Akasegawa Genpei and Kawani Hiroshi at Akasegawa's apartment, preparing printed appeals after his 1967 conviction for currency imitation.
Courtesy Akasegawa Genpei/Nagoya City Art Museum.

Japan’s avant-garde artists struggled to counteract the quiescence and depoliticization of the postwar era and to reveal “the hidden forms of domination in the everyday world.

William Marotti, Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan

Durham, N.C., Duke University Press, 2013; 464 pages, $94.95 cloth, $25.95 paperback.

At the center of William Marotti's Money, Trains, and Guillotines: Art and Revolution in 1960s Japan is the artist, award-winning novelist and brilliant critical wit Akasegawa Genpei, who in 1967 was sentenced to three months of hard labor (suspended) for the crime of "currency imitation."  The charge stemmed from a project, begun in 1962, in which Akasegawa printed hyperrealistic likenesses of the 1,000-yen bill to use in serial productions such as pamphlet inserts, gallery-opening invitations and wrapping paper for household objects. All of these works are highly convincing, with one crucial exception: they resemble currency on one side only, and therefore could never have been passed off as actual money. The artist also painstakingly executed The Morphology of Revenge: Take a Closer Look at the Opponent before You Kill Him (1963), a roughly 35½-by-71-inch ink drawing of the same note.

"Currency imitation" is different from counterfeiting. Established in Japanese law in 1895, during the country's first great wave of modernization, it occurs when a replica is "confusable" with the genuine article, even if there is no real intent to deceive. Marotti, who teaches modern Japanese history at the University of California, Los Angeles, uses this incident to examine the political stakes surrounding various experiments undertaken by a small number of avant-garde artists associated with groups such as Hi-Red Center, Neo-Dada, Zero Dimension, Group Sweet and the League of Criminals. Examining their writings as well as their works, he shows how these artists struggled to counteract the quiescence and depoliticization of the postwar era and to reveal "the hidden forms of domination in the everyday world."

The 1960s were a time of optimism and prosperity in Japan, as a burgeoning middle class aspired to participate in the consumer culture of televisions, washing machines and cars. While issues of war responsibility, the status of Japan's new democracy, and the implications of the U.S.-Japan alliance had been mainstays of political debate throughout the 1950s, the intense clashes of that decade now seemed to have largely disappeared. After wrenching protests in the summer of 1960 forced the right-wing prime minister to resign, a more conciliatory conservative figure was installed, and within days announced a plan that aimed to double the nation's GNP within a decade. Marotti refers to this as a "Monty Hall, Let's Make a Deal" moment in Japanese history, when the promise of an affluent daily life served as a consolation prize, thwarting demands for greater democratic participation and self-determination.

In the increasingly clean and bright spaces of Japan's expanding cities and suburbs, the travails of war, defeat and occupation were growing faint. The uncomfortable fact that this economic recovery was founded on a Cold War alliance with the United States was all but invisible. For Akasegawa and his fellow artists, that invisibility itself was the problem.

Marotti draws on the works of theorist Jacques Rancière to argue that the prosecution of Akasegawa was not an aberration but a revealing glimpse into the authoritarianism and paternalism behind Japan's drive for growth. In Rancière's view, "the police" represent a particular distribution of power that maintains and legitimates itself less through outright coercion than by regulating habits of behavior and perception, making the given order seem a matter of common sense, while alternatives appear marginal, insane or criminal. "Political activity," Rancière asserts, disrupts the established order and gives equal voice to other social elements.

Akasegawa and his colleagues developed this form of politics gradually, through an evolving emphasis on concepts and actions. Marotti begins in the early 1960s, when many of the artists were producing ever more confrontational junk assemblages, "refiguring waste into often obsessional, menacing, or sexualized forms." Rather than reading their chaotic agglomerations of industrial materials like tire rubber, concrete, and oil barrels as youthful play amid the rubble of war (as others have tended to), Marotti emphasizes the scrutiny that the artists brought to bear on these unseemly cast-offs, specifically in their connection to Japan's postwar economic development. In their uncanny quality, he argues, the works aimed to expose an abject interpenetration of the human body with an ecosystem of objects whose proliferation was uncomfortably rooted in continuing authoritarianism and war in Asia.

In 1962-63, the artists began to expand their endeavors beyond the walls of Tokyo's open-to-all Yomiuri Indépendant exhibition and the small number of private galleries that had previously shown their work. They now ventured into public spaces to disrupt—or "confuse"—the usual flow of people and things. Marotti recounts, for example, Imaizumi Yoshihiko's aborted plans to install a 16½-foot-tall glass guillotine in the plaza of the imperial palace. In the now legendary 1962 Yamanote Line Event, a number of artists—including Nakanishi Natsuyuki, Takamatsu JirĊ, Kawani Hiroshi and Kubota Noboru—boarded Tokyo's busy loop train and performed a series of bizarre, deliberately paced actions, such as hanging their odd assemblages from the hand straps, staring intently at a detached chicken foot and painting each other's faces white. If from the state's point of view such work began to cross into crime, for Marotti, its disruption was the mode of its politics.

 Soon after the Yamanote actions, Akasegawa (who did not take part in the train performance) began his parodies of Japanese currency, which he saw as the key to an arbitrary yet wholly naturalized everyday order, controlled by legal fiat. If the givenness of currency's value could be undermined—by injecting uncertainty into the possessor's relationship with the 1,000-yen bill—a revealing gap might open into the very heart of state capitalism, exposing the illegitimacy at its core.

Akasegawa's work at this time also featured common objects such as chairs and coat hangers wrapped in brown paper or, occasionally, uncut sheets of 1,000-yen notes. The goal, he said, was to "quarantine" individual elements of everyday life in order to make the entire system fleetingly visible in moments of induced dysfunction.

Skeptical readers, who might wonder whether Marotti infers political meaning where the artists themselves didn't see it, will find their doubts allayed in the final chapters. Akasegawa's critical thinking, which developed partially in response to his trial, parallels the interventionist strategies of the Situationists and the theories of Guy Debord and Henri Lefebvre. Marotti's detailed analysis of the Japanese artists' evolution from surrealist sensibility to interventionist action contributes immensely to our understanding of how the political aesthetic so characteristic of the 1960s emerged simultaneously in numerous countries. In closing, he suggests a connection between the politics of Akasegawa's avant-garde and the student movements  of the late 1960s, though we are left awaiting a more specific account.

Otherwise rich in detail, the book treats the "everyday"—a term that invites concrete examples—in a rather vague manner. Conversely, although Marotti invokes Rancière's socially diffuse notion of "the police," the officers and judges in this story play old-style roles as agents of coercive state power—a more traditional narrative of opposition across clear battle lines. This may be less a distinctive feature of Marotti's analysis than a model that haunts the interventionist political imagination in general. It's an approach that overestimates the state's ability to be everywhere at once and underestimates the power of art to effect change, beyond a few quixotic moments of doomed dissent. These are relatively minor caveats, however. Overall, Money, Trains, and Guillotines is a vivid, highly informed and richly rewarding investigation of art and politics under post-1945 capitalism in Japan.

JUSTIN JESTY is an assistant professor of Asian languages and literature at the University of Washington, Seattle.