The international characteristics of avant-garde movements are often narrated by the ‘simultaneity’ or the speed of its dissemination all over the world. For instance, André Breton’s Surrealism, originated in Paris in 1924, was quickly spread to the world from South America to Japan throughout the 1920's and 30’s. It was brought to Japan ‘as early as’ in 1925 by a poet Junzaburo Nishiwaki who then came back from his study in England. Thereafter, the Japanese version of this movement was developed by poets and artists around Shuzo Takiguchi, so promptly and simultaneously, in step with the European groups. This sort of canonical narrative of the artistic development of avant-garde spirits in non-European countries is problematic, continuously fueling the myth that emphasises the singularity of Europe as the artistic ground zero of the 20th century, as the cultural missionary to ‘enlighten’ the world.
In this paper, I explore an alternative story behind the acceptance of avant-garde spirits in non-European countries, exemplifying it by the case of Japan. I will discuss ee ja nai ka as a peculiar touchstone in the process of modernisation/westernisation in Japan which unleashed a transgressive drive for the coming century. Ee ja nai ka were carnivalesque riots that occurred all over Japan from 1867 to 1868 that started in the form of religious celebrations and communal activities and ended up evolving into social/political protests that involved crazed dancing, cross-dressing, nudity, sex and mob violence. The term ee ja nai ka, which translates ‘Who cares?’, ‘Why not?’, or ‘What the hell?’, was a refrain performed during these activities whose meaning is fatalistic, passive yet insubordinate. It reflected the nihilistic, Dionysian mentality of that time when Japan was coming out of 200-years of diplomatic closure and going through a major social and political reformation at the start of the Meiji Restoration. Ee ja nai ka unleashed people’s anger and frustration against the long-lasting feudal oppression of the shogunate, triggered by the chaotic confusion arising from the polarisation of the country in the face of a regime change, modernisation and Western influence.
The transgressive mentality of ee ja nai ka, which involved an early form of gender-bending, performative sexuality, nudity and violence, appears recurrently throughout the 20th century in the form of countercultural provocations against conservatives, first seen in 1920’s and 30’s in a mass cultural movement ero guro nansensu (Eroticism, Grotesque, Nonsense) and then in 1950’s and 60’s in the underground radical performance/activist groups such as Zero Jigen (Zero Dimension). By displacing the historical touchstone for narrating avant-garde spirits from the European epicentre to ee ja nai ka - a crucial yet under-researched event in Japan’s modernisation, I aim to challenge disciplinary constraints in art history and avant-garde studies that are persistently self-referential and eurocentric.