Talking About Love with the League of Good-for-Nothings

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.

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