We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945, published by Columbia University Press. The book’s author is Kerim Yasar, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Southern California who received his PhD from Columbia University’s Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.
Long before karaoke’s ubiquity and the rise of global brands such as Sony, Japan was a place where new audio technologies found eager users and contributed to new cultural forms. In Electrified Voices, Kerim Yasar traces the origins of the modern soundscape, showing how the revolutionary nature of sound technology and the rise of a new auditory culture played an essential role in the formation of Japanese modernity.
A far-reaching cultural history of the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, radio, and early sound film in Japan, Electrified Voices shows how these technologies reshaped the production of culture. Audio technologies upended the status of the written word as the only source of prestige while revivifying traditional forms of orality. The ability to reproduce and transmit sound, freeing it from the constraints of time and space, had profound consequences on late nineteenth-century language reform; twentieth-century literary, musical, and cinematic practices; the rise of militarism and nationalism in the 1920s and 30s; and the transition to the postwar period inaugurated by Emperor Hirohito’s declaration of unconditional surrender to Allied forces—a declaration that was recorded on a gramophone record and broadcast throughout the defeated Japanese empire. The first cultural history in English of auditory technologies in modern Japan, Electrified Voices enriches our understanding of Japanese modernity and offers a major contribution to sound studies and global media history.
“Kerim Yasar recounts the fascinating story of how modernity in Japan sounded. Eminently readable, his book traces how Japan’s existing soundscape found itself translated and transformed by such modern audio technologies as the telephone, gramophone, radio, and talkie cinema, and how the process launched new debates about what it means to represent the real.”
– Michael K. Bourdaghs, University of Chicago
We thank Dr. Yasar for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
How did you first become interested in auditory culture during your studies at Columbia?
My interest in sound culture actually goes back to my undergraduate days at Wesleyan University, and predates even my interest in Japan. I was a music major, focusing on ethnomusicology and electronic/experimental music, two areas in which that institution is and was particularly strong. That early training taught me to think about sound and music in ways outside of the conventional wisdom that makes a strict distinction between music and other elements of the soundscape—that is, it taught me to think about things like acoustics, sound-producing technologies, as well as the social and historical contexts within which sound and music are produced. I think that sensibility comes through on every page of the book.
That said, my training at Columbia was in Japanese literature first, and then in Japanese and East Asian film. In fact, my dissertation prospectus was for a study of the Shinkankakuha (New Perceptionist) literary group, which counted Yokomitsu Riichi and Kawabata Yasunari as its best-known representatives. As my research progressed, however, I began to question whether I really had much new to contribute on that topic, and asked myself what kind of project I could pursue that would be uniquely mine, that drew on everything I had learned up that point—not just in graduate school, but in my “past life” as a student of music and, I must confess, as a lover of gadgets.
What did studying the development and use of the telephone, phonograph, and radio help you better understand about modernity in Japan?
At the risk of immodestly exaggerating the importance of the work, it was like pulling a carrot or potato out of the ground and realizing that there was so much more there than what was visible. In general, the study of the aesthetic practices associated with modernism is so relentlessly visual in its orientation that it’s easy to forget that the transformations of cultural production wrought by the introduction of auditory technologies were just as, if not more, radical. In the case of Japan, the introduction of the telephone, the (proto-auditory) telegraph, and the phonograph provided a kind of unconscious impetus to language reform movements in the late nineteenth century that sought to bring the written language(s) closer to the spoken vernacular(s); that is, they recalibrated the balance of orality and textuality in the direction of what is often pejoratively called phonocentrism. The gramophone transformed people’s understanding of sound and performance as commodifiable things, while the radio introduced new forms of narrative (I look at radio drama and, perhaps surprisingly, sports broadcasting) and of ideological control, some quite obvious and ham-fisted, others more subtle. The study of these technologies helps illuminate (note the visual metaphors woven into our everyday use of English) questions of language, temporality, national identity, performance, and even ontology.
How might exploring auditory culture in Japan complicate or challenge the findings and narratives in previous Sound Studies scholarship that had been more focused on Western countries?
I owe a lot to sound studies as a field of inquiry, and I’m loath to bite the hand that fed me, but the work of scholars trained in the histories, languages, and cultures of Europe and North America tend to limit their range of cultural reference to… Europe and North America. On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable—life is short—but on the other hand, one cannot confidently theorize—which is a species of generalizing—without knowing something about the cultural practices of societies outside of that orbit. Modernity in Japan (or anywhere outside the North Atlantic zone, for that matter) was not simply a delayed or derivative version of the modernities in Europe and America.
What kinds of sources and archives did you use in order to analyze and describe the soundscapes that developed in Japan from 1868-1945?
The usual written suspects, of course—newspapers, magazines and journals, and books—but also recordings, of which a great many exist. One thing that I’d like to proselytize for is for historians of all kinds to dig more into the sonic archive. I think many tend to assume that most recordings from the first half of the twentieth century are of music, and only of interest if one is studying topics like music or popular culture, but there’s a great wealth of spoken-word material extant as well, material that historians of countless topics might find of tremendous value. This is even more true of the postwar period, from which even more recordings survive. At my previous position at Ohio State, I started building a recording archive with the support of Maureen Donovan, the wonderful Japanese studies librarian who has since retired. Once we were able to get access to the National Diet Library’s online digital recording archive, the Historical Recordings Collection (Rekishiteki ongen, or “Rekion” for short), that effort became somewhat redundant however. I would encourage all research institutions with a critical mass of Japan scholars to apply for access to that collection.
Does researching and writing about sound pose particular challenges, especially when compared to researching and writing about visual media and texts? How did you deal with those challenges?
You can quote texts and reproduce images in a book or article, and if you’re describing music of an idiom familiar to your readers, you can at least notate it. But to get readers to experience sounds, you have to provide them with recordings somehow. Film scholars (of which I am also one) face a similar issue in that they can reproduce stills, but movies aren’t really movies—in either the technical or phenomenological senses—unless they’re in motion. I’m not sure that our definitions of scholarship—even now, nearly a century and a half after the advent of cinema and the phonograph—have caught up with the potential of these now-old media to convey things that cannot be reduced to verbal descriptions. There’s a lovely Greek word, ekphrasis, for the verbal description of works of visual art, and we could coin similar words for the verbal description of things like sound and motion. It’s an intractable challenge at times, and in some ways not even necessary, since the corresponding media exist. When I have presented on this material in talks and conference papers, I have included clips of various recordings—often to great effect—but I also think that the arguments can stand on their merits without them.
What connections can be drawn between Japan’s postwar emergence as global leader in media technology (with such corporations as Sony, Maxell, and Toshiba) and the earlier history of auditory technology and culture that your book covers?
Although the process of Japan’s industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was often rocky, Japan was still industrialized (and militarized) enough to defeat the Qing Empire in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War, and to pose a credible threat even to the United States in the Pacific War. The ingredients—capital, know-how, infrastructure—for Japan’s postwar economic miracle were already largely in place during the first half of the twentieth century, as were the flows of culture and information that we associate with globalization. And that postwar industrial explosion of course went beyond media and audio technology to include everything from cars, to cameras, to candy, to content. That said, sound technology has long had a special place in the economy and the culture of Japan. It is the second largest market in the world for recorded music (after the U.S.), and easily the largest per capita. Few audio inventions of the late twentieth century were as influential as the Sony Walkman and the Clarion karaoke machine, and every audiophile has at least heard of Denon, Onkyo, Pioneer, Fostex, etc. Although audio consumption has now been repackaged in ways that Japanese industry hasn’t completely kept pace with, there’s no question that people in Japan had, and still have, a tremendous interest in audio technology. I think there are a number of historical and cultural reasons for that, but they’re a little too nuanced to do justice to here. I would suggest reading the book!
What findings surprised you the most during the course of writing Electrified Voices?
I think the biggest surprise, or series of surprises, was just how important radio drama was in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s. Many well-known writers (not just playwrights, but novelists as well) made forays into the genre, and it was a kind of incubation chamber where practices like voice acting and sound effects—which would later play such a large role in anime and even live-action content—got their start. Few people today study radio drama in Japan, I suppose because it’s seen as a moribund genre, but it played a very important role in Japan’s culture from the 1920s to at least the 1950s, and indeed is still alive (if not exactly kicking) today. And who knows? Given the explosive popularity of podcasts right now, the form might make a comeback even in the rest of the world.
Could you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
At the moment I’m well into a study of physical performance and representations of the body in Japanese cinema. In addition to providing a concise history of film acting as a distinct performance tradition, I look at how different directors thought about the body, how they represented it, and how they directed actors. Thus, it’s a combination of cultural history and a certain kind of close reading, but it’s also a philosophical meditation on how we use words to talk about the nonverbal (this seems to be a running theme in my work). Given that bodies express things in very specific yet elusive ways, how do we translate that into words? Why do we feel the need to? And what violence is done in the process?