Report on the talk: ‘Pigs, Roman Emperors, and Go-Go Boots: Hijikata Tatsumi and the Revolution, Tokyo 1968’

The September instalment in the Sainsbury Institute’s Third Thursday Lecture series was delivered by Professor William Marotti, Associate Professor of History and Chair of the East Asian Studies MA IDP Program at UCLA. In his talk, he examined Hijikata’s seminal dance work, Hijikata Tatsumi and the Japanese: Revolt of the Flesh, within its 1968 context.

Amid a moment marked by global and local struggles, Butoh dance stands as a contentious art form with practitioners worldwide. The backdrop against which Hijikata Tatsumi’s groundbreaking dance piece, “Hijikata Tatsumi and the Japanese: Revolt of the Flesh,” unfolded was the grand spectacle of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—a massive undertaking aimed at showcasing Japan’s post-World War II resurgence on the global stage. This event led to monumental construction projects, such as stadiums, hotels, highways, and the iconic Tokaido Shinkansen, contributing to the modernization and internationalization of Tokyo. The conservative government seized this opportunity to revive and reinterpret national symbols, aligning them with post-war prosperity and unity. In the aftermath of the 1960 protests against the US-Japan Security Treaty, the government was keen on suppressing any form of unconventional behavior or dissent through surveillance and regulations. Concurrent with these endeavors, the government emphasized national prosperity and economic growth, linking state legitimacy to continuous economic expansion. This economic surge, driven by participation in American Cold War interests, was characterized by heightened consumption, advertising, and evolving gender roles.

In examining the dynamics of nation-state projects and the reframing of ideological nostalgia, Marotti discerned a striking parallel between the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and contemporary discussions surrounding the term “Indian” in the United States. The term “Indian” carries a history of profound violence against First Nations in America, effectively homogenizing diverse indigenous communities. This homogenization, however, obscures the nuances and complexities within these communities. This standardization and consolidation phenomenon is not unique to the United States but has played a pivotal role in the formation of modern nation-states globally, including Japan. These nation-state projects entail deterritorializations and reterritorializations that reshape identity, geography, and governance. In this context, Hijikata Tatsumi’s 1968 Butoh dance performance titled “Did you cut the tatami and the Japanese? Revolt of the Flesh” emerges as a radical attempt to disrupt and rewrite these historical and identity relations.

© Hijikata Tatsumi Archive

Hijikata’s performance featured a procession with a live white horse, alluding to imperial symbolism and exploring associations through the figure of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus. This procession satirically portrayed the imperial history rooted in the venue, shedding light on the hidden international support system for modern monarchs. The performance also critiqued the utilitarian view of rural communities by incorporating absurd rural elements, such as a rabbit atop a pole and a pig in a cradle. This brought to the forefront the suppressed scars of rural communities’ incorporation into the state-centric national narrative, both pre- and post-war. Kanae Mieko, a novelist and artist, described the impact of Hijikata’s body in the performance, underscoring its portrayal of pain and rebellion against various societal norms, including gender roles and national identity.

The performance’s location in the Nippon Seinenkan, Japan Youth Hall, holds historical significance as a site confiscated by occupation forces and used for the war crime trials of Admiral Toyoda Toemu. The choice of the Japan Youth Hall as the venue added depth to the critique, highlighting its historical role in promoting imperial and colonial values. Rather than relying on conventional definitions of politics, which range from administrative handling to mass protests, Marotti’s analysis delves into the process of going from empty to full streets—the politics of perception. This perspective highlights the capacity of art, particularly dance and performance, to challenge established perceptions, introduce critical ways of seeing, and potentially alter thinking. Furthermore, the site-specific nature of Hijikata’s dance performance attempted to subvert layers of normalization, historical teleology, colonial exclusion, and fascist mobilization within the context of the Shinjuku space and the politics of 1968.

Against the backdrop of global unrest in 1968, Japan witnessed escalating university occupations, clashes at activism hubs, and debates about anti-riot laws. The police’s use of violence against protesters, particularly after university occupations, became a subject of contention. These provisions, dormant since the 1952 May Day confrontations, were brought back into the spotlight. This period unfolded against the backdrop of a tragic event—the anniversary of the death of Hiroaki Yamazaki, a Kyoto University protester killed in 1967 while opposing prime minister Eisaku Sato’s visit to South Vietnam. In commemoration of Yamazaki, thousands of students, anti-Vietnam War activists, young workers, and sympathizers joined massive protests. Shinjuku is portrayed as a key political space where unconventional art, counter-cultural practices, and abject communities played a profound role in fostering dissent and eventfulness. Marotti also highlighted the role of media in both marketing the pleasures of these scenes and passing judgment on their excesses from a conventionally normative standpoint. In the Shinjuku area, fūten, a loosely defined group of young idlers, played a central role in the politics of the late 1960s, characterized by non-normative gender presentations, non-productivity, and drug use. Thus, Marotti linked fūten and the countercultural movements in Shinjuku with a global phenomenon of political transformation in 1968, with the local and the global intersecting in this space.

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Daria Melnikova, Robert and Lisa Sainsbury Fellow 2021 – 2022. Dr Melnikova earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. She is a Louis Frieberg Postdoctoral Fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an Academic Associate at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, University of East Anglia. Her research examines performance art practices as a dynamic forum of creative exchange between visual artists, dancers, musicians, theater directors, and photographers in the cross-cultural context of Japan, France, Russia, and the United States from the early 1910s to the late 1960s.