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  • Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945 by Kerim Yasar
  • Margaret Mehl (bio)
Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945. By Kerim Yasar. Columbia University Press, New York, 2018. xviii, 277 pages. $90.00, cloth; $30.00, paper; $29.99, E-book.

Compared to Japan's visual culture, sound and sonic culture in Japan have received little attention. This is true of sound in general; the field of sound studies has developed in part in reaction to the widely perceived dominance of the visual in the study of modern and contemporary culture.1 Although [End Page 221] sound studies do not represent a major part of the theoretical foundations of Kerim Yasar's book, he clearly shares the premise that sound is "worthy of focused and sustained examination" and states that sound "is particularly effective at pacing our sense of lived time and shaping our sense of time as a whole. Sound is movement by definition and movement is time" (p. 4).

In the case of Japan, sound and sound technology provide rich examples of how they contributed significantly to the country's rapid modernization according to Western models. At the same time, sound reproduction and transmission did not exclusively go hand in hand with modern forms of oral and musical performance, but also "became vectors for traditional arts and even for traditional lifeways and reactionary ideologies" (p. 7). Continuity of traditional phenomena into modern times has already been shown for other developments, but sound technology is a particularly striking case. Japan maintained a remarkable diversity of oral tradition even while it modernized: kōdan, rakugo, naniwabushi, and the political enka are all oral genres that flourished in the Meiji period, while the katsudō benshi in the cinema remained popular even after sound films might have rendered a live narrator obsolete. Modern innovations in sound technology reached Japan soon after they came into being and were actively embraced. To this day, Japan represents one of the largest markets for recorded music worldwide, and this was already the case early in the twentieth century. And, although this is beyond the scope of Yasar's book, after 1945 Japan became a major exporter of new sound technology, including the transistor radio, the karaoke machine, the Walkman, and the CD.

Electrified Voices is largely empirical and descriptive: the author presents a brief survey of the origins and early developments in Japan of the telegraph, the telephone, the phonograph and the gramophone, the radio, and sound film and the ways they interacted with society and culture. He derives inspiration from a wide range of theories, employing them in a fairly eclectic fashion in connection with particular topics. His theoretical approach is informed particularly by the Ljubljana school, especially Slavoj Žižek's and Mladen Dolar's work on sound and the voice, as well as work by Yoshimi Shun'ya and Jonathan Sterne on sound reproduction, and Jacques Attali on music and noise. The broad approach, in terms of both content and theory, results in a treatment that is highly selective and at times seems superficial and lacking in cohesion. Given that research on sound and sound technology in Japan is limited, however, the author's choices are justifiable, and the book is a most welcome contribution to our knowledge of a so obviously relevant field.

Of the six main chapters, chapter 1 considers the telegraph and the telephone in Meiji Japan with a strong focus on the relationship between orality and writing and the major narrative traditions. Chapter 2 is devoted to sound in general rather than a particular medium and discusses premodern [End Page 222] and modern soundscapes, as well as Western music. Here the author relies heavily on Attali's Noise (1985) for theoretical inspiration. Chapter 3 on the phonograph and the gramophone might have offered another chance to discuss music. Over half of this chapter, however, is devoted to questions of authorship and copyright, centering on the case of the naniwabushi star Tōchūken Kumoemon (1873–1916) and his legal battle with two recording companies over ownership of the copyright to his recordings (1912–14...


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