The international character of the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century is often described in terms of 'simultaneity', or the speed with which they spread around the world. For example, André Breton’s Surrealism, which began in Paris in 1924, spread rapidly around the world within a decade. It was brought to Japan as early as in 1925 by the poet Junzaburo Nishiwaki who had just returned from studying in England. Subsequently, the Japanese version of the movement was developed by poets and artists hand in hand with the European groups. This kind of canonical narrative of the arrival of avant-garde spirits in non-European countries is problematic. For it constantly feeds the myth that emphasises the singularity of Europe as the artistic and intellectual ground zero of the twentieth century, as the cultural missionary to ‘enlighten’ the world.
In this paper, I explore an alternative narrative behind the reception of avant-garde spirits in non-European countries, using the case of Japan as an example. I will discuss ee ja nai ka as a peculiar touchstone in the process of modernisation and westernisation in Japan which unleashed a transgressive drive for the coming century. Ee ja nai ka were carnivalesque riots that swept the country from the summer of 1867 to the spring of 1868. They began as religious celebrations and communal activities and eventually evolved into a protest that included frenzied dancing, cross-dressing, nudity, sex and mob violence. ‘Ee ja nai ka’ was the refrain the revellers sang, often translated as ‘Why not?’, ‘Who cares?’, ‘I don’t care’ or ‘It doesn’t matter’. It reflected the Dionysian mentality of the time when Japan was emerging from nearly two hundred years of isolationist foreign policy and undergoing major social and political reform at the start of the Meiji Restoration. Ee ja nai ka unleashed the anger and frustration of the people against the long-standing feudal oppression of the shogunate, triggered by the chaotic confusion resulting 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 recurs throughout the twentieth century in the form of countercultural provocations against conservatives and normative society. By shifting the historical touchstone for narrating the dawn of the avant-garde from the European epicentre to ee ja nai ka, that is, a crucial yet underrepresented event in Japanese modernism, I aim to challenge the constraints of the discipline of art history and avant-garde studies, which are persistently self-referential and Eurocentric.