[Lee Friederich is an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities. She is affiliated with the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature and currently working on a project titled,
Unmasking the Abject Persona: East Asian Poets as New World Citizens. She has written a short children’s booklet about the grassroot activities in Rice Lake with images from the “Hope for Japan, Artists and Designers Show their Support” website that is currently available at the Rice Lake Public Library. You can also request a copy from Lee via email at lfriederichATwisc.edu
I joined the Center for the Humanities Mellon Fellows with renewed postdoctoral energy, eager to extend my study of contemporary Japanese women poets to the context of World Citizenship. After one year of work as full-time Instructional Academic Staff at UW-Barron County, teaching one section each of literature and film and six sections of English composition, I was happily resuscitated, primed to get back to the work I had started with my dissertation on contemporary Japanese women’s poetry. Extending my work to Korean poets, I have begun to juxtapose the common dilemmas of gender, sexuality, and citizenship posed by poets who find themselves in Confucian-based cultures that do not easily recognize the concerns and desires of women. Stepping outside of the very real glass cases in which they are so often encased as so-called hakoiri musume, daughters, placed like beautiful dolls in glass boxes, these poets are adopting some surprising voices to express new notions of what it means to be a woman in contemporary Japan and Korea. In the first two stanzas her poem “Ningyô” (“Doll”), Yoshihara Sachiko begins the painful process of dismantling this common image of Japanese women, an act that will ultimately help her see and hear as the woman she wishes to become:
I take out your eyes
and put them in my jewelry box
I remove your ears as well and hold
them in my hands
A marionette hanging down
from the sky
you dangle down
so afraid of something harming you
You have already been so violated
you can’t be violated any more
by any color or sound
Like so many others working at the Center this past year, my notion of what it might mean to become and act as a citizen of the world has broken open in so many unexpected, and yet telling ways. Added to the incredible response to the shifts in power and values taking place in our own Wisconsin State Capitol and the sense of revolutionary hope and despair that has accompanied what we now call the recent Arab Spring, Japan was and continues to be gripped by the threefold disaster of the largest earthquake ever recorded there, a tsunami that swept away thousands of lives in minutes, and the on-going nuclear disaster that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO)
that runs the stricken nuclear power plant Fukushima Daiichi has finally begun to describe as a “meltdown,” or “melt-through,” as the Yomiuri Shimbun
has recently termed it.
People who know me know that I lead a double life divided between Madison and Sarona, Wisconsin, a small rural town about twenty-five minutes north of the city of Rice Lake. At home in the north woods, I woke to the news of Japan’s calamity on a cold Saturday morning. Starting to realize the magnitude of the disaster, I was simply unable to sit with this news for very long and started writing emails to fellow members of RLIFA, the Rice Lake International Friendship Association, whose board I had joined the previous year. We had received word that Miharu, our sister city in Fukushima Prefecture, had received only a minor amount of structural damage, but that evacuees from the tsunami were making their way there. Just thirty miles or so from the Daiichi reactors, Miharu is slightly elevated and thus somewhat “protected” from the threat of radiation, though many have chosen to leave. By 11 am on Sunday, four of us from RLIFA were meeting at the Badger Brew coffee house in Rice Lake, wrapping yellow flyers I had dashed out on my printer that morning—Donate Now to Relief Efforts for Miharu—around canisters of oatmeal and corn meal we had emptied into bowls on our kitchen counters. Never had I felt so personally drawn into such an effort: It was as though one of my own four sisters had lost all of her limbs to a hideous accident. I had become Yoshihara’s dangling marionette sprung into action, ready to do whatever I could for the people I had come to know and love in the seven years I had lived in Japan.
In addition to placing our yellow canisters in coffee shops, banks, and bowling alleys, our small group began to solicit funds at high school basketball games and concerts, and at the spontaneously organized political discussions and rallies happening right here in Rice Lake. Before long, we had organized a benefit concert with local musicians Nancy and the Backwoods Boys called “Sister to Sister: A Benefit Concert for Miharu.” Before long we received almost $3,000 from some potters in California who had studied with master potters in Miharu. Before long we will send close to $15,000 to our counterpart in Miharu, MIFA (the Miharu International Friendship Association), who will redistribute our funds to relief efforts Miharu is providing to evacuees from the tsunami and the nuclear disaster. $15,000 (and the story behind it) is hardly of great significance, but if you multiply these efforts by the hundreds of local organizations and groups working not only in the United States, but around the world, to help the Japanese on the northeast coast of Japan find their way back to what they remember as their lives, they begin to take on some meaning.
But my sisters aren’t amputees and neither are the Japanese. As the Japanese themselves continue to demonstrate, their recovery demands that they walk by the force of their own movement. This movement is taking place all over Japan as people find their voices through their shift in political awareness, an unwillingness to accept the “polite lies” of the government and TEPCO continue to perpetuate even as this disaster unfolds. As Kyoko Mori writes in her 1997 memoir by that title, Japanese is a language of subtle hints and indirection: “it’s rude to tell people exactly what you need or to ask them what they want. The listener is supposed to guess what they speaker wants from almost nonexistent hints.” This problem between individuals plays itself out it the political realm as well, where participation in politics has felt like a futile effort to so many. As of late, however, Japanese have turned out in great numbers to respond directly to the policies the Japanese government has made regarding the recent disaster. Thousands have protested throughout Japan since the March disaster, and this week in Sendai, for example, hundreds turned out to express their anger over the government multiplying its safe limits of radiation for children by twenty, from one millisievert a year to twenty, the same level recommended for workers at the beleaguered nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Japan, of course, was thrust onto the stage of world citizenship during World War II, which culminated in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and has a history of social protest in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and “ampo,” the US-Japan Security Treaty, and so these movements are not without precedent. Toward the end of her poem “Ningy,” Yoshihara writes, “I pry open your lips/ Who crammed you with sand?” Judging from the rally held last week in Sendai, and by the many others being held elsewhere in Japan to demand change in nuclear policy, the lips of the Japanese have once again become unsealed. Their “eyes are completely open now,” their voices ready to demand what they need and want as citizens of Japan and of the world.