The international characteristic of avant-garde movements is often narrated by the ‘simultaneity’ or the speed of its dissemination all over the world. For instance, André Breton’s Surrealism, which originated in Paris in 1924, was quickly spread to the world in a decade. It was brought to Japan as early as 1925 by poet Junzaburo Nishiwaki who had learned it while studying in England. Thereafter, the Japanese version of this movement was developed by poets and artists, so promptly and simultaneously, in step with European groups. This sort of canonical narrative of the arrival of avant-garde spirits in non-European countries is problematic. For it continuously fuels 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 narration 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 swept the country from 1867 summer to 1868 spring that started in the form of religious celebrations and communal activities and ended up evolving into a protest that involved crazed dancing, cross-dressing, nudity, sex and mob violence. Revellers were cheerfully singing the refrain ‘ee ja nai ka’ that follows a variety of improvised phrases. The literal meaning of the word ‘ee ja nai ka’ is ‘Isn’t it good?’, which functions as a rhetorical negative that translates ‘Why not?’, ‘Who cares?’, ‘I don’t care’ or ‘It doesn’t matter’. It has nihilistic, passive, yet insubordinate and blasphemous connotations with a sense of self-affirming and boldness to confront, that could translate ‘What the hell’ or ‘I don’t give a shit’. It reflected the Dionysian mentality of that time when Japan was coming out of 220-years of isolationist foreign policy 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 the postwar underground radical performance/activist groups as well as subculture thrived on manga, films and underground publications. By displacing the historical touchstone for narrating avant-garde spirits from the European epicentre to ee ja nai ka - a crucial yet under-represented 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.