The regional conference hosted at Waseda University in a few days is quickly approaching. The organizers have released the final PDF program to browse, download, or printout. Conference overview is at http://seaa.americananthro.org/2018/11/seaa-regional-conference-august-2019-tokyo/ and the PDF program is here.
Society of East Asian Anthropology
Heidi K. Lam
July 8, 2019
Editors’ Note: This piece is part of a SEAA column themed series on “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.”The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
A group of foreign tourists in colorful rented kimonos walked down a street with preserved wooden buildings on each side, within a neighborhood marketed for its traditional Japanese atmosphere. As they chatted with one another in their home country’s language, one person in the group held out a selfie stick attached to a cell phone in order to record their activities in Japan. This series of photos or videos may be uploaded and shared later on a social media site. The surrounding environment and their clothing—perhaps the back of their obi (the kimono’s sash), their bodies in kimono, the street scene, or a rickshaw driver in costume waiting for tourists like them—would become props.
I frequently encountered scenes similar to this within many touristic districts in Japan, when conducting fieldwork on the Japanese culture industry from 2013 to 2017. They could have taken place in Kyoto, Tokyo’s Asakusa district, Kamakura, Nikko, or elsewhere. Tourism industries and cultural institutions are increasingly offering commercial experiences in which consumers embody a performative “tourist gaze” that “orders and regulates the relationships between various sensuous experiences while away, identifying what is visually-out-of-ordinary, what are relevant differences, and what is ‘other’” (Urry and Larsen 2011). A kimono rental is not only a brief transaction involving a piece of clothing, but a potentially standardizing and highly visible consumer experience that temporarily allows tourists to role-play Japanese cultural characters and perform their view of Japanese culture through their activities. The role of visually curating culture used to be performed by organizations, but is now increasingly assumed by consumers, given the rise of digital platforms based on user-generated online content such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
Such socially embedded and embodied experiences are referred to in Japanese as taiken (literally meaning a “body test”). Consumersare invited to try curated spaces, services, and activities in a wide variety of contexts such as museums, touristic attractions, educational entertainment, and clothing retail stores. In a growing inbound tourism industry (with a record number of 31 million overseas visitors to Japan in 2018), taiken has become a cross-cultural means of communicating Japanese culture. In the form of interactive cultural experiences, it is believed to offer for instance exclusive access to the authentic and unique aspects of Japan.
Businesses and organizations are seeking commercial opportunities in encouraging tourists to experience Japanese culture through their bodies and actions (see Pine and Gilmore 1999), alongside tourism associations that link historical and cultural narratives to geographical sites. Kimono shops, which used to sell made-to-order kimonos for life occasions, are now expanding their services to include tourist rentals that accommodate different budgets. These shops currently advertise in English, Chinese, Korean, and other foreign languages to meet overseas tourists’ growing demand to experience Japanese culture by wearing kimono. A Kyoto-based company that holds traditional tea ceremonies in English even offers a Kimono Plan in collaboration with a nearby kimono rental company.
Tourists can also engage with cultural character types such as the Ninja and the Samurai through NPOs, theme parks, performing arts-based business enterprises, and even a store. They can undergo Iga-ryū School ninja training sessions in English and take samurai sword training lessons with professional actors. They can also participate in Zen meditation experiences that were reportedly practiced by samurai in the past and create a short samurai sword-fighting film at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.
The foregrounding of experience-based tourism is believed to be able to guide tourist behavior. In 2017, Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzō asserted the necessity to alter the focus of overseas visitors’ trips from the “explosive buying” (bakugai) of merchandise (an overt reference to the Japanese media’s depictions of Chinese tourists’ shopping activities) to experience, especially to develop the economy of Japan’s rural regions. Mentioning the buzzwords insta-bae and SNS-bae, he suggested that touristic localities increase the kind of scenery that tourists can transform into aesthetically pleasing images suitable for social media platforms such as Instagram. Cities and businesses have launched Instagram campaigns promoting touristic activities in Japan, in conjunction with cultural experiences. They solicit, for example, images of people wearing yukata and kimono in local settings or engaging with objects evoking a particular Japanese cultural theme.
Many of the touristic experiences revolve around cultural characters and objects that overseas tourists had likely encountered in in their home countries and that may have inspired them to visit Japan (Seaton et al. 2017). The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics presentation, which took place at the Rio Olympics’ closing ceremony in 2016, featured not only Tokyo’s iconic landmarks and Japanese athletes but also Pac-man, Doraemon, Hello Kitty, and Super Mario, among other characters. In the presentation, Prime Minster Abe transforms first into the animated version of Super Mario in a video before emerging on stage in a costume. Commercial cultural experiences targeted at overseas tourists similarly allow individuals to encounter Japan directly by inhabiting characters and using objects with their bodies. Characters and objects could travel between media platforms, appear in the material world as merchandise (Allison 2006), and even be layered onto the body.
In this manner, cultural branding and curation are now outsourced to tourists, who become the most visible performers through their on-site embodied performances and their social media usage. A manager of a cultural theme park mused on the communication solutions offered by the conveyance of Japanese culture through the bodily senses: He had been worried about the language barrier faced by his staff with the influx of foreign customers. The body memory and sociality involved in such touristic experiences, in his opinion, could potentially provide an accessible introduction to foreign cultures and opportunities for cultural exchanges. However, several overseas visitors who participated in cultural experiences or visited cultural attractions told me that while they knew the actions they were doing and the name of the objects they were using, they did not fully understand why these actions and things were important.
There exists the risk of creating monocultures that negate the plurality of both the locals’ everyday experiences and consumer identities. We must acknowledge the multiple understandings of cultural meaning and media used in the digital documentation of consumer experiences. The focus of a commercialized cultural experience can easily pivot exclusively to consumer actions and appearances, ignoring the social and historical meanings underlying local practices, traditions, and interactions with material objects.
If businesses and other organizations offer the same kinds of cultural experiences for touristic consumption, they may well codify a predictable repertoire of characters, objects, and activities used to brand Japanese culture to the world and undermine the uniqueness promised by such experiences. In turn, this may also reinforce the travelers who wish to experience the stereotypical elements of a certain culture. When organizations and consumers shape cultural consumption in a feedback loop, it is necessary to think about whether an embodied but truly collaborative participation is possible in order to avoid an over-saturated and generically curated version of Japanese culture.
Heidi K. Lam is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Yale University. Her research interests include cultural performance/animation, the affective labor of service workers and consumers, and the cultural branding of Japan in Asia and the world.
Cite as: Lam, Heidi K. 2019. “Curating and Performing the Japan Cultural Experience.” Anthropology News website, July 8, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1199
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
Society of East Asian Anthropology
Steven C. Fedorowicz
June 5, 2019
Editors’ Note: This piece is part of a SEAA column themed series “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.” The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
Early in my research, Deaf people told me repeatedly that Japanese Sign Language (JSL) is the most valued aspect of Deaf culture and the most reliable means of communication and information-sharing. Performance genres using JSL, such as film, theater, comedy, dance, pantomime and puppet shows, are important components of Deaf culture that illustrate Deaf social issues and provide enjoyable and understandable entertainment. Through 20 years of research experience in Japan, I realized that JSL itself can also be viewed as a performance genre found in the everyday lives of Deaf people, considering the relationship between their presentations of JSL and shared Deaf identity through the consumption of information and values. Elaborating on the ideas discussed in Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Bohannan (1992) writes of how people accept, create, renew and reject culture through performance. I discuss in this essay these performances involving JSL, based on fieldwork conducted at workshops held by the Japanese Sign Language Atelier in Hirakata city, Osaka prefecture—a sign language circle (or club) that use storytelling techniques to teach JSL and ultimately Deaf identity. I show how culturally Deaf people are consumed with rejecting the “small-d deaf” orientations placed on them by society and striving to adapt their social roles to match their ideal “capital-D Deaf” identity.
Not all deaf people are Deaf
The deaf/Deaf terms and differentiation have been used within deaf and sign language studies in the United States since the 1980s, if not earlier. Deaf activists in Japan recently began using these English terms to describe their situation. “Small-d deaf” refers to hearing loss; deafness is seen as a disability requiring medical assistance and social welfare support to aid and/or rehabilitate the individual. In this context, oral teaching methods are stressed to help deaf individuals better communicate within the hegemonic hearing society. Such methods originated from the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy in 1880, where a resolution was passed banning the use of sign language in deaf schools. These policies were quickly adopted by the United States and many European countries, and later by Japan in 1920. The ban on sign language in the classroom, mandated by the Japanese Ministry of Education, remained in effect until 1993.
“Capital-D Deaf,” in contrast, refers to a certain cultural belonging rather than hearing loss or absence. The term Deaf was created in defiance of the deficit laden “deaf and dumb” expression, with the capital “D” serving as an empowering device that emphasizes the group identity. Culturally Deaf people view themselves as a linguistic minority that uses a visually based language. Often working together in social movements (Honna and Kato 1995), Deaf people fight against discrimination and prejudice, spread awareness of JSL, and empower themselves to make their own decisions about education, language and economic issues. Such movements can be seen as promoting an ideology of cultural independence from hearing society, an example of Benedict Anderson’s (1983) “imagined community” based on a shared identity.
Sign language in Japan
Two forms of sign language are currently used in Japan: JSL and Signed Japanese. Deaf people describe JSL as their mother tongue and the language they use among themselves. Recently codified by Japanese Deaf linguists, it is different from spoken Japanese with regard to modality, grammar, word order, and worldview. Facial expressions and classifiers are used as key grammatical elements. JSL classifiers, akin to counters in spoken Japanese that are used to quantify nouns depending on size and shape, become handshapes that substitute for standardized signs. Within this form of visual communication, signers can move and manipulate a classifier like the object it represents.
As Signed Japanese lacks the all-important facial expressions and classifiers found in JSL, Deaf people often find it confusing. For them, the meaning, nuances and the relationships between imagery and reality are absent in Signed Japanese.
Deaf people describe Signed Japanese as an artificial sign language that was created, used and promulgated by hearing educators, social welfare workers, and most sign language interpreters. While Signed Japanese borrows some handshapes from JSL, it forces them into the same grammatical order as spoken Japanese. As Signed Japanese lacks the all-important facial expressions and classifiers found in JSL, Deaf people often find it confusing. For them, the meaning, nuances and the relationships between imagery and reality are absent in Signed Japanese. Furthermore, Deaf people resent that hearing people enforce the use of Signed Japanese rather than the more natural JSL.
Schools for the deaf worldwide, especially in Japan, primarily endeavor to teach students to speak. Instructions in pronunciation and lip reading take up so much time that deaf children are often three years behind their hearing counterparts in academic subjects. Also, not all deaf children can acquire adequate and understandable speech. Those who can pick up some speech are considered brighter than their classmates and are often mainstreamed into hearing schools. If any sign language is used in deaf schools, it is Signed Japanese, a by-product of oral education. These conditions lead to small-d “deaf” orientations, as well as “hearing disabled” and/or “hard of hearing” identities. Culturally Deaf people are critical of these conditions and outcomes; they often lament the limitations of oral education and Signed Japanese in regular academic classes and the lack of effective communication which ultimately block the realization of any shared Deaf identity.
Activism and workshops to create Deaf identity
While the national organization Japanese Federation of the Deaf has been instrumental in the recent legal recognition of JSL in some municipalities and prefectures, the most dynamic efforts in promoting JSL and resolving everyday deaf-related issues for the benefit of deaf people have been made by local grassroots groups. Although hundreds of sign language circles exist in Japan, most teach Signed Japanese to hearing people. The Japanese Sign Language Atelier in Hirakata city, however, was founded in 1997 by Deaf people as a sign language circle for the benefit of Deaf people. Atelier’s early goals were to promote JSL and Deaf culture by spreading awareness, to fight discrimination in communication and education, and to create Deaf identity in local communities.
Atelier hosts and conducts regular workshops with Deaf teachers, researchers and entertainers, with the aim of benefiting Deaf people who use JSL. A few years ago, the group started a series of workshops called the Atelier Project that was intended to be a “clinic” for teaching participants a “pure JSL” unpolluted by Signed Japanese. Except for a few hearing people, most participants in these clinics were deaf. Their previous deaf identity was based upon being raised in a hearing world, being subjected to oral methods of language acquisition at deaf schools, or being mainstreamed into hearing schools.
One Atelier Project workshop I attended used storytelling to practice image training and interpretation from Japanese (in written form with some emoji) to JSL. Storytelling is an important tool in JSL training. Components that appear to be pantomime, theatrics or embellishments are important for the effective performance of JSL and should be viewed, respectively, as classifiers, intonation, and description. Good Deaf storytellers are admired for their communication skills and their ability to transmit Deaf cultural traits and values of the Deaf.
During the workshop, participants were given a Japanese text—a script with a simple story. They were asked to memorize it and interpret it into JSL. Performances were videotaped so they could be re-watched and carefully scrutinized. The few hearing participants were asked to go first. Most of them treated the exercise as a literal translation from a written form of Japanese to a signed form; in other words, their performances were heavily influenced by Signed Japanese. The Deaf teacher told them that their signing was incorrect. Next, deaf and Deaf people were asked to show their versions of the text. Many deaf participants were chided for signing in a “hearing” manner and encouraged to become “more Deaf,” to change their performance so as to become culturally Deaf.
Finally, the Deaf teacher demonstrated his version in JSL. He often uses classifiers rather than standard signs. He also stressed the use of imagery and everyday experience, for example the actual experience of walking a dog that both hearing and deaf participants did not consider. Most importantly, his rich facial expression served as a crucial grammatical component for conveying thoughts and feelings.
The Atelier Project workshops’ goals are to eradicate Signed Japanese, replace it with JSL, and transform deaf orientations into Deaf identity. Most times, such transformations are achieved. Small-d deaf people often discover their deafness as adults and resent the fact that they were denied effective communication, the use of JSL, and group identity, because the mainstream society emphasized their so-called disability and enforced oral education policies. They now have the chance to associate with Deaf people and groups to improve JSL competence and gain a greater understanding of Deaf culture. Through such endeavors, deaf people can become Deaf.
Steven C. Fedorowicz is a cultural anthropologist, visual anthropologist, and associate professor of anthropology in the Asian Studies Program at Kansai Gaidai University. His interests include deaf communities, sign language, performance, globalization and ethnographic photography. See more of his work athttp://visualanthropologyofjapan.blogspot.com/.
Cite as: Fedorowicz, Steven C. 2019. “Performance, Sign Language, and Deaf Identity in Japan.” Anthropology Newswebsite, June 5, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1182
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
At a recent government-sponsored dance competition for retirees in Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan province, more than 20 groups of retired women took to the stage to perform a dance routine set to Kangding Qingge, a Chinese pop song with lyrics extolling the romance of the Tibetan grasslands. This competition, and others like it, was a colorful staging of social harmony belying a more complex picture beneath the surface.
Between 2015 and 2017, I spent 18 months in Chengdu, researching the collective dancing phenomenon. Attending competitions was part of my regular routine. When I arrived at this competition on a summer morning, I saw hundreds of retirees sitting together in what looked like a rainbow sea of lustrous polyester. I first approached a group of women dressed in flamingo pink robes with yellow and green embroidered trim. They were helping each other put on complicated headpieces consisting of plaited ribbons with beading directly over the forehead and long, thin black braids flowing from the back. They each wore red satin stockings over their shoes to mimic knee-high boots when seen from afar. Next to these flamingo-hued dancers sat another group in nearly identical getups, save the fact that theirs were sky-blue. Still another group rehearsed nearby in red robes with detachable long sleeves extending more than 12 inches past their fingertips and a slightly different version of the same headpiece. As each of the groups ascended the stage to perform the same routine in succession, these sleeves and the ubiquitous black braids created graceful shapes in the air as the women danced. Behind them on the stage, a large banner displayed the names of the competition’s sponsors, which included the China Sports Lottery, the municipal district government, the district elderly sports association, and the local district’s social work organization. These state institutions and the retired dancers do not share the same agenda, but dance competitions offer organizers and participants alike the opportunity to broadcast their respective messages for a wide audience.
In preparation for this competition, organizers informed participating groups three months in advance that they would be competing to Kangding Qingge, which gave them ample time to practice the official, pre-determined routine and to get their costumes in order. Like the song Kangding Qingge, these costumes are not so much Tibetan as they are Tibetan-esque.Although some elements like the long sleeves and thin braids do appear in traditional Tibetan dress, the outfits are haphazard amalgamations of customary attire from different Tibetan regions and social classes. When I asked the dancers—all belonging to the majority Han ethnic group—about the origins of what they were wearing, they invariably answered that they were purchased online. Indeed, dance costumes like these can be found on China’s mega online-retailer sites like Taobao for less than 100 RMB (about 15 USD). On these shopping websites, there is often a category dedicated to minzu wu (ethnic dance), organized by sub-categories such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Miao (Hmong), and Uighur. The costumes of each sub-category reference key elements of traditional dress from each minority nationality, such as elaborate silver headdresses for Miao outfits and cowboy hats for Mongolian ones.
Competitions like these have been taking place in China’s urban centers since the early 2000s, when retired and aging women as well as some men began dancing together in informal groups in the aftermath of massive layoffs and early retirements stemming from China’s State-Owned Enterprise (SOE) reforms. The vast majority of dance group participants belong to China’s so-called “Lost Generation.”. Many spent their youths surviving the brutal excesses of Mao Zedong’s political campaigns. Then, decades later when China was transforming into the world’s second largest economy, they were squeezed out of their jobs to make way for younger workers. By the 2015, there were over 100 million participants throughout China. They crowded parks and sidewalks, leading city residents to complain about the noise from the dancers’ music. As part of their larger efforts to regulate the burgeoning phenomenon, municipal and provincial governments began organizing competitions in order to bring the groups under official control. Today, publicly sponsored dance competitions between groups of retirees occur regularly in Chinese cities.
Dance group participants have no say in what to perform during competitions; selected pieces range from patriotic Chinese numbers to contemporary pop performances, all set to official choreography. That said, the fact that organizers chose Kangding Qingge is neither an accident nor an anomaly. I attended over 20 competitions during my fieldwork and “ethnic minority” dances featured in more than half of them. Tibetan dances were by far the most common, but there were also two Miao dances and a wintertime competition where groups performed a Uighur dance while wearing costumes trimmed with faux fur.
Identifying, categorizing, and codifying ethnic groups was one of the new Communist government’s first projects after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. China now officially recognizes 56 ethnic groups including the majority Han. Since 1949, displays of national unity have prominently featured popular understandings of minority groups’ cultural heritage. While the state exerts tight controls over minority populations’ expressions of their own cultural practices, performances of minority songs and dances make regular appearances on state-run television programs. The idea that China is composed of 56 distinct but harmoniously co-existing ethnic groups remains a foundational tenet of the modern state. Nowhere was this more prominently displayed than during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, when 56 schoolchildren representing the 56 ethnic groups carried the Chinese flag into the stadium while wearing versions of traditional attire.
Dance competitions may lack the grandeur of these official spectacles, but the presence of state agendas is no less apparent. Competitions are invariably judged by a panel of government officials, sometimes with input from a professional dancer or choreographer. At the Kangding Qingge competition, the most senior official present was the district deputy party secretary, a visibly bored man in his 50s who struggled to conceal his lack of interest in the performances. For government representatives like him, dance competitions are public events where ideals—about active aging, the preservation of cultural traditions, and the existence of a unified multi-ethnic Chinese nation—can be communicated to the masses. At the conclusion of the Kangding Qingge competition, another local official gave a rousing speech on the beauty of Tibetan culture and exhorted the performers to work harder to perfect their routines in the future.
For the retired dancers, on the other hand, performing onstage in brightly-colored, attention-grabbing costumes offers a chance to be noticed again after a lifetime of being overlooked. Despite their shoddy construction and cheap materials, the costumes have an ostentatious beauty that is normally deemed immodest for retired women but is sanctioned during performance events such as these dance competitions. My 61-year-old friend Qiu, whom I met while conducting participant observation with a dance group, immediately named the outfits when I asked what she enjoyed most about the competitions. She said she loved the outfits for their brightness, and for the way they popped in photographs. “At our age,” she explained, “the only way to add color to our appearance is with clothing.” If the cultural insensitivity of the costumes ever gave them pause, the dancers did not voice it. After all, they would be just as happy performing a folk Chinese dance in traditional Han clothing. After the event concluded, the women gathered on the stage to pose for photos, taking care to display the colorful skirts and bright embroidery. For these retirees, dance competitions are performances of visibility.
Dance competitions that showcase happy elders dancing in Tibetan dress must be understood within this broader tradition of staging national and ethnic harmony. The boundaries of the modern Chinese state are asserted through this highly visible and officially sanctioned cultural phenomenon to emerge in recent years. At a time when scholars are (rightly) paying attention to the ways that the Chinese state manages minority cultures through economic incentives, intimidation, and force, we must also understand how majority attitudes toward minority groups are shaped and maintained through everyday events. The dancers may not even be aware that they are acting out a political narrative, but this is how dance competitions effectively mask underlying social tensions. The state and the dancers have their own agendas, but for a few brief hours, these dual performances converge onstage in aesthetic—if not ideological—harmony.
Claudia Huang is a doctoral candidate at UCLA. Her research interests include aging and retirement, kinship and families, and state-society relations. She will be joining the faculty of the Department of Human Development at California State University, Long Beach in fall 2019.
Cite as: Huang, Claudia. 2019. “Staging Harmony in China’s Urban Dance Competitions.” Anthropology News website, May 10, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1159
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a SEAA column themed series “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.” The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
Mrs. M. realized she had made a miscalculation by staying in her property on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, when water started bulging in through her floor. She had heard the official warning of the oncoming tsunami and knew that the evacuation order was serious. She had every intention of running to higher ground once she collected some belongings—and more importantly, once she found her cat.
She was ultimately caught in the tsunami. Unable to run anymore, her only option was to climb onto the roof and hope for the best. Her house was eventually lifted up by the tsunami and crashed into the roof of the neighboring concrete building. There, she spent the night listening to the waves coming and going. She never found her cat, but she managed to salvage some items, including her wedding dress, from the wreckage of her house the next day.
The more I listened to people’s experiences, the more I became aware of the underlying multilayered relationship they had with the things they tried to salvage despite the oncoming danger.
Mrs. M.’s story was only one of many I heard in the Northeast (Tōhoku) region of Japan in 2015 and 2016, several years after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. I conducted fieldwork in the coastal towns of Miyagi Prefecture, the region hardest hit by the disasters in terms of human and material losses (Kazama and Noda 2012). I met local residents with first-hand experience of the disaster, new arrivals who had moved into these towns after the disaster, civil society leaders, and local government workers. My aim was to understand how these local communities perceived recovery in the Tōhoku region and how their experiences can help elucidate the gap between theory and practice in decentralized community-based approaches to recovery (Sou 2018, Davidson et. al. 2006).
My purpose was not to focus on what exactly happened on March 11, 2011, but I soon realized that hearing stories about survival was inevitable. At the beginning, the actions of those who ran towards danger seemed irrational and even crazy to me. But the more I listened to people’s experiences, the more I became aware of the underlying multilayered relationship they had with the things they tried to salvage despite the oncoming danger. Though anecdotal in character, these stories revealed how people’s relationship to their material possessions had informed, and to a degree controlled, their actions in the face of danger.
The rationality of emergency preparedness often pits material life as irrelevant and replaceable in comparison to biological life. Consider any fire or emergency training you may have taken part in the past. The most common instruction is to leave the building without collecting your belongings. Yet how many of us fully heed this advice? Although we are told to discard stuff in emergencies, Mrs. M.’s experience shows that material life presents complications to the protection of biological life. The survivors’ actions went against the narrow understanding of risk that is presented to us on the premise for rational behavior: protect your biological life above everything else.
In post-disaster recovery, the material world gains intensified importance. Our attention is drawn almost exclusively to the physical rebuilding of habitats. Despite the Japanese government’s commitment to community-based recovery and social revitalization, their expenditure and progress reports focus on material recovery. This was also apparent on the local level, where public displays in community meetings and reconstruction documents (e.g., Minamisanriku Reconstruction Plan) heavily emphasize material reconstruction. While rebuilding homes and livelihoods is vital, people’s dissatisfaction toward its speed, direction, and the motivations of reconstruction are consistently present in most post-disaster contexts. The Tōhoku region was no exception. This was also apparent in my own research, where I witnessed the majority of conflicts and debates between the authorities and the locals to revolve around physical rebuilding.
As a post-disaster ethnographer, it is easy to point to the excessive attention paid to physical rebuilding by planners, politicians, NGOs, and other experts in post-disaster contexts, and criticize their lack of consideration toward social relationships and the lived experience of victims as the foundation for recovery. Anthropologists tend to regard objects through human motivations and the meanings we apply to them (Appadurai 1986), but we often forget that people and their identities are constructed as much by the material world as the material world reflects the identities we hold (Miller 2010).
While the functionality and safety of parks, buildings, and roads in a recovering space are important issues, we need to accept that social relationships between people are born and transformed through interactions with and attachments to space and things. Just like one’s life is more than the physical body in an emergency, a home is not merely a roof over one’s head but also the feeling of being at home underneath it. Spaces, buildings, and personal belongings (ranging from mundane everyday objects to cherished mementos) gain and shape meanings through the interactions we have with them on multiple levels. Attention to either the biological or the material world is therefore irrelevant unless we understand the meaning of such interactions.
Disasters can provide unique opportunities for re-examining this connection between material and biological life that appears to be underestimated by the modern disaster preparedness and post-disaster recovery processes. The neoliberalization of disaster recovery has given rise to a reductive understanding of the relationship between the material and biological worlds (Klein 2007; Barrios 2017), in which the aesthetics, styles, functions, and sociality of a space is often designed to facilitate the circulation of capital (Barrios 2017). But the connection between the material and biological worlds is much broader. When I spoke with the residents of the Tōhoku region, it became clear that they felt suspended in the recovery period, neither being in the past nor in the expected future. In this state of waiting, their salvaged personal belongings, natural landscapes, survived buildings, and neighborhoods provided contact points for articulating hope, anticipation, memories, belonging, and identities within an environment of uncertainty.
They were looking for a sense of ochitsuku—“to settle into place”—in an environment that was constantly changing.
They were looking for a sense of ochitsuku—“to settle into place”—in an environment that was constantly changing. For Mrs. M., the wedding dress that “continues to survive with her” gave her a sense of place, belonging, and connection with a past is now lost. Another local resident, when reflecting on the need to persevere (gaman) in temporary housing for another year or two, dreamed of the moment when he can finally stretch his legs in a full-sized bathtub (furō) in his new house. Yet another resident looked forward to the day when she could return to her small fishing community, nestled between the cliffs and feel the wind from the sea on her skin again. In this context, interactions with the material world, whether real or imagined, provided people with contact points that helped them weave their past, present, and future together. The disaster would become a more fluid part of their personal and communal history, rather than an abrupt traumatic moment that wiped away everything they knew and put their lives on hold.
Yet, many residents saw the reconstruction process as removed from their daily existence and something that was “done to them.” They felt that the authorities could not “understand how we feel.” Official recovery measures did not offer them a chance to connect with their new material environments and the habitats that were emerging from the wreckage, leaving them unable to “settle into place” within the new townscape.
Despite today’s “best practice” of post-disaster recovery that uses the language of empowerment, localism, and agency for affected populations, this largely ignores the fundamental ways in which people develop meaning in their lives and for the future of their communities. Tim Ingold (2000) has critiqued the separation of cultural and natural lives in our understanding of how human societies relate to their material surroundings. In recovery practice too, understanding the interaction between the biological and material is paramount. Only then can a process for recovery be developed, one that responds to the social, cultural, and economic meanings fostering specific lifestyles through interactions between people and their material surroundings.
Anna Vainio is an anthropologist and doctoral researcher at the School of East Asian Studies at the University of Sheffield. She explores the gap between theory and practice in community-based approaches to disaster recovery, by focusing on the affective, social, and political experiences of recovery in the aftermath of 3/11.
Cite as: Vainio, Anna. 2019. “Stuff Matters, Especially When You Risk ‘Everything’ for It.” Anthropology News website, March 11, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1114
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a SEAA column themed series “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.” The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
Undeterred by the Hong Kong summer temperatures, large numbers of visitors entered the former colonial police force quarters now known as the PMQ (short for Police Married Quarters) heritage space, keen on catching a glimpse of the displays. As part of the government-initiated Heritage Vogue street carnival celebrating Hong Kong’s past, PMQ sought to transport visitors back in time to the mid-twentieth century. PMQ erected stalls resembling sidou, old-fashioned corner shops decorated with Chinese banners and European tiles, painted a shade of “grassroots green” that was introduced to the city during the colonial era. Stalls sold street foods such as curry fishballs and ice lollies, along with White Rabbit candies, Coca-Cola and Vitasoy beverages in glass bottles, staples in the city since the post-war years. Cantonese opera was broadcasted over the PMQ courtyard where wooden tables and plastic chairs were provided for visitors, making the space resemble daipaidong, traditional street eateries. Visitors enthusiastically interacted and took photos with the displays, claiming to remember such sights from their childhood, with some parents telling their young children that what they saw at the PMQ that day is what Hong Kong’s past looks like.
Since Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony (1841–1997) and became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China, the city has been engulfed by nostalgia, broadly defined as a yearning for a past that is absent in the present. Hoping to study this phenomenon in 2017 and 2018, I visited a number of heritage sites in the city, and interviewed individuals from community organizations addressing heritage concerns, those producing and managing heritage sites, and those interested in heritage issues but not involved in the running of heritage spaces. This essay features the opinions and views from the third category of informants, whom are mostly in their 20s and 30s, to portray general Hong Kong public sentiments towards heritage.
Many of these informants celebrated—and many of the heritage spaces I visited sought to embody—representations of what is colloquially termed gauhoenggong (Old Hong Kong). This “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic references the period from after World War II until the mid-1980s, a time when the city experienced rapid demographic and economic growth, infrastructural redevelopment, and the emergence of a local Hong Kong identity and culture among ordinary inhabitants of the city. It is an aesthetic that informants believe to be disappearing due to urban redevelopment schemes and infrastructural projects in the city, thus exacerbating nostalgic attachments among the populace.
The “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic
Although the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic is situated within the colonial era, this nostalgia cannot be conflated with a yearning for the colonial. Colonial presence permeated multiple facets of post-war life, through government regulation of housing, business, healthcare, and schooling. Yet colonial institutions and figures have a marginal presence in the imaginings of “Old Hong Kong” espoused by most informants. In their narratives of “Old Hong Kong,” the “colonial” is rendered as little more than what one individual describes as “quirky” western stylistic and cultural elements leading to the production of syncretic practices and landscapes, fixtures that have since come to define the city. Examples include shop houses sporting a combination of Asian and European architectural features (such as Chinese-style tenements with French windows and balconies), English and Cantonese code-mixing in colloquial speech (now termed as Hong Kong English), and Hong Kong-style Western cuisine (such as macaroni served in broth with fried eggs).
Discourses of “Old Hong Kong” are presented as the heritage of the vernacular; certainly, the majority of informants accept this aesthetic as a reflection of their past.
Rather, informant understandings of “Old Hong Kong” emphasize neighborhood networks and conviviality among ordinary people that informats believe to have been prevalent in the post-war years. Informants reminisce about the grassroots resilience, adaptability, and industriousness that are components of the sizisan zingsan (Lion Rock Spirit), a set of values that have come to define the Hong Kong person. Discourses of “Old Hong Kong”are presented as the heritage of the vernacular; certainly, the majority of informants accept this aesthetic as a reflection of their past.
The “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic has become popular throughout society, as seen from the proliferation of literature and digital platforms exploring this period of the city’s history. Images and objects reflecting the syncretism of “Old Hong Kong” are now in-demand consumerist goods, with local and international businesses capitalizing on this by designing their premises and selling products adorned with mid-twentieth century motifs (see Starbucks HK 2018; TenTen 2017).
There are several reasons behind the popular appeal of the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic. First, it reframes colonial presence in the city as an aesthetic category, obfuscating the problematic politics associated with colonialism. This accompanies an emphasis on positive emotions evoked through heart-warming narratives of community cooperation and care, dispelling negative feelings that conversely “suspend any aesthetic appreciation” within the individual (Ranciѐre 2007: 26). Lastly, the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic is not so temporally distanced as to be alienated from present-day urban experiences. It is a period still within the living memory of the older generations, with relateability and verity. More importantly, its evident disappearance from the social and physical landscape as a result of urban development, enhances the societal urgency to value, embrace, and protect it.
Nostalgia for “Old Hong Kong” in heritage
The popularity of the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic has ramifications for heritage spaces, defined here as landmarks and sites that have been present on the urban landscape since the mid-twentieth century rather than museums constructed to house historical artifacts in glass cases. Heritage in Hong Kong is a contested domain, with the government and civil society (comprising neighborhood community organizations and activists) diverging on what constitutes the city’s heritage. It is a city that desires to remember the past, yet what constitutes the city’s memory remains elusive. The question is not simply a matter of how to remember, but what to remember. There is no singular nostalgic narrative that prevails in Hong Kong, and heritage sites are where differing interpretations of the past are currently curated, produced, and presented to the public. Heritage spaces in Hong Kong strive to inculcate and reinforce their imaginings of the past—informed by their nationalist or localist agendas—within their visitors. Their ability to do so depends on whether they are able to reach out and engage with the public in the first place.
The question is not simply a matter of how to remember, but what to remember.
Attuned to the current trends regarding societal consumption of the past, heritage spaces seek to attract potential visitors by incorporating the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic, what visitors want to see in spaces representative of the past. Mei Ho House in Sham Shui Po, a remnant of an early public housing project managed by the Youth Hostel Association, established a store and a café infused with “old-time” elements for visitors to have “nostalgic fun”. Similarly, the Stone Houses in Kowloon City, historically a residential unit, opened a “themed café” resembling a bingsat (traditional diner). As mentioned earlier, PMQ erected temporary stalls styled as sidou selling retro goods and foods and filled the courtyard with old-fashioned games and furniture that proved popular with visitors.
Heritage sites must mediate between their role as the curators and educators of history, whilst meeting visitors’ preconceived expectations of what the city’s past looks like based on their exposure to aestheticized imaginings of “Old Hong Kong.” The “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic, however, is not immune from criticism. Several younger informants lament that the use of such nostalgic styles by heritage sites to attract and generate amusement among visitors, offers little more than visual gratification. Such “feel-good” displays omit the complex realities of the city’s historical experience. By incorporating the “Old Hong Kong” aesthetic, heritage sites become complicit in propagating overly-simplistic and sanitized visions of the past to the public. Conversely, by desiring and unquestioningly consuming these selective representations of history, the public has similarly become complicit in this process, denying heritage spaces the opportunity to espouse visions of history that deviates from this idealization of ‘Old Hong Kong.’
Sonia Lam-Knott is a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. Her research examines vernacular experiences of socio-political and economic change in contemporary Asian cities. Of particular interest is the relationship between nostalgia and aesthetics, grassroots subjectivities and mobilizations, along with urban contestations and aspirations.
Cite as: Lam-Knott, Sonia. 2019. “Exploring the Aesthetics of Nostalgia in Contemporary Hong Kong.” Anthropology News website, February 15, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1093
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Making of an Urban Spectacle
In 2013, I first stepped into the Tang West Market Museum in Xi’an. This museum, situated in the historical Tang Dynasty (618-907 C.E.) West Market site, is China’s first heritage museum run by a private corporation specializing in real estate and cultural business. Lü Jianzhong, CEO of the museum, identifies the museum as the cultural core (wenhua hexin) of his enterprise. Formerly known as Chang’an, Xi’an is recognized as one of the starting points of the Silk Roads by the Chinese government and the UNESCO World Heritage Center. As early as the 1980s, the local government began to promote heritage-related tourism for economic development (Zhu and Yang 2016). Noticeable changes took place during the 2000s when the government further allowed privatized corporations to manage heritage sites.
In 2016, however, two archaeologists Zhang Jianlin and Gong Guoqiang publicly voiced their concerns about the West Market site’s third phase of development. They pointed out that the corporation had not notified the archaeological team in advance about their excavation work, which could have severe consequences for the heritage site. If the same development model were replicated for other privately funded Silk Road–related sites, the archaeologists suggested that more precautions be taken to balance heritage preservation and real estate development (Gong and Zhang 2016). Thanks to the intervention of archaeologists and heritage workers, the development project was halted for further inspection. This incident also reflects the deep-seated conflicts between profit-making and preservation as the city undergoes constant development.
This double binding of culture and business not only brings the destructive force of neoliberalism to the forefront; it also produces new urban spectacles. The chief architect Liu Kecheng, the Dean of the School of Architecture in the Xi’an Architecture and Technology University, is well known for his hybrid use of classic Chinese and modernist styles. While the heritage museum takes the modernist outlook made from high-vault glass ceiling and corridors, the surrounding buildings feature a neoclassical Chinese style with dark blue tiles, white and grey walls, temple-shaped roofs, and overhanging eaves. This reversal of temporalities in architectural representation reminds us of Guy Debord’s conceptualization of modern spectacles. “Reality rises within the spectacle,” Debord writes, “and the spectacle is real.” The reality of capital accumulation is revealed and accentuated through the heritage site expanded into an urban spectacle.
From Spectacle to Neoliberal Reality
By tracing the multifaceted practices in a heritage site, this essay shows the neoliberal forces to privatize the Silk Road in the Chinese cities. It highlights the private corporations’ voluntarism to manage heritage sites and develop real estate. It also attends to the limits of privatizing the heritage economy through urban spectacles. While heritage becomes a brand, the need to preserve is often trumpeted in a performative fashion. However, we cannot overlook the critical role of the post-socialist state in these processes.
During a speech in Kazakhstan in 2013, the People’s of the Republic of China President Xi Jinping proposed reviving the ancient Silk Road and expanding it into economic and geopolitical networks between China and Central Asia. Since then, the Chinese government has been promoting the Road and Belt initiative (yi dai yi lu, or R&B) at the state level as a nation-building schema involving cultural diplomacy and economic policies across Asia, Europe, Africa, and Latin America. As a result, the Chinese state has invested massively in the foreign financial loans and infrastructure projects. It is in that year that the Tang West Market complex was further branded the “commercial starting point of the Silk Road.”
While Beijing deploys the R&B initiative as a geopolitical imaginary for international networks, such policies also heavily impact the ways in which local practices adapt to the initiative. Among different efforts to privatize the Silk Road, the physical remains of heritage sites become key spaces where local actors deploy a neoliberal logic to blend heritage management and business development. In Xi’an, where the Tang West Market Museum is located, this shows how the past and present reinforce one another.
In post-socialist China, the historical metaphor and physical remains of the past have been corporatized, commodified, and spectacularized as a neoliberal reality. As Jean and John Comaroff point out, the “rise of neoliberalism” tend to “encourage the outsourcing of the functions of state to the private sector” (2009, 120). This outsourcing includes the cultural heritage management through real estate development and the tourist industry, and results in the emergence of new urban spectacles predicated upon the dual use of the past, mirroring the neoliberal expansion of capital abroad.
Jing Wang is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at Rice University and currently a visiting scholar in the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include globalization, nationalism, memory, Muslim minorities, diaspora, heritage, media, and cities in contemporary Asia.
Cite as: Wang, Jing. 2019. “Privatizing the Silk Road in Contemporary China.” Anthropology News website, January 24, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1067
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
Welcome to our first episode of the SEAA audio series! This podcast is an invitation to a collaborative process of creating conversations about our scholarship. We envision the audio series and accompanying text as an innovative format allowing us to reach out to audiences in a more accessible way. Through this soundscape, we also strive to offer comparative perspective across regions and networks within Asia and beyond.
The guest for our first episode is Heidi Lam, the co-editor of the SEAA news column in Anthropology News (AN) . Our host is Jing Wang, the SEAA student councilor. We invite our listeners to delve into the editorial process involved in the “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia” SEAA column series in AN as well as other exciting topics. Please see the timeline below with a list of key points if you would like to jump straight to the topics you are most interested in!
Timeline + key points
- 00:06-02:28: Introduction and reflections on AAA Meeting experiences;
- 02:32-04:20: An overview of the “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia” series in AN;
- 04:21-10:35: The series keywords “Consumption,” “Performance,” and “Asia”;
- 10:36-13:51: A discussion of the column’s call for essays and editorial processes, and the importance of writing style and audience;
- 13:52-17:35: How to envision the SEAA News Column and East Asian Anthropology for public engagement;
- 17:36-20:42: Recommendation for further reading–“Japanese Radiation Refugees in Malaysia” by Shiori Shakuto (AnthroSource; as archived on SEAA website)
- “Japanese Radiation Refugees in Malaysia” by Shiori Shakuto (AnthroSource; as archived on SEAA website)
- Column archive on SEAA website
- “In and Out of Japan” SEAA series (AnthroSource; as archived on SEAA website)
- “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia” series in Anthropology News (ongoing)
- “Curating Peninsular Destruction” by Timothy Gitzen (Gitzen, Timothy. 2018. “Curating Peninsular Destruction.” Anthropology News website, November 28, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1045)
- “Privatizing the Silk Road in Contemporary China” by Jing Wang (Wang, Jing. 2019. “Privatizing the Silk Road in Contemporary China.” Anthropology News website, January 24, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1067)
Contact information” for SEAA news column contributing editors:
SEAA Audio Series Editors:
Sound editor: Jing Wang
Content curators and text editors: Heidi Lam and Jing Wang
The SEAA section hosted a diverse range of activities, presentations, and events at the 2018 Annual Meeting. Highlights: 25 panels (including four co-sponsored invited sessions); a Business Meeting, featuring a special speaker; and a lunch-time mentoring workshop on “Teaching East Asian Anthropology.”
The SEAA program consisted of 25 panels, including invited sessions, volunteered sessions, and sessions built from individual papers, and posters. Of these, 12 were sessions with papers featuring research on different regions of East Asia. The panels explored a range of topics including politics, affective labor, gender, activism, demographic transitions, popular culture, and intimacy.
This year, the section featured four invited sessions that were co-sponsored with other AAA sections:
- Queer Asia Ethnographies of Change in a Transnational World (with AQA–Association for Queer Anthropology)
- Indexing Indigeneity in Taiwan: Resistance and Adaptation in Taiwanese Visual Culture (with SVA—Society for Visual Anthropology)
- Cyberwars, Street Politics, and the Problem of Populism in Korea and Japan (with SUNTA—Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology)
- Urban Futures and Expropriated Natures II: Rearticulating Relationalities of Scale (with SUNTA)
SEAA members gathered for the annual Business Meeting, where the Board reviewed this year’s section activities and announced this year’s prize recipients. Priscilla Song was awarded the Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize for Biomedical Odysseys: Fetal Cell Experiments from Cyberspace to China. Graduate student Jieun Cho was recognized for her paper “Affordances of Care,” with honorable mentions for Bram Colijn’s “Pluriprax Households in Modern China: Contested Family Rituals in a Shifting Religious Landscape” and Tomonori Sugimoto’s “Refusing to Leave: The Indigenous Pangcah/Amis Politics of Claiming Land in Urban Taiwan.” One Day We Arrived in Japan (2017), directed by Aaron Litvin and Ana Paula Kojima Hirano, received the David Plath Media Award this year. An honorable mention was also given to Together Apart (2017), a film directed by Maren Wickwire. The award committee citation read for each award is posted under the website’s SEAA Past Awards page.
Attendees also recognized outgoing SEAA Board Members Carolyn Stevens and Priscilla Song for their service to the section. Stevens completed her current term as Secretary, while Song served as Councilor and Program Chair. As this year’s Hsu winner, Song will chair the Francis L.K. Hsu Book Prize committee for the next year.
SEAA welcomed Jeffrey Wasserstrom (University of California, Irvine) as special speaker. His talk, titled “Reflections on writing and editing in the borderlands between disciplines and genres,” drew on his insights from the field of history and his previous experience as editor of the Journal of Asian Studies. Wasserstrom called for a crossing of genres where academic writing would engage the public. In the latter part of his talk, he proposed several writing practices. He spoke about writing for a “one over” type of audience, such as those specializing in one discipline, one part of Asia, or one time period “over.” Furthermore, he noted the potential in story-telling, collaborative writing across disciplines, experimentation with writing forms different from the standard book-length monograph.
“Teaching East Asian Anthropology” lunch-time mentoring workshop
Following concerns about preparing for academic positions, this year’s SEAA lunch-time mentoring workshop centered on the theme of “Teaching East Asian Anthropology.” To cover a diversity of teaching contexts, including public universities, private universities, liberal arts colleges, and non-anthropology departments, the workshop organizers and student councilors Jing Wang and Yukun Zeng, invited four professors to serve as mentors: Satsuki Kawano, Nicholas Harkness, Jennifer Heung, and Gareth Fisher. Workshop attendees included 12 graduate students and two recent PhD graduates.
The faculty mentors spoke with attendees on topics such as designing syllabi, forming “teaching units,” preparing teaching materials according current student interests, curating East Asia in teaching, using East Asia as “theory-generator” in anthropological scholarship, and applying the critical conversation involving “#MeToo” in teaching.
According to feedback solicited after the workshop, the attendees benefited from the faculty mentors’ diverse teaching experience. They also appreciated the “cozy and quiet room set-up, size, and the conversation-style interaction.” Mattias van Ommen, one of the participants, reflected, “I received a lot of practical advice on how to teach courses that might not always be in my comfort zone, while keeping in mind the demands and complexities of the current job market. A big bonus was the institutional diversity of the faculty present.” For the next year, the organizers hope to innovate the workshop format to attract more early-career scholars while maintaining graduate students as the main body of participants.
Informal student dinner
For the past several years, SEAA’s student committee has been organizing a social gathering of students whose research interests fall under the broad category of East Asian anthropology. It offers an opportunity for graduate students to socialize with other young scholars from various institutions and to share research interests over food and drink. As one participant Adrienne Lagman commented,
Our shared interests and experiences make this a welcoming little home within the larger AAAs. It’s easy to become consumed by my own research, so it’s great to connect with other folks casually over a margarita and explore what brings us all together as anthropologists. I came away from the event appreciating not only being able to talk shop with engaging and insightful interlocutors, but getting to know my colleagues on a more personal level.
Heidi K. Lam is a contributing editor of the SEAA section column and a PhD candidate in anthropology at Yale University. She is writing her dissertation on the use of experience within the culture industry in Japan and its impact on tourism, the performing arts, and affective labor.
Shuang L. Frost is a contributing editor of the SEAA section column. She is a Ph.D. candidate in social anthropology and STS at Harvard University. Her research interests include platform ethics, digital economy, social policymaking, and urban studies.
Cite as: Frost, Shuang L., and Heidi K. Lam. 2019. “SEAA Highlights at the 2018 AAA Meeting.” Anthropology News website, January 4, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1063
Copyright  American Anthropological Association
Editor’s Note: This piece opens a SEAA column themed series on “Cultural Consumption and Performance in Asia.” The articles highlight different aspects of consumption and performance in a range of Asian regions. They examine issues such as cultural curation, the uses of the past, material culture, power and market, as well as the enactment of lived experience.
While assisting with a campus tour of Seoul’s Yonsei University in the summer of 2008 for a group of American social studies teachers, the Korean-graduate-student-turned-tour-guide stopped in front of the famed statue of Yonsei’s founder, Horace Underwood. The graduate student explained that the statue, first erected in 1916, was destroyed during the Korean War (1950–1953) when North Korea took Seoul and used Yonsei’s campus as a base of operations. The only part of the statue that remained was the base, he said, pointing to it and the discoloring that indicated soot and ash. Fervently, the teachers began taking pictures of the statue’s base and discoloring, as if to photograph a site of “history.”
Why is the base of the statue so fascinating for these American teachers, and why did the graduate student find this story interesting enough to share in the first place? Echoes of the Korean War adorn the landscapes of Seoul and South Korea. Some are more spectacular, like the De-Militarized Zone; but most are just ordinary sites akin to the statue’s base. These historical markers, however, represent not only a finite period of active war between 1950 and 1953, but the long durée of Cold War militarization on the peninsula. Sites like the statue’s base are temporal markers of past destruction that simultaneously remind us of the possibility of future catastrophe. Yet these temporal markers rely on active recognition as a site of war, incursion, or security. Curating these sites thus calls forth their past, but the interest and fascination lie not only in what happened in that place at that time, but in the proximity and potentiality of future peninsular destruction. The fascination and interest in the sites—and indeed, the curation itself—are part and parcel of the banality of militarization borne of Cold War insecurities of national destruction. At a time when it seems that North-South relations are substantially improving, it is crucial to recognize the power and pervasiveness of militarization that encourages Koreans to tell stories of sites like the statue’s base and the audience’s fascination is violently etched and burned into the physical landscape of the peninsula.
This is the unending not only of a war or permanent confrontation, but also of spaces and objects that simultaneously remind us of disaster while compelling us to forget, only to be repeated infinitely.
The banality of continued militarization depends first on what some call the “unending Korean war” (Hong 2015). While the 1953 Korean Armistice Agreement ceased active combat, North and South Korea are still officially at war. This permanent confrontation provides the South Korean state with justification for continued military conscription of all able-bodied men and the violent and undemocratic policies and actions of former authoritarian leaders Park Chung-hee (1961–1979) and Chun Doo-hwan (1980–1987). The constant fear of yet another North Korean incursion or attack, evidenced by, for instance, North Korea’s artillery shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November 2010, naturalized the on-going confrontation and made banal South Korean responses and precautions. That banality of militarization seeps into the built environment, in part because the state built safeguards for a potential North Korean invasion into urban infrastructure, including overpasses that could fall onto roads to prevent tanks from rolling into Seoul.
Fear and the banality of militarization are also well-adapted to the art of forgetting or even misdirection. While taking Korean language at Sogang University, we read and discussed the Bugak Mountain Fortress Path. Bugak Mountain sits in the northern part of Seoul and the Fortress Path is a popular walking or hiking trail for Koreans and tourists alike. The description in Sogang’s textbook includes the many sites to see along the path, including a more than 200-year-old pine tree with several bullet holes. The textbook explains that on January 21, 1968, several North Korean spies infiltrated South Korea with the intent of making it to the Blue House, the presidential resident, before they were killed by South Korean soldiers (known as the Blue House Raid). The military limited public access to this area for more than 40 years, but now it is part of the popular hiking trail. Yet the tree still acts as a temporal marker, a reminder of past incursion and the possibility for future attack. This is the unending not only of a war or permanent confrontation, but also of spaces and objects that simultaneously remind us of disaster while compelling us to forget, only to be repeated infinitely.
These sites of peninsular destruction are not limited to sites from the Korean War or North Korean incursions. In 2005, construction workers uncovered an underground bunker in the Yeouido neighborhood of Seoul. There were no records of a bunker in the Seoul Metropolitan Government archives, but experts were able to determine that the bunker was built between late 1976 and early 1977 when inter-Korean tensions were high. Furthermore, given the placement of the bunker, the city government believes that former president Park Chung-hee and his government built the bunker should armed conflict reignite. On October 1, 2015, the city government opened the bunker to the media for the first time, and from October 10 to November 1, public visitors were able to schedule tours of the bunker (Eum 2015). On October 19, 2017, the bunker reopened under control of the Seoul Museum of Art as the SeMA Bunker, showcasing exhibitions that speak to the space’s history and significance (Yoon 2017).
This bunker was a preparatory space, one that never saw its intended use fulfilled, but now acts as a curated reminder of that preparation. Each space and object are historical markers, but are only made so upon curation. In each case—the statue’s base, bullet-laden pine, bunker—curators, broadly conceived, asked audiences to remember a period of war, North-South tension, and security protocols indexed by the object or space. Silently, though, we also remember the possibility of future North Korean belligerence, thus imbuing these historical markers with a future-looking temporality that make them even more fascinating. In that fascination, though, the sleight-of-hand of militarization’s banality takes hold, as we forget that militarization orients people towards violence.
Timothy Gitzen is an anthropologist and Korea Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute for Korean Studies at Indiana University. His research focuses on national security, militarization, and queer activism in South Korea. His work has appeared in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly and the forthcoming Duke University Press volume Queer Korea.
Cite as: Gitzen, Timothy. 2018. “Curating Peninsular Destruction.” Anthropology News website, November 28, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1045