Distraction Free Reading

Queered Ruptures: The Politics of Anti-irradiation Maternalism in the TEPCO Nuclear Disaster, Kokutai, and Hentai

Image of a street with white arrows painted on it.

“Warped Pervert.” Parking lot in Iwaki city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. June 10, 2019. Video by author. See note 1 for additional information.

It is August 2018 and Ishikawa Chiharu and I are sitting down for tea in an herbalist cafe in Fukushima prefecture. We are reflecting on a recent workshop I had organized with my friend N, a professionally trained dancer, for youth in the anti-irradiation space Chiharu organizes. Commenting on how N began her workshop with a short performance, Chiharu says,

Thinking normally, that kind of self-expression is something to be embarrassed of […] Even if it’s small, I think it would be nice to have a place that tells [youth] it’s okay for them not to kill a part of themselves. That’s why when very little was emerging out of Fukushima prefecture, the people who tried to take action were really a little hentai[2]

This essay reflects on the significance of Chiharu’s description of herself and other women active in anti-irradiation efforts as hentai. It reflects on the sense that Japanese mothers who take issue with nuclear reconstruction in late capitalist Japan are perverse and aberrant.

Before our conversation, I experienced Chiharu as what Audre Lorde (1982) named as “dyke,” a “powerful and women-oriented” woman (15). Though white cisgender lesbian feminists at the time were theorizing the “lesbian” as a revolutionary rupture of dialectics situated firmly within Euroamerican colonial gender, Lorde was pointing at a different structure, temporality, positionality, and genealogy of insurgency; to be a Black dyke in Lorde’s sense was “aberrant” in “the white american common tongue” (C.f. Radicalesbians, “The Woman-Identified Woman”; Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind and Other Essays). Instead of finding “the dyke” in white lesbian culture, Lorde finds her in her mother, an Afrodiasporic woman “who would rather have died than use that name.”[3] Lorde finds her mother’s power in a ruptured continuity from before the Middle Passage that appears—via Hortense Spillers—as insurgency from the perspective of whiteness: “Grenadians and Barbadians walk like African peoples… When I visited Grenada I saw the root of my mother’s powers walking through the streets” (1982, 9). Being a dyke thus marks not a rupture in dialectical relations, but an already-present otherwise existing in porous relationship to the institution of property and the racialized formations of sex/gender on which it depends (King 2016).

Around the time when Lorde began her career as a poet, Japanese women were also thinking about the form that anti-imperialist women’s liberation should take, and what role eros would have to play in it. Ūman ribu feminists emerging out of the anti-imperialist movements of the Japanese New Left emphasized the historical centrality of the family system in Japanese imperialist ideology, and how it continued to reproduce authoritarianism in the 1970s. By liberating sex from it, they could liberate the onna—the sexualized and base Japanese woman who shared an affinity with the colonized women of Asia—from the imbrications of male supremacy, imperialism, and capitalism (Shigematsu 2012). This meant creating relationalities that centered on pleasures for and with onna, that refused the logics of productivity, imperialism, and state control of reproduction.

Amidst the transpacific legacies of the onna and the dyke as those figures signifying the possibilities of women’s liberation, Chiharu talked instead about the feeling of being hentai—a pervert or deviant; perhaps a queer. Like women from ūman ribu, some of whom are active in the antinuclear movement, anti-irradiation women pay careful attention to the politics of pleasure and radioactive contamination in the “festival” of nuclear reconstruction.[4] When confronted with unspoken pressure to consume local produce as part of the state’s “support by eating” program, they would sigh, “It’s tasty, but…” When Japan won the bid for the Tokyo Olympics in 2013, Chiharu wrote an opposing blog post, stating, “Your joy is our sorrow.” She received death threats and cyberattacks and eventually deleted the post. When she went to the police, they blamed her: “The person who spoke with me said something like, ‘I have to discipline your group for crime prevention. You’re doing it with the knowledge that it could be dangerous, right? Isn’t that worse?’”

Chiharu’s exchange with the police occurred in the context of escalating fascism and the post-3.11 deployment of the discourse of fūhyōhigai.[5] As sociologist Aya Kimura (2016) has demonstrated, this discourse of “harmful rumor” or “reputational damage” frames women who take issue with government radiation standards and policies as irrational, hysterical, and ignorant, as well as sources of discrimination against the irradiated. Thus, acts that threaten power become “discrimination” and the actual act of discrimination—the exposure of most of eastern Japan and the Pacific to arbitrarily regulated radioactive contamination—becomes “love of hometown” and “correct knowledge.” This discourse thus accomplishes a fascist inversion of violence that makes the harms of patriarchy, intimate violence, reproductive control, and irradiation all the more difficult to name, while recasting women experiencing harm as aggressors threatening the “correct” order. It nebulizes rays of violence into a normative, unnameable atmosphere—one that legitimates acts of punishment that anti-irradiation women have experienced in intimate spaces from family, friends, and husbands. Hentai in many ways marks the feeling of being a dissenting subject in the dystopia of contemporary Japan, in which fascists can commandeer courts to remove memorials to the forced colonial laborers who built Japan’s hydrodams; in which queers and disabled people don’t deserve social existence because we “lack productivity;” in which only a few hundred protesters showed up to contest the emperor system when it made a spectacle of renewing itself in 2019.[6]

If fascism is the issue, then the organization of violence and disposability in Japan’s nuclear reconstruction needs to be understood in relation to the logics of the Japanese emperor system, and in particular, the “national polity” (kokutai).[7] This logic remains alive in contemporary Japan in no small part because of the reorganization of its key institutions under American military occupation to make Japan a counterrevolutionary Cold War outpost of American empire and neocolonial capital. The key concept of kokutai is that equality and peace are achieved through common subjection to Japanese racial purity and the sanctity of imperial expansion, personified by the emperor. Consequently, kokutai has genocidal implications. The Ministry of Education’s Fundamentals of Our National Polity (1937) outlines the imperial creation myth and Japan’s supposedly unbroken history of “martial spirit” and states,

[I]t is a strife which has peace as its basis with a promise to raise and to develop; and it gives life to things through its strife. Here lies the martial spirit of our nation. War, in this sense […] should be a thing for the bringing about of great harmony, that is, peace. (94-5)

It outlines the necropolitical engine of Japanese empire: war furthers Japanese life, and by extension, those targeted for a “peaceful” death in its name cannot be figured as living.[8] “Collective sacrifice” always has unequal effects.

We can sketch how kokutai apprehends the problem of irradiation by examining philosopher Yuki Miyamoto’s work on atomic bomb victims. She argues that the irradiated (hibakusha) woman is unrepresentable in the national logic of reproduction. Instead, un-irradiated women must make irradiated men whole again. This gendered appropriation makes marriage discrimination against hibakusha women possible: anxiety over the reproduction of “healthy” patrilineages allows patriarchs and in-laws to dismiss irradiated women as potential contaminants, unfit for their family lineage. Many hibakusha women rejected by husbands and patrilineages for this reason, often unable to hold regular jobs because of chronic illness, became day laborers in construction or domestic work. Some built the Hiroshima Peace Park as disposable laborers, only to have the exhibit about their experiences displaced to make way for Atoms for Peace propaganda popularizing nuclear power. Meanwhile, the experiences of colonized Koreans, outcastes (burakumin), and Nikkei atomic bomb victims were left out of nationalized nuclear history entirely as postwar Japan reproduced the construction of “Japanese” (gendered) humanity through the systematic disenfranchisement of both former and current colonized subjects.[9] This reorients our understanding of fūhyōhigai not simply as misogynistic discourse, but as the reproduction of kokutai’s devaluation of irradiated Japanese women and non-Japanese subjects through its heteropatriarchal prerogative. No mystery, then, why post-3.11 national “rebirth/reproduction” through nuclear reconstruction has relied so heavily on intimate and reproductive violence against women.

In “The Irradiated International,” Dené scholar Lou Cornum posits a political formation arising out of both shared and ruptured experiences of irradiation that would move towards the undoing of the nation. “I will myself to radiate outwards, to exceed the constraint of a national body, of a closed border body, to meld with a mutant consciousness and deform what deforms me,” they write. It’s a move similar to the way M Ty describes Kara Walker’s work with silhouettes: “‘I’m gonna make myself an impediment to Enlightenment. The obstruction of light will be my practice.’”

Where can we locate those places where irradiated Japanese subjects are becoming with the irradiated international? What would it mean to deform the ways in which American and Japanese imperialism have conspired to consolidate capitalism’s hold on the Asia-Pacific? There is a way that hentai as Chiharu used it marks both an acceptance and refusal of the ordering frame of normative “Japanese” sociality. How to incorporate and use hentai against the settler colonial conditions that make American nuclear imperialism possible? Hentai marks a provisional place—anti-irradiation spaces feel like shelters rather than kingdoms; contingent and under duress. How to take up the queer, but not—as Riley Snorton and Jin Haritaworn (2013) warn—as a structure of incorporation fueled by antiblack necropolitics? Is it too naive to hope for something like a portal? A place where the women might sink into the ground, melt into the doors while chopping cabbage from farmers in western Japan and soaking their feet in the nervine biwa leaf infusion Chiharu gathered while on recuperation? How we would haunt the nuclear regulators and corporate executives and stock markets then, a curse on their value.

More concretely, one thing I think would move from hentai towards… dyke? would be to situate the Japanese anti-irradiation movement and its aims within the frame of reproductive justice formulated by Black and Indigenous women in conversation with women from the Global South. Beata Pena-Tsosi, a longtime defender of Indigenous reproductive rights from the Santa Clara Pueblo, has called for the implementation of radiation standards that account for intimate relationships with land and future generations. “Reference man is only safe for white men, not anyone else.” It could be powerful to insist on that together, without letting the imbrication of Japanese and American imperialisms and settler colonialisms, or the way heteropatriarchal institutions secure them, out of sight. Rather than framing demands for redress through the demands of “citizens” or even the “people,” what if we thought with Lou Cornum the demands of what deforms those things, moving with and like radiation but never becoming it?

Notes

[1] Image title is a quote of the words Japanese anarchofeminist Kaneko Fumiko used to describe herself in the testimony she gave to a court official while incarcerated for plotting with Korean anticolonial poet Pak Yol to assassinate the Japanese emperor. Fumiko Kaneko, The Prison Memoirs of a Japanese Woman, XIX.

[2] Pervert; deviant; aberrant. Hentai came to refer to “perversion” in the early 1900s, when Japanese doctors and amateur scientists began to establish sexology as a discipline in Japan, drawing heavily from European sexology and its criminalization of genders and sexualities that did not conform to European colonial sex/gender. See Sabine Frühstück, Colonizing Sex: Sexology and Social Control in Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). In its oldest sense, hentai refers to a shifting state or appearance. In the late 19th century, it referred to the metamorphoses of insects. Tentatively, it seems it did not assume the sense of “abnormal” until the late 18th century. “Hentai,” Nihongo kokugo daijiten (Tokyo: Shogakukan, n.d.). Queer theorist Shimizu Akiko has noted that hentai, though sharing some elements with the English “queer,” has not been reclaimed and may not need to be, indicating instead the presence of such terms as kuira, toransujendā, nonbainarī, x-jendā. Most international audiences will be familiar with the term through its association with hentai pornography, which is characterized by aestheticizing the r*pe of women and girls, especially by monstrous/alien, criminal, or perverse figures. Hentai aesthetics seem to be closely associated with incel men’s culture both in and outside of Japan, and may be an indicator of the extent to which the figure of queerness in Japan has been territorialized by imperial patriarchal signifiers.

[3] This simultaneously invokes the queering of Black life in racial capitalism through what Hortense Spillers named as the “ungendered” position in which capital places Black life, and the difficulty of speaking on queer Afro-Caribbean life. Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” See also Vanessa Agard-Jones, “What the Sands Remember,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 18, no. 2–3 (June 1, 2012): 325–46; Ada M Patterson, “… when we come up for air,” consent not to be a single being: Worlding Through the Caribbean.

[4] Notably, Fukushima Women Who Don’t Need Nuclear Power show several influences from the ūman ribu movement in their organizing style, philosophy, and feminist politics.

[5] “3.11” refers to the triple disasters that struck northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011: a magnitude 9.0 earthquake that triggered a monumental tsunami, which in turn scaled the seawalls at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, causing the meltdown of three reactors.

[6] References to (1) Japanese fascists campaigning for the removal of a memorial for forced colonial laborers erected in 2004 in Takasaki city, Gunma prefecture. The prefecture yielded to right-wing pressure and refused to renew the permits for the memorial in 2014. A citizen’s group appealed the decision in court, but lost its second appeal at the Tokyo supreme court in September 2021. (2) The 2016 Sagamihara massacre, also known as the “Yamayurien incident”, in which a former employee killed 19 residents and injured 27 others at a facility for people with mental disabilities. See Kohei Inose, “The Social Activism of Disabled People in Postwar Japan: Eugenics, Exclusion and Discrimination.” (3) A 2018 article by LDP politician Sugita Mio, “Too Much Support for ‘LGBT’”in which she argued that LGBT people did not deserve tax-funded social services (of which there are few, if any) because they lacked “productivity,” figured as the ability to have children. The article sparked queer demonstrations across Japan. (4) A new imperial era began on May 1, 2019, when Naruhito became emperor in place of his father, Akihito.

[7] For key works, see Jun Tosaka et al., Tosaka Jun: A Critical Reader; Harry Harootunian, “An Emperor System in Every Blade of Grass and in the Leaves of Every Tree,” unpublished; Masao Maruyama and Ivan Morris, Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics (London ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1969). See also “Ghost in the Machine: The Emperor System & Anti-Revolutionary Thought Policing in Interwar Japan w/ Max Ward,” “Translating the Japanese Ideology: The Anti-Fascist Philosophy of Tosaka Jun w/ Robert Stolz” episodes of the podcast, Against Japanism.

[8] Also, “[I]n recent times the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars, the annexation of Korea, and the efforts exerted in the founding of Manchukuo, are one and all […] the promoting of the peace of the country and the advancement of the great task of love for the people, thus radiating the grace of the Imperial Throne.” Kokutai no Hongi, 75. For a reading of “Japanese” as a racial category using critical race theory, see Setsu Shigematsu, “Rethinking Japanese Feminism and the Lessons of Ūman Ribu: Toward a Praxis of Critical Transnational Feminism.”

[9] Shigematsu, “Rethinking Japanese Feminism,” 215. For the colonial elisions in Japanese nuclear history, see Lisa Yoneyama, Hiroshima Traces: Time, Space, and the Dialectics of Memory. On Nikkei atomic bomb victims, see Crystal Uchino, “The Japanese American Critique of the Atomic Bomb and Its ‘Up-Againstness’: Asian/American War Memories and the Enola Gay, 1995,” in Human Movement and Race in the Trans-Pacific: From Governance to Control, Encounters to Alliances.


References

Kimura, Aya. 2016. Radiation Brain Moms and Citizen Scientists: The Gender Politics of Food Contamination after Fukushima. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

King, Tiffany Lethabo. 2016. “The Labor of (Re)reading Plantation Landscapes Fungible(ly).” Antipode 48: 1022–1039.

Lorde, Audre. 1982. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Watertown: Persephone Press, Inc.

Shigematsu, Setsu. 2012. Scream from the Shadows: The Women’s Liberation Movement in Japan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Snorton, Riley and Jin Haritaworn. 2013. “Trans Necropolitics: A Transnational Reflection on Violence, Death, and the Trans of Color Afterlife,” in The Transgender Studies Reader 2. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp 66–76.

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