by Murai Tokuji (1962)

by Claudia Siefen-Leitich

Ben Highmore, in the European discussion of Roland Barthes’ concept of emptiness or “drift” of contemporary life, argues that this emptiness is “the ordinary, as it is constantly hidden and obscured by a number of powerful forces… [like] the spectacular extravagances of industrial culture. For Highmore, therefore, the ordinary is not “empty” but “submerged”, hiding in a vastness of shadows. For him, everyday life is an accumulation of small things that together form a larger thing, a “field of experience” in constant change.  For many Japanese people, the suburban railway line represents the most everyday of all everyday experiences and forms a large part of the structuring of mobility patterns in Japanese cities and their existence as an almost unnoticed pattern of small-scale sociality. Trains offer a more distilled means of observing the effects of urbanization than other public places do. Trains enable behavior and interactions not found elsewhere in passenger cars and train stations, because small gestures and encounters influence the way individuals experience national history and describe the events of their own lives. In Tokyo, despite the multitude of train and subway lines, the Yamanote line is perhaps the most iconic, functioning as a regular loop through the city center; connecting the historic heart of ancient Edo, often referred to as the Shitamachi of the East, with the historic center of Edo. The train car in Japan is an indicative example of how mobile bodies and technologies are inseparable from their cultural representations. No wonder then that the Yamanote Jiken in 1962 was designed to represent and affirm the most everyday manifestation of urban life.

In the early 1960s, Japan was a relatively stable and increasingly prosperous country that had supposedly left the shadows of the Second World War far behind. Society and its urban spaces had been reconstructed, and citizens had to some extent organized an ordered community under the ossifying power of the state.

Japan’s reconstruction on a grand scale post-war decade and the following period was so thorough that it had to be done not only on the social and spatial levels, but also on the subjective levels of the individual and the body itself. Many artists found that images and objects were not enough to achieve such a commitment. They began to shift their work beyond traditional institutional spaces such as galleries and museums, and cinemas began to use theatres, streets and other public facilities. Spaces and mass media as new venues for their almost explosive experimentalism! In fact, the whole city became a multi-layered matrix of avant-garde production and its energy at that time. But before we present this history of remarkable creative fertility, space and time must be limited: Tokyo in the 1960’s.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government oversees twenty-three specialty districts and more than thirty municipalities, many of which are located west of the center of Tokyo City. This creates an elongated terrain on the map that virtually merges with neighboring urban centers such as Yokohama, creating an extraordinarily large and dense metropolis. A concentrated group of urban districts, especially those surrounding the Yamanote loop line: Tokyo’s well-known centers of artistic, cultural, political and economic activity (such as Ginza, Shinjuku and Ueno) are located directly on or at least near this railway line. It was completed in 1925 by connecting existing railways and took on its present form in 1956. The railway, the city’s main organizational structure, follows the central ring of the city concentrically around its core – the Imperial Palace – which Roland Barthes called “a void”, an emptiness, which with enormous density and also speed led to the dimensions with which Tokyo reached its status.

Tokyo lay in ruins in September 1945, when General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Powers, moved into Tokyo’s Dai-ichi Seimei building and initiated the occupation of Japan, which was to last until 1952. These years signalled a radical transition period. Among the decisive changes and events of this period were: the Showa Emperor Hirohito was no longer considered divine; the constitution was revised and rewritten and renounced Japan’s right to militarize permanently. The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal sent several military leaders to the gallows in 1946/48 and more than a dozen to end their lives in prison. It can be said that Japan began to reinvent itself from a defeated nation to a democratic civil society by overcoming the nightmarish experiences and memories of the United States. With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, Japan became a supply base. The regional “hot war”, which took place in precarious proximity, served the nation decisively in its economic recovery and growth. At the same time, Japan’s direct participation in the new world order of the Cold War brought a tidal wave within its borders.

As the Cold War escalated, the GHQ carried out a massive purge of Communists and sympathizers from all levels of government, including the press and corporations – a witch-hunt very similar to that staged by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his cohorts in the United States. At the end of the first post-war decade, the occupation ended with the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which was signed in September 1951 and came into force in April 1952. This ended the war with Korea. With the continuing economic upswing and the new political independence, Japan’s mood had changed considerably in 1955, so much so that the government proclaimed the end of the post-war period. While Tokyo’s growing prosperity was undoubtedly the main engine of reconstruction, the boom of this period brought a decisive boost within the next decade when the city was named the host city of the 1964 Summer Olympics: A decisive signal for Japan’s rise from military defeat to the international arena.

The main proponents of the artistically interdisciplinary and intermedia work movements of that time were the two artists’ collectives Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop) in Tokyo and Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai (Gutai Art Association) in the Kansai region (Osaka – Kobe). In addition to their cross-genre orientation, Jikken Kobo and Gutai had two other important similarities: first, both groups of young, enterprising artists were led by an older and charismatic leader, the poet and critic Takiguchi Shuzo (1903-1979) and the artist Yoshihara Jir? (1905-1972), who had already distinguished themselves as pioneers in pre-war Japan. And secondly, in contrast to the numerous artists’ associations and collectives that flourished from the immediate post-war years until the early 1950s, these two groups enjoyed a certain degree of longevity. Jikken Kobo existed from the early 1950s almost until the end of the decade and Gutai from 1954 to 1972.

However, the similarities more or less end there. Gutai is based in Kansai, where most of its members came from, taking care from the beginning to present itself outside its immediate surroundings. The sporadically published Gutai Journal (strictly edited and designed and generously filled with reproductions and writings of group members and occasional guest contributions) was distributed both in Japan and overseas. The French critic and curator Michel Tapié (1909-1987) visited Japan in 1957 and 1958 and subsequently promoted the group in Europe and America to secure them the coveted recognition on the international scene of the time. Within Japan, Gutai had begun its campaign of self-promotion early on, and in the early years the members organized group exhibitions and stage performances, as frequently in Tokyo as in Kansai; indeed, some of the most famous early performative actions were carried out in Tokyo.

On October 18th, 1962, the artists Nakanishi Natsuyuki, Takamatsu Jiro and Akasegawa Genpei, who later joined together to form the radical performance art collective “Hi-Red Center” (HRC), boarded a Yamanote loop train and virtually attacked Tokyo commuters with a series of disruptive actions as they drove around the loop counterclockwise in an action known as Yamanote jiken (or Yamanote Line Incident). Curator and author Doryun Chong describes the scene as follows:

“Nakanishi stood in the train, his face painted white, apparently immersed in a book. Next to him, hanging from a chain on a strap handle, was one of his compact objects – transparent shapes, each about the size and shape of an ostrich ice cream, in which various objects such as wristwatches, pieces of rope, sunglasses, bottle tops and human hair are wrapped in resin. Nakanishi licked his objects, while Takamatsu stood casually nearby.“ 

Artist Murata Kiichi also applied white paint to the train, smearing walls and windows. Other artists brought additional items, including a rope, real eggs and a chicken foot. For Chong, in addition to the broader emergence of publicly disruptive forms of artistic engagement, this action was a “response” to and an important part of the chaotic and overall intoxicating span of the years 1955 to 1970. While Chong’s description suggests a period of transformative change, and this is undoubtedly true in terms of the impact these actions had on the art world, artists associated with the Hi-Red Center remember the time in a different way, as a moment of paralyzing boredom from which their actions were supposed to break out. William Marotti quotes a conversation between Hi Red Center members Nakanishi Natsuyuki and Akasegawa Genpei in which they discuss the opportunity to investigate and uncover things in quiet times.

For artists such as Nakanishi, Takamatsu Jiro, and Akasegawa, the years following the large-scale upheavals on the streets of Tokyo in response to the 1960 extension of the US and Japanese Security Treaty (anpo) have tended to be profoundly calm and leisure. However, this calmness did not mean the absence of action, but perhaps suggested a different focus on the extent of possible artistic action – a shift from “big” things (such as the street battles of the early 1960s) to a much smaller series of interventions on the terrain of everyday life and thus the individual bodies of the artists themselves (body art). For Marotti, the significance of the 1962 action on Yamanote’s line was that it insisted on the possibility of acting precisely when “big” things were not happening. These actions, however small they may be, could have a structure that actually attacks their “container”, i.e. everyday life. These scaled and spatial descriptions of smallness, oppression, and waste are not only Marotti’s own reading of this kind of radical performance art, but have become a central part of the examination of everyday life in capitalist modernism.