, I believe, twisting their meaning. All the references are here, though, for the curious.

  1. Leslie Feinberg, “Learning from Experience,” in Trans Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 119.
  2. Ibid, 58.
  3. Ibid, 128.
  4. Ibid, 127.

Quick Reflections on Kosaku Yoshino: Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan


Unfortunately, Kosaku Yoshino’s book Cultural Nationalism in Contemporary Japan ended up being an academic sociology book, the type that I know and dread. I have no issues with sociology as such––though I certainly agree with many of Gramsci’s criticisms of it and appreciate that it has been used as a wedge for pushing Marxism out of intellectual life in the global North––but I find its methods of presentation difficult to enjoy or take an interest in. That said, I did promise some kind of written piece on the book so I will highlight two of the book’s positive contributions

1. Discussions of how academic ideas, esp. nihonjinron are disseminated through intermediate layers in capitalist society:

Though its primary focus is on the semi-popular academic genre known as nihonjinron, which is a discourse around Japanese uniqueness. It seeks to explain the peculiarities of modern Japanese society, it also discusses the dynamics of how these ideas reach a mass audience and the role of capitalists in popularizing and consuming them. Nihonjinron typically depends on an assumption of the immutability and impenetrability of Japanese culture, which is deemed quite subtle and inaccessible to foreigners without Japanese blood. It analyzes Japanese society as a reflection of pre-industrial social forms like village communities and caste hierarchies.

What the book’s case studies show is that businessmen are highly receptive to the ideas of nihonjinron as well as being some of their most popular producers. This discourse, as the book notes, could take either a self-critical and downcast form––prevalent in the immediate postwar period––or the more recent bullish and nationalistic version that seeks, at least in part, to explain Japan’s “miraculous” economic success. Yoshino posits that the businessmen see value in these ideas as reinforcements of their own practical and empirical knowledge. In other words, as affirmations of their own individual experiences in running capitalist enterprises. Nihonjinron, in fact, often acts as a manual for managing group and employee relations within enterprises. Given the prestige of Japanese business and its “companyist” social structure, these ideas then naturally acquire a certain legitimacy, particularly since they also mesh well with the resurgence of political nationalism in Japan, although the book only discusses cultural nationalism. The book even notes that even educators and school administrators were more willing to give credence to the writings of capitalist businessmen than academics on a given topic since they had “practical experience” in contact with foreigners and group work.

So, in sum, I appreciate the book’s acknowledgement that the capitalist class generates its own organic intellectuals outside of institutionalized education systems, and that these intellectuals possess a strong pull in a situation of capitalist class hegemony, though the book doesn’t use these terms.

2. Insights into the importance of immediate social ties in the formation of ideology and values:

Though this comes up late in the book and only briefly, the book mentions that there is considerable evidence to suggest that the most important determinant of the influence of nationalism and culture in people’s lives is their immediate connection with other people. Social practices and rituals that form affective ties between people help to solidify groups and create common cultures and ways of thinking. This suggests that ideology, as we should remember, is not just a spectre in the realm of the ideas but rather embodied in practical objects, art, and formal rituals/activities. By understanding these aspects of social development, we can more clearly grasp what is required of those who want to build an alternative, proletarian hegemony.

A Hundred Thousand Names: 50 Reasons to Come Out as Trans

Hundred Thousand Names cover

The transgender subject may derive the following benefits from disclosing their personal identity:

  1. Living an authentic and whole life
  2. Reducing the stress of hiding
  3. Being more productive at work
  4. Developing closer, more genuine relationships with colleagues, customers, and clients
  5. Being known for who we really are
  6. Having open friendships with other transgender people
  7. Becoming a role model for others
  8. Being more true to yourself
  9. Unloading the burden
  10. Living as you want to live
  11. Meeting other likeminded people
  12. Helping other trans people
  13. Feeling at ease with yourself
  14. Breaking down stereotypes
  15. Being a positive role model
  16. Being more productive at work
  17. Live openly
  18. Be honest with yourself
  19. Be closer to friends, colleagues, clients, and customers
  20. Alleviate the stress of the closet
  21. Change the misconceptions about whole, authentic individuals who live openly and are positive role models breaking down stereotypes about other trans individuals.
  22. Change your relationships
  23. Change your relatives
  24. Change permanently, full with friends becoming people
  25. Innate gradually alleviating community life

  26. Change an individual’s mind through a personal, whole, authentic, stress-free relationship that allows you to live at ease while feeling better and more confident in personal relationships with clients at work
  27. Get more attention from your parents
  28. Coming with old friends
  29. Others living closer
  30. Educating stress in individuals
  31. Develop able individuals with colleagues
  32. Possible of benefits openly in ways
  33. Simply meeting, hiding, sparkling
  34. Looking people in the eye with confidence
  35. Being a fetish category on the internet being open and whole about it.
  36. Unloading authentic fetish porn about people who live just like you
  37. Associate with clients at your place of work with confidence
  38. Show up to work on time without stress
  39. Befriend people who have whole lives
  40. Living and feeling more common
  41. Building changed populations after gender identities
  42. Liberal friends can feel better about their country
  43. Boss can feel better about his company
  44. Befriend other people who live the way you want to live
  45. It’s too difficult to hide any longer
  46. Spend the majority of your waking life as a whole person
  47. Timely living in the unbounded process of waking life
  48. Your health problems will be the health problems of a whole and authentic person building self-esteem in their waking life
  49. Unbounded euphoria, awakening
  50. Becoming an honest community closet model

Consider all applicable risks to your health, security, employment, self-respect, friendships, reputation, lifespan, pets, avatars, deities, and fragile egos before coming out.

This list brought to you, with some of my personal, authentic editorial changes, by:

Human Rights Campaign Visibility Guide

Human Rights Campaign Guide to Coming Out in the Workplace as Trans

Case Western University

LGBT Youth Scotland

In a hostile terrain, let’s just say a land where transmisogyny is custom and in many cases law, trans women/we are by default subterranean creatures. Our absence is presumed. When we make ourselves visible, or are made visible, we are swept into little niches where capitalism can process and rationalize our “irregularity.” If we remember that capitalism is a system  This happens both to us as a complex mass as well as to individuals. In one breath we can all be dismissed as irrational, perverse, unholy, unfit, having the worst qualities of “both” genders. But so many of us, doubly and triply for racialized women, are also an exotic menu item on porn sites, our bodies broken down and itemized for easy consumption. It seems like our visibility is at its most understandable to capitalism in those spaces, all of our autonomous bodies subordinate to the feast of flesh and gold.

Of course, our visibility––we give out awards for that!––is valuable for us. When we flash our true colours, we signal to comrades and friends. But, like sticking your head above a trench line, we make ourselves a target for enemies, busybodies, and just plain assholes. If all of us came out at the same time, given the same world we live in now, would we fulfill the liberal dream? Would we be able transcend the law that tsk-tsks Stay Quiet and with the next breath asks to See What’s Under Your Dress? Like all dreams, that one is bound to evaporate. Even the very existence of trans people, of trans women, is a historical process native to a particular space. Gender nonconformity expresses itself under a hundred thousand names across the world, many of them crushed under the heels of imperialist distortions. Coming out is not a cure-all, or even possible or appropriate for everyone, and the mantras about authenticity, role models, and fixing our relatives and friends should be replaced with commitments to destroying the basis of our oppression.

No matter how visible or “well-represented” we might be, it will always be in the context of a burning world until we overthrow it and build another one.

The Peanuts Movie: Not a Review


My maturation process was different from most people’s. From my teens on, I always thought of my past selves as ungainly skins to be molted off at the earliest convenience. Nostalgia was anathema to me, and I openly derided my past tastes. Thrown into university with a brittle psyche and depressive, even nihilistic, tendencies, I would complain at length to my friends about all the insecure students trying to reconnect with their childhoods when adulthood was beckoning. It’s not that I exorcised all my passions and tastes from earlier; I just had a hypercritical attitude about myself and, by extension, anything I liked.

Peanuts, though, was bone marrow, a phantom limb. My first love was the television specials, but I quickly devoured the 60s and 70s comics Schulz and Melendez mortared together to make those specials. Being raised in the Midwest as a depressive, hyper-articulate, wannabe adult, Schulz’s spare, efficient commercial line art and heavily psychologized characters were irresistible. So while Schulz’s capitalist acumen and  aptitude for self-promotion and unholy dedication were what made it famous, what fused Peanuts to my brain was its portrait of a hopeless world where people just took comfort in their own flaws.

And that’s why this is not a review of the Peanuts movie. The quality of any given ancillary Peanuts product is meaningless. In fact, all it has to do to have me enraptured is to preserve the tone. The tone that has me coming back to Wes Anderson’s movies long after I acknowledge they are rather inconsequential––so why do I cry for so many of them?––is the gentle bleakness of the polite, decaying Midwest. I don’t cry for the Peanuts movie because it’s not appropriately cruel. Too many softening touches, too much Hollywood glitz. It’s not that the creators don’t understand the characters, but that they recognize they have to limit the audiences exposure to them, like a heavy element somewhere in the low hundreds on the periodic table. Peanuts is all about being sad, privileged, conceited, and shattered all at the same time. It’s about having a comfortable enough life that you can take shelter even in your own worst flaws. Characters come together and form an unbroken chain of schadenfreude. Of course, that’s not all of it. It’s much gentler than that in practice, even if its character roster is populated by insecure whiners and overconfidence artists.

We could talk about how comic strips in general make their characters run on little hamster wheels, trapped in formula as surely as they’re bound in rectangular panels. Comparisons to Sisyphus and existentialism arise, but at the same time, in the logic of the strip (ignoring the deified hand of the author) Charlie Brown is not forced to run his kite into the kite-eating tree. He does it because he’s an all-American do-gooder who won’t give up though the plants themselves thwart him. He never seriously considers never kicking the football again. And contrary to Camus’s famous pronouncement about Sisyphus, no one can imagine Charlie Brown happy.

The Peanuts Movie is the most credible attempt I’ve yet seen to turn Peanuts into a conventional feature film. It succeeds well enough to make itself anonymous. Simultaneously, it’s hard to forget what happens in the film because most of it has happened before, in other movies or comics or specials.

Maybe someday I’ll get over Peanuts. I’ll probably have to want that to happen before I do, though.


Rob Steven: Japan’s New Imperialism

Screenshot 2016-08-07 22.13.49.png

Structure of this post:


Japan’s New Imperialism was published in 1990, about 26 years ago, and largely reflects research done in the few years immediately prior to that. That makes it about 30 years old. Books about the Japanese economy before the collapse of the Bubble and the beginning of the long deflationary spiral that followed are of course limited in value. Even so, I picked up Steven’s book because I need to trace the historical development of Japanese capitalism and its international entanglements. It’s one of the few Marxist account of the growth of Japanese capital exports to the Asian mainland, and I appreciated it on that level despite some criticisms I’ll lay out further down in the review.

It should also be noted that the focus of the book is not on Japanese imperialism as a whole but rather, as Steven writes, “focused almost entirely on foreign investment and joint ventures.”¹ So while it mentions other mechanisms and institutions of imperialism, like unequal exchange and interstate relations, these are secondary to its focus on firm-level relationships. It tries to explicate the Japanese ruling class’ overall strategy to extricate itself from a particular crisis with a turn to exporting manufacturing capacity to Asia, and that is the narrative forming the backbone of the book. Those looking for more insight into other questions will find them relegated to an auxiliary role here.

Theoretical Questions:

Steven starts his introduction by demarcating his position in Marxist studies of imperialism. He sees two major conflicting camps: the world-systems thinkers––he groups Wallerstein and Amin in this group, among others––and more traditional mode of production thinkers (Szymanski being an example). He identifies himself with the latter group, seeing imperialism as “the attempt of a ruling class to solve conflicts with its own working class by moving abroad to exploit foreign workers.”² He decries world system theorists as economist for collapsing the entire capitalist world into the realm of commodity exchange. They are mistaken, he argues, in seeing imperialism as a function of a global system-wide logic rather than a mostly uncoordinated agglomeration of different ruling class schemes to deal with their own domestic issues.

The merit of Steven’s approach is that it appreciates the continued bedrock importance of individual states in the regulation and coordination of international capital and his point about each ruling class seeking to deal with labour issues by exporting capital is well taken. He rightly argues that the world is not one integrated mode of production differentiated geographically into a centre and a periphery. He argues that unequal exchange is a real phenomenon, but denies that it has any pivotal role to play in a system of imperialism that prefers the mechanisms of foreign direct investment.

My problem with this position is that he seems to reject the idea of a global capitalist system simply because he perceives that the dominant form of that theory is economist. And yet Samir Amin, one of those he accuses of having this viewpoint, does not reject the importance of individual states or of their domestic class struggles, but rather sees them as key parts of a system that nevertheless has a global logic and scope. If we are to believe that the relations between states are fundamentally only/mostly the product of each of their internal problems, it relegates the whole ensemble of interstate relations to a kind of anarchy (and not a good kind) where chains of alliances or blocs of states are only ever conjunctural and never constitutive of any systemic logic that supersedes their own internal issues.

I don’t believe that Steven’s approach to the problem is entirely wrong, of course, and he even concedes the increasing importance of unequal exchange and the persistence of imperialist rents on raw materials. But he also fails to recognize that the “world capitalist system,” while still not being one single mode of production, can and does emerge from the forces that originate in particular countries. Many countries both produce and obey the logic of a global system, which is not reducible to its components, much like other social units. We don’t need to say that there is a single undifferentiated mode of production on the planet to claim that world capitalism is governed to some extent by a structure that supersedes individual states, that accumulation and imperialism compel nation-states to act in certain ways that can be systematized the same way (but not with identical results) that capitalist relations on a national level are.

Empirical Case Studies:

The core of the book, however, is not concerned with these theoretical issues, as much as I find them fascinating. The bulk of Japan’s New Imperialism is taken up by a discussion of the endaka fukyō (円高不況)or high-yen crisis of the mid and late 1980s. This crisis was caused by the appreciation of the yen against the US dollar and other currencies, which undermined Japanese capital’s ability to suppress their own working class’ wages and keep production facilities in domestic territory. As a solution, the Japanese ruling class stepped up their export of manufacturing capital to the country’s regional periphery, especially South Korea and Southeast Asian countries. The crisis posed a set of problems that required the capitalists to find a quick solution. As the book shows, this solution was largely to reproduce the conditions of the Japanese working class abroad, thus using a “spatial fix” to continue growing accumulation. It does not really solve the problem but merely expands the scope of the original cause of the crisis.

In each of the case studies that follow a description of the high yen crisis and its context amidst the peculiar shape of capitalist relations in Japan (paternalism, strong full-time labour aristocracy, reliance on countless exploitable subcontracted workers and women temps, authoritarian education system, bureaucratic/corporate control of the state), Steven plumbs a huge amount of data to show how each case fits the pattern. Japanese capital needed to discipline its workers at home and therefore hollowed out manufacturing capacity in the centre, exporting its lower-tech operations to the peripheries, which built components for higher-level assembly work still done in Japan. It was far cheaper to exploit low-cost workers in Southeast Asia or the Mexican maquiladoras to produce car parts and then import those parts from one branch of a company to another.

But while this “industrialized” the regional peripheral countries, Japan was able to hold onto a monopoly of technology, exporting capacity but using favourable trade agreements, debt, and aid to control the terms of the transfer. What Steven does not do is show that there is a transfer of value from one country to another, instead focusing on how Japanese capitalists extract value from foreign workers and use them as a bludgeon to divide the working class at home and create “labour flexibility,” i.e. unemployment.

Still, all of these case studies are data-rich and worth reading, since they are not simply present snapshots of economic performance but are grounded in the historical and geographical specifics of each case. In his discussion of South Korea, for example, he discusses the importance of Korean nationalism and the concessions that Japanese capital had to make to the Korean state and nationalistic businesses in the country in order to do business. Or the opposite case in the comprador city-state of Singapore, where Japanese capital has been invited in to set up a regional clearing house for the realization of capital.

Whatever problems I have at the level of theory, and the inevitable issues with readability that accompany the sheer density of facts and figures here (at least supplemented with good graphs and charts), the book is a sturdy addition to anyone’s study of how Japanese imperialism changed and expanded at the end of the 1980s.


1. Rob Steven, Japan’s New Imperialism (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe 1990), 4.

2. Ibid, 3.

Announcement: Health-Related Delay on Hundred Thousand Names

I was planning on finishing up and publishing a new entry in A Hundred Thousand Names, but I am unable to because of anxiety-related health issues and a lack of sleep. I’m trying to stay as health as possible. My apologies.

This will delay the book review by one day as well as the article, so A Hundred Thousand Names no. 2 will come out tomorrow and the book review on Monday (maybe Tuesday if I don’t recover quickly).

Jonathan Clements: Anime: A History


This dense republication of the author’s doctoral thesis is significant largely because it is the only broad history of the anime industry available in English. Most of the academic studies of anime have heretofore been focused on the thematic analysis of individual works. From reading some of the few available books on anime and a smattering of journal articles, I can safely conclude that the field of anime studies suffers from some endemic ills. Though it’s not difficult to understand why so many people who study anime are also fans, having a fannish attitude toward the object you’re studying can be a source of critical errors and omissions. Luckily, Anime: A History avoids this error, though one consequence is that its prose is enervating, reference-dense, and ponderous.

Clements draws largely on industry professionals’ memoirs, official studio and media archives, and economic records for his sources. Significantly, most of these sources are only available in Japanese, so Clements’ summarization and appropriation of these documents has the additional value of giving English readers a first glimpse at them. Neither would I fault the book in terms of its level of detail, which is not only additive but also intelligently used to provide multiple perspectives on a single event. Though it does produce a level of “he said, she said,” this is inevitable where the past is obscure and the memories recording them often self-serving or simply addled.

Broadly, the book describes the history of Japanese animation (defined as Japanese largely by the nationality of its producers and the location of the labour used to produce it) as a technological movement from magic lanterns to cel-shaded digital animation. From that technological basis, he branches outward to discuss the transformation of animation from artisanal industry to a complex of brand tie-ins and the so-called “media ecosystem” or “media mix” that now dominates production and dissemination of animation from Japan. Though he doesn’t explicitly state that technology is the single most important driver of change in the animation industry, deferring to a more “complex” and discourse-focused style familiar to his post-modern historiographical touchstones like Hayden White, his narrative is largely organized around documenting major shifts in technology at all levels of commodity circulation and production. Cels, rotoscopes, film projectors television, VHS, DVD, cable television, and file sharing software produce the ripples that transform the industry, while the human beings within the industry use and react to these developments.

Clements also spends a great deal of time talking about the economic life of animation in Japan, including a great deal of specific data about foreign distribution deals, break-even sales figures for video releases, box office figures, and the like. At the same time, its treatment of the labour of animation and how it’s integrated into a system of capital accumulation remains under-theorized, left at the level of empirical observations. The anime industry is treated more often as the centre of particular discourses or memories than as a system with any coherent shape. Perhaps given the overwhelming scope of his project––covering more than a century of artistic/commodity production with a huge array of sources––we shouldn’t be surprised that the book often seems shapeless, more of an arrangement of events and rumination on sources than a theoretically coherent account of a defined subject. Because anime is the purported focus, rather than the anime industry, Clements’ analyses of animated objects, industry figures, economic realities like mass subcontracting to China and Korea, the aura of “cool” around anime among fans in the West, etc. are put next to each other but never connected in a systematic way.

In other words, I learned a great deal about the who and what of the history of animation in Japan and its development but not the why. I mentioned earlier that Clements usually centres changes in the forces of production––computers being an important later example––in his account, but this is far from consistent, and it’s always difficult to tell with any clarity whether Clements think that Great Men, forces of production, relations of property and ownership, fan whims, or larger political and economic developments drive activity within the anime industry. I would, in fact, argue that Clements’ book implies that it is all of these things, but at different times, with each singular case treated as an isolated case rather than the symptom of a structured whole––even a complex one. This gives Anime: A History a kind of unrewarding density. Rather than considering anime from one strong perspective, it tries to create a composite but without any systematization.

Stated more polemically, I think those who want to take Clements’ nevertheless considerable achievement and advance the field should approach his sources with the strength and totalizing power of a Marxist perspective. Being able to take these disparate accounts, take note of all the forces in play, and produce an overall picture that integrates singular events into an overall view of both the anime industry and the industry’s place in a wider world. Anime: A History is at this point the only book of its kind, and will hopefully act as a springboard for better-theorized and more systematic accounts of anime.