I’m only first hearing of this now, but back in April, the appointment of a new director to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum apparently raised some considerable controversy – and, from what I understand, with good reason. The new appointee, Shiraho Taiichi (白保台一), is a former member of the Lower House of the Diet, a Komeitô politician, not a historian or art specialist, and furthermore, it seems the decision was made more or less unilaterally by Okinawa Governor Nakaima Hirokazu.
I am actually currently working on revising a formal paper on the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and its biases, which I’ll be presenting at the Western [United States] Museums Association conference here in Honolulu at the end of September. In the paper, I do criticize the museum for its pro-Japanese and anti-US slant, and for not doing as much as it might have to represent a more “independent” (and anti-Japanese) Okinawan voice. Yet, under former kanchô Makino Hirotaka, while the History of Okinawa displays in the main permanent exhibitions hall have their issues, the museum did put on many excellent, very forward-thinking, exhibitions, introducing aspects of Okinawan history and culture never before explored in such a fashion, and doing so quite often with a decidedly Okinawan “voice,” i.e. from a decidedly Okinawan, and not mainland Japanese, point of view.
An opinion piece (or “objective” news article?) in the Okinawa Times entitled ［館長人事］えっ どうして？なんで？ (“Museum Director HR. Wha? Why? Why?”) explains the situation. Mr. Shiraho apparently has no connections to the cultural world, and no experience in cultural institutions. It’s not entirely uncommon in Japan for prominent political or business figures to “descend from Heaven” (天下り, amakudari) into the museum world, as it’s believed that such people can better attract private funding, public support, gifts, etc. But, the Okinawa Times argues, that is not the case with Mr. Shiraho. It’s not that he’s “descending” from a relevant governmental agency, nor is it simply that they’re hiring from outside; he is from such a completely different field that it produces feelings of unease. The journalist writes that the whole thing “smells strongly of politics.”
Governor Nakaima says that other staff will deal with the professional/technical stuff, the arts/history stuff, and that Mr. Shiraho, with his Chinese connections, can help promote cross-cultural exchanges.
As the article points out, and with which I completely agree, the ideal museum director should have the kinds of connections and familiarity with the art world that he can get prominent artists* to get involved or to be shown, and can get good pieces from private collections or elsewhere, both within the prefecture and beyond, to come to the museum, either as loans or as acquisitions. (*Or not so prominent artists, who are really good and ought to be up-and-coming, spotted, “scouted”, “discovered” by the museum director with a proper eye for art.) Building a collection, staging ground-breaking exhibits, playing an active role in the local art scene and beyond, these things require a director who has experience, connections, and the right attitude and perspective – someone who is an art world person, not a random politician from out in left field.
Someone once explained to me that the prefectural museums are quite closely tied to the prefectural governments, and that staff can, and do, get shuffled around between the museum, the main prefectural office, the Board of Education, and a handful of other institutions. It’s not like in the US, where you work in a given position in a given institution and remain there without being shuffled around at the whims of the government every few months or years – even if that institution is part of, or under, a larger one such as the state or the federal government. This explanation came after I expressed interest in “how cool would it be if” I could get a job at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (or, for that matter, one of the National Museums). … Apparently, it’s a risky proposition, and even more difficult than I might have expected to break in, as it’s really a bureaucrat post, not a specialist art historian post. I guess. Certainly, at the least, that seems to be what happened with the director.
..Actually, it would seem that’s more or less what happened with the last director as well. Makino Hirotaka, prior to becoming the first director of the newly re-established (re-organized) Okinawa Prefectural Museum, was the deputy governor of the prefecture. He received criticism at that time as well, but it was argued that his extensive management experience was essential for (re-)establishing, organizing, and opening the new museum.
Furthermore, the museum has been moved from being under the prefectural board of education, to now being under the board of culture, tourism and sports. While I won’t presume to say I know anything about the impact this will have on the ground, in concept it seems a bad move for the educational quality or intellectual integrity of the institution. If you want to have a museum that’s a popular tourist destination, and a shiny fun piece of cultural promotion, then, sure, go, have fun. But, if you want to have a museum that has some integrity as a quality institution of academic production and education, producing exhibitions (not to mention lecture series, symposia, etc.) that expand the field, push the boundaries, and that educate, well, that’s a different story.
I find this interesting in light of the fact that when I searched for news articles about the creation of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (which opened in 2007), seeking to find anything about possible controversies that may have existed at that time over whether the museum was being pro-Okinawan enough, or was too anti-Japanese, or the like, I found basically nothing. The only materials I found were sort of platitudes, if that’s the right word, saying only positive things about how new and shiny the museum was, how nice it is to have a museum highlighting Okinawa’s history and culture, and a museum which will serve from here on as a center for the creation of new culture. There seemed a noticeable absence of any mention of it being a museum highlighting Okinawan voice or Okinawan perspective, something that Bishop Museum in Hawaii, for example, put foremost and quite explicitly in its materials.
So, anyway, the Japanese (and the Okinawans) are apparently not so shy about controversy as I might have expected, and the newspapers not quite so much in bed with the politicians and/or the museum. I found no criticisms whatsoever of the new museum when it opened, and wondered if everyone was just putting on their happy tatemae face, refusing to discuss their honne feelings about the perspectives presented there. But, now we see people expressing themselves quite explicitly, in their concern that Mr. Shiraho is in no way the right person for this job.
I, myself, have high hopes and aspirations for the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. They’ve got a gorgeous building, and have done some fabulous work constructing exhibits highlighting Okinawan history and culture in ways & to an extent never seen before. They have the potential to become a real major, prominent, active center of cultural activity on the island (and for Okinawans throughout Japan and the world). I think I would love to work there someday (if the bureaucracy of it all, and Japanese office culture doesn’t kill me). I hope, to put it bluntly, that Mr. Shiraho doesn’t fuck things up. Only time will tell.
Photo taken myself, March 2008.