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Resonances of Chindon-ya: Sound, Space, and Social Difference in Contemporary Japan

  • Author(s): Abe, Marié
  • Advisor(s): Guilbault, Jocelyne
  • Wade, Bonnie
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines the intersection of sound, public space, and social difference in contemporary Japanese urban life through ethnographic analysis of a Japanese street musical practice called "chindon-ya." Chindon-ya, which dates back to the 1850s, refers to groups of outlandishly costumed street musicians in Japan who are hired to advertise an employer's business. After decades of inactivity, chindon-ya has been undergoing a resurgence since the early 1990s. Despite being labeled as anachronistic and obscure, some chindon-ya troupes today have achieved financial success generating up to one million dollars in annual income, while chindon-ya aesthetics has been taken up by rock, jazz, and experimental musicians and refashioned into hybridized musical practices.

In the context of long-term economic downturn, growing socioeconomic gaps, and visually and sonically saturated urban streets, I ask how such an "outdated" means of advertisement has not only proven itself to be financially viable, but has also enabled widely varying sentiments, musical styles, translocal relations, forms of business enterprise, and political aspirations to articulate with one another. I analyze ethnographic observations, interviews, audio-visual materials, and archival documents I collected during fieldwork in Japan between 2006 and 2008 in order to investigate how chindon-ya has recently become reinvested and reconfigured with new meanings and possibilities.

Bridging cultural geography and anthropology of sound, I pay particular attention to the production of social space through sonic culture. The popular imaginary of chindon-ya is closely associated with neighborhood streets, everyday soundscape, and the notion of "taishû" - the popular mass, or the public. When the neighborhood streets are increasingly regulated, privatized, and developed, and when "taishu" is fragmented through the recession era, what kinds of understanding of space and "public" emerge from chindon-ya today as they resonate with the shifting geographies of urban modernity?

By extension, through this investigation, I raise what Stuart Hall calls the multicultural question in Japan by asking who constitutes the listening public as imagined by chindon-ya practitioners. I posit that listening to chindon-ya's sounds challenges the commonsense notion of Japanese public space as anonymous, transparent, and homogeneous. Rather, the performative tactics of chindon-ya highlight issues that are otherwise silenced by the official discourse of Japan as a monoethnic nation: the Japanese colonial histories; the presence of "ethnic minorities"; and political struggles between the island of Okinawa, mainland Japan, and the US military. These analyses in turn shed light on how chindon-ya aesthetic has enabled emergent modalities of political expressions, based on politics of pleasure instead of politics of indignation.

Even though my multi-sited research takes place within the national border of Japan, it has a broader regional significance. My research elucidates connections, interactions, and flows between Japan and wider Pacific regions that are produced both within and beyond the national borders. In addition, the combination of my sonic-spatial analytic, based on cultural geography and anthropology of sound, and ethnographic focus on everyday practices has a significant theoretical and methodological import to other entanglements of translocal interactions.

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