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Archive for the ‘Japanese history’ Category

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

The JetStar check-in area at Narita Airport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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


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

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

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

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Click to embiggen.

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

——————

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

The Overthrow of Ryūkyū was Illegal under International Law

Still Today, Investigation into a Return to Sovereignty is Possible

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

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

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not Deny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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.

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Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador of the United States to Japan, traveled to the Imperial Palace this past Tuesday to formally present her credentials to the Emperor.

What I find incredibly interesting is the manner in which she traveled to the palace. In a horse-drawn carriage that looks like it could be straight out of the Meiji period, complete with horsemen and footmen in gloriously anachronistic dress. Is this typical? Is this standard? Have all US ambassadors, or all ambassadors from any country, to Japan, traveled to offer their credentials in this same manner?

It’s an Imperial carriage, as indicated by the gold chrysanthemum crest on the sides; Kennedy, like Ulysses S. Grant more than 130 years ago, is being received and welcomed like royalty. So, that’s certainly interesting, and I’m sure there’s something to be said for Japanese attitudes towards JFK and the Kennedy family. I’d love to see that something said, explained out, by someone more thoroughly familiar with the subject. Maybe comparisons to Grant’s visit in 1879, or descriptions of the history & tradition of the ceremony surrounding previous ambassadors’ presentations of their credentials. Instead, I am somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to see that, of the admittedly few news articles I have read on the event, none make even the vaguest attempt to address the history of this practice, or its symbolism or significance. What political/diplomatic symbolic message is Japan sending to its citizens, to the world, to Ms. Kennedy, by having her ride in this sort of carriage? What does it mean, what does it signify, indicate, or represent, that this is done in this style, in this manner, rather than any other form? What message does it send that this ritual is draped so extensive in the aesthetics and forms not of any other period, but specifically of the Meiji (or perhaps Taishô) period?

I love ritual and performance, tradition and culture, and I love that they’re not doing this in an utterly post-war late 20th century sort of way. Black Towncar, everyone in suits, whatever. Boring. And, I absolutely understand why they wouldn’t have Ms. Kennedy ride in, for example, a more traditional Japanese palanquin. Not only does that send totally the wrong message about Japan’s modernity, but, there is no way that a palanquin ride is comfortable. Not to mention that any kind of palanquin, sedan chair, or rickshaw would be just asking for accusations of Orientalism on Ms. Kennedy’s part, and rightfully so, as it would so easily resemble and be compared to images of Western women (and men) riding around 19th century Japan, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, etc., in such conveyances. Thankfully, those involved seem to recognize the discursive dangers inherent in such an option and have avoided them.

Image from the Daily Mail. (c) AFP / Getty Images.

However, Meiji was a period when Japan was doing its best to emulate the Western powers, in a wide variety of ways, in order to prove itself modern, including the adoption of European diplomatic/political protocols and elite/aristocratic material culture. “Look at us, we’ve got horse-drawn carriages! And floofy hats! And these cool waistcoats! Look at us, being modern! Just like you!” Except that today, these protocols appear a full 100 years out of date. Or at least they do to an American eye; I guess I can’t really speak to what a Brit might think, given the period style of much of the ritual & ceremony that goes on over there. Are we still not past that feeling of a need to prove ourselves “modern”?

Furthermore, by recalling Meiji, this recalls a period which, for all its many positive and laudable attributes, was also a period characterized by political structures and culture which directly laid the groundwork for the ultra-nationalist, imperialist, militarist, and expansionist politics & culture of the 1930s-1945.

Of course, such associations are only one possible interpretation. I am merely playing around with some of the possible connections that might be drawn. … I have no doubt that all in all this was simply meant in order to add an additional layer of pomp and circumstance, of aristocratic tradition, and, for all the potential suggestions of absurdity, or of negative connotations, there are some wonderful resonances with, again, for example, the visit of Gen. Grant, drawing a wonderful link to the past, and recalling a time when the material culture of politics & diplomacy was considerably less blah.

Image from NBC News. (c) Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AFP – Getty Images

I eagerly look forward to a more scholarly in-depth analysis, perhaps from an art historian. Japan Focus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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