Undercurrents (05/29/2017)

Undercurrents (05/29/2017)

(music for reading)


Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a weekly reminder that the rest of the world is just as miserable as we are. This week, we sidestep the racially charged “oriental” music cues many Western news organizations use when reporting on East Asia and turn our eye on Japan.

This past week, the Japanese House of Representatives passed a contentious “anti-conspiracy” bill which would make “conspiring to commit terrorism” a crime. Now, on the surface, this seems a non-issue. After all, terrorists suck and as television has taught me, it’s the job of attractive national security agents with fancy guns and well-written quips to stop them at all costs.

Unfortunately, no matter how much I wish it otherwise, this is the real world and here, “security” is not so much the macguffin that drives the plot as it is a slippery word used to justify violence, intimidation and mass invasion of privacy. Like a book report on The Grapes of Wrath written by a sophomore who never bothered getting around to actually reading it, this new anti-conspiracy bill was written so broadly it isn’t clear what it actually means. According to the index of the bill, terroristic acts which would call for surveillance include among other things, “unlicensed bike racing, copyright infringement and stealing plants from forest preserves”. So all that underground street racing and Hello Kitty fan art that al-Qaeda has been undertaking to destabilize the peaceful democracy of Japan will finally be put to a halt.

The ambiguity of the bill as well as the fact that there hasn’t been a significant terrorist attack since the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack in 1995 has left many Japanese and outside observers wondering just what is the point of passing this bill at this moment. Recent public opinion polls show that while split evenly over the value of the bill, “three-quarters (of voters) said the government had not sufficiently explained why it needed to pass the legislation”. Meanwhile, Joseph Cannataci, the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy of the United Nations (what a title) sent an open letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe essentially saying that the bill as written was a confusing mess which probably violates the United Nations “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (“questions were raised on the pertinence and necessity of this additional legislation” is essentially UN-speak for “why the fuck are you doing this?”). Furthermore, the bill provides no direct oversight to prevent abuse of the surveillance aspect of the bill, and doesn’t clearly draw the line between arbitrary and necessary snooping. All in all, the bill sucks.

The Abe administration has stood by the bill, stating that it only targets “organized crime groups,” though they have failed to clearly delineate who is included in such a definition. Meanwhile, the Japanese press (whose penchant for fact-finding and accountability inevitably makes them enemies of Orwellian surveillance states) has spoken out against the bill, reminding the Japanese public of Imperial-era anti-conspiracy legislation which was used to torture or intimidate anyone opposing the state. As it turns out, when you write a law using purposefully vague terms it becomes a hell of a lot easier to make politically annoying people enemies of the state. Who woulda guessed?!! (George Orwell did, Orwell guessed.)

The exact reason for why this legislation is being passed now is uncertain, but the approaching 2020 Tokyo Olympics, corruption scandals involving the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Abe’s nostalgia for Japan’s militaristic past and good old political calculation probably all play a part. Japan is certainly not the first democracy to pass vague anti-democratic privacy laws. The United States passed the Patriot Act in 2001, and as the Snowden leaks have revealed, has spent the past sixteen years sucking up all the information they possibly can from the Americans they are supposed to be protecting. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom passed the Snooper’s Charter (originally developed by Theresa May in 2015 when she was Home Secretary) in 2016, creating one of the most invasive surveillance states in the West. In fact, the initial draft was so extreme, the Chinese government used it to justify their own new surveillance laws. When China cites you as an inspiration, you have a problem.

As the global economy continues to flounder, terrorists continue to be jerks and right wing governments continue to reshape democratic institutions to their own liking, privacy will continue to take a beating. Security, that vague meaningless word beloved by tyrants, will continue to trump liberty, a similarly vague yet much more pleasurable word beloved by idealists and white guys on the internet. But I’m sure, by this point, you know the drill. Stand up, speak out, etc, etc, etc. If there is one thing I’ve learned about politicians, it’s that nothing terrifies them more than angry voters. In movies, the bad guys pass bad legislation and then go laughing to exquisite clubs with extensive wood paneling. In real life, when bad guys pass bad legislation, they hide in bushes. If nothing else, that should give you strength.

Well, having finished my half-ironic Bill Murray speech, I’m off. Stay tuned this week for another poem and an essay on a film (yay!). See you next week.

Header image from here.

Captured History 1: Silent Histories

Captured History 1: Silent Histories

Captured History is an ongoing series that considers the place of photography in understanding the recent past. I proceed from the inference that photographs can convey a deeper and more transcendent (if less coherent) meaning of historical experience than text alone.

(music for reading)


Around midnight on March 13th, 1945, Tsunehiro Morinaga was awakened by air raid sirens. Fleeing to the shelter dug in his backyard, twelve-year-old Tsunehiro saw the night sky lit like day. Overhead, 274 American B-29 bombers were indiscriminately dropping incendiary bombs onto the mostly wooden wards of ancient Osaka. Nearly seventy years later, Tsunehiro recalled the night in which his city burned: “From afar, (those) bombs seemed to flutter in the air before breaking apart. They looked very beautiful. But those flames torched the city.” Tsunehiro and his mother were able to flee the encroaching fire, but his father remained behind. He, and seven of their neighbors, including a three-year-old child, suffocated to death in the air raid shelter. By the war’s end, 330,000 Japanese shared their fate. Another 430,000 were injured and 9.7 million were left homeless.

Tsunehiro’s story is one of several told in Silent Histories, a collection of photos and essays revealing the hidden lives of child survivors of the American firebombing of Japanese cities in the final years of the Pacific War. Photojournalist Kazuma Obara, best known in the West for his photos of the Fukushima disaster and cleanup, assembled the photobook using personal testimonies, family photographs, aerial photos taken by American reconnaissance and bomber planes and portraits shot by Obara himself. One survivor’s story is shown through a series of watercolors that she had painted later in life, horrifyingly beautiful in its vision of indistinct fleeing masses and cross-like bombers blacking out the red sky.

All of Obara’s subjects are scarred: physically, emotionally, psychologically. They’ve lost limbs, loved ones, independence and the chance at what they call a normal life. When the war ended, and Japanese society raced not only to rebuild its shattered economy and infrastructure but also to forget its “shameful” militaristic past, disabled survivors were either left behind or actively discriminated against. Children who lost limbs were picked on for their “abnormality”, while companies would not hire anyone with wartime disabilities. Orphans shuttled between distant relatives were seen as burdens, and treated no differently from hired help.

The disabled were seen not as the innocent victims of total war but instead as symbols of historical shame. Cities can be rebuilt, craters filled in. Skyscrapers can rise where the barracks once stood. But bodies can never be fully reconciled, their scars never forgotten. Every child missing a limb was a monument to the failure of nationalism, colonialism, militarism, fascism and all the other –isms which destroyed a generation. As successive governments issued official apologies to the U.S. and the nations of East Asia for the many atrocities of the colonial era, survivors were hidden away, the violence written into their bodies never properly dealt with. For all the talk of confession, reparation and reconciliation, there are today many elderly people throughout Japan who no longer feel fully a part of their community.

The state refuses to help those children wounded during the firebombing. According to the ideology of the current Japanese government, “We had no job contracts with citizens. All citizens were obliged to endure suffering during the war.” This indifference, pushing past the boundaries of callousness when considering that children have no responsibility in instigating and supporting a war, has led survivors to have to advocate for themselves, unsuccessfully pleading for similar support as is given to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Meanwhile, the United States has never officially apologized for the targeting of civilians with incendiary bombs (weapons specifically chosen to spread quickly across Japan’s largely wooden civilian housing), and is unlikely to ever provide relief to those they scarred.

Obara’s book is thus both a work of history and of advocacy. It is also a work of art. The original run of 45 copies in Japan was handmade, designed and assembled by the photographer himself. The result is more a collage than photobook. Meaning emerges from layers, as testimonies are displayed alongside family photos, often building from pre-bombing images of childhood to the post-bombing photos of life thereafter. For many of the people featured in the book, the testimony is not necessarily required to understand their lives. Through everyday portraits and snapshots, we see whole lives pass by, so much left unsaid but still inferred.

While Silent Histories is a document of individual suffering, it is also an account of historical pain and healing. Aerial photographs taken by American pilots before, during and after the bombing runs are displayed alongside grade school graduations and family portraits, the macro and micro of war brought together. In one photo, taken from an American military archive, an aerial shot of Osaka has been written over in black marker, borderlines drawn around significant wards and specific neighbors labeled with capital letters, their true meaning only available to the long-ago generals and pilots eagerly seeking to end the war. In another, a city, its symmetrical streets carving up the land, is largely obscured by a B-29 and a massive plume of smoke.

Osaka raid


Meaning is also conveyed through juxtaposition. Black and white images of flattened cityscapes, straight white streets with no buildings in between but the occasional circular crater, are followed by contemporary photographs, revealing the irregular concrete mess of skyscrapers and apartment blocks that have covered over the wounded land like a scab. With the turn of a page, seventy years of history are collapsed; the past and present become one.

History scars us. It writes on our bodies the suffering of those who came before. Obara writes in his epilogue, “Something terrible occurs the moment we forget the pain, the moment we are unable to feel it as our own.” Empathy, the willingness to bear some of that pain, the pain of people and of peoples, is the only thing that can give us any hope for the future. The past cannot be forgotten; its scars cannot be denied. What Tsunehiro Morinaga and all of those brave enough to share their pain do is, for humanity, far more valuable than any official apology or memorial ceremony.


Kazuma Obara’s Silent Histories was originally published in Japan as a limited run in 2014. An English version was published by Editorial RM in 2015. For more info, check out Obara’s website here. I do not have any specific books to recommend about the firebombing of Japanese cities during World War II at the present; however, if you wish to understand the experience, I recommend the anime film Grave of the Fireflies (1988). I have only seen it once, as a teenager, but it has never left my mind.


The header image is the cover of issue no. 29 of Weekly Photography Magazine (1938), a reproduction of which is included in Silent Histories. The photograph of the B-29 over Osaka is in the public domain and is also included in the book.

this morning

this morning,
as I tied my shoe
on the step of my front porch,
a bomb
hidden in the boot
of an automobile
designed in Japan
and built in Shanghai
went off in a crowded bazaar
in the old part of Baghdad

and though 6,000 miles or so
past the rising sun
I felt it hit my feet
and ripple through my thighs
and for a brief moment
unnoticed by the lonely commuters
passing by my door,
the horizon
was set ablaze.

Undercurrents (05/22/2017)

Undercurrents (05/22/2017)

(music for reading)


Hello and welcome to Undercurrents, a weekly jaunt into that region of the world known by Americans as “Not-America”. This week, we’re talking about press freedom and in order to do that, we need to finish our junior year of college, pack our knapsacks full of sweaters and beat poetry, and board the next cheap flight to the Czech Republic. In the process, we’ll find ourselves, or at the very least, get hammered and write a post about it for a food blog.

At a conference in Beijing this week centered around China’s “One Belt, One Road” plan (essentially China’s plan to rebuild the Silk Road and thus casually toss off the old Western world order that Donald Trump is trying so hard to destroy), Czech President and sentient potato Milos Zeman was caught on tape saying to noted hockey enthusiast Vladimir Putin “there are too many journalists” and thus, there is a “need to liquidate” them. Following an uproar from humanity, Zeman’s spokesperson shrugged off the whole conversation as a joke being taken far too seriously by journalists and opposition. You know, because what’s more hilarious than the political leader of your country saying you deserve liquidation, a term which definitely doesn’t have genocidal connotations, amirite?

If we take Zeman’s spokesperson at their word, then this was all just a goof between world leaders and really don’t we all have better things to do? Well, not quite. To begin with, no joke featuring the term “liquidate” was ever funny. Not even Patton Oswalt would be able to pull that off, and he is actually good at jokes.

Secondly, everything about this situation makes it seem like Zeman was not so much joking as stating a fact. His confidant and apparent BFF, Vladimir Putin, is the leader of a Russian government which has increasingly cracked down on independent media, using intimidation and murder to cow any news outlet which dares to go against Putin’s message of “boy, Tsarism sure was great, huh”. Things have only gotten worse as sanctions surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and falling oil prices (which have devastated the petro-centric economy) have led authorities to crack down even harder on dissent, because why solve problems when you can bully writers into pretending everything’s just swell?

Furthermore, Zeman made his jokey jokes in Beijing, a world capital noted for its gentle acceptance of all forms of free expression. The limits on the free press are so terrible in the People’s Republic of China that many talented Chinese writers have given up completely on the profession of journalism. The digital revolution has made things hard enough as it is for quality journalism; add on censorship, prison sentences and the absurdity of public “confessions” and really why bother? And while Chinese journalists have not been subject to murder like their Russian colleagues, an increasing ideological personality cult surrounding Xi Jinping has made it all but impossible to operate in the realm of fact.

Zeman is a noted buffoon whose Islamophobia and deep love of Russia (as well as a penchant for saying stupid bullshit like “vegetarians should be put death”) is so similar to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump that I have to wonder whether all of these men were created in a lab somewhere in the hinterlands of Siberia. And while it’s easy to brush off his “joke” as tasteless and dumb, it’s essential to remember that even in functioning democracies like the Czech Republic, all is not well. The Czech press is largely concentrated in the hands of a few elites, a group which includes many of the very politicians which the press should be keeping an eye on. Meanwhile, the government has been the subject of several corruption scandals and its response to the Syrian refugee crisis (which, unlike its neighbors, has largely bypassed Czech lands) has been atrocious.

As Zeman prepares to run for re-election next January, there can be no doubt his propensity for speaking bullshit will only grow worse. Like Trump, such unapologetic fuckery has kept him popular with rural voters while alienating urban ones, but it is not yet clear if any strong opposition would be able to take away his largely symbolic position. Regardless, we can be assured that in this new wave of malevolently buffoonish far-right populist leaders, Zeman will always be eighth in my heart after Putin, Trump, Recep Erdoğan, Rodrigo Duterte, a frozen ham, Marine Le Penn and Dr. Doom.

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters 1: Bessie

Specters is an ongoing series that focuses on the lives of individuals I’ve come across in history books. For the most part, these people are not the emperors and generals whose names are well known to enthusiasts of history, but instead people who, through a stroke of luck, have been preserved in the records of empires and nations. Given the limited nature of these sources, these essays toe the line between fact and fiction.

(music for reading)


We do not know much about Bessie. Only two written documents exist to suggest her existence: the one a record of the property of an unknown slaveowner following his death in 1654; the other an inventory of one William Browne, a plantation and slave owner of Barbados, dated March 17, 1662. In the former, she is listed alongside her “piqueninies”, the sole enslaved woman to be named. In the latter, she appears under the headline “Women”, next to “Bessy”, who appears under the headline “Cows”.

A lot of information can be gleaned from these two records, stored in the Barbados Department of Archives alongside some 3,000 similar wills and inventories from the second half of the seventeenth century. We can tell that by 1654, she had no husband (all other women in the document are merely included as “wives” to named men). We can tell that whoever recorded that inventory specifically valued Bessie for her children, and more importantly, for her potential to create more. And most significantly, we can tell that for William Browne, she was on an equal footing with his cattle.

But what we cannot see in these administrative documents, written by literate and propertied English men on the island of Barbados, is the woman herself. We see her as her owners saw her, as cattle, as property, as the potential producer of a whole new generation of black bodies whose labor will support the sunburnt Anglo-Saxons in their quest for respectability and wealth, whose debilitating labor in the Caribbean sun will ensure that the lords and ladies of Cornwall and Somerset and Devon and Norfolk could have a bit of sugar with their tea (itself ensured by the labor of Indians and Chinese and the diverse sailors and merchants who hauled those plants half-way across the world). But we do not see her as her children saw her, as her mother saw her, as she saw herself.

We do not know the pain she felt, the love, the boredom, the anger, the resignation. We do not know what became of her children’s father, whether he was dead, sold off or even the man who owned her (rape was as natural to chattel slavery as the whip or the chain). We do not know whether she loved her children; whether she could bring herself to love those little humans who, according to the Virginia Slave Law of 1662, “shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother” and who could be sold off at any moment to a plantation across the island or to the tobacco fields of Virginia or the rice paddies of Carolina. We do not know if she was able to make her children understand, whether she had any answer for why life was as it was, or why the master could give these dark-skinned children to his pale-skinned offspring as gifts, so that his progeny could learn as early as possible the proper way to manage their property and households. Wait, we do not even know how many children Bessie had.

We do not know whether Bessie had been born on that little island, tottering at the eastern edge of the sea named for the people Christopher Columbus had, a century and a half prior, encountered on his journey to India, the people he had promptly enslaved. We do not know if she had instead known the Senegal or Calabar or Gambia or Congo, those rivers “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins”, as the poet wrote. We do not know if her soul had “grown deep like the rivers.” We do not know if she had poetry in her heart.

We do not know if she traveled across the Atlantic in the bowels of a cramped ship, watching her people (for they were her people now, though they spoke different languages and called for different gods) cough and cry and rage and die. We do not know how alone she felt, how afraid, how tired, how confused.

We do not know much of anything.

Bessie was another body given to feed the mass machinery of the Atlantic world, machinery which we as historians cannot yet call capitalism but give it time, the shape is familiar.

Yet, we have her name, preserved in the archives of the Barbadian government. We know her name, and that is something to hold onto, as we zoom out and write tomes on the institution of slavery with its nameless masters and slaves and overseers and traders and lawyers and accountants and proponents and opponents.

We have her name. She is not forgotten. She cannot be forgotten. We have her name.





Bessie’s story was found in Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004), an essential examination of women and reproduction in the English/British slave system. The quoted lines of poetry come from Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from The Weary Blues (1925).

The header image “Albumen print of enslaved women and their children near Alexandria, Virginia”, dated December 2, 1861 to March 10, 1862, currently in the collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. It can be better viewed here.

black rain

black rain
falling from the sky
I watch it drift by
down flattened boulevards
and dying stockyards

black rain
paints the bare land
where once a city stood
a mass of brick and wood
all gone

and they came
and wiped away
all I hold dear
shadows on concrete
I fear
what am I still
doing here?

black rain
the war is over
I guess now all is calm
no more bombs
to cause

black rain
black rain
black rain