By Nawang Tsomo
Maari Sugawara is a multi-disciplinary lens-based artist whose intersectional approach and combination of research and art-making explores personal and collective memories of what constitutes Japanese-ness. She recently graduated from OCAD University’s Interdisciplinary Art, Media and Design (IMAD) graduate program as “Promising New Artist” for her thesis exhibition Dreams Come True Very Much. In this work, she questions the state of the Japanese identity and how the so-called advancement of technology in Japan harms its citizens. Politicizing the personal, Sugawara pushes the boundaries of media and image-making through speculation, challenging the Eurocentric and patriarchal standards set by the Japanese nation. Now back in Tokyo, Sugawara and I have this conversation, via frequent emails, amidst the controversial Tokyo Olympics.
NT: Maari, can you discuss your background and what brought you to art-making?
MS: Growing up as a racialized, queer, Autistic, Japanese woman in England from the age of ten, issues of marginalized identities became central to my research. I have been particularly interested in what John Caughie calls the “subordinate’s double identification” with see-er and seen; the pervasiveness of exploitation in capitalist and colonialist societies. This led me to become engaged with the intersection of Japanese studies, decolonial studies, gender studies, hauntology, and speculative fiction narratives in my digital medium-based art.
The intention of my ongoing project, Dreams Come True Very Much, is to point toward alternative Japanese future(s) by critically examining the sociogenic codes, which refers to how socio-political relations become materialized to form identities, towards reconstituting the category of “Japanese”. It undermines the sacrosanct position of “Japaneseness” which has been nourished by Orientalized discourses on Japanese culture and nationhood. It also centers on a critique of Japanese data-driven future(s) as being haunted by its colonial past. I illustrate how the traditional categories that are used to constitute identities are categorically interpellated and performatively constituted through discourse and suggest a departure from compartmentalizing identities.
NT: You recently completed your graduate thesis exhibition Dreams Come True Very Much. In this exhibition, consisting of several video installations, you use speculative fiction to imagine Japan in a post-Moonshot world where Japan no longer exists. Can you tell us about this narrative that you’ve created, specifically in the context of the Moonshot Research and Development program initiated by the Cabinet Office of Japan?
MS: My works are set in the minds of the Avatar-Ms—cybernetic avatars of myself, and my narratives follow a theme of yearning and longing for “Japan(s).” The story takes place in a post-“Moonshot” future, where Japan has vanished after an unspecified man-made catastrophe; no one has seen Japan ever since. The Japanese are scattered around the world. Before Japan vanished, the government established the “Moonshot” program to create “Society 5.0,” a notion of a society that integrates cyberspace and physical space to realize economic growth. Each Japanese was suggested by the government to have ten avatars, and most Japanese multiplied themselves to “improve productivity” and become “more resistant to stress.” The government uploaded individuals’ cognitive information, from birth to the point of bodily death, to machines. Such machines are programmed to think that they are the individuals. Although the program is no longer supported, the avatars live on in the virtual world—including Avatar-Ms, the ten copies of myself. In the virtual world, her cybernetic avatars dream of “Japan(s).”
The colonization of life (removing death from life), is perhaps, the ultimate form of violence.
NT: What does it mean that the avatar-Ms continue to live on virtually?
MS: The Japanese state-owned identities, forced to live forever post-“Moonshot,” are also colonized identities shaped by the Euro-American gaze and maleness. Essentially, the government is attempting to multiply Japanese national identity: with a life’s worth of data from every citizen, the Japanese state can practically eliminate the death of the Japanese people, as information lives forever—identity is information with self-awareness. The government can upload the individual’s data up to the point of their physical death to a machine that thinks it is the individual; thus, Japanese national identity lives on; it can be kept fully intact—in the sense that identities that are saved as “Japanese” data will therefore always be “Japanese”—solving the issue of the nation’s population decline without taking immigrants. In this scenario, a Japanese person, or at least a Japanese person’s identity, can work forever for the nation. The sets of data (people’s identities) will be used by the State to perform tasks. Japan is a self-proclaimed homogenous nation; this program would solidify that claim even further. The colonization of life (removing death from life), is perhaps, the ultimate form of violence.
NT: One of the most striking videos in the exhibit is When I use English: There is a Hole, Waiting to Eat Me, It’s Mouth Wide Open. Like a Vagina. Echo Comes Out. There is something painfully uncomfortable about watching a mouth move at that closeness, though I am reminded of a lifetime supply of discomfort that non-native English speakers/learners endure in order to grasp “good” English. Can you explain how this relates to Japanese identity, and how this contributes to a kind of cultural amnesia and self-Orientalization that you speak about?
MS: I was sent to England at the age of ten; my parents’ intention was for me to be educated in a “Western” way and to speak “good” English. Many in Japan believe in the necessity of mastering the English language due to its power but there is also a stagnant phenomenon within Japan that shames those with accents. I believe that this culture of shame is the sole reason why the majority of Japanese people don’t speak English at all which further motivates people’s obsession with “good” English. This is because Westernization, historically, has been seen as the equivalent of “modernization”. This is why Japan remains a country caught in the complicit opposition of being one of the first to “modernize” via Westernization in Asia, yet is still subordinate to Western countries. To sustain the imaginary superiority of Japan, Japan has also been complemented by a third party: an imaginary undesirable Asia which is underpinned by the country’s lingering asymmetrical power relations with other Asian countries. This has been re-asserted with the notion of soft power—the “Japan Brand Strategy”— a self-Orientalizing strategy propelled specifically to induce amnesia towards Japan’s wartime crimes.
How Japan aspires to be ethnically homogenous while wanting “whiteness” is also reflected in its language. For instance, Japan celebrates its ethnic purity, yet hāfus—which in most social contexts refer exclusively to Caucasian-mixed Japanese—are in many ways celebrated in mass media—a practice embedded in social norms. The term, hāfu, is in katakana (a Japanese syllabary system that Japanese textbooks explain to be for foreign loanwords). This textbook explanation regarding katakana frames Western words as “cool” while kango (Chinese-origin words) are defined as Japanese. Kango is codified in Japanese national dictionaries rather than foreign loanword dictionaries. Both the term hāfuand katakana reflect Japan’s historically changing relationships with other countries, such as the US—the dominant power in the West—and China, Japan’s recent economic-political hegemon. Such terms prove that Japan supports a dichotomous, totalizing distinction between that which is Japanese and that which is foreign in order to construct an exclusive national and cultural identity.
NT: Another interesting aspect of this work is that as a viewer and a “good” English speaker, I am confronted here by subtitles spelled out in the International Phonetic Alphabet–words that are quite frankly illegible to me. Could you talk about the significance of acknowledging this in the work?
MS: My intention was to highlight the discreet terror residing inside the acquisition of a new language, especially for ESL individuals—something that I am familiar with growing up abroad. In a standardized English context, ESL individuals’ dialects and registers are incommensurable with the hegemony of “Good English.” ESL students tend to find themselves in remedial classes in Western contexts situated in discourses that contribute to the construction of them as “lesser beings.” The subtitles spelled out in IPA adds pressure to the audience by situating them in the ESL learner’s subjectivity.
I also accidentally highlighted the experience of POC with ASD. As researchers suggest, autism continues to be underdiagnosed in BIPOC. I was diagnosed with ASD at the age of 27. I learnt that autistics fixate more on the mouth than eyes during an emotional conversation because emotionally charged topics (i.e. an English teacher demanding you to say “I saw sixty-six farmers laughing on the phone/farm in front of the mirror while checking that you are not using a Mandarin, Japanese, or Russian mouth position) place a high demand on working memory, which, when a threshold is surpassed, makes rendering information from the eye region particularly difficult.
NT: It’s interesting that you mention “indirect trauma.” I have recently been consumed with the concept of intergenerational trauma, but a particular kind–the trauma of not-knowing–that I have found myself in. For me, this trauma of not knowing resonates with how you think about 3:11 (the 2011 earthquake). Though you never physically experienced 3:11, you say that you developed an ownership over the memory of the event. How has this memory manifested over time through your work?
MS: This concept of artificial amnesia, or the trauma of not-knowing, was useful in thinking through Japanese nationalism and internalized Orientalism. This refers not only to the identities of Japanese but also diasporic identities; sometimes diasporas are coerced to assimilate or voluntarily white-wash themselves in order to survive. In terms of 3.11, for almost a decade, I had a sense of guilt for not experiencing 3.11 first-handedly. This guilt is perhaps a result of totalization of identity; but I developed a sense of ownership over my “memory” in a somewhat strategic way.
This came from an intention to counter the nationalist, male-dominant narratives embraced by Japanese media which reflects Japan’s ethnocentric and patriarchal socio-political structure, that disavows marginalized groups’ existence, as constitutive of the nation. This structure silences the subalterns—women, non-Japanese citizens, and other minority groups—to establish Japan as a country with a clean record. Japan has a history of doing that regarding its colonial history and war crimes committed in surrounding Asian countries. Through my research, I gained an understanding of the political nature of “memory” itself and that of 3.11. Memory is divergent, reiterative, and multiple. It does not exist outside of the boundaries of herstory. The official record of the 3.11 disaster is largely male-dominated, and this is also tied together with a strong socio-political pressure for Japan to erase the past of 3.11 in the name of “reconstruction.”
NT: How does the current Tokyo Olympics fit into the “Japan Brand Strategy?”
The “Japan Brand Strategy” is self-Orientalizing. It exploits Japanese popular culture through a Western-Orientalist lens. This is a mechanism for national mobilization to revitalize patriotic pride. The Olympics, or the so-called “the Reconstruction Olympics” in Japan, uses this chauvinistic nation-branding to forget the 3.11 and nuclear accident and, by doing so, it forgets the victims of the accident. The government’s use of “recovery” rhetoric or, what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” aims to construct a particular imagined post-recovery “Japan” with a clean record. This was done through bribery and corruption. An immense amount of resources that were to be spent on the disaster-hit regions in Tohoku 3.11-affected regions were allocated towards funding the Olympics instead. What the Olympics, which is a super spreader disaster, is revealing, is the utter inability of Japan’s nation-state to protect its own citizens. It shattered the public’s trust in the government almost entirely. Over 80% of Japanese oppose the Olympics this summer. The Olympics also shows how the economic driven “Japan Brand Strategy” not only disavows the existence of marginalized groups as constitutive of the nation, but puts the safety of the entire nation at risk.
NT: Language is certainly a significant theme throughout this exhibit; from the way you satirize it in When I use English: There is a Hole to your own use of the English language within the elaborate titles of your work. But I am also thinking here of Inhabiting Distant Ghosts, a moving diptych portraying two bodies of seemingly calm waters. In this work, it is your own writing that confronts the viewer with an underlying fear that haunts Japan. You write:
“There has always been a ghost that haunts those who forget and those who leave rice in their bowls.
Perhaps it is Japan.
I feel its presence.
In the morning, the teacups are clean,
the dust on the shelves is wiped,
and the garbage is neatly put away.
At night, I can hear the click-clack of footsteps
echoing as if something is walking through a hectic station.
Sometimes, it leaves the floor drenched,
the shelves overturned.
It makes the doors rattle
when there is no wind
and occasionally shakes the ground.”
Could you tell us more about this collective fear, what this does to Japanese identity, and where you see yourself within this collective fear?
MS: I came across this term, “collective, biological fear” during a conversation with theorist and performance artist Ayumi Goto. It is the collective fear of earthquakes, tsunamis, and radioactive substances released into the sea. These fears haunt the people who experienced 3.11, directly or not. Perhaps, it is the strongest biological bond I have with Japan. This fear, for me, is also tied with intense haji (the concept of public shaming) in Japan which especially has an overwhelming power over women. Japanese women’s sensitivity towards shaming is not natural but is constructed: Japanese schools imbue rigorous notions of propriety into children from an early age, especially to girls. Such sensitivity to public shaming is so intense in Japan that the imaginary gaze—which takes the form of a ghost in my poem—alone tends to generate shame which occasionally leads to self-censorship. What underlies haji is the code whereby individuals are expected to not violate norms.
NT: What’s next for you Maari?
I’m currently working on a VR/AR/XR project which is an extension of Dreams Come True Very Much. My concern regarding the uprising of ultra-nationalism in Japan and the data-colonized future became twofold, both regarding the colonial past haunting the future. I’m seeking methods capable of breaking silence and producing catharsis, by incorporating contingency of selves into immersive, simulated experiences. I also wish to generate an experience to examine how the user’s understanding of language re-adjusts itself to adapt to a language system that this preordained artificial circumstance presents.
Dreams Come True Very Much is available for viewing on Sugawara’s website. She will also be screening her work as part of the upcoming 2021 Vector Festival at the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. The project will be exhibited at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre as part of Nuit Blanche 2022 and will be her first solo show in Canada. Currently based in Tokyo, Sugawara is a student at the NEWVIEW SCHOOL JAPAN, where she is experimenting with xR (extended reality) and exploring 3-D space using VR/AR/MR technology. She will present new work at the end of the year.
 John Caughie, Playing at being American: Games and tactics In logics of television, ed. P. Mellencamp: (London: British Film Institute, 1990), 44-58.
 The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. (2021). Naomi Klein. Picador.