16 August 2010

New Scholarship on Wartime Kabuki, 1931–1945

The latest issue of Asian Theatre Journal (via Project MUSE) contains a review (by UCLA's Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei) of James Brandon's myth-shattering new book, Kabuki's Forgotten War: 1931–1945 (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009). Here are a few snippets to give a flavor of how stunningly revisionist the book is.
It was in 2002, at a conference honoring the work of Leonard C. Pronko, that I first heard James R. Brandon present the extraordinary research he was doing on kabuki during what the Japanese call the Fifteen-Year War, the last four years of which encompass the Pacific War of World War II. I will never forget the shock waves in the room as he showed slides and told us about a wartime kabuki play called Three Heroic Human Bombs. Here were kabuki actors performing in 1932, dressed in modern military uniforms, looking for all the world like realistic film actors, carrying bombs as they slogged through mud and barbed wire toward a glorious suicide during Japan's war in China. And then he told us about other new plays from that period, starring famous kabuki actors performing alongside (gasp!) actresses—not onnagata, but females from shinpa and shingeki. The actors wore realistic, contemporary costumes without a trace of kabuki's makeup or wigs, and there was nary a musician in sight. How could these contemporary propaganda plays about military exploits and home front patriotism be kabuki? We all thought we knew what kabuki was, but suddenly the hard-earned knowledge of about a hundred scholars was totally shattered....

As Brandon correctly notes, the war years have been studied extensively from many cultural and political perspectives, but this is the first book in any language (including Japanese) to focus on the wartime history of kabuki. Despite a few notable exceptions, in most Japanese histories of kabuki, "the war years are simply erased" (p. x)....

The book demonstrates kabuki's often enthusiastic complicity with Japan's militarist and imperialist exploits during the 1931–1945 war years, and also puts the situation of kabuki in clear historical perspective. During the early, successful years of the war, kabuki actors and playwrights were in great demand, and they performed many jingoistic, patriotic works. Nevertheless, most actors chose to remember things differently after the war. Brandon quotes from Ichikawa Ennosuke II's postwar memoir: "The five years of the Pacific War was a dark period, a time of suffering for performers." Brandon then comments:
Like most others, Ennosuke did not see himself as a participant in the war. Forgotten were his morale performances in Manchuria, flying to China to gather authentic war material, and the many heroic-soldier roles he enacted in war plays. In portraying himself as a victim of the war and dwelling only on the horrors of the war's end, Ennosuke (and others) erased the victorious years, 1931–1943, when life was good for kabuki artists because of the war.
During the war, kabuki continued its centuries-long tradition of "overnight pickles" (ichiyazuke), plays based on contemporary events that were written and staged within weeks or even days of the actual occurrence. An early wartime "overnight pickle" (when things were still very good for kabuki) dealt with the 1942 capture of Singapore aided by the daring exploits of a young Japanese man whom the popular press dubbed "The Tiger of Malaya." Brandon notes that more than one hundred kabuki overnight pickle plays were written and set during the Fifteen-Year War....

Brandon argues that official support for such morale-boosting kabuki performances, despite overwhelming evidence that Japan was nearing a disastrous defeat, offers a case study supporting the contention that without the atomic bombing, Japan would never have surrendered. He notes that the Japanese cabinet voted numerous times to continue fighting despite the destruction of nearly half of Japan's urban areas and devastating losses in the Pacific. He offers the bizarre case of playwright Kikuta Kazuo, who wrote many anti-American, prowar plays for both Shōchiku and Tōhō, as further proof that the government was in total denial regarding Japan's imminent defeat. Kikuta described what it was like to be one of the last members of the Japan Dramatists' Association to remain in Tokyo after massive American firebombing began in March 1945. The Bureau of Information considered the Dramatists' Association's purpose to be "to gain victory in the war."

15 August 2010

Will Japan Surrender Its Economy This Time?

Japan surrendered 65 years ago today, after decades of initially triumphant and then draining military conflict marked by official denial of any possibility of losing militarily until the very day of surrender. A recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor by a financial investment researcher suggests Japan is going to lose its formerly triumphant economic "war" in the same way (with lessons for the U.S. and other debt-ridden economies).
Investors are understandably scared of the sovereign debt crisis unfolding in Europe, but they are ignoring a more definite and significantly larger sovereign debt catastrophe that is about to hit the world's third-largest economy: Japan.

The prelude to Japan's current crisis began in the early 1990s when its housing and stock market bubbles popped, leading to recession.

For the next 20 years, using flashy names like Fiscal Structural Reform Act, and Emergency Employment Measures, and Policy Measures of Economic Rebirth, the government cut taxes, increased spending, and borrowed money to finance itself. Once or twice the government found fiscal religion and raised taxes; however, the economy stuttered and taxes again were lowered and the stimulus story continued.

Today, 20 years into endless stimuli, the Japanese economy is beset by the same rot it was then, except that its debt has tripled – the ratio of debt to gross domestic product (GDP) stands at almost 200 percent, double those of the United States and Germany, and second only to Zimbabwe....

A country that has ballooning debt needs to have an expanding economy to help the country outgrow its debt burden. Economic growth is driven by two factors, productivity and population growth. Though the Japanese economy may continue to reap the benefits of productivity, population growth is not in the cards.

Japan has one of the oldest societies in the developed world; every fourth Japanese person is over 65 years of age, and the population is shrinking. Due to cultural mores, workers are largely compensated not on merit but on seniority. Thus, young adults marry later in life, and have kids later.

This helps explain why the Japanese birthrate is one of the lowest in the world, a meager 1.37 per woman, well below the 2.1 figure needed to sustain a population....

Though debt has tripled over the past two decades, government spending on interest payments has not changed; in fact it even declined a little in the mid-2000s. This happened because the government's average interest rate paid on its debt declined from more than 6 percent in the 1990s to 1.4 percent in 2009.

This is about to change. Historically, more than 90 percent of Japanese government-issued debt was consumed internally by its citizens, directly or through its pension system. In the 1990s, the savings rate was very high, pushing the mid-teens, but as people get older, they retire and start drawing down their savings and pensions. Today, the Japanese savings rate is approaching zero, and will probably go negative in the not-so-distant future.

The Japanese economy operates on the (soon-to-be-proved-false) assumption that the government will always be able to borrow at low interest rates. As internal demand for debt evaporates – and it's approaching this level already – the Japanese government will have to start hocking its debt outside Japan.

When it does, it will face a rude shock in the form of higher interest payments. Japanese 10-year Treasuries now yielding 1.0 percent will not stand a chance against US or German bonds of the same maturities that yield 2.89 percent and 2.59 percent, respectively....

Along with China, Japan is the one of the largest holders of US government debt, and its demand for our fine paper will decline. Most likely, Japan will start selling Treasuries. And to make things worse, Japan will start competing with the US, not just in cars and electronics, but for buyers of sovereign government debt. Japan will export inflation, inflation will rise globally, and so will interest rates.

Had I written a similar article five years ago, I would have been "wrong," as today the Japanese economy is still ticking. Timing bubbles – and Japan is in the late stages of an enormous debt bubble – is very difficult, as bubbles tend to last longer than rational observers expect. But every year that the Japanese bubble doesn't burst and debt swells, the eventual pop just grows more catastrophic.

Japan is past the point of no return; its fiscal and demographic problems were created over decades and will take decades to be resolved. In the meantime, its citizens will pay the painful price. Japan is proof that a country cannot borrow itself to prosperity.

China's Chopstick Threat

Today's LA Times contains an op-ed calling attention to the forests being consumed by China's enormous output of disposable chopsticks, which I suspect have nevertheless played a significant role in reducing the spread of communicable diseases (as have disposable hypodermic needles, which constitute another sometimes nasty environmental threat). China's government is now trying to discourage their use.
The disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing — an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly. Begin with China's 1.3 billion people. In one year, they go through roughly 45 billion pairs of the throwaway utensils; that averages out to nearly 130 million pairs of chopsticks a day. (The export market accounts for 18 billion pairs annually.)...

Calls to abandon the use-and-toss type began more than 10 years ago and have since persisted unabated. By 2006, the activism had become more strenuous: Citizens launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) movement, which continues to gather momentum....

Yet, more than 10 years later, the targeted disposable remains with us. Why?

First, while we in the West don't give much thought to a chopstick "industry," in China, where 100,000 people in more than 300 plants are employed in the manufacture of the wooden utensils, it's most definitely a flourishing enterprise. And just as jobs trump environmental issues in the West (think the coal, oil and logging industries), the argument that 100,000 jobs are at stake is a refrain that carries considerable weight. As Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Assn., told the China Daily in 2009, "The chopstick industry is making a great contribution by creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions," adding that melamine-resin chopsticks are hardly a sanitary substitute with their "high formaldehyde content." His mention of melamine resin is an effective touch, I admit.

Then there are the restaurants. The alternative to wooden disposables is sterilizing the tableware (plastic, metal or durable wood chopsticks) after each use. But the cost differential is significant: Disposables run about a penny apiece, while sterilization ranges from 15 to 70 cents. Restaurants, especially the low-end ones, worry about passing the costs on to customers. And the worry would seem to be warranted: Consumer advocacy groups from 21 Chinese cities published an open letter in March arguing that the costs of sterilization should not be passed on to consumers as the food safety law obligates restaurants to provide free, clean and safe tableware.
Are paper shopping bags a threat to North American forests?