June 18, 2020
Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a new podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. My name is Allison Alexy and I’m an assistant professor here at Michigan. I’m a cultural anthropologist and my research focuses on divorce, intimacy, and families in Japan. But I also really enjoy podcasts and especially enjoy hearing authors and thinkers talk about their work, motivations, and their recommendations. I created this podcast to engage scholars and researchers and, frankly, to have an excuse to read interesting work that I might not otherwise encounter. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
As a content warning, this episode includes a detailed discussion of stalking and the violent risks that fieldworkers, especially female fieldworkers, face. That part of the conversation begins around minute 35 and lasts for about 7 minutes. I will give another warning immediately before the part of the conversation because I don’t want any listeners to be surprised. I am deeply grateful to our guest for her openness and willingness to discuss such a difficult experience.
Today it’s my real pleasure to be talking with Dr. Marié Abe, associate professor of music, musicology, and ethnomusicology at Boston University. And we’re here to talk partially about her lovely new book Resonances of Chindon-ya: Sounding Space and Sociality in Contemporary Japan, which was recently published by Wesleyan University Press. Thank you so much for being here.
Marié: Thanks for having me. Honored to be here today.
Allison: So can you tell us a little bit about the book and the research behind it?
Marié: Sure. So for those who don’t know what chindon-ya is, I should probably describe that a little bit before getting into the content. Chindon-ya is a very uniquely Japanese street musical advertisement practice. You can imagine a troop of ostentatiously dressed three to five street performers playing on an assortment of instruments, musical instruments, varying from Japanese traditional percussions mounted on the wooden frame, so you can play it while walking, to a bass drum that sort of strung across the shoulders playing horizontally, and usually a melody instrument or two on the trumpet or clarinet. And these really colorful, vibrant street musicians walk down the streets, usually hired by a client, any business for the day, and they walk down the street playing instrumental songs to draw people’s attention so that they can then drop people out and come closer to them and pitch whatever you know happens to be their client’s interest in publicizing their businesses. So you can really think of it as like a roaming musical advertisement machine.
This emerged in Japan in late 1800s, really the one of the first proxy advertisement medium in Japan. The reason why I chose this as the topic of my book is because there has been a resurgence of interest and activity in chindon-ya. It almost disappeared with the rise of TV commercials and newspaper advertisement, but there’s been a remarkable level of interest and activity in this otherwise obsolete practice since the 1980s. I started this project asking why this erstwhile commercial practice and obsolete, now considered obsolete, practice has been picked up by so many people recently and how it’s gained relevance as a aesthetic and economic and also political practice. I noticed that a lot of sort of activists and musicians have picked up on this aesthetics of chindon-ya and incorporated into their street protests. In fact, I actually started my project through that first and then went into the orthodox, right, the original form of the practices and the advertisement medium. So that’s the topic of my book.
Allison: Let’s hear an example.
[music with procession and horns, played amidst people chatting]
Allison: But I was thinking to some degree, it’s almost like an ice cream truck in the US right? Except that an ice cream truck is actually selling the ice cream. So they’re using this sort of distinctive music to call people out of the right and then selling ice cream. But this group, these kinds of groups are selling the advertisement that they’re wearing on as a sign, but they’re kind of trying to call people out.
Marié: Yeah, so it’s, I try to, you know, explain what chindon-ya is in, in the simplest form. And I ended up doing what I just did, which is pretty extensive because there really isn’t a direct parallel in most of the cultures I’m familiar with. It is a lot like ice cream trucks that in that it’s a familiar sound that kind of circulates around your neighborhood and then it makes you want to go outside. You can make this sort of direct correlation between the sound and the product. But there’s no indexical relationship between chindon-ya sounds and any particular business or product because they don’t sing jingles and there’s no particular melody assigned to anything. But people know the sound of chindon-ya the unique combination of the gong chime and the drum combined with the sort of distinct way of playing the melody to render any pop music very chindon-ya-like. People know that chindon-ya is here and it makes you want to go outside to find out exactly what is being sold.
Allison: Let’s play another example.
[Music plays, a version of the disco song “Stayin’ Alive.”]
Allison: And it took me, it took me a little longer than I expected and I was like, wait, I do know this, what is it?
Marié: They cook up any melody that people know in a very chindon-ya-like sound. And I think, you know, people say that or the chindon-ya practitioners say that if you can get people to sing along or whistle, you know, even before you know that you’re hearing the chindon-ya sound, like that means they’re doing a good job.
Allison: I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the ways that other groups have picked up chindon-ya sounds or styles of performance. You give examples of I think sort of rock bands or popular music. And so it’s getting picked up. Is that also how you came into the project?
Marié: I sort of distinguish these two types of practitioners. So the first is the publicity enterprise itself – chindon-ya as chindon-ya. Then I talk about chindon-ya inspired musicians who don’t play chindon-ya style music to publicize clients’ businesses, but they incorporate chindon-ya aesthetics into their musical performances or into their activism on the street. And I came to this project because I happened to be sitting at a cafe in Shimokitazawa. It’s this really special cafe where the owner kind of curates music, you know, play through really fancy big speakers.
Allison: Sounds wonderful.
Marié: I think I was probably one of the very few people on that day. And I knew that he was going to select in CDs for me. And he played a few tracks back to back that were all so different in genre. So there was like a prog rock, a sort of Eastern European odd meter like inflected prog rock and then free jazz and this really cacophonous weird out-of-tune-sounding old school brass band and then Dixie style jazz and then an Okinawan song. Right. But they all had chindon percussions in common. I think I did grow up with chindon-ya in my childhood in the eighties. I recognize the chindon-ya percussions in the background of every, every track. But I didn’t know why that was happening. So that, that’s kind of how I got started. And then I started to realize that these musicians and activists all had, you know, certain things, certain kinds of politics in common. So I thought, first my project was going to be about the political agendas of these varying musicians and activists and why chindon-ya is enabling that. But as I started, just as you know, many anthropologists know, what you hypothesize, it’s never completely off, but often a little bit off. Your agenda comes on a little too strong in your hypothesis. And then I went through this humbling process of having to recalibrate. I ended up sort of referring to politicization of chindon-ya in the later chapters, which I think I was able to kind of understand better in their own terms because I managed to spend enough time with the orthodox, the chindon-ya for chindon-ya’s sake.
Allison: So when people use chindon-ya in protests, do they know what they’re doing?
Are they using it because it’s a kind of sound or a kind of music that draws attention? Could you talk a little bit to their intention?
Marié: Sure. So there are obviously multiple interpretations and reasons, but a few strategic reasons I think, especially as it became more prominent after 3/11, the disaster triple disaster in Northern Japan in 2011. As Japanese studies people know, 2011 really sort of marked a shift in the public perception of demonstrations on the streets. It was heavily stigmatized and it wasn’t a very accessible activity for an everyday person or moms or children. It had sort of a historical association with the student protests of the sixties and sectarian violence, clashing with the police. But I think the nuclear anxiety and this sort of unknown uncertainty and the fear of the everyday I think compelled everyone to come out, including moms concerned for their children’s safety. And so I think part of this changing a perception of the demonstration, it was really productive and useful to have chindon-ya, this sort of every day, well I want to say beloved, but if not just sort of, you know, it was a very common trope, already existing cultural reference for people to, to see like, “Oh, people are making sounds and roaming through the streets.” So I think it sort of served a purpose of disarming some of the spectators or people and sort of making it more visually and sonically accessible or bringing in the sense of every day into the protest.
Allison: Almost normalizing it in a way, as a kind of this kind of loud movement, slow movement through a neighborhood is something that can happen all the time. We know what this is. Even if now we’re protesting.
Marié: And then if you hear it from afar, you know the chindon-ya sound. It’s meant to bring people out of their homes to kind of step into the street and draw them into social interactions and encounters. So it also served that purpose. And also when real chindon-ya people participated, they were so skilled at sort of zigzagging between the sidewalk and the demonstration route to kind of bring people in, to blur the line between the spectacle and the spectator. So when the real chindon-ya performers participated, it also had that purpose. So I think for many reasons they had efficacy.
Allison: I think it sounds like they really did. Could you tell us a little bit about the time you spent doing fieldwork? You’re a musicologist, ethnomusicologist but also an ethnographer, right? Could you talk about the fieldwork and your participation?
Marié: Yeah. You know, well, so first of all, it was such a meta experience for me because they chindon-ya themselves are such ethnographers. And street philosophers because what they do and the productivity of their business really depends on their familiarity and knowledge of the people that they interact with and their everyday routines and the lives. They are astute observers and thinkers and philosophers of people, sound, interactions, how the current economy is affecting people, right? Like all these things, they take note of it, they write it down every day and they philosophize it heavily over drinks afterwards.
Marié: So my ethnography was really conversing with these street ethnographers over a lot of liquor. (laughs)
Allison: I think we could absolutely do an edited volume about, um, I briefly subtitled my dissertation “the year my liver died” because I was (laughter) you just have to drink so much. Even as a woman, I don’t have to drink as much as I think male ethnographers might have to do. But there’s a lot of drinking in fieldwork in Japan.
Marié: There really is. I consider myself lucky that I was gifted with the gene to be able to I handle quite a bit. And I love Nihon shu and the sake is sort of like a favored type of drinks for hindon-ya practitioners. Especially in Osaka, there’s tachinomiya the standing bars that are frequented by working class people, mostly men. And that’s where we go to eat and drink. But also that’s where we get to sort of eavesdrop on these people. Every drinking moment is also a very productive ethnographic moment. (laughs)
Allison: Absolutely. And then you just try to take notes and try to remember or just what happened.
Marié: Or with their permission I just turn my recorder on.
Allison: That’s great. Yeah. It just so you don’t have to memorize it.
Allison: That reminds me too, there’s really interesting social class aspects that you bring up in the book. And your research makes clear the performers themselves might’ve come from working class or middle, lower middle class backgrounds and are kind of living in that status too now because they’re making money and you were working with a group that’s just sort of especially successful financially. But still they’re not getting rich off this work.
Allison: And it seems like they also don’t really want to right? Part of the project, part of the work is sort of engaging people, average everyday people.
Allison: Could you talk a little bit more about social class? We all know that Japan is not a middle class society.
Allison: And probably never was. But there is a strong –
Allison: Less so now than there was 10 or 15 years ago, but a strong sense of a kind of predominant middle-class, right?
Marié: Yeah. So this is a very complex theme that I try to kind of tackle through different angles within my book. But I think to sort of reduce it to a simple claim, I would say that chindon-ya in the cultural memory of Japan really occupies a certain place right in the sort of class politics, which is quite low. I, as a child grew up with this children’s taunting phrase. It was a really mean thing to say to say “baka a ha chindon-ya” which is like “stupid fool chindon-ya.” But I never even thought to wonder why chindon-ya was in there. Or when you’re dressing up and then you’re about to leave the house and then your mom doesn’t approve the way you’re dressed and she might say like, “Oh, you look like chindon-ya” in a negative way. So there’s this sort of stigmatized perception of chindon-ya that seems to have roots in even this pre-modern era when itinerant musicians or performers came from the so called subhuman strata of the hierarchical social system, status system. That seems to have carried over. Also in fact, even in the teens, 20s and into the 50s, people who went to chindon-ya for employment came from sketchy backgrounds, or they were bankrupt or they came out of the prison. People who didn’t have access to better long-term employment tended to go to chindon-ya back then. So it does have that sort of association. But that’s not the case anymore today. But I think that class association is important to maintain to a certain extent. That’s why I think chindon-ya won’t be, and probably don’t want to be, departing from that.
And these days people who go to chindon-ya do come from lower middle class backgrounds, even some with a university education. But they still emphasize the importance of siding with the everyday people because ultimately they have to be accepted and be perceived as allies or even people to kind of look down upon from the point of view of the everyday people. So in a way, the way they sort of historicize their performance and connect their practice with a historical itinerant performing arts, I think it’s an intentional way of articulating or connecting, linking up historical difference with the contemporary class difference. These sort of like linking up of historicized difference with the marginal differences of Japan today, I think that’s also why it’s become politicized. Like an Okinawan singer or zainichi Korean singer, they’re sort of linking up this sort of hard-to-pin down difference that’s embodied in chindon-ya and its cultural perception can be mobilized to kind of address other forms of marginal differences.
Allison: And to comment on those differences that people are experiencing and they can see and feel.
Allison: One of the things I found so beautiful about your book is at two levels you’re talking about the performers as very smart, very hyper-aware, empathetic ethnographer- philosophers. So that in and of itself I just personally didn’t expect, not because I –
Marié: I didn’t either!
Allison: Yeah, I didn’t, I didn’t think that they wouldn’t do that. I just, it’s so – The way you represent it and illustrate is so effective and clear.
Marié: Thank you.
Allison: It’s really amazing. And I was thinking about an example you give where the performers are picking songs to play for you, right. To see if you will recognize them and to sort of make you happy and maybe give you a little giggle. That kind of ideal of, of walking through the streets and making really educated guesses about what people want to hear is really extraordinary. So it’s not about, it’s not an ice cream truck, right, because it’s not annoying, sort of rote digital music. It’s actually, it’s sort of like Spotify, but in your mind, right? Like they’re in trying to anticipate what people want to hear, or maybe not even what they want to hear, but what the performers know they should want, they do need, need to hear something like that.
Marié: What songs might stir something up in the listeners in a particular area on a particular day at a particular time. Their knowledge of the demography or history of each neighborhood, each town, the rhythms of the city. So it has become more challenging today because back then, they talk about how, you know, there used to be a song or two that would appeal to people across generations, across areas. But today, because the tastes have been differentiated so much by platforms like Spotify, right.
Allison: I’m sorry, I’m not pro-Spotify.
Marié: No, no. But it’s so difficult to find that one song that would appeal to everyone. And so it’s become more and more challenging for chindon-ya. And they also pay attention to things like how the weather that day changes the way that the sound is carried through the air and how different reflective surfaces of the built environment might change the way it resounds. The wooden houses with absorb sound more than reflective glasses and concrete buildings. And so they’re extremely attentive and thoughtful, which I think, again, is a pretty recent. I don’t think that this was a chindon-ya, tactic throughout the history. But I think particularly these guys in Osaka – Chindon-ya Tsūshinsha in Osaka – and particularly in the past twenty years or so, these things became really important.
Allison: It’s incredible. It’s really inspiring as a person trying to move through the world. And as a teacher, actually. I was thinking, is there any way that I could even remotely do any of this? Cause if you’re standing in front of a classroom, sometimes you can understand, okay there, you know, it’s week 10, everybody’s tired or right, it’s freezing. Everybody’s cold, right?
Marié: Or your class in the afternoon and everybody’s going to be drowsy.
Allison: Exactly. Exactly. Like what can I do? But I was just, I was truly inspired. And the way you represented is really lovely and
Marié: Thank you.
Allison: effective. And one of my favorite things about your book is that you make so clear how intelligent all your interlocutors are. They’re really good at what they do, but they’re really smart about other things too. And your book makes that so apparent. And as a reader, I really like that. It’s nice to be reading a book that doesn’t make it seem like the author is the only one who has thought about things. You know what I mean?
Marié: I really feel that my work was less about singlehandedly producing knowledge than making new points or elucidating points by juxtaposing. My work was more in the curating and juxtaposing then generating single handily juxtaposing the kinds of memories and knowledges from different genres. Right. It wasn’t just the interview material of the interlocutors, but passersby comments, my aunt’s comment, my interlocutors’ musings over drinks, spark other sort of, or point me to different sources of historical writings. These practitioners do a lot of our archival research themselves. They also do a lot of listening parties because they also may tape recordings of the older generation chindon-ya. And so they would have these really geeky listening parties like listen to this tape of that, you know, veteran who is now 90 years old or who’s passed. There are just so many layers of media and sources of information. Or you know, sort of popular pseudo academic fields like street observation studies of the eighties or modernology coming out of the thirties. Juxtaposing these things produced the kinds of things that I could claim as my insights, but I feel that the most of it was really inspired and collaboratively brought to my attention by the practitioners, almost like a DJ material, juxtaposing.
Allison: Mix it together.
Allison: And I imagine I would, I would imagine that you also figured things out because you’re a performer yourself.
Allison: Is there any way that you could explain how you being a performer helped generate some of the insights that are included in the book?
Marié: Yeah. Um, you know, it’s interesting. The chindon-ya musicians say that they’re not musicians, first of all. They wanted to say chindon-ya is not a musical genre. It’s a sound business. It’s a part of everyday that soundscape, we’re not selling the music. It’s not a product. Right. But that said they are musically proficient or talented, and they also have musical ears, what we might call musical ears. And I think sharing that, one, gained easy sort of acceptance, I think. Because so many people assume that chindon-ya is like such a simple thing that anybody can do because they don’t sound that virtuosic. They sound pretty simple. Because of that, a lot of people who come to them apparently just want to try right away the instruments and join them. But I did not because one, it seemed pretty hard, actually. (laughs) And also as I explained the book, they intentionally sound imperfect or intentionally make mistakes or they intentionally make themselves sound amateurish. But in fact, you gotta be pretty good to do that.
And it’s so not about excellence. They might actually really not have skills, musical skills, technical skills. But they have the kinds of sensibilities and I think awareness that makes a really good musician. I was trained on the piano classically, but then I shifted to the accordion pretty much exclusively since I started graduate school. And part of the reason why I picked up the accordion was because I became interested in free improvisation. To improvise, I needed to retrain my own listening, listening to my own sound in relation to other people’s sounds and to the environmental sound. In a way, a lot of insights that I gleaned from the chindon-ya practices really were parallel to those kinds of listening practices. So in a way, I think my musical experience engaged in that particular genre. I don’t think it’s specifically unique to improvisation, but as a solo pianist trained in classical repertoire, I didn’t really have to think so much about how to listen to my own sound, especially in relation to other sounds. But that experience really helped me make some connections. Obviously I wasn’t the first one, because – My book is almost exclusively about Osaka, especially the first few chapters on chindon-ya. Almost at the same time as this new current generation of chindon-ya practitioners started the resurgence, here was another person by the name of Shimoda Masami in Tokyo who started the chindon-ya resurgence in Tokyo. And he was a free jazz guy. He was a sax player. He was really sort of in search of his own voice or his, I don’t know, ideal. And then he talks about this really shocking, striking moment of encountering a chindon-ya in Shimokitazawa neighborhood. It knocked his socks off. He described that sound as selfless, flacid sound. That radical lack of ego, musical ego to him was the most radical free thing he could do. Immediately he became an apprentice and he decided to train himself or retrain himself in chindon-ya. But he saw the parallel between the way one has to listen to his own sound and pay attention to the surrounding sounds and sort of sentiments of the listeners of the free jazz and you know chindon-ya. So I think there’s something to it.
Allison: That sentiment is something that you talk about in the book as well that at, at this particular moment in Japan, it’s partially about neoliberal politics, partially about sort of disconnections. I was thinking about social contracts that maybe people weren’t happy about in the 1980s, like sort of a salaryman existence, but at least it was predictable and in that way brought some kind of peace. And now those are less available. So I think one of the things you’re, you’re doing so beautifully in the book is talking about how these performers are in some ways both reflective of those realities because they are themselves in relatively precarious positions. At the same time that they are working really hard to build social connections and affective ties with people that who might just be passing on the street or maybe even people as you say that they never meet. They never see that are people either in the houses that never come out, never appear or maybe people who have passed away. And so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit either about how you think about their efforts around social ties and social building or how they think about it.
Marié: That really became central to the way I analyzed chindon-ya practice because they are doing the kind of almost romanticized reparative work without romanticizing their own work. In a way, it’s a kind of business that they do that, that musicians have been doing since pre-modern pre-capitalist time. Musical labor has always been a kind of an affective labor. People have always been playing music as an offering or to make a certain social connections happen. So they’re kind of doing what they’ve been doing and they should be paid. This is a type of a labor that now has been labeled as an affective labor. Today’s economy particularly has a need.
Allison: To me, at least, the way you represent it is that they’re really making a conscious effort to care for or assuage pain, or provide some kind of relief. At the same time that I take your point, which is that they’re not framing this as a uniquely, kind of, modern or postmodern moment, that this is just like this. We’ve been doing this for awhile. We’re going to keep doing it. It’s a good job. It’s good for us. It’s good for our audiences.
Marié: And it happens to have a particular traction right now because this era has been dubbed as the age of disconnection or age of loneliness. You’re in for certain kinds of social connections in certain ways. But also in a way isolation has become the name of the game and a lot of people may be wanting to do certain things solo. I just recently had read the BBC piece on like the ohitori-sama culture. In this age, in social interactions the collectivism and conformity isn’t as prevalent anymore. And this dynamic social interactions on the, on the street on the everyday basis isn’t there anymore, which was where chindon-ya really once thrived. But it’s still finding its relevance without really compromising its meaning or the type of labor. It’s sort of resiliently reconfiguring its meanings and relevance by doing what it’s been doing historically. That’s why I think it’s sort of straddling right between the two modes of capitalism or economic systems and also sort of historical times. They’re sort of doing what they’ve been doing pre-modern era, but also doing this very contemporary form of affective labor at the same time.
Allison: I think you name everyone with their real names. Is that correct?
Marié: Uh huh.
Allison: Can you talk about that decision? Because I was thinking about how anthropologists and ethnographers sometimes, at least I was trained that you make everyone anonymous. But then it gets more complicated when they are publishing things themselves, especially if they’re publishing things online. Do you use their real name? And I was thinking you represent the figures in your book is so thoughtful and such three-dimensional people that it made sense to me that you wanted to use their names. But I was wondering if there was any tension or question around that for them or for you as an author.
Marié: I obviously asked everyone how they want it to be referred to and I think they really consider themselves as public figures in a way. They are always in public spaces and some of the key interlocutors, particularly, eloquent, articulate ones, they also write. They’re public intellectuals, of sorts. So they didn’t hesitate to be named. I don’t think there was anyone who preferred to not be named. You know, musicians are sort of celebrities but not. In their understanding they’re public figures of some kind or they’re always publicly, publicly circulating. Even though I think a few decades ago, some people would go into chindon-ya because they can stay anonymous. So those people who were running away from the police for whatever reason, they would actually seek employment in chindon-ya sometimes because they would have like heavy makeup on and a wig and nobody’s going to recognize them. And it’s pay by day. It’s a type of day labor at that time to be hired by chindon-ya. It goes both ways I guess. But at this point in time in my fieldwork, they didn’t have any issues.
Allison: As a reminder to our listeners, at this point in our conversation, we begin to discuss stalking and the violence fieldworkers face doing research.
Allison: Was there anything particularly difficult or challenging for you in the fieldwork that you feel comfortable sharing in this class?
Marié: You know, I didn’t even mean it to be the first footnote, but the first footnote is my hardest experience. I think this is something that we should be talking more in class that I started to only talk about in class as part of pedagogy after I did this fieldwork. Particularly women, but I think all ethnographers can be vulnerable to violence and sexual violence. I was stalked anonymously in my first residence in Osaka. I say anonymously, it’s kind of tricky, but without delving into the detail, there was a one time I made contact with this, this one man came to my door the day I moved into this place, under a disguise of a construction worker to tell me that there’s going to be a new construction happening. But then he obviously he was sort of surveying the house to figure out whether I was living alone. And then as since that day on, there were traces of somebody always watching me. He would leave all these kind of creepy traces that I was being watched. Then one day he almost like he tried to break in, it was like 4:00 AM, into the house. And so I had to be living in internet café for like a couple of weeks until I could find the new housing. But that gave me an exposure to what people call internet refugees. I had this sense of precarious youth who couldn’t find their own, you know, who also didn’t have their apartments or jobs who were sort of living in isolation in these little cubicles. And so it was sort of an intimate way to really get an insight into the sense of isolation, disconnection, and precarity. I wouldn’t have had that access to or exposure to that otherwise. So I talk about that experience in the introduction that I kind of had to explain why I was living in an internet cafe. That experience of being stalked was a humbling reminder of our vulnerability as ethnographers to different kinds of violence. Experiencing that was definitely not easy.
Allison: I’m so sorry that you had that experience. I appreciate the way you’re framing it and articulating interesting and important lessons that you’ve been able to glean from it.
Marié: But we didn’t learn it in seminars.
Marié: I didn’t. But now I try to kind of make sure to talk about it. And in my discipline there is a new task force where students can seek mentors. And I think this should be brought up upfront as you know, some of the things you might need to be prepared for.
Allison: Yeah. I don’t know if this is true in ethnomusicology, but in anthropology, many more graduate students at this point identify as women. And I think that being a female field worker, or a minoritized man in different kinds of ways, really poses different kinds of risks.
Allison: And I think the field is still not prepared to handle that, certainly not responding to the reality on the ground. But I just want to say, I’m so sorry for your experience. I obviously you’re fine. You figured it out and you handled it. But I think you’re absolutely right. More people need to know that these kinds of things happen and there are certainly patterns, right? So, of course anthropologist and ethnomusicologists are going to all sorts of different cultures. But there are still ways that we could train ourselves and train our graduate students in our undergraduate students to be better prepared. I think part of it too is that we all look like we’re so isolated in the field, even if we’re not.
Allison: We all look like nobody’s checking up on us. We don’t have these social ties because they’re not visible. And often, you know, we might have a funding agency absolutely checking up on us, right? Because they’re sort of controlling where we can go. We are taught to make ourselves look very isolated so that then people can approach us or that we can, you know, sort of work our way into different institutions, or organizations. But there’s a way that that sort of performative isolation really –
Marié: Can be a target.
Allison: Can be a target. And it sets off all these flags for people who are looking for victims.
Marié: There’s also a real sense of isolation too.
Allison: That’s true. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not only imaginary or performative. Yeah, absolutely.
Marié: Butthe isolation, there’s sort of like a machismo, like a tough – that isolation is the tool that you can mobilize to then embed yourself in different social networks. There’s that way of performing your solitary, ethnographer self, that can definitely be seen as an invitation by some.
Allison: We’re taught to kind of go along as for as long as we can because that’s what makes people talk to us, partially. I’m working pretty hard not to offend anybody in the field most of the time. I don’t know about you.
Marié: Right of course.
Allison: Cause that’s blows the whole project, right?
Allison: So there’s a way that we are actively suppressing to some degree how we know to shut people down, right, in other contexts.
Marié: Translating that in ethnographic context, though, it seems even more challenging or at just as challenging, but it adds a different dimension because you are trying to elicit certain knowledges by being accepted.
Allison: It is tricky. Thank you for sharing your story and your experiences.
Marié: It’s in the footnote, but nobody really, you know, especially the first one, people don’t talk about it. But some people have noticed it. And then I realized that it was kind of a tricky moment. But another thing that came positive thing that came of it was, the residence that I picked where I got stalked was allegedly upper middle class safe neighborhood in Osaka, which is known for petty crimes. Compared to Kyoto or Tokyo it’s seen like a little bit of a rougher city. But where I ended up feeling safer and being looked out for and part of the community was a so-called gritty, maybe dangerous, deep Korean neighborhood. But that’s where I was able to find, first of all monthly housing. This is an area where they have a structure that’s more open to foreigners. There are a lot of mizu shōbai, the late night shops, open. So I felt safe just walking back and forth and neighborhood people would just kind of talk to each other. I definitely felt better integrated into the community and also just safer overall even though it was allegedly one of the sketchier places. That goes to show you how you should pick a place of your residence.
Marié: Go against the norm I guess.
Allison: Yeah. And follow your gut.
Allison: Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process? I think some of our listeners are probably graduate students, or maybe younger professors who are in the process of figuring out how to write their book. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your writing process and how this became a book?
Marié: I wouldn’t mind, but I don’t think it’s going to be helpful for anyone because (laughs) writing to me is such a struggle.
Allison: You’ve just made a million fans by saying that, I have to tell you.
Marié: It really is, right? I’ve met some people for whom writing is like a gift, the natural expression of their souls. And it’s a joy and it’s a routine and it flows, like sometimes not, but more or less. But for me it really isn’t. Trained as a musician, so sound is more of a natural mode of expression of my soul, I would say. But writing, especially in English as an ESL. I adopted the American accent enough to fool most people, but I still drop articles. Like I never know when to or not to use “the.” With this additional layer of writing in a second language, although I don’t really write academically in Japanese either, it really was a slow process. And I don’t do outlines. I what I call do the, verbal vomit first. I’m one of those people who just need to just try to spit it all out and then pick bits and pieces retroactively and then kind of figure out what I want to say. Or what the main themes might be. And then still do multiple layers of that to kind of let the argument emerge from it and then create a logical structure afterwards. So it’s really an inefficient process, but that just happens to be the way I figure my own thoughts out. So it took forever.
My ideas wouldn’t have come alive the way it did without multiple conversations and interlocutors and generous friends who read multiple drafts. There was particularly one colleague and friend and a generous ethnomusicologist, Joshua Pilzer whose work everybody should check out. He works on, songs of, what people call “comfort women.” He was like a midwife of this book to turn these sort of fragmented pieces of writing and themes into a book. I needed one person whose objective stance allowed me to make certain decisions, structural decisions that I just couldn’t make anymore because it was too close to it. So I think having multiple people read or listen to you is important. But also if you’re really lucky to have that one person. Maybe also if you have enough funds you could maybe hire on a developmental editor or someone. But I think without those people, I really wouldn’t have been able to come up with this book. And the tenure pressure.
Allison: Right, right.
Marié: Because another enemy is perfectionism and I think it would have been really hard to let go or to know when to just kind of say enough is enough.
Allison: Can I tell you honestly, I’m one of the reasons I wanted to ask you this question is because the book is so beautifully written, I had no idea as a reader, I had no idea that you found writing to be anything other than a fluid expression of your soul.
Marié: Thank you.
Allison: One option is I’m a bad reader. The other option is you hid it and perfected it very well. I had no idea. It reads to me as very musical, very clear. You’re pulling in all these different threads from different disciplines at different moments in English and Japanese. I wasn’t trying to ask a triggering question. I really thought that you might enjoy writing.
Marié: No, It’s so painful. I wish academia would give the equal cred to improvising on the accordion.
Allison: I do actually. I would not do well at that, but I would love to see it happen for other people.
Marié: Radio, multimedia work. Talking to people. Those are much preferred ways of sharing knowledge for me. But I learned a lot. But I really had to do with the fact that one I was able to take and, I did unfortunately take so much time to finish it, but also that allowed me to seek help from so many others.
Allison: I also feel like in some ways my book has taken longer than I expected it to or wanted it to, but I feel like it is what it is. It took the time it takes, you know what I mean?
Marié: Yeah. Oh, another thing, it’s not about writing process, but one lesson that I learned that I’m very happy about is that you should never compromise on the cover design.
Allison: Oh yes. Tell us more. Okay. It’s a spectacular cover.
Marié: Sounds kind of vain.
Marié: But I think it was a really smart choice. Because, as I said, I’m not really a text person. Thinking and writing is such a social process for me, it’s never solitary. So it’s really a collaborative thing, this object. And so the cover design was also a collaboration with my friend, in Japan. Her name is Inunco. She’s such a talented sort of graphic designer, drawer, artist. You would see her work on TV, like E-tere. Or public posters everywhere. She has huge clients. But she has also written a children’s book on chindon-ya and she’s super cool. And, and her husband, Chanki Matsumoto. They’re a power couple from Osaka and now in Tokyo. I sort of gave he my vision of what my cover, to look like and she drew this amazing thing. The university press didn’t quite get my vision and wanted to kind of chop it up or superimpose other things or choose the wrong font. That didn’t quite live up to my own expectations. But they also had reasons to not really conform to or honor all my requests for logistical reasons. But I really pushed hard because at that point I was so sick of my writing that I didn’t even want to read it. I knew where all my compromises were. I know where the loopholes were in my argument. I had a such a fraught relationship with my text that as an object to hold in my hand, at least I wanted the cover to look so wonderful that I have a positive, dear relationship with my book as a physical object. I pushed hard and they ended up listening to me and I’m so happy I did that.
Allison: It’s a fantastic cover.
Marié: Because really I couldn’t open my book. I did to look at the pictures, but I couldn’t even read what’s inside for a few months.
Allison: I understand that.
Marié: But I really liked how it looked.
Allison: First of all we’ll put on, on the CJS website, the spine of your book. Your friend has basically made you right on the spine, which is perfect cause it’s just underneath your name. So another demonstration of your authorship. But to me the cover is just so cheerful.
Allison: It’s a great representation of what they’re doing and what they’re trying to do. I’m sorry you had to push hard for it, but I’m glad you won. It looks great.
Marié: Yeah. Me too.
Allison: You’ve done lots of other kinds of projects, like radio projects and music. Can you tell us how this fits into your research trajectory as you’re seeing it now?
Marié: I’m the kind of person who somehow I seem to have this innate drive to have one foot in one world and the other in another at all times. If I put myself wholly in one thing, I lose my balance in a weird way. So while I was doing my dissertation field work on chindon-ya, concurrently, I was taking on another project to produce a public NPR radio documentary on immigrant cultures and histories in California told through the accordion, as a common trope. And in a way that was my answer to my frustration of having to write and having to write about sound when you maybe should be making your argument through sound. There’s a very famous piece by Steven Feld about doing an anthropology of sound in sound. I sort of wanted to give a shot at what it is like to think through sound in sound and present it in sound, also in a way that speaks to a wider audience than your dissertation committee. (laughs) So that was my foray into working with a radio as a medium and I would love to do it again. But of course I couldn’t have done it by myself. I had a really wonderful collaborator, Julie Caine, who was a radio journalist who shared the obsession and passion with and for the accordion.
But it’s sort of made my dissertation writing time harder because I was kind of doing two dissertations research worth of data collection and analysis. But somehow it worked. My performance also was something that I do to kind of balance my cerebral, solitary academic labor. It’s always social. It’s sonic. It brings me joy. It connects me with the types of people that I don’t get to connect with in academia. My next project might be actually emerging out of this performance. I think I’m sort of an anomaly as an ethnomusicologist. A lot of ethnomusicologists perform what they research and what they write about. But in hindon-ya work, I did not perform chindon-ya because there was sort of an ethical reasoning behind it. I wanted to. Of course I wanted to kind of get this participatory insight. But if I did, the troop felt compelled to pay me, even if I insisted on not getting paid. And by doing that, I’m taking else’s work away for the day. So I sat in on a couple things informally, but other than that I was always just tagging along. I always kind of kept my performance interest separate and far from what I research on. And since I moved to Boston for my current position, I sort of serendipitously got picked up by a really fantastic Ethiopian jazz band called Debo Band. I didn’t know anything about it, but apparently accordion was part of the 1970s Ethiopian jazz.
So I’ve been enjoying performing with them. But throughout all these years I sort of have been haunted and tickled by this uncanny musical resemblance between some of the Ethiopian jazz repertoire that I play with a band and Japanese pop like kayōkyoku and enka. And some of them come so naturally to me that it’s super easy to improvise on it. Some of those songs when my parents listened to it, they’re like, “Oh, wait, what, this isn’t Japanese?” That resemblance has always been with me. I think now that this book is done, I’m exploring the possibilities of looking at this musical resemblance. “Overhearing” was a keyword for my chindon-ya project, so the next one might be about mishearing and sort of why people want to hear themselves in somebody else’s music. A lot of Japanese listeners, they love freaking out about how Japanese some Ethiopian songs sound.
Last year during my sabbatical, I finally made it to Ethiopia and did some preliminary fieldwork. Got to interview some of the grandpas in their eighties. I also love working with grandpas and grandmas something about engaging with the 80 and 90 year olds. I really love that. And so these Ethiopian old men who served in the Korean war had some exposure to Japanese music and during their R&R trip to Yokosuka. Starting with this oral history project, I’m trying to get into more theoretical conceptual questions about mishearing and what it means to want to hear yourself and other people’s music. This might be the first time when my performance life and research life might converge, but I don’t know where this research might go yet.
Allison: It sounds like an amazing project.
Marié: If there’s enough to work with, but it’s an elusive subject and I don’t know how much I will have yet.
Allison: It reminds me of one of the questions I sort of asked myself is when is something empathy and what is it just narcissism, right? When is it that I’m trying to say, “Oh, I have the same kind of sweater” or “Oh yes, I had that experience too.” And when is it about a a genuinely empathetic gesture? And when is it like, “Oh yeah, I look at you and I think about myself” and it’s just straight up narcissism.
Marié: Great. Yeah. Oh, I like that. I presented the earliest first version of this at a conference recently somebody asked, “Wait, so would you say that ethnomusicology has always been just a one gigantic mishearing?”
Allison: Oh my God, my mind is blown.
Marié: I was like, did I just break ethnomusicology? Did we just take the red pill? And then my mentor who happened to be in the audience sort of rescued that by kind of talking about encounters and differences. So I don’t think it is a gigantic mishearing, but yeah, sort of similar. How much of it is really seeing yourself in others too in an effort to understand the other?
Allison: I can’t wait to see that project. And I think interviewing grandmas and grandpas sounds great. They probably have all sorts of incredible things to tell you.
Marié: They really did and I got really lucky. I hit the ethnographic goldmine on like day one. I just met this amazing person who wrote the song about falling in love with a Japanese woman that all youth Ethiopians can sing. And I met that guy who wrote it and it was based on his love story. And he told me the story. So that was pretty amazing. But then what’s amazing is that by me talking about it in Japan during sabbatical and giving a presentation about these findings, I sort of implicated myself in this discourse, right? And so it was always there and people who were in the know about Ethiopian jazz always talked about the resemblance, but it, as far as I knew the sort of media coverage had been sort of like at midnight or like in late night radio or TV and obscure underground music bloggers. But I see it becoming a little bit more prominent and it’s sort of featured in the theme of a concert that’s coming up with an Ethiopian masenqo player coming to Japan. NHK picked up on that same story with the same material, same interlocutors, and ran a story too. It’s interesting to see yourself sort of generating what you’re trying to talk about. I am implicated in the story, so it’s pretty meta.
Allison: I’m sure the music is spectacular. Now I want to go home and listen to a bunch of Ethiopian jazz.
Marié: Google “Ethiopique.” That’s a compilation series.
Allison: Okay, Ethiopique, I will.
Allison: Okay. Thank you. That’s wonderful. So one of the questions I would like to ask is about recommendations or favorite books that you have in Japanese studies or beyond Japanese studies. I’d also like to expand and ask if you have music recommendations, accordion, Ethiopique, other examples of things that you could recommend or you think people should explore.
Marié: Well, you know, totally separate from my book. I think Ethiopian jazz from the 1970s, it’s really fantastic. And I’m curious, assuming that most of the listeners of this podcast have some something to do with Japan, I would be interested in what the listeners might find in listening to Ethiopian jazz from the 1970s. Ethiopique is the compilation series where you can go and find all sorts of music. From chindon-ya… Chindon-ya was never really considered a subject of preservation or canonization or documentation. So there weren’t too many recordings. But, in the nineties, as part of the most recent resurgence, there was a recording of veteran generation chindon-ya and it’s called Tokyo Chindon, volume one. There’s no volume two actually. That is a classic CD that you can listen to.
Allison: And I think the cover of that is in your book, is that right?
Marié: Yeah. And Chindon-ya Tsūshinsha also has some albums.
Allison: So the group you worked with?
Marié: Yes. Also Shikalamuta and Jinkalamuta. Those are bands run by a clarinet player and chindon-ya clarinet player. And also chindon-ya inspired sort of activist, musician, and also public intellectual writer. He’s really a Renaissance man. His bands are pretty amazing. I can’t recommend them highly enough. For books it’s so hard to narrow them down. Something that’s coming out that people in all libraries should look to have. So Shūhei Hosokawa is a Japanese musicologist whose knowledge on music in Japan and beyond is so encyclopedic and he’s a really sharp thinker, a huge figure. And he’s written a lot of stuff on chindon-ya in small pieces, many of them unpublished, but he was generous enough to share them with me and they really were a key in my book. I think one of the concepts that I developed – embodied heterophony – really comes from his work. He ran a series in Music magazine called Nihon ongaku no seiyōka to taishūka, so “westernization and popularization of Japanese music” from ‘89 to ‘94. Every month he picked a topic and then just spewed out all his amazing knowledge and thinking. It never became published as a collection. But now nearing his retirement, he’s revising, updating, expanding and publishing all of them in four volumes starting this July. Through Iwanami shoten and then I have the new title, which is Kindai nihon no ongaku 100 nen. I think if you read Japanese and are interested in any of these topics, I think it’s going to be the Bible.
Allison: Well, thank you so much. This has been such a joy. I have to recommend it to everybody.
Marié: Thank you so much for giving it a read and have given me the opportunity to talk.
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies and Director of the Center Kiyo Tsutsui for greenlighting the project, the Shapiro Design Lab staff, and our listeners. Thanks also to Reggie Jackson for our theme song. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. It was recorded in the Shapiro Library’s Design Lab in Ann Arbor where, before the Covid-19 restrictions, it was possible to play with sewing machines and 3D printers while we wait to record. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Michael Strausz.