Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi

I’m delighted to announce that my short essay “The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi’s ‘Summer Break'” was just published in the 21st volume of the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies. Here’s the abstract…

“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.

From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces.

In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.

…that’s a lot of material to cover in such a short essay, but I think I did a decent job of contextualizing the story. This piece of writing was intended to serve as an introduction to my translation of the story itself. Unfortunately, despite almost a year of constant work and the assistance of multiple high-profile translators, we weren’t able to secure the publication rights. It’s a disappointment, but I hope the silver lining is that there are plans for the full God of Bears short story collection to appear in translation soon.

My essay is available on JSTOR; but, since I understand that not everyone has institutional access, I’ve also made a copy available on my website (here). Although it’s unofficial, you can download a PDF of my translation of the short story “Summer Break” (here). Years ago, I translated all of the stories in The God of Bears, and the illustrator I was once planning on working with to create illustrations is Maru, who you can find on Twitter (here). And finally, you can learn more about the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies on their website (here).

Review of Japanese Role-Playing Games

This past summer I was given an opportunity to review an academic essay collection titled Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG. The work the two editors did for this collection is incredible, and every single essay is fantastic. Here’s a short excerpt from the book review that I published in the journal Asian Studies Review:

Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG is the first English-language collection of essays focusing entirely on a genre of Japanese games known for their complex stories and rich worldbuilding. The fourteen essays in this collection cover the construction of the JRPG genre, the formation of transcultural gaming communities, and the representation of issues such as nationality, gender, and disability.

Japan Studies scholars with varying degrees of familiarity with the specific titles used as case studies will find a wealth of information and resources in these essays, which briefly summarize the games while explaining why they are representative, important, and connected to broader currents in Japanese history and society. Meanwhile, Game Studies scholars will find approachable yet intellectually rigorous discussions of culture and national origin, which have thus far been relatively few and far between in the field outside of the work of a few specialists.

If you’d like to read the full review, you can find it (here). I understand that not everyone has institutional access to academic journals, so I’m also hosting the PDF on my own website (here). In addition, you can find Japanese Role-Playing Games on the publisher’s website (here), and you can follow the journal Asian Studies Review on Twitter (here).

Essay on Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m excited that the essay I presented at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival academic symposium, “The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse,” has been posted on Women Write About Comics (here).

Although this piece began as an overview of the culture of comic fanzines in Japan, it gradually evolved into a discussion of how English-language fanzines have been impacted by the intense pressures of a creative market that provides neither stability nor opportunities for emerging artists. Here’s an excerpt:

This level of competition in formerly free-for-all online spaces has resulted in the widespread frustration succinctly expressed by @rogvaettr’s tweet. From the perspective of someone who simply enjoys fandom culture and indie publishing, we’re living in a golden age of comics and illustration. For many aspiring artists and writers, however, these glossy fanzine anthologies are another shot of anxiety onto a battlefield already pierced with arrows.

The tensions always implicit in any creative industry have been exacerbated by prolonged economic recession and steeply rising costs of living in urban areas, the combination of which has forced freelancers to take on more work while also maintaining an active social media presence. To many people, the intrusion of professional-level competition into ostensibly amateur fandom spaces feels like a betrayal of the sense of community based on affective attachment that formerly provided a relief from professional pressures and anxieties.

This essay was an enormous undertaking that spanned almost half a year, and I want to acknowledge the support of my brilliant editor Kat Overland. Writing about online discourse is difficult, and Kat helped me make good decisions while also directing me to number of useful resources on indie comics. I should mention that Kat is a lot of fun to follow on social media, and you can find them on Twitter (here). I’m also highly indebted to Masha Zhdanova’s essay “A Brief History of Webcomics: 2010 to Now,” which is an interesting and excellent discussion of webcomics in a transcultural context. You can read the essay on WWAC (here) and follow Masha on Twitter (here). Last but not least, I want to thank Anna Peppard (on Twitter here), who organized the TCAF Academic Symposium and encouraged me to share my initial draft with an amazing group of Comics Studies scholars.

Japanese Ghost Stories

This fall, I’m teaching a new class called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” Here’s the course description…

This course offers a survey of the numinous and supernatural through Japanese fiction, drama, comics, animation, and video games from the Heian period to the present day. Students will assemble a foundational knowledge of Japanese religion and folklore while studying popular narrative traditions representative of their historical eras.

By peering into the liminal spaces connecting the living with the dead, students will develop critical thinking and media literacy through careful investigation into the matters that people of different times and places have perceived as monstrous, alien, and unspeakable. Issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic minority status will receive special attention as we navigate theories relating to the cultural role and social relevance of ghosts. By the end of the semester, students will possess a broad perspective on Japanese narrative traditions and popular culture, as well as an understanding of how fantastic stories of the dead reflect the tangible experiences of the living.  

You can download a copy of the syllabus (here).
I’ve collected PDF files of the course readings on Dropbox (here).
If you’re interested, a copy of the course assignments handout is (here).
You can check out the work of artist who drew the banner image (here).

I’d like to acknowledge that this course was inspired by Professor Naomi Fukumori’s class “The Monstrous in Japanese Literature and Culture,” and I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the course syllabus (here).

The Role of Dōjinshi in Comic Fanzine Discourse

I’m looking forward to presenting at “Histories & Futures of Comics Communities,” the first academic symposium held in conjunction with the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Here’s the abstract for my presentation…

In December 2021, a conversation concerning the definition of the term “zine” unfolded on Twitter. This conversation arose from anxieties surrounding the recent rise of fandom zines that, while organized by amateur editors and limited in distribution, are nevertheless professionally printed and highly selective. Many comic artists lamented what they perceive as a betrayal of the DIY ethos of North American zine culture, while others have used quote tweets as a platform to remind their followers that anyone can make a zine.  

Surprisingly absent from this conversation is an examination of the largely separate zine cultures that have developed in parallel at comic festivals and anime conventions. Many exhibitors at local indie comic festivals continue to produce artistic but relatively low-budget personal zines. Meanwhile, exhibitors in the artist alleys of anime conventions have gravitated toward professional production methods for fanzines and associated merchandise, often taking advantage of the services of manufacturers based in East Asia.

I argue that contemporary North American anime fanzine culture has its roots in Japanese dōjinshi, which are typically created by aspiring and early-career creative professionals and tend to be manufactured by specialty presses that guarantee a high level of production quality. Dōjinshi-style fanzines spread to North America during the early 2010s via anime conventions hosted in cities on the western seaboard, particularly Los Angeles, Seattle, and Vancouver. While tracing this transcultural development, I will reflect critically on the tension between DIY zine counterculture and big-budget fanzines and address how neoliberal values have affected public conversations on amateur artistic production.

. . . . . . . . . .

The “Comics Communities” event takes place on June 17, the Friday before the TCAF. You can find the schedule (here). The main exhibit floor of the TCAF is completely free and open to the public, but registration for the academic symposium is limited and already completely sold out. Which is very exciting! The symposium organizer is a fellow contributor at Women Write About Comics, and I hope to be able to publish my paper there soon so that it’s accessible to anyone who’s interested.

ETA: My essay is now available on Women Write About Comics (here).

Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

Key Terms in Comics Studies

I’m excited to share the news that a new reference book called Key Terms in Comics Studies has been published!

Key Terms in Comics Studies is a glossary of over 300 terms and critical concepts currently used in the Anglophone academic study of comics, including those from other languages that are currently adopted and used in English. Written by nearly 100 international and contemporary experts from the field, the entries are succinctly defined, exemplified, and referenced. The entries are 250 words or fewer, placed in alphabetical order, and explicitly cross-referenced to others in the book.

I’m honored to have contributed the entry on “manga.” It was a challenge to handle such a broad topic in 250 words, but I think I was able to do it justice while providing references to some of my favorite books on manga, academic or otherwise.

Key Terms in Comics Studies is intelligently organized and extremely useful, and it has the added benefit of being affordable. If you’re interested, you can order a copy from the publisher’s website (here), and it’s also on Amazon (here).

Political Art

I’m about as “indie” as someone can be, but I’ve had trouble finding a place in various indie creative communities during the past year. This is partially because I can’t meet or talk with anyone face to face, but I think it might also be because the sort of work I do isn’t considered to be political. I’m not punk enough, basically.

I don’t see my work as apolitical, though. For example, the full title of this illustration is:

“In higher education, you can’t ask for help because people will think you’re damaged, and you won’t receive help because no one wants to waste resources on the sort of person who has to ask for help. I tried to change the system from the inside by becoming a professor and being kind and supportive to my students and colleagues, and I was remarkably successful. In the end, however, I’m still the sort of person who needs to ask for help every once in a while, so I was denied tenure. The ideology of neoliberal capitalism has all but destroyed the values of higher education, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the damage. Because the problem is systemic, there’s very little any one individual can do, so here, have some plants. They represent diversity, but only in a superficial and visually pleasing way.”

This botanical study was inspired by the point-and-click game When the Past Was Around, which tells a story about burning out and rediscovering joy. Through its gameplay and visual design, the game encourages the player to nurture a more forgiving worldview and advocates for adjusting your goals to reflect your passions instead of your limitations. It’s a short game, but it really spoke to me.

A lot of people are very angry right now, and I understand that. I’m angry too, but I express it in my own way. To me, the opposite of neoliberalism isn’t “productive” anger, but rather “laziness” and an embrace of the sort of gentleness and beauty that exists for its own sake. I like video games precisely because they’re a “waste” of time. I like fan art because it’s “worthless” in creative economies, and I like plants because they exist in their own “imperfect” and “limited” ways without requiring “work” or “effort.”

In any case, aggressively ignoring the bourgeois dichotomy between high art and pop art feels very punk to me.

Emotional Support Photo

Embarrassingly enough, this actually happened to me in 2018.

The one thing I didn’t miss in 2020 was having to go to academic conferences. I’m not crazy about infinite Zoom meetings, but flying across the country to spend two nights in an expensive conference hotel so that I could work sixteen hours in one day wasn’t fun either. I used to love flying when I was younger, but I eventually got to a point where it started to stress me out. If nothing else, it’s nice to be able to take a break from conference travel.

I still use (this photo) to help myself cope with Zoom meetings, though.