On Saturday 8 February, M and I took the children to Mount Kagenobu with Bāba, the grandmother of one of Big Sis’s preschool friends. Like our previous week’s walk to the Hachiōji Castle ruins (八王子城跡), this hike began at JR Takao station, from where we took the bus to Kobotoke (小仏). We had taken the same route in the opposite direction on our way home from our last hike and Big Sis recognised it, stunning her adoring father with her growing memory skills. From the bus stop it was a short walk along a sealed mountain road past Hōshūji (宝珠寺) temple to the trail head. From there we headed up a steep, densely forested slope before coming out onto a ridge from where we could see the peak of Mt Kagenobu. After a brief stop at the top of that first ridge, we climbed the final 20 minutes to the summit. At first the trail was quiet, but as the day wore on the crowds started to gather. At the summit, Mt Kagenobu Tea House was starting to buzz. There were hikers eating hot noodles and a wizened mountain man sanding the face of a wooden pestle used for making Japanese mochi (pounded rice cake). We enjoyed our packed lunch of sandwiches, boiled eggs and half-thawed edamame. Then it was time for a look at the beautiful view of Mt Fuji before heading down a different trail towards the Kobotoke Pass (小仏峠). The mountain was getting very crowded and as an increasingly tired four year-old Big Sis began dragging the chain we had to let the groups of hikers pass. On reaching Kobotoke Pass the crowds seemed to thin suddenly and we enjoyed some chocolate cake and gazed out over the valley towards the ridge we had hiked up that morning. An entrepreneurial mapmaker had laid out his wares by the side of the trail for passing hikers to peruse. I ended up buying a map of Okutama (奥多摩) with a future adventure in mind. From here we headed down the mountain towards Bijotani Bridge (美女谷橋) where we found the sealed road once again. We staggered along it to the bus stop which would take us to JR Sagamiko station and from there we were homeward bound.
On Sunday 1 March I joined the League of Good-for-Nothings in local bar and movement haunt Kakekomitei to talk about love. The League of Good-for-Nothings is sociologist Carl Cassegård’s English translation of the legendary Tokyo group Dame-ren (だめ連). Cassegård has written extensively on the group and their contribution to underground culture and the revival of street protest in Tokyo in the 1990s. The translation is an apt and appropriately humorous way of capturing the spirit of the group’s name, which evokes a sense of the absurd by combining the word dame, meaning ‘no’, ‘broken’, ‘useless’ or ‘forbidden’ with the high-sounding suffix -ren, indicating a political league. Since its founding in 1992 by activists Kaminga Kōichi and Pepe Hasegawa, the group’s main focus has been on creating spaces where people who identify with the idea of being dame can engage in open-ended discussions about topics which affect their lives.
Earlier this year, I was involved in organising a symposium on Love as Politics at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and Kaminaga kindly took an interest in what we were doing and read my paper and that of my friend Nick Southall. The theme for the March event was loosely inspired by the work we have been doing on love and so the organisers asked me to kick off the discussion by talking a little bit about the love festival and some of the ideas which have come out of it. rganisers, kindly read mine and Nick Southall’s talks at last year’s Love as Politics.
The fact that the event was even held at all in the current atmosphere in Japan was significant. The previous week the Prime Minister asked schools across the country to close two weeks before the spring holidays in an attempt to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. In the wake of this request, with which most local education districts have complied, there has been a cascade of of cancellations of gatherings of all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the situation and opinion was divided about the virus threat and the measures taken in response to it among attendees at the event. Some were entirely unconcerned and felt that the government response was a major over-reaction. Others that we should be concerned and take reasonable precautions, even if we remain sceptical about aspects of the official response. As the afternoon wore on some fairly lurid conspiracy theories about the virus were also aired, though not to general agreement. The conclusion that I reached was that it showed once again just who increasingly incommensurable the truth-worlds we inhabit are becoming and how little faith people put in governments and health authorities to respond appropriately.
In this tense atmosphere, a little more than twenty people came together to talk about love. There were many familiar faces and some people whom I had never met. Contributions to the discussion varied wildly, something I have come to expect after many years of organising love reading groups and love festivals. This variety demonstrates the broad range of the conversations which love makes possible.
The discussion began, as it not infrequently does, with the problem of language. The Japanese word for love, ‘ai’ (愛) is a translation word which has been notoriously slow to become absorbed into everyday parlance in Japan. At one point during the discussion, one of the organisers posed a question to the room, asking whether anyone had ever used the Japanese word ai to say ‘I love you’ (愛している). Nobody had. Some had used suki (好き), which is a common phrase with a similar meaning but then suki also means to like, as in to like peas or the colour yellow. As I spoke about love I used the terms ai more or less interchangeably with a Japanese transliteration of the English word love, rabu. This was not a thought-out choice of vocabulary and the question was raised by someone who noticed me doing so as to whether this indicated something unique about the meaning of the English word which might not easily by translated. Certainly the transliteration rabu, which has become nativised in Japanese, is frequently used in pop cultural discourses on love, such as in one of my favourite phrases rabu rabu (ラブラブ), which describes the kind of overt infatuation of young couples we might call ‘puppy love’.
Many other possible Japanese ‘translations’ and related concepts were raised throughout the discussion, from the Buddhist notion of jihi (慈悲) (from the Sanskrit and Pali word Karuna, typically translated into English as compassion) to notions of fraternity, yūai (友愛) or hakuai (博愛). Due consideration was also given to words which incorporate ai in compounds and are used more frequently than ai on its own. These included jiko ai (自己愛) meaning love of the self and aiken (愛犬) meaning a beloved pet. Itōshii (愛しい), meaning beloved or dear, came up as another possibility. Playing on these linguistic ambiguities, one participant recounted how in romantic relationships he had always though that ai would eventually emerge from koi (恋) (passion, attraction), but now wondered whether in fact the reverse might be more realistic.
These definitional and linguistic discussions seemed to set the stage for the conversation as everyone in the room tried to come to terms with what it was we were actually talking about. Unsurprisingly, the definitional question remained unresolved and I think these kinds of linguistic games, while important, can also be a red herring. It was when people started sharing stories that we learned what love really meant to them. The discussion kicked off with a heart-wrenching story, a story which was not framed by use of the term ai or any other term for love but which simply spoke for itself. The most significant thing to have happened in my life, the man said, was when my 23-year old sister drowned while rescuing a child from the sea while holidaying by the coast. The story hit home and while the speaker did not try to interpret it for us, others sought to articulate this story in terms of different relationships of love – the love the speaker had for his sister, the love the sister had for an unknown child. This anecdotal style set the tone for the discussion which thereafter focused more on the sharing of personal encounters with love and lovelessness rather than theoretical grappling with the nature of love.
The stories told were varied and I will just pick out some of them here. Two speakers came from a local grassroots homeless people’s centre. They spoke about nakama (仲間, friends/comrades) as a form of loving relationship that sustains people in homeless communities. One young woman who described herself as a hikikomori (shut-ins who do not typically leave their room) thanked her parents for their love over the years, and also thanked a stranger with whom she talks regularly on the phone. One local poet recited a poem about landmines and spoke about the contradiction between the way that we can become implicated in acts of killing while living ordinary lives but that we simultaneously engage in acts of love. Another woman talked about her struggle to love herself after having always tried to please other people. She suggested somewhat accusingly that perhaps love is actually a product of discrimination – implying that we only love some on the basis of excluding others. A number of people addressed this important provocation as the discussion continued.
There were thoughts on public love – the idea that the protesters who went to protest outside the prime minister’s residence after the March 2011 disaster were motivated by their love for society at large. Another man spoke about his struggles to express love for his family by trying, but mostly failing, to support them financially and of his own parents’ failure to teach him what love meant by example. More than one contributor stated they were wary of using the term love because its meaning had been cheapened for them or because they had seen it used to mask abuse. Another comment, and one which seemed significant given that we were meeting in a not-for-profit bar run primarily for the purpose of facilitating community gatherings, was that love is about making a place for people to gather and be themselves. There was talk of love as forgiveness, love of the self and love of pets. For a young couple recently returned from Goa, India, love was simply opening oneself up to everything and completely accepting the world as it is (opinion was divided on whether this meant opening ourselves up to politicians like Shinzō Abe).
As the effect of the alcoholic beverages most of us were consuming took hold the these wide-ranging discussions began to unravel. I was somewhat relieved when at long last the microphone found its way back to the start of the circle and the formal part of the evening came to a close. The last word in the evening’s discussions went to Boke-san, the owner of the bar in which we were meeting. A talented musician, Boke chose not to wax on any further about the nature and meaning of love but rather to get out his guitar and sing us a love song. Then it was time to eat the curry and rice he had lovingly prepared and have some more informal chats. Dame-ren has always valued the informal spaces of discussion over formal events – whether talks or demonstrations and I welcomed the opportunity to speak more quietly with some new faces. However, soon it was time for me to retire for evening and go home to give love to my family.
When we met before the meeting to develop a rough plan for the afternoon’s discussions, Kaminaga explained to me that there was no particular need for to reach a conclusion. However, having read over the talks from the earlier symposium in preparation for the event the phrase that came to the centre of my mind after the emotionally charged and diffuse conversations of the afternoon was Nick’s definition of love: ‘the struggle to create, maintain, and develop caring social relations’. The afternoon confirmed to me that this dynamic conception of love as an incomplete and ongoing movement towards relationship, rather than as a state of perfect bliss, is the best way to conceive of love in a social field where that which separates us often looms as large as that which brings us together.
Some lines towards a poem
Reading to children is becoming a child once again, in my mother’s old bed in her mother’s house listening to Beatrix Potter
Reading to children is snuggling, cuddling
Reading to children is sharing elephants and fart jokes to comfort a playmate who really wants his mum
Reading to children in a foreign languages is seeing fear and confusion giving way to comprehension, self-confidence and strange grammars
Reading poetry to children is feeling nostalgic for an Australian bushland childhood more familiar from books than Country
Reading poetry to children is glowing inside as you see them appreciate the rhythmic power of the word
Reading to children is awesome!
In recent months as I plough through a research grant application at the office I have been thinking more and more about what I would rather be doing. During a similar period of existential crisis last year I came across a fascinating book by journalist Emily Matchar. Homeward Bound (Simon & Schuster, 2013) examines many of the themes of voluntary simplicity, permaculture living and radical homesteading that have occupied so much of my attention lately. I composed most of this post last year but never managed to finish it so I am bringing it to you now. Hopefully its better late than never!
Like many friends and acquaintances in Wollongong, Japan and elsewhere, I have joined the popular movement to reclaim hearth and home as a form of escape from the capitalist workplace. A few years ago my partner and I read Shannon A. Hayes’ book Radical Homemakers and experienced a real sense of awakening having finally found an author who was able to link the popular resuscitation of the domestic arts with a systemic critique of capitalism. Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound is an insightful and thoughtful reflection on the work of Hayes and others and of the movement of which they are a part. She coins the term New Domesticity to bundle together a variety of cultural practices such as food gardening, attachment parenting, home-based micro entrepreneurship, mummy blogging, homeschooling etc. I have given an inordinate amount of time to thinking about these topics in recent years and engaged in various practical experiments in voluntary simplicity and self-sufficient living. In this book, Matchar explores the class and gender dimensions of these practices. This approach sets it apart from most of the literature by practitioners (although Matchar insists she is influenced by New Domesticity in her own life) which tends towards the celebratory and gives little consideration for the potential limitations of this often highly individualistic approach to social change.
Matchar focuses on women and their relationship with New Domesticity because the vast majority of Etsy shop owners, homesteading bloggers and attachment parenting advocates are women. She highlights some of the contradictions of a philosophy based on the reclamation of domesticity on feminist terms in the context of a society where gender inequality is deeply entrenched. Matchar does not reject the claim of some New Domesticity advocates that their practices are feminist, but she is highly critical of a certain type of New Domesticity discourse on feminism as a social movement which blames second-wave feminism for women’s abandonment of hearth and home, highlighting the long history of women’s role in the household economy throughout the industrial period.
One of the most poignant critiques in Matchar’s book is of attachment parenting. This parenting philosophy celebrates the maternal bond with the child and is popular among many parents who see themselves as progressive. Its appeal in a cold-hearted world is obvious, and I have been influenced by this movement in various ways as I have struggled to figure out how to be a parent. As Matchar points out, however, attachment parenting tends to place enormous responsibility on mothers and tends to naturalise the maternal role as an instinctual one rather than a product of social conditioning. She also points out the philosophy’s origins in Christian conservative circles in the United States, highlighting the conservative ideas about women and their social roles that are coded into its foundational texts. Matchar also mounts an economic critique of the widespread uptake of attachment parenting philosophies by progressive, educated women. In a searing passage, she notes how the embrace of attachment parenting by professional women who have left work to take care of their newborn children seems to coincide with a structural problem: the lack of flexibility at work to accommodate working mothers and the general shitty boringness of many of the jobs these young professional women were doing anyway. The result, a philosophy which validates motherhood appeals much more than juggling childcare in order to return to a job which devalues the female worker in the first place. Matchar thereby criticises both attachment parenting and liberal feminist ideas about the liberating nature of paid employment, noting that it does not necessarily lead to an undermining of patriarchal norms and social structures. Unfortunately, while she raises these contradictions in her own liberal feminist conceptions, they are never interrogated decisively.
Some issues in this book appear to an Australian reader in Japan as quintessentially American. Health care is one example. Matchar cites more than one example of a family that has given up on maintaining any form of health insurance because they simply cannot afford to do so. In Australia and Japan, relatively comprehensive public health systems make rejecting the private health insurance market and living on a low income much less risky. Here I see the potential of a radical homemaking that is not confined to the home but that links up with other homemakers to demand shared access to public goods. However, there is an ongoing tension here within New Domesticity and permaculture practices and philosophies. Libertarian ideas are an important part of the social philosophy of these movements, something which Permaculture for the People addressed in a recent review of David Holmgren’s book Retrosuburbia. Presenter Rebecca Ellis takes Holmgren to task for his emphasis on individualistic and household level solutions to problems such as transport, where abandoning the struggle for accessible public transport means privileging the transport needs of certain types of able bodies and offers little in terms of solidarity with the differently abled.
An obvious hole in this book is its lack of any real critique of capitalism. Matchar’s critique of New Domesticity is primarily posed in liberal feminist terms. There is no discussion of how socialist or Marxist feminist approaches, or perhaps most importantly ecofeminist ones, might relate to New Domesticity or to ideas of radical homemaking. Sylvia Federici’s recent work on commons and commoning provides provides us with some of the tools to connect the dots between the radical potential of radical homemaking and a broader critique of capitalism. In her recent book, Re-enchanting the World, Federici observes of the destruction of local food systems by capitalism:
‘by undermining the self-sufficiency of every region and creating total economic interdependence, even among distant countries, globalization generates not only recurrent food crises but a need for unlimited exploitation of labor and the natural environment.’Sylvia Federici, Re-enchanting the World, 2019, p. 21.
For Federici, as for many ecofeminists, women working the land as subsistence producers are actually guardians of a kind of autonomy from the wage relation. If women can rely on the land to feed themselves and their families then they are not beholden to the job market for their own re/production. It seems to me that the radical potential of the New Domesticity movement is the attempt to create new ‘outsides’ to capitalism that permit autonomous re/productive labours. It remains to be seen whether the growing experiments in backyard food production, networks of community-sufficiency and the rejection of paid work can provide the basis for liberation or by combining with conservative notions of individual self-responsibility and the abandonment of public goods the New Domesticity-style rebellion can actually provide a kind of grassroots accompaniment for the politics of neoliberalism and the far-right. Matchar is right to point to the dangers of New Domesticity. It has the potential to simply reinforce patriarchal relationships in the home and isolate women from relationships of solidarity outside it.
One question that might prove important here is whether men are willing to give up some of the privilege they derive from our gendered place within the capitalist division of labour and join women in forging an alternative both in the home outside it. While Matchar’s focus is on women and feminism, she does talk to some men who have embraced aspects of the movement. What she misses, however, is the sense of liberation from gendered hierarchies that men can derive when we embrace roles that are coded as feminine. For me, cooking meals, assuming an equal responsibility for the management of my household (sharing the mental load) and sharing the work of raising my children is an embodied critique of male gender norms. Since having two small children, however, my partner and I have struggled with the fact that our family structure has started to look more and more like a traditional heteronormative one, with me at work while she remains at home with the children. This situation, which has been difficult to avoid so far, has only reinforced the importance of my doing my share of the housework in the attempt to maintain an equal balance of power between us. Of course, stepping up to the plate to do one’s fair share after centuries of male dominance in the home is really the least we can do. Nevertheless, wearing an apron is for me its own form of new domesticity and I find it to be a powerful way to perform my rejection of the skewed gender ideology that continues to cause me and the people I care about nothing but pain.