Sunset, Tacos, and the Film Subjects: Production Notes of A New Film “Talking Back: Theater for Breaking the Silence” (Tentative Title)

Kaori Sakagami

(Documentary Film Director)

             Stories move from the shadows to the limelight. And though the stage too often presents
                    the drama of our powerlessness, the shadows offer the secret of our power.
                                                                                                         Rebecca Solnit, writer (1)

“Talking Back: Theater for Breaking the Silence” (tentative title), a documentary film in progress, is about “The Medea Project: Theater for Incarnated Women (henceforth the Medea),” a group performance intervention to empower women on margins, which started in the San Francisco County Jail with the support from an artistic organization, the Cultural Odyssey. I have been working on the film project approximately for eight years since 2006, and it is to be completed this fall. In this episode of the series, “Production Notes of A New Film “Talking Back,”* I will write about my recent visit to San Francisco to hold work-in-progress screenings (including one for my film subjects) as well as how I developed my relations with the Medea especially at its transitional period – shifting its target from the incarcerated to the women with HIV/AIDS. 

(* This episode is the fifth one in the series by Kaori Sakagami)

A few minutes past 6 P.M. on August 10, 2013, I was standing in front of an apartment of Cassandra, who has been an active member of the Medea, all women’s theater company in San Francisco. I was going to hold a work-in-progress screening in her room.

I had had similar screenings in Japan between June and July and in U.S. from the end of July, three times for each part, but it was the first time to expose it to the subjects of my film and it got me very anxious.

I rang the bell of the familiar apartment, feeling a bit uptight. The door was suddenly opened, and Cassandra with red-dyed hair in a tank top appeared with a big smile on her face. She threw her arms over me and hugged me tightly, saying in a husky voice “Kory, I’ve been waiting for you!”.

I saw her about a half-year ago, but I felt like I had seen her more often. Because we communicate with each other often through Facebook and e-mail, I did not feel the distance from each other -- Japan and the U.S. I even knew that she had been camping out with her friends till the previous day. I also learned that her live-in-six-year-old granddaughter, “V” begged Cassandra to let her stay longer and “V” ended up remaining there with her friend’s family. The source of information was Facebook.

Cassandra is an African American woman who is HIV positive. In her late 50s, recovering from drug addiction with a long history of substance abuse since her teens, she had been in and out of jails and prisons for countless charges including illegal drug possessions, thefts, home-invasions, and forgeries. She was diagnosed of HIV in jail in the mid-1980s, but she had not revealed her status to anybody else except her own mother and sister until recently. However, they did not receive well and it discouraged her to do further disclosure. For instance, her sister treated her badly by banning contact with her children and giving Cassandra disposable paper dishes and utensils. Cassandra told herself “Since my own blood relative act like that, imagine how others would react! I would never, ever, disclose to anybody!”

It was around 2008 when Cassandra started getting involved in the Medea, based in San Francisco County Jail and marking 20 years from its inception, but it left the jail for various reasons. In the meantime, it has just started a new program, collaboration between hospital and theater, initiated by an inquiry to Rhodessa Jones, the founder and the chair of the Medea, from Dr. Edward Machtinger, who is an HIV/AIDS specialist and the director of the Women’s HIV Program at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF-WHP). He had an interest in the Medea from the perspective of promoting wellness of his patients (not only for the absence of disease or infirmity but also for physical, mental and social well-being). He wondered whether or not the approach could be applicable to HIV/AIDS-positive women. Cassandra, a patient at (UCSF-WHP), was invited by Dr. Machtinger to participate in the collaborative program with the Medea.

In the early summer of 2008, when the Medea shifted its direction -- the focus of the program shifted from incarcerated women to women with HIV/AIDS, I finally received o.k. from Rhodessa to start shooting for a film. Two years had passed since my initial contact with her.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, I asked Rhodessa a permission for participatory-observation in early 2006, and by the summer, I was given an opportunity to attend a women’s jail in San Francisco as an “artist-in-residence” and my task was to help document their activities. I had expressed my will to make my own documentary film to Rhodessa from the very beginning but she had been reluctant to respond me but instead, she kept saying “Let’s see how it goes”. Over the course of next two years, I visited San Francisco every few months for a brief period and tried to build a relationship with Rhodessa and the core members of the Medea. I did all that because I was determined to make the film.

Even early on, Rhodessa mentioned that the Medea might step out of jail in any minute. Though the system of Corrections in San Francisco was considered as one of the most progressive ones in U.S., it was obvious that they could no longer escape from the tide of punitive criminal policies especially after the mid-2000s, and more regulations and less funding put the Medea, which advocates “the personal is political”, in a difficult spot.

Between 2007 and 2008, I was told that the Medea was no longer working in the jail and starting a new program with UCSF-WHP. But, during the initial year of the program, I was not allowed to contact any participants who were HIV positive including Cassandra, neither given chance to learn about the program itself. But somehow, I believed that the Medea would go back to the original activity in jail and that I could make the film. So I kept pushing my film proposal to Rhodessa.

After a couple of years of multiple visits, meetings and constant e-mail exchanges, Rhodessa finally gave me o.k. on the film project so I immediately arranged and brought my film crew from Japan before she changes her mind. But, when we arrived there, everything was vague. Rhodessa told me that it was still not possible to shoot their activities with women with HIV/AIDS because she had so many concerns. It took time for the women to speak out about themselves, and some of them suddenly stopped coming because of the fear of being known their status of HIV/AIDS to the public. Majority did not stay and the activity itself was unstable, so she was afraid that our presence would scare them off. I found out later that at the initial stage, seventy women came to the workshops, but a few weeks later, everyone was gone except one. That was Cassandra.

I understood that was not the best moment for the Medea, so I started questioning myself why Rhodessa gave me o.k. to the film project at this particular moment when everything seemed to be uncertain. After some talks with her and her colleague, I realized that they may just have given in because of my persistent and constant requests for the film project and perhaps she did not see how this situation would affect my film. Under such circumstance, all we could do was to shoot interviews with Rhodessa and a couple of other core members as well as supplemental footage of their daily reality.

“Why don’t we call off this film project?” This frank and honest remark by my film crew made me upset. Although I talked back decisively, “I will never give up,” I felt discouraged and worried. I had no clew on how to continue this project. Not even a bit. Yet, my passion for the film project remained firm.

In another year or so, I made multiple visits--only a few days for each. I just had coffee and chatted with a couple of original members of the Medea at best, for I was not permitted even just to make contact or to observe their activities. Still, I was trying to figure out how to make the film happen.

I knew how people with HIV/AIDS would react toward a filmmaker like me because I had had done a long-term TV project on the positive people years ago. At the same time, it was true that I was worried that our film might never be made.

Meeting Cassandra for the first time was at the crucial time. It was the spring of 2009 and one year had already passed since the program started. In those days, workshops were held once or twice a week at a large warehouse in a bay area. I was finally allowed to attend the workshop. Six or seven HIV positive women along with familiar faces were there. Cassandra was one of them and I thought she was shy and polite.

In a circle of discussion called “Check-in” held at the beginning of the workshop, participants spoke honestly about everything from health concerns to personal issues with their boyfriends and family. I was moved by their courage and intensity and I could feel that they had already established trusting relationship which had taken a long time. And it took me another year or so to get to know of Cassandra and other positive women.

To be honest, even at that point, I had no idea whether the Medea’s program with the positive women itself would survive or not, but my anticipation of making the film has been enhanced by seeing the actual women, whom I had heard about for quite some time; they were actually dancing and talking in front of me. But at the same time, there were many concerns such as gaining trust from them and keeping the relationship in a distance between Japan and U.S.

From the left: Marlene, Cassandra, and Shae 
in the work-in-progress premiere
Let’s get back to the beginning about a work-in-progress screening.

I was already informed that there would be only a couple of people to come to the screening due to the last minute scheduling. Some went on a trip for summer vacation, while others had to care for their elderly parents or to attend family events. Some of those who could not attend gave me a call or email saying that they were sorry for missing the chance, and a couple of them let Cassandra know that they were coming but being late.

Cassandra took me to her favorite Mexican restaurant in her neighborhood while we were waiting for the others to arrive. Cassandra lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, a place where ethnic minorities, mainly Hispanic or Latinos, live and streets are always with full of people. Markets displayed colorful fruits and vegetables. Exotic smells and sounds are streaming out of ethnic restaurants. Cool vintage clothing stores are lined up on the streets, and colorful painted murals are found everywhere. In the midst of this lively neighborhood, you see some stores and buildings with posted signs of “Closed” or “For Rent” which keep reminding us the severe economic crisis.

Cassandra kept talking to me, walking down the busy street where people with different ethnic backgrounds come and go. She told me about her oldest daughter who had been in prison and had been released recently got pregnant while still struggling with her drug habit and old crowd. She is the mother of “V” whom Cassandra has been taking care of for years. “V” has just turned 6 years old and will start the school from this fall but still hoping to live with her own mother and getting excited about having a new sibling. We chatted on the personal matters, type of things which would never go on Facebook.

Entering the Mexican restaurant, filled with spicy aroma and citrus scent, some memories suddenly came back to me -- the 90’s when I directed a TV documentary program about a family living with HIV/AIDS in New York.

A non-profit HIV/AIDS organization introduced Layla to me, and we met at the first time at a small pizzeria in Queens where she lived. I bent an ear to Layla who shared episodes of her daily life while eating pizza with her and her two little sons at the same table. I ended up following her family for one year and captured their day-to-day reality. I learned so much from them and it has helped me face difficult situations in my real life. It certainly was my starting point in my filmmaking career and it made me realize that my attempt to make this film meant to return to origin.

When we left the pizzeria, the sky burned red. Feeling nostalgic, I could not believe that my film was nearly finished and I was walking down the street of San Francisco with my film subject who is HIV-positive, chatting and laughing.

Red sky before my eyes, steaming hot Tacos in my hand, and Cassandra next to me. All of them were actually there, but I never would have imagined them when I started getting involved in the Medea eight years ago and even when I started shooting for the film five years ago. What kind of reality awaits me after this film? What kind of encounter and discoveries would I have? I was no longer anxious but rather I felt inspired. (To be continued later in the Japanese series)

 (1) Solnit, Rebecca. Hope in the Dark. New York: Nation Books. 2004. P.174.

Thanks and Notice

We would like to thank Motion Gallery, the crowd funding site where we have achieved our goal. However, the funding for the promotion of our film still falls short. If you are interested in helping our film financially or for promotion, please make contact with us through the following website or e-mail us to outofframe@jcom.home.ne.jp.

“Talking Back” Film Project Fundraising Website:

Facebook Outofframe:

Written and translated by Kaori Sakagami (Documentary Director of “Talking Back”)
Original Article in Japanese: http://wan.or.jp/reading/?p=12100

Kaori Sakagami: independent documentary filmmaker & non-fiction writer based in Tokyo, chair of “out of frame” non-profit organization for collaborative media and art for kids and women with trauma, Visiting Associate Professor at Hitotsubashi University. She directed, produced and edited an award winning film LIFERS: REACHING FOR LIFE BEYOND THE WALLS(2004, out of frame) as well as more than a dozen of award winning TV documentary programs including MILLER ON MONSTERS, JOURNEY OF HOPE, and COMING OUT OF SHATTERED CHILDHOOD. Focused on criminal justice issues such as death penalty and habilitation of violent offenders by putting lights on alternative approaches from the perspective of trauma and recovery; namely Therapeutic Communities, Restorative Justice, collaborative Art programs, and community building approaches. Her current film project on all-women-theater TALKING BACK (tentative title) is to be released in 2014. 

Posted by Naoko Uchibori.


"Queering Friendship: Takemura Kazuko" by J. Keith Vincent

Queering Friendship:
Takemura Kazuko: Feminism and Queer Theory in a Global Context
J. Keith Vincent
Boston University
(A Talk Presented at “Sex, Gender, and Society: Rethinking Japanese Feminism”, Emory University, April 20, 2013)

Takemura Kazuko was a key figure at the intersection of feminist and queer thought in Japan from the 1990s until her death in 2011, at the age of 57. She was well known as a queer feminist scholar of English and American literature, and for her translations of work by Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, Trinh T. Minh  Ha, and Slavoj Zizek. She was also an old friend of mine since the mid 1990s when she and I both became involved in thinking about issues of gender and sexuality in Japanese scholarship and activism. The last time I spoke to Kazuko was in March of 2010, when my partner Anthony and I had dinner with her near her home in Tokyo.  We talked about her coming to Boston to spend some time with us in Provincetown on Cape Cod, but sadly she had to cancel because of illness.  I only later learned how ill she was at this time, and that she had a heroic team of women friends and colleagues who called themselves “Team K” who supported her in the last days of her illness.

When I proposed this paper for this conference I was especially happy to be accepted because I knew it would give me the opportunity to sit down and read more of Takemura-san’s work.  Although I knew Kazuko for quite some time (almost 20 years!), and have marveled at the elegance and accuracy of her translations of Butler and others, I had not actually read much of her own work, which focussed on 19th and 20th century American and British writers including Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Louisa May Alcott, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, as well as Hollywood film. We often joked about the fact that she spent her time studying my country and I spent mine studying hers.  But somehow this difference in our fields did not seem to matter all that much, since we shared an interest in and commitment to feminism and queer theory. And yet now I find myself regretting not reading more of her work while she was alive.  I also find myself asking why I didn’t. I had no good reason not to read it since I do make it a point to read work about English and American literature that has to do with gender and sexuality.  I suppose I thought if I was going to take the trouble to read something in Japanese, it would make sense for it to be about Japan.  

I am quite embarrassed actually to admit this, but I’m afraid it was just such a calculation that was keeping me from learning more about Kazuko’s work. As someone who writes about Japanese literature in English, I really should know better.  I ought to know that if this policy were applied in the other direction I could never expect a Japanese person to take an interest in my own work. Why read what this American white guy has to say about Japanese literature when you can go directly to the source?  This sort of attitude is not at all uncommon in Japan and in the US for that matter, and it is one that I am always eager to denounce as narrow minded and essentialist.  And yet, with regard to Kazuko’s work, I was clearly not practicing what I was preaching.

So I am doubly grateful, as I said, to have been accepted to speak at this conference, for the chance it has given me to go back and read more of Kazuko’s work.  In doing so, it has been a real thrill to re-acquaint myself with, and in many cases to learn about for the first time, aspects of the history of feminism and queer theory in the United States, through Kazuko’s eyes.  Thanks to her 2012 book Bungakuryoku no chōsen I now know, for example, that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women can be read as a queer text. I also learned that Kate Millet’s classic 1970 work of feminist literary criticism Sexual Politics ends with a chapter in which she writes approvingly of the gender politics of Jean Genet, and that Millet’s analysis of homophobia and misogyny in D.H. Lawrence presages the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick 15 years later in Between Men *1 . In a brilliant chapter on American anti-intellectualism, Takemura draws on Richard Hofstadter’s classic book on the subject going back to the 19th century “Know Nothing Party” to contextualize the awarding of the “Bad Writing Prize” to Judith Butler by the Johns Hopkins-based journal Philosophy and History in 1998.  As Kazuko points out in that chapter, there were plenty of poststructuralist theorists whose prose was more difficult than Butler’s, and plenty of other winners of the award whose selection failed to bring any notice from the mass media.  But these two facts together suggest that what was at issue was not so much the fabled “difficulty” of Butler’s prose but the challenge it posed to fiercely guarded “common sense” notions about gender and sexual norms that were themselves rooted in deep currents of good-old American anti-intellectualism.

For Kazuko herself, of course, Butler’s prose was not difficult, but a “thrilling” and clear articulation of ideas that she herself had been groping towards as a way to fight against the violence and injustice of misogynist and heteronormative ideology in Japan *2 . Gender Trouble, she wrote in her translator’s afterword, spoke "directly, unerringly, and penetratingly of our reality [emphasis mine]" *3. She encouraged her Japanese readers not to be discouraged by the difficulty of Butler’s language, to read her work slowly and to savor it, "yukkuri, jikkuri."

All this talk about Judith Butler might have you wondering whether this talk will be about Japanese feminism. “Japanese feminism” is, after all, the theme of this conference. I might well respond, “But I am talking about Japanese feminism!  Just because Takemura-san translated Judith Butler and worked on English and American literature doesn’t make her any less of a ‘Japanese feminist.’  By that logic, few of us here could be ‘American feminists’ and I could not count myself as an ‘American queer theorist’ as  long as I continue to work in the field of Japanese literature.”

I could respond that way. But I won’t. Instead I would like to take this question quite seriously, because I know that Takemura-san did.  The question I am referring to is: “What does it mean to be a Japanese feminist working on American and British literature?” There is also a group of other, similar questions that cluster around this one, and that are, I think, extremely relevant to all of us in this room.  What does it mean to do queer or feminist work with a focus on another culture beside your “own?”  What are the institutional politics that subtend our ability to study Japanese feminism in the United States or Takemura-san’s to study American feminism in Japan? In order to start to answer this question I would like to say a little bit more about how I met Kazuko and then close with a reading of another essay of hers, the final chapter in the 2012 book that I just mentioned, that addresses this question head-on.

In the mid 1990s I was in Tokyo supposedly doing research for my dissertation, but actually spending most of my time working with a group called “OCCUR: The Japan Association for the Lesbian and Gay Movement.” (アカー:動くゲイとレズビアンの会)  OCCUR was involved on a number of fronts in the struggle for the rights and recognition of sexual minorities in Japan.  They were the plaintiffs in the first-ever legal case involving gay rights in Japan, in which they sued the Tokyo Metropolitan Government for excluding homosexuals from its youth hostels. They were working both at the community level and with the Ministry of Health in HIV prevention and treatment issues. They were the Asian representative in the International Lesbian and Gay Association. They provided anonymous telephone counseling for gays and lesbians, and even queer-friendly English conversation classes.

But OCCUR’s work did not stop with its activism. This was the 1990s--the early, heady days of queer theory coming out of the U.S., and my friends in OCCUR were eager for more theoretical tools with which to strategize, to better understand and theorize the structure of Japanese heteronormative society. To that end, for several years we had a monthly seminar called the “Identity Research Group,”(アイデンティティ研究会)--eventually, affectionately abbreviated as the “ID-ken”--in which we read and discussed work in feminism and the emerging field of queer theory, including that of Monique Wittig, Luce Irigaray, Gayle Rubin, Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, Leo Bersani, D.A. Miller, Lee Edelman, and others.  Most of this work remained untranslated at the time, and it was often my job, with the help of those members of OCCUR who were also able to read the texts in English, to attempt to convey the arguments in Japanese.  This, as you might imagine, was not the easiest thing to do, and so we were very eager to have help from scholars—and also to  have proper translations into Japanese.

It was in this context that I first met Takemura Kazuko. I think it was in 1995 or 1996. I can’t remember the exact occasion of our first meeting, but I do remember very clearly a trip to her apartment near Tsukuba University, where she was teaching English and American literature.  I went with several other OCCUR members including Kawaguchi Kazuya(河口和也) and Niimi Hiroshi(新美広)--all gay men, and we spent the day eating pizza on the floor, smoking innumerable cigarettes, and talking for hours about how to make queer theory matter in Japan and in Japanese. This was a serious issue for us because queer theory was just starting to become a sort of fad in academic publishing in Japan, and this was happening in almost complete isolation from the activist community and even from the queer community.  Kazuko, who was teaching at Tsukuba University at the time, was one of the only academics in Japan who was not only conversant with queer theory and its feminist roots, but saw it, like my friends in OCCUR and I did, as a sort of life line--a mode of resistance and a form of cultural activism. So we were thrilled to have her come to our kenkyukai from time to time and eventually to get her help as we began to publish our own translations of queer theory into Japanese *4. She was already an accomplished translator, having just published a translation of Trinh T Minh-Ha’s Women, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism in 1995. In 1999 she published her flawless translation of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and would go on to bring out many more important translations, including Butler’s Antigone’s Claim in 2002, Excitable Speech in 2004, and Butler and Gayatri Spivak’s Who Sings the Nation State? in 2008.

But Takemura-san was not only a gifted translator. Actually, let me rephrase that. Takemura-san was a gifted translator, and for her, I think, translation of U.S. feminist and queer theory was very much part of a larger project--namely the fight against misogyny and heteronormativity within Japan. Her work as a translator was perhaps not unlike Yamakawa Kikue’s translation of the work of Edward Carpenter that Sarah Frederick will be speaking about on this panel; it was a natural outgrowth of her work as a feminist and a integral part of her scholarship. Takemura-san was, I think it is fair to say, one of, if not the most important figure in the founding of sexuality studies in Japan.  When I met her in 1995 she was also in the midst of publishing a ground-breaking six part essay on “The Possibility of Lesbian Studies” in the journal Eigo Seinen, despite well meaning advice from other academics that to write about such things was “vulgar.” [品位を落とす]*5.  And she would go on to publish much more brilliant work right up until, and indeed even after her tragic death on December 13, 2011. She seems to have had three additional books “in her drawer” at the time of her death.

I would like to discuss just one piece of that work in the time remaining to me today. Takemura-san’s 2012 book The Challenge of the Literary: Family, Desire, Terrorism [Bungakuryoku no chōsen: famirii, yokubō, terorizumu is an extraordinary work about which there is much to say, but I would like here to focus in on the final chapter, titled “Renaissance of a Discipline? On Researching Anglophone Literature in Japan Today.”  In this chapter, Takemura-san directly addresses the question “What does it mean to study literature written in English while living in Japan?  And what does it mean to do this as a feminist?” As I mentioned earlier, this is something that we, feminist scholars of Japanese literature writing in the US could stand to think about as well, and I think Takemura-san’s approach is really exemplary.

If Japanese studies in the US has as its “original sin” its Cold War origins in Area Studies, English literature in Japan has its own checkered past *6. It emerged in the early 20th century, as part of a woefully uncritical identification with Britain and British imperial culture, even as Japan was in the process of becoming an Empire itself. The postwar period, moreover, saw the emergence in Japan of an American Studies with a similarly problematic origin.  In her essay, Takemura points out the interesting fact that the institutional structure for the study of both British literature in the early 20th century and American literature in the postwar period did not follow, but was at least co-eval with, or even prior to the institutionalization of these disciplines in Britain and the United States. Thus Tokyo University had a program in English literature starting in the 1890s (famously taught first by Lafcadio Hearn, then by Natsume Sōseki, and later by Yone Noguchi), while Oxford only started teaching it in 1894 and Cambridge not till 1911. Similarly, the Japanese American Studies Association was founded in 1946, five years earlier than anything like it would exist in the United States. In pointing this out, Takemura is not making a claim for Japan’s admirable precocity. Far from it. For her, what is readable in this historical chronology is a powerful mimetic desire on “Japan’s” part towards these dominant Western powers--a desire to get closer to them, to “befriend” Britain and America, and in embracing that friendship---a kind of male homosocial friendship, in fact--to avoid having to think about its own subject position either as pseudo-colonial subject or as an imperial subject in its own right.

“What has prevailed then,” write Masao Miyoshi in an essay about the history of English literature in Japan,

is the ongoing doctrine of equivalence, which, by emphasizing identification minimizes the significance of difference. The problems of English literature as they are faced in England are transplanted to become the problems of the Japanese study of English literature. There is nearly total indifference to the Japanese context in which such such naturalization of alien perspectives must continually occur *7

Miyoshi does not mince words in this essay. He talks about the “intellectual vacuity,” of English literature in Japan, about its tendency to “merely celebrate in reverence,” and at one point he describes how, “The journal Eigo Seinen (literally, English-language Youths, translated as The Rising Generation) was launched in 1898 to serve—despite its ghastly title—as the central organizing paper of the English establishment of Japan to this day” *8. As is often the case with Miyoshi, his critique here is spot on--but somewhat vitiated by his own desire to establish himself as the one who knows better.

It was in this same journal, Eigo Seinen, despite its “ghastly title” and its complicity with Japanese and British Imperialism, in which Takemura-san published her six-part essay on lesbian studies I mentioned earlier. Unlike Miyoshi, who left Japan soon after the war and whose professional identity was very much tied up in that departure, Takemura-san stayed in Japan and did work within English and American studies there. And while she was certainly in agreement in many ways with Miyoshi’s critique (and indeed quotes quite liberally from it and from other recent books in Japanese making similar arguments) she is less interested in this kind of “unveiling” of the ideological foundations of her own discipline and its complicity with imperialism, than in working to articulate and theorize her own particular position as a Japanese feminist working in this field *9 .

This is a question, she writes, that she only began to think seriously about in the early 2000s. She mentions three incidents in her life which provoked;this serious thinking. The first incident occurred during a panel that she moderated at a conference in 2003 of the Tokyo branch of the American Literature Association. The topic was:  “The “Chaos and Violence of the Post-Family Era: Feminist Readings of American Literature in Late 2003.”  The papers were wonderful, and the panel was a great success.  But during the question and answer period, “a certain sociologist” in the audience (Ueno Chizuko tells me it was she) asked the following question:

“What does it mean to have this kind of discussion of American literature in Japan, in Japanese, in front of a Japanese audience?” *10

Takemura-san writes that her first reaction was to think that in this post-post structuralist age such a question was at best naive and at worst unnecessarily provocative. I imagine that she felt a lot like I did when, at the Association of Japanese Literary Studies conference at Rutgers University a few years ago--on panel for which Takemura-san was supposed to be the discussant had illness not prevented her from coming-- I gave a paper on Eve Sedgwick and Soseki, only to be asked, “What possible relevance can Eve Sedgwick have to Japanese literature?  She writes about British literature doesn’t she?”

Well, Takemura-san responded to this sociologist’s question in the same spirit that I am afraid I did to that question at the AJLS, although no doubt much more elegantly.  In the book, she reproduces her own response—I think intentionally— as a kind of parody of rootless and ludic postmodern theory. Marshaling the heaviest of theoretical guns — quoting Derrida and Homi Bhaba, and reader response theory, she launches in:

As readings multiply and we move further and further away from the original, the text only becomes richer, reproducing itself in ever more productive ways, as these manifold readings circle back into the text, enabling the production of new texts.  Therefore there is absolutely nothing unproductive about discussing American literature in Japan, in Japanese, to an audience made up exclusively of Japanese people. *11

While she felt good about this answer at the time, Takemura-san writes that she became increasingly dissatisfied with it.  She began to ask herself more critical questions about her own status as a Japanese scholar of Anglophone literature.  This did not mean, she insists, that she came to think that American and British literature should only be discussed by Americans and Brits, but rather that she began to take seriously what she at first thought was a naive (or just an annoying) question:  What does it mean to read Anglophone literature in Japan? What does it mean to do that as a feminist?

The second factor that got her to start thinking differently about her identity as a scholar of Japanese literature was her attendance at a number of international conferences in Asia in the early 2000s, where she began to meet other Asian scholars working on Anglophone literature.  For the first time, she found herself discussing American and British literature with other scholars whose native language was not English and who came from countries that each had their own local institutions devoted to the study of “English” and “American” literature.  She describes the collective impact of these encounters as constituting something like a “body blow” to her own self-understanding.  As a result of this “body blow,” she describes, “a dawning awareness that even as English literature existed in each country as an institutionalized system, something was deviating from these institutions, something was wriggling up and crawling out from in between them.  What sort of professional identity, then, should I have in such a context?” *12 The verb that Takemura-san uses here and that I have translated as “wriggling up” is “ugomeku,” — not a very appealing term, and quite a frightening-looking kanji (蠢く), one that brings to mind a nest of worms or maggots all squirming in different directions.  This is not, then, exactly a vision of pan-Asian solidarity (Takemura-san was, I think, quite free of such sentimentalism) as much as a metaphor for a truly, even disturbingly diverse set of reading practices. If English literature as an institution in these Asian countries could be said to be part of the apparatus of a sort of post-colonial cultural imperialism, organized in order to bring the subaltern into closer, more intimate contact with the metropole (as we saw Miyoshi noting earlier),  it was also true that countless acts of actually reading literature, and reading it closely, were producing a different sort of energy—less an organized collectivity with a single purpose (such as coming closer to England and America) but a kind of swarm of difference.  “The third reason,” she writes,

is even more individual, more about myself.  I started to write about sexuality in the early 1990s.  Or rather, I first became able to write about sexuality at that time. But I began to wonder about the connection between my being a scholar of Anglophone literature  and my writing on sexuality. What does it mean for me to be a scholar of English literature? What is it that underwrites my professional identity as such? *13

Having listed these three factors that she says caused her to reevaluate her own professional identity as a scholar of English literature, Takemura recalls the one figure in the history of English literature in Japan who thought about this most carefully, who remained outside of its blind adoration of England and “doctrine of equivalence” and struggled to find a different relation to it. For Takemura (and for Miyoshi as well) this figure is Natsume Soseki, who, as is well known, studied in England for the first two years of the last century--and who seems to have hated every minute of it.

As Miyoshi puts it,  “Soseki had no one to talk to and was desperately lonely. He persisted nevertheless in pondering what literary studies meant and, what was more important for him, what it could mean for a Japanese to study English literature. He read, wrote, and collected books in nearly total isolation until he had a severe nervous breakdown” *14. Soseki, like Takemura-san, persisted in questioning his own positionality, and yet “The critical issues Soseki confronted were never vigorously discussed [by those who succeeded him], but rather were deliberately avoided, and the institutionalization of English literature continued on” *15 .

Takemura-san does a lot with the contrast which I hope you have begun to notice creeping into my talk today, between “friendship” and “loneliness.” On the one hand, there is the institution of British or American literature in Japan, whose goal is to bring two nation states, two Empires into a relation of “friendship.”  By being good boys and studying hard, by looking up every word in the OED, scholars of English literature in Japan try to get closer to the mother (or father?) text, to reduce as far as possible to the distance between themselves and England or America, and to revel in a sort of spurious cosmopolitanism.  This, for Takemura, however, has nothing to do with the actual encounter with literature (and here I recall the title of her book, so hard to translate, The Challenge of the Power of Literature, or The Defiant Power of Literature?), which problematizes rather than assumes community, and the quasi-familial, usually heteronormative gender relations that go with it. She quotes Natsume Soseki talking about this very issue in his famous speech “My Individualism,” where he argues against groupthink.

Simply stated, individualism is a philosophy that replaces cliquism with values based on personal judgement of what is right and wrong. An individualist is not forever running with the group (朋党), forming cliques that thrash around blindly in the interests of power and money. That is why there lurks beneath the surface of his philosophy a loneliness unknown to others. As soon as we deny our little groups, then I simply go my way and I let the other man go his, unhindered. Sometimes, in some instances, we cannot avoid becoming scattered. That is what is lonely *16

In a brilliant move, Takemura brings Soseki’s critique of what he calls “cliquism” and his recognition of the inevitable “loneliness” of his “individualist” to Gayatri Spivak’s recent critique of both the “old” comparative literature for its humanism and the “new” cultural/ethnic studies for its identity politics.  Both, she says, in what Takemura describes as an uncanny echo of Soseki, are engaging in an “unexamined politics of collectivity"*17.

Of course Soseki was not exactly a feminist. Nor could he stand completely outside the male homosocial world that he so faithfully described and critiqued in his fiction. In the same lecture on “My Individualism” he shows himself to be completely unsympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage in Britain. (Although his argument that their bad behavior is “un-British” sounds a bit different once you remember how much he hated Britain). But he was able, Takemura argues, to maintain a critical stance toward the institution of English literature, even as he worked to found it.

There is something queer about this.  And Takemura-san was quite clear about it. She explains that the title of her essay (“Renaissance of a Discipline?”) is a sort of hybrid.  Half (the “Discipline” part) is taken from Spivak’s book Death of a Discipline. In that book Spivak argues for a new kind of Comparative Literature that does not rely on an “unexamined politics of collectivity” be it liberal humanism or naive identity politics. Questioning these unexamined collectivities is crucial, she argues, so as to arrive at a new form of democracy that is consonant with a feminist and post-colonial politics. In order to do this, she borrows from Derrida’s work on friendship to ask, "Can democracy--invariably claimed as a politics, or perhaps the politics of friendship--function without a logofratrocentric notion of collectivity: With the sister allowed in rarely, and only as an honorary brother?" *18

The other half of Takemura’s title (the word “Renaissance”), she says, is taken from F. O. Mathiessen’s 1942 book American Renaissance, the text that founded the field of American literary studies in the US by establishing as its “canon” the works of Melville,  Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Whitman. As Henry Abelove explained in a powerful essay,  a certain queerness is readable in this choice of works to canonize and throughout this founding work of American studies, but the institution of American studies has been busy disavowing this queerness ever since. I quote from Abelove’s Deep Gossip, a book which I am not sure that Kazuko read, but that I feel certain she would have liked very much.

Matthiessen’s explicit theme is the culture of democracy in mid-nineteenth century America. What is inexplicit, what is merely suggested, is the question the book frames without asking: what was the erotic meaning of that democracy, the erotic dynamic, the ties, affections, that bound together those white men, suppositionally equal, suppositionally brothers, who were the privileged subject of the old republic? And if we knew that erotic dynamic, would we know something pertinent to the tasks of improving and deepening and expanding and advancing and even reconstituting democracy in the present?  Whitman had long before described the old democracy as ‘boys, together clinging, fulfilling our foray.’ What was that clinging? Was the old democracy distinguishable from white male homosexuality as Matthiessen knew it, and if so, how? *19

“Queer studies,” Abelove goes on to say, was thus always there at the start of American Studies as part of its “unconscious.” Mathiessen himself, harassed for his leftist politics and his homosexuality, would kill himself, out of despair and loneliness, by jumping from a hotel window in 1950. As was the case with Soseki’s skepticism about English studies in Japan, this queer unconscious of American studies was ignored and repressed as the institution grew. And yet the future of American Studies, Abelove writes, “will depend in large measure on whether or not that unconscious is permitted to return” *20. Kazuko recognizes in her own essay, in a similar vein, that Soseki, arguably, like Mathiessen, a “founding father” of both English literary studies in Japan and of modern Japanese literature itself, was putting a similar question about the place of male-male eroticism in his vision of Japanese democracy. He wrote his senior thesis, it bears remembering, on Walt Whitman’s ideal of the “Manly Love of Comrades”*21.

One the one hand: Spivak’s question, in Death of Discipline, about how to find a place for the sister, for women in a democracy too often imagined as a band of brothers.  On the other, Mathiessen’s--and Soseki’s--unasked question, about the male homoerotics of democracy.  Kazuko’s hybrid title is also a question: “Renaissance of a Discipline?”  She writes that she explained this to Spivak in an email and the latter fired back a response, saying that “There can be no Renaissance of English literary Studies in Japan. That’s not the kind of Comparative Literature I was writing about.”  Kazuko wrote back.

No, that’s not what I mean. I’m not talking only about Comparative Literature. I mentioned Mathiessen only because I wanted to say that the kind of English literary studies that I am hoping for has not yet been born, so it can hardly be reborn. I mean something else with the term “renaissance.” Something else, that has to do with “friendship” *22.

What does it mean, then, to write about Anglophone literature in Japan, as a feminist, as a queer theorist? What does it mean to write about Japan from the U.S. or elsewhere?  Takemura-san mentioned three things, you will recall, that got her thinking about this question seriously.  First--being asked at that conference in Tokyo--What does it mean to study American texts inside Japan?  Second, asking herself at conferences in Asia, What does it mean to study American or British texts with other scholars outside of America or Britain?  Both of these questions, it is fair to say, are about destabilizing both one’s own subject position and the putative “object” of one’s study.  If that object is “attractive,” is it intrinsically so? Or are there external forces that have made it so?  Or both?

The answer is, and I think, must be: “both.” And this, I think, is why the third factor that Takemura wrote about is so important.  This was her own increasing focus on questions of sexuality since the early 1990s.  When I mentioned this earlier, the reason for this may not have been clear. But let me spell it out here at the end. To study sexuality is to study the forces--the powers of “love” or “libido” or whatever you might call them--that draw us both towards and away from each other and from the various objects we cathect.  It is to take seriously the question: “What does it mean to ‘love’ what we study?  Or to hate it?  How much of this is about individual taste, and how much of it about structural forces outside our control? How do the institutional histories of the disciplines that we work within shape, enable, and limit this?”

The subtitle of Takemura-san’s book that I been discussing is “Family / Desire / Terrorism.”  The full title, then, is “The Challenge of the Power of Literature: Family / Desire / Terrorism.”  When I first saw these words on the cover I read them paratactically, as a simple list of keywords that the book treats.  But as I read the book itself, I realized that this is not just a list of terms. Rather they represent a kind of spectrum of different forms and intensities of the same libidinal and social “glue,” -- the glue that connects all kinds of groups, from the romantic couple, to the family, to the community of English literary studies in Japan, to the nation, and even, at its most extreme, the terrorist cell.  Taking that “glue” seriously, and recognizing that -- and how -- the line between family, friendship, and erotic desire is always shifting, is what it means to write about sexuality seriously. And this, I think, is why sexuality was key to Takemura-san’s ability to confront and think through those questions about her own positionality among the world historical forces that shaped “English literature.”  This is what makes her work feminist and queer at once.  And this is why it is worth reading for feminist and queer scholars in Japan Studies, even if it is not “about Japan.”

But I cannot end, as a literary scholar, without also saying that what is really thrilling about Takemura-san’s work, and the reason that she and I were friends, is that it does not stop with this question of “positionality.”  It is also about the literary, “The Challenge of the Power of Literature,” as the book’s main title reads.  This is why, in the texture of its close and loving readings of actual literary texts, Takemura-san finds room for something else, something unexpected, and moving, to “crawl up and wriggle out,” from between the lines.

*1 Takemura Kazuko, Bungakuryoku no chōsen: famirī yokubō terorizumu. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 2012.
*2 Takemura describes her encounter with Butlers’ work in “Kiki-teki jōkyō no naka de bungaku to feminizumu wo kenkyū suru imi.” In Kenkyū suru imi. Ed. Komori Yōichi. Tokyo Tosho, 2003. 138-163. 「バトラーは、私が求めていたもの、ずっともやもやしていて、研究の場に引き出せないと思っていた事柄を、明確に分節化してくれました.『ジェンダー・トラブル』は難解だとよく言われますが、むしろスリリングな書物で、私は興奮して読みました。」145.
*3 “Yakusha atogaki.” Jendā toraburu. Tokyo: Seidosha, 1999. ジェンダー・トラブル』は...わたしたちの現実に、直接にためらいなく、わたしたちの隠れた現実を目の前に引きずり出してくれるものである...どうか複雑な言い回しに気持ちを萎えさせないで、バトラーにつきあうつもりで、ゆっくり、じっくりと読んでほしい(295)。
*4  The culmination of this work was a special issue of the journal Gendai shisō, titled “Lesbian Gay Studies.”  The issue included an essay by Takemura on bisexuality.  See Takemura Kazuko, “Bōkyaku / torikomi no senryaku: baisekushuariti josetsu” Gendai shisō. Rinji zōkan, vol. 25-6, May 1997. 248-256.
*5 Bungakuryoku no chōsen, 319. The articles on lesbian studies appeared in Eigo Seinen, volume 142, issues 4-9 (July-December, 1996).
*6 Masao Miyoshi has memorably described the situation of area studies in the U.S. thusly : “More than fifty years after war’s end, American scholars are still organizing knowledge as if confronted by an implacable enemy and thus driven by the desire either to destroy it or to marry it.”  Learning Places: The Afterlives of Area Studies. Ed. Masao Miyoshi and Harry Harootunian.  Duke University Press, 2002. 5.
*7 Masao Miyoshi, “The Invention of English Literature in Japan.” Japan in the World. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993. 271-287. 284.
*8 Ibid, 283.
*9 The other two books she mentions are 齋藤一『帝国日本の英文学』人文書院、二〇〇六年。And 宮崎芳三『太平洋戦争と英文学者』研究社、一九九六年。
*10 Bungakuryoku no chōsen, 289. [このようなアメリカ文学の発表や議論を、日本で,日本語で、日本の観客に向かってだけ発する意義はどこにあるか]
*11 Bungakuryoku no chōsen. 289. 読みはつねに、多様に、そして遠くへ,それゆえさらに豊穣に,さらに生産的なかたちで再生産され、翻ってその読みが置換され、変容したかたちでテクストに舞い戻り、新しいテクストの生産へと導いていく、したがってアメリカ文学を日本で,日本語で、日本の観客だけに論じることが非生産的だということは毛頭もない。
*12 Bungakuryoku no chōsen, 290. それが英文学がそれぞれの国において制度として機能しているという自覚と、そういった制度から逸脱してあるいは横断して、なにが蠢いているのか、蠢きうるのだろうか、そのとき私は英文学者としてどんなプロフェショナル・アイデンティティをもっていくのだろうかと考えるようになったことです。
*13  Bungakuryoku no chōsen, 290. 三番目はさらに個別的なこと、わたし自身のことです。一九九〇年代の前半あたりからセクシュアリティについて書くようになりました。というか、セクシュアリティについて書けるようになったのですが、書き進めるにしたがって,自分が英文学の研究者であるということと、セクシュアリティについて書いていることがどのように繋がるのだろうと考えるようになり,ひいては,自分が英文学の研究者であることは、どんなことなのか、そもそものプロフェッショナル・アイデンティティは、なべて何によって裏書きされているのかと考えるようになってきたことです.
*14 Miyoshi, “The Invention of English Literature in Japan.” 281.
*15 Ibid, 283.
*16 Quoted in Bungakuryoku no chōsen, p 302. 「もっと解りやすく云えば、党派心がなくって理非がある主義なのです。朋党を結び団隊を作って、権力や金力のために盲動しないという事なのです。それだからその裏面には人に知られない淋しさも潜んでいるのです。すでに党派でない以上、我は我の行くべき道を勝手に行くだけで、そうしてこれと同時に、他人の行くべき道を妨げないのだから、ある時ある場合には人間がばらばらにならなければなりません。そこが淋しいのです。」For the English translation, see Natsume Sōseki, Theory of Literature and Other Critical Writings. Edited by Michael K. Bourdaghs, Atsuko Ueda, and Joseph A. Murphy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. 260.
*17 Gayatri Spivak, Death of A Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. 28.
*18 Spivak, 32.
*19 Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 62-63.
*20  Ibid, 69.
*21 「文壇における平等主義者の代表者ウォルト・ホイットマンの詩について」『漱石全集 第13巻』岩波書店、1993年、13‐20頁。
*22 Bungakuryoku no chōsen, 321.「いや、そういう意味で−−つまり比較文学だけの土壌で−−わたしは話そうとしているのではない.わたしがマシーセンをだしたのは、そもそも初めから、私が望む英文学という装置は生まれていないので、それを『再生』することはできない。だけれども、再生ということを使って、別のことをいいたい。それは『友情』に関係することだ。」

Japanese Translation by Naoko Uchibori is available on WAN: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Posted by Aya Kitamura