Japanese-Inflected Utopias and the Search for a Boat: Supporting Research Threads

Black Ships? Cesar Haradas Protei Protype in Rotterdamm

Pimping products isn’t the style of Sinologistical Violoncellist, or what the Brooklyn literary blog Moby Lives calls “a single scholar’s East Asia Journal,” but when a product is tied to Japan in a fashion, veers toward a utopian vision, evokes Kenzo Tange’s “Marine City (1960)” and has yet to exist, then we have a situation worthy of some consideration.

The project under view is Cesar Harada’s “Protei,” a fleet of oil-gathering robots currently under development.  Harada, should you have missed his rise, is the son of the famous sculptor Tetsuo Harada (designer of the Tazawako Dam in Akita, not so far from the recent tsunami), was educated in Paris, and is currently based in New Orleans, having walked away from some corporate influences in his MIT lab.  Apparently the fact that BP seems to be funding (and thereby putting parameters around) most of the research in the Gulf got on his nerves.

A good introduction to the Protei project was published yesterday on the Good Environment blog.

If this person or this project interests you in the slightest, I would urge you check out this TED website, which has all the necessary links.  Donating even ten bucks or ten euros or ten RMB to Protei would help Harada and his team to “get into the black” (if you will pardon the carbonic expression) in the next four days, which is necessary for the project to move forward.

By way of disclosure, I don’t donate myself to many causes besides the World Food Program for North Korea, but this project is one that I backed on Kickstarter, which is a cool and inclusive way to fund and crowdsource small projects which can then become big.

Unlike Kevin Costner’s similar project (and most profit-incentivised oil cleanup projects backed by the brilliant-yet-hemmed-in-by-political-pressures-and-not-yet-choice-of-the-masses-for-2016-Democratic-nominee Steven Chu), Harada’s project is explicitly a non-profit venture.  Just in case you were thinking of dumping your BP stock options for something more interesting.

As long as I’m still pimping on the utopian front (so to speak, incongruously using my North American argot in the Haus am See [“My House on the Sea”!] cafe in Berlin), don’t miss the career of one Matthew Mullane, a polyglot academic/musician/graduate student in Chicago who got me turned on to Kenzo Tange’s “Metabolist School.”   Cesar Harada’s present work, though it clearly responds to present conditions, fundamentally appears to flow out of a similar cloud of ideas and possible futures which are still worth consideration: Osaka “World Ocean Expo” of 1972 and “Marine City/City Over the Sea” of 1960 in particular.

When we’re tilting forward at such vertiginous speed into the future, it feels good to have a foot in the past, to get a push from our intellectual forefathers, the dreamers, the schemers, the planers, and the planet-embracers.  Matthew Mullane does that, and he is a thoughtful touring guitarist to boot.  A career to watch, a future to be won.

Finally, a few questions:

– Is it possible to crowdsource projects like Protei in the Chinese political and societal environment?

– Is there anyone in China like Cesar Harada working to innovate from the outside in (rather than tenured or otherwise in-some-fashion-subservient-to-the-state researchers) when it comes to cleaning up oil spills or radioactive water?

– Is it possible to set up an ad-hoc social network in China for a such a purpose, and if not, doesn’t this point to a systemic weakness in the Chinese system?

– Doesn’t China need some ocean-cleaning robots?

– Is it possible that books like Brett Walker’s amazing Toxic Archipelago could be translated into Chinese by a crowdsourced community of like minded bi- or tri-lingual people?  And that by understanding and critiquing Japanese (or American) approaches to pollution, Chinese minds might be, to misuse a phrase of today, “enlightened”?

– When do the North Koreans take their militarist utopian frenzy and turn it to their own beaches?  And when will Amanda Bradford be allowed to do her grey whale research in Hamhung?

Relevant Citations:

– Lin Zhongjie, Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias and Modern Japan, (Taylor and Francis, 2010).

建筑教育 [Architecture Education]黑川紀章 (1934~ )[Kawakura Kisho]

Adam Cathcart, “Essay Fragment in Long-Term Conceptual Development [Not Presently Requiring Funds But About Which Some Reading and Thinking is Being Done] About International Influence in Manchuria Which Includes a Short Section on Kenzo’s Youth in the Mainland Empire, and Seiji Ozawa in Shenyang, Among Other Things,” unpublished manuscript.

Adam Cathcart, “Environmental Catastrophe 101,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 18 July 2010.

Adam Cathcart, “Asia’s Ahab: North Korea, Japan, and Environmental Geopolitics in NE Asia,” Sinologistical Violoncellist, 22 November, 2009.

Commencement Bay, Tacoma, looking toward the Glass Museum from my old houseboat -- photo by Adam Cathcart



  1. Thanks for writing this Adam. Very interesting stuff!

    In Zhongjie Lin’s recent Metabolist book, he claims that Expo ’70 was the “swansong” of the group’s utopian dream. With global capitalism, sponsorship, corporatism and complex funding structures, many felt that the Expo, which was supposed to stand as a Metabolist prototype for their future utopia, was tainted by the constant corporate intervention. Interesting to consider this flawed utopia with North Korea’s own flawed visions, now at odds with global capitalism

    1. And quoting further from correspondence with Mullane:

      “One little correction — “Marine City” was designed by Kiyonori Kikutake, another member of the Metabolist group, not Kenzo Tange. It was the first structure described in the Metabolist “manifesto” distributed at the 1960 World Design Conference in Tokyo.

      Speaking of water-bound utopias, in 1975, Okinawa held an “Ocean” themed Expo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Expo_'75). Kiyonori Kikutake constructed an off-shore citycalled “Aquapolis” for the event, looking like a cross between his Marine City and an off-shore oil rig.”

      Thank you Matthew!

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