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  • Redactionary Global Modernism:Kisses in Imperial Japan
  • Jonathan E. Abel (bio)

Structuralism, Marxism, post-structuralism and the like are no longer the sexy topics they were. What is sexy instead is sex. On the wilder shores of academia, an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing.

—Terry Eagleton, After Theory

Rodin’s “Kiss,” despite its realism, provides no libidinous thought.

—André Bazin, “Marginal Notes on Eroticism in Cinema

I shall never forget my first experience in seeing kissing between man and woman. … I cannot express my feelings, but I could not help recalling what my mother said to me just before I started for America: “I have heard, my daughter, that it is the custom of foreign people to lick each other as dogs do.”

—Sugimoto Inagaki Etsu, A Daughter of the Samurai (1926)

At an exhibition of French modern art in Tokyo on May 31, 1924, Auguste Rodin’s Le Baiser (The Kiss) was confined to a “special room” and displayed behind a bamboo screen by order of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Headquarters.1 This reception of Rodin’s The Kiss in Japan is but one moment in the global offense taken, with the sculpture at the center of obscenity [End Page 201] battles nearly everywhere it went: in Brussels 1887, in Paris 1898, in Chicago 1893, in Lewes, England 1913, in Ottawa, Canada, 1919.2 As a moment in the world history of representations of the kiss more generally, Rodin in Japan serves to highlight several functions of the kiss in global modernity: the kiss connects individuals to others and to the world; the kiss is neither exclusively public nor private; the kiss often signifies through displacement and under erasure.

The administration of Rodin’s The Kiss in Tokyo is a useful symbol of the modern story of the pregnant politics of proscribing public performances of sexual behavior in the center of metropoles in contrast to the overly sexualized liminal spaces in the peripheries of the city (such as 1920s Asakusa, where sex, stage, and screen shared a central role as similarly fringe cultures did in 1840s Monmartre, 1930s Alexanderplatz, and 1940s Times Square) and margins of empire. (At the far reaches of the Japanese empire “comfort women” would be expected to perform a public service far exceeding kisses, and as Japan itself would become a sexual center for the American military in the early postwar era.3) If kisses were part of a private world on the fringe of culture, they were also at the same time one of the many sites where the public discourse of the modern nation state (imperial or democratic) sought to influence its subjects. In Japan of the mid-1920s, even as Home Ministry censors began to crack down on cultural material featuring kissing, kissing could be read everywhere. The imperial state’s restrictions of access to and occasional suppression of images of the kiss allow us to see in stark relief not only the failure of a complete and absolute censorship in the age of mass production, but also how obscenity and sedition (the two main categories for censorship in modern Japan) were two sides of the same coin. As the kiss smacked of Zola-ist socialism in Paris, rubbed up against the tightly sealed prudish morals of Victorian England, and pecked at the bourgeois social fabric in Canada, the public kiss was glossed in Japan during the 1920s and 1930s as both the anarchic Western eroticism of ruthless capitalism and the cunning infiltration of Sovietism that could put the ruling classes in jeopardy. After censorship of kiss culture attempted to cultivate and maintain power for the imperial state, the assumption of this same power of the kiss was repurposed by the new regime of a “new Japan” under the Occupation. The history of the kiss in Japan is but one iteration of a world history of a redactionary modernism which both suppressed and publicized kissing.

Of course, kisses mean different things as they travel across time and space; yet the kiss remains a convenient ontological flashpoint for comparisons of various acculturations within a wider framework of a “singular modernity.”4 And although, in terms...


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pp. 201-229
Launched on MUSE
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