Seminar Series

Gimmicks, Politics, and Narrative: Japan’s Thwarted Commemorations, Celebrations, and Comebacks

Wednesday, 20 January 2021 | 9:00–10:00 (JST)
Zoom Webinar
  • David Leheny Professor, Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University
  • Kenneth McElwain Professor, Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo

This presentation surveys efforts to symbolize Japan’s putative re-emergence as a global power, from the 2018 plans to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration through the as-yet-uncertain 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It focuses in particular on the rhetoric of a Japanese comeback, particularly under Prime Minister Abe’s cabinets, and on mediated representations of the collective agency that Japan supposedly once had and that is in the process of reconstructing. By drawing from recent theoretical work by Sianne Ngai, Jelena Subotic, Ayse Zarakol, and Lauren Berlant, this presentation inquires about the affective dimensions of historical representation, and identifies risks that failures of spectacle, whether because of unexpected political contestation (as in the Meiji commemoration) or of bad epidemiological luck (as in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games), lay bare the gimmicky nature of political rhetoric.


David Leheny (PhD, Government, Cornell University) is Professor in the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. He previously held the Henry Wendt III ’55 Chair in Contemporary East Asian Studies at Princeton University, where he was Professor of East Asian Studies. Among his books are Empire of Hope: The Sentimental Politics of Japanese Decline (2018), Think Global, Fear Local: Sex, Violence, and Anxiety in Contemporary Japan (2006), and The Rules of Play: National Identity and the Shaping of Japanese Leisure (2003), all published by Cornell University Press.