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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.

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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.”
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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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Last week, following a lively discussion in one of my seminars about how media outlets all too often overlook historians as consultants, op-ed writers, or sources for better historical context – or, to put it the other way around, that historians and our perspectives are not seen enough in the media – I found a friend had shared on Facebook a fantastic recent Asahi Shimbun interview with Prof. Carol Gluck (Columbia U). In it, she offers not only very interesting assessments of ongoing issues in Japan today, but also a few juicy quotes pointing precisely to this issue – the problems that result when journalists do not consult historians, or do not themselves take a sufficiently historical perspective in their work.

Since these quotes are just so good, I’ll let them speak for themselves, and try to avoid offering too much commentary myself.

To begin, in response to a question about the “recent” rightward swing in Japanese politics:

News about Japan in the global media often appears in extreme terms. During the economic surge of the 1980s Japan was going to take over the world. During the recession of the 1990s, Japan was finished. After that for a while Japan disappeared from the front pages. As a historian I know that history doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t careen from extreme to extreme. History is not a sprinter, either.

I am no expert on contemporary politics, and so I am essentially in the dark on this issue, relying on the media to provide me relatively accurate and informed information on the subject – I remain unclear as to whether this rightward swing is in fact recent, and if so how recent, and just how, in what ways, and for how long things have been building up toward it. Is it recent, or is it only recently on the radar of the journalism crowd?

Next, in response to a question about “breaking away from the postwar regime”:

People have been talking about breaking away from the sengo taisei (“postwar structure”) for decades. It is a fact that no other country involved in World War II still talks today about being in, or breaking away from, the “postwar.” Most countries stopped being “postwar” sometime during the 1950s, so this suggests something particular to the stability of Japan’s postwar. One reason for this is the role of the United States, which froze Japanese memory of the war and the origins of the postwar Japanese system in an immediately postwar shape in 1945-47. Many Japanese found this shape comfortable, accepting the emperor is a symbol and Japan as a peaceful, democratic country.

I’m not sure so much on the details of this – surely there have been changes over the years that have left things changed, not “frozen” in a 1945-1947 shape; beginning with the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the 1952 end of the Occupation, the institution of the so-called 1955 System, the 1972 return of Okinawa, the Nixon Shocks, the incredible rise, the bubble burst, the so-called Lost Decades… but, nevertheless, I think the fundamental point is valid and important. Namely, take a historical view. Understand the past context. Of course we shouldn’t suggest that structural forces determine everything – people do make choices, and things do change, and so recent developments are relevant. But the most recent of developments are not all that’s relevant – it’s a failure, or a refusal, to understand the particularities of Japan’s situation that leads to all too many major US news outlets speaking of Japanese politics as wacky, irrational, bizarre. I certainly think there are lots of things they could and should do differently, but I recognize that if one were to study it further, as political reporters professionally should, things would not seem so bizarre.

I think that’s all I want to say on that. But, if you’re interested, please do check out the fuller excerpted interview at Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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