Selected Writings

Ujino’s “Radio Activity” – A Parallel History of the Material Culture of 20th Century Japan

Shinya Watanabe

Ujino’s “Radio Activity” is a video collage involving shortwave radio broadcasts captured on a Sunday evening in Tokyo. By using a Yamaha drum machine from the 1980s, the sounds of shortwave radio broadcasts captured by classic secondhand transistor radios are mixed. The sounds of a four-measure drum pattern were parallel outputted to 12 channels, and by doing so, numerous sounds of shortwave radios broadcast all over the worlds were brought together in what is effectively an ensemble.

On Sunday evenings, the global broadcasts of shortwave radios in the Far East are rather romantic, and the backlights of these classic radios illuminate the entire scenery as if were a night view of Tokyo. However, this “Radio Activity” was created under the threat of actual radioactivity caused by the incident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

As a member of the capitalist bloc, post-WWII Japan enjoyed economic development without true political independence, even after the American occupation formally ended in 1952. The U.S. information bureau chose former class-A war criminal and media tycoon Matsutaro Shoriki to be the first president of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission. Starting in 1955, Shoriki created a media campaign to promote nuclear power plants, downplaying the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result, the first Japanese nuclear research lab was developed in 1956, and in 1963, the first nuclear electricity was produced in Japan. Designed by General Electric, Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant started its activity in 1971, and has emitted radioactivity until today.

Praised as one of the most important inventions of the 20th century, the transistor, a fundamental device of modern electronics which amplifies electronic power and signals, was also manufactured in Japan. After the defeat of World War II, any primary scientific research was banned in Occupied Japan. In 1947, Bell Labs in the United States invented the first transistor. Subsequently, the American GHQ officer of occupation asked the Japanese technicians of the NEC whether the transistor would be able to be used in military actions in the Far East. Therefore, the NEC started to develop transistors in 1950. Afterwards, SONY produced the world’s second transistor radio in 1955, and in 1959, the world’s first transistor TV.

Through research into the 20th century’s modern material world, Ujino realized that there is a parallel history of the development of both atomic energy and transistors, which had been originated in the U.S. for militaristic reasons and then developed in Japan. Therefore Ujino, born in a western suburb of Tokyo which was founded during Japan’s economical development, chose to create “Radio Activity,” by using secondhand transistor radios and transistor TVs, which conduct the ensemble with its blue electric baton.

Régis Debray considers culture not as “communication” but as “transmission,” as duty and obligation toward the divine. However, globalization has evaporated the divine, and as a result, the transmission of culture has diminished. These classic “Made in Japan” secondhand radios capture the shortwave broadcasts transmitted from Australia, the U.S., Japan, South Korea, North Korea, China, Russia and elsewhere, all at once. These global transmissions are captured as a form of “Radio Activity,” under the real radiation of Tokyo on a Sunday evening, at that location, at that very moment.

In a midst of the twilight of Japan’s postwar development, “Radio Activity” is a requiem for Japan’s 20th century material culture. Ujino announces the end of the modern material world, and transmits his message to ask us where we come from, what we are, and where we are going.