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.

On Returning to Hawaii

If ever there was an occasion for the use of the phrase “so many feels,” it was this. After earning my MA from the University of Hawaii, and then subsequently moving back to the mainland for the PhD, I went back to Hawaii last week, for the first time in about 9 months, to present at a symposium.

Perhaps partially influenced by my blog-writing and/or scholarly training, and the habit I have thus developed of thinking about experiences rather than simply experiencing them, almost immediately upon landing, even before leaving the airport, I found myself thinking all sorts of thoughts about my return – how do I relate to Hawaii now? What do I think about Hawaii, now that I’ve lived there for three years, and then been gone for so many months?

For the first day or so on campus, I was flooded with thoughts and emotions. It was wonderful to be back – the natural beauty, the weather/climate, the myriad opportunities for Japanese/Okinawan food and culture, and, of course, seeing old friends. And interestingly, yet not unexpectedly, I found that campus, and town more generally, while eminently familiar, lacked a nostalgic or emotional quality. It wasn’t “oh, I remember this place!” with tears in my eyes and/or a smile on my face, but rather just an ordinary awareness of where everything was and how to get there.

But it wasn’t just as if I’d never left. Staying at the slightly nicer, more hotel-style, building associated with the dorms I had lived in the last few years, and no longer possessing a key card to get into the dorms (plus, no longer being able to use my student ID to ride the bus for free), I definitely also felt a feeling of not-quite-belonging; this, of course, being accompanied by some anxiety over just how much I do or don’t belong, and how there are now new students, who I don’t know, and who don’t know me, and who in some very real and valid respects “belong” more than I do. Fortunately, at this stage of the game at least, a mere nine months or so since I left the islands, I still have plenty of friends on campus, so it’s not like I’m a total stranger, and the people I do know can welcome me in and introduce me to the people I don’t know – in this way, I was able to feel comfortable letting myself in to walk around the art building, see who I ran into, and to then hang out with old and new friends. Actually, in a broader sense, this worked pretty much all weekend – having friends to go to the beach with, friends to go out to a bar with, friends to show me a new cool restaurant in town. It didn’t really hit me until after getting back to the mainland from Hawaii, earlier this week, that it won’t be long at all before most of my friends are no longer there. The next time I go back the experience will be decidedly different.

But, this time at least, despite all my anxieties, by the middle of the week, I had settled down into a wonderfully calm sense of contentment and familiarity. For most of the rest of the week, I simply enjoyed myself.

What’s to say about all the rest? I do miss Hawaii very much. I miss the beautiful blue sky, oh-so-white clouds, and lush green – and the wonderfully warm weather itself – more than I’d thought, as well as the beach. I always tell myself, and tell others, that I’m not one of those people who ever went to Hawaii for the weather, or for the beach, but, by comparison, even Santa Barbara (which everyone is constantly saying is so nice) seems unattractive and cold. I miss the ever-present and easily accessible Japanese & Okinawan culture, in its myriad forms, from restaurants, izakaya (pubs/bars), and grocery stores to the kimono, books, CDs/DVDs, etc. available at Shirokiya/BookOff, to the countless cultural events, lectures, etc., from Bon Dance and Okinawa Festival to sanshin lessons, Asian Theatre at UH’s Theatre dept, and just lectures and symposia in general.

But perhaps most of all, Hawaii is an unusual place, like Japan is too. Now, wait, bear with me on this one. No, living in Hawaii is not like living in Japan; in so many ways, it could not be more different – the vast majority of Japanese-Americans in Hawaii don’t speak Japanese, things are not clean and efficient and on-time, and the overall culture is very much its own distinctive Hawaiian / local-Hawaiian-Japanese-American thing, and not at all an extension of contemporary culture in Japan. But. While there are a multitude of individual specific cultural aspects I love about life in Japan, alongside those there is also great appeal simply in the feeling of living somewhere not-mainstream, somewhere special, somewhere exceptional. A feeling of living a worldly, cosmopolitan life, of doing something special. Not that I do any of this merely to impress others – it’s not purely or primarily about the ability to go home and have people say “wow, you’re living in Hawaii!? How cool/amazing! What is that like?” Rather, it’s about the ability to say that to yourself. To myself. To feel like I’m doing something special with my life, to feel like every single day is an adventure, a cultural experience, something that I can myself feel is worth it and exciting and meaningful. It’s a feeling I’ve had about Japan ever since my very first time there, and yet I still have a hard time pinning down exactly how to describe what I mean… and it’s certainly not a feeling I have in Santa Barbara, that I should be so fortunate to live here, rather than living in LA or in NorCal or in Seattle, or anywhere else. What’s so special about Santa Barbara, that makes you worldly, that makes you cultured, that makes you well-traveled, that makes you someone with particularly distinct experiences and perspectives, like Hawaii or Japan does?

More than that, still, and I guess this is what concerns me the most, is that I feel that living in Hawaii made me a better person. Being constantly challenged with rethinking my assumptions and attitudes about indigenous issues, about valuing or understanding indigenous and (post)colonial issues, and rethinking my understandings of Asian and Asian-American cultures, made me a better person in a way that life as a privileged white man in the mainland US never does. It gave me perspective on a whole series of issues outside of the mainland black/Hispanic racial/”diversity” dynamic, and through engaging with indigenous, cultural identity, and colonial issues in the Hawaiian context, opened my mind to rethinking my relationship to all of these issues in terms of my own (Jewish) identity, my own relationship to Japan or Okinawa, to America, etc etc. And, on a separate point, in my last year or two in Hawaii, for the first time in my life, I expanded out into theatre, music, and dance, taking on new cultural/artistic hobbies and becoming a more well-rounded person. Back here in Santa Barbara, I have yet to find or connect with any Japanese/Okinawan/other-Asian music, dance, theatre, or art communities, and though I still maintain those interests, and still have my sanshin, I feel like my life revolves far too much around reading and writing, i.e. the more strictly, exclusively scholarly/academic lifestyle. In my last three semesters in Hawaii, my everyday life was dominated by kabuki, sanshin, Okinawan dance, and otherwise hanging out with art, music, and theatre people, with research, reading, and writing kind of happening only on the side. It’s about being social and having a very active social life, yes, and I do feel I’m lacking that, missing that, here, but, it’s also about living a more culturally/artistically engaged lifestyle.

When I first arrived in Hawaii, it took me a long time to adjust to the island. And maybe it’s simply a matter of that it will take time here too to make friends, to find cultural avenues, to make connections and find my social & cultural life. Maybe it’s just a matter of a transition/adjustment period. Or, maybe Santa Barbara is just a desolate place, relatively, compared to Hawaii, and cannot, will not, ever compare to Hawaii in terms of the ability to engage with Japanese, Okinawan, Polynesian, music, dance, theatre, art, and culture otherwise.

A medieval Sufi tomb, destroyed by the terrorists.

I’ve posted about the Timbuktu situation before. Can’t say I’ve been following it super closely, but, best as I understand, beginning last April, Islamist fundamentalist rebels & Tuareg separatists took over most of the territory of the country of Mali, and, until they were routed by French & Malian government forces last week, set themselves (in part) to destroying World Heritage Sites they felt were idolatrous or otherwise sacrilegious.

They have already destroyed a number of medieval tombs of Sufi saints, showing an astounding lack of respect for their own history, their own culture, their own religion, and an incredible failure to care how this makes them, Africa, and Islam appear to the rest of the world, encouraging rather than combatting negative stereotypes of Africa and Islam both as anti-intellectual, as primitive, violent, and all-around uncultured and uncivilized.

Last week, the terrorists went one step further. Timbuktu is not only the home of great sub-Saharan architecture, and sites of great religious importance, but it is also the home of one of the greatest collections of Islamic manuscriptsmedieval manuscripts that represent some of the greatest examples of the flourishing high culture, science, philosophy, of the Islamic world prior to the era of European imperialism. Last week, the rebels torched one of the central libraries, and for a terrifying, dramatically saddening moment, it was thought all was lost. Now, some sources, including the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project itself are reporting, to the contrary, that librarians and curators in fact evacuated the vast majority of these treasures in anticipation of the rebel attack. Of course, we are not being told how or where the documents are now being hidden away, but museum directors and private collectors assure us that “the manuscripts are hidden in different places where nothing can happen to them.”

(Video courtesy of blog 333 Saints: a Life of Scholarship Under Threat.)

The actions and attitudes of these militants are unbelievable to me. To destroy your own culture, your own history, one of the greatest shining examples that Africa was not backwards, was not primitive, but was full of vibrant intellectual and cultural activity of the highest order, long before European involvement, seems counter-productive and self-destructive to say the least. And that, of course, is putting it mildly. In an opinion/editorial piece on CNN.com, Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, discusses these issues and their import in far more eloquent and to-the-point terms, writing, “The attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage is an attack against this history and the values it carries — values of tolerance, exchange and living together, which lie at the heart of Islam.”

I do not know much about the specifics of the circumstances on the ground there in Mali today; the timeline on Wikipedia seems to indicate that the French and Malian government forces are in the process of retaking territory even as I write this. Hopefully they will have little difficulty completing this task and restoring government control, and order. However, in my amateur opinion, I would not be surprised if rooting out and eliminating these fundamentalist, and dreadfully destructive and violent elements from the region may prove impossible. This is most likely not something that can be changed with warfare, or by outside foreign intervention. All the UN condemnations in the world won’t stop these people. The only thing that can stop them, I wager, is for Muslims around the world – and most especially within these Northern African communities – to gather together and denounce these attitudes, to work within their communities to change minds, to change attitudes, and to eliminate this disgusting, repulsive virus that threatens to destroy Islam’s greatest historical and cultural treasures.

Some reports quote Malian locals as saying they need the French forces to stay, in order to continue to protect them from the rebels, but other reports are indicating that the French are looking to get out of Mali as soon as possible, in order to avoid the sort of quagmire the US continues to find itself in in Afghanistan. Hopefully, all involved will do what is right, and the horrors of the last eight months or so will not be repeated.

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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