(Conducted by Frederik L. Schodt on June 13, 1984)
Q: I'd like to concentrate on the people in your life who have had a major influence on your thought, on your world view. There are many Don Philippis; the scholar, the musician, the activist, and the professional translator. Let's start with the scholar. Who had the biggest impact on you, and in what way?
A: One was an eccentric Japanese scholar called Orikuchi Shinobu, a poet and ethnographer who died a few years before I went to Japan. He established his own "school" at Kokugakuin, and that was what mainly attracted me to that university. I can't begin to tell you all the stories that were going around about sensei, but let's just put it this way: he was a very liberated person and also very tragic because the biggest tragedy of his life occurred during World War II.
Q. You know, I'm sure, that you can't end a paragraph like that, Don ... Let's hear at least one story. And what do you mean by "tragic because the biggest tragedy of his life..." What are you trying to do to your normally perfect English sentences? What are you hinting at?
A: I read not only his learned works, especially the ones about his "vision" of early Japan, but also his letters and diaries and poems, and what I found was quite amazing. The stories were all corroborated by his disciples and people who knew him. Sensei never married. He "adopted" one of his students, with the consent of the boy's family, and they lived together openly. Sensei was never very political, and was teaching at the nation's most influential Shintoist university, but when the Second World War started and his adopted son was drafted into the Army, sensei began to have deep forebodings, which turned out to be true. Harumi was killed on Iwojima just before the war ended. The outpourings of grief in the letters and poems were incredibly touching. After the war finally ended, sensei hailed the democratic order, on a somewhat superficial level, probably because he had come to detest the militarists for the tragedy they had caused him. He lived on a very lonely old man and finally died. His grave and Harumi's grave are located on a sandy beach near Hakui in Noto, near Harumi's family home. I went there and met the family. It was an inspiration to have such a role model, but of course the other Japanese teachers, and even his old disciples, were still baffled by this whole experience with sensei. I guess I was the only one who really could understand it well.
Q: Let's loop back to the earlier question temporarily. I gather that as an ethnographer Orikuchi had an influence on your decision to study the Ainu. Is this correct? In what way was he your intellectual mentor, and in what way did he serve as a role model?
A: I was fascinated by his theories but didn't accept them. He was like a visionary. He would take opium and stay up all night writing, and the works would be published and widely accepted. His style was as if he had been there and seen it all. I couldn't accept it seriously, stimulating as it was. His influence was and is more like that of a role model. After I translated the Kojiki I became more and more interested in oral epic folklore, which Orikuchi also studied, but it was mainly through Kindaichi Kyosuke (the father of Kindaichi Haruhiko) that I approached the Ainu language and folklore. Kindaichi introduced me to a disciple of his, Kubodera Itsuhiko, who had spent years collecting Ainu epic texts from really good reciters. Both Kindaichi and Kubodera encouraged me to learn the Ainu language, lent me their field notes and manuscripts, and in general inspired me to study the Ainu. As I went on with it I had many difficulties which arose, not from the subject matter, but from the personal relationships with the two sensei's (Kindaichi and Kubodera) , and especially after they died, with the family of one of them. It was a very difficult problem for me but finally I succeeded, in spite of many obstacles, in bringing out a book with my translations of some of the Ainu epic texts which I obtained from them.
Q: In your work as a scholar in Japan, did you constantly find yourself caught up in factional problems? By having one sensei did that cut you off from others that you wished to learn from?
A: Sometimes, but in this case the problem was that the senseis thought that I was attracted to them, rather than to the Ainu themselves. With out them I was unable to work, because they had collected huge masses of materials, some of them before I was even born. But I think they expected me to present the material as if it were their products, rather than the products of the Ainu people. The Japanese in general, I think, tend to regard the Ainu culture as something that belongs to them. The heirs of Dr. Kubodera tried to prevent me from publishing my translations, simply because they wanted to have half of the royalties. They claimed -- can you believe it? -- that they owned the copyright of the Ainu epics which Dr. Kubodera had collected from the Ainu and which he had willingly given me to study. It was plainly a case of cultural imperialism. Not only had the Japanese annihilated the people physically, but now they brazenly claimed to own the rights to their oral epics. I was so frustrated that at one point I decided to call off publication of the book. University of Tokyo Press went along with them and refused to listen to my viewpoint. I had the feeling that the radicals who were bombing buildings and trying to destroy things were the only people who had the right ideas - at least on this particular issue. The whole experience was maddening.
Q: It's a little hard to imagine how they thought they could get rich with half the royalties ... given the way most books sell these days. I can see how you must have been exasperated. Have you published any books since then? Did this experience change your attitudes towards scholarship in general?
A: It wasn't just the royalties, it was the fact that they tried to prevent the University of Tokyo Press from publishing the book for their own very selfish reasons. In Japan, there are many scholarly cliques and "schools" just like the one which caused me so much pain, disciples are treated as lackeys and must acquiesce and obey no matter what is done to them. I have heard Japanese university professors lecturing to their students in the same language that you could hear on an army drill ground or among yakuza. The professors sometimes would not even show up to lecture. They would stay upstairs in their offices drinking tea with visitors and would send their underlings to dismiss the 10 or 20 students who were waiting for them to lecture. I never had any illusions about the academic world, but I still have definite ideas about what a scholar should be, and they did not come up to my standards at all. But the same thing is true far and wide throughout Japanese society. You just have to grin and bear it -- the pain, I mean.
Q: Ouch! So back to the question-- have you published any books since then, and if not, was this experience a factor?
A: I have published altogether four books, and the Ainu book published by University of Tokyo Press and Princeton University Press was the latest. It has since come out in paperback from North Point Press, but it does not sell very well. The experiences extended over very many years, and form part of the whole oppressive reality which I confronted all the time I was in Japan. As I told you before, at one time I reached the point where I, too, wanted to do something to oppose the repressive social order in which I was living, and that led to my departure. Since then I have been quietly rethinking all my experiences, and I feel differently about some things, but I still have the scars. I still want to destroy that social order, although on the other hand I can understand why some people admire it for its efficiency. The efficiency is a product of the social regimentation, don't you agree?
Q: I think people have characterized Japan as a totalitarian state on the neighborhood level, rather than the state. Sort of a totalitarianism by consensus, and watch out anyone who doesn't fit in... In the above paragraphs words like "oppressive", "social regimentation", "radicals", etc. appear, with justification ... but let's move on now to the political arena. You held different political views then than I think you do now in some areas. Tell me about some people who influenced you politically at that time of your life, and why...
A: During the Vietnam war I was radicalized along with millions of other people all over the world. In Japan where I was living, especially, the contrast was so glaring between the high-temperature world of street demonstrations and factional fighting and the tepid world of the embassies and military encampments around Tokyo. We were all sort of swept up in this huge upsurge of revolutionary sentiment without knowing much about its background or its history or where it would lead. In the foreigners group which we belonged to I was a member of a faction which wanted to become aligned with the radical wing of the Japanese student movement. Some of the others were old-style pacifists or liberals or academic types who wanted to appeal to public opinion. We even had a few Maoists. Finally my little group was able to forge a sort of alliance with the Revolutionary Marxist group (Kakumaru), which was and is the least "popular" of all the New Left sects, but was and is also the best organized and strongest and most likely to survive. One thing led to another, there were conflicts, arrests, and we were all finally forced to leave the country. I felt most strongly attracted to the Kakumaru faction because they had a highly developed theory. The head of the sect is a man called Kuroda Kan'ichi, who was a former Communist philosopher. At the time of the Hungarian revolution he became a member of a sort of Trotskyist organization, but it went through a number of splits, and as a result there are now a number of rival organizations which trace their lineage back to that first small organization. I still admire and like the Kakumaru, although I can see that, like all the other Marxist sects all over the world, their goal is simply to gain power at any cost whatever, and that they will not shrink from murder and deception to gain it. I don't dislike them but I know that they cannot be trusted with power.
Q: What was it about Kuroda that appealed to you as an intellectual?
A: He was the only Marxist philosopher who took Hegel at all seriously. At first I had never read Marx, let alone Hegel, but gradually as I kept on studying I could see the logic of it all. He developed a world-view which I think is quite unique, but mainly he is now a political leader. His view is that the world is today divided into two main power centers, which he calls Imperialism and Stalinism. They repel each other and rely on each other. It is this particular configuration of power, which came about as a result of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers' state, which determines everything that goes on in our world. Our duty is to overthrow the entire world order, which is totally corrupt, including the Stalinist states as well as the imperialist ones. The idea came out of the Hungarian revolution. The Kakumaru, you know, think very highly of writers like Solzhesnitsyn and are sympathetic with Solidarity, although they are always ready to point out the ideological emptiness of those people. I think the two anti's (anti-imperialism, anti-Stalinism) is the perfect strategy for countries like Korea or Germany which are divided between the two camps. Even though the other sects are violently opposed to them, most of the activists in the other sects will admit Kuroda's crucial role in creating and leading the Japanese left-wing movement over the past several decades. Kuroda is in very poor health, and I believe he is blind. He is sort of an unapproachable, oracular figure, although I believe he has a sense of humor and has never permitted anything like a cult of personality. I think he found Mao Tse-tung to be ridiculous because of the cult more than anything else.
Q: When you were arrested in Japan, I believe you had to spend a few days in jail. Did you once say that you met someone there who influenced you?
A: It was more than a few days. It was weeks and weeks. In the next cell there was a boy called Yamada Jun'ichi, an activist belonging to a Trotskyist sect called Daiyon Inta. We talked for hours. He influenced me to some extent, but after I got out I went my own way and eventually ended up with an entirely different sect. We corresponded for months after I got out. He was on trial for sedition for his role in the Shinjuku riots of April, 1967. I also used to attend the trials and was occasionally ejected from the court rooms when I would protest loudly.
Q: Did anything positive come out of your confinement?
A: After the initial unpleasant realization that I couldn't open the door and get out, it became a rather interesting experience. I met many interesting people. Lots of student activists, but mostly yakuza and petty criminals. I don't think I would have minded going all the way to prison with them. I was extremely popular among the other inmates. They all wanted to talk to me. Even the guards found me amusing. The interrogation was OK. The second time I adopted the practice of refusing to answer any questions. Complete silence. I wouldn't even tell them my name. The experience in jail convinced me of one thing: Japan is one big jail. The only difference is that when you are in a jail you can't open the door and get out of your cell. The police are everywhere and are watching everybody.
Q: You were probably a very rare bird in jail--certainly one of the few round-eyes fluent in Japanese. I bet some of the guards wanted to learn English conversation from you. Let's move on ... One area we haven't covered during your stay in Japan is that of music. I believe that was another big interest of yours. Were there any people who had a major influence on you here, too?
A: Before leaving Los Angeles I had been taking lessons on the shamisen and then on the Chikuzen biwa. I used to play and sing too. In Japan I studied under a teacher called Tanaka Kyokurei, a very important lady who had been extremely popular before and during the War. She had put out a number of records on the Columbia label and had even gone on tours to entertain the troops in China. She and I got along very well, and she introduced me to many other biwa musicians, including a group of delightful gentlemen who used to meet every couple weeks to perform the Satsuma biwa. The biwa songs are all about historical events and all have a moralistic flavor. I can see why they would have been popular among the military men. In a way I connected these songs to the tradition of the folk epic - biwa music originated in traveling priestly musicians called biwa-hoshi who performed the Heike monogatari. I also met some prominent rightists such as Sasakawa Ryoichi, whose wife Shizue was in the same group as my teacher. So you see, my circle of acquaintances embraced all the wrong people on both the left and the right.
Q: Please tell me your impressions of Sasakawa and his wife. He has projected several different images in public, from the philanthropist to the kuromaku boss...
A: His wife was utterly charming. We never discussed him or his politics. He is a former "war criminal" and spent some time in Sugamo Prison after the war. I never believed in war criminals-- The widow of General Tojo used to come to our biwa concerts. I think Sasakawa is a mass-organization type. He likes to have huge organizations under his wing -- like the shigin people, who count in the tens of thousands, or the kendo and judo people, or the industrial organizations like the shipbuilders. He gets his money from being head of the Amateur Boat Racing Association. He and his wife live very simply, just like average, fairly well-to-do Japanese couples do, but he has large sums of money at his disposal. As far as the right-wing politics go, I do know that he is a rightist and opposed to the postwar democratic order. He worships the Emperor but also wishes to foster good will between Japan and America. For the people of his generation that is a rather normal thing, really. Prime Minister Kishi was also a former war criminal.
Q: Were you musically inclined from childhood, or was your interest in Japanese music primarily from an ethnological standpoint?
A: I never learned to play any Western instruments, and the Japanese string instruments are the only ones I can really play, but a few years ago I bought a synthesizer and began to play it. The music came out sounding like native Japanese music. Daniel Gundlach, my musical partner, is a trained musicologist and can play half a dozen instruments. We used to improvise together and had developed our style quite nicely until he became more interested in visuals, and we used to put together slide shows with our music. My record, called Arctic Hysteria, is surely the most widely unknown record in the business and has repelled almost everyone, but it is based on my theories, which are in turn heavily influenced by North Asian shamanism and trance states. I couldn't ever make a living by doing improvisational music so when I was forced to make a choice, I decided, quite wisely I think, to do the safest thing: to spend most of my time on my translation.
Q: Your record may be "widely unknown", but many people in San Francisco in the music scene know of you and your work. I know that you like to translate while listening to Motorhead, that you like Boy George, and that your tastes are very eclectic, but tend towards punk. I also know that your musical name is Slava Ranko. Tell me something about the musicians you admire today, and why you admire them. You can also mention musicians you don't like, if you choose.
A: After returning from Japan in 1971, I tried to relate to the musical scene of those days but was unable to feel anything-- It was terribly repetitive and lacking in originality, but mainly I felt as if the music was created at a higher level, by some authoritative persons who had the industry behind them, and handed down to the lowly consumers to admire. It was very top-heavy. Then suddenly I began to notice, in 1977, that something was happening at a place called the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway. A man called Dirk Dirksen, whom I came to know and admire, was propagating something known then as punk rock. I began to go down there and, of course, immediately understand what was happening. It was a sort of revolution, and you know how well I relate to revolutions. it happened to lots of other people I knew, too -- Steven Brown, Esmerelda, Patrick Miller, and many, many others.
Before I knew it I was in the midst of a burgeoning new music scene. My friends were forming bands, and I was driving them around to nightclubs. There were other places besides the Mabuhay-- Steven Brown had a band called Tuxedo Moon, Winston Tong and Bruce Geduldig were doing performance art, and Esmerelda and another woman had a band called Noh Mercy in which I also briefly performed. It was a very exciting and exalting scene. When the Sex Pistols played at Winterland in November 1978 I was there and experienced what must have been the most ecstatic experience in my life. I also experienced something similar when I heard Tuxedo Moon play once, but there were so many wonderful, unknown bands in those days. I thought that, since these people could pick up an instrument and start playing and even recording their music, I could too, with my little biwa and synthesizers.
Of course, the music was totally different from theirs, but at that time Brian Eno was starting to do something which he called "ambient music," and Vale (the publisher of Search and Destroy) evidently mistook me for an Enoesque musician and decided that I should put out a record of my own music. As I mentioned, I had an improvisation group which consisted mostly of Daniel Gundlach and myself, and we branched out into visuals eventually. Consistently, through the years, I have been profoundly influenced by a number of bands such as Roxy Music and Ultravox. With the recent advent of video I have begun to listen to and watch a number of video-oriented bands including Culture Club. Boy George is an excellent vocalist, one of the best, but his vocals are the least important part of it for me. His entire lifestyle, which comes out of the New Romantic movement (which was inspired ultimately by Quentin Crisp), is an inspiration to me and many others, and I think he is making a tremendous impact on the thinking of many of our contemporaries. Of course, some of us had the same ideas 10 or 20 years ago, so it isn't very surprising, but he does it remarkably well- He is a real original, a genius of the first degree. It is rare for a person so young to be so utterly charismatic and attractive. I once knew a boy like that in Japan, but Boy George is the ultimate. It is great to be living in the same time frame as a Phenomenon like that.
Q: I think you once said that when you first saw the Sex Pistols, you felt as though the anti-christ had arrived. Tell me more about your intellectual attraction to punk/new wave, and please tell me more about Quentin Crisp and how he has influenced you.
A: He never influenced me but everything he has ever said and done has been exactly right. It is all True, and I think I always knew it. Orikuchi Shinobu would have said the same thing. Punk rock and New Wave have to be understood in the right context - they came as a revolt against a complacent, flabby musical scene which was oriented towards big groups and big money. There were some groups which "stood for" revolutionary ideas, and there still are today. It happened just at the right historical juncture, right when I was separated from the Japanese movement and could not relate to anything that was going on around me here - the hippies, the liberation movements, etc. Motorhead isn't New Wave, it is Heavy Metal, but you can relate to it in the same terms if you want. The lyrics are consistently negative, about death and hate and destruction. When I heard Motorhead's first record, the poorly recorded one, I immediately had visions of barbarians rampaging across Europe on iron horses. Just my type of image.
Q: I see. So who is Quentin Crisp?
A: He is a grand-dame homosexual of the Old School, with his hairdo and his lacy vests and his quaint mannerisms. He wrote an autobiography called The Naked Civil Servant which was made into an immensely moving television show in which he is played by an actor called Hurt-- since then he has been writing other books and lecturing. He has had an immense influence on the young people in England, who began dressing up for fun and going in for gender ambiguity in the New Romantic movement. Many of the most successful bands in England, including even Duran Duran, Bow Wow Wow and definitely Culture Club, have come directly out of that milieu. It is very fashion-oriented but the emphasis is on distinctness and individuality, just as Quentin Crisp would have it. it is a wonderful thing to have happen-- at last, people want to be individuals, even eccentrics are celebrated, and every person's brand of madness can be given expression. The very opposite of Japan.
Q: Let's end on that note, for now-