Thursday, 23 December 2010

Memory and Gender in the Music of Jun Togawa

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote for a class in October. Jun Togawa (b. 1961) is a Japanese musician and signer working on the avant garde fringe of mainstream pop.

The most popular attention Jun Togawa ever received in Japan was for a few months in 1982, when she fronted an advertising campaign for TOTO Washlet bidets.

These adverts are typical of contemporary Japanese advertising in the way they portray young women as feminised, infantlised and ‘cute’ mascots for products –  the archetypal kawaii shōjo (‘cute girl’). This kind of presentation of women as commercialised, infantilised and sexualised at the same time became increasingly common in the 1980s with the rise of the celebrity industry of the aidoru (‘Pop Idol’).
On the face of it, her career was typical of a minor aidoru - she produced a number of albums in the '80s and '90s, appeared on light entertainment programmes singing her songs, acted for TV and film, and dabbled in advertising from time-to-time. In fact, it seems likely that Jun Togawa never intended to follow a typical aidoru career, instead modelling herself as a conscious parody of the aidoru  stereotype that dominated popular media and music in Japan. The cult following she’s gained have long argued that Togawa has used her minor celebrity status as a platform from which to produce a challenging musical subversion of the commercial aidoru pop which dominated popular Japanese music. If you look at the type of music Togawa was producing in the mid-80s, it's radically different from typical aidoru pop.

To illustrate this dislocation, lets compare Togawa's bidet advert to a live performance from the mid-80s:

Togawa’s albums are stunning in their diversity and originality, combining extremely adept pop songwriting with an immense range of styles, including  New Wave Punk, parodies of mainstream J-Pop, Avant Garde ‘Electro-Cabaret’, and frequent collaborations with surrealist composers, most notably Koji Ueno in Guernica. The emotions her music inspires actively attack and undermine the sentimental romance of aidoru pop - her vocals are simultaneously damaged, vulnerable, distorted, aggressive, deluded and naive. Because of the radical dislocation between her music and the mainstream currents of Japanese pop, and for the self-indulgent reason that I’m a huge fan of her work, I have chosen to look in detail at what Jun Togawa’s music can tell us about the structures of aidoru culture and Japanese popular consciousness in general. Particularly, I’m interested in examining how her music subverts dominant narratives in popular culture and society as a whole in two key areas: national memory and gender. The techniques that Togawa uses to subvert and destabilise these narratives fall into two broad fields (which overlap one another considerably, as will become obvious): hauntology and détournement.

Guernica and Hauntology

Jun Togawa’s musical career began with the Punk and Post-Punk scenes that emerged in Tokyo in the late ‘70s, singing in the band Halmens whilst she was still a teenager. The music of Halmens is bitter, dark, New Wave strongly reminiscent of contemporary Anglo-American bands, and it’s subversive power as an alternative to ‘mainstream’ Japanese popular culture is perhaps limited by it’s close emulation of foreign music.

From 1981, however, Togawa embarked on a far more idiosyncratic and challenging musical project with Koji Ueno which spoke specifically about Japanese popular culture. This was the 'Electro-Cabaret' band Guernica, and their subversion of hegemonic Japanese narratives of memory and nationality.

Cover of Kaizou eno Yakudou (Throbbing to the Alteration) by Guernica (1982)
Hibari Misora, 1940s

Musically, Guernica evoked a hybrid imagined world of early Showa Japan and 1930s German cabaret. Guernica's visual presence rested upon this imagined historicity. On stage they dressed in historically accurate costume, for the '40s with Togawa frequently modelling her appearance on that of Hibari Misora, the classic proto-aidoru of the post-war years: beaming, elegant and highly feminisied. Guernica’s album covers show smiling couples gazing blissfully into blue skies, backed by modernist images of industry and progress in a conscious emulation of wartime propaganda. Similarly, in many of their performances Guernica appeared in military khakis, evoking more troubling and ambigous memories of wartime than the kitsch nostalgic aesthetic that otherwise dominated.

Jun Togawa, 1980s
Their songs were typically sentimental ballads in the enka and ryūkōka styles that were popular in the ‘30s and ‘40s, often imitating the musical traits of early stars such as Akiko Futaba and Noriko Awaya. The fact that these genres remained extremely popular in contemporary Japanese music allows us to read Togawa's adaptation of these musics as a commentary on the conservatism and saccharine nostalgia of popular culture in Japan. Historically, these genres had consciously incorporated broad Western musical styles such as Tango and Big Band Jazz, but Guernica’s music particularly sought to evoke the spirit of an imagined world of inter-war German musical theatre that was decadent, avant garde, experimental and fiercely modernist. Thus, many of Guernica’s songs were angular, abrasive compositions which closely emulate the music of The Threepenny Opera and similar examples of German musical theatre.

However, this relatively faithful adaptation of nostalgic music was combined with an instrumentation that relied heavily on electronic synthesisers, drum machines and electronically processed sounds which evoked contemporary pop music and experimental electronica. This act of recalling the past in a subverted, quasi-modernised format moves Guernica’s music beyond the simply nostalgic, into the radical terrain of the ‘hauntological’.

This is illustrated perfectly by the opening two tracks of their debut LP Kaizou eno Yakudou (Throbbing to the Alteration. Bremen is a sinister, abrasive cabaret piece in which Togawa's voice wavers and trills above a stark piano line. The song finishes abruptly, with Togawa's uneasy vocals suspended without resolution, before they are engulfed in a wave of synthesisers. Cafe Psycho is a sublime marriage of dark synth pop and syrupy ryūkōka that summons up images of a seething modernist landscape of progress and industry.

Derrida coined the term ‘hauntology’ in specific reference to the specter of Marxism ‘haunting’ late 20th Century Europe, but the work has since been done to fully unpack this concept as a fundamental tendency of post-modern culture. This is particularly relevant in issues of memory and ideology. With hauntological analsyes, simple narratives of binary goods and evils, lost ‘golden ages’ and childhood utopias are disrupted through the return of the cultural ghosts of a dead past. For me, the go-to text on hauntology has been provided by Adam Harper:

"As is often the case in Derrida’s writing however, ‘hauntology’ is a concept that’s arguably better suited to interpretation than strict definition. It can easily be linked to the general methodology of deconstruction Derrida pioneered – as metaphors, spectres, being neither one thing or the other, challenge basic binary oppositions like ‘alive / dead’, ‘present / absent’ and ‘past / present’ and so are ‘deconstructive’ in nature. Or they can be linked to the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and Žižek – the spectres Derrida discusses conceivably residing in an area beyond the abilities of the Imaginary and the Symbolic to reflect and describe the Real. Here the haunting metaphor can be extended: traditionally, a spectre invades the present to redress a balance there, to warn the present concerning the future. Hauntological spectres come to bother us and our images from any zone of deficit lying between things as they were / are / will be and things as they are thought or hoped to have been / be / be in the future, thus history haunts (Marxist) ideology, and (Marxist) ideology haunts history; theory haunts practice and practice haunts theory, Utopia haunts reality and reality haunts Utopia, and so on. Art that permits a hauntological reading would facilitate this process of haunting."

In the work of Guernica, Togawa attempts a hauntological critique of Japanese national memory, based around a resurrection of nostalgic images of popular culture - images which are drawn from the imagined utopia around which post-war narratives of Japanese nationality have been built.

The historical period that Guernica re-imagines and re-presents is hugely significant because it is vital to modern narratives of Japanese national identity. These narratives present the post-war Showa period as the story of the triumph of a freshly ‘purified’ Japanese democratic modernity over the evils of wartime militarism and American occupation – a triumph vindicated by the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1970s and ‘80s. Historians of Japan have since carefully documented the traumatic realities of this process of post-war nation-building. This was a process which sought to re-legitimise the capitalist nationalism of militarist period and which took place alongside the spread and intensification of commodity relations within Japanese society. Necessarily, this process required the Japanese state to suppress dissenting narratives through institutional (education) and cultural (propaganda) means. These subaltern narratives included socialist ones which noted that the post-war state continued to embody the fascism of the preceding regime, ethnic minority narratives which were lost in the need to form a state that maintained a myth of ethnic homogeneity, and feminist narratives which protested the role of women as 'mothers of the nation' in the 'new' state.

Thus the formation of the post-war ideology of democratic capitalist nationalism was carried out through the ideological territorialisation of  the diverse post-war experiences of the Japanese into a clear binary narrative of good overcoming evil. The legacy of these traumas (particularly those associated with the continuities between pre-war and post-war Japan) have never been fully addressed, and Marilyn Ivy argues they were rather suppressed “through the displacement of memories in the routines of overwork.” Guernica’s success, then, lay in the fact that they re-staged these displaced memories under the guise of kitsch nostalgia – an act of Rewriting History (which was the title of a later DVD collection of Guernica's live shows).

The musical and visual references to German culture are also problematising as, both because inter-war Germany presents a classically hauntological situation of an idealised past haunted by our retrospective knowledge of a disturbing historical reality, and because such references highlight the uneasy influence that German notions of nationality have historically exerted over Japanese nationalism, as Ian Buruma has noted.

To understand why Togawa decided to examine these issues in the early 1980s, we must consider the wider historical context of this period. Issues of Japanese national identity and memory of the recent past were becoming increasingly foregrounded in popular consciousness as Japan plunged into post-modernity, and the declining health of Hirohito made it increasingly clear that the Shōwa period was drawing to a close. The 1982 textbook controversy and the popular media’s sensatioanlist despair at the state of the nation are symptomatic of this turn.

After 1982 Togawa’s foucs returned to her solo work, which increasingly emulated and parodied mainstream aidoru pop. However, many of her subsequent albums maintained a hauntological element, most strongly evident in sinister electronic adaptations of traditional folk music, mirroring a broader resurgence in interest in the ‘ghosts’ of Japan’s pre-modern past.

Aidoru-Pop and Détournement

The rise of industrially produced aidoru pop music, and the ascendancy of the celebrity aidoru who performed it was one of the most striking aspects of Japanese popular culture in the '80s. In examining this cultural phenomenon I have drawn chiefly on Hiroshi Aoyagi’s exhaustive study of aidoru music and the industry that produces it, Islands of Eight Million Smiles. In this study he carefully documents the vast influence and popularity of aidoru music and celebrities on Japanese adolescent cultures from the ‘80s onwards, viewing the symbolic purity of aidoru and ritualistic devotion that their fans gave them as analogous to religious practices. Despite this attention to detail, Aoyagi shows little interest in the music performed by aidoru, treating it as little more than irrelevant, Westernised, commercial pop-music – a blank canvas upon which the symbolic framing of aidoru as purified symbols of ideal feminity can be projected. Yet it was exactly this genre that Togawa turned her attention to in the mid-‘80s, producing several of albums of upbeat, contemporary and compelling pop music.

Here we find Togawa projecting a far more commercially acceptable image as she sings Yumemiru Yakusoku (Dreams of Promises) on a light entertainment show in the mid-80s. Incidentally, this is my favourite of Togawa's 'straight' pop songs, partly because the chorus rhymes pikunikku (picnic) with puratonikku (platonic).

Whilst such ‘commercial’ pop music is aesthetically distant from the deeply anti-‘popular’ music Togawa produced with Guernica, similar themes are evident. If Guernica probletemised and subverted the territorialising narrative of ‘nation-construction’, Togawa’s aidoru-pop did the same to the territorialising process of ‘self-construction’ that the mainstream pop industry promoted. The comparison is not as far fetched as it may seem. In Aoyagi’s study he emphasises the territorialising function of the industry and it’s musical products on the self, particularly amongst adolescent women:

“The idol-manufacturing industry absorbs young people into its system of production, molds their selves into marketable personalities, commercializes their images for the masses, and contributes to the ongoing construction of ideal images of adolescent selfhood. This capitalization process is commercial, social and cultural at the same time.”

Aoyagi conceives of the industry as a Foucauldian exercise in regulatory power, territorialising the bodies and images of young performers into capitalised symbols, which are then used to project ideals of femininity and obedience to which adolescent selves should aspire – the very purpose of the existence of aidoru being “to socialise young personalities”.This is clearly analogous to the longstanding practices of Japanese state and educational institutions in actively socialising young women into traditionally feminine sexual/domestic roles,as recorded by Brian J. McVeigh.

I regard Togawa’s parodic approach to aidoru-pop, then, as a problematisation of these gender roles, placing it in a longstanding Japanese tradition of exploring gender in cultural performances (as exemplified by the Takarazuka Revue). However, Togawa’s music went beyond mere parody and gender ‘experimentation’, and adopted a more provocative, ironic stance, best described as détournement.

This act of détournement is perfectly demonstrated by Togawa’s juxtaposition of upbeat pop tunes with dark lyrics that dealt with sex, menstruation, child abuse, nihilism, violence, and frequently drew on disturbing imagery of body morphing. In particular, Togawa’s lyrics repeatedly treat her own body as ‘insect-like’ (in songs such as Pupae Woman and Swarms of Insects), or as distorted into robotic, quasi-human forms. This ties into a simultaneous trend of Japanese popular culture to focus on the cybernetic augmentation of the body, a trend which (as far as I know) has not yet been written about. In Togawa's case, I get the sense that these descriptions of the destruction and reconfiguration of her body relate to puberty, which she re-imagines as a hideous process of physical distortion. In one song, she describes love as a ‘mutation’ of her body - an acknowledgment of the inherent violence of the power relations of romantic love. In these powerful metaphors, she also highlights and subverts the objectification and territorialisation of the female body that the aidoru archetype is built upon. Whilst other aidoru produced glossy photo albums of themselves dressed as various feminine archetypes (schoolgirl, geisha, etc.), Togawa released a similar collection of photos with the English title JUN TOGAWA AS ONLY A LUMP OF MEAT. This imagery is continued in her videos and stage performances, where she often appeared wearing dragon-fly wings or ‘robotic’ attachments to her limbs. In interviews, Togawa has stated that her fascination with insects was prompted by a childhood visit to Meguro Parasitological Museum, and that she has felt a strong attraction and identification with creatures other people have been disgusted by ever since:

“Now I know why I have been so strongly attracted to parasites and worms. It's a feeling of the continuity of life. I feel there is a basic continuity between humans and these creatures. I might even call this feeling "love." Humans and other creatures are not as different as they look.”

Japanese feminism in the late 20th Century has increasingly focused on how the tensions of gender inequality are physically inscribed on the bodies of women, and I regard Togawa’s approach to the body as a continuation of this trend, a détournement of the regimentation and idealised presentation of the female body by the aidoru industry. One of her most successful songs was Tamahime-sama, which Togawa performed on several TV shows whilst wearing insect wings and dancing in an un-hinged, decidedly ‘un-feminine’ way. The lyrics clearly refer to menstruation, and her whole performance can be regarded as an aggressive de-territorialisation of the idealised gender archetypes promoted by the aidoru industry:

On the night of the red moon, inside the private jail,
Tamahime-sama’s seizures continue.
The flow of blood is unstoppable,
Her brain moves to her uterus,
With the destructive force of 100,000 horse power.

Elsewhere, her lyrics present romance as a violent conflict which (like the aidoru industry itself) inscribes it’s violent territorialisation on the female body, as in the chorus to the single Suki Suki Daiksuki (which is otherwise a perfectly optimistic and upbeat aidoru-pop song):

Like a punch as blood stains my lip!
As my ribs are breaking!
I love you so much! (x3)
Say you love me or I’ll kill you!

The capitalised lyrics are sung in English, mimicking aidoru-pop's anglophonic tendencies.

Beyond the aidoru industry, Togawa’s détournement of presentations of gender can be seen as a wider attack on gendered roles in Japanese society as a whole. Here it is useful to introduce the notion of gender roles as ‘performative’, being constructed and reinforced by individual performances. Japanese feminism has understood Japanese notions of femininity as being chiefly constituted by the requirement to perform as ‘good wives - wise mothers’, a role which has been actively taught by state and educational institutions as a form of gendered nationalism. Aoyagi argues that while the presentation of femininity as ‘cute’ by aidoru and their fans represented an escape from this dichotomy, it was nonetheless an equally oppressive and sexualised gender role. The archetypal symbol of this cute feminity in the ‘80s was the schoolgirl, a costume which Togawa occasionally wore on stage. Ryang has described extensively the oppressive aspects of the schoolgirl archetype, as a sexualised symbol of the female body incorporated into nationalised state apparatus – the mobilisation of sexuality and femininity as national duty. Thus Togawa’s presentation of herself as a schoolgirl performing such ‘un-feminine’ and subversive songs can be regarded as a détournement of a wider gender stereotype. Indeed, contained within the archetype of ‘good wife – wise mother’ is an inherent contradiction (as identified by Mitsu Tanaka): that Japanese women are required to simultaneously perform in multiple, contradictory, sexual-domestic roles.

I regard this ‘schizophrenic’ tendency of Japanese femininity as something Jun Togawa addresses through the schizophrenic aesthetic of her work. Whilst it is common for Japanese pop stars to attempt a wide range of styles as a demonstration of their abilities, the vast range of genres and voices Togawa adopts on each album achieves an entirely different effect, not least because so many of her vocal performances are deliberately un-hinged and off-pitch. As several critics have commented, Togawa immerses herself so completely in each song, and uses such varied vocal and musical styles, that the overwhelming impression for the listener is that they are eavesdropping upon a tangle of multiple personalities competing for space. For example, on the 1985 album Kyokuto Ian Shoka Togawa juxtaposes upbeat J-Pop, school marching songs, electro-folk, melancholy enka, avant-garde electronica and operatic ballads.

This schizophrenia is perhaps most effectively employed in Togawa’s video for Suki Suki Daisuki, which sees her modelling herself into a series of Japanese feminine archetypes. As the song ends and the peppy chorus of ‘Suki suki daisuki’ (‘I love you so much’) loops into eternity Togawa transforms herself: sexualised aidoru, fickle child hanging on the arm of a faceless older man, stern Noh actress, shy schoolgirl, cross-dressing Takarazuka performer, blushing nurse, aloof fashionista. Each character carefully mouths ‘daisuki’ to camera (some with tenderness, some with aggression) as the dull repetition drains the life and individuality from the images. As Togawa transforms herself into a series of signs of femininity, their proximity to one another alerts us to their monotony: they all require an identical performance. She renders herself as the concrete manifestation of the schizophrenia of feminity and in doing so radically destabilises it, a détournement that is completed by the final image in the video: Togawa appears without makeup, her hair unkempt, her expression uneasy, performing the role of herself.

If we are to assess how far Jun Togawa was succesfull in disrupting dominant narratives of memory and gender, we must balance an appreciation of the critical power of her work with an acknowledgement that it never achieved wide distribution, despite the moderate success of several singles in the mid-‘80s. Equally, we must acknowledge that cultural performance is perhaps not the most effective sphere from which to challenge such narratives, since it has increasingly become a site in which dissent is tolerated – an environment in which gender roles can be ‘safely’ experimented with – which robs Togawa’s work of some of it’s subversive potential. Nonetheless, Togawa’s work received far wider distribution than other comparable Avant Garde artists, preciely because it adopts and subtly subverts ‘mainstream’ cultural currents of nostalgia and aidoru pop. The very success of Togawa’s work lies in the fact that it’s disruption of dominant narratives – through hauntology and detournement – ironically reclaims the cultural forms it attacks.


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DJ Carlito said...
This post has been removed by the author.
DJ Carlito said...

This is a fascinating essay and explores many topics and themes i was already thinking about on my first introduction to her music and videos.. great to have this essay to explore those ideas further..

I only just discovered Jun Togawa (shocking that it has taken me this long..) so I posted a bunch of videos on my blog..

thanks for putting all these pieces together - there are so many angles and ways to look at this brilliant artist

LEECHU said...

just beautiful. i've been obsessing about togawa jun for months. i was actually going to resume my abandoned blog just to gush about her. it's an unacademic, effusive, ranting work in progress called "the distinctly and vibrantly japanese voice of togawa jun", which explores the diversity of her singing techniques and personas, and how they reflect her japaneseness, how they are all facets on THE japanese woman (and/or girl). i'm using "virgin blues", "yumon no giga", "yumemiru yakusoku" (which btw you might like because it's by hosono haruomi, another genius :P), guernica's "dokuro no enbukyoku", and "preach". i'm seriously going to post a link here as a comment when i'm done. sorry, i'm just so excited about the things you've pointed out, and i don't know a living soul who is familiar enough with (and loves) togawa jun. great paper, and great that you get to do this kind of thing for school. very enlightening (though it ruined guernica for me, now i'll find their peppy marches depressing :P); and your fandom really shines through gracefully. keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

this is really rad. i just discovered her and became instantly obsessed, lots of good info here. thx

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