Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

I’ve added a new image into the header rotation. It’s a map of the city of Kagoshima by Yoshida Hatsusaburô (1884-1955), from 1935, visible here on the website of the Maps Communications Museum.

Hatsusaburô’s maps are really something incredible, showing something rather resembling an actual bird’s eye view of what the city might have actually looked like, complete with topography and a few select examples of notable architecture. In a way, they’re the ultimate combination of modern realism of depiction (fine details, correct proportions) and pre-modern bird’s eye views, with nothing of modern abstract cartographic conventions.

You can see more of Yoshida’s maps on recent posts on Shinpai Deshou and Spoon & Tamago, and at the Maps Communication Museum website.

Read Full Post »

I’ve added a new link to the Theatre section over there on the right. Much thanks to Prof. K. Saltzman-Li for introducing us to this list of available translations of Noh plays, and to Michael Watson of Meiji Gakuin for compiling and maintaining it. The list includes all 253 plays in the active repertoire, plus a handful more. A powerful resource for anyone who has ever struggled to figure out which plays are available in translation, and where to find them.

And, though the interface is quite plain – it really is little more than a pageful of text, with some links – it’s actually a wonderfully useful resource. Not only does it have the list of translations of a play, but gives some of the basic information about each play – presumed author, schools actively performing it, and the category of the play – as well as, in some cases, a bit more commentary or links to secondary sources discussing the work. If even for nothing else at all, just having such a complete list, easily skimmable in romaji, is a great thing to have.

Watson also provides links to:

(1) an extensive bibliography of Premodern Japanese Texts and Translations, including many writings about Noh by Zeami, Zenchiku, and the like, along with numerous other works, from Muromachi monogatari to poetry collections, diaries, and histories.

(2) The UTAHI Hangyō bunko (半魚文庫) website (all in Japanese), which has pure text transcriptions of over 300 Noh plays.

Below: the stage at the National Noh Theatre in Sendagaya, Tokyo. I think. Please correct me if I’m mistaken. Photo my own.

Read Full Post »


Prof. Victor Mair has just posted an interesting blog post over at Language Log, in which he writes that “If I were the czar or god of Chinese and Japanese language pedagogy, I would not teach students a single Chinese character until they were relatively fluent — about two years.”

He suggests that students should be taught language the same way native speakers learn it as children – namely, by learning speaking & listening comprehension first, and reading & writing much later. He also cites a study by Jerome Packard which “found that the time lag of delayed character introduction improved students’ ability to discriminate Chinese sounds, and improved their fluency.” Of course, I’m summarizing dramatically, and would invite you to read the whole, rather short, blog post over at Language Log.

The idea certainly sounds compelling, and I can see how this might very well be the case – that students would learn spoken & listening fluency more quickly, and more truly fluently, if that’s all that’s focused on for the first year or two. But, I’d worry – as I did when I first started learning Japanese, and still do today – that the longer one spends working with just romaji or kana, the more one will think in romaji or kana, and not in kanji. Even to this day, if I think up a Japanese phrase, it appears in my mind in romaji, and it takes an extra mental step to think about how to write it in kanji. And, besides, just in general, to take a language for two years and come out of those two years with essentially no ability at all to read or write?

Image from 8asians.com article, Will Chinese Soon Be The Primary Language In America?

I find the whole argument rather intriguing especially because for a long time – based on my experience as a language learner, though admittedly without any formal language pedagogy experience – I thought I wished we had spent more time on kanji, and sooner. After four and a half years of college-level Japanese classes (meeting a few hours a week), I still had a hell of a time reading almost anything. The concept of recognizing radicals and other parts of a character, and being able to use those to guess the meaning and/or pronunciation, had not at all been ingrained in me. Coming across any character I didn’t already know proved a major obstacle, and reading just about anything a terribly arduous process. And then I went to IUC’s intensive all-day everyday 10-month program, and, well, I don’t remember if it happened in the first month, or in the second, but pretty quickly, something clicked and I found it far far easier than ever before to recognize radicals and parts, to guess at meanings & readings, to look up characters I hadn’t previously known, and to remember more of them more quickly & completely. By the end of the ten months, I ostensibly knew all 2,000-odd jôyô kanji (though I wouldn’t say I necessarily know all of them perfectly today). And so, coming off of that experience, I always thought I wished we had done more with kanji sooner – quite the opposite of what Mair is advocating here. And, yet, most intriguingly, he concludes by saying that when the introduction of characters is delayed, and the focus is placed only on speaking/listening for the first few years, “surprisingly, when later on they do start to study the characters, students acquire mastery of written Chinese much more quickly and painlessly than if writing is introduced at the same time as the spoken language.”

What do you think? What were your experiences with gaining fluency, and learning characters?

Read Full Post »

I recently discovered the website nippon.com. Run by Nippon Communications Foundation, the people behind Japan Echo (published until 2010), with support from the Nippon Foundation… admittedly, these are not organizations with which I am familiar, but as compared to certain other sites, they do a truly excellent job of providing quality content. Nippon.com’s articles are not superficial treatments or basic summaries of the most canon Japanese tourist sites & cultural experiences, aimed at first-time (and possibly one-time-only) visitors to Japan; rather, they are aimed at those with a more serious interest in Japanese culture, who may be relative beginners but who are serious about learning more, and engaging with issues related to culture & heritage preservation, traditional arts, and historiography.

The articles on Nippon.com go far beyond the standard stories in several ways – both going deeper, as in the case of articles about specific goings-on in the kabuki world & interviews with kabuki actors in place of the very superficial and generic “kabuki is a traditional theatre form dating back hundreds of years, with colorful costumes and bold action. Even if you’re only in Tokyo for a few days, you should definitely try to check it out!“, and going beyond in the sense of discussing aspects of Japan way off the beaten track. Take for example Nippon.com’s series of articles – yes, an entire series – on Islam in Japan, including two on Tokyo’s largest mosque, and one interview with a Japanese convert to Islam who makes efforts to combat stereotypes and ignorance, and to educate people about Islam.

Apropos of nothing, a view along the Kamogawa in Kyoto. Photo by own.

I am particularly impressed by the site’s use of interviews with, and articles by, prominent experts on the subject, where many other sites and publications simply use their own internal tourism/journalism staff, who repeat commonly-held beliefs or attitudes, without any true expertise. One of the first posts on Nippon.com I discovered, which immediately told me this was a very different kind of site, is one entitled “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion.” The misconception that Japan was “closed” or “isolated” during the Edo period (1615-1868), the connected idea that Edo period Japan was “dark,” regressive, or backwards as a result, and the continued use of the term “sakoku” (lit. “chained country”), is truly one of my greatest personal pet peeves as a historian. I know it sounds terribly obscure and picky and geeky, but this is actually a big deal – it has a major impact on how we, as Americans, as Japanese, as Europeans or Chinese, view and understand Japan. Scholars such as Arano Yasunori and Nagazumi Yoko in Japan, and Ronald Toby among others in the US, have been arguing since the 1980s that Japan was not “closed,” that it was quite active in international interactions and cultural exchange, and that we should stop using the word “sakoku,” and yet, today, far too many sources (tourism websites, guidebooks, popular magazines, TV shows, even supposedly top-rate newspapers and, sadly, occasionally, scholarly works) still continue to reinforce these misconceptions. And since TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and tourist materials are so much more widely consumed than history books and scholarly journal articles are, these misperceptions persist. I don’t know their numbers – hits, readership – but Nippon.com represents a more widely accessible and more “popular” form of media – an online popular magazine, if you will – and Arano Yasunori’s article on their site is a truly excellent treatment to the subject. It is thorough and reflective of the latest research, and genuinely informative, as well as easy to read, clear, and engaging, with lots of nice diagrams and images, and all while being relatively short.

Ainu robes on exhibit at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

Nippon.com goes further, with equally interesting articles on “The Ainu and Early Commerce in the Sea of Okhotsk,” “The Dutch East India Company and the Rise of Intra-Asian Commerce,” “Historical Trends in Eurasia and Japan: Mongols to Manchus,” and “The Extra-National Pirate-Traders of East Asia.”

The breadth and depth of articles on this site is truly incredible. I wish I had the time to read more of these articles, on everything from “The Xinhai Revolution and Sino-Japanese Relations,” to “The Dolls that Sparked Japan’s Love of Robots: “Karakuri Ningyō”,” to The Aichi Triennale and contemporary art in post-3/11 Japan, to the history of asadora (TV morning dramas).

I am really impressed with this site, and think it may be one of the best on the Internet, for high schoolers, college students, armchair historians, or anyone interested in learning more about Japan, through short but high-quality articles introducing a truer, more complex, vision of Japan – a Japan with a long history of interactions with Russia, a Japan with a contemporary Muslim population, a Japan wrestling with maintaining, preserving, protecting, and changing traditions.

Read Full Post »

A stele at the temple Zuikô-in in Kyoto marking the burial site of the topknots of 46 of the 47 ronin. The graves of the ronin themselves, and of their lord Asano Naganori, are located at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, a temple which is much more strongly associated with the 47 Ronin today; but, as I haven’t been there, and prefer to use my own photos…

I have yet to see the new “47 Ronin” movie starring Keanu Reeves, and most likely will not be seeing it any time soon (if at all). So, I post this having admittedly not seen the film myself. That said, Prof. Jonathan Dresner of Pittsburg State University in Kansas has seen the film, and in a review entitled “The Many Things “47 Ronin” Gets Wrong About Shogun-Era Japan (And the One Thing It Gets Right),” has some choice words.

Nearly everything in the movie, from a cultural and historical standpoint, is questionable or wrong. Nothing unusual about that, but the movie credits two historical consultants, and begins and ends with voiceover claiming historical and cultural authenticity: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the heart of old Japan” … Even discounting the “witches and demons,” the movie frames the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) as “Ancient,” “Feudal,” and shoguns as “an absolute ruler,” none of which is helpful. It perpetuates the myth of samurai as “master swordsmen” and “protectors” and the conclusion praises them for enacting “the old ways of Bushido” as though there were a continuous tradition which had degraded in the contemporary age (but which the Shogun had no desire to actually revive).

These are, of course, some of the key ideas I have tried to impart to my students. Three hundred years ago is not “ancient times,” but is actually relatively recent, and indeed many scholars consider the Tokugawa periodearly modern.” Shoguns were absolutely not absolute rulers; the daimyo (regional lords) had onsiderable autonomy within the Tokugawa state.

Samurai were bureaucrats and administrators who paid lipservice to a martial tradition generations past. Training in swordsmanship and the like was certainly a part of their upbringing, but by no means does that mean that most, or even many, were truly masterful fighters. And as for them being “protectors,” or “honorable,” honestly, do you know of any class of people that can truly be said to be just and honorable? Certainly, there were some samurai who were more ethical and upright in belief and action, but so too were there many who were corrupt, selfish, or just trying to get by. Many frittered away their meager incomes gambling and cavorting in the pleasure quarters. Many took up dishonorable by-employments (side jobs) in order to earn enough just to get by. Many were unable, all their lives, to secure an official government position. Many got into fights in the streets. And, of those who did hold official posts, and relatively sizeable incomes, many were corrupt and selfish in a variety of ways, just like politicians or corporate elites today.

“Bushido” (“The Way of the Warrior”), meanwhile, that crown jewel in the myth of the samurai, was invented during the Edo period, and only first more fully articulated in 1900, roughly thirty years after the samurai class itself was abolished entirely. To be clear, this means that no samurai in early periods, “traditionally,” even knew of, let alone could have adhered to, the bushidô ideals articulated by Nitobe Inazô in 1900, or those described in the Hagakure (c. 1709-1716) or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings (c. 1645). These Edo period texts were written at a time when the wars were already over, and members of the samurai class were working to try to understand, or re-capture, their identity as “warriors,” through a re-invention and glorification of the past. In short, bushidô is, through and through, an invented tradition. Only a small portion of people would have ever read Hagakure or the Book of the Five Rings during the Edo period; in other words, the vast majority of samurai would not have read them, would not be aware of their content, and therefore could not have subscribed to any “code” they describe. Simply put, there never was a single “code of conduct” or “honor code” widely known and widely accepted among samurai throughout the archipelago.

Certainly, samurai placed high value on loyalty to their lords, but that loyalty was based on reciprocal relationships, of service to one’s lord in exchange for titles, land, wealth, or the like, and not on some abstract sense of honor, or a coordinated structured system of honorable (and dishonorable) behaviors. In short, warriors demanded rewards for their loyal service, and when lords were unable or unwilling to provide such rewards, warriors grew disgruntled; there are numerous examples of individual samurai betraying their lords, and historians credit the inability or refusal of the Court or shogunate to grant rewards to samurai as major factors contributing to the rise and fall of shogunates. The above is a clip from the 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari (“New Tale of the Heike”) depicting samurai returning from battle, expecting considerable reward from the Imperial Court for their service; though clearly quite stylized, in some respects, it may be the most “accurate” depiction of samurai I have ever seen. The warriors are dirty, uncouth, and violent – essentially, dude-bro frat jocks – in sharp contrast to the well-mannered, elegant court aristocrats in perfectly clean, well-put-together robes; the warriors are plainly shown as beneath the aristocrats, not only in terms of being less cultured, and in terms of political or status hierarchy, but also literally, physically beneath the aristocrats – whenever they speak to aristocrats, the warriors sit or kneel on the ground, and are not permitted to step up onto the clean wooden floors of the aristocratic mansion or Imperial Palace. This may take place way back in the 12th century, but I think it a good indication of how we should think about samurai, the warrior class, during the Sengoku Period as well. The Sengoku era, literally the Age of the Country at War, was surely not an era of glorious loyalty and refined codes of honor, but rather one of great chaos and violence, in which anyone and everyone, samurai and peasant alike, scrambled for power, or simply to survive.

For those interested, this issue of the myth of the samurai is addressed further in various places throughout the Samurai-Archives Forum, and in episodes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Samurai-Archives Podcast (Disclaimer: a podcast in which I am one of the discussants).

Dresner finishes his brief review of the film saying:

As I’ve told my students, family, and acquaintances many times, it’s a shame that more media creators don’t trust the original source material, the actual history, to be captivating, when it so often is much more interesting and dramatic than the fictions.

I could not agree more.

You can read the rest of Prof Dresner’s review at the History News Network.

Read Full Post »


*The Japan News reports today that “Okinawa Governor Nakaima is ‘set’ to approve Henoko plan.” What this means is that the controversial Futenma Air Base in Ginowan will be closed (eventually; by 2022 or so), and that a new airfield will be built at Henoko, an eastern-facing point a bit further north on the island. This runs counter, I think, to popular expectation, and to what Nakaima has repeatedly stated his position to be – the most popular opinion, I believe, amongst Okinawan citizens, is that the base should be closed entirely, or relocated outside of Okinawa prefecture, not simply relocated on the island. Many have opposed the Henoko plan, too, because of the damage the new base will cause to dugong habitats. Whether this is merely a convenient excuse, or whether people are truly, genuinely, passionate about the dugongs, is unclear; in truth, it’s probably a combination of the two.

Right: Flyers posted by students at the University of the Ryukyus, explicitly opposing new base construction at Henoko. August 2013.
Now, I don’t follow politics that closely, so I don’t know that much about attitudes towards Nakaima – whether people expected this, or whether this comes as a shock, or what. I appreciate that I’m in the dark largely because I simply choose not to take the time to read more about all of this; even so, I’m sure there are elements of the negotiations that are simply not publicly known. What precisely was said in meetings or discussions between Nakaima and Tokyo? What options were presented and considered, and why did Nakaima made the decision he did, in the end? What does he, or Okinawa, gain by doing this, and what more might they have lost if they hadn’t? Is Nakaima doing this in the best interests of the Okinawan people, or is he selling them out for his own political benefit (somehow)? What exactly does it mean to say there’s “pressure” from Tokyo? How precisely is this pressure imposed?

Whatever the story is, for what it’s worth coming from a non-expert such as myself, I’m not surprised. I love to think that the Okinawan politicians are truly standing up for the Okinawan people, and for what those people want, against pressures from Tokyo, in a romantic, gloriously rebellious “standing up for your rights” and “standing up to bullies” sort of way. But, at the end of the day, politicians are politicians, and in Japan as in the US, to hope for proper big changes is to hope for too much. It doesn’t matter what the people want – if there’s one thing we can rely on our politicians to do, it is to give in to corporate, military, and party interests, to compromise, and to betray their constituents. Will Okinawa ever be free of US military bases? Is that too much to hope for? On the plus side, if there is a plus side to any of this nonsense, it’s that the deeply unpopular new base at Henoko is not actually an entirely new base, but merely a small expansion to a base that already exists – Camp Schwab. How this never came up in previous articles I came across, I don’t know, but it seems pretty clear from the map in the Japan News article.

Futenma Air Base, immediately adjacent to civilian buildings in Ginowan City; as seen from Kakazu Park, August 2013.

Map from The Japan Times. All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

I’m currently working on a small project based in the Meiji period, so as soon as I got home (for the winter break), I grabbed Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World off the shelf, and started flipping through it.

This is a monster of a book, as you can clearly see. It’s nearly 800 pages, and that’s not including notes, bibliography, index, etc. It’s surely the most detailed account of the life and times of the Meiji Emperor available in English – at that length, it would be hard not to be. One review on GoodReads, as well as several of my friends, expressed how difficult it is to get through this book, and I certainly can’t blame them. As the reviewer on GoodReads writes, “It wasn’t that the subject matter wasn’t fascinating; the problem was that Keene has no sense of priority. The book is loaded down with far too much detail with no concession to relevance.”

He may have a point. Still, I think that same level of detail that this reviewer complains about could potentially make Emperor of Japan a rather valuable resource. Granted, for any specific episode (e.g. General Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879, or the overthrow and annexation of Ryukyu around the same time), there is likely a full-length journal article or two that describes the topic in greater detail. But, even so, I’ve certainly found it an entertaining and interesting read for the brief sections I’ve chosen to pick up. To bring it around in a different way, let me say this – while an excessive level of detail may weigh down the book and make it less of a page-turner, it provides a fuller, more complete, narrative than most scholarly analyses. Where many other texts might mention King Kalakaua’s visit to Japan, for example, only very briefly, if at all, Keene devotes a full four pages to it. And where an argumentative/analytical work might pick and choose only those aspects of Kalakaua’s visit that support the author’s argument, Keene simply lays out a series of details (certainly not the most complete version possible, but, then, is that ever truly possible?) that allow one, as the reader, to then pull from in order to form different interpretations or arguments, or simply to understand a more full version of the narrative.

Here we see not only that Emperor Meiji and King Kalakaua discussed Japanese emigration to Hawaii, for example, and the political and economic details and implications, such as might appear in an article arguing something political, economic, or social historical about the origins of the Japanese-American community, but rather, we also see how Kalakaua and Meiji shook hands, how Meiji received Kalakaua almost at the threshold of his palace, and walked with him, as equals; we see Kalakaua being offered refreshments, but refusing, having heard it would be improper to eat in front of the Emperor, and we see the Emperor (or his men, at least) paying a visit to Kalakaua and his men only an hour after dismissing them, in an effort to adhere to European royal customs of etiquette, only to find the Hawaiians all in their underwear, relaxing after the long day. I suppose if someone really wanted to know the fine details of what Kalakaua ate while in Japan, where he stayed, what he wore, and what the Emperor wore, etc., they could look for the Complete Writings of David Kalakaua, or the like. But, there’s still something to be said, I think, for a rich, dense narrative like this one, that focuses not exclusively on political movements, but on personal, cultural, visual & material aspects, truly constructing for the reader a sense of the aesthetic & cultural world in which the Meiji Emperor lived, and the complexity of the many different things going on in his life, in his Court, in his government all at once. It is easy, when reading a journal article about Kalakaua’s visit, for example, to lose track of just what else might have been going on in Tokyo (or in the Imperial Palace in particular) at that time.

While there may be a wonderful wealth of books and articles discussing the Meiji period from a conceptual, ideological, or analytic point of view, providing valuable discussions of colonialist & imperialist discourses, discourses of “modernity,” and the like, here is a rare work actually describing what happened, in a direct, detailed, narrative manner.

Read Full Post »

It’s been more than six months since I meant to write this post… where last I left off, I’d just visited the three old samurai houses along Kaburaki-kôji, and it was still early in the day. Of course, since it’s been six months, sadly, I can no longer remember exactly what route I took, or how I was feeling, over the course of the day.

To summarize, then, I wandered around the town, which is wonderfully walkable, and checked out a whole bunch of Buddhist temples. I’d picked up a few tourist guide pamphlets and maps at the museum, which list 27 sites across town. Looking at the pamphlets again right now, I realize I missed the Sakura Old Samurai Town Museum of History and Folklore altogether. Drat. But, I did manage to make it to quite a few of the temples. It’s hard to tell from the tourist pamphlets which temples are going to be particularly beautiful, or which might be hiding some great historical significance. So, why not check them all out?

The main hall at Daishô-in.

The first stop was Daishô-in, which is located along the same street as the samurai houses. The home to two of Sakura’s “Seven Lucky Gods” – Daikokuten and Hotei – Daishô-in is also the site of the grave of Hosokawa Tadayoshi, a famous Sakura swordsmith.

Above: The Sakura Shinmachi O-hayashikan. Below: Hiyodori-zaka.

After making my way down Hiyodori-zaka, a small bamboo-lined walking path said to be (more or less) still in the same form it was in the Edo period, I made my way to the center of town, passing by quite a number of old homes dating to the Edo or Meiji periods, and the Tsukamoto Sword Museum, which is closed on weekends, and which I was thus never able to visit. I found my way to the Sakura Shinmachi Ohayashikan, where locals practice folk dances and the like for annual festivals, thinking that I might rent a bicycle, to get around town faster. There are several places in town that one can rent a bike, and it’s a wonderfully convenient thing that they offer it. However, I was advised by the kind woman manning the desk there that it wouldn’t really be worth it, logistically, for me, since bikes had to be returned by 4pm, and returned to one of several places nowhere near the guest house I was staying at (in other words, I’d have to return the bike and then walk halfway across town to get home). Besides, she assured me, the town is really quite walkable – and, dear readers, having now done it, exploring more or less everything there is to see in Sakura, on foot, I’d have to say I agree.

Noticing that quite a few of the temples on the map were quite close together, all along one small side street, I headed off in that direction. And, incidentally, I should mention, Sakura does an excellent job of having signs pointing towards the major historical sites in town. As you walk around the town, you’re constantly coming upon signs with arrows, “Jindaiji 300 m [this way]“, “Juntendo Memorial Hall, 1km [that way],” “Makata Shrine, right here” [point point]. It’s really quite nice, especially as many of the temples are hidden down back streets.

The main hall at Jindai-ji, originally built in 1726, but at a different temple, being moved here only in 1961.

Sôen-ji, home to the grave of Juntendô founder & Rangaku scholar Satô Taizen, was my next stop. It is also the Jurôjin shrine on the circuit of the Sakura Seven Lucky Gods. Sadly, I did not get to see the grave, but Jindai-ji, right across the street, would more than make up for that. Jindai-ji is the patron family temple, or ”bodaiji”, of the Hotta clan, who ruled Sakura from 1746 until the abolition of the domains in 1871. The temple itself is quite nice, with a main hall (hondô) with striking vermillion accents. But, the real key attraction, and I’d say for any fan of samurai history, perhaps the top historical attraction in the city outside of the National History Museum, is the Hotta clan graveyard, which contains the graves of all the Hotta clan daimyô of Sakura, including Hotta Masatoshi (1634-1684, rôjû under Ietsuna and Tairô under Tsunayoshi), Hotta Masayoshi (1810-1864, the chief shogunate official involved in negotiating and signing the Harris Treaty), and Hotta Masatomo (1851-1911, the last daimyô of Sakura, who built the Hotta clan mansion maintained on the outskirts of town). I’ve seen a couple of other clan graveyards – the chief one that comes to mind is that of the Hosokawa at Kôtô-in in Kyoto – but this is the first one I’ve seen where you can really sort of walk around in it.

Not that it’s all that huge – took me no more than five or ten minutes to see the whole thing, including taking pictures and such. It’s also an interesting space in that the temple itself isn’t that large, and is kind of next door, so to speak, so the clan graveyard really doesn’t feel contained within a temple grounds, so much as just sort of, there, along a small suburban street. I suppose, now that I look at my photos again, there is a wall around the cemetery, and gates that can be closed. But, even so, the approach from the street isn’t particularly marked at all – it feels more like entering an empty lot than it does a temple or historical site. Not that I’m complaining – this kind of variety only makes it more interesting. Imagine if all temples & historical sites looked the same.. it’d drain all the enjoyment out of it.

Above: The squat, plain main hall at Shôrin-ji. Right: The “Sakura daibutsu,” at Kyôan-ji.

Shôrin-ji, constructed under the patronage of prominent early Edo period figure Doi Toshikatsu, contains small memorial towers (kuyôtô) dedicated to Toshikatsu, his parents, and his wife, as well as the oldest wooden building in the city. Kairin-ji, meanwhile, is the patron temple of the Chiba clan, though I’m not sure there are actually any proper graves of famous Chiba lords to be found there. Another small temple in town, Kyôan-ji, is known for its large bronze Jizô, also known as the Sakura Daibutsu, despite not being nearly the size of the more famous Daibutsu in Kamakura, or that in Nara.

In wrapping up this post, I suppose I ought to say something about travel tips or the like, rather than just listing off places I saw. Generally, I’m a fan of just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the city, and seeing what you run into. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me. But, while that works well in Manhattan, and in a city like Kyoto which is about as dense as they get in historical sites on nearly every corner, in a place like Sakura, or for that matter, Naha, or almost anywhere else you might go, I do think that having a map is a huge help. Especially if, like myself, you do not have a full smartphone data plan in Japan, and thus cannot call upon the internet and Google Maps to help you find your way around.

Even when I was in Kyoto, though, and was in full-on roaming mode, I still usually had a specific destination in mind; and then, on the way to that destination, whether you get lost or find it quickly, you’ll find other things along the way. In Sakura, there were not necessarily all that many historical sites or the like of true interest along the way, but, in the process of traipsing around looking for temples, I did get to see quite a few back streets, residential neighborhoods, and to really get a nice feeling for the town, a bit more than if I’d stuck to the main streets and more exclusively to the bigger-name sites. And there really is something interesting and enjoyable about simply seeing the range of style of houses, the range of layouts of streets (gee, I wonder what it would be like to live on this tiny street, or on this major street, or up on that hill, or next door to this temple). Sakura also has an interesting variety of styles of temple gates – it might just be that I visited so many in one day, but it truly did strike me, how some temples had simply two stone pillars framing the entrance to the space, some had more elaborate roofed wooden gates, and some no gates at all; Myôryû-ji even has a pair of ornately carved white pillars topped with lion-dogs, one of which has sadly, however, toppled over. The temple buildings themselves are also quite varied, in a calm, simple sort of way.

Since I did visit so many in one day, and since each was so small, with very little to take notice of, or to set them apart, beyond simply the style of the buildings, I guess it helped focus me in on noticing the variety. I can’t quite figure out how to put it into words… of course temples have great variety – if you go around Kyoto, you’ll see some incredibly, wildly different buildings. But, in Sakura, none of the buildings are, to be honest, all that especially striking, and in a way, this makes the variety more… what am I trying to say? I guess, the great famous monuments of Kyoto will certainly give you a crash course in many of the most iconic buildings in Japanese history, but, Sakura gives me a sense of seeing a more standard, typical, variety of architecture such as would have (and, obviously, still does) exist in any average typical Japanese city. Kyoto, Nara, certain other cities, you know are going to have a rather special feel, because of their very special histories. But, in Sakura, the temples – their main halls, their gates – alongside old homes and shops from the Edo & Meiji periods, and more modern structures, come together to provide a real atmosphere of a “typical” (though I don’t know how typical it truly is) small Japanese city.

In my next Sakura post, I’ll talk about the Juntendô, and the Hotta clan mansion.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

Read Full Post »

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?

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,260 other followers