April 10, 2007

University hosts lecture series to explore Japan’s protest culture

Exploring the oft-overlooked tradition of social activism in modern Japan, the Center for East Asian Studies’s Japan Committee is hosting “Celebrating Protest,” a lecture series covering such topics as war, colonialism, and sexuality.

The Japan at Chicago Lecture Series’s most recent event, “Rubber Tit,” responded to issues of sexuality and homophobia in Japan.

The lecture series was developed by Norma Field, the Robert Ingersoll Professor of Japanese Studies, and Tomomi Yamaguchi, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for East Asian Studies with a specialty in gender and sexuality, as an offshoot of their course on postwar Japanese social movements.

The course and the lecture series were inspired by the troubling term “postwar Japan,” Field said. “It’s a strange word to use 62 years after the war. Isn’t the postwar period over yet?”

The term persists, she said, because many of the social and political problems that troubled Japan in the 1940s remain influential today. Field attributed this condition to the near-disappearance of social activism in Japan after early activist movements clashed with U.S. foreign policy and people grew disillusioned by the American student protests of the ’60s.

“Whereas in the 1940s and 1960s you saw huge social movements in Japan, the democratic movement, and the no-war movement, now you get the sense that there is no activism,” she said.

The lecture series aims to spotlight Japanese who maintain the postwar tradition of criticism and protest. The series will continue until May 17, with a total of seven scheduled lectures.

“None of the lecturers is a University professor,” said Field. “In Japan there’s much more of a tradition of learning taking place outside of the classroom, so we wanted to bring in students and performers and institute heads instead.”

The series began in March with a talk by Noriaki Imai, a student environmentalist who traveled to Iraq without a visa to study the effects of depleted uranium shells on children. Imai spoke about being captured by Iraqi insurgents who held him hostage during the trip. He returned home to public ridicule, was harassed in public, and was ordered to pay for the plane flight that brought him home.

“Japan is much more of a collective-focused society instead of an individualist society,” said Lauren Sethy of the Center for East Asian Studies, one of the series’s principle organizers. “So his actions were looked down upon.”

Last week’s “Rubber Tit” featured an inflated breast that was hurled at audience members during the interactive performance. In an explanation of her piece, performer Tari Ito wrote, “In the course of my daily life in Tokyo, I must face both the entrenched sexism and compulsory heterosexuality of this society.”

Upcoming lectures will examine the controversial issue of trans-racial adoption, the status of an embattled plutonium plant in Japan, and protests against Japanese forces in Iraq.

“I have Japanese friends that hear about this series and are amazed,” Field said. “They say, ‘So you really think it’s possible to be positive about protest?’”

In Japan’s modern feminist, environmentalist, and educational movements, though, she sees the endurance of the postwar activist spirit, and a chance to learn about more than just Japan. “The series is absolutely universal,” she said. “It’s so tied to the U.S., and to U.S. government policy today.”