Tuesday, 24 June 2008

David Sutton, editor


I interviewed David Sutton, the editor of "The Fortean Times," by email in March and April, 2008, for an article I was working on about Japan's paranormal. Mr. Sutton was extremely helpful and informative, but, unfortunately, because the interview wasn't 'live,' much of the psychological data that is normally revealed by people's speaking patterns is missing. On the plus side I was spared the burdensome task of transcribing, which, let me tell you, is a very long tunnel.

CBL: Many people won't understand the concept of Forteana and will mix it up with folklore, urban myths, crank journalism, pseudo-science, and, indeed, even real science. What is your working definition of Fortean phenomena and how do you differentiate Forteana from the other categories I've just mentioned?

DS: Well, strictly speaking, forteana would only refer to the kinds of anomalies and strange phenomena recorded by Charles Fort in his four published books – most notably falls of objects from the sky, mysterious lights, appearances and disappearances of people and objects, poltergeist phenomena, weird weather and so on. Obviously, Fort died some three-quarters of a century ago, so the categories of what we would now consider as ‘fortean phenomena’ have broadened quite a bit: creatures unknown to science, like Bigfoot and the many other ‘man-beasts’ reported from around the world; UFOs and alien abductions; millennial beliefs and cults; out-of-place animals, like the big cats sighted on an almost daily basis here in the UK, and many others that Fort might not have recognised or viewed in quite the same way.
I’d be loath, though, to say that there’s necessarily an absolute difference between what we’d regard as forteana and the other categories you mention. After all, the phenomena we study shade in and out of folklore and urban legend with some regularity. Many people, for instance, would argue that most of the strange creatures encountered around the world are precisely folkloric – or born out of folklore’s modern equivalent, the urban legend. And, indeed, they often are – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also out there in the woods, where people run into them in flesh and blood. Which is where the conflicts between ‘real science’ and so-called ‘pseudo-science’ begin. Is cryptozoology – the search for unknown creatures such as lake monsters and manimals – a ‘real’ science or something practised solely by misguided amateurs and cranks? The answer will depend on your position vis a vis the scientific establishment and method.
In the end, I think forteana has more to do with an attitude that distinguishes it both from mainstream science and from the other kinds of belief that surround, say, UFOs or Atlantis: we simply remain curious – and encourage others to do so – bringing open minds to such evidence as there is, looking for more, and avoiding the exclusionism and rejection of the anomalous that often, unfortunately, characterizes mainstream science.

CBL: How important is culture and social history in influencing perceptions of Fortean phenomena? For example, people in a country, say, with certain folkloric archetypes or political traditions might be susceptible to having their perceptions shaped by that. One Japanese example I can think of is the Aum Shinrikyo cult that recycled some of the anti-freemasonry/ anti-Semitic theories popular in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.

DS: Our experience would suggest that they are vital. I’d go so far as to say that no phenomena lie wholly outside of the fabric of cultural and social practice and belief – which is not to say that they’re not real, only conditioned by our inability to step outside our cultures and histories. In the past, most anomalies were either interpreted in explicitly religious terms – as signs and portents of God’s pleasure or displeasure – or in those of folkloric belief systems. Since the modern era, of course, the tendency is rather to attempt to explain them – or explain them away – in terms of scientific knowledge; which is itself, as we know, subject to change over time. And with specific types of phenomena, we can see how interpretation takes place in the light of contemporary social and cultural beliefs. Encounters with the ‘little people’ in Europe were traditionally interpreted as meetings with fairies; in the industrialised culture of the post-war world, with its fears around invasion and nuclear weapons, and its emergent pop-culture of flying saucers and little green men, the same types of stories mutated into close encounters and later alien abductions.

CBL: Different countries produce different types of Fortean phenomenon. I would imagine that the USA is big on UFOs. The UK seems to have a lot of big cat sightings and crop circles, etc. From the material you encounter in your job as editor, what sort of Fortean profile does Japan have? What sort of phenomenon tend to be reported a lot in Japan?

DS: Ha – not enough! In fact, I wonder whether the kinds of stories that do get reported in the West actually tell us more about certain preconceptions held here concerning Japanese culture. I’m thinking of the amount of coverage (including much by us) given in particular to cults – like Aum Shinrikyo or Panawave – the Internet suicide pacts of recent years, or the Pokemon panic in which kids supposedly had epileptic seizures as a result of watching a cartoon on TV. These are all, in a way, stories about a highly pressurised, highly technological society in which individualism is felt to be somehow under threat from corporate cultures, militant belief systems or technology itself. This strikes me as something of a Western image of modern Japan and I wonder if this is why such stories We hear much less about, say, Japanese ghosts, mystery creatures or UFO sightings, although we do cover them when we get wind of such things. If any of your readers would like to help, by alerting us to local stories that we may be unaware of, we’d encourage them to do so, either by sending us newspaper clippings (preferably with translations!) or emailing us stories. They can get details from our website: www.forteantimes.com

CBL: Is there a characteristic Japanese Fortean phenomenon?

DS: The particular Fortean phenomenon reported in a place may reveal (a) an actual real thing or (b) something about the culture, mindset, preoccupations, etc. of the people living in that area. I've always thought that the UK's crop circles were tied in, in some way, with British people apparent love of circular forms - ranging from stone circles to modern day roundabouts. Assuming that Japan's reported Fortean phenomena are not actual, what do you think they reveal about the country? I would say they reveal, on one level, the same thing that reports of strange phenomena reveal the world over: that despite everything that science, and indeed common sense, tells us about the nature of our existence, extraordinary things are constantly happening to ordinary people and forcing them to re-examine their basic assumptions. Whether we’re talking about seeing a UFO, encountering a mysterious entity or witnessing fish falling from the sky, these encounters with the unknown can change peoples’ relationship with the world – both positively and negatively.
In the case of Japan – as with many other countries – they probably also reveal tensions between traditional belief systems and customs and the rapid industrial and technological expansion of the post-war years, as well as perhaps the country’s relationship with the West, particularly America. Kitsune and UFOs are both found in Japan, but the latter are to some extent an American global export, while the latter are an indigenous form of a possibly universal set of mythic archetypes. I do wonder whether one generation of Japanese would favour one over the other… these are the sorts of questions that would be interesting to explore from a Japanese perspective.

CBL: Regarding Japanese cryptids, how would you rank the following in terms of probability of existing: The Lake Ikeda Monster - "Issie," the Hibagon, the Tsuchinoko, Kappa, fox-women, giant squid?

DS: Taking them in order: Issie, like most lake monsters, seems to be problematic in terms of thinking of it as a real creature. My understanding of Lake Ikeda is that it has no rivers flowing into it, so the question of how a sizeable beast got there in the first place is a little tough to answer. The natural ‘explanations’ – such as eels in the lake – are as debateable as in any other lake monster case, but shouldn’t be dismissed. In its way, Issie has probably become as clouded by rumour, commerce and peoples’ fondness for such stories as has Nessie here in the UK, with tourist boards offering rewards and such like. I guess we’ll wait for a truly convincing photo that can’t be explained away. The Hibagon – have there been further reports since the original 70s sightings? Although the region around Mt Hiba was described back then as remote, I don’t know how far man has since encroached on any potential habitat. It’s hard to believe that a large unknown man-beast in a country as heavily populated as Japan – although they have been reported from all over the world, not just areas of large wilderness in, say, North America or the Himalayas. The sheer ubiquity of such tales suggests that we are either dealing with genuine creatures or a mythic idea so powerful that it is really a form of archetype that cuts across quite disparate cultures and has a good deal of meaning for people with very different backgrounds and belief systems. The Tsuchinoko – although rather odd-sounding, could indeed be a real creature, perhaps as our own Dr Karl Shuker once suggested, some kind of mutant pit viper. It’s also possible, of course, that the Tsuchinoko is merely the product of a persistent body of stories coupled with misidentifications of other creatures, whether snakes after a meal or larger lizards. Kappa – I’d love to see one! They are like some unholy hybrid of what we in the West would recognise as fairy lore – whether aiding or hindering humans they have a lot in common with the little people – and the terrifying water-folk of HP Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth! They are scary as hell, so I’m quite glad that I feel I can safely banish them to the realm of the folkloric – despite the occasional sightings that have been reported over the years. Fox Women – Again, the kitsune are a venerable element of Japanese folklore and art rather than ‘real’ creatures. But they are also an example of the power of myth – the reality of the mythic, if you like – in the sense that stories of ‘possession’ by fox spirits have also been the basis for genuine experiences, although these would of course be described as instances of mental illness. The question is, though, does the illness simply make use of available cultural materials to express itself – in this case the idea of fox spirits – or does the kitsune myth express something that has been known about ‘human nature’ for a long, long time. Is it an archetype, with a life of its own? And can it, then – as Jung would have argued – indeed ‘possess’ us? Giant Squid – Well, the giant squid – despite having its own legends and sailors’ tales attached to it – is undeniably real. It’s nice for us to see a creature that was often dismissed as a myth finally being accepted as a genuine creature – and largely due to the efforts of Japanese scientists and researchers who have brought us the incredible pictures and video of the living squid in its natural environment. We still have an awful lot to learn about these amazing creatures, and that is something we greatly look forward to; as well as seeing what other mysteries the oceans will yield up to us in the future. So, in descending order of probable flesh-and-blood reality (although some forteans would claim that such a term can’t do justice to the kinds of weird critters reported from around the world…): Giant Squid, The Tsuchinoko, The Hibagon, Issie, Fox-women, Kappa.

CBL: One of the most interesting Fortean phenomenon that Japan may be connected to is the connection between the WWII 'Fugu' balloon bombs and early UFO sightings in the Pacific NW. Is it possible to say that Japan kicked off the UFO mania of the 40s and 50s?

DS: Well, we’ve seen phantom airship panics dating back to the late 19th century, the Swedish ghost rockets of 1946 and the whole Flying Saucer mythos growing out of Cold War fears of Communist invasion, so it shouldn’t surprise if there was a connection between wartime US fears of Japanese invasion and weird things being seen in the sky. And, of course, we’ve seen plenty of supposed UFOs explained as weather balloons and so on. Having said that, the Fugo balloon bombs do predate what we’d normally identify as the dawn of the ‘UFO age’ with Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting, so their influence on subsequent developments of UFO lore might be marginal. What seems most likely to me is that the secrecy the US military attached to the bombs may have meant that some people who encountered them at the time – with no knowledge of what they were dealing with – may then have remembered them at a later date and interpreted them as Ufos in the light of the emergence of that particular mythos as it emerged in the late-40s and through the 1950s.

CBL: One of the problems that Fortean world faces is that legitimate areas of investigation are closed off because those institutions capable of financing and supporting research are afraid of gaining a reputation for pseudo-science that might harm their other activities. A good example is the Sony ESP lab. Although the research was interesting, it nevertheless created an image that could have damaged Sony's share price. Does this kind of perception create a false barrier between things that big companies and universities are prepared to research and those they aren't, simply because it's bad for their image.

DS: Yes, it’s increasingly a problem. The golden age of psychical research – when eminent scientists and philosophers took an active interest in what we’d now call the paranormal seem a long way off, and institutions – even, for instance, the Koestler Unit in Edinburgh, set up specifically to study parapsychological phenomena – seem increasingly under pressure to reach sceptical conclusions and avoid making claims that might rock the funding boat or attract derision from the scientific community. There would be some truth in the argument that, often, the results obtained don’t justify sustained funding, but many so-called ‘mavericks’ – Dr Rupert Sheldrake or Dr Michael Persinger – would strongly disagree and produce strong evidence to back their research claims. But these are just the kinds of researchers who struggle to find funding and end up on the receiving end of sometimes quite vindictive attacks from the scientific establishment or evangelical sceptics like the ghastly Richard Dawkins.

CBL: How can this be overcome?

DS: I wish I knew. I suspect the only way that it would happen is for someone to come up with some truly repeatable and incontrovertible experimental evidence for psi or whatever. Trouble is, with the lack of current finding and hostility to such research, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. It’s a rather vicious circle, isn’t it?

CBL: Lastly, what is the most interesting Fortean phenomena from Japan that you have encountered? Why?

DS: I’m particularly fond of the story that the village of Shingo, in Aomori Prefecture, was where Jesus decided to spend the remainder of his days after pulling a last-minute crucifixion-swap and escaping to Japan. Apparently, he lived to 103, enjoying a quiet life, and is buried in the village.

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