April 13, 2016

“Protest” Is the Word On the Street in Noriko Manabe’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

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Musical protest helps the Japanese “to voice what they cannot ordinarily express in words” according to Princeton resident Noriko Manabe’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima (Oxford $27.95). It’s a formidable work: 433 pages, 35 pages of notes, a nearly 15-page-long bibliography, with web icons interspersed throughout the text highlighting links to pronuclear public relations videos, press conferences, music videos, extensive footage from anti-nuclear demonstrations and rallies, plus color photos on a companion website.

An associate professor in music studies at Temple University, Manabe has conducted field research on Japanese hip-hop and reggae scenes and the Japanese post-Fukushima antinuclear movement. She also has a practicing musician’s hands-on acquaintance with her subject from four years composing, arranging, and playing keyboards with the Princeton-based group Wayside Shrines, which broke up last fall. Although Paul Muldoon’s lyrics are seldom overtly political, the name of the group’s brilliant LP, The Word On the Street, could serve as an alternate title for Manabe’s book, which takes readers to demonstrations and performances on the streets of Japan.

As Manabe makes clear, in Japan “even naming the disaster is fraught with issues,” the preferred term being “3.11,” a “metonym” that “refers to tragic events without naming their painful particulars,” such as the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, the 16,000 lives lost, the 3,000 missing, the 200,000 evacuees “who remain in temporary homes” while “millions more worry about the consequences of radiation” after the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex, the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.

The Language of Children

The Chekhov story, “A Trifle from Life,” ends with a boy “trembling, stammering and crying” because he’s been deceived by an adult who had made it worse by callously dismissing the deception, as if the boy’s trust in him was not to be taken seriously: “It was the first time in his life that he had been brought into such coarse contact with lying.” Until then he hadn’t known that there were in the world “a great many things for which the language of children has no equivalent.”

The story’s last words reminded me of being read to by my grandmother from a “grown-up” novel, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano. At 10, I was pleased that she would share a real book about the war with me but I didn’t like the way she got around the swearing by going “blankety-blank.” During the same visit, I was glancing through another book by John Hersey when my grandmother pounced on it and took it away; you’d have thought I’d picked up a poisonous snake. Instead of telling me why a book by a writer she admired was forbidden, all she said was, “it’s not for kids.” The book was Hiroshima. In the little bit of skimming I’d done I’d felt the sick-making shock of sentences like “Now not many people walked in the streets, but a great number sat and lay on the pavement, vomited, waited for death, and died.” My grandmother’s behavior upset and confused me almost as much as finding out that a hundred thousand people had been killed by the atomic bomb dropped by a plane like the ones my Army Air Force uncles had piloted.

It seemed there was no acceptable, comprehensible equivalent in “the language of children” for Hiroshima.

Naming Disaster

Noriko Manabe’s compelling monograph demonstrates the ways in which nuclear power in 21st-century Japan is hyped as a force for good by the government (think adult) providing electricity for the citizens (think children). Around this time last month, millions of Japanese observed a moment of silence to mark the fifth anniversary of 3.11, as it’s known by people who “do not want to see Fukushima become shorthand for nuclear disaster” and who object to the protest chant “No More Fukushima.” After noting that “the naming of horrific events is a political statement,” Manabe explains why she’s separating the Fukushima Daiichi accident from the other two disasters and will “reference it accordingly.” Otherwise, to refrain from using the word “echoes the avoidance of discussion of the nuclear accident, its consequences, and its policy implications in the media and the society at large.” Moreover, “a taboo air surrounds discourse on nuclear power,” and “antinuclear debate on television has been minimal” while “entertainers who speak out against nuclear power have been ignored or openly persecuted.”

The Word on the Street

In Manabe’s Cyberspace chapter, under the subhead “Music as Mobilization,” she focuses on an Indie rock band from her birthplace Kyoto (she grew up in North Carolina) called Frying Dutchman whose “Human Error” is not a song so much as “an impassioned seventeen-minute rant over a simple two-chord acoustic riff on an E-bass pedal.” In a subtitled video shot in January 2012 on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto with life-goes-placidly-on views of people strolling across a bridge or cycling along the riverside, lead singer Lee Tabasco, a skinny youth with a Mohawk haircut, moves about mike in hand eloquently discoursing on “collective amnesia” and how “the electricity powering our lives” is “built on the suffering of others” as he demands that listeners “peer deep into Pandora’s box.” Within a month, the video had been seen over 400,000 times, and would be used by the group for mobilizing people to take part in a “parade of one million” to “memorialize those lost on 3.11 and to protest against the continued use of nuclear power.” As Manabe explains, the “parade” became a vast community of people connected by playing the song from disparate locations at set times; the movement spread, spawning 62,550 organized events and finding its way to a demonstration in New York City where Japanese and American women took turns reciting the English translation of Tabasco’s words. Existing simultaneously in cyberspace and real space, the combined versions of “Human Error” had about 1.2 million hits as of July 2015.

The Real Terror

The most dramatic case against Japan’s nuclear plants is made not in the music of protest but in the grim possibility of terrorist incursions like the ones hypothesized in an April 4 New York Times op-ed (“Could There Be a Terrorist Fukushima?”) and in an article in the April 7 Daily Beast (“Japanese Nuclear Plants Are Vulnerable to Terror Attacks”), which points out that in Japan “the issue of nuclear security is treated with a strangely insouciant attitude by the authorities; unarmed guards keep watch outside of nuclear facilities, there is poor surveillance of sites and, incredibly, there are no mandated background checks on workers, allowing members of organized crime gangs access to radioactive material.”

“Insouciant” — another word for which the language of children has no equivalent. Like the adult in Chekhov’s story offhandedly betraying a child’s trust, the nuclear establishment denying public debate on a matter of life and death apparently has the same casually dismissive attitude toward security. “Trust us” is the message — while the “child” in the form of the potential victims, the worldwide public, trembles, stammers, cries, protests, demonstrates, and ultimately, in the likely event of more “human error,” suffers, waits for death, and dies.

waysideshrines-webHello Goodbye Wayside Shrines

Wayside Shrines, which performed here during last years Communiversity, embodies its own memorial, given the group’s name, taken from a Paul Muldoon poem whose primary image is the makeshift shrine marking the scene of a car crash in which a young woman died. The shrine is formed of handwritten notes, “a cache of snapshots in a fogged-up globe,” not unlike other sidewalk, street, or wayside memorials that have come and gone around the world, including the one outside Okawa Elementary School in the Fukushima prefecture, and the extensive street memorial to those killed in the November 2015 massacre at the Bataclan in Paris, where the symbolic object of the attacks was the music of infidels otherwise known as rock and roll.

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Noriko Manabe will be giving a talk titled Keeping it real: Authenticity and Japanese hip-hop” at City College, CUNY, on May 12. In June she will speak at conferences in Kobe and Lisbon. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is the first part of a two-part monograph on the text and context of protest music in Japan. The second monograph, Revolution Remixed, examines the types and uses of intertextuality.