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Archive for the ‘Japanese history’ Category

Thursday, Sept 11.

By the way, I’m warning you ahead of time, that even though I spent about a week in Kagoshima, I’m probably only going to post about the first few days, since those were the most packed with exploration and such. The last few days certainly had their adventures (going all the way to Kagoshima University only to find out the library is closed on the weekends during summer break, clothes shopping, finding myself in an entire shopping mall with only washiki toilets, spending nearly $100 at the Junkudô /after/ just barely managing to fit everything in my suitcases), but it’s not quite the same, and I don’t really have a whole narrative to tell.

But, for day two, we do, more or less in the normal “travel blogger” fashion. It was Thursday now, and I figured what better time to head out to the Shôkoshûseikan. I was still bitter about the Reimeikan being sold out of pretty much anything they had ever published, and so I was really hoping to have better luck at the obnoxiously named Shôkoshûseikan (try saying that three times fast). In addition to seeing the museum, the neighboring gardens, and all of that, I was also really hoping that they might, just might, even have for sale in their bookstore some of the Reimeikan books that the Reimeikan themselves didn’t have. It’s been known to happen – I went a few weeks ago to the Currency Museum (located right across the street from the Bank of Japan), and was bummed to find out that their main museum catalog – which explains within it all the different kinds of Edo period coinage, their equivalent values, etc. – was totally sold out. A day or two later, I was at Rekihaku, whose museum shop sells catalogs from museums all across the country, and bam, they had like fifteen copies, regular cover price, nothing rare about it. Of course, they had nothing from the Reimeikan at Rekihaku (REIMEI~KHAAAN!!!).

Incidentally, while at Nakano Broadway later in my Tokyo trip, I managed to obtain a good number of pieces of Edo period currency (some replica, but some authentic, all quite cheap), which are not only fun collectibles or whatever, but will also (somehow? I guess?) make for good things to pass around and show to my students.

Anyway, so I took the shiden (streetcars, *ding ding*) out as far as they go, to Kagoshima Station. I knew that Kagoshima Chûô (“Central”) Station, in the center of town, was a much more major center of activity (yes, I’ve used “central” or “center” three times in the same sentence now. sue me.), with an attached shopping mall and all of that, but, boy, wow, Kagoshima Station, off on the north/east end of the city, is easily the smallest, saddest, most rundown-looking Shinkansen (bullet train) station I have ever seen. I asked there about a train to the Shôkoshûseikan, and they looked at me like I was crazy. No such thing. Suggested I take a taxi. Now, I knew that the touristy “City View” buses went up there, but I had been trying to avoid the touristy stuff. All-day packages can be expensive, and, I don’t know, whatever. As it turns out, you can actually just pay 190 yen (about US$2.00) each ride, and ride it like a public bus, no reservations, affiliations, or package deals required. But for that day, I figured it was already too late in the day to bother going all the way back to Chûô Station, to find out how this worked, and to pick up the City View bus. So I decided to walk around that part of town, and hit whatever sites I could within walking distance of Kagoshima Station. And I’m rather glad I did – got to some sites that looked quite far off the beaten trail, but were well worth it, and by the end of the day, I had hit pretty much every major site in that part of town. A good, solid job of it.

The adventure began with two public parks relatively near the water. Gionnosu / Ishibashi (“stone bridge”) Memorial Park features a number of neat-looking old stone bridges. Why we care, I remain unclear. Haven’t really gone back to read the plaques and signs I took pictures of. But, that park was also the site of some of the coastal batteries which were used to fight back against the British Royal Navy, which bombarded Kagoshima in 1863, after a British merchant was killed in Yokohama the previous year by retainers of the lord of Satsuma. The park also features a “grave of the unknown soldier” style memorial monument to those killed in the Satsuma Rebellion, especially on the Imperial (anti-Satsuma) side. I mentioned this rebellion in my previous post; there are several memorials in the city to the 6,000 or so killed on the Satsuma side, and I would visit a cemetery dedicated to them later this same day (later in this post), but of the 6,000 or so Imperial Japanese Army soldiers who died fighting them, roughly 1,270 were buried here, with the cenotaph / memorial sculpture being erected in 1977, on the hundredth anniversary of their deaths.

I snapped some pictures of Sakurajima, and made my way down to the beach, where a pretty elaborate monument stands to St. Francis Xavier, the first Christian missionary to come to Japan. He came to Kagoshima in 1549 and remained for about a year before moving on to Hirado. The Shimazu lords never converted to Christianity, and in fact their domain was one of the earliest and strictest in enforcing bans on the religion, but Xavier and those who came after him converted quite a few of the other Kyushu daimyô, and by 1614, according to some sources there were as many as 300,000 Christians in Japan (the vast majority of them Japanese). The monument features a bronze statue of Xavier, floating above the ground, arms up in a sort of missionizing gesture, next to a length of wall with a relief sculpture tableau of samurai men, Japanese women, the Shimazu clan crest, and Western-style sailing ships. There is another monument to Xavier in Kagoshima, closer to the center of town, but I did not get around to seeing it.

Next was Tagayama Park, the site of the medieval (pre-Edo period) castle of Tôfukuji-jô, of certain famous medieval/Sengoku battles, and, of a massive bronze statue of Tôgô Heihachirô, admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy and hero of the Russo-Japanese War. Though Tôgô is buried in Tama Cemetery in Tokyo, he has a second grave here, and his statue, as seems appropriate, watches out over the water.

Returning down into town, I followed my tourist map, kindly provided at the tourist info center at Kagoshima Chûô Station, and kindly featuring many historical sites clearly labeled, and found my way to a monument marking the birthplace of Mori Arinori, the first Minister of Education in “modern” Meiji Japan. Right nearby the monument stands a small, beautifully bright red (likely recently repainted) Shinto shrine, a branch of Kasuga Taisha. But what was not on my map, and which I count as a wonderful little discovery, is a marker at the shrine and associated sign explaining that though this spot is no longer so near the water today, four hundred years ago, there was a dock or harbor right near this spot, from which the Satsuma fleet departed in 1609 for its fateful invasion of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. As with the Ryûkyû-kan site I mentioned in my last post, there’s nothing much to see here today that really constitutes learning or understanding or appreciating anything new about that event, but, still, there’s something pretty cool about just being on that spot, and reading about it. The invasion force consisted of roughly 3000 samurai and around 5000 soldiers and workers on around one hundred ships, led by Kabayama Hisataka and Hirata Masamune. They gathered here at Kagoshima, then moved down to the port of Yamakawa, departing Yamakawa on the fourth day of the third month on the lunar calendar, in the 14th year of Keichô (1609 on the Western calendar), and after a number of skirmishes, facing and defeating resistance on various islands, the samurai took the Ryukyuan royal palace merely one month later, with the king surrendering on the fifth day of the fourth month. I could go into the details of what happened after that, and all the repercussions, but you can read about that elsewhere. For now, let’s move on. This is sure to be a long post anyway.

The Kasuga Shrine branch shrine in Kagoshima, near the docks where the Satsuma fleet departed in 1609 for the invasion of Ryukyu.

My main goal for the day, once I looked at the map and assessed the sites labeled thereon, was the Shimazu clan cemetery at Fukushô-ji. It’s a bit out of the way – a bit of a hike through residential neighborhoods and such a good 10-15 blocks away from where you would be otherwise. But I think it was totally worth it. Before that, though, on the way there, I passed by a few other sites. The former sites of the mansions of the Shigetomi and Imaizumi Shimazu branch families (the latter being the birthplace of the famous/popular Atsuhime) lie right along the main street which leads up to the Nanshû Cemetery; unfortunately, though, both of these sites remain private property today, and so there is nothing for the tourist / historical adventurer like myself to see but the impressive outer stone walls. I wonder how one gets to live on such a site – I’m sure that in many cases it’s simply passed down directly, through the generations, to the present day, and in other cases, it’s simply a matter of being very wealthy and able to afford to purchase such a large area of land (does historical significance actually factor into the price? I’d imagine it must, right?). But, still, I cannot help but wonder who it is that lives in such places today…

The Nanshû Cemetery. I’m not sure I have a photo that really shows this properly, but unlike most cemeteries, which wind around, all the stones here are arranged in neat lines, all facing the same direction. The gravestones thus combine to form a single, large, monument & memorial to a single event, and to those who died fighting.

Passing by those sites, I did eventually find myself at the stairs to the Nanshû Cemetery. This is the graveyard, and associated Shinto shrine, where Saigô Takamori and many of his fellows are buried. It’s surely a lower-case-m mecca for Saigô fanatics, and I intentionally had not even put it on my list. These pro- and then later anti-Imperial rebels, and their rebellion – their samurai code, their honor and bravery in battle, their exciting and dashing individual exploits – are so romanticized by armchair historians / enthusiasts it makes me want to gag. But, so long as I was already there anyway, I did hike up the stairs, and check it out. And, I have to say, it’s pretty neat. They have nice, clear, bilingual signs pointing out the graves of particularly significant individuals, and explaining a bit of why they’re of significance. To my surprise, only a very few of these already have articles about them on the Samurai Wiki. I guess maybe Satsuma Rebellion figures aren’t quite as mythologized as I’d thought, at least not as much as the Bakumatsu-era sonnô jôi rebels (sorry, Imperial loyalists) who came before them.

In any case, finishing up with that, I was finally ready to turn for the Shimazu clan cemetery. I was stopped by a kind old man who runs a sort of souvenir shop / rest area just outside the Nanshû Cemetery, who invited me in for tea. We spoke for a bit, and he tried to get me sold on the whole Saigô Takamori thing. I tried to explain that I think Saigô & Friends overshadow the earlier history of Satsuma, and that people like Shimazu Shigehide (lord of Satsuma, 1755-1787) kind of get the shaft, but he wasn’t really interested. The tea was quite good, as were of course the black sugar candies he gave me, though there was something else he offered, I can’t quite remember what it was, which started out dry and crunchy-seeming, but which quickly grew chewy, very chewy, and just could not seem to be broken up or swallowed. I chewed and chewed and chewed… after all of this, of course I felt bad to not buy anything, but, and I even feel bad to say it, his merchandise was all rather lackluster. There was really nothing there I was interested in… so I bought a bottle of Aquarius (kind of like Gatorade) and moved on.

The grave of Shimazu Iehisa, first Edo period lord of Satsuma.

After a bit of a walk, a few wrong turns, etc., I found the Shimazu clan cemetery. It’s an interesting place, in that the temple the cemetery used to be associated with – the Shimazu clan “family temple,” or bodaiji 菩提寺 – was abolished in the Meiji period, and a high school built in its place. So all that survives today is a rather extensive cemetery, but no Buddhist temple associated with it. I was a little confused at first, as I saw a small construction crew working inside the grounds, and just one gate slightly open, with all the more major-looking gates closed. Was I allowed to go inside? Would that one gate only allow me into some small portion of the cemetery? I never want to push my way in somewhere I’m not supposed to go, without first doing my best to understand both written signs and unwritten indications; I don’t like to Gaijin Smash. But, fortunately, in the end, no one gave me any kind of trouble, including groundskeepers and the construction workers, so I guess it was okay that I was there.

And, boy, wow, just about everyone is there! Atsuhime, daughter of Shimazu Tadatake, and perhaps the most famous/popular Shimazu, in large part due to a recent extremely popular TV show, is not buried here – she’s buried at Kan’ei-ji with her husband, Shogun Tokugawa Iesada. But, just about every Shimazu lord from the 14th century onwards is buried here, from Shimazu Motohisa (b. 1363, d. 1411) to Shimazu Nariakira (1809-1858). The interwebs tell me that the last lord of Satsuma, Shimazu Tadayoshi, along with his successors as family head, are buried nearby, just over at 常安峯 (Tsuneyasu-mine? Jôanbô?) in Dairyû-chô 大竜町, but I sadly did not have that information at the time, and therefore did not go and seek it out.

It didn’t quite occur to me at the time, but there’s a reason there are able to be so many Shimazu graves all in one place, and why this is the first/only time I’ve seen such a thing. It’s because the Shimazu are one of the few samurai clans to actually be based in the same territory throughout so many centuries. Many clans also did not come into existence, did not coalesce into that family name, until later in history, too. This helps explain why the Shimazu clan cemetery can include roughly five centuries worth of Shimazus (from someone born in 1363 to someone who died in 1858), while the Hotta clan cemetery at Jindai-ji in Sakura only houses a few Edo period generations of family heads.

All the gravestones at the Shimazu clan cemetery take a peculiar form – a form I’ve previously seen chiefly only in Kamakura (or at least, I thought so. Now that I look back at my Kamakura photos, I’m not so sure…). I hesitate to leap to any conclusions or over-generalizing statements about the connections between Shimazu / Satsuma culture and Kamakura culture, though there was one panel in the exhibits at the Shôkoshûseikan which explained that right up until the Edo period, the Shimazu maintained more strongly the Kamakura period modes and customs of samurai banquets, receptions, and the like, and were quite proud of their upholding these ancient traditions. They did incorporate some Muromachi influences, but, from the Kyoto or Edo point of view, this wasn’t something to be proud of, so much as a matter of being terribly behind, terribly out of fashion – they saw it as a mark of being provincial hicks, essentially. So, finally, at some point very late in the Sengoku, or early in the Edo period, the Shimazu found that they could no longer keep up the old ways, that their guests much preferred a different mode of reception, and that in order to be good hosts they needed to adopt more contemporary customs. Whether this fully accounts for what I think I’m noticing in terms of the style of gravestones, I don’t know. There may well be also an aspect of the Shimazu emulating Kamakura-era gravestones in order to emphasize their connection to the Minamoto clan, the first shogunate family, from whom the Tokugawa also claimed descent. The founder of the Shimazu name, Shimazu Tadahisa, is buried next to the first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, in Kamakura, and, as I found out on this trip, it is the Shimazu family who have since the 18th century been funding the maintenance, and occasionally the replacement, of Yoritomo’s gravestone in Kamakura. A replica of that gravesite, produced as part of the testing phase prior to creating an actual replacement, stands today at Tsurugane Shrine at the Shôkoshûseikan.

So, after taking some time to poke around nearly the entire graveyard – one section of the Shimazu clan cemetery is only accessible by a different gate, which was most definitively barred – taking photos of all the nearly identical looking gravesites in order to be able to put them up on the Samurai Wiki, I made my way back into town, and back to the hotel. The next day, I would try again to get to the Shôkoshûseikan, and that time, I succeeded.

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The main entrance to the Tenmonkan shopping arcades.

Weds, Sept 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The JetStar check-in area at Narita Airport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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


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

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

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

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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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