Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945

Kerim Yasar, Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945 (Columbia University Press, 2018) XV + 277 pp. £28.00 Pb, ISBN 978-0-231-18713-8

Kerim Yasar’s book Electrified Voices: How the Telephone, Phonograph and Radio Shaped Modern Japan, 1868–1945 considers the important role that auditory technology played in the development of Japanese modernity. In particular, Yasar seeks to emphasize the centrality of sound to the process of forming the Japanese nation, providing a survey of the various technologies and aspects of oral culture that proved fundamental for the project of ‘state formation and social control’ (20). In the book’s introduction, Yasar clarifies his statement of purpose and argues that ‘sound occupies an important place in the economy of the human sensorium,’ while assuring the reader that he has no intention to participate in the ongoing debate that places either vision or hearing at the apex of the hierarchy of the senses, for ‘none of the senses is any more “base” or “noble” than another’ (4). Rather, he points to the fundamental role of the voice within the ‘spectral economy of modernity,’ postulating that sound is a central aspect of social, ritual and political life, and that the ability to reproduce and transmit it ought to have ‘radically altered human beings’ relationship to sound and thus to social life’ (5). The book is divided into six chapters through which Yasar provides a broad overview of the variety of auditory technologies adopted in Japan between 1868 and 1945, spanning from the introduction of the telephone to the spread of sound cinema.

Central to Yasar’s argument is the relationship between technological sound and modernity in Japan. Whilst the arrival of phonographic sound and the development of wireless communication generally tend to be viewed as markers of modernity, Yasar delves deep into Japanese culture to establish instead that ‘auditory technologies in Japan exemplify a modernity that is at once a sharp technological rupture with the past and a reformulation of the past’s practices’(7). This dialectical relationship between old and new has its roots in Japan’s residual orality and strongly established traditions of oral performance, which were able to survive—and inform—the arrival of sound technology. This way, the same modern technologies that are normally considered to go ‘hand in hand with modern forms’ are found, in Japan, to become ‘vectors for traditional arts’ as well as ‘traditional lifeways and reactionary ideologies’ (7). This is only one example of the author’s acute confutation of the paradigms that have long ruled scholarly studies of sound and its technology. Through engaging prose, Yasar thus immerses the reader in the contradictions and confusions of sonic modernity, gesturing to the spectral force of the acousmatic—a novel, disembodied voice whose power lies in its indefinability.

In Chapter 1, Yasar showcases his considerable knowledge of Japanese performance and storytelling techniques in the context of the importance of orality in Japanese literary and cultural traditions. He argues: ‘the voice – its phenomenology, its reproduction, its transmission – was intimately bound up […] with the larger project of creating a national, and ultimately imperial, state’ (23). The chapter is devoted to demonstrating that Japan retained a strong reliance on narrative traditions—which included oral storytelling practices such as heikyoku, kōdan, rakugo and naniwabushi—even while it welcomed the modernisation brought about by Western sound technology during the Meiji period (1868–1912). In particular, the chapter considers the introduction of the telegraph and telephone, which were regarded suspiciously in their early days—some even thought telephone lines would aid the spread of cholera—and explores their ultimately invaluable role in the ‘creation of the national imaginary’ (37).

Chapter 2 takes a step back and considers sound more generally, using the relatively recent concept of the ‘soundscape’ to introduce a discussion of ‘sonic alterity’ (58). Yasar reports accounts of the negative reactions of Western tourists and visitors to Meiji Japan in order to prove that perceptions of sound and music are influenced by cultural anxieties and colonialist assumptions. He then concludes the chapter with an examination of the relationship between the spread of Western classical music in Japan and the developments and changes in Japanese literary-aesthetic practices. Yasar’s account of the rise in popularity of Western music in Japan is profoundly illuminating in its attentive examination of the ways in which music can matter, both politically and economically, to the life of a nation.

Chapter 3 focuses on the history of the phonograph and the development of its primary function from ‘a device intended to store and reproduce spoken language’ to a marketable device to ‘record music’ (84). Yasar explores the unlikely relationship between the new phonograph and the dramatic performance tradition of kabuki. ‘The phonograph’s earliest public demonstrations,’ Yasar writes, ‘relied on the recognizability of its [kabuki] stars’ voices’ (89). He then devotes half of the chapter to an account of naniwabushi performer Tōchūken Kumoemon’s legal battles with recording companies over the ownership of his own voice. This anecdotal detour feels a little lengthy, but it ultimately leads us to reflect on the peculiar charm of the early phonograph: not only was it key to the creation of a new kind of all-vocal stardom, which, as such, presented new problems as far as performers were concerned, but it also defined—inescapably—a new audience of listeners. The mass craze for a specific record, companies made or broken by record sales, the consciousness and history of various generations embedded in commodified sound: these are all images and concepts we recognize. The difficult legal battles surrounding the Kumoemon records are a unique insight into the birth of a new listening community, ‘whose cultural memories are shaped by structures of temporality and history’ that, Yasar shows us, were generated and consolidated by the phonographic medium (113). 

Chapter 4 is a journey through the early days of radio broadcasting, which, Yasar argues, ‘was immediately put to effective use consolidating the subjective presence and reach of the imagined community of the nation-state’ (118). The author showcases wonderful research into the patterns of reception of early radio broadcast, focusing on the popularity of the practice of ‘radio exercise’ as a form of ‘modernised’ and ‘synchronised’ exercise that brought the spectral power of the nation state into Japanese houses (120). The excellent section on the history of sports broadcasting proves that sound technology had the ability to create a rather naïve but ultimately bewitching impression of national unity.

Chapter 5 further explores the possibilities of radio through an account of the rise in popularity of radio drama and its ‘voice actors’ (178). Finally, chapter 6 focuses on sound film and the struggles to identify the right kind of language for an entirely new medium.

Yasar’s book is a fascinating and innovative exercise in identifying and exposing the influence of sound, language and orality in Japanese politics and popular culture, and a valuable attempt to elevate a field that has so far been overlooked in English Language scholarship. What the study lacks in comprehensiveness, it gains through the author’s passionate research into illuminating anecdotal responses to sound technologies, which renders the prose clear, refreshing and highly readable. Through an eclectic background of theories that does not necessarily focus on classic sound studies scholarship, Yasar thus manages to convincingly support the need for more cultural enquiries into the transformative power of sonic modernity.

Marta Donati, University of Sheffield