Japanese Association for Semiotic Studies (JASS): Focus on Fashion

Performance by "Newspaper Women" and Hiroshi Yoshioka whose head has been painted by the artists

Fashion might be counted among the regular topics of interest in semiotic studies. But what took place at the Kobe Fashion Museum, Japan, on May 12 and 13, 2012, perhaps moved beyond the ordinary understanding of “the semiotics of fashion.” It was the 32nd conference of the Japanese Association of Semiotic Studies (JASS), with the theme: “Kiru, Matou, Yosoou and Nugu”(”Wear, Wrap, Dress and Undress”). According to the description by Noriko Onohara, author of Tatakau Ifuku (Clothes in Struggle, Suiseisha, 2011), who chaired the conference, it was intended to address a fundamental question: “why do human beings wear clothes?”

Fashion and clothes may be analyzed from various points of view: gender, class, social status, occupation, race, ethnicity and of course aesthetic innovation. Recent developments in fashion such as “cosplay,” a practice of temporarily changing one’s identity by being dressed as some other (real or unreal) character, might be an interesting topic for semiotics. We may ask how “cosplay” may be explained in the systematic approach to fashion set forth by Roland Barthes, for example, and Noriko Onohara is a most qualified scholar to organize such a conference to address such questions about contemporary fashion. For the conference last May, however, she seemed deliberately to shift the focus from what might normally be called the semiotics of fashion to a more philosophical argument about “how clothes make us human.”

Noriko Onohara, the organizer of the 32nd JASS conference at Kobe

This is why she invited to the conference, in addition to researchers in literature, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, philosophy and aesthetics, a musician, a Buddhist monk and an art performance group. As the president of the Japanese Association of Semiotic Studies, I wholeheartedly welcomed her ideas, because I believe that this radical heterogeneity represents, in a positive manner, the very character of JASS.

In contrast to many other countries, semiotics has never been established fully as an academic discipline in Japan. We have few departments, faculties, or research institutes with “semiotics” or “semiology” in their name, although in some colleges and universities the subject is taught as a part of the “humanities.” The word kigouron (semiotics) once prevailed among students and younger researchers, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, in large part by way of the writings by Masao Yamaguchi. But the word has lost its initial popularity, and “semiotics” has come to play only a small institutional role in the Japanese academic world.

JASS, since its establishment in 1980, has functioned not so much as an organization to promote semiotics as a particular academic discipline, but rather has functioned as a relatively small but open intellectual society, where people from various fields, both inside and outside academia, may get together to exchange ideas, with “semiotics” as a sign securing this openness, an understanding and practice unusual in normal academic associations in Japan. I appreciate this development of such a semiotic society in Japan in the last three decades, and I am proud to preside over such a JASS now.

The priest Douki Hei talking on "the practice of wearing a human being."

The conference opened with the first panel consisting of Douki Hei (chief priest of Myokoji, a Zen Buddhist temple), Emiko Shiomi (experimental musician and member of the group “Fluxus”), Makoto Kinoshita (scholar of French literature, translator of Guy Debord’s writngs into Japanese), with Soushi Suzuki (scholar of French literature, writer and musician) as chair. The title of the panel: “(Hito wo) kuru (to iu) koto” (The practice (of) wearing (a human)) sounds perhaps a bit over-complex, but the aim was to focus on the possible semantic extension of the verb “kiru” (to wear). From the Buddhist point of view, for example, our life itself can be seen as the practice of wearing a particular person, wearing “a human being.” In the similar way, Ms. Shiomi showed how to “wear” sounds, sharing a selection of quick sound performances with the audience. Prof. Kinoshita’s talked on situationist movements of the 1950s and 60s, which also may be understood as an attempt to search for the freedom to “wear” urban environments.

After this panel we had an art performance by “Shibun-onna” (newspaper-women). Miyuki Nishizawa, a disciple of Shozo Shimamoto, among the most important members of the avant-garde group “Gutai,” developed her act of wearing newspapers as art performance (photographs are available on her website). Nishizawa and her colleagues gave a performance in the entrance hall of the building. While dancing, they wrap themselves and objects such as stepladders, and sometimes even the audience, in newspapers. Toward the end of the performance, she gave me a jacket of newspapers she had made herself, and invited me to join them. They then along with  members of the audience started painting on my head, a practice she invented with Shozo Shimamoto. I was happy in this way to take part in completing the performance, and by that evening many photos of it had been shared on Facebook and other internet communities.

The first Panel. From left, Douki Hei, Emiko Shiomi and Makoto KInoshita.

The next day (May 13), the second panel focused on “why people are attracted by foreign fashion,” with Kyoko Koma (discourse analysis, Asian Study Center at Vytautas Magnus University, Lithuania), Yoshiko Ikeda (cultural studies, Ritsumeikan university), Miki Okubo (aesthetics, Paris 8 University), Jessica Sugimoto (Manga studies, Kyoto Seika University), and Noriko Onohara as chair. Unlike the first panel, the participants all are researchers in fields related to semiotics. What might be called special about this panel is that the four speakers and the chair were are all female—this remains quite unusual in Japan unless the topic is directly related to gender issues—with two of them teaching or studying abroad and one being an international student in Kyoto.

Panel as "girl's talk." From left, Yoshiko Ikeda, Miki Okubo and Jessica Sugimoto

According to what Noriko Onohara told me about this panel, she tried to organize it not in the fashion of a normal academic symposium on a certain topic, but rather as a kind of “girls’ talk” on the topic of fashion. As I understand it, her intention was to present a discussion on semiotics itself while at the same time positioning the discussion as a kind of semiotic event. The analyses of foreign fashion all were stimulating, reflecting the understandings of different generations and cultural experiences, even if it turned out to be not exactly an example of “girls’ talk.” I appreciate very much Onohara’s attempt to animate academic discussion by employing a performative and playful setting for the panel.

For the closing dialogue on the topic of “undressing,” I talked with Kiyokazu Washida, former president of Osaka University, a philosopher who has written many books on topics related to fashion and the body. We addressed what the act of undressing, or nakedness, means in the context of philosophy, art and society. During the discussion, Washida reported an astonishing episode in which one of his (female) students was trained in the art of bondage, tying a person with ropes in beautiful but harmless ways, and wanted to apply her technique on Prof. Washida’s body, in a party-like situation. He allowed it (!), and had his photos taken, just a few days before the final vote for the president of Osaka University, in which he was elected.

Dialogue on "undressing" with philosopher Kiyokazu Washida (right).

Semiotics connects us internationally. At the same time, it takes its particular form in each culture, according to the historical context in which the discipline has settled itself in a particular society. I would be pleased if the “playfulness” which characterized this conference would become the word which best characterizes semiotic culture in Japan.

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