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The main entrance to the Tenmonkan shopping arcades.

Phew. So, here goes. I arrived in Kagoshima on a Tuesday. It’s always stressful looking for a place to stay, because you just don’t know the neighborhoods well enough, don’t know how nice the place is going to be – how clean is clean? what level is really tolerable? – I’ve had very good experiences with hostels in Japan in the past, have always found the rooms more than clean enough, the arrangements more than good enough. But even so, fingers crossed, you never know. As it turns out, not only is the place I’m staying – the Green Guesthouse – quite nice, but it’s also a lot more walkably close to the center of town than I’d thought. For anyone interested in coming to Kagoshima and paying only around $30 a night for a small but quite doable single room, plenty clean, free A/C and Wifi, I definitely recommend the Green Guesthouse. I got a single room, but from what I’ve seen/heard, it seems like even the mixed dorms don’t have too much of a rowdy backpackers kind of feel – the place is pretty quiet, everyone’s pretty respectful of the shared spaces (e.g. shower)… Incidentally, I found the place through agoda.com, a hotels website I’d never heard of before, but which turns out to be quite nice for looking for places in Japan – including affordable hostels, minshuku and the like – without the site assuming you’re interested in the expensive and gag-inspiringly-standard Western-style business hotels and resorts.

Moving on. I woke up on Wednesday, and started out in search of breakfast. Before long, I’d already found a few historical sites, monuments, statues, right in the central Tenmonkan shopping arcade area – namely, a monument to the monk Gesshô, and a statue of Godai Tomoatsu. I later also found just a few blocks from the hotel a small stone marking the birthplace of the founder of Kawasaki.

What remains of the main gate of Tsurumaru Castle, with the Reimeikan visible in the background, in what was previously the honmaru, the central portion of the castle compound.

After grabbing some stuff at a local pan’ya (bakery), I made my way in the direction of the castle, which is also the direction of the City Art Museum, and some other similar institutions, with the castle grounds themselves being home today to the Prefectural Library and the Reimeikan cultural and history museum. Nothing much survives of the castle today, except for the impressive stone foundation, and nothing’s been rebuilt like at some other castles. But, the Reimeikan has a great model on display, to help one imagine what it looked like. One distinctive feature of Tsurumaru castle, aka Kagoshima castle, was its lack of a tenshu (keep tower). To be honest, I don’t know that much about the actual military/defensive purpose of such a keep, but it certainly would have looked impressive, and it’s interesting that the Shimazu, the third most powerful samurai clan in the islands, felt no need for such a thing.

But, before I got to the former castle grounds, I stopped at the City Art Museum, which, sadly, was a bit of a disappointment. They have one small room of Impressionists and the like, and another small room of local Kagoshima artists, from Hashiguchi Goyô to Kuroda Seiki. It was cool to see something of the local art history, e.g. which Kagoshima artists were major in the Meiji period, and which Meiji period artists were major in Kagoshima, and they do have up on regular display a painting by Kuroda of Raphael Collin’s studio,

Right: Kuroda Seiki’s “Atelier,” Kagoshima City Museum of Art. Image of this public domain painting hosted on All About Japan, allabout.co.jp

as well as a couple of paintings by major Paris artists with whom Kuroda and other major Japanese painters of the time had contact. But I was really hoping for more historical stuff – for example, I know they have some pretty detailed old Edo period maps of Kagoshima city – and just for more in general. Kagoshima is a prefectural capital, and former seat of the third most wealthy samurai clan in the country. You’d think they could pull off a bit more. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Seattle Art Museum, San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and Honolulu Museum of Arts, are all in (no offense) secondary cities, cities far smaller and in various ways less prominent, less powerful, than New York or Los Angeles, but all of these are huge art museums compared to what Kagoshima’s offering.

That said, the Reimeikan, the city’s (the prefecture’s) museum of local history and culture, was wonderful. I really really wish I could have taken pictures in there, even more so than when I usually say these things, since the exhibits were so extensive, so informative, and so well put together. There are models of cities and castles that span nearly an entire gallery, recreations of Taisho era city scenes, incredible-looking artifacts (e.g. festival costumes from the Amami Islands), and lots of really great diagrams and charts, not to mention paintings and other art objects. The gallery label text, hypothetically, I could stand there for hours and hours and hours, reading every word and taking meticulous notes, but you can’t capture these visuals that way. And their general museum catalog, while it does do a better job than I’d expected, still doesn’t quite live up to what I think I would get out of taking photos (including having photos to include in my PowerPoints when I lecture, for example).

The Kagoshima Prefectural Library, located on the former site of the castle’s Ninomaru, or the second(ary) section of the compound.

The Prefectural Library was a pain in my ass for a variety of reasons, but I don’t want to get off on a rant here. Suffice it to say that for a public institution (which should thus be more open and accessible), one large enough & major enough to be a prefectural level institution (which should therefore have its shit together), and yet small enough (being a provincial one, far from the center) to be more friendly and open, these guys were far more difficult to work with than the National Archives, or the University of Tokyo’s Shiryohensanjo, one of the most elite institutions in the country. I walked right into the latter two, with no appointment or anything, just a letter of introduction, and within, let’s say half an hour, I had documents in hand. Edo period manuscripts, handscroll paintings, whatever I requested, with little trouble. The Okinawa Prefectural Archives last year was quite easy to deal with too, though there admittedly I had had arrangements made for me ahead of time by a professor from the National Museum of Japanese History. In any case, it turns out that at the Kagoshima Prefectural Library, one needs to apply for permission to see the objects, and permission could take as long as a week; furthermore, even the books on the shelves, you can’t just take pictures or photocopy as much as you want – these things are tightly controlled by the librarians. Which, admittedly, is pretty standard policy, actually, at many Japanese libraries, though I’ve never seen it so strictly enforced.

What really annoyed me, though, which is of course not the library’s fault, but even so, is that when I got fed up and said “Screw it. I don’t want to spend all this time and/or money photographing or photocopying museum catalogs and putting up with all your applications and permission slips when I can just go next door and buy the catalogs myself!”, it turns out that not only is the Reimeikan museum sold out of these particular catalogs, but as far as I can tell, they are owned by only a very very few university lending libraries outside of Japan, and are totally unavailable on Amazon.jp or kosho.or.jp (a great site that links & searches used bookstores across Japan). So, all in all, a public prefectural library that happens to be one of the only places that actually owns these books, a library that exists in order to make information available to the public, is making me jump through so many hoops to get at these books. I’m going home in about a week; I don’t know when I’ll be back in Kagoshima, and while I appreciate that having it on the shelf here does make it pretty readily accessible to Kagoshima city residents, the library’s chief constituents, that still really doesn’t help me out any. And isn’t the purpose of a research library to be there to provide access to resources for researchers?

In any case, moving on, I visited a number of other small sites around town. I had been worried that for a relatively small and rather out of the way city, Kagoshima would not have much in the way of tourist signs, let alone ones in English. After all, how many tourists on the standard Tokyo-Kyoto-maybe Hiroshima circuit make it to Kagoshima? But, actually, the signage is excellent, with nice clear signage pointing out sites, and good clear maps spread throughout town to point you to the next one. I wonder how many foreign tourists they really do get? I’ve actually seen quite a few Westerners in my time here, though whether they’re tourists, or what, I of course can’t be sure.

Among the smaller sites I saw that day were the surviving stone walls of the Shigakkô, a private academy started by (guess who?) Saigô Takamori, just outside the castle walls. The former site of the school is today home to a medical center, but, here’s something, a series of marks in the walls are said to be damage from bullets (did they have “bullets” in the 1870s? Too late for musket balls, but…) from the Satsuma Rebellion, the event fictionalized in “The Last Samurai” (the Tom Cruise movie). By the late 1870s, the samurai class had officially been abolished, and a great many things about the country were changing quite rapidly – culturally, socially. The Rebellion has often been portrayed as having to do with samurai honor, a last stand for the old ways, something like that. Now, I am absolutely no expert on this topic, so, I don’t know, but some things I’ve read recently indicate that, really, it was more about the samurai’s government stipends being taken away. Throughout the Edo period, loyal retainers and vassals were paid by their lords, out of tax revenues exacted from the peasants/commoners. This put a tremendous economic strain on the finances of nearly every daimyô domain, and would continue to put a tremendous economic strain on the finances of the new Meiji government, the new “modern” Japanese nation-state that was still in the process of being born. So, the stipends were eliminated, and as in most other societies, everyone now had to /earn/ their living themselves (or, you know, live off inherited wealth). This, I am told, is much more so what the Satsuma Rebellion was about. I’m sure it’s more complicated, and I may be wrong entirely – let me know in the comments. I’d be interested to learn more about it.


After the Shigakkô, I made my way to the nearby Nagata Middle School, which today sits on the former site of the Ryûkyû-kan, a residence and administrative office for visiting officials and scholars from the Ryûkyû Kingdom. As you know if you’ve been reading my blog, the Ryûkyû Kingdom, which ruled over Okinawa and the associated islands to the south, was somewhat independent at this time, with its own king and royal court administration, and its own scholar-bureaucrat class based on the Chinese model; but the kingdom was also a vassal (or something – I’m still trying to figure out the right terms) to Satsuma domain, that is, to the Shimazu clan lords of Kagoshima. Most of what I have read focuses on the Ryukyuans’ activity in Edo, on those occasions when they were received in audience by the shogun. But, during this time they were far more regularly traveling to and from Kagoshima, and engaging in various activities within the castle town – this Ryûkyû-kan is where they stayed, and where they did most of their business. There’s basically nothing to see of it today except a stone marker, but even so, what a shame it’s on the grounds of a middle school! I’m not going to just walk into a middle school – in the US, people might think you’re a pedophile or something. I don’t know the precise ins-and-outs of the legalities or the security measures schools might have regarding these things here in Japan, or in the US, but, I’m definitely not going to just let myself in through the gates of a school. … Fortunately, though, after checking with the tourist information desk, who graciously called the school for me, it turns out it’s not the most unusual of requests, and they have a system for it. So, I went back another day, found the principal’s office, and while feeling extremely awkward about being this strange adult foreigner man who has suddenly appeared at the door to your office, explained myself, and the principal was actually really kind and sweet about it. I got a little lanyard badge to wear saying I was an authorized guest on the grounds, and then I made my way across the practice field, attempting best as I could not to disturb the kids practicing – though they really didn’t seem to mind – got my photos, and got out. What I’ve really gained or learned by taking photos of this monument, since there’s basically nothing else to see of the site, I don’t know. But I’m glad I went that extra step and did it.

It was a busy day… and it wasn’t over quite yet. I made my way back to the castle grounds, only a few blocks away, and climbed up the little mountain hiking course behind the castle, to the lookout point on Shiroyama (“castle mountain”), from which Sakurajima is well visible, or would be if not for the fog and such. Sakurajima is a massive volcano, one of the most active in the world today, which is just a tad too far away to really be said to “loom over the city,” but which is certainly quite large in the vista when you’re up above the city and can actually see it at all. The trail then led down to Terukuni Shrine, with its massive bronze statues which I mentioned in the previous post.

Having now hit all the major sites in this section of the city, I planned for the following day to go out to the Shôkoshûseikan, in the hopes I might have better luck there than at the Reimeikan in terms of seeing documents or getting catalogs. That didn’t end up quite happening… though I made it there eventually.

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Well, I spent the last two weeks in Edo Tokyo, and didn’t post a single thing about it. Haha. How did that happen? Well, now it’s too late – my adventures are all jumbled up in my mind, and while I know I have things to say about this and that tidbit (seeking out Tanuma Okitsugu’s grave was a bit of a thing), I don’t think I could really do (or would want to do) a day-by-day recap. So, maybe I’ll come back to it – I know I took notes on my thoughts on visiting the former site of Edo Castle. But, for now, Kagoshima!

The JetStar check-in area at Narita Airport.

I arrived in Kagoshima on a Tuesday; JetStar, despite being a budget airline, was much better, much nicer than US Airways, United, American, which I think really says something about the horrendous state of air travel in our country. Everything was clean and sleek, check-in was a snap, and all the staff were as courteous and well-put-together as could be. Makes you actually feel like it might be the 21st century. There was a concern our flight might get diverted to Fukuoka since Sakurajima was feeling a bit more smoky that day; diversion on account of volcano! That would have been a first for me. I couldn’t remember if I’d bought travel insurance, so if we had gotten diverted, I was worried I might be footing the several hundred dollar Kyushu Shinkansen ticket myself; but, on the flip side, it would mean getting to ride the Kyushu Shinkansen, maybe getting to see some cool sites along the way, maybe even figuring out a way to stop along the way to actually explore Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Hirado, etc. Or maybe not. In any case, the flight did not get diverted, and we arrived in Kagoshima safe and sound.

The main form of public transportation in Kagoshima is by streetcar (*ding ding*), seen here passing by the original/main location of the Yamakata-ya department store, built during the Taishô period (1912-1926).

I would like to try to avoid generalizing about the character of the town – that romantic characterization thing we all do when we travel (and when we don’t) – especially since anything and everything is always too complicated for that, and anything I could say would be smoothing over, ignoring, other things. But, let me just point out some of the key features I’ve noticed so far.

One, Bakumatsu, Meiji, and pre-war modernity are everywhere. Of course Kagoshima has plenty of post-war buildings like any city does – especially a city that suffered bombing and such in the war – and, in fact, has some rather sparkling 21st century shopping malls and the like. In all truth and fairness, I cannot say that the city is dominated by any particular historical aesthetic – on a typical side street (or even along the main road), the vast majority of buildings are quite ordinary looking, meaning late 20th century or early 21st.

But, upon first impressions, especially first getting off of the streetcar (市電) at Tenmonkan in order to then go searching for my hotel… Tenmonkan is the historical commercial & urban culture center of Kagoshima. In the Taishô period (1912-1926), a period known for its eager adoption of Western/American urban and popular culture, Tenmonkan was Kagoshima’s center of jazz clubs, cinemas, cafés, and the like. And while it certainly doesn’t look the same today as it did then, it remains one of the city’s major shopping areas, pinned around the main/original location of the Yamakata-ya department store chain, a massive Taishô era (I think) building whose architectural motifs are carried over to line the shopping arcades for many city blocks. And having the streetcars passing by certainly helps evoke something of an imagination of what this area all looked like in the past. Incidentally, while the roads themselves are paved, of course, the streetcar tracks are grassy green strips cutting through the center of the boulevard, for the entire length of the central part of the city. I don’t know what the reasons are, but I like it. Many other historical and prominent buildings in the city are of a similar age – late 19th, early 20th century styles.

One of a handful of “living history” tableaus erected across the city; this one, relating to events of 1860, depicts a young Ichiji Shoji and Yoshii Tomozane discussing the ongoing political changes.

But what’s also really prominent in the city is the focus – which comes not at all as a surprise – on Bakumatsu and Meiji history. Walk around town, and you will see not only markers and signs for historical sites related to the great heroes of the Bakumatsu & Meiji periodsSaigô Takamori, Sakamoto Ryôma, Ôkubo Toshimichi and the like – and not only grand historical statues, but quite recently erected statues, as well, by way of bringing the history more actively, more visibly, onto the streets.

I certainly count myself as interested in the great modernization/Westernization of the country and of this city in particular, as one of the pioneering areas in those developments; there’s something very compelling about imagining how samurai developed the first steam engines in Japan, hydroelectric dams, and the like, simply through looking at books imported from the West, before travel or direct consultation with Western experts was possible, building some of the first Western-style / “modern” industrial factories, docks, and the like in Japan using a combination of Western technology and Japanese styles, materials, and techniques, and imagining how the city began to look in the late 19th century as these developments took hold. But, as many of the great “heroes” of Satsuma’s Bakumatsu and Meiji history are the same oft-cited “heroes” of Japanese history more broadly, I’ve long ago already become bored, tired, of their lionization. Sometimes it seems like everything is always about goddamned Saigô Takamori. Come see Saigô’s statue, Saigô’s birthplace, the site of Saigô’s death, the site where Saigô fought off so-and-so, the site where Saigô made this famous speech. Ugh. Enough already. I get that he’s kind of sort of the George Washington of Japan – leader of the revolution, whatever. But, honestly, as if Shimazu Yoshihiro doesn’t deserve to be celebrated as a great son of Kagoshima. Where’s his giant bronze statue? You’d think Saigô was the be-all and end-all of Japanese history.

Anyway, I’ll stop before getting too much further into a rant. The point is, it is interesting to see how a city defines itself, presents itself, both in the present, and in the Meiji-through-pre-war period, when so many monuments and memorials were first constructed, when the modern nation-state of Japan, its modern prefectures and cities, and their histories and identities were first being consciously constructed. Some cities, like Kanazawa and Hikone, at least from what I saw of them, are all about their castles, and their Edo period legacies. Kanazawa in particular, as home to the Maeda clan, second wealthiest samurai clan in the archipelago after the Tokugawa, has made itself known for its castle, its many still-intact Edo period samurai residences and still-operating geisha district, and traditions of ceramics, lacquerware, and gold-foiled-everything (even cakes), with extremely little emphasis, if I remember correctly, on anything Meiji or later.

Here in Kagoshima, formerly home to the Shimazu, the third wealthiest samurai clan after the Maeda and the Tokugawa, we get a very different story. The castle site is there, and is now home to a pretty excellent history museum, but there are very few marked historical sites, let alone statues, of any figures significant before, say, the 1840s or 1850. From Atsu-hime to Shimazu Nariakira to Saigô Takamori, everything is about a narrative of Kagoshima as pioneers in the modernizing of Japan, and as the birthplace of quite a few of the “founding fathers,” so to speak, of Japan’s modern revolution. Even the more historical exhibits – particularly at the Shôkoshûseikan (one of the first factories in Japan), but even at the Reimeikan (history museum on the former site of the castle) – fit these earlier periods of Kagoshima’s medieval and early modern (Edo/Tokugawa) history into a narrative of Kagoshima having always been engaged with the sea, with being “open” to the outside world, and open to new technologies and foreign cultures, as if Satsuma knew ahead of time to be ahead of its time, everything leading up to this “opening” to the modern world in the 1850s-1870s.

Incidentally, I do find something really intriguing about the idea of Satsuma as semi-independent, as enforcing its own “sakoku within a sakoku,” developing its own culture and pushing its own agendas. Which isn’t to say that other regions/domains weren’t doing the same, to one extent or another, but if there is any truth to the notion of Kagoshima being more seriously a major center of cultural and economic developments of a decidedly separate nature from that of Kyoto, Osaka, Edo – the core and source of much of “Japanese” history and tradition as we hear it from the national level – rather than being a provincial backwater, I’d be curious to hear more about it.

But, returning to the point, even as early as Meiji, Kagoshima was celebrating its own modernity, and quite understandably so. One can easily imagine a city – home to much of the earliest “modern” industrial / technological developments in Japan, and to many of the most powerful politicians/bureaucrats in pre-war Japan – desperately trying to push itself up into being a major city, and not a provincial backwater.

Right: Statue of Shimazu Hisamitsu at Tanshôen Gardens, one of three massive bronze statues of mid-19th century Shimazu lords erected there in 1917.

The Terukuni Shrine, a site, of course, as a Shinto shrine, of largely traditional architecture, customs/practices, and beliefs, features gaslamps right alongside the more traditional stone lanterns, and in the neighboring Tanshôen Gardens, three massive statues were erected in 1917, honoring three generations of Shimazu lords who ruled over the city’s modernization. I love these statues, because they are just so laughably massive, and because they are precisely the kind of thing that could only have been erected in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when that particular brand of nationalism, demonstrated through monuments and memorials, was all the rage. And, of course, no doubt that the Shimazu, still plenty wealthy and powerful into the 20th century in large part because of their industrial operations, would want to build as big as they could. Admittedly, I’ve seen some pretty massive Buddhist sculptures elsewhere, but that’s a whole other thing; I’m not sure if I recall ever seeing any other historical figures in Japan put on such a pedestal – literally! – as these three Shimazus at Tanshôen, and Saigô across town.

One can only imagine how things might have gone differently, if Kagoshima were today to have become (or remained) the far more major city that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were trying to represent it as being.

….

If we’re going to be talking about the character of Kagoshima as a city, there is another side to it too. Walking around Tenmonkan, and near the castle, and all the places I spoke of above you wouldn’t necessarily see it, but go out to the Shôkoshûseikan, and other more northerly parts of the city, and you find that Kagoshima is also very much a maritime town, and a beach town. I don’t want to go on and on about it too much, since this post is already really long, but suffice it to say that there is a certain something, a certain aesthetic, a certain atmosphere, that you get in beach towns that you don’t really get elsewhere. I didn’t find anywhere in Kagoshima that feels quite so strongly of that as in certain parts of Naha, to be sure, but even so, looking out from Tsurugane Shrine (at the Shôkoshûseikan complex), through/past the torii, to the sea, I can’t help but be reminded of that small shrine in Ôgimi-son, the village in northern Okinawa I visited last summer.


As seems to be the case everywhere, areas of the city which were once waterfront property only a few hundred years ago are considerably less so today, so we have to try to imagine… But, picturing the Shimazu second residence, at the Iso Palace (later, the site of the Shôkoshûseikan factory compound), being right on the water, and even the castle itself being only ten or fifteen blocks from a very active port, kind of gives you a different sense of the character of the town. Not so much in town, but out by the Shûseikan, I saw ads for jetskiing, stand-up paddleboarding, etc. advertising that it’s good weather for that year-round in Kagoshima, and just really emphasizing the water sports aspect of Kagoshima tourism. And perhaps more to the point, there’s just something about being able to see the sea, and thinking about how certain buildings stand there overlooking the sea, that just gives them a very different feeling. A small branch shrine of Yasaka Shrine, located a short walk away from the Shûseikan, and from which you can see the ocean just a couple blocks away, gives this feeling, though it’s not quite as directly associated with the beach as, for example, “Above the Waves” (Naminoue) Shrine in Okinawa. Just looking at the slight wear on the main shrine building, who knows if there’s really anything about that wear that marks it as distinctively coming from sea spray or maritime moisture coming up off the water, but you sure do get that feeling.

Above: The main torii at Yasaka Shrine, Iso neighborhood, Kagoshima; Below: the shrine’s main worship hall, a short walk from the Shôkoshûseikan, and just a block or so from the beach.

I have one post on tap summarizing my first full day in Kagoshima – a sort of walking tour history like so many travel blogs do, like my second and third posts on Sakura from last year. And, like I said, I have some topics about my time in Tokyo I’m hoping to come back to. But, we’ll see how much I end up doing for the second and third days, or how far I fall behind. Stay tuned!

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I suppose with only two topics/links, the last post was less of a “roundup.” But, basically, it was just getting too long, so I split it off from these. In the field of arts & culture, the last few weeks have brought a number of interesting news, posts, and articles:

An image from “Old and New Japan” (1907), one of a great many drawings, photos, and other images from books digitized and made available by the Internet Archive.

(1) The Internet Archive has now made available on Flickr millions of illustrations & other images from books scanned as part of the Archive’s book digitization efforts. As the BBC relates, the project had previously used algorithms to help the OCR software recognize images in order to delete them; now, they are going back to rescue those images and make them available online.

Some very cursory searches for terms like “japan” and “edo” yield tons of images from Western books about Japan – many of them quite beautiful, and quite potentially useful for a variety of purposes – but very few, if any, from actual Edo period books. Somehow I’m not surprised. While a number of places, museums, digital humanities centers at universities, and the like, have been doing some truly excellent work cataloging & digitizing Edo book & prints collections, these have yet to be integrated into the Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and the like – not to mention Google Image Search – and so, copyright free or Creative Commons licensed and well-catalogued images from Edo books remain, for now, not yet so widely/easily available.

This is still a huge step forward, though, as Kalev Leetaru, interviewed in the BBC article, notes:

Mr Leetaru said digitisation projects had so far focused on words and ignored pictures. “For all these years all the libraries have been digitising their books, but they have been putting them up as PDFs or text searchable works,” he told the BBC. “They have been focusing on the books as a collection of words. This inverts that.

(2) Meanwhile, the gorgeous online magazine Ignition has an article about woodblock print artist David Bull and the Ukiyo-e Heroes project, a Kickstarter project from a couple years ago with which you might be familiar. Working with artist/designer Jed Henry, Bull and his studio created a series of woodblocks – using traditional methods – depicting classic video game characters (such as Pokemon, Link from Zelda, and StarFox) in an ukiyo-e style. The article features some beautiful images of the process and the product, and discussion of the project, the process, and Bull’s own journey in deciding and learning how to do woodblocks.

(3) Speaking of woodblocks, Hyperallergic had a nice article just over a month ago on an exhibit of Edo period pattern books, at the Chicago Botanical Gardens. This is a genre of materials that really doesn’t get much attention, which is all the more unfortunate since the pictures in this Hyperallergic post are so beautiful, and since the exhibit closed already on August 10.

(4) On a somewhat separate topic, the contemporary performing arts festival “Kyoto Experiment,” or KEX, is trying something new this year. From what I can understand, the changes, aimed chiefly at combatting the commercialization of the art festival experience, are two-fold. One, ticket prices will be reduced, so as to place less of the burden on the visitors for the costs of commissioning & creating the art itself – something which funding from arts foundations and the like is meant to be aimed at. Thus, instead of visitors paying for the art, and in that sense being consumers of it, ticket prices will be more closely associated with simply making up for the costs of running each venue.

Second, there are certain standard systems at these sorts of performance and art festivals in Japan for managing entrance to each venue. To be honest, I don’t follow exactly how it works, but one can certainly imagine, lining up, waiting for your assigned time, filing into the space in an orderly manner. Whatever the precise details of the system are, Tokyo Stages explains that these logistics take away from the performance artist the power of controlling certain aspects of the visitor’s experience, placing it simply into the hands of logistics operators. I have certainly seen this myself at museums, and theatres, and discussed it in museum studies courses. As you approach the venue, looking at the facade, coming up or down steps or down a corridor, whether you have to wait or not, all of that is part of your experience of the museum exhibit or theatrical piece. And so, KEX is trying to place control of that back into the hands of the artists. What do visitors see, hear, experience, while they approach the venue, while they wait in line, while they enter the house, while they wait for the performance to begin? This is part of the experience too – part of the art – and shouldn’t be dictated by venue practicalities.

(5) Finally today, a link to an in-depth review of the book Divine Fury: A Brief History of Genius by Darrin McMahon.

Today, we use the word “genius” so regularly, applying it so liberally, that it has surely lost something of its (potential) earlier meaning – or, the oomph that came with that meaning. Genius is no longer as exclusive a category as perhaps it should be.

I don’t know how much McMahon addresses this in his book, but for me, the question of how we define genius seems closely interwoven with notions of the “artist” as tortured genius, as possessing individual creative insight – notions we think of as universal but which are in fact decidedly modern. This is something I have likely written about before, and remains a pet peeve of mine – we have a conception of the artist based upon the personality cult of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and/or any of a handful of other mid-20th century artists you might care to name, and yet the vast majority of people on the street, if they think anything of art/artists at all, they completely uncritically apply that conception across all artists, in all parts of the world, in all times in history. To them, /this/ is what “art” means. This is what art is. By contrast, to me, modern art and all that grows out of it is a very narrow thing, belonging only to the early post-war decades, and bleeding into the decades after that, as art critics, curators, etc. refuse to let it go.

It is my understanding that art historians typically, standardly, draw a dividing line at Michelangelo, identifying him as marking the beginning of the emergence of the cult of the artist as individual creative genius. The vast majority of artists before him, as well as throughout most of the non-Western world for centuries after him, were /not/ seen as individual geniuses, creating uniquely creative personal expressions in a distinctively personal style, but rather were seen as master craftsmen, excellent at what they did, with painting seen as (perhaps) no more creatively inspired, no more stylistically personal, than construction or woodworking. You hired someone to build you a building, someone else to build the furniture, someone else to furnish the paintings. And you hired them because they were excellent at what they did and would produce precisely what you wanted in a high quality, masterfully executed manner. Sure, admittedly, in Japan at least there were schools and styles, and you did hire individual artists for their individual stylistic or creative differences; and, in the Edo period, ukiyo-e artists certainly gained popularity for their individual styles. But even then, it was never about the artist’s biography, or expression of his personal politics or emotional struggles; like illustrators, designers, or the like today, it was about the aesthetics of the design, and/or about the choice of subjects, things like that. We look back today at Hokusai and ask all sorts of things about his personal life and personality – and, no doubt, tons of books have been written on it – but I imagine that Edo residents, prints consumers, of 1830s Japan were no so interested in the person behind the Fuji images, and were more interested in simply knowing this was a name that produced images they liked.

I think I’m beginning to repeat myself, so I’ll just end here. I seriously believe that we need to reconsider, and interrogate, our conceptions of the artist as tortured genius, as genius at all, and conceptions of art as personal expression. A piece in Eye Magazine is one of, surely, many which do begin to address these questions, but it has yet to really penetrate into the mainstream consciousness, I think, or into the mainstream of how museums (especially modern art museums) approach art.

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Click to embiggen.

Last Friday, the Ryūkyū Shimpō published an article by Aragaki Tsuyoshi on the 160th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Amity between the United States and the Kingdom of Ryūkyū. Much thanks to Fija Byron for sharing it on his blog; ippee nifee deebiru, Fija shinshii. Here is my rough translation; my apologies for any mistakes or imprecise translations. Links are my own.

——————

Today, 160 years since the signing of the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity

The Overthrow of Ryūkyū was Illegal under International Law

Still Today, Investigation into a Return to Sovereignty is Possible

Regarding the forced annexation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom by the Japanese government in 1879, an event known as the “Ryūkyū shobun,” scholars of international law have expressed an opinion that, as Ryūkyū had treaties of amity with the United States and two other countries, this annexation clearly was illegal under international law. Based on the fact of the treaties, the researchers point out that “Ryūkyū was independent under international law, and was not a part of Japan.” That soldiers and police surrounded Shuri Castle and captured the king, Shō Tai, as part of the “establishment of Okinawa prefecture,” constituted the act of “coercion of the representative of [another] State,” which was prohibited under the conventions of international law of the time. Taking the 51st article of the Treaty of Vienna, which codifed customary law, as a basis, they expressed the perspective that a demand could be made to retroactively acknowledge that sovereignty equals the guarantee of rights of self-determination.

[According to the wording provided on the Organization of American States’ website, article 51 of the 1969 Treaty of Vienna states, “The expression of a State's consent to be bound by a treaty which has been procured by the coercion of its representative through acts or threats directed against him shall be without any legal effect.”]

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not Deny

In response to the opinion offered by these researchers touching upon international law, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated “regarding the meaning of the ‘Ryūkyū shobun,’ there are many opinions. There is not recognition of an established definition. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is difficult to say anything definite,” not denying the researchers’ assertions. They answered the Ryūkyū Shimpō’s question in writing.
This July 11 marks 160 years since the signing of the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity in July 1854. Ryūkyū signed similar treaties with France in 1854, and with Holland in 1859. The opinion that, touching upon these three treaties, the Ryūkyū Shobun was clearly in violation of international law, could become something used to support a re-energized debate over self-determination in Okinawa.

The researchers who expressed this opinion were Prof. Uemura Hideaki of Keisen University, and Prof. Abe Kōki of Kanagawa University, chair of the International Human Rights Law Association. They responded for this article.
Prof. Uemura points out “the Ryūkyū Shobun was in violation of article 51 of the Treaty of Vienna.” He emphasized that after depriving Okinawa of its sovereignty, the colonialist rule over Okinawa, the land war between Japan and the United States that the local people got caught up in, the annexation by the United States, the problem of US military bases even after the reversion to Japanese control, as well as responsibility for many other various infringements or violations of rights, the Japanese and American governments can be pressed, questioned, based on Article 51.

Furthermore, considering the meaning of the word “amity” [friendship] in the US-Ryūkyū Treaty of Amity, “we can also question the responsibility of the United States for silently permitting the Japanese government’s illegal annexation of Ryūkyū, demand an apology, and demand the establishment of a US-Ryūkyū committee aimed at resolving the military bases issue,” he said.

In fact, an official apology was already issued in 1993 by President Clinton and the US Congress at that time, acknowledging the illegality under international law of the US takeover of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi one hundred years earlier, in 1893, after Native Hawaiians pursued that issue based on the fact that the Hawaiian Kingdom had signed treaties with the United States and several European powers.

Abe pointed out that “there is a possibility that Japan annexed Ryūkyū unjustly, without a basis in legality under international law.”
———

In truth, I have no idea whether this is the first time that someone has made such an argument; that is to say, I have no idea how significant this news is. To be sure, I am doubtful that anything much will come of it, especially since the argument, in my humble opinion, seems quite weak. I am in no way an expert in law, let alone international law, but for what it’s worth, it seems to me that a 1969 Treaty claiming to codify customary law of the vague recent (or not quite so recent) past is really nothing like pointing to treaties or laws of the time, as explicitly codified at the time. For example, in the case of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, it is my understanding, though this may be incorrect, that very explicitly at that time, it was already established in US law that the US could not annex foreign territory unilaterally by an act of Congress, but required a treaty or some other arrangement in which the foreign territory, in this case Hawaiʻi, formally surrendered its sovereignty. And furthermore, that there might be something in the US Constitution (though I don’t know which Article or section specifically) which might explicitly render what was done to Hawaiʻi illegal. In any case, the point is, pointing to a 1969 Treaty makes for a weaker argument than pointing to the letter of the law as it explicitly stood in 1879.

Besides, given the numerable complex and very real obstacles to a return to sovereignty, just on a very practical level, not to mention that polls continue to show that the majority of people living in Okinawa support remaining part of Japan, I imagine it quite unlikely this really marks the beginning of any real significant change. Even so, I’m excited to see this published simply because it adds to the visibility of the issue, and might possibly stimulate revived or expanded discussion. Or, at the very least, if absolutely nothing else, it gets people thinking for a moment about history that goes further back than just a few decades ago.

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Having a blog really has its perks every now and then. I was recently contacted by some folks at Tuttle Publishing, who were gracious and generous enough to offer me a review copy of their 2010 book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, by Frederick Harris. I’d seen the book on Amazon, but didn’t think too much of it, given how many other books with similar titles are out there, most of them really quite ordinary.

It’s only been offered to me a couple times, but generally, I’m a bit hesitant to agree to review books. What if they turn out to be really quite ordinary? What if I find I have nothing too much positive to say? Well, in this case, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Really. I have to admit, I have not had the time to read it through, cover to cover, but this book is gorgeous. Tons of full page full color images, and whereas many museum exhibition catalogs, by their nature, devote upwards of 75% of their pages to just catalog entries, Harris strikes a great balance, with lots of images but also lots of essays and other content. This is very much not the type of book which contains one to five introductory essays, and then just catalog entries for the rest of the volume.

Harris has twelve full chapters, on topics ranging from Materials and Techniques to Collecting and Caring for Prints. And while he does do service to the standard categories of images, such as landscapes, beautiful women, actors & sumo wrestlers, and heroes & ghosts, he also has chapters dedicated to book illustrations and “foreigners in Japan” (chiefly Yokohama-e, from the Bakumatsu period). This is a big deal, as Harris departs beautifully from the artificial boundaries that so many books on prints elect not to cross. I don’t know whether it has to do with the influence of collectors and dealers (rather than professional art historians or curators) on the historiography, or if it’s the nature of art history and art museum curation as well, but, for a long time, writing on ukiyo-e has been dominated by aesthetic and stylistic concerns, categorizing prints into numerous sub-categories, and categorizing them as entirely separate from illustrated books, paintings, or anything else. Only recently, I think, have we started to see much more discussion, in books such as this one, in museum exhibits, and elsewhere, emphasizing a more holistic, integrated view of Edo period popular culture, placing the prints into their cultural context and describing them alongside their cousins – the illustrated book, and the painting.

As a result of this particular history of the discourse on ukiyo-e, the average person on the street, even if they know something about Hokusai, something about Japanese woodblock prints, probably does not know that most ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai included, did just as much painting and book illustrations as single-sheet prints, and some in fact specialized much more in one or another, but their work is no less magnificent or worthwhile for it. And most ukiyo-e artists also did just as much work in shunga (erotic prints) as in non-erotic pieces, if not more. Hokusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga – all of them. And while Western and Japanese audiences alike may have been embarrassed by these pieces, or otherwise thought them inappropriate, for over a century – I believe their exhibition is still extremely restricted in Japan – at the time, such distinctions were not really made, and these works would not tarnish an artist’s reputation in any way; to the contrary, shunga were extremely popular.

So, I really applaud Harris including all of these things in his book.

Now, Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print is a book on prints, not on paintings, and that’s fine. Harris certainly goes more than far enough in his scope, including into the realm of prints all sorts of things all too often left out. (If you’re interested in a book on ukiyo-e painting, I would recommend the MFA’s exhibit catalog Drama and Desire.) Rather than focusing only on single-sheet prints from the Edo period, and rather than perpetuating the lionizing and canonization of the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige (those these two certainly get their share of coverage in the book), Harris starts with the 8th century Hyakumantô darani, the oldest examples of woodblock printing from anywhere in the world surviving today, and incorporates here and there throughout the text images of shin hanga (“new prints”) from the 20th century as well. Further, in addition to devoting entire chapters to illustrated books and shunga, as I mentioned, he also sprinkles throughout the book images of aizome-e, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing I’ve seen referred to as ai-e or aizuri-e – variant impressions of prints which used only blue, in place of both the black lines and any other colors in the print. These were exciting experiments at the time when they were made, in the early 1830s, when Prussian blue, aka Berlin blue, the first artificial chemical pigment in the world first became available in Japan (as opposed to vegetable dyes, which often faded or discolored easily). It’s this Prussian blue which gives the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” its brilliant color, and indeed the examples of aizuri-e Harris includes on pages 106 and 115, by Hokusai and Hiroshige respectively, are stunning, especially in their use of bokashi (fading of color, frequently used in the blue of the sky fading into white at it approaches the horizon). These experiments in all-blue prints did not continue for too long after the early 1830s, though, as the blue pigment wore down the woodblocks much faster than other pigments did, and perhaps in part simply because the fad passed – in short, it got old.

I would need to read the book word for word to see how Harris addresses a variety of subjects, but from what I see from a cursory skim, Harris’ writing is not only easy, quick reading, and engaging, but also thorough and informative. If you’re already fairly knowledgeable about prints, this might not provide the most radically new insights or approaches for you; but, I can see this as an excellent book for someone just first getting into Japanese prints – nothing will ever be as classic a mainstay as Richard Lane’sImages from the Floating World,” but Lane has some problems, and Harris’ book is not too dense, or dry by a long shot, but also not at all too shallow, or misinforming. Harris uses lots of specialty terms, such as uki-e, bokashi, and hanshita-e, but introduces them properly, making them easy to follow and to learn.

He also includes or emphasizes a number of points which, if not entirely new and radical, are certainly not emphasized strongly enough or often enough elsewhere. To point to one example, people commonly believe that the designer of each print was an “artist,” uniquely inspired, brilliant in his design abilities and aesthetic sense, a creator of works which are distinctive expressions of his unique personality. The decades and decades of love for Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all the rest, canonized by name, doesn’t help. Yet, here, Harris emphasizes on the very first page of his Preface, that “it is also important for readers to realize that the making of prints was a collaborative effort between the artist, woodblock carver, printer and publisher.” He also goes into fuller detail than I’ve seen many other books do as to the block-carving and printing process itself, including brilliant photos of the chisels and baren and how they were used, and of a key block and its resulting printed image, visually demonstrating the process beautifully.

This post has gone on long enough, so I suppose I shall stop here. I eagerly look forward to reading this through more fully, and seeing what new things I might learn about prints that even I had not come across before.

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NHK reported yesterday that a survey by the Bunkachô (Agency for Cultural Affairs) has confirmed the locations of over 10,000 Important Cultural Properties, but in the process discovered that at least one National Treasure and at least 108 Important Cultural Properties have gone missing. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re stolen, or truly “lost” to the ages, but simply that at the moment, the Agency does not know their location. Some of these may in fact have been stolen, while others may have been sold; in some cases, the private individual owner simply moved to another house, or another city, and in other cases, the owner has passed away, and the Agency simply was not (apparently) keeping up with what happened to the objects in these cases.

The NHK report tells us that the Agency’s survey of the 10,524 National Treasures + Important Cultural Properties continues. A pamphlet the Agency has available online lists 866 National Treasures + 10,430 Important Cultural Properties that are not buildings or structures, so I’m not sure exactly how the numbers add up to 10,524, but, I just thought I’d share that number, put it out there anyway. The report does say that there are 238 objects remaining to be surveyed (including 12 National Treasures). If anyone knows how to make these numbers work out together, or notices a mistake in my understanding of what’s being said here, please let me know.

In any case, the National Treasure which has gone missing is a tanto, a short sword, forged by the swordsmith Kunimitsu. The Tokyo man who owned the sword passed away 18 years ago, and it is unclear what happened to the sword at that time. The survey tells of 24 other cases where the owner passed away, and his or her property was dispersed in some way. Thirty-three Important Cultural Properties seem to have been stolen. The agency lost track of 31 other objects when the owners moved, while another three objects have been sold, and the situation of another 17 objects remains unclear.

The Agency is sending out information to art dealers in the hopes of learning the whereabouts of the missing objects, and is also from next year asking owners of Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures to report back to the Agency once a year (by way of postage-paid postcards) on the whereabouts of their collections. Local Boards of Education will also be requested to perform surveys, once every four years, of the registered objects in their local districts.

Link to the NHK report, with video.

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I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

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