Seventh Asian Studies Conference Japan
    Saturday, June 21-Sunday 22, 2003
    Ichigaya Campus of Sophia University



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Contact the organizers: Asian Studies Conference (ASCJ) c/o Institute of Asian Cultural Studies, International Christian University 3-10-2 Osawa, Mitaka-shi, Tokyo 181


Session 14
The Meanings of Things: Japanese Material Culture 1905-1945
Organizer: Sarah Teasley, University of Tokyo

Recently, scholars of modern Japanese history have begun to take material culture as a key to understanding Japan's cultural, social, economic and political trajectory over the past century from the micro- level on out. However, such discourse often remains within disciplinary boundaries, focusing on product design, economic strategies or consumer patterns without fully acknowledging the fundamentally related nature of these areas. Understanding material culture as the design, manufacture, distribution, marketing, consumption and actual use of objects, including the cultural meanings assigned to them and social relations conducted through them, this panel analyses the roles of objects in the formation of national culture in peace and war from the late Meiji to early Shôwa eras.

To this end, the panel's cross-disciplinary constellation approach draws on participant strengths in social history, media sociology, visual culture and design history. Majima looks at the body as a commodified signifier of identity, examining discourse on faces and physiques among Japanese intellectuals after the Russo-Japanese War to question formations of nation and gender. Teasley maps changing attitudes towards tatami as an ambivalently anti-modern and essentially Japanese signifier of geo-cultural identity in 1920s and 30s urban culture. Yamaguchi employs the 1928-34 industry debate over the standardization of radio sets to plot attempts at creating a national media culture in the years preceding the Pacific War. Finally, Pennington addresses the meanings invested in the thousand-stitch belts given to soldiers from the 1930s onwards, questioning the relationship between individual bodies and the militarized nation.

1) Ayu Majima, International Christian University. "Are Japanese Ugly?: The Paradoxical Discourse on Body and 'Beauty' among Male Intellectuals in Early Twentieth Century Japan"

In early Twentieth century Japan, especially after the Russo-Japanese War (1904 - 1905), the issues of body and "beauty" became an unavoidable topic among male Japanese intellectual leaders. According to their discourses, Japanese men's visages and physiques appeared too "ugly" for a people aspiring to be members of a "first class nation," and it was imperative to correct this lack of "beauty" in light of discriminatory issues such as "the yellow peril" and anti-Japanese movements that were emerging in the West. In other words, the acquisition of "beauty" was one means by which Japanese represented themselves "equally" to the Western powers in order to behave and be seen as one of the five victorious powers to emerge from the First World War.

Meanwhile, popular desire to overcome this inferiority complex about visage and physique became commercialized during this period. Major magazines ran advertisements for devices by which men could obtain higher noses and taller stature and for products to whiten the skin. Why did Japanese men have to struggle to seek "beauty"? What was "beauty"? And, more fundamentally, what did "beauty" mean to them? This paper examines discourse on visages and physiques among Japanese male intellectuals after the Russo-Japanese War, focusing on the paradoxical conflict between an urge toward nationalism and a felt inferiority complex concerning body and "beauty" in late Meiji and Taishô Japan.

2) Sarah Teasley, University of Tokyo. "Furnishings, Modernity and the Nation: The Rhetoric of Tatami in 1920s and 1930s Japanese Interiors"

For architects, interior designers and educators in the Taishô and early Shôwa periods concerned with identifying and popularizing living spaces, furnishings and practices that, as both "Japanese" and "modern," would engender a modern nation through the modernization of daily life, tatami and the lifestyle and corporeal practices it entailed signified particularly "Japanese" space in the home. However, tatami was also vilified as irrational, unhygienic and anti-modern, and only rarely deployed in the domestic interiors and practices reformist architects prescribed for the Japanese nation. And yet, a few years later official and popular discourse had rediscovered tatami's charms, and were lauding tatami for its comfort and expression of "national character."

In this paper, I examine ambivalencies in the naming, rhetoric, uses and meanings of tatami as geo-cultural signifier in 1920s and 30s urban culture through a look at two pivotal moments in modern Japanese interior design. In the first, the Taishô-era culture house movement, tatami was prohibited as contradicting the aims of modern life and permitted as a means of tempering the unfamiliarity of new bungalow architecture. In the second, a nativist reevaluation of the vernacular within early Shôwa modernism, tatami was deployed to express geo-locality within the context of modern design. In both instances, tatami signified class, gender, age and region and also referenced Japan's evolving position in Asia, invoking cross-identifications and resonances with prior meanings. In this way, it is a key to understanding how furnishings and the lifestyle and corporeal practices they suggest embody a national geographics of design, or things in the service of modern nation-building.

3) Makoto Yamaguchi, Kansai University. "The Standardization of 'the Ear' and the Emergence of Collective Desire in Radio History"

In this paper, I address how the 'radio set' emerged in the modern Japanese context. I demonstrate changes in radio sets from 1925 to 1952, and examine the emergence of a standard type of a radio set as the emergence of a collective desire for a thing and for communication. In its first inception, radio was not "media for family use in the living room." Radio broadcasting began in Japan in 1925, but more than 70% of the audience used headphones to listen to the radio. In a sense, radio was a "personal mass-medium" and there were many types of radio sets in the early years of broadcasting in Japan. During the 1930s, however, radio sets were standardized first into the so-called "four tubes" type, then into the "high detector attached" type. These standards were used widely through the Second World War into the 1950s, even though most radio makers knew that they were neither the cheapest nor the best technology for making radio sets. When and how was the standard for radio sets created? To answer this question, I focus on a moment of struggle, the 1928-34 fight between the Broadcasting Corporation of Japan (later NHK) and nine major radio makers including Matsushita and Sharp over the standardization of an "ideal radio set for the nation."

4) Lee Pennington, Columbia University. "Stitches and Sutures: Thousand-Stitch Belts, Military Medicine, and Soldiers' Bodies in Wartime Japan"

The escalation of hostilities toward China following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 brought with it battlefield casualties at a level unprecedented in modern Japanese military history. The bodies of Imperial Japanese soldiers shattered at an overwhelming rate, forcing the rapid modernization of the existing infrastructure of military medicine and triage. Concurrent with the systematic increase in the number of field hospitals and national hygienic policies geared toward strengthening male bodies was a popularization on the home front of life-protecting talismans distributed to conscripted troops. Grass-roots elements in Japanese society hastened the production of a variety of charms reputedly endowed with the power to avert injury and death. Foremost among these were "thousand-stitch belts" (senninbari), in which each single stitch was said to embody the thoughts of the individual woman who had sewn it. Thousand-stitch belts wrapped men in a fantastic mantle of invulnerability that encouraged participation in front-line combat, and bound women on the home front into patterns of popular support of the war. This paper analyzes medical and popular wartime measures for preserving the soldier's body on the battlefield in the context of nationalized rhetoric that at times prompted self-immolation in the name of the emperor.


list of panels