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A star map from Dunhuang, c. 700 CE, today in the collection of the British Library. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In my research on early modern East Asian diplomacy, though it may sound purely “secular” (if that’s even the right term) and political, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of cosmological conceptions of the Emperor’s position between Heaven and Earth, his spiritual identity and ritual role, and the relationship of all of this to conceptions of a regional or world order, with the Emperor at the center, emanating virtue so virtuous as to be seen or sensed or felt even in the most distant lands; the barbarians of those faraway lands, recognizing the Emperor’s virtue, would then naturally, as a matter of the natural proper cosmic order, would journey to the Imperial capital to pay tribute, and the beneficent Emperor, in return, would magnanimously provide these envoys with gifts. Such is foreign relations under the traditional Chinese model – tribute, and gifts, and maybe some other trade on the side.

I’m not quite sure when or how actual political policy negotiations ever took place in the Chinese case, but, at least in the meetings I am researching, between envoys of the King of Ryûkyû and the Tokugawa shogun (the shogunate having adopted & adapted certain aspects of the Chinese discourses of Imperial power & legitimacy), no such discussions of actual mundane matters took place – it was all pure ceremony – ritual obeisances, etc. Perhaps most importantly in all of this, which I think those questioning political or economic motives miss, is the belief that all of this was necessary towards maintaining the proper cosmic order; the emperor was responsible for keeping the entire cosmos spinning correctly, and if foreigners didn’t come to give tribute, and if the emperor did not reciprocate with gifts, all would fall into disorder and chaos. Perhaps the crops would stop growing; such was the importance of maintaining proper Confucian relationships.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I would strongly recommend John King Fairbank’s edited volume The Chinese World Order (Harvard University Press, 1968). Of course, plenty of newer works draw upon this, but none have really superseded it as the seminal volume on the subject. Other things I’ve read which may be of interest include the chapters on Han Dynasty foreign relations in the Cambridge History of China, and James Hevia’s book Cherishing Men from Afar, which addresses court rituals and conflicting attitudes about foreign relations in the Macartney Embassy of 1793.

A reconstruction of the Imperial throne at the reconstructed Heijô Imperial Palace in Nara. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, getting to the point of this post, anyone who has studied Chinese or Japanese history and has learned anything about the arrangement of classical Chinese capitals – such as Chang’an, and the Japanese capitals of Heijô (Nara) and Heian (Kyoto) based upon it – knows that the Imperial Palace is located in the north of the city, and faces south. The main gates of the palace, and indeed of the whole city, face south, the Audience Hall faces south, and within it, the Imperial throne faces south. Why is this? Most textbooks, if they offer an explanation at all, say something hand-wavey about geomantic beliefs and feng shui and pretty much leave it at that. And I don’t blame them. To be honest, it’s not necessarily an area of things I ever thought I’d be particularly interested in pursuing further.

But, then, as I read something on the origins of the terms huáng dì (皇帝, J: kôtei) and tiān huáng (天皇, J: tennô), the most common, standard terms today for Chinese and Japanese emperors respectively, I came across something about the association in China of the term tiān huáng with the Taoist worship of the North Star. This same essay, “Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages” by Ben-Ami Shillony, explained that the term tiān huáng was in fact only used in China very briefly, from around 675 CE until around 705 CE. So, I dismissed the whole North Star thing as interesting but ultimately just sort of obscure and particular only to ancient Taoism. Of course, there are shrines in Japan dedicated to the kami and/or bodhisattva of the North Star, known as Myôken 妙見. But, then, this too could be easily dismissed as being just another obscure corner of Shinto belief; after all, there are kami for just about anything, and it’s not all that shocking that a strain of ancient Chinese Taoism should survive in some form somewhere in Japan.

But then, today, a discovery. The Analects of Confucius, 2:1*:

One who governs through virtue may be compared to the polestar, which occupies its place while the host of other stars pay homage to it.

I hope that I am not reading too deeply into this one passage, or jumping to conclusions too quickly, but as I read this, a concept sort of clicked into place for me. The Emperor is like the Polestar. He stands fixed, and Heaven and Earth revolve around him. This is what is meant by the Emperor being the “axis” between Heaven and Earth, a word choice I never quite understood. And, if the Emperor is associated with the North Star, then, standing at cosmic North, it makes perfect sense that everything he surveys, in all directions, would be to his South.

Now, granted, when it comes to other aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs about the cardinal directions, the Emperor is traditionally associated with Center, and yellow, and not with North, and black. But, I shall continue to keep my eyes out for further pieces to this puzzle.

*Sources of Chinese Tradition, p46.

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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 few news articles I 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?

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*I posted a few weeks ago about a dispute between the Russian government and Chabad, over a collection of documents which Chabad claims Russia is refusing to return to them. A not-so-different situation has emerged in Japan regarding a number of Buddhist sculptures stolen by Koreans, who claim they were simply stealing them back, and who now refuse to return the objects to Japan.

Two Buddhist sculptures recently stolen from Tsushima and now in the hands of S. Korean authorities. Images from Japan Daily Press.

One such sculpture, the New York Times reports, was seemingly stolen right out of a Buddhist temple on the Japanese island of Tsushima. The statue, originally held in a Korean temple in the early 14th century, has been on Tsushima for centuries, and has been designated an Important Cultural Property by Nagasaki Prefecture. As the article relates, the statue was soon afterwards discovered by South Korean police, but then a Korean court judged that the object did not need to be repatriated to Japan, as its arrival in Japan may have originally been at the hands of pirates who stole it from Korea.

A model of a red seal ship, or shuinsen, on display at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). Though the model is not explicitly, specifically, labeled as or intended to be a pirate vessel, but rather, by definition an authorized, legal, merchant vessel (the “red seal” being the official mark of authorization), this is representative of a typical seagoing Japanese ship of that time.

People sure are obsessed over these pirates. I of course know nothing about this specific case, and cannot say whether the object was, indeed, brought to Japan by pirates who stole it from Korea, or not. But, I can say that contrary to popular belief, the so-called wakô (C: Wōkòu, K: waegu, lit. “Japanese bandits”) were not exclusively or even primarily of Japanese origin. A great many of them were from China, Korea, or Southeast Asia. Even if the object had been stolen by pirates in the 15th or 16th centuries, does that really mean that it ought to be returned to Korea? Is it still an outstanding case, an ongoing “wrong” that needs to be righted? Or is it just history? Where do we draw the line? Interestingly, the Japan Daily Press reports that the Chosun Ilbo, one of S. Korea’s most major newspapers, has published pieces by Korean scholars arguing both in support of the piracy theory, and against it, with the latter scholar suggesting the statue may have made its way to Japan as a gift, as part of diplomatic exchanges between Joseon Dynasty Korea and Tokugawa Japan.

Last year’s (2012) Tsushima Arirang Festival Korean Missions Procession, as recorded & uploaded by YouTube user syokichi0102.

Tokugawa Japan & Joseon Korea had rather peaceful and friendly relations for roughly 250 years, from the early 1600s until the 1850s or so, via Tsushima. A great many objects were given as gifts, in both directions, though the Korean authorities today (and in particular, representatives of the temple which originally owned the statue back in the early 14th century) seem dead-set on rejecting the idea that the sculpture could have possibly been gifted or sold willingly. The Korean diplomatic missions which passed through Tsushima in the 17th-19th centuries are celebrated and reenacted every year by the people of the island along with visitors from South Korea. Or, at least, they are normally. The festival has been canceled this year, in response to the Korean court’s decision, and the broader controversy/incident surrounding the theft of this sculpture.

Roughly half the residents of Tsushima have now signed a petition to be submitted to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, asking that the statue be returned. We shall see what happens. The Japan Times (in English) and J-Cast News (in Japanese) also have articles on this subject.

The Korean peninsula as depicted in Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu.

*Meanwhile, on a related note, while I fully admit that I do not know much at all about the actual content of Korean scholarship, I have always gotten the impression that it is rather nationalistic, and in particular, emphasizing a Korean cultural superiority & individuality, downplaying Chinese influence on Korea, and up-playing Japan’s cultural/historical debt to Korean cultural influence, while also emphasizing Japanese violence and militarism throughout history. To what extent, or in what precise ways, any of that is or isn’t true, in all honesty, I do not really know for myself.

But, given those rumors I’ve heard, given those impressions I’d been given, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear about best-selling S. Korean art historian You Hong-june, whose newest book not only goes against my impressions of what is typical in Korean scholarship, but also appears to provide radically new and interesting – genuinely valuable – perspectives on the history of Korean-Japanese interactions.

To give an example, during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s, in addition to the extensive violence inherent in any such war, a great many potters and craftsmen were also kidnapped from Korea, essentially taken as prisoners of war, and forced to teach their techniques to Japanese potters. Any art history textbook will tell you that many of the most famous Japanese pottery styles owe their origins in Japan to these Korean potters. Most English-language scholarship that I’ve seen has emphasized the kidnapping, the terrible wrongs inherent in those actions, and rightly so. I get the impression that most Korean scholarship emphasizes this violence even further, and while I don’t really know, I somehow get the impression that much Japanese scholarship might not take too different a position, acknowledging this as kidnapping, as a violent act. But, getting to the point, interestingly, You Hong-june is quoted as pointing out an additional, interesting, and important side of all this: “In a description of the area in Kyushu that produced the Arita and Imari styles of pottery, You writes that the potters brought to Japan by troops sent to invade the Korean Peninsula by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century were ‘of lowly status in Korea, but in Japan treated as skilled artisans.’”

Speaking of the origins of the Japanese state, and of “Japanese” culture in the 6th-8th centuries, You also writes that “foreigners [i.e. Koreans] who came to settle in ancient Japan exerted an influence, but what grew there should be regarded as Japan’s own culture.” Again, as I don’t read Korean, I can’t say what truly is said in most Korean scholarship, but I get the impression this is a relatively radical notion against claims of Japan’s origins being entirely a borrowing, or a stealing, of superior Korean culture, or something to that effect.

Stereotypes and misconceptions abound in any and every culture. That’s unavoidable. But, You seems to be encouraging Korean readers to take a fresh, new, open-minded look at Japan. “Knowing about Japan as it really is will further broaden readers’ understanding of Korean history,” he writes, encouraging a less nationalistically-centered view of Korean history and Korean identity, and instead one more engaged with regional exchanges and interconnectedness. Having only these quotes from today’s Asahi article, I can’t say what the content of his book is like through-and-through, but if it’s anything like what I suspect, it could be wonderful to see it translated and published in Japanese and English, providing a new, different, additional perspective on Korean attitudes about Japan.

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A colophon by Dong Qichang (d. 1636), on a handscroll painting formerly attri. Dong Yuan (d. 962). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

*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.

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The handwritten siddur (prayer book) of the Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidism, 1698-1760) with his students’ names in the margins to help him remember them in his prayers. The siddur is in the collection of Agudas Chabad Library, in Brooklyn. The book is open to the Amidah or Shemone Esreh prayer. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

So, apparently, Russia is not lending any artworks to American museums right now. Why? Because they are afraid that anything they send over here might be held for ransom until Russia turns over the 15,000 or so books & other documents they hold formerly belonging to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, aka the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late leader of Chabad, a very prominent Brooklyn-based ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. A recent article in the magazine Tablet explains out the situation in some nice detail – I myself knew extremely little about it, and am glad for the information. But I would wager that the vast majority of curators & other museum professionals in the US know next to nothing about this collection, or about the controversy. It may be a huge big deal within Chabad circles, and who knows just how prominent it is within the Russian government, or the Russian museum world, but, for museums all across the United States to be denied loans of Matisses and Monets, across the board, because of a dispute between the Russian government and a Jewish sect over a collection of books (and these 15,000 volumes are not even the entirety of the Rebbe’s collection; Chabad has another 250,000 volumes in Brooklyn), seems, well, silly.

But, then, that’s just how the museum world works sometimes. Reality can be stranger than fiction, and as in any set of politics, in the museum world or in any other field, all sorts of things can get twisted up together that really shouldn’t be connected…

The collection was obtained by the Russians when they took it from the Nazis who had taken it from where the Rebbe stored it in Warsaw after successfully escaping from Soviet Russia (in order to protect both himself and the collection). After that, nothing was heard or known about the collection for many years, until around the time of Gorbachev, and then the fall of the Soviet Union, information began to come out. But still the Russian government would not let go of the objects. They allowed Chabad rabbis to come to Moscow, believing they were going to be allowed to at least see the collection, but in the end denied the rabbis even that, allowing them to see only a catalog of the collection. Then there was some kind of legal decision, in which Chabad won the decision and the Russians were obliged to, or agreed to, return the collection. But, that too didn’t end up happening.

Now, Russian officials are asserting that The Schneersohn collection is a “national treasure of the Russian people.” As representatives of Chabad have appropriately responded, “There is no justification for Russia’s retention of Jewish texts that were stolen by the Nazis in Poland and then looted by the Red Army during the Holocaust.” And that’s the least of the justifications, it would seem, for why Russia’s claims are, well, on less than solid ground. This is coming from a country that for nearly the entire 20th century suppressed all religion; a country where anti-Jewish pogroms were so bad in the pre-Soviet era that these pogroms are among the most famous, most prominently known & cited causes of Russian Jewish emigration to the United States. A country where anti-Jewish policies were so severe, the State of Israel worked to “rescue” over 160,000 Jews from Soviet Russia in the 1960s-70s alone.

The new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow. Opened 2012, according to Wikipedia it may be the largest Jewish museum in the world.

Of course, towards the middle of the article, we see a somewhat more sympathetic and nuanced side. Rabbi Gorin, a spokesperson for Chabad in Russia (Chabad is active in Russia? I’m surprised.) claims that the Russian government, which is now moving the collection to a new Museum of Jewish Tolerance, has Hebraists on staff who are working to more properly & accurately catalog the collection, and who intend to digitize the entire thing and make it all accessible to the public. Wow. Sounds nice. So I guess the books aren’t locked away in some basement, hated and forgotten about. And, he explains, all the talk about the books being a “national treasure” is just posturing, and what it’s really about is that, as part of a sort of umbrella stance/attitude, the removal or return of anything from any of the national libraries is essentially out of the question. The British Museum has spoken similarly as to the inability of the Elgin Marbles, or objects of potential Nazi provenance, being removed from their collection and given over to previous or allegedly “rightful” owners. Further, Gorin says “that the Schneersohn library is typical of great eastern European rabbis’ personal collections,” and that furthermore, since so many such libraries were destroyed, that makes this one all the more valuable as a source for research, and as something to proudly hold – and keep – in one’s collection. This is an argument I’ve seen before in numerous other cases, and with which, I must say, I can sympathize. There are countless cases of museums in the US, UK, and elsewhere that don’t want to give up a given object or collection because it is such a valuable example of X, Y, or Z, and indeed I sympathize with that and in many cases would side with the museum. This makes it a lot harder to feel definitively one way or the other on this issue.

And, in the end, as the article concludes, in truth, contrary to what was represented earlier in the article, it would seem that many/most Russian officials are not in fact concerned about anything relating to the objects themselves, e.g. bitterness against Chabad for the virulence of the conflict, but, rather, are afraid of setting a precedent. They’re afraid that by letting anything go, it sets a dangerous precedent for other groups to start making claims of their own. I wish we could file this one away under the Russians being crazy, obnoxious, stubborn, or anti-Semitic, or refusing (or failing) to change from their Soviet ways of doing things, but, unfortunately, these arguments sound all too familiar. I can imagine American institutions making very similar arguments, and I can imagine siding with them in such circumstances. So… while I sympathize with the Chabadniks to a great extent, in the end I’m really not sure which side to believe, or to side with. Hopefully this plan to digitize the collection and make it publicly available actually manifests. It’s not as much as the Lubavitchers may want, but it’s certainly something.

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Sometimes you write a post thinking you’re really sort of contributing something to a conversation… and then afterwards, you read it over and the whole thing seems so atari-mae, so obvious, like it really goes without saying. Hm… But, given how many articles I see every week emphasizing career prospects and monetary earning, maybe there is some value in stating what I think should be a rather common sense idea.

An article in TIME magazine from this week asks “What Colleges Will Teach in 2025.”

This is just the latest in a slew of articles on the subject of what colleges should be teaching, what the purpose of college is, what the end goal of attending college is, and how we should be evaluating academic quality or success.

In addressing these questions, countless commentators focus on professional training, and monetary success following graduation. Another major thread focuses on creative thinking skills. I cannot fault either of these, and of course agree that both of these are of great importance. However, recently, increasingly, I have come to believe that college needs to pick up the slack and take up the role once associated chiefly with high school – namely, turning out informed citizens.

I don’t know how much high school curricula have changed in the last (nearly) 15 years since I completed high school, but in my personal experience, there is so much I have learned in college and in graduate school about identity politics, race, (post)colonialism, and feminism and gender relations, and indeed about law, politics, and economics (in short, “civics”) that I never learned in high school.

There is a logic, an underlying reasoning, behind public education in general, and behind the teaching of civics, of US history, world religions, etc. at the high school level in particular, that speaks to the great importance of having our neighbors, our countrymen, ourselves, be informed members of society. Critical thinking skills are a big part of this, but so too are historical/cultural knowledge, among other subjects. I can certainly appreciate why World Religions, for example, might be seen by students, and by many commentators, as somewhat frivolous, as somewhat extra, as not essential for someone’s professional training into being a scientist, lawyer, doctor, or whathaveyou. The classic argument of “when am I going to use this?” The answer: every day.

I could write an entire post on just the value of being able to question your own religious beliefs in order to have a more meaningful relationship with your own upbringing, identity, tradition, and values. But, even putting that aside, if the type of education students receive in a World Religions class were more privileged, more emphasized – that is, if more college graduates, more members of our society, knew more about Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism, than fewer people on our streets would get attacked for some perceived association with “terrorism.” Imagine where race relations could be today if more people in our society had taken more classes in Black Studies, Chicano Studies, Asian-American Studies, Indigenous Studies. And if students took more courses in History (or certain other fields, certain other departments), especially non-Western history, then, in their everyday lives, in speaking with one another, in writing opinion pieces, in voting for politicians or voting for policies, they could speak and act in a more informed, less misguided, manner, on a myriad of topics, from the war in Syria to atrocities in Africa to the perceived economic threat of China.

The potential topics are nearly endless. Stereotypes and misbeliefs abound in our society, as they do in all societies. Mistaken beliefs about what the Constitution says and what it means. Mistaken beliefs about the history and impact today of colonialism/imperialism. Mistaken beliefs about whites, blacks, Asians, Indians, Arabs, and Hispanics. Mistaken beliefs about Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists. Mistaken beliefs about gender and sex. Mistaken beliefs about the place of America in the world. The list goes on and on.

Of course, I want students to be financially successful, and to be successful in pursuing their career ambitions. And, of course, I want students to be able to think for themselves. And, I suppose that the idea of doing research, taking the initiative to learn about something, to analyze it critically, to choose to want to become informed, and then to do so, could all be included under the rubric of a curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking. But, that research, and the informed opinions that result, are essential; they are absolutely crucial, I believe, beyond the mere condition of being open-minded, and asking questions.

There are a multitude of things I do not understand, the fine intricacies of contemporary American politics, economics, law, health insurance policies, etc. certainly being among them. But, learning what I have in the last ten or so years about East Asian history, about Asian-American history, about Hawaiian/Pacific history, about colonialism/imperialism, about race/ethnicity/identity discourses, about media discourse, and about gender performance, has absolutely opened my eyes to all kinds of things in the world that are profoundly important to my being a more informed member of society – in how I see myself, and how I interact with other people, as well as in how I view political issues and how I act upon those views – and I have come to believe, more and more, that these kinds of things are truly crucial, essential, in the education of our next generation.

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The Memorial to Japanese American Patriotism in World War II in DC, which I visited a few years ago. Not precisely related to this exhibit in NYC, but…

*Up through October 11, an exhibit of works relating to the Japanese-American internment, entitled “The Japanese American Internment Project, If They Came for Me Today: East Coast Stories, is showing at The Interchurch Center, 475 Riverside Dr, in New York City. The show was supposed to open on Sept 9, and I went on Sept 10, but it wasn’t yet open, unfortunately. So, I have not seen the show myself, and can’t really say much at all about what it contains. Still, it sounds like an important and powerful event – growing up white & Jewish on the East Coast, the Japanese-American internment was something I barely learned or heard anything about. Since moving to Hawaii, and then to the West Coast, I’ve seen how it has so much more of a presence here, and rightfully so.

*While in Okinawa last month, to my surprise, I came across the Battle of Okinawa / Holocaust Photo Exhibition Hall, in Naha’s Nishi neighborhood. Sadly, they were closed by the time I got there (around 6pm, though still plenty of hours of daylight left), so I didn’t get to visit inside. I wish I might have made sure to go back later in the week. But their website is quite extensive (though, mostly in Japanese), so one of these days I might read through some more of it.

I won’t pretend like I really know, deeply, about the full depth of Okinawan(-American) identity; I’m not an anthropologist or sociologist, or expert in contemporary Asian-American diaspora studies or anything like that. But, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, based on my own upbringing and identity, and having heard and seen what I have of Okinawan & Okinawan-American identity, I feel that there are some powerful similarities, in terms of the role of past tragedies, past atrocities, in our cultural memory, that are quite central to our contemporary identity. The incredible losses of the 1940s for both our peoples, not only in terms of the number of human lives so tragically, so horrifically, terminated, but also in terms of the great losses of culture, and land, at that time, I think we share a lot in terms of our struggles, today, as a Jewish community, and as Okinawan and Okinawan-American communities, to retain or revive cultural traditions and identity. Since I began studying Okinawan history, I’ve begun to see parallels, and to feel a connection; to see this idea, this connection, validated by the existence of this institution is quite encouraging.

*Moving on to the world of contemporary art, I’ve come across a site recently called ART PAPERS. It features, as you might expect, various essays on contemporary art. To be honest, I can’t quite make heads or tails of what they’re talking about, haha. But, I eagerly look forward to other posts in the future, to see what insights or ideas they might present.

*One of two contemporary Japanese artists I’ve learned about recently, Morita Rieko produces stunning, brightly boldly colorful images of birds & flowers, and of beautiful women (bijinga), in a neo-traditional, Nihonga style. Sadly, I don’t see anything on her website explicitly describing what media she uses – whether it’s ink & mineral colors in the truly traditional manner, or whether it’s oils or acrylics or digital or something – but, in any case, the works are truly beautiful.

*Gajin Fujita is a rather different kind of neo-traditional artist, not recreating or maintaining the tradition, but remixing it into graffiti / hip-hop / street art styles. I don’t normally go for the graffiti/hip-hop aesthetics, but the way he incorporates ukiyo-e figures, kabuki characters, in the style of ukiyo-e imagery, into these contexts, is really wonderful. You can see more about Fujita at LA Louver gallery’s website.

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One of the many (possibly) historic buildings in Sakura. I kind of like this as an image for the top of this post, as it sort of represents the atmosphere or aesthetic of Sakura – a mix of the age of samurai, and the aesthetic of the early postwar. I don’t know how old this building is – might be only 50-60 years. Today, it houses a hardware store.

I’ve been hanging out in the town of Sakura1, out in Chiba, for more than a week now, and a few days ago, I finally took a day to run around and see the sights. As it turns out, there’s just perfectly enough sights to fill out one day of sightseeing – sure, there were a few things I haven’t seen just yet, but I hit just about everything I planned to, and a few things I hadn’t planned on, and managed to finish it all up right around 5pm, just as anything with a closing time was doing so.

One of the main streets of Sakura, as seen from the fourth floor of the city art museum.

I’m tempted to try to say something about the size or character of the town, especially since this really is my first time spending so long in any town in Japan outside of a major city. Prior to this, I’d only been to Naha, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka, for a day or two or three (each, of course), and I’d only ever spent any more time than that in Yokohama, Tokyo, or Kyoto. Wow, that’s a distressing thought – so many of my peers have spent years in various parts of the country, whether on JET or otherwise, and while I’ve been fortunate to do a bit of traveling, as I type this out I realize my experiences really have been rather severely limited. I haven’t even lived in a provincial city, like Kôchi or Kanazawa or Kagoshima, nor in a sort of historically significant but smaller, off-to-the-side city like Nara or Kamakura, much as I think I’d love to.

The entrance to Keisei Sakura Station, and its immediate surroundings, on the north side of town. The city is also served by a JR station, on the south side of town.

In any case, I’m really not sure what to say about Sakura. I’m not sure what I can say, especially given how I’ve been thinking about generalities and essentialization lately. Maybe the best I can do is to say what it’s not. It’s not a big city by any means – less than an hour walk from one end to the other – but neither did I see any fields or rice paddies or anything of the sort within the core of the city. Much of the town is very much the kind of density and nice residential streets (one- or two-family houses, not apartment buildings) I associate with suburbia – reminds me actually of where I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, with of course the various differences in architectural style, and certain other aesthetic elements. The town has pretty much no big-name or chain stores – no Starbucks2, no Mister Donut, no BookOff, no McDs, no Yoshinoya, no Jonathan’s. Not that I like eating at chain stores, but, at least it would make me feel comfortable as to the level of quality, lack of sketchiness, degree of whether or not I (as a non-regular customer, and as a foreigner3) am welcome… There are a couple of 7-11s and Lawson’s, though. But, then, it’s not as if it’s the cutest, quaintest little town either – the JR station is surrounded with parking lots, pachinko parlors, and the like, and not too much else. I’ve seen neighborhoods in the middle of Tokyo much quainter, where a small three-car train stops at a station that consists of basically nothing more than a platform, right in the middle of the neighborhood, directly adjacent to a cute, local, shopping street (shôtengai). Which isn’t to criticize, but merely to attempt to describe.

Models of the three samurai houses, on display inside one of the them.

In any case, let’s move on to talking about the historical sites I visited on my one-day wandering exploration adventure. One thing I read somewhere claimed that Sakura has more intact samurai houses than any other town in Japan. I’m not sure whether or not I believe this, but, over the course of the day, I certainly did see a lot of old-looking buildings, scattered across town, and quite a few of them had little wooden placards identifying them as historical structures. Three of these samurai homes (buke yashiki) are open to the public, as historical homes or whatever you want to call it, and they’re relatively close to where I’m staying, so that’s where I started.


Along Kaburaki-kôji, a nice, quiet, residential street below the castle, these three houses are lined up one after the other. The pamphlets and such say that this street looks much as it did in the Edo period, though given that the road has been asphalted over, and pretty much the only other thing to see is tall hedges lining both sides of the street, obstructing the view of any traditional architecture that may exist, I’m not really sure what it’s worth to make such a statement.

Right: The entrance to one of the three samurai residences open to the public.

In any case, it would seem that quite a number of the houses along this street are extant, surviving, samurai houses from the Edo period, though the majority of them remain privately-owned property, and are therefore off-limits to the likes of myself. As for the ones I did get to visit, frankly, I’m not sure what there is much to say about them. Wooden construction, tatami floors, tiled, thatched, or shingled roofs, like so many others I’ve seen… I hate that I should be so jaded about this. When I first came to Japan, such things would have been amazing to see, and to get to go inside and walk around in.

I’d be curious more precisely the rank, or income in koku, of the samurai families who lived in these homes, because they just seem rather small and sparse for a member of such an elite class as the samurai. That is, of course, we also get a skewed impression because we aren’t seeing much of the material culture that would have been used in these homes – how fancy were their clothes, dishware, and other objects? I’ve seen commoners’ townhouses (machiya), and they definitely don’t seem any smaller, or any worse apportioned, than these samurai homes, and that I think is where it really gets me. From what little we do see of material culture here in these samurai homes – a few chests of drawers, buckets, mirrors, books piled on a desk, the lifestyle does seem pretty simple. Which, if this is the life of an elite family, even if they’re only a very low-ranking elite family, it just makes me wonder how much simpler, how much more “wanting” the lives of the lower classes – the so-called peasants – must have been. I’m not sure I want to know. Then again, I’ve also seen peasants’ houses, and, I don’t know, maybe those were the homes of well-to-do village headmen or something, but they were pretty large, and almost just as well apportioned as these samurai homes, in terms of cushions and desks and buckets and stoves and whatever. Sure, the villager might not have a heirloom suit of samurai armor sitting in the tokonoma, but… all in all, these samurai homes had a lot more in common with peasants’ homes (minka), or commoners’ townhouses (machiya), than with the samurai lord’s mansion I was to see later in the day.

The view straight through from one side of the house to the other. Each house has only a handful of rooms, in wood and tatami – with a minimum of decorative elements, e.g. carvings on the ranma, or any kind of byôbu or fusuma paintings – plus a rather basic-looking kitchen with a dirt floor.

It was certainly a nice wake-up call, to see the scale and style of more typical or average samurai homes. Being more used to seeing samurai residences on the scale of the lord’s mansion – since structures like those stand out a lot more as famous historical sites and tourist destinations, and are more typically preserved because of their association with more prominent figures – one can easily get the mistaken impression, as I did, that that was indicative of a samurai home, even for lower-ranking samurai. So, to see these homes was certainly a valuable experience, a valuable correction to my previous assumptions. We have this image in our minds of the samurai as “elites,” but, then again, if every samurai had a grand palace, where would you have room for all of them? Besides, even though we aren’t told precisely what rank the samurai families of these homes were, they are outside of the castle, indicating them to be of a lower rank than those living within the castle walls; the top-ranking retainers had residences close within the second or third bailey (ni- or san-no-maru) of the castle.

I took tons of pictures of plaques and labels and explanations, and haven’t gotten around to reading them. But, hopefully, eventually, I do hope to read them and write up Wiki articles on the Samurai Archives Wiki based on what I find. So, my apologies that these blog posts may be a little superficial, but, I thought it perhaps better to post something, rather than putting it off indefinitely until I got around to doing a more thorough, detailed job of it (something that, quite frankly, what with school and other projects, and such, might not come around for months and months). But, keep your eyes on the Wiki, and, hopefully before too long I’ll be putting something at least up there. Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

This neighborhood also includes a house once occupied by Kodama Gentarô, a general who was involved in basically every major war of the Meiji period (on the side of the Imperial Japanese Army), from the Boshin War through the Russo-Japanese War. So, that’s pretty cool, even though a high wall and hedges and such all but prevented me from seeing the house itself at all.


At the end of the street is a narrow pedestrian-only path called Hiyodori-zaka, flanked by bamboo, which is said to (even moreso than the residential street itself) be pretty much preserved from how it was during the time of the samurai. This, actually, I can believe. Certainly looks plausible – not that I know that much about Edo period roads in precise detail, but certainly nothing stands out and screams anachronism. It’s a simple sloped path, which I can imagine people walking up and down to get in and out of this samurai neighborhood.

Next time, temples! And the cemetery of the Hotta clan, lords of Sakura domain in the second half of the Edo period.

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(1)That’s 佐倉, literally something like “assistant warehouse,” not 桜 (“cherry blossoms” or “cherry tree”).
(2) There is reportedly a Starbuck’s attached to one of the big-box stores over on the other side of the train station, but I’m not counting that. I’m talking about things in town, that have a storefront on the street, rather than being in a strip mall or parking lot adjacent to nothing but highway…
(3) Not that I’ve ever come across too many “normal” restaurants that explicitly don’t welcome foreigners, but rather because I feel like the more “local” you get in Japan, the more “snack” and “pub” places there are, that aren’t really meant for anyone at all except for regulars, and/or are involved with or associated with, well, not-so-above-board activities.

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As I gradually made my way, one character at a time, through the primary source document I’m reading right now, I came across the name/title Matsudaira Izu no kami1, and I had a thought. I don’t know if anyone has written on this, if there is any scholarship on it, or if there’s any real supporting evidence, but, it’s just a thought.

The document refers to Matsudaira Izu no kami without any indication of a given name. Now, certainly, there are all sorts of potential reasons for this, in terms of etiquette and politeness, respecting and honoring the title or the position instead of referring to the individual, and/or reserving the use of the personal name for personal relationships. But, the thought occurred to me, does it matter to the person writing the letter who this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is? Does he care whether this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is the father, or the son, whether he is Matsudaira Nobuyori or Matsudaira Kazunobu or Matsudaira Tadakazu?2 Whether he is this sort of person, or that sort of person, in terms of physical appearance or personality? Or does the author of the document only think of Matsudaira Izu-no-kami as a position, as a person embodying that hierarchical and administrative position, as a member of the Matsudaira clan more or less interchangeable for any other member of the clan who might alternatively be occupying that title, or position, of Izu-no-kami?

What if, when you inherited a name or title, you weren’t just taking on the name or title while retaining your own individual identity? What if the common cultural understanding at the time was, rather, that you’re taking on that identity as well, subsuming, replacing, or erasing your own individual identity, and becoming a continuation, or embodiment, of that identity?

It was quite common in the Edo period, particularly within certain trades, for a son or successor to have the exact same name as his father, or predecessor. Look through Andreas Marks’ book on Edo period publishers, and you’ll find that a great many of them seem to have been active for spans of nearly a hundred years, or in some cases even longer. Moriya Jihei, whose publications included works by ukiyo-e greats Hokusai, Utamaro, and Kunisada, was active from roughly 1797 to 1886. Clearly, there was more than one individual operating under this name; it is exceedingly unlikely that a single person, by the name of Moriya Jihei, could have lived that long. Now, individual identity seems to us today pretty natural, and obvious – on at least some level, surely, people of any time and any culture would have had to recognize that one person (e.g. the original Moriya Jihei) has grown old and died, and that a different person, younger, with a different face and a different personality, has taken his place. I don’t think I would ever want to go so far as to suggest that there was no concept whatsoever of individuality in the Edo period. But, is it not possible that there was, at least to some extent, some idea of this young man as being the [new] Moriya Jihei, and not an entirely different person who’s taken on the name alone?

Perhaps what I’m getting at might be seen best in the arts. People expect a certain style from Hiroshige, or from Toyokuni. And they get (pretty much) the same style, the same themes and subjects, from the figures we today call Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III. In our individual-oriented conception today, we might say all kinds of things about Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III being separate individuals, with individual personalities and desires, taking on the name of their teacher because of custom/tradition, and/or applying that name in order to continue to sell an established, popular “brand.” But what if – and I’m not saying it was the case, but only that it would be an interesting phenomenon if it were – what if people at the time saw these artists not as new, different, individuals who had taken on a name, not as new, different artists with their own unique interests and styles, but as truly continuations of the same identity?

To make it even sharper, take the case of Kabuki. The history/historiography of kabuki of course recognizes the birth and death dates, life events, and unique personalities, skills, and talents of individual actors such as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII or Onoe Kikugorô III. But, kabuki tradition also holds that there are certain roles and techniques at which Danjûrô or Kikugorô excel, and in each generation, the actor bearing that name was expected to reflect those talents. In the West, we might say that so-and-so Jr. was really good at X, Y, and Z, while his father so-and-so Sr. was a completely different person. Charlie Sheen is not Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges is not Lloyd Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland, and we wouldn’t expect them to be, even if any of them did have the same name (e.g. Martin Sheen Jr.). Kabuki actors, on the other hand, are expected to not simply emulate or imitate the performance style of their predecessors, but, in a way, to be their predecessors. Danjûrô I (d. 1704) excelled at, among other techniques and distinctive moves, crossing his eyes and popping them out, and ever since then, each Danjûrô has been expected to do the same. To be unable to do so would mean not being Danjûrô — this is something that Danjûrô is famed for, and you’re Danjûrô, so you should be able to do it. Even if our more individual-oriented approach tells us that popping your eyes out, or crossing your eyes, like wiggling your ears or curling your tongue, is simply something that some people can and some people cannot do. Similarly, Onoe Kikugorô is famed for his ability to play both female roles and male roles, and especially for his skill, or talent, at playing both at once – in the play Benten Kozô, he plays a man disguised as a woman, who then strips his/her disguise and reveals himself within a scene. In the Western tradition, we might identify this as the special talent of one particular individual, saying, Onoe Kikugorô V was really especially good at this, and Kikugorô VI wasn’t, but Kikugorô VI was really good at such-and-such other thing… I don’t think this happens quite as much in kabuki. Kikugorô VI is Kikugorô; he’s the Kikugorô, the only Kikugorô (of this current generation, of this contemporary moment), and he is expected to perform, and embody, all that Kikugorô is expected to be.

Again, I don’t know that people in the Edo period generally, or even to whatever extent, or in whatever ways, did or did not think about identity and individuality in this way; I don’t have extensive evidence or scholarship that I’m drawing upon right now. I’m not saying it was, but only what if it were, and isn’t that an interesting thought. How did people of the Edo period view individual identity, and the relationship between individual identity and names?


1) I’m surprised to not find any good pages to link to online to explain the term “kami” (守) but, essentially, being the “kami” of a province, e.g. Izu no kami 伊豆守, or Satsuma no kami 薩摩守, was an honorary court title. It had no direct connection to the province a given lord was from, nor the province where he held power, and was purely a symbolic/honorary/ceremonial title. Nevertheless, this was a very prominent way of identifying people.
2) I’m making these names up, and not referring to anyone in particular; which is, essentially, the point. The name, and the individual identity, doesn’t seem to matter to the writer.

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It’s that time again. I’m in Japan for the summer, which really does need to happen more often. Of course, traveling and settling in and all of this means the open tabs have piled up. So, it’s time to write some quick links, some quick summaries and responses and post them, get them out there, and done with.

*I don’t follow Japanese politics very closely, and I don’t know the details, but, apparently, the Japanese election system is terribly skewed towards empowering rural areas. This would seem to help to explain why conservative policies (and conservative politicians) continue to hold so much sway… not that I necessarily know just how liberal the majority attitudes might be in the urban areas. But Masunaga Hidetoshi is among a number of people trying to change this. As a recent NY Times article explains,

Disparities in Japan’s election system … have long favored conservative rural districts over urban ones by giving them a disproportionately large number of representatives in the Diet, Japan’s Parliament. Those inequalities — which date to American occupation policies aimed at turning farmers into a powerful anti-Communist voting bloc — are now cited as a critical reason that Japan has clung so tenaciously to its postwar status quo despite its long stagnation.

Mr. Masunaga says he is making what in Japan is a novel constitutional argument: that every citizen’s vote should carry the same weight, a principle enshrined in the United States as one person, one vote. He says the current Japanese system is unconstitutional because it gives districts in some rural areas the same number of representatives as districts near Tokyo despite having less than half the number of voters — in effect, giving those rural areas the equivalent of one person, two-plus votes.

*A post on Why Chinese is So Damn Hard, by David Moser, of the University of Michigan. I have seen numerous similar posts on why Japanese is (supposedly) hard, but as I haven’t yet begun studying Chinese, and simply as a Japan specialist in general, I haven’t read too many of these.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure what my thoughts or reactions are on this. Sounds legit; but, then, what do I know? I will say this: the main things that worry me about Chinese, for if/when I ever do ever start studying the language, are (1) tones – pronouncing them correctly is likely to be a bitch. And the vowels and other sounds aren’t going to be that easy, either. Like that err / arr sound that’s usually rendered in pinyin as -ih, for example. Moser gives French as his standard example of an easy language, but, compared to Spanish or Japanese, or even Hebrew, I have to say, I think French is pretty intimidating to pronounce, too. (2) Romanization. Pinyin is okay, once you learn that ‘q’ is pronounced as “ch” (as in Qianlong), that ‘x’ is pronounced as ‘sh’ (as in Xie He), etc. But Wade-Giles, while more accurate and direct in a sense (e.g. ‘ch’ is rendered as ‘ch’), is hideous and obnoxiously different when you’re used to seeing the pinyin everywhere (e.g. is Ch’ien-lung the same as the pinyin Qianlong, or is it someone else? Is Soochow the city of Suzhou, or somewhere else entirely?). (3) Simplified characters. Most Traditional characters, and Japanese versions of the simplified characters, contain strong similarities to other characters in the same ‘family’, and contain indications of their meaning and/or pronunciation. The traditional Chinese & Japanese character 愛 (ai), for example, meaning “love,” contains the character 心 (J: kokoro), meaning “heart”; the simplified version, 爱, however, does not. I could go on and on about this point, but I’ll leave it alone. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of problems with the simplifications, and expect them to be a bitch to learn.

But, I plan to start taking classes soon. So, I guess we’ll see.

*Shifting gears entirely, the NY Times also reports that archivists and historians are running up against a proposal in the European Union for the “right to be forgotten.” On the surface, it makes sense that individuals might want to have some control over what remains out there, especially on the Internet, in perpetuity; one could even think it a fundamental right, and I can appreciate that point of view. Twitter remarks, things on Facebook, all sorts of things – including things originally posted as private, or things that one posts by accident, in a moment of passion, while drunk, or things otherwise posted which misrepresent one’s actual personality, opinions, attitudes, or activities. But then we have to think, what about companies and governments? What about people of particular historical significance? As historians, one of our chief obstacles, one of our chief struggles, is that all documents have biases, and even journals/diaries and autobiographies are heavily self-censored or edited, to represent the author in the way s/he wishes to be remembered.

This is not only a concern for historians – when governments, corporations, and individuals of particular historical significance are able to censor and “curate” (prune, control) what records of their activities and opinions do and do not remain for posterity, when we allow them to craft the way they wish to be remembered, are we not doing ourselves – and our successors – a terrible disservice?

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, and I can absolutely appreciate why one should think that you or I, the random person on the street, the Average Joe Citizen, should be able to enjoy such privileges (or “rights”). But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and since politicians, celebrities, and CEOs are private citizens too, and since we as a society absolutely should, in my opinion, demand posterity to retain a more extensive and less self-pruned set of records of those individuals and their activities, perhaps there is no answer but for such “rights” to not be granted to anyone.

*Speaking of (re)writing history to suit one’s political inclinations, certain sources in China are voicing calls to ‘reconsider’ whether Okinawa rightfully belongs to Japan. This NY Times article on the subject is but the latest of quite a few describing this same turn of events. Now, first, I think we should be clear that, as yet, the Chinese government itself is making no official statements to this effect – it’s only individual officials, military officers, and private citizens who are making such statements.

Now, of course, the question of whether a given country has a “right” or a “rightful claim” to any piece of land is complicated and questionable – most especially when it’s a place such as Okinawa (i.e. as compared to Shikoku, for example) that has a long history of political independence and cultural difference, and which was rather clearly conquered, and later “colonized,” if we want to use that word. The legalities and “rightfulness” of Japan’s claims to Okinawa are a matter for another time, and I won’t get into it here, though I think one quick and simple thing we can say is that, I don’t know about today, but it would certainly seem that in the 1960s-1970s, and in 2006, the vast majority of Okinawans wanted to be part of Japan, rather than being under US control, or rather than independence.

What’s important here, though, and I feel like I may have spoken on this point before, is that regardless of the intricacies of the Ryukyu-Japan-US relationship, and any questions as to the “rightfulness” of anything going on there, China simply put has no reasonable rightful claims whatsoever. The history of tributary relationships, as a basis for a claim, is a load of bull, to put it bluntly, because (a) if that were valid, then Chinese claims to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, not to mention Kenya, Iran, and England, would have to be considered, and (b) no Chinese administrators or officials ever actually administered or governed the islands. Ever. Plus, when Japan did finally abolish the kingdom and annex its territory, even as certain prominent Ryukyuan scholars & officials petitioned the Qing Court to do something about it, Qing Dynasty China scarcely lifted a finger, a clear indication that China never really considered Ryukyu part of its territory (worth defending) to begin with.

And I guess I’ll leave it at that. Here’s hoping these stupid provocations come to nothing.

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