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  • Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945 by Kerim Yasar
  • Daqing Yang (bio)
Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph, and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945
By Kerim Yasar. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Pp. 304.

Beginning with the little-known fact that Japanese was the second language transmitted across telephone lines (after English), Kerim Yasar laments that the study of modernity has long favored the visual and overlooked the auditory. Indeed, sound, one of the ubiquitous key elements of social life, is usually absent in historians' reconstructions of the past. How to bring this muted subject back into historical inquiry?

More than two decades ago, Japanese media scholar Yoshimi Shunya attempted just that with his pioneering study in Japanese, Capitalism of the "Voice": A Social History of the Telephone, Radio, and Phonograph (1995). Although Electrified Voices seems to bear certain resemblances, it is a very different book. Whereas Yoshimi emphasized auditory technologies breaking down the centuries-old dominance of print media, Yasar sees their advent in Japan not only as a technological rupture but also as a reformulation of past practices. As Yasar argues, "modern technologies, which have often been thought to go hand-in-hand with modern forms, became vectors for traditional arts and even for traditional lifeways and reactionary ideologies" (p. 7).

If Yoshimi wrestled with introducing the study of voice and sound to his Japanese readers, Yasar makes the experience of modern Japan relevant to non-area specialists, in part through a critical dialogue with an impressive array of theories on sound and voice in recent decades. Trained in cultural history and media studies with a background in music, Yasar demonstrates in rich detail how Japan's cultural elites crafted specific types of orality conditioned by the different electronic media at different moments in their technological development and reception in modern Japan.

The book begins with a discussion of voice and orality in the Japanese context, followed by a succinct assessment of the impact of the first electric technologies—the telegraph and the telephone (chapter 1). Both are shown to have shaped a language being standardized and a sense of national community [End Page 1233] at a critical time of nation-building in Meiji Japan. Next, Yasar examines in-depth Japan's traditional and modern soundscape—defined as sounds that comprise the auditory environment (chapter 2). While Westerners visiting Japan often described Japanese music as an alien acoustic experience, even rejecting it as barbaric, Japanese elites quickly embraced Western music, initially through military bands and music education in schools. This reflects the obvious power asymmetries rather than acoustic qualities.

With the stage set, the rest of the book covers major auditory technologies. Yasar then examines the early use of the phonograph, introduced to Japan in 1877 (chapter 3). The recording and commercial duplication of popular entertainment in Japan such as naniwabushi and rakugo vividly illustrate the author's point that "Japan's oral performance traditions were not vanquished by modernity—on the contrary, they experience the renaissance while concurrently metamorphosing into new genres across new media and distribution platforms" (p. 7). Disputes over whether recorded voice constituted real art also shaped Japan's early copyright law.

The electric medium that receives most attention is radio broadcasting, started in the mid-1920s and popularized as Japan embarked on new continental expansion in the 1930s. The book analyzes two of radio's public deployments: exercise and sport reporting, which created obedient subjects as well as an imagined community of listeners (chapter 4). Yasar then shows how the relatively short-lived but immensely popular radio drama offered democratic potential, opening the door for amateurs to create content, albeit with elites exercising gatekeeping (chapter 5). The final chapter is devoted to uses of voice (and sound) in Japan's nascent film industry, above all highlighting both the spatial and temporal importance of spoken Japanese.

Electrified Voices is situated between studies of technological developments that emphasize social negotiation and technological determinism and universalism. Its main protagonists are writers, actors, directors, and occasionally private entrepreneurs, rather than engineers or industrialists. Addressing specific local demands and conditions, these acoustic pioneers in Japan also tuned...


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