Archive for the ‘Japanese News’ Category

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

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

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

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

Map from The Japan Times. All photos my own.

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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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Video by YouTube user <dandomina, linked from the POST article discussed below.

POST, a blog / podcast series associated with MoMA, recently featured a podcast by Prof. David Novak, professor in the Music department here at UCSB, in which he talks about recent anti-nuclear protests in Japan. As an ethnomusicologist, Novak focuses on the music employed at the protest events, and in association with the sentiment of the movement, an approach I think is quite interesting and refreshing – to focus on a live event, a contemporary, current, ongoing set of protest marches and demonstrations, but to focus on the music performed or played at those demonstrations, which may not be by big-name artists and may not even be formally published at all.

In the aftermath of the 3/11 disasters, all of Japan’s nuclear reactors were shut down. I believe only one or two are active today. As the only country to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons, Japan of course has a unique relationship with nuclear energy. And so, perhaps it comes as no surprise that as the Fukushima crisis continues, with no end in sight, people would turn against nuclear power, seeing it as too dangerous, too risky, especially in a country that is the site of a significant proportion of all earthquake activity in the world each year. That said, though, despite Japan’s reputation for cutting-edge technology and environmentalism, since the shutdown of the nuclear plants, Japan has been getting 85% of its energy from fossil fuels – and not from clean, renewable, “green” sources of energy. So, I’m not sure the solution, the answer, is so clear-cut. In the meantime, though, how has Japan managed to get through this past summer, A/C units blaring, with all but one or two nuclear plants shut down, and yet without blackouts or energy supply problems? CNN Money / Fortune magazine suggests it was simply by cutting back – more efficient use of electricity, and more efficient equipment (lightbulbs being just a start), has made a profound impact.

Regardless of where one stands on the energy issue, or how one feels about the ongoing situation at Fukushima and how it has been handled, Novak points out another very remarkable aspect of all of this: that Japan is today seeing larger, more widespread, and more active protests than it has in some time. I really don’t know very much about it, but, stereotypically, we generally associate the Japanese with not standing up or speaking out individually against the status quo, or against societal consensus. “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down” is said so often in association with Japan it’s cliché; but I think there’s some truth to it – there are the famous examples of Minamata disease, along with several other cases of industrial pollution, in which individuals were ashamed to speak out about their own personal, individual, suffering, and were indeed strongly pressured to not say anything against the companies, government policies, and legal decisions that were polluting their water and destroying their lives, placing emphasis instead on the prosperity and growth of the nation, and personal sacrifice for the benefit of the greater whole. The most famous, and likely largest, most extensive, set of protests in post-war Japan was in the 1960s, when student protests combined with protests against the Vietnam War, and against the renewal of ANPO, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The campuses of a number of universities, including the University of Tokyo, were taken over by the students, as campuses were here in the US, and it was a really big deal. But have we seen such a thing since then? And is what we’re seeing today truly that much bigger than anything else since? Do the protests we’re seeing today represent a true shift in the political involvement of the Japanese public (especially young people)? If so, it’s remarkable.

Image from JapanCrush.com.

But it’s not only the anti-nuclear movement which is seeing strong activity these days. Protests against hate speech have been growing as well in recent months, along with the anti-foreigner / anti-immigration that spurred them.

This recent Japan Today article is quite brief, but describes a “rally” 2000 strong, held in Shinjuku (in Tokyo) last week, protesting against racism and hate. A large protest was also held in Osaka, back in July. Though opposed by worryingly bold and explicit anti-foreigner protests, with messages such as “all foreigners are criminals,” it is heartening, encouraging, to see that thousands of Japanese are turning out with messages like “You are the shame of this country!” and “You’re the ones who need to go home!” This, after a controversy surrounding an ESL teacher trying to teach his students about racism in Japan involved discussions that, supposedly, in Japan, it is widely believed that racism is chiefly or exclusively an American problem, and that racism doesn’t exist in Japan. It would be patronizing to suggest that this is truly the first time that anyone in Japan has really come to understand what racism and hate speech are, and that they exist in Japan – but, it’s encouraging to see that the idea seems to be spreading, and gaining traction. Only time will tell where this leads, how it develops.

Photo my own, taken Aug 6, 2013, near the gates to Futenma.

Meanwhile, Okinawa of course continues to be a separate story unto itself. The ANPO demonstrations are surely the most famous protests in the history of post-war Japan as it was taught to me, as a student, educated in the United States and United Kingdom. That education included almost nothing at all about Okinawa. So, where does the Koza Riot fit into this narrative of the history of protest in modern Japan? Where do the ongoing protests against the US military presence in Okinawa – and against the current base at Futenma, the proposed base at Henoko, and the Ospreys in particular – fit?

I don’t follow the Japanese news all that closely on a day-to-day basis, but a recent article in the Number 1 Shimbun (“Number One Newspaper”, published by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan), suggests that “What happens in Okinawa… [stays in Okinawa].” Or, to put it more explicitly, as Jon Mitchell does in this article, “the mainland press … consistently turns a blind eye to the iniquities suffered by residents of Japan’s poorest and most militarized prefecture.” He opens the article with the surprising information that in September 2012, protesters blocked the gates to the Marines’ air base at Futenma, preventing anyone from going in or out, and successfully closing the base – for the first and only time since the end of the US Occupation in 1972 – for a full 22 hours. And yet, few heard about it. Why is that?

It can be easy to ascribe the lack of attention to Okinawa’s situation to an imperialist agenda or colonialist bias (if we wish to use such strong terms), and/or to pressure from Washington, or the like, in broad terms. But Mitchell clarifies for us here, spelling out a series of reasons or factors, in a somewhat more detailed and specific fashion.

I link to many articles on this blog, but, and I hope I say this rarely enough for it to carry some weight – this is a particularly good one. I definitely recommend reading the entirety of Mitchell’s short article. I’ll certainly be keeping it, to potentially assign as readings for students if I ever get to teach Okinawan history, and for whatever other purposes.

He notes, firstly, that mainland Japanese reporters typically rely too heavily on press releases and other information from government sources (including the Japan Self-Defense Forces), and that mainland Japanese reporters tend to be well “handled” by American officials. Mitchell also describes how Okinawan reporters – or their direct mentors – made their careers handling these subjects during the pre-reversion period, at a time when Japan and Okinawa were much more distant and disconnected, in terms of their political status, travel access, etc. This is not simply to say that Okinawan reporters are “closer” to the issue, more familiar with it, plainly by being Okinawan, or even that it is more personal for them because their Okinawan, but rather that it’s a step beyond that, to say that by virtue of their direct experience handling this particular issue, Okinawan reporters are more experienced at asking harsh, biting questions, at pushing past barricades, and in otherwise interacting with or dealing with the US military and with this specific set of circumstances. This is, of course, a compelling argument, and I don’t doubt that it enters into it to some extent, but, given that it has now been more than 40 years since reversion, I’m not sure we should quite let the mainland reporters off the hook so easily. Mainland reporters today specializing in security issues, or reporters working the Okinawa desk for a national, Tokyo- or Osaka-based newspaper, have also been specializing in these issues for years; how is it they have not developed the same skills, experience, or approach?

Posters posted by students at the University of the Ryukyus (Ryûdai), one of the more politically active/activist student bodies in Japan. The one on the right reads, roughly, “Opposing the Abenomics which worsens the great poverty of students and workers! Tear down the Abe administration!” The one on the left reads, roughly, “Let’s stop the revision* of the Constitution! STOP! Opposing Osprey deployment and Henoko military base construction!” (*The normal word for ‘revision’, 改良, means roughly “to make better,” but here they’ve written 改悪, “to make worse.”)

Perhaps they see Okinawan issues more as regional issues… Of course, in my mind, I see them as major issues, and lump them in with Fukushima and other things that are prominent issues in Japan. But, I guess, when one steps back a moment and thinks about it, do any major national papers in the US give very much attention to Hawaii, at all? The big news in Hawaii right now is a spill, or more accurately, a leak, of 233,000 gallons of molasses into Honolulu harbor on Sept 9, which many fear could devastate the local ecosystem to such an extent it might take decades to recover. For Hawaii, this is a really big deal; and, as something which is occurring within the United States, one would think it might merit national attention. Yet, while I haven’t exactly scoured any genuinely representative sample of national news sources, the New York Times, at least, seems to have devoted no more than a paragraph to the incident. So, I’m sure the feeling of Okinawa as being only of regional concern plays a large role; but, then, are Fukushima, or the recovery in Tôhoku, merely of regional concern?

Mitchell ends his article by citing the example of Nishiyama Takichi, whose reputation was destroyed by “the powers-that-be” after he reported on payments made by the Japanese government to the US in connection to the reversion of Okinawa to Japanese control. It would seem that shame for stepping out of line, fear of being the nail that will be hammered down, and pressure to not rock the boat, i.e. to not challenge the mainstream consensus, is still quite a strong force in Japan after all.

It remains to be seen how these three sets of issues, these three categories of protests, will develop. Perhaps they’ll grow. Perhaps some kind of actual societal shift or policy change will be effected. Only time will tell.

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8/5 (Mon) – Day three in Okinawa. Yet another wonderful adventure.

The view of Ôgimi Village from a tiny shrine I discovered at the top of a serious set of stairs, in a random corner of the village.

After spending the last two days on my own, today was the first of a few days tagging along with a pack of professors on a (slightly) more pre-planned, organized schedule. The main event of the day today was a drive up to Ôgimi-son (Ôgimi Village), in the somewhat more mountainous, remote/rural, northern part of the island known as Yanbaru 山原. Because of its somewhat more remote location, Ôgimi was spared much of the damage & destruction of 1945, and so, I am told, more pre-war documents survived. Whether they still survive today, I was a little unclear, since in the end, the professors ended up spending the day poring over piles of records from the 1940s-50s.

This was my first time going anywhere in Okinawa outside of Naha (I’m not counting my jaunt into Haebaru to go to the Archives on Saturday, since pretty much all I saw of anything there was the Archives themselves, and a brief stretch of highway with the Archives, a Lawson’s convenience store, and a public bus depot/terminus). So, I was pretty excited. Not that we got to really walk around and see anything much of Ginowan, Nago, Okinawa, Urasoe, or anywhere else, but, even so, just passing through them, and seeing the placenames on the signs, and getting some sense, in the process, of the geography and the look, the feel of the various areas, better than I had before… Not to mention, the beautiful views of the ocean.

Above: The view of the beach from near the archives building; the torii here is not, strictly speaking, for a Shinto shrine, but for a monument to those from Ôgimi lost in the wars of the 19th-20th centuries.

Below: The streets of Ôgimi-son.

This was also one of the most rural (inaka) places I’ve been in Japan – moreso than Sakura, by a longshot – and while Okinawa is most certainly a different atmosphere/feel than anywhere else in Japan, and, going back to my post from a few weeks ago, I will refrain from inferring any sort of generalizations about what rural Japan, or rural Okinawa, or “the real” Okinawa, is like… especially since, even in this small village, we saw two very different sides of it. First, arriving in the village, we simply drove up on the highway, with the ocean on one side, and the middle school, and then a soba shop, and then a tiny little road leading over to the town hall, making it seem, for the moment, like perhaps that was how most/all of the town was organized – somewhat scattered, and around the highway, i.e. along the beach, with very little walkable “community” sort of space. Later in the day, however, we drove around a little bit, going deep into residential neighborhoods, and I saw an Ôgimi that is spread out over a large geographical area, but that within that area, has at least some pockets (maybe many, I guess) of narrow, quiet, very local-feeling residential streets, lined with stone walls and banana plants, and filled with red-ceramic roof-tiled homes. It’s not quite Taketomi, but it definitely gives the impression of Okinawa – an Okinawa, one of the stereotypical images of Okinawa, though of course a place like Kokusai-dôri, with its touristy shops, bars, (some) neon lights, and live houses, is also a standard image of Okinawa.

The former village hall of Ôgimi, which today serves as a local archives, while a new building behind it has taken over the governmental/administrative functions. I am disappointed to discover that I have failed to take any good pictures of the inside of the office/archives room that would properly convey the size of the room, and its atmosphere/appearance. But, maybe you can kind of get some impression from these two images.

Returning to talking about the village archives, our chief destination for the day, where we’d come to look at documents, it’s housed in the former town hall, which is apparently the oldest still-standing reinforced concrete building in Okinawa Prefecture. Reinforced concrete, mind you, so not “traditional architecture,” and not all that old, but even so it was very much something to see. Completed in 1925, it looks and feels it. A particular style, a particular feel, that reminds one of the Taishô period (1912-1916). If it helps you imagine the period we’re talking about, think of the earliest movie theaters, jazz bars, flapper girls. Not that any of that was going on in Ôgimi-son, so far as I know, but, it’s that period…

The inside, on the ground floor, is just one large space, with bookshelves, looking quite quaint and cute, just like one might expect from a very small, very local village archives – but, actually, for researching those specific things, e.g. village history, Okinawa history, the bookshelves were actually quite well-stocked, a hell of a lot better (for certain topics) than you’d find in even, for example, the Univ. of Hawaii Library, let alone a place like UCSB that isn’t really all that strong in East Asian Studies at all (let alone Okinawan Studies). And, then, there’s the office, the one room with climate control, and I have to admit, in certain ways, it really looked/felt just like what I might have (but didn’t quite) imagined. A small room, with a single large table and piles of documents hand-written or carbon copied on browning paper; a minimum of office set-up or equipment; a light, airy, sunny atmosphere as created by a combination of the many windows, and the white concrete construction; and two very kind staff members, presumably volunteers, with (my apologies to say it, but I’m going to say it) wonderful accents, who were very gracious, and generous, and helpful, and maybe just a little, what’s the word, well, not at all used to entertaining professors from Tokyo, and from the National History Museum. The village mayor even came out to see what was up.

I feel bad for Orientalizing or romanticizing or whatever about the experience, and about how quaint the village is, or how it matched or didn’t match my romantic expectations. But, it really did, and that I cannot help but be aware of, and want to say something about.

In any case, we had lunch at a rest stop (michi no eki, 道の駅) on the side of the highway, where I enjoyed some very tasty yakisoba, Okinawan style, and shikuwasa soft serve. Apparently Ôgimi is particularly famous for its shikuwasa, which is a small green citrus fruit similar to but apparently completely separate and different from the sudachi and from the standard lime. Mmm, shikuwasa.

After finishing with the documents (I found some books on the shelves which I took note of, or photocopied relevant bits out of – the day still managed to be useful for my own research), we all piled into the cars – what a sight we must have been, ten or twelve researchers from the ‘mainland’ showing up in three cars, and then all leaving all at once a few hours later – and drove around the village a little bit, checking out some very local shops and community centers and such, and just generally getting a feeling for the village. I learned that kyôdôten 共同店, which we might translate as “co-op,” are quite common in Okinawa, though they operate somewhat differently from the coops we’re used to in some of the more student-heavy or hippie-dominated areas of the US. At the Isla Vista Coop, for example, people can choose to become ‘members,’ or, essentially, part-owners, and I don’t know all the ins and outs of how it works, but you get some kind of rights or powers in “owning” or controlling how the place is operated, or something, and you get discounts and deals whenever you shop there. The purpose of such coops, as I understand them, is to fight “the man” in some way, and to support local farmers and provide access to organic products. Something like that. At Okinawa’s kyôdôten, meanwhile, everyone in the immediate vicinity pays in, and helps support this non-profit local store, in order to help allow there to be a store at all in such a community which would otherwise be too small and too remote for any private business owner to hope to make enough of a profit for it to be worthwhile to open a shop there.

The next stop before returning to Naha was to go to Ginowan, and to attempt to get a peek at the Futenma Marines Air Base, which we did from the top of a hill in the public park at Kakazu 嘉数 – apparently itself the site of particularly fierce or particularly famous fighting during the Battle of Okinawa. Okinawa TV was stationed up there as well, today, with their satellite uplinks and large TV cameras, and I was surprised at just how starkly and easily one could see the airstrips, inside the US military base, from this Japanese (Okinawan, read: public, civilian) park. But, I’m not sure there was much to see.

I was kind of hoping to get a glimpse of one of the Ospreys – this, I think, was the main goal for the sensei as well – two of which were moved onto the base this past Saturday (Aug 3), and ten more of which were believed to be scheduled to be brought to the base today (Aug 5). Normally I don’t follow these things so closely – in terms of day-to-day developments – but, while I could hypothetically be keeping up with it all on the Internet if I so chose, being here and seeing it in the actual physical newspapers, feels quite different.

The Osprey is a model of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) military aircraft that has become a sort of tool or stepping point for those who oppose the military bases in Okinawa – it gives them something specific to point to, something specific to focus their rage at. This is a subject about which I am most certainly not an expert, but the general impression I get is this: The Ospreys have got a less than wonderful flight record, in other words, in terms of successfully flying without crashing, and this makes them a great target of ire and opposition, in order to highlight and draw attention to the more general problems of the Futenma base, which people have been opposing for years and years. The helicopter crashes into civilian buildings; the noise and general disruption; and the fact that, in violation of the US military’s own policies, the base is built right in the middle of a heavily populated residential/commercial municipality, whereas in the US (as I understand it), bases are mandated to be located a certain distance from any civilian homes or shops (or something roughly to that effect).

Case in point, a US military helicopter crashed just this same day, today (8/5), at Camp Hansen, one of the numerous other US bases on this tiny island. No civilians were hurt, nor their property affected, I don’t think, as I’m pretty sure the crash happened within the base. But, some of the professors were suggesting, with this in the news, the Marines would probably reschedule any kind of appearances or uses of the Ospreys, and try to keep a slightly lower profile for the rest of the day. A bit unfortunate, for me, I think, just since I was hoping to see them, and maybe even get some photos to share on Facebook or Twitter or whatever. But, I did manage to at least get some photos, blurry though they may be, of protesters just outside the base. A very different, but also very prominent, side or aspect of Okinawa from the 16th-19th century history I normally chiefly focus on. … And, to my mind, all the more reason that the bases need to go. Okinawa deserves, just like any other place deserves, to be defined by its own culture, its own history, and deserves to have its own path, rather than being defined by military bases, by protests, by accidents & incidents, and by the profound cultural influence or impact of an American military presence. Okinawa should be defined by rafute and shikuwasa and gurukun, not by spam and A&W; it should be defined by kariyushi wear, and not by military logos; it should be defined by eisa and sanshin and Shuri Castle, and not by protests and Futenma. It should be defined as a former island kingdom, not as “The Rock.” It should be defined as a place recovering from, or otherwise dealing with and moving on from, its history as a formerly independent kingdom that was conquered and annexed, as an island that was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of WWII, with so much of its architecture and everything destroyedOkinawa deserves to be recovering from that, dealing with that, moving forward, being or becoming whatever it is to be in and of itself, rather than to be trapped with this current situation imposed upon it, imposed upon its land, and its people, and their culture and lifestyle, despite their continuing opposition to it.

I don’t consider myself an activist, and I won’t get too much more into it here, but, just in terms of experiencing Okinawa, getting to know Okinawa, getting to know the issues and such, it really would have been great to get to see a bit more today, a bit more of the bases and of the protests. Maybe on my next trip, I’ll manage to meet some protesters, and get a closer look in some fashion.

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Sad news again from the kabuki world. Frankly, I’m still a little bit in shock, and finding it hard to believe.

A friend just posted on my Facebook wall a few hours ago a link to the New York Times obituary for Nakamura Kanzaburô, who passed away this past December. Looking at her post, I got to thinking about when, at some point in the future, Danjûrô would pass away as well. I never suspected it would be so soon. Not even five minutes later, I scrolled down to see a post from Kabuki scholar Matsuba Ryoko, linking to a Mainichi Shinbun article stating that Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô had succumbed to pneumonia, and died earlier today, Feb 3rd. Here is the article from the English-language version of the Mainichi.

Danjûrô was, pretty much by definition, the most prominent actor in the kabuki world. His passing, especially combined with that of Kanzaburô, marks the end of an era. I feel terribly privileged to have gotten to see them both perform, to have met Danjûrô, and to have gotten his autograph, and to think that, some years down the road, when it is a new Kabuki-za that everyone has grown familiar with, and a new Danjûrô and a new Kanzaburô who grace its stage, I’ll be able to think of myself as someone who has been a fan since the previous generation – someone who remembers the previous Kabuki-za, the previous Kanzaburô, and the previous Danjûrô.

Of course, none of this is about me, or really about the art, the theatre; though the kabuki world and its fans have of course lost a legend today, my heart goes out too to his family – his son, prominent actor Ichikawa Ebizô who has just lost his father, and all of Danjûrô’s other close and extended family and friends.

You will be dearly missed, sir.

I expect we will be seeing more from the Japanese media in coming days. This truly marks the beginning of a new era of Kabuki.

My good friend Brigid and myself, with Danjûrô, outside the Kabuki-za in January 2008.

EDIT: Additional articles and links:
*Obituary/Article at Kabuki-bito.jp, the Shôchiku official website

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The world of kabuki lost one of its greatest stars yesterday. Nakamura Kanzaburô, who had been fighting esophageal cancer, died in a Tokyo hospital yesterday at the age of 57.

I am not sure what I can say that wouldn’t just be a repetition or rehashing of what I have just read in the Japan Times, and in the Mainichi Shimbun. I am tempted to want to write a much longer blog post, in honor of this great man, but I suppose I will leave it to the newspapers to do what they do.

I had the pleasure, the privilege, of seeing Kanzaburô perform on a number of occasions, both in Tokyo, and once in Washington DC. The last time I saw him perform, it was back in 2008, at the old Kabuki-za. The play Ukare Shinjû, a relatively new play not in the traditional repertoire, which Kanzaburô wrote and starred in, ends with his character flying out over the audience, passing into the afterlife atop a giant mouse, shouting (something to the effect of), “This is the real chûnori!”1 I suppose I shall always remember him in that moment.

Kanzaburô was a dedicated and masterful actor, but a creative one too, often creating new projects such as the Heisei Nakamura-za touring company, and Cocoon Kabuki, aimed at making kabuki more appealing to a younger / more modern audience; he played a role as well in creating new plays, such as Ukare Shinjû, and the zombie kabuki Ô-Edo no Living Dead. He leaves behind two sons, Nakamura Kankurô and Shichinosuke, both extremely accomplished actors in their own rights. I imagine that one of them will soon take on the Kanzaburô name.

In the meantime, today is truly a sad day for kabuki, for its fans, and of course, especially, for Kanzaburô’s family. My heart goes out to them.

(1) Chûnori 宙乗, lit. “riding the sky,” is the name of a special effects technique (keren) in kabuki, in which an actor flies up over the audience on wires, usually making his exit in this manner up over the audience, and out the back of the theater. The joke in Ukare Shinjû is that he is riding a mouse, which, in Japanese, rather than “squeak-squeak,” says “chû-chû” – thus, the pun of “the real chûnori/riding-the-sky” as “this is the true riding-a-mouse!”

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This has been much in the news lately, so I suppose it’s about time I post something about it. Incidentally, after not checking on my own site for just a few days, I came back today to find I had 46 spam messages. Wow. I’ve never seen so many at once before.

For those living under a rock the last few weeks, anti-Japanese riots have erupted in China, nominally connected to the territorial dispute over a set of tiny uninhabited islands known as Diaouyu in Chinese, and Senkaku in Japanese. Here is a recent Wall Street Journal article on the events, just one of a countless number published in the last few weeks.

I refuse to get into it here, because then I’m just inviting more debate, more wasteful flamewars (though, at the very least, it would get me to actually have some non-spam comments on this blog..). But, suffice it to say that despite the assertions of a recent NY Times editorial column by Han-Yi Shaw, and numerous rebuttals in which he is gloriously torn apart, this is not really about who truly, legally, rightfully, is in the right regarding claims to these stupid islands. The Chinese rioters, supported by their government, have seen to that. The dispute over the islands, much as they might like to pretend otherwise, was never really their primary attention. Once again, the Chinese have found an excuse to launch anti-Japanese riots, reviving a myriad of issues decades old and conflating them all with what should be a much more limited, specific, political debate, fanning the flames of hate and re-igniting the crucible of Chinese ultra-nationalist fervor & outrage against wrongs committed generations ago.

A friend suggested that we must take Chinese conceptions of nation and national territory into account, understanding Chinese attitudes about how any and all territory that was historically part of China is seen as integral to the wholeness of the Chinese nation-state, and how even the tiniest incursion is thus seen as an attack on the whole. A very interesting thought, and one I kind of enjoy, as I much prefer cultural lines of inquisition to the utterly boring realm of political theory and power politics; the Orientalist idea of China having a markedly different, separate, cultural conception of itself is a wonderfully romantic and intriguing one. I like it, and I’d be curious to know more about this. If anyone has any academic articles to recommend on Chinese conceptions of the essential nature of possession of all Chinese people & land, I’d be curious to read them.

Master wordsmith Murakami Haruki summarizes contemporary Japanese attitudes on nationalistic fervor best, I believe, saying:

“Anger-fuelled disputes of this kind are not unlike cheap liquor: Cheap liquor gets you drunk after only a few shots and makes you hysterical. It makes you speak loudly and act rudely. . . But after your drunken rampage you are left with nothing but an awful headache the next morning. We must be careful about politicians and polemicists who lavish us with this cheap liquor and fan this kind of rampage.”

With any luck, the Chinese and Koreans can learn this lesson too, and won’t have to learn it the hard way, as Japan and Germany did. (Hopefully we Americans can soon learn that lesson as well.)

You can read the entirety of Murakami’s essay, in translation into English, here.

This bullshit of Chinese & Koreans refusing to let go of age-old issues, and refusal to allow relations to become more fully friendly and peaceful has got to stop. It has got to end. What we need, in the words of Genki Sudo, is a “permanent revolution.”

Sigh. If only it were so simple. What magic words can they exchange in negotiations that will make a permanent revolution a reality?

People act as though the world they know, the world of the present, is the only way things could possibly be. Either that, or they believe that the 1890s-1940s are all there is to history. But the relationship between China, Korea, and Japan is more than a thousand years old, and it has taken many dramatically different forms over the centuries. It was different before, and it can be different again. All it takes is a willingness to put the recent past aside, and look to the future.

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Just a couple of articles today from the Mainichi Shimbun.

*Kyoto temple hires 25-year-old painter to restore ancient art practice – I have posted before about contemporary Nihonga (neo-traditional) painters being hired to restore, or to create new works to replace, paintings at Buddhist temples. It certainly makes sense. Someone has to do it – the tradition has to continue, we can’t just stick with what we have and watch as it slowly gradually decays, not for all cases. And basically everyone who is a painter in traditional styles and/or traditional media is termed a “Nihonga” painter, so, that’s who it is.

There is something really interesting, and wonderful, about contemporary artists stepping in to a long-standing tradition; essentially, stepping across a historical threshold, from the present into the past. Or, to put it a better way – and more accurately – to think of these temples and their traditions being long threads that exist in the present, and engage with the present, but which extend back centuries into the past. I am sure that someone more well-versed than I in theoretical jargon language could articulate some really fascinating argument about the discursive implications of this connection between contemporary artists and a centuries-old tradition of the town painter commissioned by a temple, or of the painter who lives within the temple and practices Zen practice. Kennin-ji in Kyoto, and Kenchô-ji in Kamakura, roughly ten years ago, had gorgeous new ceiling paintings of dragons produced by artist Koizumi Junsaku. But Junsaku was born in 1924, making him a later generation of Nihonga artist as compared to those active in the 1880s-1920s, for sure, but still much more closely connected to the traditional past.

By contrast, 25-year-old Murabayashi Yuki, a recent graduate from a graduate program at Kyoto University of Arts &
Design, is about as young and contemporary as one can imagine. This article doesn’t say much about her work, or about her personality or character – for all we know she’s really involved in traditional culture, and not very involved at all in modern, contemporary, pop culture – but, still, the combination is very interesting. Murabayashi will be doing, essentially, something not too extremely different from what artists like Sesshû did in the 15th century, or what various town artists (machi-eshi) did in the 17th-19th centuries, living at the temple, engaging in Zen practice, and just generally immersing herself in the world of the temple, while she paints new screen paintings for them over the course of three years.

As the article says, she was at first nervous, intimidated by the weight of expectations of this long line of centuries of great temple painters before her (not to mention how her paintings will continue to be viewed, and to be present and associated with the temple for many many years into the future, becoming an integral part of the history of the institution). However, encouraged by the abbot that she does not need to adhere to the styles and expectations of the past, the article says she has regained confidence. I am curious to see what sort of works she ends up creating.


Meanwhile, Ôshiro Tatsuhiro, the author of “The Cocktail Party,” which I posted about some time ago, now compares the disaster-struck areas in northern Japan to Okinawa, framing the two places within a conceptualization of sacrifice for the sake of the center. What defines the success or prosperity of “Japan”? Is Tokyo the barometer? People in Tôhoku, Fukushima, and Okinawa are sacrificing, every day, continuing to sacrifice, to gaman (endure) and to ganbaru (keep trying), for the sake of the country. Yet, are they not themselves part of the country? Who is benefiting by their sacrifice? How is the health or prosperity of Japan measured? By the health and prosperity of the metaphorical Center? Or by the health and prosperity of its worst-off areas? Or by some more holistic approach, taking into account everything?

Especially after seeing his play, “The Cocktail Party,” and hearing him speak about it, I cannot help but see Ôshiro as a bitter curmudgeonly old man, kvetching and complaining, and most likely quite literally shaking his cane in the air. I would love to see him standing outside a US military base in Okinawa shouting “you damn kids, get off my lawn!” That would pretty much encapsulate his attitudes entirely. Which is not to say that he’s entirely wrong in what he says.

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March 11

It has been one year since the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster which devastated large parts of northeastern Japan. It is a day I feel I should mark in some way. I have been thinking about this for weeks, about what I would say, what I would do, on March 11. But I find I have nothing to say. I wasn’t in Japan when it happened, and I haven’t been back since. I have no real connection to these events, no firsthand heartwarming or terrifying story to share.

I keep trying to think of different things to say, but I cannot help feeling like anything I say, or anything I might do, is only to help me feel better, to help me feel involved, or to feel like I’ve done something, when in fact I haven’t really helped anyone at all. I wish I lived in Japan, and could donate my weekends to journeying up to Tôhoku and helping out in person. It’s a year later, but there’s still a ton of work to do; many many places are still very far from recovery. Of course, even that would really be more about me, my selfish desires to want to have a story to tell, to want to be able, years or decades from now, to say that I helped, to say that I was involved. My selfish desire to see people’s smiles and hear their words of thanks just for my being there.

I do hope to go to Japan soon. Maybe this summer. And if I don’t make it to Tôhoku, then I guess, at least I’m kind of helping out by spending my tourist dollars to help the Japanese economy in some miniscule way, and helping by setting an example, in a tiny tiny way, to show my friends and family that Japan is safe and a good place to go, to show Japanese people that I am not at all afraid to come visit, despite radiation fears or whatever (though I may be merely one of thousands of Americans doing the same this summer). … Between school and everything, I just don’t find myself in Japan any time soon, except for a small “vacation”, a brief week or two visit; it might not be for three or five years from now that I once again find myself spending any real significant time in Japan. But I hope that at that time, even though I know the toughest work is being done right now, and the toughest times are already past, I hope that at that time, I will still be able to lend a hand, to do something genuine to help the people of Tôhoku.

In the meantime, all I can do is to think about them, to hope and to pray, to donate a few dollars every now and then, and to support and applaud the efforts of friends who are doing more.

Michael Connolly is one such friend, who has been doing tons to help out, very actively engaging in relief and recovery efforts, both as a photojournalist, and in a more direct way, with official Volunteer organizations. If you would like to donate, or to get involved yourself, please take a look at It’s Not Just Mud and Foreign Volunteers Japan, two of the many many organizations working to help in Tôhoku.

Many many articles, essays, blog posts, and videos have been posted in the last few days leading up to 3/11, and of course many many more have been posted over the course of the year. I hope not to add to anyone’s media exhaustion; there are just a couple of links/videos I’d like to share.

First, from the New York Times today: In the Wake of Disaster (Embedding Failed)

Meanwhile, the only remaining geisha in the town of Kamaishi has recovered the treasured shamisen she thought lost in the tsunami, and is preparing for a memorial concert. Video here. I would never mean to make light of the vast losses of lives and livelihoods, which are of course the greatest element of this tragedy. However, I cannot help but wonder and fear for so many arts traditions, as well as historic sites and artistic treasures, lost in the tsunami or in danger of being lost. It is a small thing within a vast complex of difficulties and challenges – from radiation, to physical rebuildings of towns, to the relocation of families – but I hope that the geisha tradition of Kamaishi, or of the broader region, can and will survive this.

Third, a link of links. Bloggers at Shinpai Deshou have shared with us a few firsthand accounts from those remembering the disaster or engaged in recovery in a variety of different aspects, including a JET now living in Sendai, and a volunteer with an organization caring for animals who lost their homes in the disaster.

And finally, across the US and around the world, numerous organizations and institutions today are holding concerts, lectures, theatre performances, and memorial services. SHINSAI, organized by the Theatre Communications Group, is but one of these. Japan Society in New York is likewise one of countless institutions organizing such events. So far as I know, no such events are being held here in Honolulu.

My most heartfelt wishes, hopes and prayers to everyone affected by the disaster, and cheers and applause for those who, unlike myself, are pitching in first-hand to aid with the recovery.

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It’s that time again. I have a ton of tabs open in my browser, of things I’d like to share with you, on a few different topics.

*Let’s start with the sad news that Prof. Karen Brazell passed away this past Wednesday. She was Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, and Director of GloPAC, the Global Performing Arts Consortium, an organization which maintains GloPAD (Global Performing Arts Database), an excellent resource for information on theatre and dance from Japan and around the world.

I never had the privilege of meeting Dr. Brazell, but have quite enjoyed, and made much use of, her book Traditional Japanese Theater, an excellent anthology of Noh, bunraku, kyôgen, and kabuki plays in translation (in English), which I have made much use of.

You can read more about Dr. Brazell and her career at GloPAC’s official announcement on her passing.

*The Gothamist reported yesterday on the a new “travel agency” that has opened in Brooklyn. The Bureau of Unknown Destinations will, for a price, organize a mystery journey for you (within a few hours by train from NYC) to an unknown destination. As the Gothamist (or the Bureau itself?) describes it:

You’ll be presented with a free round trip ticket for a train adventure (along with a notebook and a small, somewhat absurd, task). Begin your day by tearing open a sealed envelope and revealing the mystery of where you will find yourself by noon. Set forth, free of decisions, into the great (or perhaps, in this case, the small) unknown. Test your sense of destiny. Have lunch someplace new.

Sounds wonderfully artsy and maybe just slightly hipster, but in a good way. Seems like the kind of thing some of the professors in the Art Department here at my university would get a real kick out of. I’d be happy to give it a try when I get back to NY…

Though, how cool would it be to get to buy a mystery trip (all expenses paid) to, for example, somewhere in Europe? Assuming it’s not too expensive, I’d love to find myself in Dublin, Prague, Munich, Amsterdam, Leiden, Copenhagen, Nottingham, Edinburgh, York, Caerdydd, Venice, Florence, Rome, Pisa, Padua, Athens, Tallin, Krakow, Warsaw, Paris or Oslo, sent off on an adventure to a city I might not ever get around to going out of my way to visit otherwise. But, then, I guess that’s a whole different thing.

*In archaeology / art world news, the charges against Robert Hecht (above), an American art dealer accused of extensive involvement in the black market of stolen antiquities, have been dropped in Italian court, as the statute of limitations has, apparently, expired.

Looking through my past posts, it looks like I’ve never actually posted about this before, but Google “Robert Hecht”, “Marion True“, or “Giacomo Medici,” or even better, pick up the book “The Medici Conspiracy.” The book reads like a crime thriller, tracing the adventures of Italian Art Squad carabinieri and US authorities in tracking down a string of evidence leading them to some of the biggest black market antiquities dealers active today, and eventually launching a raid on Medici’s warehouse in Geneva’s “Freeport,” loaded with looted antiquities and extensive documentation on his network of looters, buyers, dealers, etc., a network which included Getty Museum curator Marion True, and art dealer Robert Hecht, perhaps most (in)famous for his involvement in the acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of the Euphronios krater, which has now been returned to Italy.

I am, of course, not the only blogger writing about this development. Chasing Aphrodite is one of a number of blogs more specifically devoted to (and expert on) the subject of antiquities looting which is reporting on the end of Hecht’s trial.

(Incidentally, another excellent book, not directly talking about Hecht or Medici, if I recall, but on a very similar topic, and with equally thrilling narratives, is Stealing History. In it, Roger Atwood shares amazing stories, from crazy stings in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike to catch people smuggling ancient Peruvian gold to discussions of the market in stone Buddhist sculptures literally chainsawed off of monuments in Cambodia.)

*Meanwhile, in the exciting but far less scandalous/controversial world of Japanese archaeology, a few fragments of pottery have been found in Mie prefecture bearing fragments of the famous Iroha poem which contains each kana (syllabic characters such as いろは in contrast to kanji characters such as 伊呂波) exactly once.

See the original Asahi Shimbun article, in Japanese, and in English.

The fragments are believed to date to the 11th or 12th century, and are said to now be the oldest known extant example of hiragana writing the iroha poem being written in hiragana. Frankly, I find this a bit hard to believe, given that it’s been dated to the late Heian period, a period today known for its vibrant traditions of poetry, etc. Considering all the numerous examples of poetry and other writings we have from the Heian period, could it really be possible that this late Heian pottery is the earliest extant example of hiragana writing? If they said it dated to the Asuka or Nara periods (6th-8th centuries), it would seem much more amazing and believable on first impression (kneejerk reaction). But, then, what the hell do I know? If the experts say this is how it is, then, apparently, this is how it is. An important find.

Much thanks to Joseph Ryan of the Ancient Japan blog for pointing out that had I not been so lazy, and had actually read the Japanese, I would have realized/noticed that this new find is not the oldest known extant example of hiragana writing, but only the oldest known extant example of the iroha in hiragana.

*The Asahi has also reported on the discovery of a possible residence of Emperor Shômu in Shiga prefecture. Shômu (r. 724-749) is best known for having established a system of provincial temples, and commissioning the Great Buddha of Tôdai-ji, which remains today the largest bronze Buddha in the country, housed within the largest wooden building in the world. The construction of Tôdai-ji, and especially of the Buddha, was an incredible undertaking, involving a major proportion of the total resources of the Yamato State (i.e. Japan), and a major symbol to the rest of the Buddhist world of Japan’s devotion.

The Asahi article (in Japanese) includes a short video of aerial footage of the site recently uncovered in the city of Kôka (甲賀市) in Shiga prefecture, along with photos of the site, and artists’ renderings of what the buildings may have originally looked like. The remains of pillars sunk into the ground, along with other archaeological evidence, indicate a pair of buildings with the distinctive form of Nara period imperial residences; it is believed this may be the Shigaraki Palace, a set of residences constructed by Emperor Shômu, where his predecessor and aunt Empress Genshô (r. 715-724) would have resided as well.

The two newly discovered structures were found near the center of a much larger archaeological site, in an area of about 500 square meters which local experts have been surveying since September 2010. It lies directly to the north of a previously uncovered chôdô (朝堂, “[Imperial] Court Hall”), an 8th century Imperial Court governmental administrative building. Twenty-eight postholes, each about 1.3-1.5 meters in diameter, have been found, running in a grid six postholes long from north to south. As a result, experts have suggested that the original buildings were roughly 24.9 meters wide and 14.8 meters long.

Similar buildings were found to the west in 2001-02. Since those were not located to the north of the administrative buildings, they were not believed to be Imperial residences; however, these newly discovered structures are believed to be just that.

Image Credits:
*Cover of “Traditional Japanese Theater” from Amazon.jp.
*Photo of rails somewhere in upstate New York taken myself
*Photo of Robert Hecht from ChasingAphrodite.com – if you’d like me to take it down, just say the word.
*Photo of iroha pottery taken by Inoue Shôta of the Asahi Shimbun.
*Photo of Shigaraki-no-miya palace site taken by Yagi Takaharu.
*My thanks to Japanese copyright law, which considers the use of photos to be a “citation” or a “quote”, and not an intellectual property violation.

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