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terre thaemlitz writings

2014 In Review
- Terre Thaemlitz

Originally published in Playlist Society (FR), January 2 2015.



Most Memorable Recording:

June 18 sexist heckling of Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly member Ayaka Shiomura by Right-Wing Assembly members

On June 18, Shiomura was giving a (quite mundane) speech to fellow assembly members about the difficulties faced by women under Tokyo's child-rearing policies, when Akihiro Suzuki of Prime Minister Abe's ruling LDP shouted from the rafters, "Why don't you hurry up and get married yourself already?" Although Suzuki was clearly telling her to shut up and quit politics (referring to the persistent pressure on Japanese women to retire from employment upon marriage), in his later public apology he claimed his comment was not specifically directed at Shiomura, but to all women, claiming, "Lightheartedly, I hoped women will get married soon because I thought that might alleviate the problems we face in Japan of low birth rates and late marriage"… as though that was somehow less fucked up?

As the assembly broke into laughter, another heckler who still remains anonymous joined in, "Can you even have children?". It is worth noting that the woman targeted with such disdain is a member of the utterly Neo Liberal, right-of-center "Mina-no-to (Everyone's Party)." She is by no means someone who would define herself as a feminist, nor someone I would personally consider a political ally. The fact a person such as her drew such fire is a testament to the depths of ongoing misogyny in 2014 Japan. In the video, you can see Shiomura is caught off guard, and initially laughs along with the heckling - an uncomfortable reflex laughter born of the moment of surprise, recognizable to anyone who has been publicly harassed before. (In my youth, I know I met more than one fag basher with an initial smile.) Then, a few seconds later, her voice trembles, about to cry. I find it so heartbreaking and difficult to watch, precisely because the seemingly exceptional nature of the incident expresses social dynamics that are so prosaic.

Most Absent Recording:

Hakuo Yanagisawa (former Japanese Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare): the "birthing machine" speech.

Earlier this year I was asked by the Japanese cinema scene writer Takashi Ujita to produce text, illustrations, and a limited edition 7-inch for the music section of a new cultural journal, Farben. At one point in my text I discussed Yanagisawa's infamous 2007 speech on Japan's population decline, in which he referred to women as "birthing machines" and stated the only solution to the decline was to speed up the assembly line. Despite social outrage at his crass objectification of women, as well as his ignorant lack of insight into the social causes for the population decline (which are rooted in discriminations against women enacted by the very institutions of family and industry Yanagisawa appealed to), he managed to keep his position as Health Minister. (Need I even say he was also a member of the LDP?)

For the B-side of my 7-inch, I wished to do a composition processed from a recording of his speech. However, despite the best efforts of myself and Ujita's staff (which is well connected to Japanese film and television industries), we were unable to locate any trace of the recording - online or offline. It seems the recording had been successfully purged from all online sites, which goes to show that total erasure from the internet is possible (with the proper governmental power behind you). Given the endless and futile struggles of myself and colleagues to control the online movement of our own productions, I confess I was surprised by the thoroughness of the files' deletion. Inquiries to television stations that had aired the recording around the time of the incident also proved futile, as they all said no tapes remain - which strikes me as incredibly suspicious.

Unable to find recordings of the speech anywhere, I produced my track from recordings of media coverage and protests around Yanagaisawa's speech. His recording's absence provided a frightening counterpoint to the larger theme of my text, titled "Naisho-Wave Manifesto (Secrecy-Wave Manifesto)," which focussed on the functions and continued necessity for closets, silence and secrecy as means of self defense within cultural peripheries. While I spoke of silence as one strategy for survival amidst oppressive dominant cultural powers, the incredibly thorough erasure of Yanagisawa's speech from history demonstrated a dominant culture's ability to silence.

Most "Obscene" Arrests:

December 3, 2014, arrests of Minori Watanabe (a.k.a. Minori Kitahara) and Megumi Igarashi (a.k.a. Rokudenashi-ko) on obscenity charges.

As I was writing this - just a week before national elections that will decide if Prime Minister Abe can extend his reign - the LDP and their police minions struck again with the December 3rd arrests of artist Megumi Igarashi and illustrator/sex shop operator Minori Watanabe. Both were arrested on obscenity charges for the display of a vaginal objéct by Igarashi in Watanabe's shop. The case involves an extremely vague application of censorship laws, which strictly prohibit the photographic portrayal of genitals, but generally do not pertain to objects or graphic images (illustrations, etc.). Igarashi was previously arrested in July for distributing scan data of her genitals for use in 3D printers - the technical basis of her arrest was not the final 3D objects, but the sharing of the data itself. The police claimed sharing images of her vagina amounted to the "distribution of pornographic materials." This strikes me as absurd as arguing that medical industries are no longer allowed to scan genital regions, or distribute scan data between doctors. And what about full-body scanners at airports? Clearly, the police and government are exploiting their ability to apply these laws as they wish, abusively, and without consistency or self-reflection.

Sadly, at the moment, Igarashi continues to remain in custody. Watanabe has been released from detention, although I am sure her troubles are also far from over. I have seen Western press coverage on Igarashi's arrest, which is always framed in relation to familiar issues of artistic expression and censorship. However, I suspect Watanabe's arrest was motivated by reasons that extend beyond complicity with displaying Igarashi's work. Watanabe is a staunch critic of Abe, and frequently targets him in her regular political cartoon column. As fantastic as it may seem to foreign eyes, it is highly likely that her arrest was a means of stopping her column during this critical week before elections. (By the time this article is printed, the elections will be over - I sadly predict Abe's continuation in office. In all of the years since the end of World War II, the LDP has retained constant political control of Japan for all but about two years in the mid-1990's, and the two or three years just before Abe came to power. I don't see their reign ending soon. UPDATE: Abe and the LDP won as predicted.)

To provide some context to the arrests, let me explain that under Prime Minister Koizumi (2001-2006, LDP), Abe was personally selected to be in charge of "cleaning up" Japan's educational system. This entailed the immediate destruction of a burgeoning movement for "gender-free" education in public schools, as well as the removal of feminist texts from public libraries. If you are saying to yourself, "Removing books sounds like outright censorship," you would be correct. One of the first authors targeted by this censorship was the widely known feminist Chizuko Ueno, who is a professor at Tokyo University, and has been an active writer, lecturer and organizer since the late '60s. It was in 2006, around the same time her books were being removed from shelves, that Ueno was schedule to be the first speaker at a series of human rights lectures sponsored by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. At the last minute, the government forced her cancellation out of fear she might use the term "gender-free." I doubt the irony of censoring someone's speech at a human rights conference was lost on the LDP. I think they just didn't care - and have the power not to care. So Abe has very direct and ongoing links to the suppression of feminist and gender discourse for well over a decade. I know that both Watanabe and Igarashi have long been active participants in Ueno's regular feminist meetings, "Chizuko-zemi (Chizuko Seminar)," and all are surely under constant governmental and police surveillance.

I personally find Igarashi's works lacking, in that they are generally benign objécts which only take on depth within the context of Japan's climate of censorship (such as her most famous piece, the "vaginal kayak"). The works themselves do not provide many hints to the larger cultural struggles that frame their production. By Western standards, they are "harmless" - which, with time, surely translates into "timeless" within art markets, once the actual contexts of violence giving rise to their production have faded from memory and all that remains is Igarashi's "gesture" of self-representation. (This is one reason I hate Fine Art.) And this is perhaps why most press coverage has focussed on Igarashi rather than Watanabe, since the liberal rhetoric of struggling for "artistic expression" is far less culturally challenging than publishing more precise discussions on contemporary gender struggles. Hell, most Neo Liberals will defend "artistic expression," if only because they have money invested in that stock market called Fine Art, and "sex sells." But I am utterly convinced artistic censorship is not at the core of these arrests. Nor should it be discussed as such.

The core of these arrests are abuses by the conservative LDP and the too-powerful Japanese police force, all of which follow in the traditions of Reagan and Thatcher: investments into militarization, increased limitations on civil rights and the inability to question government, the privatization of government agencies, the dismantling of social services, the reduction of education funding to keep the masses ignorant, a retreat to conservative binary-gender models, pushing the endless mantras of "family values" and "private home ownership" in order to economically and ideologically enslave people through 35-year mortgages (you own nothing!)… It even has a catchy nickname intended to capture the glory of "Reaganomics" - "Abenomics."

Illustration credits : Comatonse Recordings