Kyushu University Academic Staff Educational and Research Activities Database
List of Presentations
ASHTON LAZARUS Last modified date:2019.05.22

Lecturer / Graduate School of Humanities / Department of Philosophy / Faculty of Humanities

1. Ashton Lazarus, Animate Objects: Kemari as Symbolic Pursuit in Early Medieval Japan, Association for Asian Studies, 2019.03, Status at the Heian court depended in no small part on performance. Rites and rituals, administrative duties, poetry, music, calligraphy, and games of comparison are a few of the areas in which courtiers were expected to excel. Scholars have long researched the social and symbolic aspects of literary production at the court, but less attention has been paid to the numerous embodied practices that also conferred prestige and facilitated sociality. This paper responds by delving into the early history of kemari, a game in which participants stood between four trees in a courtyard and kicked a deerskin ball up into the air, the goal being to prevent it from landing on the ground. By the twelfth century kemari had attained a privileged status in aristocratic circles—codified and practiced regularly, it was furthermore accompanied by the appearance of a quasi-magical discourse that rendered it otherworldly. Fujiwara no Narimichi (b. 1097), a foremost kemari enthusiast who logged 7,000 days of play, left behind a diary detailing various aspects of the game, from clothing, posture, and pacing to a description of his ethereal dialogue with the three “ball spirits” who oversaw the game. The text hence not only transmits a repertoire of embodied practices, but also elevates kemari as a symbolic pursuit. My paper situates this double valence within the wider early-medieval cultural milieu, wherein performance texts occupied an increasingly central position..
2. ASHTON LAZARUS, Between Geinōshi and Minzokugaku, UCLA, The Yanai Initiative Japanese Performing Arts Program, 2017.05.
3. ASHTON LAZARUS, Contexts of Ephemerality: Imayō Between Text and Performance, Association for Asian Studies, 2017.03, Like much performance, the folk songs known as imayō have always wavered on the edges of impermanence. In early medieval Japan they were part of the situational fabric of everyday life—prostitutes, woodcutters, children, courtiers, and emperors sang imayō—and, mediated by vibration and resonance, they entered and exited the phenomenal world in a single breath. Unlike waka, a focal point of the court’s literary culture, imayō had little institutional backing and was mostly associated with the culture of illiterate commoners. The language of imayō is less rarefied and stylized, and its content more varied: there are flowers, insects, birds, buddhas, and expressions of longing; but also weasels, gamblers, snails, and fashionable hats and hairstyles. Our contemporary knowledge of imayō is largely informed by the chance discovery, some 100 years ago, of several volumes of a text written by Emperor GoShirakawa in the mid-twelfth century. Titled Ryōjin hishō, it consists of 566 songs and a treatise on imayō practice, history, and lore. GoShirakawa's decision to anthologize imayō may seem at odds with the ephemeral nature of the songs and their grounding in everyday practices. The performed, imaginary imayō of ordinary life should indeed be distinguished from the documented, concrete imayō of Ryōjin hishō, and yet—as this paper argues—the two are united by an underlying appeal to efficacy. As songs of action, imayō are meant to make things happen, be it communication, edification, or the accumulation of religious merit..
4. ASHTON LAZARUS, "The Age of the Crowd": Folk Performance and the Politics of Culture in Early Medieval Japan, Indiana University, East Asia Center, 2016.03, This talk traces the rise of folk performance in the early medieval period (eleventh and twelfth centuries), arguing that it constitutes a new mode of cultural activity that would influence later medieval arts including the noh theater and linked verse (renga). As a category, folk performance spans several different forms: songs and dances associated with wet-rice agriculture (dengaku), urban street theater (sarugaku), popular songs (imayō), and puppetry (kugutsu) put on by nomadic troupes. Considered together, these forms show how socially peripheral performance cultures, in which the troupe or the crowd was often the basic organizational unit, impacted the functioning of the central court. Frequent performances of dengaku and sarugaku on the streets of the capital exposed literate elites to hitherto unfamiliar practices, prompting the momentary collapse of class boundaries and cultural hierarchies as elites participated. The performances also interrupted, and in some cases threatened, the political and ritualistic functions of the state, leading to crises of containment. The appearance of a robust culture of folk performance hence emphasizes how far the early-medieval polity, with its countless political factions, had drifted from the highly centralized Chinese-style state (ritsuryō kokka) of the seventh and eighth centuries. That folk performance came to occupy the same spaces as nobles and aristocrats demonstrates the ability of low-ranking social actors to attain a centrality that was not only symbolic but also real..
5. ASHTON LAZARUS, Folk Performance and the Acoustic Ecology of Medieval Japan, Josai University, Textures of Sound: Orality, Performance, and the Visual Arts in Premodern Japan, 2016.01, This paper examines the position of folk performance within the wider culture of the late Heian period. At this time aristocrats were becoming more interested in several non-elite performance traditions, including dengaku, sarugaku, and imayō. Historians often point to political and economic currents to explain this sudden interest, but I instead focus on how performance was able to move across class boundaries by virtue of its sensorial aspects. In this paper I explore in particular the role of sound in this dynamic. For example, courtiers frequently describe dengaku music as noisy, atonal, and arrhythmic. The noise has partially to do with dengaku’s status as a ritual that appeals to the gods to ensure an abundant harvest free of disease: the louder you play and stomp, the better the gods can hear you. But the loudness of dengaku was only amplified when it moved from its local ritual contexts to the avenues of the capital. What had hitherto been festive ritual performances hence became mass urban spectacles in which the noise of dengaku shook the very foundations of the court hierarchy, prompting some aristocrats to condemn the unfamiliar performances and others to join in the carnival. Drawing on a wide range of eleventh- and twelfth-century texts (including histories, courtier diaries, poetry and folk songs, and vernacular literature), this paper shows how the musical practices of folk performers were present in the lives of aristocrats in an unprecedented capacity. By tracing how folk performance became increasingly audible in the Heian-period soundscape, I argue for a view of early medieval culture that stresses the central position of folk performance.
6. ASHTON LAZARUS, Folk Performance After 3/11: Agriculture, Ideology, Locality, Performance Studies International, Fluid States Conference, 2015.08, In a speech delivered several months after the triple disasters of 3/11/2011, Murakami Haruki likened the project of rebuilding to the communal activity of cultivating village fields. “We must push forward with this task together,” he urged, “like the members of a village gathering to head out into the fields to till earth and sow seeds on a sunny spring morning.” Murakami’s recommendation may seem conventional to the point of being blasé, but it also draws on one of the longest-running and still-central myths of national identity in Japan: the idea that Japan is essentially a nation of farmers. In my paper I explore how this “agrarian fundamentalism” (to use Amino Yoshihiko’s apt phrase) has allowed central elites to assert their control over the status quo, especially during times of crisis. The mythical, atemporal world of the “village” (mura) becomes a privileged point of reference for those making pronouncements about recovery, even though this world has little to do with the reality of regional or peripheral locales. Far from being a modern phenomenon, such skewed visions of the periphery can be seen throughout Japanese history: e.g., the system of regional cultural tribute instituted by the early centralized state (ritsuryō kokka) in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the intense elite interest in field dances (dengaku) and other peripheral performance practices in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. If agrarian fundamentalism is purely a matter of ideology, what then are the real conditions that have been obscured? In this last section of paper, I turn specifically to the culture of folk performance in Tōhoku as it emerged after 3/11. By examining the writings and performances of those engaged in rebuilding communal festivities in devastated coastal areas, we encounter a different set of exigencies and desires than those presented by official narratives..
7. ASHTON LAZARUS, Performing Everyday Objects with Hana Sanjin’s Shikata banashi, University of Chicago, Reading Kuzushiji Summer Workshop Symposium, 2015.06.
8. ASHTON LAZARUS, Signals of Excess: Commoner Noise in Japan’s Early Medieval Soundscape, Association for Asian Studies, 2015.03, The topic of sound in classical and medieval Japanese literature remains underexplored, despite the abundance of reflections on auditory experience found throughout primary sources. This paper draws on methodologies from the fields of acoustic ecology and sound studies to explore how literate elites of the eleventh and twelfth centuries represented sounds associated with commoners, and argues that commoner sounds were often heard as noise in contrast to the normative soundscape. This dynamic can be observed in canonical works such as Makura no soshi (The Pillow Book) and Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), as well as in works that focus more specifically on commoner performance, such as Oe no Masafusa’s Rakuyo dengaku ki (An Account of the Dengaku in the Capital) and Fujiwara no Akihira’s Shin sarugaku ki (An Account of the New Monkey Music). Representations highlighting the noisy character of commoner music, performance, and labor often reinforce the perceived superiority of elite culture, yet this excess does not always have a purely negative connotation. For example, the collection of popular songs Ryojin hisho repeatedly evokes the virtuosic performances of female shamans and the auditory awe they incite. In this sense, the transgressive noise of commoner performance can also be understood as the prophetic pulse of a radical new soundscape, one that despite being rejected by most Heian-period elites would come to occupy an integral part of the wider medieval acoustic environment..
9. ASHTON LAZARUS, The Great Dengaku of 1096: Encountering the Open Crowd in Fujiwara no Munetada’s Chūyūki, University of Chicago, Rethinking Premodern Japan Symposium, 2015.02.
10. ASHTON LAZARUS, Experiencing Dengaku: Towards an Embodied History of Medieval Folk Performance, University of Chicago, Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Weissbourd Symposium, 2014.10, Given the ephemerality of performance, the endeavor of performance history inevitably runs up against some thorny methodological problems. In early twentieth-century Japan, the burgeoning fields of ethnology and performance history developed different, and mostly conflicting, approaches to accessing past performances. While historians emphasized the importance of written documents—including histories, journals, and literary texts—produced by court elites, ethnologists argued that extant performances (often transmitted for centuries in rural communities with little documentation) preserved various embodied aspects of past performances that written documents could not. In this presentation, I consider the advantages and disadvantages of each approach as they relate to dengaku, a repertoire of festive music and dance associated with wet-rice agriculture..
11. ASHTON LAZARUS, Tactical Tricks: Sangaku, Illusion, and Radical Corporeality in Medieval Japan, Yale University, Early Modern Japanese Theater Symposium, 2014.02, This paper examines visual and textual representations of illusion, a performance technique that has existed in Japan since the seventh century. I use the word “illusion” to encompass a number of more specific terms, including genjutsu (“the skill of illusion”), kijutsu (“the strange skill”), tejina (“legerdemain”), mekuramashi (“optical illusions”), and gejutsu (“the outside skill”). Illusion first arrived from China as part of sangaku (Ch. sanyue), a type of performanace featuring acrobatics, juggling, and other carnivalesque acts. Sangaku performers were organized into a sub-bureau of the ritsuryō state and were tasked with participating in various state rituals. But by the eleventh century sangaku had lost its state support and was performed mostly by commoners and “priests” (hōshi) affiliated with shrines and temples. In line with this development, Heian-period representations of illusionists often emphasized the transgressive and illicit nature of their art. Indeed, as can be seen in several stories from Konjaku monogatari shū, illusions often involved a radical destabilization of the boundaries between human, animal, and object: human and animal bodies became intermixed, objects such as swords were momentarily assimilated into human bodies, and inanimate objects were made animate. Through their tricks, illusionists hence collapsed distinctions between high and low, real and fictitious, and human and animal, posing tactical threats to political systems founded on stable spatial strategies. Although there are few representations of illusion from the Kamakura period, such techniques experienced a revival of sorts during the Muromachi period. One figure in particular, Kashin Koji (late sixteenth century?), was the subject of several orally transmitted tales which have been recycled by countless writers, from Edo-period literati to Lafcadio Hearn to Shiba Ryōtarō. I will argue that Kashin Koji’s recurring appeal is bound up with his prodigious subversiveness: his illusions effortlessly invert power relationships, embodying the dynamics of gekokujō (low overthrows high). By tracing representations of illusion from Nara-period accounts to modern stories, I hope to illuminate one aspect of the transhistorical appeal of figures who perform transgressions of conventional boundaries..
12. ASHTON LAZARUS, Envisioning Difference: Social Typology and Exhaustive Articulation in Fujiwara no Akihira’s Shin sarugaku ki, Association for Japanese Literary Studies, 2013.10, In the mid-eleventh century, the scholar Fujiwara no Akihira wrote an account of a carnivalesque performance of sarugaku that had taken place in the Heian capital. Known as Shin sarugaku ki, it first describes the wide range of performers present (acrobats, mimes, puppeteers, dancers, etc.), then shifts to describing a large family that has come to watch. Akihira details the identities of the thirty family members in playful yet erudite kanbun, defining them primarily in terms of their professions. We are introduced to a gambler, a carpenter, a warrior, an agriculturalist, a shamaness, a scholar, a wrestler, a prostitute, a lush, a doctor, a diviner, a teamster, a painter, a sculptor, a merchant, a musician, and others. The result is a tableau of the capital’s variegated socio-economic terrain, as revealed through disparate, profession-specific idioms and lists of jargon. This exhaustive articulation has prompted historians to treat the text as a source of knowledge about socially peripheral populations and their livelihood, while literary scholars have been more interested in situating the text within a genealogy of kanbun prose. But why was Akihira so interested in casting his gaze on what Ivo Smits has called the “social fringe”? I argue that the account is best understood not as an historical document nor as a work of literature, but rather as a virtual space in which the masses that populated the shadowy areas of the capital were rendered visible to elites. Shin sarugaku ki hence indexes the increasingly vibrant and volatile presence of commoners in the capital, even as it seeks to neutralize this presence by employing a rhetoric of categorization to articulate a new social typology. As is often the case in early-medieval texts of the social fringe, here description functions as a kind of proscription..
13. ASHTON LAZARUS, Scenarios of Agricultural Performance: Commoner Crowds and Elite Identifications in Dengaku, Asian Studies Conference Japan, 2012.06, Dengaku (“field music”) first emerged in agricultural communities as the sounds and rhythms to accompany manual labor and appeal to divine favor for an abundant harvest. As with many forms of rural culture, dengaku eventually appeared in the capital—albeit in unsanctioned capacities that disturbed elite spectators, who criticized it as violent and boisterous. By the end of the eleventh century, unruly dengaku crowds had penetrated the capital’s real and discursive spaces, constituting one of several “others” through and against which elite identifications took place. During the Great Dengaku of 1096, performances spread quickly and contagiously, from rural farmers to low-ranking attendants, all the way up to courtiers, senior nobles, and members of the royal family. Contemporary scholars have discussed this event mostly in terms of (failed) popular protest and the assimilation of commoner culture by court elites. However, I detect a more subtle and ambiguous process of identification at work, one in which elites are faced with coinciding desires to both repel and appropriate the embodied actions of these socially peripheral yet symbolically central others. I explore this play of desire in two particular accounts of the event: Ōe no Masafusa’s Rakuyō dengaku ki and relevant entries from Fujiwara no Munetada’s diary Chūyūki. Although different types of writing, both are marked by the mixing of attraction and repulsion that dengaku activated through its perceived strangeness and excess..