Sunday, November 19, 2017

Public Mourning and Human Accidents

Public mourning has a strong presence and significance in Japan.

People stop at jizos (stone Buddhas) or small shrines to pray for lost ones. The words 'namuamidabutsu' come unbidden to the lips of travelers in historic dramas. Watching the news or talking about it with Japanese, you hear arama, taihen or kawaiso (Oh dear, That's terrible, Poor thing). These are the semi-conscious ways in which Japanese express ninjou (人情), sympathy or human feeling.

All this stops in the case of suicides on railway lines. Although colloquially called 電車飛び込む自殺 (densha tobikomi jisatsu, suicide by throwing oneself at a train), inside trains they are announced by the euphemism 人身事故 (jinshin jiko, literally human body accident). The use of 'accident' distinguishes it from 'incident' (事件 jiken), a passive term used for a crime implying criminal fault, while the use of the depersonalized 人身 (jinshin, or human body as found in collocations like 'slave trade' or 'human sacrifice'.

I have gone from a daily 5 hour to just under 3 hour commute, time which I use for reading and writing on my tablet. I haven't kept track of how many times my trains have been stopped or delayed, but it is several times a year as I pass through the urban areas of Kyoto and Osaka on my route.  I have noted reactions to the announcement - an old man beside me groans and sighs. A woman starts texting she will be late. Workmen tsk tsk. Someone laughs.

I have often wondered how Japanese people, so normally respectful in the face of death, can appear so callous regarding the no less tragic 'human accidents'. 

As Saldaña (2011) notes, using the euphemism has the effect of 'shrouding' or framing such suicides as a routine part of the commute. In this context, a 'human accident' is a delay equal to 'maintenance' or 'weather warnings' and is thus equally unworthy of sympathy, except for the inconvenienced passengers themselves. The passive and depersonalized nature of the term 'human accidents' certainly contributes to this normatization of suicide-by-train.

Although the term 'human accident' may seem euphemistic, it is the perfect moniker. To the Japanese, these people are accidents, breaking over others in unavoidable ways. They have chosen to extinguish themselves in a way most visible to others, that most affects them, and worst of all, inconveniences them the most.

However, this normatization of 'human accidents' conflicts with the popular impression that suicides by train involve a high cost to the deceased's family. Possibly to prevent other suicides, a myth of high cost has grown that employs both Japanese of funeral rituals and the obligation to not inconvenience the family. Japanese urban legend states that families of human accidents' will have to pay 100 million yen in reparations - roughly a million dollars. In fact, pay puts rarely exceed 1 million yen (J-Cast 2008). This legend serves as a warning or precaution to ward off people thinking of taking their lives on the train tracks. Ironically, by affixing a high price to human accidents, Japanese common sense replicates one of the rituals of the funeral, the paying of money gifts to help cover costs of the ceremony, and appeals to the Japanese sense of family by incurring guilt of leaving remuneration costs to loved ones. 

The flip side of this phenomenon is that such accidents are often caused by the quest for profit through exploitation of workers conditioned to conformity, who can only think of death as escape from work. This is exacerbated by the paucity of mental health resources, the pressure to work overtime, and to sacrifice all for the workplace, all of which combine to make the site of transit to the office also the site of the decision to end it in the most final way.

I hope to do some preliminary surveys on this topic in my classes this semester.


Saldaña, Mark, "Tokyo's "Human Accidents": Jinshin Jiko and the Social Meaning of Train Suicide" (2011). Anthropology Honors Projects. Paper 10.

人身事故という名の「電車飛び込み自殺」 「遺族に1億円請求」は都市伝説か. (2008).
[Is the 1 million yen payout an urban legend?] . J-cast news.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Bladerunner - Sexism, French Dialogue, and No Tears In The Rain

The major success of director Denis Villeneuve's Bladerunner 2049 is that it does not feel like a true sequel to Bladerunner. Like James Cameron's Aliens, the only other successful continuation of a singular Ridley Scott film narrative, BR 2049 is a story told in different corners of the same universe, but without the slavish need to follow the main characters and the headliner actors that play them around the same old set pieces. By contrast, sequels and prequels like Alien 3-5 and Covenant are burdened by canon in their attempt to milk more profit out of the cash cows they attempt to turn into franchises, causing them to fall short in vision and originality.

BR 2049 has largely escaped the sequel trap. It envisions technology (AI, drones, memory design, medical superglue, and more) that far outstrips the dated low res screens of its predecessor. It's colour washed landscapes open the world past the rainy, claustrophobic cityscapes of the original. We are shown more than the cops, techs, and skin jobs of the first film, and meet instead company clerks, police coroners, dream designers, prostitutes, protein farmers, trash scavengers, child work slaves and their unscrupulous master.

In short, BR 2049 is a fascinating development of the world of Bladerunner, an updating of its vision of the future, and a welcome pan around the universe so narrowly glimpsed in the first film.

It is sad, then, that BR 2049 falls short in its updating of its gender discourses, and its lack of emotive dialogue. These two criticisms have been made in many other places, so I'll give my short take on them here.

First, the depictions of women in BR 2049 vacillate between a fresh take on the femme fatale in the form of Luv, and unbelievably trite forms of fetishized female bodies in the forms of holographic love interest Joi and the unnamed replicant prostitute who lends her body so that main character K can consummate his love.

I loved Luv, as I did K's superior at police headquarters. Both women are driven, pragmatic, and ambitious, the former killing mercilessly and robbing corpses to fulfil her mission of finding the secret to replicant birth, the latter ordering K to break rules, destroy evidence, and murder a child to prevent this.

However, other than these two standouts, women are either holographic stokers of the male ego, bio-engineered strokers of the male libido, or discarded carriers of the male seed. Even the two standouts mentioned above are killed in the course of a mission assigned by a male superior, in this case Nexus 8 creator Niander Wallace and his quest for turning replicant women into baby-making machines.

This flaw is particularly glaring in the comparison between how the original's leads were incorporated into the film. Harrison Ford is dug up to impotently threaten the new lead before dumping plot info and morphing into a damsel in distress, while Sean Young is literally dug up as a box of bones before being copied merely to tempt Harrison's Deckard (Dick Hard, seriously?), and discarded when this plan fails, despite the evident cost and trouble gone to recreate her. When Harrison gruntingly explains, "She had green eyes," he is succinctly expressing how the film's male gaze reduces women to body parts, whose value is entirely decided at the whim of men. In light of Rogue One's controversial use of CG to recreate young Carrie Fisher, one could almost be tempted to believe that Ford has a rider in his contracts stipulating that his former leading ladies can only be holographically recreated as ageless facsimiles of their youthful selves, possibly so that their aged splendour won't overshadow his own.

In this light, this movie shows a very primitive understanding of the women it projects on the screen, and a near complete misunderstanding of the women sitting in seats in front of it. The screening I went to was noticeably a male majority, not surprising considering the only women models it offers are discarded once their utility to men ends.

For a film purporting to represent a future reality, this is a damning anachronism.

The final glaring flaw in Villeneuve's film is the criminally uninspiring dialogue of its main characters, especially bladerunner K and replicant creator Niander Wallace. Wallace's words come out as pompous and hollow as those of similar figure Peter Weyland in Prometheus. One gets the feeling that bland posturing is a dramatic staple of French technovillians, a holdover from the days of Metal Hurlant, whose stories by Moebius and others influenced the look of Alien and Bladerunner, and shaped our vision of the dystopic future we think will overtake us instead of the more likely yet less entertaining nuclear or environmental armageddon. I am almost tempted to rewatch Bladerunner 2049 in French in the hopes that Villeneuve's woodenly worded script will shine more in his native tongue.

The worst thing that can be said about BR 2049's dialogue, ultimately, is that there was no "Tears in the rain" moment of sublime improvisation as done unforgettably by Rutger Hauer. Hell, there wasn't even a tacked on studio mandated "I don't know how long we'd have together. Who does?" Although the sublime visuals of BR 2049 might make men happy to peer around the warped future created by Ridley Scot so long ago, the meaningless patter of its lead character, who ends the film sitting wordlessly in the snow staring dreamingly at the camera, his male gaze bathing the audience as it did the disposable females of the film, is unlikely to make men and women want to settle there.

Can we talk about Blade Runner 2049's problem with women?

Friday, August 11, 2017

Calculating The Business Costs of Power Harassment

(A version of this article also appeared on my Linked In page)

A January 2017 poll by EN-Japan indicated that 45% of business in Japan have experienced power harassment, while 56% percent are taking steps to deal with it (Kigyou no Pawahara jittai chousa). These figures indicate that power harassment is not only epidemic in Japan,  they also imply that it is endemic here.
There are several reasons why power harassment is so prevalent in the Japanese workplace. As I saw during my time as a victim, industry anti-harassment initiatives are ineffective and impossible to implement or enforce completely. Policies are hobbled by the difficulty of defining power harassment, mostly due to the vagueness of government and industry guidelines, which also explains the difficulty of acquiring accurate statistics of harassment numbers. The ‘epidemic’ has strong cultural roots in Japan’s vertical society, where abuse naturally rolls downhill, and Japanese routinely put up with verbal and other forms of abuse that would not be tolerated in my home country. This cultural discourse also encourages workers to 'toughen up' and not make any noise if harassed. Finally, although media focuses on the victim and their pain once an incident comes to light, this is precisely what goes ignored by the employer. 
In my case, I reported to company harassment officers who listened to my story without doing anything, and even abandoned their investigation halfway through. The general office stepped in to mediate after things had escalated out of control, but my harassers went unpunished, while the structure that allowed their behavior went unchanged, and my settlement was meager by foreign standards. If top down policies and laws don’t affect power harassment, and if harassers are unmoved by the visible suffering of their victims, how can businesses be expected to change?
There is another way to look at the problem of power harassment that might have more effect on companies, and show that tackling harassment is in their best interests. By doing a cost assessment of power harassment, we can show that covering up or allowing the structural problems to persist is more costly in the long run than creating an environment that avoids it, or mediating on a case-by-case basis as soon as incidents come to light.
As a harassment survivor, I know firsthand that my former employer was more willing to pay for my silence than to pay to fix their problems. Moral judgments aside, was their decision to cover up power harassment actually cost effective?
First, my settlement consisted of me being paid to be absent from work while someone substituted for my classes. This means that for my final month of teaching they paid double my salary, then for the following four months after the term they lost any labor I would have done, but continued to pay me. They also recognized their responsibility in my loss of work there, entitling me to the highest class of unemployment insurance at their expense.
Next, in addition to the loss of my work, they paid office worker hours for drawing up the settlement agreement and NDA, meeting with me, writing reports, and for meetings about the incident. I imagine there were many meetings with my harassers, whose own productivity was thus cut into. The supervisor who had harassed me was a micromanager, but after the incident and my complaints he withdrew into his office, cancelling scheduled weekly meetings and monthly projects. This incurred another drop in productivity.
Third, loss of productivity and efficiency was not only directly related to me, but also extended to my colleagues and entire department. My coworkers began to record all interactions with administration staff, and physically avoided going to places where they were likely to run into them. The staff in return reduced interaction, bringing communication to a standstill.
Fourth, there was the loss in confidence of students, ie paying customers, as well as a sharp fall in talented applicants for jobs at my workplace. After I left no new full-time teachers joined the department, which meant that the section became underperforming and had to rely on part-timer staffers who did none of the extracurricular activities (such as open campus days) usually run by full-timers.
Fifth, the whole incident shed light on how anti-harassment resources were wasted. It came to light that my supervisor did not go to voluntary faculty harassment seminars, that harassment officers only followed up cases involving students, not staff, and that my case was not the first at that institution. This is not to mention the institution’s efforts to my access to harassment guideline information, which could have been a costly illegal misstep had we gone to court.
Clearly, ‘resolving’ my harassment ran my employer into significant costs, and the damage to its reputation persists to this day. Conversely, had my employer followed through with the initial investigation, decided punishment as per their own guidelines, and came clean about the incident, they would have recouped my wages, avoided a costly drop in productivity with staff and faculty, deflected damage to their reputation among customers, and profited from re-branding as a progressive and thus attractive workplace. If businesses could be made to see that allowing silencing victims and cleaning up for harassers is a cost that they would be better off avoiding, this may be another piece in the puzzle of reducing power harassment.

Kigyou no Pawahara jittai chousa

Monday, July 31, 2017

Japan Myths # 1 - The Standing Nail & The Hammer

All Japanese and most foreigners living here have heard the proverb / Japanese truism, "The nail that stands up gets hammered down." This is supposed to be a Japanese social virtue, a source of strength and national pride. Indeed, the source of its resonance is its applicability, its aptness as a metaphor for how Japanese society treats its members.

There are basically three outcomes for the 'nails' who get pounded into the Japanese social superstructure.

First, just as in carpentry there are nails that are disfigured or bent and are thus thrown away as unusable. The mentally and physically handicapped correspond to this category, and their alienation and separation from mainstream Japanese social life are by-products of this thinking.

Second, those that can take the incessant pounding of a vertical society disappear into the structure. They hold it up from the inside, and the cost is their invisibility, their estrangement from friends and family until retirement. The untold lives of public servants and salarymen and women who made Japan Inc. an economic powerhouse are in this category.

Last, there are nails that cannot take pounding, either because they were made with some flaw, or the pressure on them was unbalanced or excessive. Those 'flawed' nails are in actuality individuals not constructed to withstand pressure, such as the disparaged millennials who increasingly reject such traditional maxims by not participating in consumer society through kurumabanare (refusal to buy status symbols such as a car) or becoming soshokukei (vegetable eating, i.e. unambitious). On the other hand, those broken by the excessive force are the victims of power harassment or unscrupulous 'black' industries, and are a symptom of the neoliberal government rollback from worker protection and care for individuals that is a trend in modern Japan.

The problem with this style of metaphorical thinking is that it has very little to do with reality. People are not nails, they should not be discarded, rendered invisible, or broken down. Just as Donald Trump junior's reduction of Muslim immigrants to a bowl of M&M's with one poisoned candy in it was ridiculed and rejected, so too do the preconceptions of this proverb need rethinking.

To be sure, Japan's seemingly superior service rests upon this maxim. Workers are pounded into shape for working, and the old Japanese TV show Ai no bimbo no day sakusen showed exactly the Gordon Ramsey-esque ridicule and verbal abuse that was par for the course in Japanese restaurant industry training. Yet the epidemic of karoushi, stress, and depression also owes a lot to thinking like this. It justifies pressure and abuse, which should have no place in a modern democratic society. Otsuka (2017) also relates how entrepreneurs are silenced by academics and other institutionally sanctioned voices, and thus shows how obeying this maxim conversely hobbles creativity and ingenuity in Japan.

The hammered nail proverb is an iinarawashii (言い習わし), or literally a saying to be learned from. The question now is whether the right lessons are being learned from it. If only the old lesson of abuse acceptance stemming from unequal power relations in the vertical society is learned, nothing will change, and Japan's workplace problems and millennial disenchantment will only worsen. However, if the lesson that people are not nails, and can hold up society without being crushed by it is emphasized, a kinder, more humane society may emerge.

One hint to a solution is in the etymology of the proverb. The original phrase was not 'The nail that sticks up gets hammered down' but instead started with 'The wooden stake.' Indeed, there is a different tradition of carpentry, a local Japanese style that might offer a better metaphor for social building. It involves fitting wood together without nails, perfect joins that last longer. It is reserved for temples and shrines, in other words, for constructing things with universal human values. Western carpentry is thus like Western capitalism, demanding subjects be beaten into the right role to keep the structure together, and the Japanese maxim of hammering nails replicates this perfectly. By rethinking the lesson taken from this and other old Japanese forms of conventional wisdom, new lessons that lead to a healthier and more creative society can emerge.


Otsuka, Masafumi. (2017). "How The Nail That Sticks Up Gets Hammered Down."


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Life vs Lifestyle in Japan's Neoliberal Nuclear State

A recent brouhaha in the Japanese Diet was caused when the Cabinet Minister for Recovery,  Masahiro Imamura, stated at a press conference on April 4th that evacuees returning to Fukushima would do so on their own responsibility, shouted down a journalist who pressed him about government responsibility, then demanded an apology from the reporter and told him to take back his words and not return (Ohtsugi). Since the ruckus, a reported 20, 000 have taken to the streets of Tokyo demanding that Imamura resign for his inappropriate comments and lack of sympathy for people in Tohoku, the area affected by the March 2011 disaster.

The heart of this matter is that Japan's nuclear Neoliberal Discourse centers around the distinction between differing definitions of 'life'. There are many cognates to the various connotations of 'life' in Japanese, but in political discourse it is translated as either inochi (命), or biological life, and seikatsu (生活), or lifestyle. The former is seen in the vocabulary of protests in Japan, most recently in datsugenpatsu (脱原発)or anti-nuclear groups. The latter is a staple of political discourse, which promises to protect lifestyles seikatsu wo mamoru (生活を守る).

The MP's reaction was thus a baring of the government's ideological commitment to 'lifestyle' at the expense of 'life'. In its way, Imamura's comments show the failure of what Michel Foucault called biopower. Where once biopower was exercised by the state in keeping people alive longer through medical technology (Foucault 2003: 246), faced with a growing population and the costs of keeping them healthy, the Japanese government has fallen back on the power to let the individual die.

The Fukushima meltdown, a man-made disaster exacerbated by neoliberal cost cutting and deregulation in the Japanese nuclear power industry, has accelerated Japan's response to the crisis of its aging population. Masahiro Imamura's outburst isn't only the expression of a privileged elite frustrated at the meeting of his ideology and reality, it is also an indication of the direction in which Japan's hegemonic discourse will lead the nation in future. For Japanese voters who chose Abe on his promises to 'protect their lifestyles', this incident serves to show them the price in lives the ruling class is willing to pay to stay in power.


Foucault, Michel. (2003). Society Must Be Defended. New York: Picador.

Ohtsugi, N. (2017). "Jishu hinan wa honin no sekinen fukkosou kissa ni urusai. " [Self-evacuees bear their own responsibility, tells reporter to shut up]. April 4, 2017.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Busy With Anime Analysis


I have been busy with life, with traveling to conferences, and now with writing an article for a Japan studies journal in the UK while juggling 10 classes in the new semester. Here is a snippet of what I am writing:

"Anime and manga are media through which Japanese can tackle inexpressible truths, such as the trauma of the individual being devoured by work in a vertical society. This makes trauma explorations relevant to Japanese. However, for mass market, these truths have to be cuteified to be made a commodity."

Thank you for your patience, and expect normal monthly blogging to continue when this work is done.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Economics of Fighting

In English, you 'get into a fight.' The verb is a shortened form of the phrase 'get pulled into a fight'  and thus has passive tones, so that a fight is something unavoidable and largely beyond one's control. This may hearken back to the old Anglo-Saxon worldview of life as a series of battles, like those in Beowulf, that bring glory while young, but will eventually lead to doom and ruin.

Shift to Japanese, and the thinking is very different. One 'sells a fight' (喧嘩を売る,  kenka wo uru) or else one 'buys a fight' (喧嘩を買う,  kenka wo kau).  The active nature of these verbs implies that getting into a fight is avoidable, and one has simply to master one's will to avoid buying (or worse) selling one.

This Japanese 'economics of fighting', much like traditional economics, is based on the flawed premise that consumers are rational, which any glance at a Black Sunday sale will tell you they are not. In Japan, one's will regarding fights is only trumped when there is no choice but to buy. Right wing Japanese explain their country's participation in World War 2 as unavoidable because イギリスとアメリカは喧嘩を売ってきた。仕方がなかった。(England and the US came selling a fight. There was no other way.)

This is also fallacy. There is always another way - negotiation, diplomacy, even surrender could have avoided the escalating madness of war. Regarding Beowulf, his tale is only that of two battles. His joys, his daily happiness, the love he shared with others, are all eclipsed in the glow of these two conflagrations - in other words, thinking only in terms of fighting lessens what one is fighting for.

Perhaps it is our penchant for making sense of life through story that limits our thinking and speech in these ways. In English, the two-fight tale of Beowulf has its antithesis in the Ango-Saxon Chronicle, which is history devoid of story, and records all events, glorious and mundane. What Foucault calls the discourse of race allows one side in a conflict to focus on their injuries and victories to the exclusion of all else in their struggle for sovereignty.

I don't know Japanese literature well enough to find an analogy in it, but from what I do know, Miyamoto Musashi's 五輪書 (Book of Five Rings), written by the infamous 'sword-saint' after years of reflection on his turbulent youth, would seem to point in a promising direction for escaping the belief in the inevitability of conflict. In his final battle, Musashi gives up the sword, instead using a carved rowboat oar to best his nemesis, Sasaki Kojiro. He also calculates the time of day regarding light and tides to ensure that he leaves the small island for the duel unscathed. This testifies how a shift in viewpoint or episteme can  cause a change in the framing of a fight.

Yet the result of Musashi's final fight is the same - a man lies dead. It is instead Musashi's reflection that a great swordsman has died and ushered in the end of the age of the bushi (武士) or warrior that allows him to reach enlightenment (悟り, satori) and foreswear the ways of fighting for learning and meditation. Perhaps it is this focus on the loss involved in fighting, not just to ourselves, rather than their inevitability or glory, that can help us find a way out of the conflicts that plague us.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Face Palm Discourse & Moral Reframing

The Picard face palm is a meme that many Facebook users know. It started in 2005 with a reference to the everyday stupid act of locking one's keys in the car ("Facepalm"), and has bloomed into a popular meme to describe the reaction to watching stupidity, especially of an ironic nature.

What gives the meme its force is the figure of Picard, a highly educated and intelligent man who cannot but hide his reaction to the blatant stupidity on display around him. As a high-ranking officer of the Federation, Picard is a figure of leftist values, championing multiculturalism, environmental protection, individual development through education over capitalist valuation as labor, as well as the advancement of science and technology.

It is interesting, then, that the Picard facepalm has recently been seen in right wing memes criticizing left wing thought. Look at this example from the 'Rowdy Conservatives' group on Facebook:

It is an interesting example of the right co-opting the imagery of liberal critiques, with the elite liberal Picard used to reflect on the tying of DNC venue to shadowy 'big banks.' Note that the RNC 2016 venue of Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland could be easily criticized in a similarly simplistic fashion, but that liberals mostly eschewed such criticisms to attack what speaker's said. From a liberal viewpoint, the attack is puerile, when critiques of policy or funding would be far more logical, yet less emotionally appealing.

There is thus a profound disconnect between word and images, between the conservative attempt at fanning moral outrage and the use of a decidedly left-leaning 'socialist' image. This is due to what Willer (2016) calls the use of 'moral reframing' in the creation of the picture, specifically the change of viewpoint for an issue towards a conservative moral judgment over liberal concerns for greater human values. The meme is designed to morally outrage the reader, but the image is of a person who keeps his moral judgments in check over actions, but who reacts to transgression of values, as liberals are wont to do. Thus, a palpable gap in words and images is felt by readers, especially those who tend towards liberal values.

Willer describes the difference between liberal and conservative discursive strategies or leanings that engenders this gap thusly:

"we find that liberals tend to endorse values like equality and fairness and care and protection from harm more than conservatives do. And conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity more than liberals do" (3:46-4:37)

Although this picture can be seen as merely an inexpert fusion of image and political text, complex semiotics fused to crude ideology, instead it is also an example of a meme constructed specifically to make liberals, who are supposedly more open to discourse, rethink their positions. If Picard, the porte-parole of socialism and humanism in an American symbolic fiction, can be moved to a face palm over the Democratic Party's supposed hypocrisy, shouldn't the reader feel the same?

In 'Rhétorique de l'image', Barthes distinguishes two functions for the text accompanying an image: 'ancrage' (anchorage) and 'relais' (intermediary) (1982: 31). The text anchors the image by naming it:

'la légende...permet d'accommoder non seulement mon regard, mais encore mon intellection...le message linguistique guide non plus l'identification, mais l'interprétation...le texte dirige le lecteur' (1982: 31-32).  Whereas the text linking the DNC venue and 'big banks' by itself could easily be criticized as simplistic and unfounded, when anchored to the image of the socialist Picard, they create a relay with the reader's intellect, forcing them to consider the proposition seriously in a way that the words alone could not.

In my Facebook feed, there has been an explosion of these hybrid memes, such as the one below of the 'Annoyed Picard ' used to criticize Bernie Sanders for his belief in a universal basic income:

Try to analyze this image as I did the first one.
How does the shift from the external act (the stupidity that causes the face palm reaction) to internal affective display (annoyance) reflect the creator's discourse?
Does the inclusion of two figures, one real and one fictional, mean anything?
Considering that this image was taken from a Canadian relative's Facebook page, what does this imply about the spread of these 'moral reframings' to socialist societies?


Barthes, Roland. (1964). 'Rhétorique de l'image', Communications 4: 40-51. Reprinted in Barthes 1982 : 25-42.

Know Your Meme website. "Annoyed Picard."

Know Your Meme website. "Face palm."

Willer, Rob. (2016). "How To Have Better Political Conversations."

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

On Scorsese's "Silence"

I just watched Scorsese's Silence in a theatre in Japan. It was in the original English but with Japanese subtitles. It is the tale of two Portuguese priests (portrayed by Spiderman's Andrew Garfield and Kylo Ren actor Adam Driver) who travel to Nagasaki in a time of religious persecution to find their mentor priest (Liam Neelson), who is ex cummunicado but is rumoured to have gone apostate.

As such, it is basically Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness if you prefer) for Christians, and has much of the same discourses evident.

First, there are the graphic images of violence, much like those in the Vietnam or African scenes of the oeuvres above. People are crucified, showered with boiling water, drowned, beheaded, and hung upside down in pits to bleed dry. In the religious context of the film, it constitutes the Christian torture porn of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and thousands of years of Christian imagery. The cathartic violence of Christian imagery has served as both titillation and a badge of shared identity since its inception. This visceral violence fits perfectly with the Japanese antagonists, samurai who are as sadistic as the depictions of bushido in Nanjo Norio's classic novel Shigurui (Crazy for Death). Indeed, viewers of Silence are treated to fervent foreign priests, pious Japanese peasants, and two-faced samurai who are all equally 'crazy for death.'  The largely male nature of the cast also adds a masochistic homoerotic tinge, equal parts Yukio Mishima disembowelling himself and the twelve disciples washing and kissing each other's feet. The inquisitor Inoue and his lackeys top this off with their simpering, overacted sadism, which validates Nanjo's assertion that bushido was only possible in a society constructed of a mass of masochists at bottom and a few sadists at top.

Next, Japan and the Japanese themselves constitute the jungle of civilized savages that has made up much of their depiction by westerners. Besides being all 'crazy for death', they are depicted as inscrutable when Garfield's priest describes their faces as 'masks', a common trope Ian Littlewood (1994) has explored deeply. They are also portrayed as inhuman, unfeeling of fear of death, or pain, unlike the priests who agonize over these threats. This is a clear discourse of western cultural superiority, a humanity the Japanese lack because of their misunderstanding of the religion that supposedly is the fertile soil of its growth. Indeed, the inquisitor Inoue calls Japan a 'swamp' in which the seed of Christianity rots, again echoing the jungle image of Apocalypse Now or Heart of Darkness. As such, the film recreates the battle of the conflicting discourses of bushido's physical hegemony and Christianity's spiritual hegemony. Although these are depicted by the inquisitor Inoue as a clash of civilizations or cultures, in truth they are also a naked power play for the body as well as the soul of Japan by means of dominating the bodies and souls of Christians there. Inoue's offer of life to those who renounce Christ by stepping on his image is thus a reverse Pascal's Wager, asking why not say you don't believe if their is no punishment, rather the end of suffering?

I haven't read Endo Shusaku's original novel, but I have read his novel Samurai, which is almost the inverse tale of samurais traveling to South America and finding faith in Christianity there. Samurai was a nuanced work, with Christianity serving as the only option in a world of dominance and suffering by the enforced karma of Japan's vertical feudal society. Silence has much of the same themes, but by putting westerners at the centre it robs Japanese of agency, and thus both their sadism and piety are rendered meaningless. The final shot of the film, which shows the final, inner victory of Christianity, also seems hollow as this victory was only possible by the white male's painless sacrifice of apostasy and becoming a member of the Japanese hierarchy, and not the sacrifices of the many Japanese who gave their lives for a foreign god.


Littlewood, Ian (1994) The Image of Japan. London: Seeker & Warburg.

Nanjo, Norio. (2012). Shigurui 1. Tokyo: Akita Bunko.