Okay, just a quick interruption in my AAS reports to give a little shout-out to my friends at the Samurai-Archives. Several of its pages have been over there on my Blogroll/Links for quite some time, but, maybe it’s about time I mention them (again?) a little more explicitly.

The Samurai Archives are quite possibly *the* leading site on the English-language web discussing samurai history. The Wiki is still very much a work-in-progress, but already contains nearly 4,000 articles, many of them covering material not on Wikipedia. The Forums are likely the centerpiece of the site, the most active area by far, with lots of really in-depth material & discussions about samurai history not (yet) reflected in the Wiki, Podcast, or anywhere else. Oh, and the site has a blog, too. I have also been privileged to be involved in most of the episodes of the Samurai Archives Podcast, which is now up to an amazing 62 episodes! In two of the most recent episodes, we attempt to crush the long-standing misconception that Japan was ever “closed” to the world… If you have any thoughts or comments, please share! We’d love to know what you think!

Anyway, I bring all of this up not to be a cheap shill for the site itself, but, actually, the main point of this post is simply to share the following link: Support the Samurai Archives on Amazon.

I have finally added this link to my Bookmarks bar, and, if you’re so inclined, you can do the same. Clicking this link will bring you to the normal Amazon site, with all the same products and functionality as simply going directly to Amazon.com; the only difference is that by shopping via this link, some small percentage of all your purchases will go to help support the Samurai-Archives website (server fees, etc.). This doesn’t cost you anything extra, or indeed change your Amazon experience at all – all the same products are available, for the same prices, and everything. So, in the hopes of not coming across as pushy, but as simply trying to help out a site I like (and the friend who runs it), I suggest this link.

Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!

And, next time, back to Japanese castles, and a discussion of Azuchi Castle’s Chinese influences!

Academic conferences can be really hit or miss sometimes. The titles of talks or panels can be deceptive, and often the talks that prove the most interesting, or impactful, are the ones you were never planning on going to to begin with. Strangely, this year’s AAS proved otherwise, and pretty much every talk at every panel was really great.

The second panel I attended was one on Japanese castles, a great fun topic all around, even if not of direct relevance to one’s research.

Lee Butler began the panel with a presentation on Japanese castles before Azuchi.

Above: The main tower at Fushimi-Momoyama castle, a beautiful example of precisely the type of castle we are not talking about in this post.

Azuchi Castle, built by Oda Nobunaga in 1579, and sadly destroyed in 1582, represents an important turning point in castle construction in Japan. More or less everything we stereotypically associate with Japanese castles – the stone foundations, the elaborate gables and roofing, the impressive or beautiful decorative elements otherwise – all begin with Azuchi, which we shall return to. First, Butler’s presentation, in which he discussed castles prior to that. These were “castles” which were not permanent residences, nor symbols of wealth and power, but were, rather, temporary structures made primarily of wood and earthworks, constructed chiefly for tactical purposes, to be used during battle, and were not structures to live in, or be based/quartered in, on any long-term basis. As a result, we should perhaps use terms such as “fort” or “fortifications,” rather than “castle,” in order to better represent – and better keep in mind – what it is we’re talking about.

Much of Butler’s talk focused on a document known simply as the Chikujôki (築城記, “Record of Castle/Fortification Construction”). The origins of the document are unknown; it is believed to have been recopied in the 1530s or 1550s, and is known to us today through a copy obtained from Asakura Yoshikage by Kawamura Seishin (sp?). The text, a guide to aspects of the construction of fortifications, consists of 44 articles, or items, including elements on how walls and gates should be constructed, etc. The most important considerations in choosing a site for one’s fortifications, according to the text, are geography, and the availability of water. If we were talking about long-term, permanent castles, this would come as no surprise. Availability of potable water is essential for supplying a residence or garrison, and especially essential for holding out against a siege. But, for these short-term fortifications, I do find it kind of surprising. Then again, I’m no expert at medieval military tactics, so what do I know? In any case, the text also makes suggestions such as the use of an earthen bridge over the moat, rather than a wooden one, since the latter can be set on fire; a fortification must also be designed so as to allow warriors to escape out the back – another good indication that we’re talking about a temporary structure here. Other features of the ideal fortification include yumi-kakushi (弓隠し, “bow-obstructions”) – bundles of straw placed atop the walls to serve as merlons – and rows of pikes embedded in the doi (土居, earthen embankment) so as to impale attackers at roughly waist height.

As might be expected, the Chikujôki makes no mention of stone foundations, or of a multi-story “keep” or tenshu. Where it does mention buildings within a “castle” compound, the Chikujôki generally employs the term ie (家, “house”), and not anything meaning “mansion” or the like. Mark Erdmann would discuss the origins of the keep, and of the term tenshu, in his talk.

I knew the basics of this important shift centering around Azuchi castle (and Hideyoshi’s Fushimi-Momoyama castle, hence the Azuchi-Momoyama period named after the two), but one thing from Butler’s talk that was completely new to me was the mention of a Nijô Palace or Nijô Residence1 built in 1569 for Shogun Ashikaga Yoshiaki, which according to Butler is an equally important element in representing or marking this architectural turning point. Knowing next to nothing about the structure, my best guess is that, just like Azuchi and Fushimi-Momoyama, it combined fortifications (more so than previous palaces or noble residences) with luxury, permanent residence, and overt shows of wealth and power (more so than earlier fortifications). I’d be curious to learn more about this structure. I wonder why we don’t tend to hear more about it to begin with, if it truly is as important as Azuchi and Fushimi-Momoyama.


1. Not to be confused with the Nijô Castle still standing in Kyoto today, which was built a few decades later, by the Tokugawa shoguns.

The elaborate, ornate costume associated with the Ming in kabuki, loaded with ruffles, can be seen in this “Battles of Coxinga” triptych by Kunichika.

Satoko Shimazaki was the third presenter on the panel “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage,” which I wrote about in my previous post. I was particularly excited to meet her, as she is not only a kabuki specialist, but combines this with research on popular publishing, and on perceptions of the foreign – all things at the core of my research interests.

In her presentation, Shimazaki discussed the appearance of Ming China, or Ming individuals, in kabuki, with a particular focus on the 1715 play “The Battles of Coxinga” (Kokusen’ya kassen).

She first introduced the 1818 play Shitennô ubuyu no Tamagawa (四天王産湯玉川), in which a Ming princess travels all the way to Japan to see the great actor Ichikawa Danjûrô, and showed us some images of that scene, from illustrated woodblock-printed books of the time. I tried to find a similar image, on Google Image Search, to share with you, but was sadly not successful. This seems a wonderful, amusing example of how playful and humorous kabuki can be – and, also, the cult of the actor, i.e. the power of celebrity, which plays such a major role in the character of the kabuki theatre.

She then turned to discussing The Battles of Coxinga, an epic-length jidaimono based on the legend of Coxinga, aka Zheng Chenggong, a half-Japanese Ming loyalist who led forces on Taiwan in raiding the Chinese coast and otherwise fighting off the Qing (Manchu) forces which had taken much of mainland China. In the play, Zheng is referred to as Watônai, typically written 和藤内, but a reference to 和唐内, meaning “between (内, nai) China (唐, ) and Japan (和, wa).” Shimazaki argued, however, that these three characters can also be interpreted as meaning not only “both Chinese and Japanese,” but also “neither Chinese nor Japanese,” or “heard of in both China and Japan.”

Shimazaki tells us the term “Japan” appears numerous times in the script. What form this takes, whether it’s Nihon, or Wa, or some combination of those and other terms, is unclear (though I imagine one could figure out quite easily by just finding a copy of the play… and, at least in one scene, a Ming princess in Japan, asking for help, employs the term “Nihonjin”), but, regardless, this is pretty important. Many scholars argue that there was no sense of “national” identity in the Edo period, but, while I agree that there certainly is no integrated nation-state of Japan in the modern sense, and that modern(ist) discourses of “nationalism” might likewise not apply, it is nevertheless clear that there was a conception of “Japan” during the Edo period. It was not solely a local conception, in which identity was based in village, province, or domain. This conception of “Japanese” identity was, however, different from modern conceptions of ethnicity in important ways. David Howell writes about the Ainu being able to become Wajin (and vice versa) simply by changing their appearance, behavior, and customs. This sort of malleable notion of identity is seen too in the play, as Watônai converts some Tartars into Japanese by shaving their pates (i.e. giving them Japanese hairdos) and giving them samurai swords.

This brings us to the question of the word “Tartars.” “Tartar” is a broad, all-encompassing word employed in pre-modern Europe to refer indiscriminately to any and all steppe peoples, including Mongols, Manchus, and various sorts of Turks. This seems a pretty good translation for the Japanese word Tattan (韃靼), which similarly refers indiscriminately to a variety of steppe peoples. The similarity between these two terms – neither of which refers accurately to a specific people – is surprising and interesting; I wonder if Shimazaki addresses this in a fuller (published or to-be-published) paper. I’ve looked it up briefly in JapanKnowledge (an online resource which searches multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries), but didn’t find anything much on the origins of the term… Though, we are told that the Wakan sansai zue (one of the most prominent encyclopedias published in Edo period Japan) associates the term Tattan with the Mongols, Jurchens, Manchus, and even the Russians – anyone who could fit within the category of “Northern Barbarians” (北狄). Part of the identification of the Tattan as barbarians, Shimazaki explained, derives from their identity/location outside of the classic Three Realms: India as the home of Buddhism, China as the home of Confucianism, and Japan as the Land of the Gods (i.e. the home of Shintô), with Tattan thus being the home of none of the major Teachings (教) or Ways (道).

Through these examples, and others, Shimazaki showed that the Ming represented in Edo period popular culture was not the actual contemporary China, but rather an idea, an imagined space of a past era. In other words, the Ming survives on, as an idea in the Japanese collective imagination.

This can be seen, too, in some of the works which I’ve been looking at in my own research, and which Shimazaki brought forward too; books such as Bankoku jinbutsu zue (“Pictures of the Peoples of the World”) by Nishikawa Joken show the Ming and the Qing separately. Of course, there is some validity to this, as in our modern conception of race and ethnicity, we would think to organize such a book separating the (Han) Chinese from the Manchus, which is essentially what they’re doing. But, in works such as Joken’s “Peoples of 42 Countries” (四十二国人物図) and “Expanded Thoughts on Trade & Commerce with Civilization & Barbarians” (増補華夷通商考, Zôho ka’i tsûshôkô, 1708), he labels the Ming explicitly as equaling Chinese civilization or culture (中華), and the Qing as being the Chinese civilization or culture of “today” (今の中華). In other words, there is a sense that the Qing is not the real China, that the Ming is the real China, controlled, occupied, or suppressed, that the Qing may be temporary, and that the Ming could come back. Of course, as of 1708 or so, not even the Qing Court could have predicted that their rule would last the better part of 300 years, all the way until 1911. Even today, when “The Battles of Coxinga” is performed, the Qing is represented as lasting only 180 years, as Chikamatsu had it (actually, it’s kind of surprising that Chikamatsu, in 1715, would put it at 180 years, and not some shorter period, if indeed people had a sense of the Qing being only a temporary blip, and the Ming rising again). Of course, it’s not as if the play is particularly historically accurate in other respects, anyway. It does end, after all, with the revival of the Ming, something that (sadly, arguably) did not occur in reality – the entirety of the Chinese Imperial system, and so much of its traditional culture, fell with the Qing, in 1911, or with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

As the Qing Dynasty went on, Shimazaki argues, the concept of the Ming became detached somewhat from the geography – people recognized that Qing Dynasty China was the China of their time. Ming thus became a marker for historical China, for Chinese culture and civilization in a somewhat free-floating way, existing no longer in the physical space of China, but now in a more free-floating cultural, intellectual, conceptual space.

And, while certain aspects of the understanding or conceptualization of the Ming may have been based in accurate historical/cultural understandings, as Keiko Suzuki and others have also detailed, the conceptualization of what comprised Ming culture or identity quickly came to be confused and conflated with a variety of other elements, forming a broader, more general concept of the “foreign.” Shimazaki cites pennants carried in the production of The Battles of Coxinga which read 「清道」 (lit. “Pure Way” or “Way of the Qing”?), and which closely resemble those carried by Korean – not Chinese – embassies to Japan. Another prominent element which she shows us appears frequently in theatre and in prints is the association of the Ming with lavish, ornate clothing, with lots of ruffles. I am no expert on Chinese theatre, but I can kind of see how elements of this aesthetic could be taken from jingju costume; that said, however, when would kabuki performers or ukiyo-e print designers have gotten a chance to see jingju costumes or performances? Shimazaki also pointed out that the goddess Benten is often depicted in these Ming-style robes, looking very much like a Ming princess from the kabuki theatre; why, however, remains unclear, as Benten is, so far as I know, not generally associated with being Chinese any more so than the other six of the Seven Lucky Gods.

In the course of the Q&A after Shimazaki-sensei’s presentation, a number of other questions and issues came up. One was the question of how depictions of China in bunraku & kabuki, as discussed in her talk, compare to representations of China in the Noh. This is certainly an interesting question, given that the Noh comes from a different period, and a rather different cultural context. I would imagine, just off the top of my head, I feel as though Noh is more connected to classic stories of classic figures, and would represent China more as a classical source of Confucianism, Taoism, wisdom, magic, certain legendary figures or certain gods, rather than as a contemporary foreign country or culture in the way Coxinga does, when it engages with recent historical events.

Shimazaki had also mentioned at one point that it was difficult for theatres to put on productions of Coxinga, explaining that kabuki theatres operated on a schedule organized around certain themes. The majority of kabuki plays retell stories from the Japanese past (or from legend), and most plays fit into a particular sekai (“world”), whether that be stories of Yoshitsune & Benkei, or stories of the Soga Brothers; Coxinga, Shimazaki argued, did not fit well into this schema, and so, thematically, it was difficult to find a thematically appropriate time/space to fit it into the schedule of a theatrical season. Indeed, many 19th century guides to the various sekai of kabuki plays either omit Coxinga entirely, or list it under “miscellany.” I have never read or seen Coxinga myself, or studied much about it, but I was interested to learn that, in fact, it was originally composed as a gamble, as something very new and different, to draw audiences to the theatre and keep the theatre going after it lost its chief chanter (Takemoto Gidayû – more or less the founder/inventor of the chief bunraku chanting style). This brings us back to Sarah Kile’s presentation about Chinese playwright Li Yu, who was constantly preoccupied with remaining cutting-edge, new, and fresh, and which I wrote about in the previous post.

I think that Prof. Shimazaki’s research on conceptualizations of the foreign in the Edo period will be of great use for me as I move forward with my research on Ryukyuan-Japanese interactions in that period, and I love that she does kabuki as well. I suppose I won’t be working with her directly any time soon, since we are not at the same institution, but I do eagerly look forward to reading more of her scholarship, and perhaps getting a chance to speak with her more in future.

The first panel I made it to during the Assoc. of Asian Studies conference this year was one titled “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage.” The use of the word “stage” here is quite clever, as the panel was discussing the representation of the Ming and its fall in theatre.

Now, before I go further, I’d like to offer a brief disclaimer: I apologize if I may misrepresent the facts or the arguments from any of these papers – I am merely going from my notes, and there is plenty of opportunity for mis-hearing or misunderstanding things said in an orally presented paper. Also, I am sure that in these panel summaries/reports, for the sake of brevity and cohesiveness of my blog posts, or for whatever reasons, I will be skipping over major sections of papers, or skipping some papers entirely. No offense is meant to those scholars; I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of the papers I heard presented at the conference.

More about 李漁全集The panel began with Sarah Kile, professor at U Michigan, who presented on Chinese playwright Li Yu (1611-1680). I’d never heard of him – I wonder how big-name he is, and if it’d be possible to study the sort of Chinese history in which he’d come up, rather than the course I took last quarter, which was pretty much a total wash, more or less completely useless for my interests. In any case, he sounds like a really interesting figure. I’m not positive what type of theatre he was involved with (kunqu? It’s too early for jingju, right?), but the ways in which he was involved in popular culture & literary circles, as well as his thoughts on theatre, make me very interested to learn more about him, and about the early Qing popular culture realm, in comparison/contrast to that of Edo period Japan.

Right: A collection of the complete works of Li Yu.

Kile said that Li Yu made himself known, by appearing in a variety of publication as commentator, author of the preface, etc. He wrote not only a lot of theatrical plays, publishing the scripts, but also wrote & published a lot of commentaries and writings about theatre. In these writings, and especially in composing his plays, Kile says, Li Yu was perpetually concerned about always staying on the cutting edge, producing something new, in order to attract audiences. I haven’t read that much of contemporary (Edo period) kabuki commentaries, but hearing about this makes me much more curious. How did kabuki commentators or playwrights talk about these same issues? How flexible was the early Qing theatre? Kabuki generally adapted plays into new and different forms with each production, so even if the play itself was largely the same, it still was very much aimed at remaining fresh. … This also places Li Yu more firmly into a popular culture sort of discourse, a very separate set of concerns from those concerned with maintaining tradition, and performing something “properly” according to the proper forms. Did even Noh have the same concerns of maintaining tradition during the Edo period that it does today? I wonder. Perhaps Thomas Looser’s new book “Visioning Eternity” has some answers.

Another very interesting bit that Kile introduced from Li Yu’s writings was his musings on the role of lighting in the theatre. He asserts that the dim light of evening is better than daylight for helping the audience focus in on the play. Daylight, he writes, allows the audience to see everything at once, and for their attention therefore to drift all over the stage; too much light also reveals too much of the artifice of the production, whereas dim light hides the artifice and emphasizes the drama or artistry. This certainly sounds like something relevant too to Kabuki and Noh, especially in terms of cultivating the correct spiritual atmosphere and effect, yûgen or whatever it may be called, in Noh, as well as a much wider variety of effects and atmospheric moods in kabuki. I wonder what kabuki and Noh commentators of the time said about lighting.

The second paper in this panel was given by Prof. Paize Keulemans of Princeton University. He presented on the fall of the Ming in Dutch literature, poetry, media, and theatre, touching especially on the idea of the fall of the Ming as the first instance of “global news”, and on certain prominent discourses at the time in Northern Europe regarding Self, and China.

The Ming capitol of Beijing fell to Manchu invaders in 1644. By July 1650, agents of the Dutch East India Company had conveyed the news to the Netherlands. Impressive though this may seem, given that it is, quite arguably, the first instance of worldwide news, transmitted/known in a great many places all across the globe in a relatively short amount of time, I’m frankly surprised it wasn’t faster. How long did it take for the news to travel within China and to reach Canton or Fuzhou or wherever it was the Dutch were based? Given the constant back-and-forth travels and trade of Dutch and Chinese ships going to and fro between China, Japan, Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and Europe, you’d think it’d have spread much faster. No?

Well, in any case, some of the most interesting aspects of Keulemans’ presentation were the discussion of discourses relating to Dutch “Enlightenment.” He highlighted mainly two manifestations of these, both dealing with conceptions of “openness.” Firstly, the idea of China as “closed,” as represented for example in an illustration from the 1655 Novus Atlas Sinensis (“New Chinese Atlas”), which depicts Atlas opening a gate to China, and stating in a sort of “word ribbon” (the word balloon having not yet been invented), “I open that which had been closed.” The gate itself is in a large wall which might be taken to represent the Great Wall of China. By portraying China as “closed,” Kaulemans argues, Europeans could see themselves as “open,” by contrast, as valuing openness, and therefore as more Enlightened, in terms of the European intellectual Enlightenment movement, placing great value on the “open” free flow of information. The free flow of information is a progressive thing, a key to advancement and development of a society, while China’s closedness (to Europeans, at least; whether info flowed freely within China or not is a separate matter) is seen as backwards and self-stifling.

The second side of this Enlightenment discourse of openness which I thought quite interesting was the suggestion that (some? many?) Dutch writers saw the key to advanced, Enlightenment-era power not in possessing territory, but in strength in maritime trade. The idea of the oceans as being an open, free space belonging to no one (and thus to everyone), Keulemans tells us, was a rather new idea at this time, and a major element of this discourse of Enlightened “openness.” I think it should come as no surprise that the Dutch, who were a rather powerful maritime power & wealthy economy at this time and who controlled very little territory compared to Spain, Portugal, France or England, should think this way.

Joost van den Vondel, a rare Catholic Dutchman writing at the time, drawing upon similar discourses, and informed by Jesuit missionaries operating within the Chinese Court, blamed the fall of the Ming on the Emperor’s isolation from knowledge of the outside world. The walls built by the Emperors, he wrote, proved insufficient to defend the realm from invaders. If only they had converted to Christianity, he asserted, China would be able to defend itself against any invasion. In true Catholic fashion, he ignores, or is incapable of seeing, that converting to Christianity would itself be succumbing to foreign influence. How much of Chinese culture and identity – from ancestor worship & local deities, to the political culture surrounding the Emperor’s relationship to Heaven, to the geomantic significance of the layout of palaces and cities, to the numerous Court rituals – would be irretrievably destroyed, lost, if the country converted to Catholicism? But I guess we can’t blame van den Vondel for being a product of his times.

This idea of “openness” is, of course, not so foreign to us, as it is not so different from the logics behind the Open Door Policy extended to (imposed upon) China by the Western powers in the 19th century, and the attitudes surrounding Commodore Perry’s mission to “open” Japan in the 1850s. But, to see it emerging two hundred years earlier, and in a particularly Dutch flavor, is quite interesting. I’d be curious to learn more about exactly how it was articulated, and how it played out, at that time.

For the sake of length, I will leave my summary/discussion of the third paper on this panel, one by Satoko Shimazaki, until the next blog post.

Phew! Just got back from a whirlwind weekend, at the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) conference in San Diego. Conferences like these provide an opportunity, all too rare especially since I left Hawaii, to be surrounded by fellow Asianists, and to just immerse oneself in presentations and conversations about the topics of the most interest to ourselves. A bit exhausting, to be sure, and the talks themselves can be rather hit or miss, but, it’s a great chance to have some fun dressing up, put all normal schoolday work and concerns aside, and just be a scholar for a change. In some sense, it is here, at the conference, that it’s really all about – this is where we are not TAs, or students, not dealing with paperwork or assignments or errands, but where we are *scholars*, sharing our research, talking to others about issues of interest…

It was great to see some old friends, connect or reconnect with some prominent scholars, and hear some great talks. Though, there were also a lot of people who either didn’t come, or who were at the conference, but who I didn’t manage to meet up with…

Hopefully, maybe, later this week, I’ll manage to get together some blog posts about the various panels I attended – some of them were really quite excellent.

But! I also left with a pretty nice book haul. ^_^ When am I ever going to get a chance to read these things? Beats me. But, it feels good to have them anyway… (Click on pictures for more info about each book.)

The Man Awakened From Dreams by Henrietta Harrison. Traces the life of a Confucian scholar through the turmoil of the 1905-1911 collapse of everything his training and identity as a Confucian scholar was meant to serve. There are so many books out there addressing modernity and modernization, but here’s one of the rare ones actually addressing the transition process, and how it impacted upon those people firmly belonging to the cultural & political system, and morals and values, of the previous era. Alienated Academy, by Wen-Hsin Yeh, which I sadly don’t have a copy of, is another very interesting book in this vein, discussing the shift in academic culture & systems in the schools/universities of Shanghai, from the Confucian mode to the Western “modern” university system.

Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the 17th and 18th centuries by Li Tana. One of a few key books I used during a paper I wrote on Japanese trade & diplomacy activity in 17th c Southeast Asia, and a great one on 17th c. Vietnam in general. “Vietnam is a country, not a war,” and this is a rare and excellent work that helps bring that out. I’m glad to have it on my shelf and to not have to rely on ILL for it anymore.

Okinawa: Two Postwar Novellas (Steve Rabson, trans.). I am generally not all that interested in literature, nor in certain aspects of modern Okinawa. But, it was at a great price. And, after seeing a dramatic reading of Ôshiro Tatsuhiro’s Cocktail Party, I figured it would be good to have the text, so I can cite it or whatever, if & when it might come up.

March Was Made of Yarn. One of the chief, prominent books about the March 11 disasters. Free from Random House! (The book exhibits at conferences often have dramatically reduced or even free books at the end, as the publishers don’t want to have to bring the books back…)

Publishing the Stage. An edited volume based on a conference on kabuki & its publication in early modern Japan which took place at U Colorado Boulder, in March 2011. All of the papers are also available for free, in PDF, at the U Colorado Boulder Center for Asian Studies website.

Obtaining Images by Timon Screech. If and when I ever find the time to read this, we shall discover just what exactly it’s all about, but on the surface, it appears to be the latest & greatest much-needed tome on the production & consumption of Edo period art – patronage, commercialism, all of that. Who buys what kinds of works, how much does it cost, and how does the whole process of commissioning or purchasing a piece work? All too often, art historians get so focused on the content or style of a work that they fail to ask who it was created for, for what purpose, and in what ways or what contexts it would have been displayed or viewed, all of which are crucial questions for better understanding Edo period society & culture.

Rethinking Japanese History by Amino Yoshihiko. A book I have written about before. It was wonderful to get to get a copy so cheap!

Kabuki-za Kansei!

歌舞伎座完成! The new Kabuki-za, under construction since 2010, is now complete, and ready to open in April. The previous incarnation was constructed in 1950, and lasted throughout the post-war, until now – this is the first time in history that the Kabuki-za was intentionally taken down, rather than being destroyed by earthquake or fire. Why did they dismantle it and built it anew, from the ground up? I don’t know. They say it was in order to install better, newer, systems for protecting the building from earthquakes. This is purely a hunch, a gut feeling, but it sounds to me like a cover-up sort of answer, like there was some other reason for doing it.

In any case, now that it’s complete, plenty of blogs, news sites, and the like are covering the event.

*The blog Kokera-otoshi 13 is dedicated entirely to the topic of the rebuilding; there are only a few entries that have been posted, but they’re quite beautifully done. I expect that now that the building is complete, we should be able to expect more new and exciting posts in the near future.

A number of YouTubers have posted simple walkaround videos showing what the new building looks like. We’ve been seeing concept drawings for quite some time, and now we get to see the real thing. My main reaction? It’s very white. Looks almost unreal, it’s so perfectly clean. Kind of recalls for me the white, clean, aesthetic of, well, I don’t know the word for it, but of a particular brand of post-modern / ultra-modern architecture. Actually, what I think it reminds me of more than anything else is a reproduction – its perfect, brand-new, so-clean facade reminds me of the Hawaii Byodoin, an extremely clean- and new-looking full-scale replica of the actual Byodoin, in Uji (near Kyoto), which, by contrast, looks old, historical, authentic. Ah, but the new Kabuki-za will look and feel authentic before too long. We’ll all get used to it.

What’s really important is that, contrary to some people’s fears, yes, it does indeed look just like it always has – they didn’t omit or dramatically alter the 1889 Imperial Style pseudo-Azuchi-Momoyama facade – and, the skyscraper, in my opinion, really doesn’t look like it detracts at all. Even if it isn’t really, the skyscraper tower looks like a separate building, behind the theatre. It almost sort of melts into the background, amid the other skyscrapers of Ginza.

What do you think?

*Meanwhile, Jiji Press has published a photo of a massive snow sculpture replica of the Kabuki-za, exhibited at this year’s Sapporo Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri).

*And, here, from Shôchiku themselves, a brief article (in Japanese) on the raising of the yagura earlier this week. The yagura (lit. “tower”) is the purple cloth cube hung above the entrance to the theatre announcing, or indicating, that the theatre is open and featuring productions that week/month. Unlike the castle-like architectural style of the Kabuki-za, this is a tradition going back to the Edo period, and extremely similar yagura can be seen hoisted above the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za, Yamamura-za, and Morita-za in ukiyo-e prints from the time.

Grand Opening performances, called kokera-otoshi (“falling shingles,” implying the building is so new the shingles are still falling off.. or something?), will last for six months. I very much hope that I get to go visit Japan this summer and get to see some of these performances.

In the meantime, as I come across more news, pictures, and video, I’ll keep updating about it.

While in Hawaii a couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the sold-out production, A Cage of Fireflies,” at Kumu Kahua Theatre. Written by local playwright Daniel Akiyama, the play takes place entirely within the Honolulu apartment of a pair of elderly Okinawan-American kibei sisters; kibei 帰米, meaning “returned to America,” is a term referring to Japanese- or Okinawan-Americans who were sent to Japan or Okinawa as children, to be raised and educated within the Japanese/Okinawan education system and culture, and who then returned to the United States. These two, along with their third sister who frequently visits, comprise the entire cast. Through mundane conversations about family events and everyday interpersonal frictions, the play addresses themes of tradition and identity – questions of how to live as an Okinawan-American in Hawaii, what constitutes tradition or Okinawan identity, and how to go forward in the everyday, and in the longer term.

Plays having anything to do with Okinawa are so rare, of course I was glad for the opportunity to get to see this one. And I am certainly glad that I did. Though the overall aesthetic, or mood, of the play is dreadfully modern and mundane, in the end, I could not help but find various aspects quite interesting, moving, engaging, and thought-provoking.

I suppose it is both a positive and a negative aspect of this play (and of so much else besides) that it makes me struggle to decide what I think of it. On the one hand, what drew me to Okinawan Studies to begin with was how colorful and upbeat the culture is, how beautiful, exotic and exciting. Okinawa in my mind is blue skies, white clouds, green trees, blue seas, and white sand; it’s lively, upbeat music and culture otherwise which is keenly in tune with up-to-date trends and fashions (e.g. pop/rock music, street fashion, clever t-shirts) while also drawing upon a vibrant tradition. For me, Okinawa is purple (or blue?) headscarves and taiko, red tile roofs and multi-colored bingata fabrics. It is a bright, colorful, culturally vibrant history full of kings and priestesses, envoys and musicians, scholar-bureaucrats, aristocrats, sailors, merchants, warriors and artisans. And, so, it is frustrating for me when time and time again I see Okinawan culture represented through a lens of the melodramatized issues of ordinary, everyday immigrant families, so disconnected from all of that, and so enmeshed in the same limited set of contemporary/modern concerns.

The plot, for the most part, centers on the youngest and eldest sisters, Kimiko and Yukiko, who live together and tailor or repair clothes for the family of the middle sister, Mitsuko. Mitsuko constantly talks of her children and grandchildren for whom these clothes are being sewn, actively engaged in a busy everyday American/Hawaii life full of recitals and soccer practice and the like, while the other two sisters, it seems, scarcely leave the house, let alone engage in much of a social life at all. In fact, these two do not speak English, but only Japanese (all the dialogue in the play is in English, but we are to understand that it is Japanese), and speak frequently of eventually going “back home” to Okinawa, though in truth it’s been many years since they’ve been there.

I am not sure there is much to be said about the sets, props, and costumes, beyond that I was impressed that the taps in the kitchen sink actually worked. In this respect, it seems very much a play in the mode of realism; not trying to do anything innovative or artistic with staging, but rather reproducing realistically, believably, a very plain, typical Honolulu apartment. The acting, however, was not quite so believable. Watching Dian Kobayashi (Kimiko, the youngest sister) and Kat Koshi (Yukiko, the oldest sister), it was hard to forget they were actors, and to think of them as their characters. There were moments, to be sure, but overall, with my sincere apologies for saying so, they felt more scripted, more unnaturally dramatic, than Karen Yamamoto Hackler (Mitsuko, the middle sister), who seemed quite natural throughout the play, and who truly melted into her character. This sort of stilted, dramatic mode of performance can often be extremely appropriate, and effective, when it is a conscious stylistic choice, for a show that is meant to seem unreal, one that is meant to be abstract, allegorical or metaphorical. When I attended a dramatic reading of Ôshiro Tatsuhirô’s The Cocktail Party, this worked fairly well, as each character was clearly meant to be a stand-in, or allegory, for sides in contemporary Okinawan political issues (e.g. the American serviceman, the American civilian, the Okinawan who suffered during the war, the Chinese man who suffered during the war, the Japanese man who was not involved in the war, the Okinawan woman who is too young to have been directly affected by the war). But that was a dramatic reading, and, I assume, an intentional choice of performance style. I doubt that it was a conscious choice here.

A set of kimonos and other textiles, selected or woven himself by Alfred Yama Kina were gorgeous; it is a shame we did not get to see more of them.

Though the mundaneness of the content of the plot really grated on me at first, by the end of the play, we began to see important themes begin to show through. The eldest sister as having her mind situated in a pre-war conception of what Okinawa is like, and her identity very much in belonging to a pre-war or traditional Okinawa, and not in assimilating or adjusting into American life. She holds on strongly to tradition – not to traditions that truly go back to the brightest heights of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but only to the tradition within which she grew up: a very domestic, mundane sort of tradition centered around tailoring clothing and around her experiences as a child in Okinawa. The youngest sister, it emerges, is sort of trapped by this eldest sister, with whom she lives, having never mustered the courage, it would seem, or the independence of thinking, to stand up to her sister and to say or think anything different, nor to act upon that. We don’t really know how long the two have maintained this same routine, day after day, isolated from the world changing and moving forward outside their apartment, but we get the impression it has been forever – and after however many years, only now does she finally start to express that she wants to explore the world outside the apartment, and that she wants to learn English. She represents, I suppose, a portion of Okinawan-American society that is afraid, or hesitant, to move forward, to know how to move forward, to negotiate a new balance of American/Okinawan & traditional/modern identity. And which is controlled, influenced, by the great discursive strength of the community, of their elders, who wield a monopoly on defining proper Okinawan identity and tradition, or at least claim to. Meanwhile, the middle sister, Mitsuko, has moved forward, creating a new version of Okinawan-American identity, still observing various observances, but performing Okinawan identity mainly through social/community events, such as the Okinawa Festival, something that rings of the same kind of energy as Little League soccer practice.

The family has a set of kimono, which crossed the ocean three times, and which serve as a powerful keepsake or heirloom, a symbol of the family’s history. That the eldest sister wishes to keep them in the tansu (chest), “where they belong,” and just keep them there, regardless of whether anyone ever looks at them, let alone wears them, is a subtle, but excellent, symbol of her attitude towards tradition – to just keep it, preserved, static in a set form from a given not-so-distant time in the past. Mitsuko, the middle sister, comments that some families hang their kimono on the wall, on display, celebrating their history and heirlooms, and performing their traditions and identity in that way. When she declares that she has had them chopped up, to make new, modern garments that the family might actually wear, and framed sections which can be hung on the wall, I gasped. And it was in that moment that I realized the greatest strength of the play – it addresses all of these issues, but acknowledges the complexity, the difficulty, and does not shove any one answer down the throats of the audience. Whoever you are, whatever your views on this matter, you can identify with one of the three sisters. And, then, these moments, these questions come up that force you to think about the other side of the issue. Up until that moment where she talks about chopping up the kimono, I found myself mostly siding with Mitsuko against Yukiko’s stale lifestyle. You can practically smell the mothballs, imagine the dusty, stale air. Reminds me of my uncles’ apartment in Brooklyn, where nothing has changed in I don’t know how many decades. But then Mitsuko talks about chopping up the kimono, and I gasped. I have seen some of these garments – blouses, vests, neckties made in part from old kimono – and while it does provide an opportunity for me to get to wear such things and express my Japanese-affiliated interest/connection/identity in a more everyday setting (actually wearing kimono is such a rare occurrence), still, I find myself very much in support of the threatened, endangered, hopefully beginning to revive, kimono industry & kimono culture. I so wish more people in Japan would wear wafuku more often.

I wish we could have plays/productions that were set in historical periods, or which made more use of traditional Okinawan music, dance, and costume, or related otherwise to the history and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom at its height, rather than these endless performances of Okinawan identity as defined by contemporary/modern political or immigrant issues. How wonderful it would be to see an Okinawan play that features Confucian scholar-aristocrats, whether in Ryukyu, in Japan, or in China, or which tells the story of an episode in Okinawan history. The various events surrounding the fall of the kingdom, the arrival of King Shô Tai in Tokyo, and the Ryukyuan royal family taking on the costume and customs of the new “modern” Japanese aristocracy, could make for a great play, to name just one that wouldn’t require too extensively pre-modern sets, props, costumes, etc., and which might not necessarily get into the issue of the language spoken. I appreciate the difficulties of doing a properly traditional-style kumi udui in Hawaii (or anywhere else outside of Japan), but, if we can have Shakespearean-style performances set in any and every historical period, surely, how hard could it be to do something set in a pre-20th century Okinawa?

That said, tired as I am of these modern themes, “A Cage of Fireflies” addresses them well, provoking the audience to think and rethink their attitudes, and their relationship to tradition and identity. It may not draw you into its world the way the greatest theatre does – its world being the very one you’re already in, living in contemporary Hawaii – but it does go beyond its utterly mundane plotline to address much deeper issues and concepts, and to make the viewer think, and in that, it is truly a successful, powerful piece of theatre.


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