- Season 2, Episode 3 | Jolyon Baraka Thomas
- Season 2, Episode 2 | Suma Ikeuchi
- Season 2, Episode 1 | Charlotte Eubanks
- Season 2 Trailer
- Season 1, Episode 5 | Morgan Pitelka
- Season 1, Episode 4 | Meghen Jones
- Season 1, Episode 3 | Michael Strausz
- Season 1, Episode 2 | Marié Abe
- Season 1, Episode 1 | Levi McLaughlin
- Japanese Studies Radio Hour
September 24, 2020
Dr. Allison Alexy: Hello and welcome to Michigan Talks Japan, a podcast from the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan. I'm Allison Alexy. In each episode I’ll talk with a scholar working in Japanese Studies – across academic disciplines, across time periods.
Today it's my pleasure to talk with Dr. Charlotte Eubanks, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Japanese, and Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, where they are also the Department Head of Comparative Literature. Their research explores material culture, performance studies, and ethics, with a focus on Japanese and Buddhist literature from the medieval period to the present. Our conversation centers on their new book, The Art of Persistence: Akamatsu Toshiko and the Visual Cultures of Transwar Japan, published by the University of Hawai'i Press.
As a content warning, this conversation includes a vague spoiler for the TV show The Good Place.
Allison: Thank you so much for being willing to talk with me today, and talk about your wonderful new book, The Art of Persistence. Would you mind starting by just talking a little bit about this new book that you've just published?
Charlotte: Sure thing. I'm going to start by saying a huge thank you for the amount of intellectual and academic labor that you and your team are putting into this. It's an incredible service to the field. I know I've benefited from podcasts of this sort. And so thanks so much and thanks for the opportunity to talk about the book, which has always like a super intimate part of your life while you're writing it and editing it and all that kind of stuff. And then you put it out in the world and it's like, what happened to it? Where to go? This is a real treat.
The book is a case study. It's one of those like single artists studies that you're always told not to do in grad school, but once you get tenure, woohoo!, you can write those kinds of books, which are a lot of fun.
It's the story of this one woman, Akamatsuu Toshiko also known as Maruki Toshi. She lived 1912 to 2000. She was an artist. She was an author. She was an activist and she was like the Forrest Gump of 20th century Japan. And she was just like everywhere at these crucial moments for the 20th century. I kind of wanted to tell the story of 20th century Japanese visual culture by telling her story. I found that it was an important approach for a few reasons. One is I've got a 10-year-old daughter and we do night-night stories every night still. One of the series that we've really enjoyed is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls or Noisemakers, which is a series from the magazine Kazoo. It talks about women's place in history and art history and literature and politics and things like that. I was like, I can write a "rebel girls" kind of book. I also think for more sort of highfalutin intellectual reasons, micro history is this really nice approach. Cause it starts with the assumption of agency that individual people aren't just expressions of structural conditions like empire and colonialism or misogyny or those types of things, as real as those are. But we're still conscious actors who can make choices about how we conduct our everyday lives. I find that hopeful and helpful because even though it acknowledges these structures of violence and these kinds of forms of slow violence, it also points out the things that that individual people do in this slow Taoist water-dripping-on-stone fashion that help people erode and eventually destroy those structures and build up other ones. It's about ability to act and also responsibility.
I was interested also in Toshi because a lot of the history of 1930s, 1940s, Japan is like in this plural passive voice. It's like this damesareta thing, we were fooled. We were fooled by the fascist power brokers in politics and things like that. She, through the course of her life, really tries to claim her history in this first person active voice, where she says, I did this, I thought this, I drew this, I wrote this, I said this, which I thought was really powerful. So I spent a lot of time thinking about her and then also thinking about, what it means to study somebody like this. I ended up calling the book, The Art of Persistence, and it was a title that I had before Elizabeth Warren said it. [Both laugh] But I called it The Art of Persistence because one she was an artist, but because I ended up really trying to think through, once we scale up from this individual artist, what do we learn from the case study? And for me, personally, it was really powerful because I found that she was kind of marking out this position of persistence. She wasn't a collaborator, on the one hand. Nor was she someone who went all out in resistance. She was kind of in this messy middle gray area in between where she made some pretty nasty mistakes. But she also did some pretty daring things. And I kind of want to focus on the heroism of the gray space and the gritty, dirty space as well. So that's what the book is about.
Allison: That sounds wonderful. I really enjoyed reading it and I learned so much from it. Before we go forward, I realized we should probably clarify the name you use for her. Because as you say in the book, she has a few different names.
Charlotte: Yeah, absolutely. She's mostly well known by a name that she took very late in life. In English she's mostly known as Maruki Toshi or Toshi Maruki. Maruki is her husband's family name. She didn't adopt it until very late in life, until the 1970s. Most of her artwork and most of her publications are under her given name, I guess her maiden name, you would call it: Akamatsu Toshiko or Toshiko Akamatsu. She flipped them back and forth. For the most part though, she just signed her artwork Toshi. So I kind of took that as permission to just call her Toshi in a kind of familiar sense because that way I didn't have to pay attention to when exactly she published in what name she published it under and things like that. She only took the name Maruki in the 1970s when her mother-in-law was actually murdered. She took it as a mark of affiliation to her mother-in-law more than as a married name. So I just call her Toshi.
Allison: That's very helpful. Thank you. So would you give us a sense of sort of the arc of her life? The book is not exactly organized chronologically, but pretty close. I hadn't thought about her as the Forrest Gump of this period, but it's once you said it, I was like, Oh yeah, absolutely right. She kind of shows up everywhere and all these important moments. Would you mind just giving us a little bit of a sense of the timeline of what she lived through and experienced and thought about?
Charlotte: I'm happy to talk about her whole life cause it's really is one of these moments where she just keeps showing up at these key places. She's born in 1912, in Hokkaido, the far northern part of Japan. She was born to people who I think of as colonial administrators. They weren't necessarily in the military. She was born to a Pure Land, Buddhist temple family, and Pure Land Buddhism was one of the main colonial structures that the Japanese government used for expanding infrastructure and extraction in the far north, at the time. She was right there, at the colonial outpost of Japan growing up. She has strong affiliation for the arts, from the very beginning. Got in trouble, in fact, for graffitiing over the temple walls after they had been painted one day as a kid. [laughs] She really wanted to go to Tokyo to go to art school. She managed to put together a dossier, which included some pretty amazing oil portraits, which were kind of the coin of the realm at the time for getting into art school. So she did some oil portraits and got into the Joshi Bijitsu Senmon Gakko, or Joshibi, which was the women's art college, in Tokyo and joined, the student body there, in the mid 1930s. That was really kind of an odd time because most of her classmates at Joshibi would have been there kind of as a finishing school. Most of them, their fathers were diplomats, their fathers were military officers. She was this like temple kid from rural Hokkaido. She was both in art school but she was also kind of immediately rocketed into these upper echelons of Tokyo elite via her friendships with these girls. She graduated and got a job as a elementary and junior high school art teacher. And she was doing that for a couple of years, just outside of Tokyo. She actually got that job on the recommendation of one of her classmate's diplomat fathers. She very much took advantage of those power structures there. She taught art for elementary and junior high school for a couple of years, but it was kind of really freaked out. She was afraid that she was gonna spend all of our time teaching and making a living and she was never going to make a statement as an artist. She got this crazy invitation. One of the kids in her school was the child of a diplomat who was going to get posted to Moscow. Toshi had apparently gotten enough of a reputation for being a lefty odd ball-type. None of the other teachers wanted to go. Essentially this diplomat was looking for a governess. They were like, well, Toshi is crazy enough. She'll go. And she was like, yeah, sign me up. In late 1930s, Japan, right around the time we've got all these like government crackdowns of leftists and stuff like that, she gets on a train, goes up to Hakoddate, takes the ferry over to Valdivostok, takes the trans Siberian express and is in Moscow. [laughs] She's a governess by day. And then on her one free day, she's going to museums and she's talking to Leninists and she's hanging out with the Soviet youth brigade. She's like doing all of this kind of amazing stuff. She actually did two stints, in the late thirties, as a governess posted to Moscow. She comes back to Japan after that, had a brief love affair with another artist. He jilted her and she was like, screw it, I'm going to go to the South Pacific.
Allison: As you do. [laughs]
Charlotte: Right. She's like, I want to hit the beach. So she bought a steerage class ticket on this ocean liner, it was like the Titanic kind of ocean liner, where first-class was like super ritzy, but she was down in steerage. And got down to Palau and got off the boat and Palau and just started kind of working it. She went to the headquarters of the NKKK, which was kind of like the Mantetsu, the Manchurian railroad, a kind of colonial infrastructure building, organization. But it was in the South Pacific. And they were into like pearl industries and phosphate and things like that. She just went and started like having beers with people. [Both laugh] And getting invited to parties and things like that. She ended up spending most of a year down in the South Pacific kind of touring around.
But she very rarely drew Japanese people when she was down there. She very rarely wrote about them in her diary. She spent most of her time learning basic Palauan and later learning basic Yapese and making friends with Islanders and sketching them, and their houses, and living with them for a time and things like that. So she had this total kind of like colonial experience. Goes back to Japan, marries fellow artist Maruki Iri. And they lived together in Tokyo for a couple of years in this artists' neighborhood of Ikebukuro, where they kind of know everybody who's anybody in the arts world. It turns out that her husband is from Hiroshima. And so August 1945, they hear this horrible bomb has been dropped. Within a week, they're on a train headed to Hiroshima. She's there for a couple of months in the immediate aftermath of the atomic bombing. Back to Tokyo. She's in Tokyo for a few years, suffering from radiation sickness and things like that. She gets a job for the communist newspaper Akahata and covers the Tokyo War Crime Tribunals. She starts painting pictures of the atomic aftermath, with her husband and in defiance of occupation censorship rules is touring them all around Japan. Of course with the end of the occupation in 1952, she takes on a much more publicly and openly activist bent and is at the forefront of 1960s, activist culture. So she really is, I mean, she's like everywhere.
Allison: It's unbelievable. The fact that they brought themselves to Hiroshima and then ended up with the radiation sickness and poisoning.
Charlotte: As far as we know that, her husband, Maruki Iri – his family was from up one of the river valleys. There was a little bit less fallout there, but he was mostly involved in kind of rebuilding the home and caring for the surviving folks. But he had two nieces who had been deployed as middle school students, down building I think, probably, firebreaks in the city. And so Toshi was going down into the city each day, looking for them and then also trying to scavenge food. It was probably for that reason that she got extra levels of exposure, gathering pumpkins from fields and eating them and stuff like that.
Allison: Do most Japanese people think of her first for her anti-nuclear art, the art she did later in life? What kind of association do you think most Japanese people would have, if you can generalize.
Charlotte: Yep. That's exactly it. So she is, in the Japanese scholarship she's often referred to as Maruki Iri and his wife Toshi.
Allison: That sucks.
Charlotte: Yeah, it does suck. That's carried over into Anglophone scholarship as well. Toshi and her husband Iri were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995, the 50th anniversary. At that point, a number of scholars, John Dower among them, really kind of got behind that nomination. There were a series of op-ed pieces and short articles and stuff like that published about them. And even in those it's "Maruki Iri and Toshi" or "Maruki Iri and Maruki Toshi" of the Nuclear Panels. That's really what they're mostly known for in Anglophone scholarship and in Japan as well that's the bulk of the information about them. In fact, the fact that she covered the Tokyo war crime tribunals was something that I discovered while I was working at the Prange archives. When I went back to the Maruki Museum in Higashi Matsuyama, just outside of Tokyo, the chief curator there Okamura Yukinori and I agreed to do a data dump with each other. I shared with him all of this stuff I'd found out about the Tokyo war crime tribunals. I had the galleys with the censorship marks and things like that, and it just blew his mind. Her reputation, not only in Japan but within the people who run the Maruki museum, is very much dominated by the nuclear panels.
Allison: Which is really interesting because one of the things you say in the book is that when she was in the war crime tribunals, she's thinking a lot about her own responsibility and artist's responsibility in general. It sounds like what you're saying is that most people had no idea, have no idea that she was involved.
Charlotte: Right, right. I don't think that the information that she was at the Tokyo war crimes tribunals is something that's at all broadly known. While she was at the tribunal, she was in the process of formulating her own sense of sketch work. I mentioned, I think at the beginning that oil portraits were kind of the coin of the realm in late 1930s Japan because they were very nationalist, proving that Japanese artists had mastered the tools of Western modernity, one of which was the oil portrait. She herself was much more committed to dessin, which was understood in Japan at the time as live sketching, sketching in situ from life. Part of the reason that she talks about being so interested in it was that it allowed for what she called a naked regard, the idea that anybody with a pencil in hand could look at anyone or anything critically and baldly and study it and record their observations on paper. At times, she called it democratic, but the word she used for it mostly is naked, art of bare naked perception.
She's got this really moving passage where she talks about observing Tôjô, who is being tried for war crimes. When she first gets into the war crime tribunals, she can't even figure out which one of the defendants he is. She's like they kind of all look the same. Many of them have shaved heads. Many of them have those pince-nez glasses. They're in military uniforms and she's like, I've seen so many pictures of Tôjô and he's here in front of me in this room and I can't figure out which one he is. And so she sits there and starts sketching. And as she's sketching, that's when she realizes that like, okay, this is the skeletal structure of Tôjô, but he's so much smaller. And as she sketches him, at first he seems really obstinate and he seems really uncowed, or he seems to be having no emotional reaction to the testimony that's going on. But as she sketches him, she realizes that he's sweating. The room is air conditioned, nothing in Japan is air conditioned at this time, but this room is air conditioned. And she's like, nobody in here should be sweating. And so she sees this drop of sweat on his cheek, and is like, now, now I'm seeing Tôjô.
Allison: I don't want to harp on war responsibility, but I think the reason I keep thinking about it is that she said that she was a war criminal herself. By any, let's call it a normal definition, that's not the case, but what she's reflecting on is her complicity and her participation, in the Japanese colonial empire.
Charlotte: When she returned from the South Pacific to Tokyo, she had an art exhibit with mostly of her pencil sketches and a few oil paintings that she had done of islands, Islanders, flora, fauna, those types of things, in Palau and Yap. She had been hoping to sell enough of her images to go back and buy an island down there from colonial government. I love it. Such hubris. But instead, some of the visitors to her exhibit were connected with a couple of the publishing houses and they offered her a pretty good paycheck to illustrate basically jingoistic children's literature. This is aimed at the earliest readers and it's mostly basic stories about Japanese kids and Islander kids in the South Pacific growing up in harmony and harvesting coconuts and things like that. They got her to illustrate these things and that's actually what supported her and her husband Iri through the war years and, afterwards for awhile. Most of those books were printed on cheap paper and most of them were destroyed, probably in the various bombings and things like that. They weren't things that she really spoke about. She did half a dozen children's books. Minami no shima "Islands of the South," for instance, was one of them. Yashi no mi no tabi, "The Journey of a Coconut." Yashino kino shita, "Underneath the Coconut Trees." Those types of titles that really paved the way for the next generation of soldiers and sailors to think about Japan's place in the Pacific as naturalized and as obvious.
It wasn't until the early 1980s when she was being interviewed by the journalist Usami Shô. The journalist had done some research and had found out that she had published one of these books and asked her about it. You are Akamatsu Toshiko or Maruki Toshi of the nuclear panels. You are this artist, this activist, you are this committed proletarian, political personality. What do you mean you illustrated this jingoistic kids book? How do you fit that into the story of who I think you are? And she pauses for a few minutes, and then she goes, "Senpan desu yo." So she goes, "I'm a war criminal," right? "I'm a war criminal. I illustrated books that glorified the war." It caused this miniature media explosion at the time but I think she was serious. I mean, she sat in the dock, sat in the courtroom watching Tojo and watching Minami and watching Kira watching all these people be tried. She listened to part of the trial that covered the rape of Nanjing. So she knew what a war criminal was. She knew herself and she believed herself for those actions to be a war criminal. Now, like you say, by any rational or reasonable, interpretation of the law, there's no way that she would have been charged for that. But at the start of the war crime trials they weren't sure who was going to be brought to trial, whether it would just be military officers and politicians, or whether would it also extend to newspaper owners and publishing industry and artists and things like that. So she at least had to entertain for a while the idea that artists would be brought to trial. And she actually was part of a group of artists who created a list of other artists who should be brought to trial. So she was pretty clear on this idea that there was a grassroots group effort into which a lot of different people had bought that perpetuated the war. She considered herself to be guilty, in that regard, which is pretty phenomenal, I think.
Allison: It really is. And I don't want to offer an excuse for war crimes, but I think that you make clear the context in which, she and her husband and their friends and family were pretty close to starvation for many years.
Allison: Would you mind talking a little bit about the context where she was making the choices or some of the choices to support the Japanese colonial empire by illustrating these children's books?
Charlotte: It was between basically say 1940, 1945. So it was a five year period, in which she participated in the war glorification publication industry, basically. When the journalist asks her, what were you thinking illustrating these books and she shares that story, his next question is, why did you do it? And she just says I was hungry. And she was. This was the kind of situation where she and Iri were going along the roadsides and digging up various kinds of weeds, they're doing the equivalent of like having dandelion leaf soup and stuff. They were scavenging for food. She was suffering from radiation sickness. Her health was not good. And, here's this question, right? Are you gonna die for your principals? Or are you gonna illustrate some children's books set in the South Pacific? She chooses to live. She chooses, yeah, give me the paycheck, give me the art supplies. I'll illustrate the kids' books. I'll eat. She made that decision for several years. I hesitate to say that's one of the things I respect her the most for, but it is. It's certainly one of the hallmarks of this thing called persistence that I was trying to get at as I was trying to figure her out and her context out. And I find it really helpful because like, you know, we're all dirty, right? All make compromises with power, and we're all enmeshed in one way or another with structures of violence from which we benefit – where we get our food, where we get our clothes, where we send our kids to school, how we get our paychecks. I don't think there's anybody who's a hundred percent clean or pure as much as, our 15-year-old selves might want to find that place. Rather than be paralyzed by that realization, I think what Toshi does is that she provides this really compelling story of someone who identified her privileges and who leveraged them to help herself and her families survive, but then also to help create a more just and equitable world in a way that's not perfect and not, you know, shiny clean, but it's like gritty and it's grungy and it's great. You've got to figure out a way to stay alive. She was clear, I want to publish, I want to exhibit, I want access to art supplies. And so she was willing to compromise and to make compromises on her compromise to get those things to happen. But she also persistently kept coming back to a core set of commitments, I guess it was, or core sense of how much was enough and how far was too far. If you look in her diaries, her handwritten diaries that she kept when she was in Micronesia in the South Pacific, for instance, you see all of these occasions where she's marking out things and she's writing and rewriting things. I had to spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to read handwritten journals on bad quality paper written on bouncing boats with salt spray, in fuzzy charcoal pencils, and then marked through, trying to figure out how to read all of those things. But she talks about Japanese colonial administrators in Micronesia hitting Islander women with bamboo canes and things like that. And then she'll mark that out and mark that out. She's not letting herself talk about that to publicly call those men to task would have been very dangerous for her. So what does she do instead though? She says, I'm not going to dignify them with my sketch work. Of all of the hundreds of hundreds of sketches she did it in Micronesia, probably five of them show Japanese people. Of those five only one or two does she even bother to complete their faces. But she has scores and scores and scores of sketch work instead that show Islander women mostly, but Islander women, men, children, structures, architecture, art forms, all these kinds of things. She's choosing where to focus her gaze. I think that's really gritty and I think she makes those same kinds of decisions when she's thinking about herself as a war criminal, she's like, being a war criminal is not some monstrous thing that only these powerful men did, we were all involved. She writes about the rape of Nanjing for instance. And she goes, you know, we knew perfectly well where our brothers and our uncles were going and we knew perfectly well what they were doing, and we didn't talk about it at the time. She's got this real sense of honesty about how compromised she and everybody was. I love that she's able to admit it.
Allison: Both her making the compromises and then her reflecting on the compromises makes her seem so human and relatable to me. I was reading your book in the last couple of weeks and we're recording this at the end of July. And it's really hard for me not to feel like this is a reflection of something that I feel like I'm going through myself and our country, the US is going through, at the moment. I don't want to put you on the spot.
Charlotte: Go ahead!
Allison: I don't want to use the word fascism lightly but to think about responsibility and complicity. And as you said so nicely before we all benefit in different ways from structures of violence. But what does it mean to try to be human and live in that? And not just either throw up your hands and say, okay, well, I guess I'll join the evil side or throw up your hands and say, there's no way to live. Do you think that such a kind of an anachronistic reading is helpful in any way, or is it something that we should just avoid? And another way to say that is I found a remarkable amount of hope and, I think I'm thinking of her now as a positive role model for myself personally, which I realize is narcissistic. I get that. But apparently this is what I'm looking for these days.
Charlotte: I do the same thing, yeah.
Allison: So do you think that that's helpful or useful at all? Or should we pay more attention to the ways in which my experience and her experience, say, are quite different?
Charlotte: I think, I think I look at her as a role model too as I was writing the book. I started the research for it just before my daughter was born. She's now 10, so there's a whole decade of my life there. We're always all the parts of ourselves at the same time. So part of my mind, part of myself was a researcher and a scholar of Japanese literature and visual culture. Part of me was a partner. Part of me was a mom. You can't separate those things out from each other. I wanted to know when people live through times that are hard, when you have to live under a condition where the government is not performing adequately and is doing things that are dangerous, doing things that are nationalistic and xenophobic, doing things that are marginalizing and killing people - How do you go through everyday life at the same time? I knew at some point I was going to have to try to explain this to my kid. And I feel like a lot of times in the classroom, we're thinking through these similar kinds of questions. I realized that I started to think about Toshi certainly as herself, living in her own historical context and things like that. But also as a way for me to really think through some of those questions about how do you live a life of which you can be mostly proud, while realizing at the same time that you benefit from governmental structures and educational structures and social structures and political structures and economic structures that are biased or racist or homophobic that are misogynist, xenophobic, and all those types of things. I found her story to be a really helpful hopeful guide because she does some pretty questionable stuff here and there. She takes advantage of the structures that are there to be taken advantage of. And yet she seems to find a way to always come back to her sense of basic responsibility to others, that I find really moving. I think that kind of anachronistic scholarship in some ways is great. [laughs]
Allison: As you were talking, I was thinking that, okay, well, if I wanted to extract lessons from her life and choices, it strikes me that hansei and reflection, critical self-reflection is an important thing that she seems committed to over the course of all these adventures that she goes on and all these difficult experiences. If I need to think of one thing to take from her model obviously persistence as well, your key concept, and persistence is perhaps made possible by that kind of self-reflection.
Charlotte: Yeah. And persistence, it's enabled by your place in these structures. I also, I'm a big syfi fan.
Allison: You wanna talk about Battlestar Galactica, cause I am ready. [laugh]
Charlotte: I think I was probably like 14, 15 when I read Ursula LeGuin story, "The Ones who Walk Away," for listeners who haven't read it, go read or Ursula LeGuin "The ones who walk away." But the idea is that you're in this utopian, like town and everything works great. Just imagine utopia. There's a coming of age requirement when you hit like 14, 15, or something like that, you have to go into this one building and spend a few minutes there and then you have to decide, are you going to stay or are you going to leave? And what you see when you get into the building is that all of the suffering, all of the illness, all of the hunger, all of the poverty, all of the things that are being vacuumed out of this utopia are being displaced onto a small subset of people. And you either have to decide I'll live with that and go back and live in utopia knowing, or you have to decide to walk away. And the story is called "the ones who walked away," but it doesn't tell you what they do when they walk away. And it assumes that those who stay, stay and don't rock the boat. I think as a 15-year-old, I was like, I'm going to be one of the ones who walk away! And now as a grownup, I'm like, I didn't walk away. How do you find a way to either be the one who walks away but doesn't ignore the fact that this town still exists or be one who stays and start dismantling pieces of the town, because it's not that clear cut. I'm finding that I have real respect for the grungy and the gritty and the gray area.
Allison: Do you happen to watch The Good Place, the TV show?
Charlotte: No, I don't. Should I?
Allison: Well, maybe, I don't know what you like, full disclosure. I didn't love the first season, but if you can make it through the first season, which you kind of have to see, it gets really smart and really funny. But part of the premise is that there is a system, a mathematical formula, to determine who gets into the good place and who gets into the bad place, meaning basically heaven and hell. And after a certain point, because of all the complicities you have been talking about, it's mathematically impossible for anyone to get into heaven these days. So something like for the last 500 years, no human has been able to get into heaven, even though they're just sort of going by this formula. I think the example they used was something like going to the store and buying a tomato is already basically an evil act because of all the structures of violence, and suffering, necessary to produce that tomato and get it to you into your hands. It's not unrelated to what you're talking about.
Charlotte: Excellent. The Good Place, ok.
Allison: I was wondering if you had a favorite piece of art that was included in the book, or that maybe you couldn't include. You have so many beautiful images in color and black and white and sketches and some of her oil paintings.
Charlotte: Gosh, a favorite. I love them all so much. One of the ones that I really like is, I think it's from Minami no hima, “Islands of the South”. This is a children's book and it was aimed at the earliest readers - four or five year old types of things. It's got a note to elder brothers and sisters or mothers, on the assumption being that someone else is going to have to read the story to the kids. It's a full page spread, full color spread, which would have been extravagant at the time. It shows a phosphate mining rig and some greenery and things like that. Anyone who's looked at artwork from the late 1930s and early 1940s in Japan and particularly illustrated maps and books aimed at children and early readers and things like that, you're really familiar with this kind of set of tropes where places on a map are also natural resources to be extracted. So islands are coconuts. Some islands are phosphate mines. Malaysia is rubber plantations. Certain islands are oil rigs. There's just a way in which the place is the product that the Metropole extracts from the colonies. And so these particular islands that are being illustrated and talked about in this book Minami no shima are phosphate islands. So things that were being rapaciously mined to feed the Japanese military. And at first glance, if you read the words on the page which were written by someone else, and you look at the image, it just appears to be another one of these images of colonial extraction, and kind of like, look what great infrastructure Japan is bringing, look what great employment opportunities, look how advanced Japan is. But if you look at the artwork that Toshi did carefully, you'll realize that at the horizon line, they're these tiny little figures. They're people. And once I saw the people there, I realized how clever she was. She and a lot of artists and people who had been attentive to visual culture in the twenties and early thirties were really familiar with these techniques of material critique, where identifications between workers and material objects were very strong. For folks in the US we might think of Charlie Chaplin as he goes through the gears of the machine, right. That wonderful scene. But this idea that workers don't just pull levers and crank gears and things like that to produce products. But workers are themselves kind of ground up by the machines that they man. It's a very common form of proletarian critique. She's got it right there in this kid's book. When you see the little figures there, you can see the way that the phosphate mine is set up, and it looks like this giant set of metallic jaws. And about to be snapped up and crunched in these giant metallic jaws are these Islander workers who, as I know from having read her handwritten diaries were mostly displaced young boys and men, many of whom had Islander mothers and who had Japanese fathers who had disowned them or abandoned them, or had them out of wedlock and things like that. And so they're half Japanese, half Islander folks who are going to work in these phosphate mines. She's sneaking it in right there between the lines, this incredible critique that you can only really see and really access from a distance. I don't think that 12-year-old boys who are reading this to their five-year-old younger brothers would have seen in that this proletarian critique. But I'm absolutely convinced it's there. And once I started seeing it in her artwork, it's so prevalent. I just love it. I love it. [laughs]
Allison: The images are incredible. There's so many and you, described them really well, and then you turn the page and there they are. I can imagine that getting permission, let alone the cost of actually publishing that could have been really challenging. Would you mind talking a little bit about how you were able to include so many of these wonderful images in the book?
Charlotte: Part of it was that I had a subvention from my home university to support the publication of the book. So if anyone out there is listening and you're like, why do you do service for your department? This is why. Right.
Charlotte: I had been director of undergrad studies for three years and then director of grad studies for three years. And part of my agreement to do those positions was I want some pictures in my book. And so when it comes time, I want a subvention. So I was able to get that in place. And I also had this invention from the Schoff publication fund from Columbia University. So that was part of it. But I also grew up in a family of artists, my brother and my sister and my mom are all artists. My dad was an engineer and was a draftsman. I alas have no skills in that. But, I had a sense of how important visuals were. And I felt like I couldn't write a book about the visual arts of transwar Japan without a lot of images. The Maruki museum and the people at the Maruki museum were incredible and just made everything available. Working at small archives like that in small museums like that, if you're looking for places to do research it's so helpful, cause it's such an intimate atmosphere. It's not like going to the National Diet Library where there's like eight million different forms you have to fill out. I literally just started showing up at the museum. And I showed up for like 10 days in a row and looked at everything I could look at and talked to all the staff members and talked to the people who were sweeping the floors and talked to the people at the bus stop. And finally, someone just said, what are you doing here?
Allison: You're very friendly, but what are you doing?
Charlotte: What are you doing here? And I'm like, I want to write this book. At which point, the person who had been mopping the floors I realized was actually the head curator. And he was like, well, come on back to the office. And we sat down and he started showing me all these materials. After another week of showing up every day, he said, I'm going to introduce you to the people who live next door to the museum who happened to be the rights holders for all of the artwork, you know? [laughs]
Charlotte: I talked to them, just through a kind of consistently going back again and again, and again. I made several trips to the museum, I think on the second or third trip, the rights holder, Maruki Iri's niece who lives right next door to the museum still today said, you know, Hey, we've got these handwritten diaries, you know, do you want to look at them? And I was like, yes, yes! I also asked, could I look at the sketches that she did and can I take them out of the bindings that they're in? I thought she was going to say no, but she said, yeah, go right ahead. And then I took them out of the bindings they were in, in part because I wanted to hold them in slightly better light to see cause the reflection was making it problematic. But at that point I realized stuff was written on the back of them. And so I was able to look at all of that sort of stuff. I did some of the grunt work things. They had a festival for the museum, and I helped clean for that kind of stuff. I volunteered to translate the museum guide to English. And so it was a kind of process of getting to know them over the course of a several years actually. And so when it came time to ask for arts permissions, they were like, well, of course, of course we want you to have arts permissions. Which was great. They were able to also, then provide me with a written thing for when I went to like the Prange archives in Maryland. And some of the other places where I could just say that the family has given me permission to make high quality images of these for publication. It was an involved process, worth it.
Allison: It's incredible. It's absolutely incredible. It strikes me too that persistence is clearly a research method for you as well, right? Let's say friendly persistence, right? It gets stuff done.
Charlotte: It does. It's turned out to be useful for a number of other things. Some of my other research is on medieval Buddhist stuff and trying to get permissions for images that are held in temple store houses and stuff can be difficult, but I've found, when in doubt, if you've hit a wall and you can't get the permissions, best thing to do is just to go and show up and start talking to people. I was at Rokuhara Mitsuji outside of Kyoto trying to get permission to reproduce that famous image of Kûya Shônin where he's got the little Buddhas coming out of his mouth. And I couldn't get anybody to write back to me and tell me it was okay. So I showed up and I bought a cold tea from the vending machine, and I went to just talk to the guy at the ticket window and I showed him my letter. And I was like, I'm trying to get this permission for a while. And he's like, ah, hang on a second. He's like walks over. And he comes back with an Abbott's signature. [both laugh] I was like, thank you! So when in doubt, show up and start talking to the staff.
Allison: And be friendly, that's awesome.
Charlotte: And be friendly, yeah.
Allison: I was wondering too, about your, your previous book. If you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about connections as you see between the two projects or how both those two projects and those two books both fit into your trajectory and interests broadly.
Charlotte: On first glance, they seem to have nothing to do with another. The first book is about medieval Japanese, Buddhist explanatory tails. And the second is about 20th century Japanese visual art in the trans war period. I guess you would call them materially based approaches. I'm really interested in putting things into not just historical context, but material context. In both of them, I look at things like paper quality and ink, and the artwork that accompanies text. I really kind of try to think about the architecture, where people were, what they could likely hear. A really embodied approach to thinking about the ways in which literature and art is produced. So rather than looking at the final product only, really kind of thinking about, what it felt like or what it may have felt like in that time and place and what the possibilities of action and interpretation would have been at the time.
And there's also a much less abstract immediate connection, which is that in the process of researching the first book, I was doing a lot of hanging around and talking with people in temple treasure houses and ticket stands at temples and things like that. And I was talking to a group of Jôdo Shinshû or Pure Land Buddhist nuns in Northwestern Kyoto and asking them some questions about their inventory, in their temple repository. And one of them finally said to me, if you want to see some really good artwork that you should go over to our contemporary wing, where we have a lot of our social justice activism and artwork up. And I went over there to that wing and they had a series of sketches by Toshi, hanging there. And I was like, Oh, I want to write about, these. And I thought it would just be a single article. I was like, I'm going to write about these. I was talking to the Jôdo Shinshû nuns. And they were like, yeah, the artist grew up as the daughter of a Jôdo Shinshû priest in Hokkaido and all this kind of stuff. They were really proud of them and interested. And so that's what really got me turned on to Toshi to begin with.
Allison: That's so cool. I think of your first book is as being partially about embodiment – materiality as well, but also bodies. Toshi seems to be particularly interested in embodiment with her theories of nakedness. And I would imagine that if someone is suffering from radiation poisoning, it's also partially about living in your body. I was wondering if maybe there was a connection there too.
Charlotte: Definitely. Yeah. Yeah. The first book is called Miracles of Book and Body, and really kind of thinking about the ways in which, the texts that we read and the stories that we hear aren't just things that come into our ears or come into our eyes in a kind of passive sense, but really kind of take up symbiotic residence within our bodies. It sounds kind of weird when I say it like that, but that's what I was thinking.
Allison: It sounds great.
Charlotte: This is stuff that other artist-anthropologists have also mentioned. You see it also in the writings of people like Joe Sacco, comic journalists, who talk about the importance of sketch work as an embodied practice. In order to really draw something, you have to imagine what it would feel like to do that thing. Joe Sacco is written about if you wanted to draw a soldier holding a gun, committing a massacre, you have to think about where your hands would be and where your arms would be and how heavy the gun would be, and how you would stand on that terrain. And so the process of drawing brings you closer to that perpetrator's point of view. If you want to draw the person who's been shot, you have to think about how that body is laying and how the arms are turning. I think Toshi is also doing that, when she's watching Tojo for instance, or when she's engaging with any number of different people that she's sketching. You can never really get in someone else's shoes or skin or something like that but there's this, I think, imaginative leap and embodied leap that you have to take to think yourself in that direction a little bit. That's something that's going on in both of the books. In the third book too.
Allison: Oh, what's the third book?
Charlotte: The third book I'm going to go back and look at, some of the sermons of the Zen master Dogan, 13th century Zen master Dogan. Ones that have become really important touchstones for Soto Zen practice, certainly in Japan, but also throughout the world, Germany in the United States and things like that. So kind of pick some of the main ones. I'm interested in figuring out things like when and where he delivered it. For instance, he's got one sermon called "On heat and cold," and he delivered it in the middle of the winter. Bitterest, coldest winter in like 50 years, at a time when the monks to whom he would have been lecturing were calorie deprived and quite hungry. I'm trying to put that sermon back into it's embodied context. What does it mean to listen to that sermon not in the 20th century necessarily, or not in a kind of disembodied abstract way, but to think about it as a sermon that he delivered to cold hungry men who had been working on work crews to build the temple. Put Zen back into bodies
Allison: It sounds like you're in the middle of it now, but would you mind talking a little bit about your writing process or, how you write? Things that work or things that don't work
Charlotte: I realized one of the people who I think with a lot, and I don't even know that he knows this, but, is a guy named Butch Ware, Rudolph T Ware III is his publishing name. And he goes by Butch. He wrote a book called The Walking Quran and he and I have run into each other in a few different venues. And one of the things that we have in common has to do with the way that we approach scholarship. Without putting words into his mouth, from my own point of view, I assume that people in different times and different places knew how to navigate their worlds better than I do. The most, not just respectful, but most insightful thing I can do is to approach the things they've left behind - the words, the images, the textiles, whatever they left behind as embodiments of their ways of knowing. I try to start my own writing and start my research processes by giving priority to those words and textiles and images and things like that, and think up and out from them. So in terms of my own writing, I always start with close reading, visual analysis. If it's a sketch that I'm looking at, before I'm thinking about a lot of historical context or scholarly conversations or where I can make my intervention or anything like that. I really like to spend hours, days, weeks if I have the luxury of it, really looking and listening to the objects that people from other times and places have left us. I find that that means that if you spend time with those things, structures and terms and ideas and forms of knowledge generate from them. To give a concrete example, I had noticed in reading English language translations of sutras, that the word "to read" was showing up in all kinds of places that I wasn't expecting it. I thought, well, what is this word for "read"? I went back and I was looking at the Taisho canon, and I discovered that the word that had been translated into English as "read" was – I stopped counting at 24, but there were 24 different characters, Chinese characters that were being translated with English "to read." And I thought, people chose those characters for a reason. If I listened to them and took them seriously as different kinds of reading at the very least, or maybe different acts entirely. Once I did that and started rereading the sutras without assuming that I was going to land at something that would strike me in the 21st century as "reading," I started realizing that they were talking about encountering texts as breathing or as eating, or as ruminating, or as chewing on, as sort of like a wind that comes into the nose sometimes, reading comprehension issues, or like things that got stuck in your throat and couldn't come out all the way. It opened up an entirely different way of thinking about what reading meant for people who had encountered the sutures in medieval Japan, which in turn ended up becoming the thing I argued for in the first book. This kind of symbiotic, text / flesh amalgamation. So that's how I write. [laughs]
Allison: That's so cool. So do you have any particular favorites, books or articles or films that you would you'd like to recommend?
Charlotte: Within the field of Japanese studies – I'll limit myself there cause otherwise I'm gonna end up talking about like Ursula LeGuin and in N.K. Jemison and all that kind of stuff, speculative fiction – one of the things I've been really interested in thinking through is the ways in which our notions of Japanese studies and Japanese literature themselves are particularly constrained by the product or the intellectual projects of the early 1800s and the creations of some of the zenshuu, the collected works, and how deeply that was connected to kokugaku or sort of nativist nationalist notions of Japan that are just wildly inaccurate, I think. Some of the scholarship that I am finding the most exciting at the moment is by people like Zelideth Rivas, who writes about Japanese diaspora populations in Brazil. She's got this great article, on the Brazilian manyoushu that I encourage everyone to read. Ignacio Lopez Calavo has also got just a huge number of – I don't think he sleeps. He has a ridiculous number of books about the Japanese diaspora in Latin and South America. I've also gotten really interested in work by people like David Laurie and Brian Steiniger, Torcal Dorothy, who've been rethinking the contours of ancient Japan. Kind of really helping us rethink and unthink the ways in which modern bounds of the Japanese nation state have constrained, our imagination of, the ancient archipelago, and really kind of revealing it as a much more textured, I don't know if multiethnic is quite the right word, but certainly multi-lingual multicultural, type of place. Reggie Jackson is work on, Textures of Mourning the ways it really takes seriously the calligraphy of the Genji and the textiles of it. His work on Noh robes I really love. As a last thing I will mention, and this is a shameless plug, Verge: Studies in Global Asias, which I'm the associate editor of is a journal that at the risk of sounding self-aggrandizing, I love reading every single issue of it. That's my list. Zelie Rivas, Ignacio Lopez Calavo, Reggie Jackson, David Laurie, Brian Steiniger, Andrew Leon, Torcal Duthy, and Verge.
Allison: That's wonderful. I'm sure lots of listeners will want to follow up and find articles and books.
Allison: I've so enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for the time that you've shared with us and, for all these great ideas and reflections.
Charlotte: Cool. Thank you so much. And again, I really appreciate your work on this podcast, and I'm looking forward to listening to a bunch of the different ones that you've posted too. It's been a real pleasure to think about this with you.
Allison: Thanks for listening to this episode of Michigan Talks Japan. If you're interested, please check out other episodes, which are available where you found this one and through all podcasting platforms. We're always interested in your reactions or comments, so please reach out on facebook or twitter @umcjs. I want to thank the Center for Japanese Studies and Kiyo Tsutsui for green-lighting the project. Thanks also to Reggie Jackson for our theme song and David Merchant for IT support. This podcast was co-produced by Robin Griffin, Justin Schell, and myself, and edited by Robin Griffin and Justin Schell. I’m Allison Alexy and I hope you’ll join us for the next episode, a conversation with Dr. Suma Ikeuchi.