Jillian Marshall’s debut JAPANTHEM: Counter-Cultural Experiences, Cross-Cultural Remixes guides the reader through honest, vulnerable vignettes that portray a society’s deep relationship with music, and what it means to listen and understand as a cultural outsider—plus a primer on academia and writing a PhD dissertation on the side. JAPANTHEM explores the traditional music and dance of the Obon festivals, the underground noise scene, and J-pop through the lens of the author’s first-hand experiences, including secret raves, tipsy meetings with popstars, and possibly maybe being bullied by her Buddhist dance teacher. Three Rooms Press editor Mary Rose Manspeaker spoke with Jillian this month about process and public intellectualism, building a memoir out of vignettes, the moments that seem fated, and making a life as a writer. Check out the full interview below!
Mary Rose Manspeaker: I would ask about the genesis of the idea to write about music and culture in this way—through these vignettes and experiments—but you’ve also written that into the book. So I’ll ask instead: to what extent was it important to you that process be part of this book? That a reader see not necessarily just the conclusion, but be able to follow what led to that conclusion and to the book in their hands?
Jillian Marshall: While in the throes of writing my thesis, I felt it was important to be transparent about postcolonial dynamics. After all, how did someone like me, a tall blonde lady from rural Vermont, come to write about Japanese music in the first place? For us ethnographers — anyone doing anthropological-leaning, fieldwork-based research — experience is data, so clearly accounting for my experiences was of theoretical import to my project. I suppose my stance was borne from what I always detected as a kind of academic colonialism: “This culture is MINE! I wrote the definitive book on X place’s music, so go find your OWN country while I hit the tenure track!” It was all so regressive. Who’s to say that that one person’s experience is definitive of anything?
I grew increasingly suspicious of “objective” accounts of the field during my research, and eventually came to believe that more meaningful analysis examines the intersection of the experiences with the person having them. So while JAPANTHEM certainly details my wacky adventures in Japan, highlighting the process of how the book came to be—as well as how and perhaps why someone like me was afforded these experiences in the first place—is my way of keeping its thematic content focused on the cross-cultural exchanges themselves, rather than on me, myself, and I. In being clear about how I navigated this whole process, I also hope to ignite readers’ imaginations so that they might draw their own conclusions about the book’s message—and perhaps even muse on what they might do in similar circumstances!
MRM: JAPANTHEM ultimately follows 10+ years of experience living between Japan and the US, yes? What led you to choose the moments you chose to write about? Is there anything else you at first thought to include that just didn’t fall within the scope of the book?
JM: Easy: the moments I write about in JAPANTHEM are the ones that stuck with me, etched slow and golden in my mind as the primary shapers of my relationship to Japan. They are the Aha! moments, the exemplars, and among the greatest sources of my understanding of this wonderful, whimsical place.
I wish I could have included more about a bar I worked at in Osaka during my last stint of “fieldwork” (i.e. riding my bike with vinyl in the front basket to DJ at this club I basically lived at). I served drinks, finally learned how to make it through conversations with older men—the top tier of Japan’s social hierarchy—and became the bar’s resident cake-baker as I introduced our customers to rural favorites I grew up on, like zucchini bread (“Wow, it’s not too sweet! I didn’t think Americans made anything worth eating!” Oh, sigh…).
Like many of the stories in JAPANTHEM, this job also came about thanks to a coincidence. The owner of the bar—a woman my older sister’s age who worked as a hostess (you’ll just have to look that up) to save up for her own joint—asked me to work for her under-the-table after I wandered in one night for dinner. She soon became fiercely protective of me—and she absolutely hated the DJ I went out with that you’ll hear about throughout JAPANTHEM. When she discovered that we’d hung out as friends when I visited a year later, she completely blew up, threw me out of her apartment where she’d insisted I stay, and rage-texted me for days about how Japanese people are inherently more polite and refined than us “stupid Americans.”
Of course, the irony of how things ended need not be pointed out. But that whole interaction is still a question mark. On the one hand, the way she treated me would be great fodder on American-Japanese social relations; on the other, was this experience really a mirror for cultural (mis)understanding, or was this lady just plain nuts? It’s complicated, and given that my time working at the champagne bar didn’t directly have to do with my music research, maybe it’s best for a different project.
But I do wish I included stories about this elegant older woman I lived next to during my first two years in Japan, when I was teaching middle school English in a rural fishing village. She let me play her piano once a week and grew to be something of a tacit cultural mentor. There was also evidence that I opened her mind (and ears) to something deeper than the Japanese stereotypes of Americans. Being neighbors and upkeeping correspondence have impacted not only my understanding of Japan, but also of Western music’s complex relationship with Japanese society. Luckily, I have written about her elsewhere (heads up: this particular outfit wanted a more “academic” writing style), so for anyone curious, here’s the link.
I think that aspect of humanity, with real people carving out space and time in their lives for music (and dance, for that matter) that they alone perpetuated, both facilitated and was facilitated by en for all involved. After all, the American research student who just so happen to come floating by was embraced by both scenes as well…
MRM: You often return to these concepts of en and fate. Can you talk a little about what draws you these ideas, and how, for you, they tie to your experiences in Japan and with Japanese music scenes?
JM: When I moved to Tokyo (and, come to think of it, when I went to Tokyo for the first time on a one-night layover back in 2007), I was totally, 100% open: I had time, and I had a cushy fellowship that took care of my finances and ticked boxes for where I wanted to be in my graduate school career. As a result, I felt able to wholly throw myself into my objectives. Although it became clearer in retrospect, I suspected even at the time that my openness made things happen. Obviously, the moment when I realized that I’d found the same tiny scene through two totally different venues and DJs, weeks apart, got me hip to greater forces at play. How else can you explain a coincidence like that?
So while I’m not sure when I heard about the concept of en—a synchronous connection, a path or relationship to be pursued, the stuff of destiny but not destiny itself — it had to have been during my fieldwork days. What timing, too, because by the time I returned to the US, I thought: wait a minute, I’m supposed to just go back to being a PhD student in the Ivy League after hanging out with ravers and Buddhist dancers for a year and a half? It no longer lined up.
Because my goals had changed, I reflected on why—and realized that living life with an optimistic sense of possibility during my times in Japan is what put me on-track to be more fully who I am here, too. I had to re-evaluate my entire life after those experiences. Since then, I’ve tried to continue being open and reflective and, though it’s not easy, try not project my own will onto things. If it’s meant to happen, it will, and if it isn’t, then I’ll know. You know?
MRM: And to follow that, it was largely chance and fate that led you to a lot of the communities you spent time with. At what point did your research in these scenes start to feel like it might fit together into something cohesive, or at least broader than the individual experiences?
JM: My original research sought to position contemporary performance of traditional music firmly within present-day Japanese society: to not examine tradition in a vacuum, but as a dynamic, reflexive practice that reveals current value systems. With time, I grew interested in cross-checking traditional music’s role in society with pop and underground music as well. After all, if traditional music is a negotiation of the past, pop and underground music surely (and respectively) grapple with the present and future, right?
During my fieldwork, though, it proved difficult to find any kind of “scene” for J-pop. But this made the surprising similarities between the underground and traditional music worlds all the more clear. Though the music was obviously different, there was a sense of community that bound the traditional and underground music scenes together that simply didn’t exist for J-pop, not least because there was no physical community to begin with. And I think that aspect of humanity, with real people carving out space and time in their lives for music (and dance, for that matter) that they alone perpetuated, both facilitated and was facilitated by en for all involved. After all, the American research student who just so happen to come floating by was embraced by both scenes as well…
MRM: Finally, what might be next for you? What are you thinking and writing on?
JM: I’ve recently taken the leap into this whole “living as a writer” thing. I write to stay sane: along with music, it’s how I process my experiences, memories, and emotions.
I’ve finished my second book, for which I’m currently knee-deep in the tedious process of agent-shopping, about something totally different: a since-closed, third-generation, Mafia-connected Italian red sauce joint in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I cut my teeth as a waitress upon moving to New York after getting my PhD. Like JAPANTHEM, it’s written in a kind of pop-anthropological style, only this time profiles the colorfully dysfunctional staff, the old-school New Yorker clientele, moments with customers and coworkers that stand still in my mind like the stories in JAPANTHEM, and the secretive family who ran the place. The meta-content is clearly not about Japanese music and society — or academia, really — but about moving to New York to make your dreams come true, the art and subtle poetry of waiting tables, and the questions raised by nostalgia in our post-virus, post-human world.
I’ve got two other books in the works as well: another ethnographically informed work about a cult hero Brooklyn bartender named Pete Napolitano (and the metaphysical theories he wrote on paper towels between drink orders at Melody Lanes bowling alley), and a Japanese language textbook I’ve written that I plan to edit with my BFF, who lives and works in Tokyo as a Japanese-English translator. Depending on whether or not we chicken out, we’re tentatively calling it: How to Speak Japanese and Not Sound Like a F*****g Moron.
While the ability to financially sustain myself as a writer percolates, I’ll be here chugging away, doing my best to integrate what I gained in academia but blazing my own trail outside the Ivory Tower. This means conducting my freelance activities, which include teaching Chinese and Japanese, and holding rogue seminars on divination, Japanese music, and modern Chinese history. Just like how everything that happened in Japan (and JAPANTHEM) unfolded the way it did, I have a feeling that so long as I act in accordance with what feels right (while working hard, of course), everything falls into place.
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Jillian Marshall grew up in a rural town in Vermont, just south of the French-Canadian border. After graduating from the University of Chicago in 2009, she moved to a fishing village in Japan to teach middle school English. She came back to the US to pursue a doctorate in ethnomusicology at Cornell University, frequently returning to Japan to conduct research on contemporary Japanese music. Following the completion of her PhD in 2018, she left academia in pursuit of a more public intellectualism. In addition to writing, Jillian currently teaches the languages and history of Japan and China; she is also a lifelong musician, and plays trumpet and piano. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.