Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador of the United States to Japan, traveled to the Imperial Palace this past Tuesday to formally present her credentials to the Emperor.
What I find incredibly interesting is the manner in which she traveled to the palace. In a horse-drawn carriage that looks like it could be straight out of the Meiji period, complete with horsemen and footmen in gloriously anachronistic dress. Is this typical? Is this standard? Have all US ambassadors, or all ambassadors from any country, to Japan, traveled to offer their credentials in this same manner?
It’s an Imperial carriage, as indicated by the gold chrysanthemum crest on the sides; Kennedy, like Ulysses S. Grant more than 130 years ago, is being received and welcomed like royalty. So, that’s certainly interesting, and I’m sure there’s something to be said for Japanese attitudes towards JFK and the Kennedy family. I’d love to see that something said, explained out, by someone more thoroughly familiar with the subject. Maybe comparisons to Grant’s visit in 1879, or descriptions of the history & tradition of the ceremony surrounding previous ambassadors’ presentations of their credentials. Instead, I am somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to see that, of the admittedly fewnews articlesI have read on the event, none make even the vaguest attempt to address the history of this practice, or its symbolism or significance. What political/diplomatic symbolic message is Japan sending to its citizens, to the world, to Ms. Kennedy, by having her ride in this sort of carriage? What does it mean, what does it signify, indicate, or represent, that this is done in this style, in this manner, rather than any other form? What message does it send that this ritual is draped so extensive in the aesthetics and forms not of any other period, but specifically of the Meiji (or perhaps Taishô) period?
I love ritual and performance, tradition and culture, and I love that they’re not doing this in an utterly post-war late 20th century sort of way. Black Towncar, everyone in suits, whatever. Boring. And, I absolutely understand why they wouldn’t have Ms. Kennedy ride in, for example, a more traditional Japanese palanquin. Not only does that send totally the wrong message about Japan’s modernity, but, there is no way that a palanquin ride is comfortable. Not to mention that any kind of palanquin, sedan chair, or rickshaw would be just asking for accusations of Orientalism on Ms. Kennedy’s part, and rightfully so, as it would so easily resemble and be compared to images of Western women (and men) riding around 19th century Japan, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, etc., in such conveyances. Thankfully, those involved seem to recognize the discursive dangers inherent in such an option and have avoided them.
Image from the Daily Mail. (c) AFP / Getty Images.
However, Meiji was a period when Japan was doing its best to emulate the Western powers, in a wide variety of ways, in order to prove itself modern, including the adoption of European diplomatic/political protocols and elite/aristocratic material culture. “Look at us, we’ve got horse-drawn carriages! And floofy hats! And these cool waistcoats! Look at us, being modern! Just like you!” Except that today, these protocols appear a full 100 years out of date. Or at least they do to an American eye; I guess I can’t really speak to what a Brit might think, given the period style of much of the ritual & ceremony that goes on over there. Are we still not past that feeling of a need to prove ourselves “modern”?
Furthermore, by recalling Meiji, this recalls a period which, for all its many positive and laudable attributes, was also a period characterized by political structures and culture which directly laid the groundwork for the ultra-nationalist, imperialist, militarist, and expansionist politics & culture of the 1930s-1945.
Of course, such associations are only one possible interpretation. I am merely playing around with some of the possible connections that might be drawn. … I have no doubt that all in all this was simply meant in order to add an additional layer of pomp and circumstance, of aristocratic tradition, and, for all the potential suggestions of absurdity, or of negative connotations, there are some wonderful resonances with, again, for example, the visit of Gen. Grant, drawing a wonderful link to the past, and recalling a time when the material culture of politics & diplomacy was considerably less blah.
Image from NBC News. (c) Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AFP – Getty Images
I eagerly look forward to a more scholarly in-depth analysis, perhaps from an art historian. Japan Focus?
*Stanford has placed online what appears at first glance to be a very nice guide to Classical Chinese. It starts off by going over the basics – that a given character can have many meanings, and play the role of multiple different forms of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb) depending on where it is in the sentence, and the incredible importance of paying attention to character order (i.e. “word” order). The guide then goes into further detail, explaining individual particles as it leads the reader through selections from famous classical texts, including the Analects of Confucius and the writings of Mencius.
Now that I’m beginning to look through it, I’m not sure how effective self-studying from this guide, alone, might be. But, as a reference, it could be quite nice. And, especially since what little I know of Classical Chinese I learned by way of Japanese, seeing it explained, in English, without that Japanese intermediary, could also be helpful (though, weird as it might sound at first to say that I’ve studied how to read Chinese in Japanese, actually, since Japanese uses the same characters, I think it’s actually more understandable, at least for me, than going straight from Chinese to English).
*Meanwhile, on a completely different subject, as I mentioned briefly in my previous post, there was a massive spill, or leak, of hundreds of thousands of gallons of molasses into Honolulu Harbor, on Sept 9.
Right: Not a picture of the spill, but just a photo I took, some years ago, of the city.
Though molasses is, essentially, just sugar, and though one might therefore assume that it shouldn’t be such a problem, an NPR report explains that the molasses somehow pulls the oxygen out of the water, suffocating the marine life. And, since it sinks to the bottom rather than floating on the surface as an oil spill would, it is far more difficult to clean up. Plus, this particular part of the harbor is relatively shielded from ocean currents, meaning that the natural flow and exchange of water between the harbor and the ocean will not, on its own, clean up the spill for years. One report I read, though I can’t quite remember where, said it could be decades before the ecosystem revives back to the levels it was at before this spill, a spill which some are calling the worst environmental disaster in the history of the State of Hawaii. A Hawaii Public Radio report by my friend Molly Solomon tells us that Matson – the company running the molasses pipeline – knew about the leak a year ago, but did not take proper action to see it fixed; the report discusses briefly the possibilities for liabilities, lawsuits, or fines that Matson may face.
*Much thanks to BoredPanda, for sharing with us a series of photos of Costumes of Still-Practiced Pagan Rituals of Europe. I quite enjoy traditional costume, especially festival performance costume, from many different cultures, but, while we may enjoy “privilege” in a great many other aspects of our lives, one place where those of us of European descent get shafted is in having a national costume, or traditional dress, to dress up in when occasion allows. It’s beautiful and wonderful to see these examples of a deeper, older, cultural tradition still practiced in Europe which goes beyond the multitude of things that, beautiful, interesting, traditional, cultural though they may be, are unavoidably seen as utterly typical, normal, today.
*Switching gears yet again, The Justice, the student newspaper at Brandeis University, reports on the myth & history of Usen Castle. Now, I know this may be of little interest to anyone who didn’t go to Brandeis, but, here’s the story in a nutshell: we have a castle on campus. It is of course not a “real” castle, and, I think, looks it, when you consider the conical fairy-tale turret-toppers and such. But, it’s still really cool, and I’m still sad I never got to live there (it’s a sophomores-only dorm, and I didn’t make it into the Castle in the housing lottery that year).
Getting to the point, as at any college campus, a number of rumors and stories swirl around Brandeis campus about the true origins and history of the castle, some of them perpetrated and perpetuated by admissions tour guides and other official sources. In most accounts, the castle is said to have been based on a specific castle in Scotland (never named, or specified, in the story), which the campus architect saw and liked, but to which he was denied entry, and as a result, the castle looks like a castle on the outside, but follows a less than standard plan on the inside. I’ve also heard stories about it being formerly used as an animal hospital, and about Eleanor Roosevelt having lived there at some point. This week’s Justice article banishes these myths and gives the real story.
*The BBC reports on a recent large-scale public art project in which the silhouettes of 9000 bodies were created on a Normandy beach, a simple but powerful visual reminder of what took place there in June 1944, and just how many people lost their lives on that beach. As one of the organizers/artists is quoted as saying, “”All around us there are relics of the Second World War, but the one thing that is missing are the people that actually died.”
The silhouettes were created simply by disturbing the sand within roughly body-shaped stencils – the disturbing of the sand itself, I realize as I write this, gives a sort of symbolism of the project disturbing the beach, disturbing the peace the beach sees today, disturbing its current modern-day identity, and disturbing our own, what’s the word, our glazing over in our awareness of the battle. Of course, everyone knows of the storming of the beaches of Normandy, but how many of us have ever really given thought to the level of the violence, the number of the bodies, right there on that beach?
We are forced – powerfully, violently – to remember. And then, the tide came in, and washed away the entire artwork.
What wonderful fortune to get to be here in Okinawa for the annual 10,000 person Eisa Festival! I’d long thought about eventually getting to see such festivals in Okinawa – along with the Naha Tug-of-War and the Dragon Boat races – but, really, what luck that it should happen to land within the one week that I’m scheduled to be in Okinawa this summer.
Unlike the time I nearly missed Gion Matsuri by waking up “late” at 10 or 11am (in my defense, it was a weekend, and I was out until 4 or 5am doing karaoke ^_^), this festival didn’t start until quite later in the day, and I’d been in the habit of getting up at 7 or 8 anyway. So I had the whole morning to poke around Shuri in search of obscure historical sites. I had certain ones in mind, such as the home of this or that famous courtier, but in my attempts to find them, I got quite turned around, and spit out again just outside the castle, which is not where I was trying to be… But, then, with the kind help of a friendly local fellow who called out “Hello! Good morning!” to me as he washed his dogs in his garage, I was pointed down a little side street loaded with wonderful little historical sites, including some I’d been having some serious difficulty finding on my own.
Right: These sections of stone walls are all that survive of the residence of Sai On (1682-1761), one of the most celebrated, and arguably one of the most influential government officials in the history of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. But, that anything survives at all is, I think, pretty impressive. Whether the plot is a parking lot because people aren’t rebuilding on it out of respect (or ‘orphaned’ property ownership issues) or something, I don’t know, but it certainly does help one to clearly see the size of the plot.
Some, disappointingly, consisted of nothing more than a sign, plaque, or marker, meaning I have nothing really to show (e.g. on this blog, or on a Wiki article about the site) for it. But, even so, it was great to get a little bit more of a feel for the layout of Shuri as a town/city. After all, if you visit only the castle, only the big-name sites, and temples and such, it becomes easy to forget to think about basic questions, such as, where did the nobles/aristocrats live? And in what sort of homes? Even if nothing survives of the homes themselves, there’s still something pretty cool, pretty impressive, about being able to find/know, roughly, the historical location of a given aristocrat’s home. And while it’s very difficult to really get a good sense of the feel, the atmosphere, the patterns of aristocratic life at that time, given how much the streets have changed, even so, there is still something to be gained from seeing the size of the residential plots, the arrangements of the streets, how far even prominent officials’ homes were from the castle, and how they’re interspersed with natural springs1, shrines, temples, and the like.
Adani-gaa-daki, an utaki – a shrine of the native Ryukyuan religion, neither Shinto nor Buddhist – in Shuri.
My adventures in Shuri worked out wonderfully, ending just in time for me to grab a delicious lunch of Okinawa soba and then make my way back to Kokusai-dôri for the festival. I missed perhaps the most exciting and photogenic part, as all the different eisa groups parade down the street, looking like a just incredible crowd, all in brilliant colored costumes and such. Not because of time, so much as simply because I didn’t understand how this all worked, or where the best place to stand would be. But, so it goes. I’ll know better for next time.
This was followed by the main event of the festival, performances by a series of eisa groups, simultaneously in a number of locations, mostly along Kokusai-dôri. I was quite confused at first, as one group would perform, and then a whole bunch of other groups would pass right by, without performing for our particular space, leaving huge gaps of 10-20 minutes during which, if you just stayed in that one spot, it looked/felt like the whole parade, the whole event, had just dissipated, ended, fallen apart. So I walked up to another spot, and caught another performance, but then things would dissipate in that spot, and a whole bunch of other groups would walk right past, while yet another group would start performing where I had been to begin with. I had asked one of the staff how it all worked, and whether I should stay in one place or if I should walk up, or if there were any better or best place to try to watch from – he’d said to just stay in one place and I’d get to see everything. As it turns out, I finally figured out after a few hours, it is impossible to see all the groups, all the performances. If you stand at Spot 1 (just outside the Mitsukoshi, let’s say, at a certain point along the street), you’ll see groups A, C, D, and F, but not B or E. Groups B and E don’t perform at Spot 1 – they just walk right past, skipping it, to perform instead at Spot 2. And if you walk from Spot 1, to Spot 2, in order to catch them, well, now you’re missing Group C or D, back at your original spot.
As a result, I spent most of the day hearing really exciting-sounding performances from down the street, only to miss out on actually seeing them as they skipped over my spot and walked right on past. Of course, by the time I knew their performance sounded exciting, it was already begun, and too late to walk over there and check it out – and, by the time I saw them pass by my spot, rather than stopping, it was already crowded enough at the next spot that I couldn’t simply walk over there to see them. Oh well.
Somehow this post has gotten terribly negative and kvetchy. But in truth, it was a great time, a really incredible show, and a wonderful experience. As I first began walking up Kokusai-dôri, just as the festival was starting, and I heard & saw the last group in line performing, tens of them all in matching costumes and with (nearly) perfectly matching choreography, performing to a lively Okinawan song I liked (though, lol, I actually can’t remember what it was at all), I have to admit, I nearly cried, I was so excited to get to be there to see this. And, yeah, sure, most of the groups performing songs I know and love were the groups whose performances I missed, and yeah, the one group I’d actually heard of and would have gone out of my way to see – Ryûkyû-koku Matsuri Daiko – I didn’t realize that’s who it was until it was too late, and so I missed their performance too.
But, oh my god, were the kids cute, and the teens and grown-ups passionate and talented and clearly having a ton of fun. And I think the really key part that I enjoyed the most is that this is not a professional performance – it’s people being people, having fun, supporting one another, coming out to see their friends’ groups, cheering on groups from other towns who they don’t know, chatting with other groups and sort of connecting within that common bond of being eisa performers, and sometimes even joining in dancing with one another’s other groups. I saw parents cheering on their kids, a man spraying kids with a hose to help them cool off… In some groups, you could see those in their teens or 20s actively helping and guiding and encouraging the little ones, and while many of the groups were really quite excellent, well-practiced and well-prepared, there were a lot that were also just having fun and doing their best – a lot of groups from elementary or middle schools, and at least one from some kind of home for those with mental disabilities.
And the groups came from all over the island (some maybe from other islands? I’m not sure), all with different colors and costumes, and different styles. Some played relatively traditional eisa music, some danced to more popular songs – some even used mainland Japanese mainstream J-pop songs; some had more of a powerful, strong, martial arts element to their style; and some had live sanshin playing, though most had it piped in.
All in all, it was just wonderful to get to see eisa performed here in Okinawa, at the 10,000 Person Eisa Festival, along the Kokusai-dôri. I’ve been fortunate to see and enjoy many eisa-style performances at theHawaii Okinawa Festival, which of course only whet my appetite for more, and made it all the more fun to recognize songs or dances… seeing this really added to my experience of yet another side of Okinawan life and culture. Not just the historical sites and museums, the restaurants (food, cuisine), and the very much aimed-at-tourists live performances at shimauta bars and the like, and most certainly not only the US military bases issue, but, this too. People practicing two or three times a week with their neighbors or their classmates, at middle schools and temples and community centers, and getting together to parade and dance and perform for one another, all together, in an annual, “traditional” festival celebrating Okinawan culture and identity.
PS I somehow suspected that, at such a big-deal event, I just might run into someone from East-West Center, or Akisamiyo! (the EWC/UHM Okinawan students group). I’d heard stories of EWC people running into one another, unexpectedly, halfway across the globe, and I figured just maybe it would happen to me. And what do you know, it did. Ran into one of the guys from the Akisamiyo! group, here for a term or two as an exchange student at Ryûdai. Small world. Or something.
(1) If you’re not just talking about the castle, and big sites like that, but are looking for smaller, backstreets sorts of historical sites like I was, about half the sites you’ll find on a map, or in wandering, are springs. Personally, with apologies, I find it difficult to get too interested about this. But, they clearly played a major role in both the practical lifestyle and spiritual geography of the city.
Once again, all photos and videos are my own. You can see all my Okinawa photos from this trip on Flickr.
As I was graduating, I was not able to be on campus to work hands-on directly with the objects, or with the gallery, in order to help figure out what would fit where, or anything like that. But, having handled some of these objects before in person, and drawing upon my MA thesis research, I was able to contribute gallery labels, to suggest which sections of the scrolls to show, etc. It was an absolutely privilege and pleasure to get to have my curatorial debut be in Hawaii, and to be an Okinawa-related exhibit; and, of course, it was a privilege and pleasure to work with Tokiko-san and Prof. Szostak on this.
Long story short, the exhibit, entitled “Picturing the Ryukyus: Images of Okinawa in Japanese Artworks from the UH Sakamaki/Hawley Collection,” opened at the University of Hawaii Art Gallery, and showed from February 7-22 this year. While the Rekihaku exhibit featured a wide variety of early modern processions and parades, from sankin kôtai daimyô processions and festival parades to Korean, Dutch, and Ryukyuan embassy processions, ours focused in on just Ryukyuan (i.e. Okinawan) subjects. The highlights of the exhibit were a 1671 handscroll painting depicting a Ryukyuan embassy procession in Edo in that year, the oldest such Ryukyu embassy procession scroll extant, and another scroll, this one sixty feet long, and in much brighter, bolder colors, depicting a 1710 procession. The 1710 procession is of particular significance as a mission which set new standards in dress, ceremonial, and form of the embassy, precedents which would stand, to a large extent, for the remainder of the early modern period. Plus, it’s simply a wonderfully beautiful object. Given its incredible length, however, we were only able to show a small section.
The exhibition was accompanied by a set of public lectures, and a symposium, held in conjunction. Prof. Kurushima Hiroshi from Rekihaku, Prof. Szostak, and myself, presented on a panel alongside two of the truly top experts in Ryukyuan history, Prof. Yokoyama Manabu of Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Prof. Gregory Smits of Penn State. It was kind of nerve-wracking to be up there along with such prominent scholars, but was really quite pleasant, and extremely informative, in the end. As they say in Japanese, taihen benkyô ni narimashita 大変勉強になりました.
I apologize to not summarize or comment upon the talks here, as I have been doing for the AAS talks I attended last month. But, many of the talks, associated PowerPoints, and even video of the presentations, are now available online, on a UHM Hamilton Library webpage. These will all eventually be added to the University of Hawaii University Repository, also known as ScholarSpace.
And, the full audio from my talk at the symposium can be found via the Samurai Archives Podcast. In the next episode of the podcast, I talk with C.E. West, Shogun of the Samurai Archives website, about the presentation, the symposium, and the exhibit. Now that the following third and final episode in the series is available, I’ve added the link to that here.
Meanwhile, you can also read about the Rekihaku exhibit here; I myself did not get to see the exhibit, which sounds like it was spectacular, but, at least I’ve managed to get my hands on the catalog, and a mighty beautiful catalog it is, for just 2000 yen.
The Tokugawa-era document comes from Nguyen Hoang, lord of southern-central Vietnam1, who writes to Ieyasu reporting that he has captured the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who had terrorized the Vietnamese coast sixteen years earlier. Nguyen uses this occasion as a pretext for extending offers of good will, and requests for a continuation of good relations. Ieyasu’s response, which I have never seen as an image of an original document, but have only read descriptions of, describes the shuinjô (“red seals”) system, explaining that any Japanese seamen who do not carry licenses with the shogunate’s red seal can be apprehended as smugglers or pirates, but that those who do carry such licenses are licensed “above-board” merchants, authorized by the shogunate. Thus was the earliest known extant document recording, marking, the establishment or continuation of Japanese-Vietnamese relations – that is, until now.
The 1601 letter from Nguyen Hoang to Tokugawa Ieyasu, from the Gaiban Shokan.
The newly discovered Hideyoshi-era document is on display at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture) as part of a Vietnam exhibition which opened April 16.
In this document, a Lord Nguyen (presumably the same Nguyen Hoang, r. 1558-1613) writes, in Classical Chinese of course, something to the effect of “I offer gifts, and would like to bind us in friendly relations.” The document is dated with a Vietnamese reign era which corresponds with 1591 on the Western calendar, and is explicitly marked 「日本国・国王」 (“Country of Japan, King”). It seems to have been brought to Japan by a Japanese merchant, many of whom were actively engaged in maritime trade in Southeast Asia at the time. The primary figure active in Japan at that time for whom the title “King of Japan” would correspond would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi; however, whether the Vietnamese were aware of Hideyoshi, or knew specifically who they were writing to, is unclear.
1) Generally known as Quang Nam 広南 or Cochinchina, in contrast to Tonking 東京 to the north, ruled by the Trinh family, and Champa, the territory of the Cham people to the south.
Right: Just a few of the roughly 2,000 books in the Freer’s Pulverer Collection.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is a collection of roughly 2,000 Japanese books, almost all of them woodblock-printed, and almost all of them from the Edo period (1600-1868); I’m not sure how many pieces are included in the exhibition, but I am sure that the museum has done a good job of choosing interesting, attractive, or otherwise historically important works to show.
I’m sad that I won’t get a chance to see the exhibition myself, as I don’t expect I’ll be going to the East Coast this summer. But, for anyone who is able to go, the show is up from April 6th through August 11th.
Hopefully, it won’t be long before the online catalog database of all the works – all the thousands of photos my compatriots and I took – is up and ready for public access. In the meantime, however, the Freer-Sackler has put together a beautiful page for Hokusai’s Ehon sumidagawa ryôgan ichiran (“Illustrated Book Listing Both Banks of the Sumida River”). Click through, and you can see each opening (i.e. each page) of the illustrations, lined up next to one another, revealing a single continuous panorama image of the Sumida River which ran through the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).
Imagine holding this book in your hands and paging through it, seeing the image continue on the next page, and the next page, and the next page. What Hokusai does here is innovative, and, I think, quite charming, fun, and kind of brilliant. The Pulverer Collection catalog, if it ever goes up, will contain literally thousands of other books, each intriguing, charming, compelling or innovative in its own way. Once that goes up, and assuming I can find the time, I’ll finally be able to start sharing with you some of my favorites.
An image from a display at the Metropolitan Museum, featuring one of the books also included in the Pulverer Collection. Once the online database goes up, it might look something like this.
The entire year of 2013 will be filled with Japan-related events in London, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the first official diplomatic exchanges between the Court of King James and the Tokugawa shogunate.
Right: One of two suits of samurai armor gifted to King James I by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada in 1613, via EIC Captain John Saris. Held at the Tower of London since the 1660s.
I’ve never really thought about the date of the official beginning of diplomatic relations between Japan and Britain, but apparently it was in 1613. In that year, Captain John Saris arrived in Japan aboard a ship called the Clove, and exchanged gifts and formal letters with Ieyasu and Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, on behalf of King James I, before establishing an East India Company factory at Hirado. Richard Cocks was the first head of that factory, which closed only ten years later. UK-Japan relations resumed in the 1850s, after the shogunate eased the “maritime restrictions” of the Tokugawa period. There were some rough bits in the relationship, and some very high points of quite close, positive relations, and then that brief period when Japan started conquering British colonies/outposts and everybody was at war, followed by the return of friendly relations from 1945 (or ’52, I guess), onwards through today.
Getting to the point, that 1613 date for Saris’ meeting with the Shogun makes this year, 2013, the 400th anniversary of Japanese-British relations. And, boy, does London have an events lineup planned. First of all, the list of people involved in organizing the “Japan400” events reads like a veritable who’s who of Japan-related people of the UK, from big-name scholars like Tim Screech, Leonard Blusse, Joe Earle, and Ian Nish, to numerous Sirs, at least one Viscount, and one Right Honorable Lord Mayor Alderman.
I just came upon the website a few days ago. Events began this week, in conjunction with the 470th anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s birth, and will continue through the end of the year. Closing ceremonies will be held on Dec 20, 2013, the 399th anniversary of the first ever art auction in Britain, in which John Saris sold the lacquerwares he obtained in Japan.
I can’t list every event on the schedule, but here are the highlights, those events I’d be most interested in, if I were able to attend any of them (which, sadly, I am not). You can find fuller lists of upcoming events at this page, and of events later in the year here. The schedule includes numerous lectures, workshops, symposia/conferences, exhibitions and festivals, including:
*29 January: Lecture by Prof. Timon Screech, “On the 400th Anniversary of the English East India Company in Japan: 1613–2013: A Forgotten Episode in Cultural History”, held at the Society of Antiquaries.
*31 January – 9 February: Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai, a new play by the Royal Shakespeare Company
*14-15 March: Lectures by Prof. Derek Massarella, on “Silver: The World’s First Global Commodity,” and on William Adams, respectively.
*April-May: An exhibition of “the art of the Japanese book”, at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery
*June: Conference on “Boundaries Across Edo and Meiji Period Japanese Culture, and the Role of Great Britain” at SOAS
*August: Exhibition of East India Company documents at the British Library
*September: The annual William Adams Festival in Kent will be even larger than usual.
*September: A conference on “1613 in Comparative Perspective”, held at SOAS.
*September: A conference on the history of international trade in weapons, held at the Royal Armouries.
*October: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s “red seal letter” (shuinjô) granting the British permission to reside and trade in Japan, will be put on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The document is believed to have been in the collection since 1614.
Shôchiku has just announced the programs for the first several months of shows at the rebuilt (renovated) Kabuki-za, scheduled to open in April 2013, including, of course, some rather special performances for the occasion. Sadly, I won’t be able to see the shows in April or May, but I am very much hoping to make it out to Tokyo in June or July. In total, there will be a full year of these kokera otoshi performances, celebrating the opening of the new theatre.
The April program opens, appropriately, with a celebratory Crane dance called Kakuju senzai (鶴寿千歳), performed to welcome the new Kabuki-za, and to mark its opening in an auspicious manner. I had the pleasure, in January 2008, of seeing this dance performed by the late Nakamura Jakuemon, then the oldest kabuki actor still-active; he passed away earlier this year at the age of 91.
The program then continues with Omatsuri (lit. “Festival”), a piece often performed in celebration of the return to the stage of an actor who has been long absent due to illness. This April, however, it will be performed in honor, in memory, of the late, great, Nakamura Kanzaburô, who passed away earlier this month.
Of course, the sense of which plays are “big name,” or to put it more truthfully, which plays I have personally heard of, is exceedingly subjective. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, the May performances are almost exclusively those with which I am familiar:
*Tsurukame, an auspicious crane & turtle dance.
*The Terakoya scene from Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami
*Sannin Kichisa, starring Danjûrô, Kikugorô, and Nizaemon as the three Kichisas.
*Meiboku Sendai Hagi, also known as The Ten Roles of the House of Date (Date no jûyaku), a play featuring the sorcerer Nikki Danjô, and a giant rat. I’ve never seen this play, but have seen it referenced countless times in ukiyo-e prints. Featuring Matsumoto Kôshirô as the sorcerer, and Sakata Tôjûrô as Masaoka. This play is famous for featuring a single actor in ten roles, performing numerous quick-changes between characters, though I am unclear as to which actor will be the one to do this.
*Kuruwa Bunshô, feat. Nizaemon and Tamasaburô
*Dôjôji, a most special opportunity to see the great onnagata Tamasaburô in the leading role
Finally (for now), the June performances, which I just might get to see, include:
*Shunkan, a story based on the 1177 Shishigatani Incident, in which the monk Shunkan is exiled to a remote island.
*and, Sukeroku, one of the most popular plays, and one which I’m really glad to have seen, though it would be wonderful if they were showing a big-name show I have not yet seen in person, such as Ise Ondo.
A 1962 performance of Sukeroku, featuring Ichikawa Danjûrô XI as Sukeroku, and Nakamura Utaemon VI as Agemaki.
Meanwhile, the Kanamaru-zain Kagawa Prefecture, Shikoku – the oldest still-operating kabuki theatre in the world – hosts performances only in April every year. This year, the shows include shûmei performances for Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, formerly Ichikawa Kamejirô, who took on that name roughly six months ago, as Ichikawa Ennosuke III became Ichikawa En’ô. I don’t know if this will be his first performance, his debut, in the role of the fox Tadanobu in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura, a role for which the former Ennosuke is quite famous, but in any case, debut or not, the afternoon program this coming April at the Kanamaru-za includes scenes from Yoshitsune, with Ennosuke in that role. The evening program includes a formal announcement (kôjô, 口上) of his name-taking (shûmei), along with Kyô ningyô and Ôshû Adachigahara, two pieces with which I am not familiar, though I’m sure they’re great.
WordPress seems confused as to whether this is my 500th or 501st post. Either way, I’m amazed to have reached this milestone, and happy for either this post, summarizing exciting upcoming events at New York’s Japan Society, or the previous post, on a serious academic dilemma, to stand as my 500th post.
Chief among them is a symposium scheduled for Sept. 29, which will feature some of the top scholars of Japanese art history in the world, including Kobayashi Tadashi – a top expert on Edo period painting, and someone whose work I have read a lot of, but whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting – along with Matthew McKelway and Haruo Shirane, both very big names in the field as well, from Columbia University. I hope there is some kind of transcript or publication afterwards that those of us who cannot attend might be able to get our hands on.
Prof. McKelway will also give another lecture on the subject of Sakai Hôitsu and Rinpa on October 18.
Judging from his style, and perhaps more so the immaculate condition of the works I saw, and the vibrancy of the colors, I would have guessed Hôitsu to be a Nihonga artist of the late 19th or early 20th century. But, knowing that he lived so much earlier, from 1761-1828, very firmly within the Edo period, I’d guess to place him instead with the so-called “Eccentrics,” people like Nagasawa Rosetsu who, similarly, produced works with a certain simplicity and cleanliness, but also with bright vibrant colors and dramatic content.
Right: A painting by Nagasawa Rosetsu, dated 1798, depicting the destruction in that year of the Great Buddha Hall of Kyoto. (Sometimes mistaken for being the Great Buddha Hall of Tôdai-ji in Nara, but I’m fairly certain it was the Great Buddha of Kyoto that’s referred to here.)
But, then, what do I know? If the experts call Hôitsu “Rinpa,” placing him in a category with artists like Tawaraya Sôtatsu, Ogata Kôrin, and Suzuki Kiitsu, known for their large compositions on gold-backed folding screens, then I guess they have very good reasons for saying so. Prof. McKelway, who guest curated this exhibit with the help of a PhD student specializing in Rinpa, is one of the leading Rinpa scholars himself, so if he and everyone else involved with the exhibit say he’s Rinpa, who am I to argue? What’s important is that his work is stunningly beautiful, expertly executed, and employs classical themes and references that give the works deeper meaning, making them all the more captivating.
Meanwhile, Japan Society’s Performing Arts Department has an exciting season planned, as always. It includes a fair share of very modern/contemporary sort of things, but also on Oct 27-28, a rare opportunity to see Kagura, a sort of Shintô religious / folk tradition dance form. A December 8th concert claims to be Rinpa-inspired. I tend to be skeptical of such claims when made by experimental modern art types, but.. if it’s true, it could be a pretty amazing concert.
The exhibit itself promises to be brilliant, and while I am very much hoping to be able to catch it while on a very brief jaunt to the East Coast next month, I am sad that I won’t be around to enjoy all these other events. If you find yourself in the New York area, I encourage you to go.
I journeyed into the city yesterday to check out the Japan Block Fair for the first time, and after that, took some time to check in on a few of these Japan-related places, both old and new.
I’d been to Japan Day at Central Park once, but never to Japan Block Fair. The latter feels like a much smaller event, but only because it’s packed into a much smaller space. Yesterday’s block fair squeezed twenty or so booths into the space of one city block – between 39th and 40th streets, on just one side of Park Avenue. A couple hundred people were in attendance, recreating the feel of the crush of maneuvering your way through Shibuya, or along Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Booths included a few selling tenugui, second-hand kimono, and the like, as well as a travel agency handing out flyers, one booth selling delicious iced green tea, a rummage sale booth, and numerous stands selling takoyaki, yakisoba and the like. I had hoped to find new zori (sandals), but no such luck. Many of the booths were collecting donations for tsunami relief. A few booths represented specific regions – the Aomori kenjinkai had a booth, and were selling food, though to my disappointment weren’t really advertising Aomori with pictures or books, videos of tsugaru shamisen performances, or any kind of flyers (but that’s okay); Shikoku was well-represented, with a Sanuki Udon booth selling freshly handmade noodles, and a “Home Island Project” booth from Tokushima.
The Home Island Project describes itself as “aim[ing] at raising awareness about our “Home Island” SHIKOKU and turning the island into [a] magnet for people around the world.” Their banners and outfits were impressively designed and cohesive, with a clean, sleek design in a beautiful shade of blue; members associated with the project performed Awa Odori, a festival dance for which Tokushima prefecture is particularly famous. I’ve never yet myself been to Shikoku, but I really would love to go. Lots to see and do, from the many still-intact original Edo-period castles, to Dôgo Onsen (inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away), to seeing kabuki at the Kanamaru-za, the oldest still-operating kabuki theater in the country, to the contemporary art goings-on on Inland Sea islands Shôdoshima and Naoshima.
The Fair also included the NY Street Ramen Contest, in which eight or so restaurants and other organizations prepared different types of ramen dishes, and guests taste-tested and judged their favorites. For most of the day the line was way too long for me to even think about getting involved, but just at the very end, suddenly there was no line at all, so I squeezed in and tried a few of the ramen dishes. The cold (hiyashi ramen) dish with shaved ice and sesame dressing from Hôryû Ramen was quite good, as was the tonkotsu shio ramen from Nobu Chan, but of the three I tried, my favorite was Ramen Misoya’s Hokkaido-style miso ramen with corn and a french fry.
The main attraction for me – the main reason I made sure not to miss the Fair – was that a group called Ryû-kaji was performing. My father always says you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough (or wait and happen to come across it), and once again, I guess he was proven right, because while I was beginning to get kind of skeptical that I’d ever find an Okinawan sanshin group, or teacher, here in NY, yesterday I came across Ryûkaji, and their sensei Taguchi Saki. The group played a bunch of Okinawan songs, some more traditional, some folk songs (e.g. Asadoya Yunta), and some more modern pop songs (e.g. Ojii jiman no Orion Beer). They looked great in black (for the girls) and purple kasuri kimono (for the guys), with sensei in full-on yellow and red bingata, her hair up in a bun Okinawan style. Afterwards, I spoke to a few of the students, and to sensei, about the possibility of taking lessons, and I am looking forward to doing so. One-on-one lessons will hopefully get me seeing some improvement, even though it’s only for a few months, before I leave New York for new adventures.
All in all, the Block Fair was great. I thought it a little funny that I didn’t see any people, or organizations or groups that I was familiar with, and it remains a mystery to me as to who exactly is behind this, since it’s not Japan Society or Asia Society or any organization with a recognizable name. But, then, I guess that’s a function of it being New York. The vastness of the city and its communities, the incredible number of Japanese restaurants and organizations, bringing a degree of impersonality. I think that, with time, I could get to know some of the movers and shakers, get to know the people behind some of the restaurants, but I think it would take a lot longer than it did in Hawaii, where the community is much smaller, and many of the same people are involved (or at least attending) in the many different events.
I left the Block Fair eventually, and made my way to Kinokuniya, just because it was nearby. Nothing’s changed over there – still an amazing selection, still all of it quite overpriced. It’s a shame we can’t magically meld Kinokuniya’s (brand-new, imported) selection with BookOff’s far more reasonable (second-hand) prices. Seventy bucks for a kabuki DVD!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I’d be better off if you didn’t carry it at all – as is, you’re just taunting me.
The final stop for the day was to check out the new Uniqlo flagship store, on Fifth Ave at 53rd St. The largest retail store on Fifth Ave at 89,000 square feet, the store is really something. And, despite my best intentions not to buy anything, I couldn’t resist the half-off T-shirt sale, and ended up with a few from their large selection of One Piece designs. The t-shirts on offer also included a bunch of Japanese corporate logo designs, from Marukame udon to Vermont Curry to Kewpie mayonnaise, as well as Gundam, Evangelion, Mickey Mouse, and Coca-Cola designs. A recent blog post or article I saw talked about how Uniqlo has become sort of anti-fashionable in Japan lately, stigmatized I guess chiefly because it’s so cheap, and because no matter how good you may look, what’s really important (apparently) is that you spent a lot of money on it. Conspicuous consumption. I guess. But, whether New York is just behind the curve (which I’m sure it is, along with myself), or whether the Japanese are just being over-commercialist and crazy, Uniqlo’s offerings are actually pretty nice. A lot of the stuff is just super basic, and I’ve complained before (although perhaps not on this blog; I don’t remember) that I go to a Japanese store for Japanese fashion, not for plain ordinary shirts and jeans like I can get at any American store (e.g. Gap, Old Navy).
But Uniqlo keeps up with fashion, and while they may not have anything too radical, they do have slim fit shirts and slacks, three-quarter length pants (read: capris) for guys, and the like, as well as their own branded and supposedly revolutionary AIRism and Heattech materials, meant to be super thin and light, while keeping you plenty cool or warm (respectively). Now if they took that one further step, and started carrying (a) the same things that they offer in their Japan stores, and (b) a few more things with slightly Asian-fashion touches, like the high collars we see on hoodies and jackets on Asian fashion sites like YesStyle.com, and presumably (I haven’t been there in a while) on the streets of Shibuya and Shimokitazawa. Also – neckties, bowties, suspenders, and cooler belts. The mannequins looked very cool in slim neckties and bowties, or in neon-colored suspenders, but there were absolutely zero of these goods for sale; the belts were all brown leather, pretty standard and boring. Uniqlo has definitely kicked it up a notch, making things we want – like cardigans, slim pants, and t-shirts with Japanese designs – affordable and available all in one place. They just need to tweak that dial a tiny bit further, and then it could become my absolute #1 go-to store…