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A young musician, reentering the country with the violin she has had since she was young, returning home after performing a gig overseas. A Smithsonian staff member escorting paintings on loan from Tokyo. A man moving across the country with his family heirlooms, including his grandmother’s antique silverware and his grandfather’s old revolver. Pretty soon, all of these people, and many more in a myriad of individual situations, may find it increasingly difficult, or even impossible, to do such basic things.

A Department of the Interior crackdown aims to deal a killing blow to poaching by making it more difficult than ever to bring ivory in or out of the US, or to even transport ivory objects domestically, across state boundaries. The target of this policy is, of course, the black market in ivory from animals poached recently, and in the future. The administration’s intention is clearly admirable, as we all wish to do what we can to help save endangered species from extinction. However, it seems clear that either policymakers have no concept of the wide-ranging consequences of such a policy, the collateral damage if you will, or that they simply do not care.

Under the international treaty known as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), drafted in 1973, it is illegal to bring into signatory countries objects made from ivory, certain kinds of snakeskins, rhino horn, or any of a long list of other endangered species’ furs, skins, or body parts, with the exception of anything made before 1976. By placing a contemporary date on the policy, those drafting the wording of the treaty made sure it would be targeted at cutting down on contemporary poaching currently ongoing. While there are valid concerns relating to the issues of forgers & smugglers intentionally aging new objects in order to pass them off as antiques, and the difficulties of discriminating between objects from the years or decades immediately before and after 1976, the policymakers at that time recognized that blocking the movement of objects far older – including artifacts of great artistic or historical value, such as a 12th century chess set from the British Museum, which drew great crowds when loaned to the Metropolitan Museum just two years ago, and under this policy might never be seen in the US again – does nothing to curb poaching going on today, and indeed serves no purpose at all other than to provide great difficulties for the arts and other particular sectors of our society.

It has been suggested that any ivory out there, allowed legally into the country, encourages continued poaching by demonstrating a continued demand for ivory. An article in Forbes quotes a representative from Fish and Wildlife as claiming: “we believe that a nearly complete ban on commercial elephant ivory and rhino horn trade is the best way to ensure that U.S. markets do not contribute to the decline of these species in the wild.” In fact, quite to the contrary, it seems clear that having older ivory out there provides a source, a supply, of ivory for those seeking to produce or obtain ivory objects without supporting contemporary poaching.

When we think of ivory, we tend to think of knickknacks and scrimshaws, and/or of wealthy art collectors who move in circles quite foreign to the rest of us. But we are all ourselves collectors too; we go on vacation, we buy souvenirs. How many things do you own that might have ivory on it, possibly without you even knowing it? What’s that inlay on the body of your guitar made of? How about the buttons on that vintage aloha shirt you bought the last time you were in Honolulu (or Bali)? Or the wristwatch your grandfather gave you when you were a kid? When you bought that knickknack in that quaint little shop in Llangollen during your honeymoon forty years ago, did you get a certificate of authenticity and proof of antique provenance?

Under this policy, we can say goodbye to the idea of ever selling our family heirlooms to retire comfortably, or inheriting those heirlooms from relatives living out-of-state or overseas. Forget about ever hearing a concert from the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Yitzhak Perlman, or any of the world’s great Philharmonic Orchestras (not to mention countless other musical artists and groups) who might not be able to travel to or within the US, for fear of having their instruments seized for the tiny bit of ivory on the tip of their violin, viola, and cello bows. Likewise, we can forget about ever again seeing any of the greatest treasures of Chinese, Japanese, or Korean painting. It has already become increasingly difficult in recent years to get loans of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean artworks to show in our museums, for a variety of reasons; if museums around the world are required, for example, to replace the ivory toggles used to help tie scrolls closed with plastic ones just to accommodate US law, it could have seriously deleterious effects on relationships between US museums and museums the world over, forcing us to say goodbye not only to American audiences getting the opportunity to see and enjoy those particular types of East Asian artworks, but potentially making it far more difficult for our museums to borrow and show any artworks from overseas at all. And if the great crowds lining up outside the Frick Gallery in New York last summer to see Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” are any indication, there is a great interest in continuing to be able to borrow works from overseas. Tiny though these sectors of the economy, or of society, may be, I do think it terribly undesirable. And it shows a disregard on the part of the administration for considerations of our great cultural institutions and experiences.

Returning to the matter of the unintended consequences this policy could have for all of us – collectors, dealers, and typical private citizens alike – the Department of the Interior’s official press release does briefly mention that some classes of objects, including “bona fide antiques [and] certain noncommercial items” would be exempt, so long as the owner/seller/shipper provides proper documentation. Of course, it comes as no surprise that information about the applicable law is confusing and contradictory. The New York Times and Washington Post note that exemptions are made for those who can prove that the ivory was legally acquired before 1976, while the Dept of the Interior’s press release says that one must prove that “an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document.” Cultural heritage lawyer Rick St. Hilaire, meanwhile, on his blog, gives 1989 as the cut-off date. Yet, “antiques” are defined as being at least 100 years old; so, are objects made less than 100 years ago, but before the 1970s, antiques, and legal to own and trade, or are they not?

In any case, as an astute commenter on the Washington Post’s article online notes, it doesn’t really matter what the precise technicalities of the law may be. Any individual customs officer, on any given day, might be less familiar with the permits, or have a different personal understanding of the regulations, or might make a different determination as to the veracity of a traveler’s claims, or as to the age or identification of his objects. Customs officers are not experts in the appraisal of antique ivory, snakeskin, and every single other potential type of contraband – and case in point, neither is the average tourist souvenir-buyer. I myself have a set of mahjongg tiles I bought at a flea market in Tokyo which I imagine are plastic but which may well be ivory. Beats me. And, as the young musician in the Washington Post article notes, he too only suspects that the tip of his bow might be made of ivory, and doesn’t himself even know whether it’s antique ivory, or might have been replaced relatively recently before he bought it, or whether it’s even ivory at all.

Ironically, the one group not targeted by this crackdown on ivory trafficking? Sport game hunters, who are permitted two African elephant sport-hunted trophies per year.


So, I went to see PHOENIX tonight at the Cherry Lane Theatre, and it was everything I expected & hoped it would be. Nothing too crazy, conceptual, experimental – just a good, solid, very nicely done romantic drama. James Wirt and Julia Stiles did a fine job as Bruce and Sue, two people who’ve more or less just met, but who find themselves having to deal with some of the ordinary “shit that befalls us all.”

The show opens with them discussing how it wasn’t really a date, just drinks, just something, but not really a date, and that she was gone for four weeks, which she adamantly insists is not the same as being gone for a month. That stilted slightly dramatized line delivery / dialogue exchange, and that particular brand of theatre wit & wordplay that makes me feel like, YES! I’m home. This is New York. This is New York theatre. This is the real theatre experience.

As I sat looking at the minimal set pieces which are rotated and rearranged to serve for a variety of settings/scenes, the somewhat abstract scenic art which depict elements relevant to the themes of the plot, and the way lighting was used to transform the appearance of both, first I thought about what each of these elements mean, what they do for the piece. What are the deeper, broader, metaphorical meanings? What multiple different meanings does the word “phoenix” have in the thematics of the play? But then I thought, am I just trying to hard to “analyze” this? I’m not really a theatre scholar, or a theatre critic, not like some of my friends are. Sure, I can draw upon my art history background, and my experience simply as a viewer of many plays and as a friend of many theatre people, but, really, I don’t have the background in the history of modern(ist) theatre to really be able to say anything properly insightful. And, besides, are these things really meant to be dwelt on? Aren’t they more like background to the dialogue and the action, serving a more subconscious influence upon the piece as a whole?

I don’t want to give away the precise details of the plot, for anyone who might wish to go see the show, which I assure you is far more enjoyable than simply reading any summary or discussion of it. But, suffice it to say, there are some rather dramatic events, and conversations, in this two-person show, interspersed with bits of the playwright’s thoughts and commentary on society, on life, on what it all means, on the problems of our world. When I go to the theatre, it is normally to see a traditional Japanese performance, such as Noh or kabuki, or an Asian fusion piece, or the like. So it was a real pleasure, a most welcome change of pace, to see something so standardly American / mainstream for a change. It feels good to be home in New York, to be going to the theatre, to feel like I am engaging in, being a part of, the mainstream New York theatre scene. And with the Cherry Lane Theater – New York’s oldest, continuously running, off-Broadway theater – and Julia Stiles, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Phoenix runs at the Cherry Lane Theater (38 Commerce Street, Manhattan) through August 23rd.

Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.


Bernard Bettelheim is one of those historical figures you just love to hate. Or, well, hate might be too strong of a word. But, he was certainly a colorful character. Today, Mike Williams of the UPenn Libraries shares with us some glimpses into the “Loochooan” (Ryukyuan) Bibles that Bettelheim had compiled and published in 1855.

Right: Title page of Bettelheim’s Gospel of Luke (1855). UPenn Libraries.

Born into a Jewish family in Pressburg, Hungary, and raised up towards someday becoming a rabbi, he came to Okinawa in 1846 as a Protestant missionary, along with his wife and two children. Since Christianity was banned in Ryukyu, and contacts with foreigners were extremely restricted, he was denied permission to come ashore, but forced or tricked his way onshore anyway. Granted permission to stay the night at the Buddhist temple Gokoku-ji, with the plan that the Ryukyuan authorities could send him away in the morning, Bettelheim instead stayed at the temple for seven years, throwing out the monks, idols, anything he thought sacrilegious, and defending his position at the temple in part by accusing anyone who came to kick him out of violating his wife’s privacy, of trying to see her unclothed.

For the next seven years, he tried continuously to proselytize in the port city of Naha and the royal capital of Shuri, though he was opposed by the authorities at every turn. As merchants were forbidden from engaging in interactions with foreigners (and specifically with Bettelheim), he took to, essentially, stealing, taking whatever he wanted in the markets, and leaving whatever he thought a fair price. He distributed missionizing leaflets, which were always collected up by the authorities and returned to him, and even sometimes broke into private homes to sermon at people who likely could not have understood him. Bettelheim had reading/writing fluency in English, French, German, and Hebrew before coming to Okinawa, and so it is feasible that as a person with a skill for languages, he might have picked up some of the Ryukyuan language. But, as Williams points out in the link I’m sharing today, “it is difficult to determine exactly what language Bettelheim spoke while on Okinawa, and to what degree he recognized the [distinction] between native Ryukyuan, mainland Japanese, Okinawan dialect Japanese, and the heavily Chinese-influenced “officialese” used by the local government.” Nevertheless, he managed with the help of his Classical Chinese tutor to compile six volumes of books of the New Testament in “translation” into “Loochooan.” These were later printed & published in Hong Kong, after Bettelheim was finally taken away from Okinawa by the American Commodore Matthew Perry, much to the relief of the beleaguered Ryukyuan Court.

As Williams’ beautiful blog post shows, the volumes were written entirely in katakana (with the exception of the title pages), rendering them extremely difficult to parse, even if they were in a standard Okinawan or Japanese language, which Williams tells us they surely are not. I had wondered about these volumes, wondered what they looked like, what the language looked like in them. It’s really interesting to get to see some openings, and to get some sense of it.

For further details and discussion of Bettelheim’s life in Ryukyu, and about these volumes, including some beautiful pictures, see Michael William’s blog post “A “Loochooan” New Testament,” on the UPenn Libraries’ official blog site, “Unique at Penn.”

My thanks to Molly Des Jardin, Japanese Studies Librarian at the UPenn Libraries, for bringing this post to my attention.

The Writing Process

Way back when, I did a post on biking, as part of “Japan Blog Matsuri,” but I don’t feel I see these sorts of things come up too often. I’d be happy to do more of them, if they came around more often. Today, with thanks to Leah of The Lobster Dance for nominating me to blog on it, we have a post about my writing process. I really enjoyed reading about her process, and am glad for the poke, the push, to write about my own.

The Rules

In the words of Gene’O:

The rules are very simple and, if I may say so, designed to not require a lot of work, which I truly appreciate:

*Link to the blogger before,
*answer 4 questions,
*and nominate 3 bloggers to keep the hop going.

Why do I write what I do?

I feel I have written about this before, so apologies for the rehashing, but, I think there are two interconnected motivations behind my maintaining this blog. One is that as grad students, we are encouraged to really focus in and specialize, and even when we’re not working on our specific research project (in my case, on activities of Ryukyuans in early modern Japan), we’re taking courses and reading books on particular topics (this week, Robert Hellyer’s Defining Engagement, on Tokugawa foreign policy). And yet, we all have so many interests; if I limited myself to only my coursework/scholarly writing, and didn’t blog, I would feel terribly constrained. So, the blog allows me to write about different periods and aspects of Japanese history & culture, about issues of tradition and identity, about gender, about pop culture and comic books, about art exhibits and museum studies. And, furthermore, it allows me to do it in a context where I don’t have to revise and revise and revise, where it doesn’t have to be perfectly polished, as formal scholarly work does, for my advisor or my committee or for peer review. The blog is, of course, a much more public side of what I do, especially given I’ve barely been published yet in the formal scholarly world, and I am perpetually worried about how it might affect my scholarly reputation, to be honest, but, even so, it’s not like proper published journal articles, which really do define your scholarly reputation.

The second interconnected motivation is the desire to feel actively involved in the Internet. I read all these blogs, listen to podcasts, watch far too many YouTube channels, and here are people who are really engaged and connected, and it makes me feel like I want to be engaged and connected too. Not that I expect I’ll ever become an Internet celebrity, or anything, but, especially since life as a grad student can seem quite provincial/local in a way, talking to nobody outside your department, or nobody outside your campus, and even when you go to conferences or get published, it doesn’t circulate all that widely, and only happens relatively infrequently. So, this is my way of feeling actively engaged, reading about or watching things every day, responding to them, feeling connected in with what’s going on around the world, the blogosphere, current events, current events in pop culture, whathaveyou.

lol. This is already so much longer than Leah’s post. I just can’t help it.

How does my writing process work?

Generally, I get an idea, and just start writing something, a very rough draft. Generally it happens when I don’t have a lot of time – either I’ve just read or watched something, and feel I just need to get my thoughts out while I finish my breakfast before I rush to campus, or sometimes (especially a few of my upcoming posts that I’m still working on) I’m lying awake in the middle of the night, and just need to get those ideas down before I forget them, but without staying up the whole rest of the night writing. Or, in the case of posts about art exhibits or other things I’ve seen or done out in the big wide world, I often take notes during or right after the experience, and then later on (usually, hopefully, days later, and not weeks or months later…) I type up those notes into the beginnings of a blog post.

I don’t plan things out, at least not explicitly, consciously. I mean, I think about it, of course, think about what parts will come later, but I don’t do formal outlining or anything. For the most part, I just write. Which is probably why most of my posts end up really long, and kind of rambly, and not really so tightly structured as some other people’s…

Generally, I write a blog post in two or three sittings. I don’t rewrite and rewrite, revision after revision, but I have that first draft, that first germ of an idea, and on the second sitting, I come back to it, expand it out, write it out into a full post. And then, I usually leave it until another sitting to put in all the links and the pictures and such, before hitting Publish.

Incidentally, in case anyone’s curious (and I know I’m curious how others do it), I write the HTML tags into my posts. Nothing fancy, clearly – I’m not playing with CSS or PHP or anything at all, just hyperlinks and pictures, and very basic text formatting mostly – but I do type it out, and don’t use the Visual editor, or any of the “click here to start underlining,” “click here to Insert Picture,” buttons.

How does my writing differ from the genre?

I guess it all depends on who I compare myself to. When I write about travel, at least sometimes I think I’m fitting more or less right into the genre of people who write about their day exploring this or that town. If I compare myself to many of the blogs on Japanese pop culture and its intersection with gender (lol; I say many. Leah’s is really the main one I read; I don’t know what other ones I’m even thinking of), or with reviewing or talking about pop culture otherwise, I think my posts are generally much more historical, traditional, or “high” culture of one sort or another. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about pop culture, and I love thinking about pop culture, but, somehow it just doesn’t turn out to be my focus.

I think my blog sort of bursts boundaries or categories. Which is to say, I’m all over the place. I lack focus. Some people are much more properly and exclusively blogs about Okinawa & Okinawan culture, or about Japanese cultural events in New York, or about ukiyo-e, or about literature, and I kind of dabble in each and all of these. I tend to think of my interests and my focuses as being on (1) early modern Japanese history, (2) issues of tradition in the arts, (3) art exhibits & exhibit design, (4) Okinawan history & culture, (5) Noh & Kabuki, but there I’ve already mentioned five different things, and I know I’ve posted blog posts on things outside those topics too. So, maybe I’m right there firmly within the genre of people who write about all sorts of things, lacking a single distinctive theme/focus for their blog.

What am I working on at the moment?

I dunno. Let’s go check out the ol’ Drafts box.
-a post on gender roles in Firefly and Game of Thrones which just sort of came to me in the night and which is only a very rough start and which might not go anywhere
-a feminism/gender-informed post on the characterization of Jean Grey.
-one responding to an article harshly criticizing the East-West Center
-a post on the impending strengthening of bans on the import/sale/transport of ivory

Nominations

Thanks again to Leah of The Lobster Dance for nominating me to do this. To those I’m passing it along to, no pressure. I know these things aren’t for everybody.

(1) Kathryn of Contemporary Japanese Literature

Kathryn’s a good friend from back in the IUC days, and though we haven’t seen one another in person in quite a while, I think of her as one of my close colleagues in Japan Studies, and as one of those vibrant, wonderful writers/thinkers/bloggers on contemporary pop culture. Somehow, for whatever reason, literature remains a gap in my arts/theatre-centered thinking of Japanese culture, so it’s good to have exposure to the lit side of things; plus, I don’t find (make) time for anime or manga much, so it’s great to feel connected to what’s going on and have such a great source of recommendations. Plus, Kathryn’s just an amazing writer and awesome all around person.

(2) Marky Star of JAPAN THIS!

I haven’t met Marky yet, but boy am I impressed with his blog. He focuses mostly on local Tokyo placenames, working out their etymologies and histories, but there have been some equally great articles on the shoguns, on historical topics like sankin kôtai, and in the last few weeks, Marky has taken on the unenviable task of trying to sort out the histories of Tokyo’s rivers. His blog posts are always deeply informative, and while he’s touched on it somewhat, I’d be curious to hear more about his research and writing process.

(3) Molly of Wasting Gold Paper

Molly is another good friend from the IUC days, and also another close colleague in Japan Studies. Her blog includes, among other things, some great resource articles on doing research in Japanese sources, and things like that, as well as posts about digital humanities and digitization issues. As someone so involved in digital humanities, and as someone who knows like a gazillion computer languages, I’d be curious what her writing process is, too.

Cheers, all!

Click to embiggen.

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

——————

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

The Overthrow of Ryūkyū was Illegal under International Law

Still Today, Investigation into a Return to Sovereignty is Possible

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

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

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not Deny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a blog really has its perks every now and then. I was recently contacted by some folks at Tuttle Publishing, who were gracious and generous enough to offer me a review copy of their 2010 book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, by Frederick Harris. I’d seen the book on Amazon, but didn’t think too much of it, given how many other books with similar titles are out there, most of them really quite ordinary.

It’s only been offered to me a couple times, but generally, I’m a bit hesitant to agree to review books. What if they turn out to be really quite ordinary? What if I find I have nothing too much positive to say? Well, in this case, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Really. I have to admit, I have not had the time to read it through, cover to cover, but this book is gorgeous. Tons of full page full color images, and whereas many museum exhibition catalogs, by their nature, devote upwards of 75% of their pages to just catalog entries, Harris strikes a great balance, with lots of images but also lots of essays and other content. This is very much not the type of book which contains one to five introductory essays, and then just catalog entries for the rest of the volume.

Harris has twelve full chapters, on topics ranging from Materials and Techniques to Collecting and Caring for Prints. And while he does do service to the standard categories of images, such as landscapes, beautiful women, actors & sumo wrestlers, and heroes & ghosts, he also has chapters dedicated to book illustrations and “foreigners in Japan” (chiefly Yokohama-e, from the Bakumatsu period). This is a big deal, as Harris departs beautifully from the artificial boundaries that so many books on prints elect not to cross. I don’t know whether it has to do with the influence of collectors and dealers (rather than professional art historians or curators) on the historiography, or if it’s the nature of art history and art museum curation as well, but, for a long time, writing on ukiyo-e has been dominated by aesthetic and stylistic concerns, categorizing prints into numerous sub-categories, and categorizing them as entirely separate from illustrated books, paintings, or anything else. Only recently, I think, have we started to see much more discussion, in books such as this one, in museum exhibits, and elsewhere, emphasizing a more holistic, integrated view of Edo period popular culture, placing the prints into their cultural context and describing them alongside their cousins – the illustrated book, and the painting.

As a result of this particular history of the discourse on ukiyo-e, the average person on the street, even if they know something about Hokusai, something about Japanese woodblock prints, probably does not know that most ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai included, did just as much painting and book illustrations as single-sheet prints, and some in fact specialized much more in one or another, but their work is no less magnificent or worthwhile for it. And most ukiyo-e artists also did just as much work in shunga (erotic prints) as in non-erotic pieces, if not more. Hokusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga – all of them. And while Western and Japanese audiences alike may have been embarrassed by these pieces, or otherwise thought them inappropriate, for over a century – I believe their exhibition is still extremely restricted in Japan – at the time, such distinctions were not really made, and these works would not tarnish an artist’s reputation in any way; to the contrary, shunga were extremely popular.

So, I really applaud Harris including all of these things in his book.

Now, Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print is a book on prints, not on paintings, and that’s fine. Harris certainly goes more than far enough in his scope, including into the realm of prints all sorts of things all too often left out. (If you’re interested in a book on ukiyo-e painting, I would recommend the MFA’s exhibit catalog Drama and Desire.) Rather than focusing only on single-sheet prints from the Edo period, and rather than perpetuating the lionizing and canonization of the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige (those these two certainly get their share of coverage in the book), Harris starts with the 8th century Hyakumantô darani, the oldest examples of woodblock printing from anywhere in the world surviving today, and incorporates here and there throughout the text images of shin hanga (“new prints”) from the 20th century as well. Further, in addition to devoting entire chapters to illustrated books and shunga, as I mentioned, he also sprinkles throughout the book images of aizome-e, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing I’ve seen referred to as ai-e or aizuri-e – variant impressions of prints which used only blue, in place of both the black lines and any other colors in the print. These were exciting experiments at the time when they were made, in the early 1830s, when Prussian blue, aka Berlin blue, the first artificial chemical pigment in the world first became available in Japan (as opposed to vegetable dyes, which often faded or discolored easily). It’s this Prussian blue which gives the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” its brilliant color, and indeed the examples of aizuri-e Harris includes on pages 106 and 115, by Hokusai and Hiroshige respectively, are stunning, especially in their use of bokashi (fading of color, frequently used in the blue of the sky fading into white at it approaches the horizon). These experiments in all-blue prints did not continue for too long after the early 1830s, though, as the blue pigment wore down the woodblocks much faster than other pigments did, and perhaps in part simply because the fad passed – in short, it got old.

I would need to read the book word for word to see how Harris addresses a variety of subjects, but from what I see from a cursory skim, Harris’ writing is not only easy, quick reading, and engaging, but also thorough and informative. If you’re already fairly knowledgeable about prints, this might not provide the most radically new insights or approaches for you; but, I can see this as an excellent book for someone just first getting into Japanese prints – nothing will ever be as classic a mainstay as Richard Lane’sImages from the Floating World,” but Lane has some problems, and Harris’ book is not too dense, or dry by a long shot, but also not at all too shallow, or misinforming. Harris uses lots of specialty terms, such as uki-e, bokashi, and hanshita-e, but introduces them properly, making them easy to follow and to learn.

He also includes or emphasizes a number of points which, if not entirely new and radical, are certainly not emphasized strongly enough or often enough elsewhere. To point to one example, people commonly believe that the designer of each print was an “artist,” uniquely inspired, brilliant in his design abilities and aesthetic sense, a creator of works which are distinctive expressions of his unique personality. The decades and decades of love for Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all the rest, canonized by name, doesn’t help. Yet, here, Harris emphasizes on the very first page of his Preface, that “it is also important for readers to realize that the making of prints was a collaborative effort between the artist, woodblock carver, printer and publisher.” He also goes into fuller detail than I’ve seen many other books do as to the block-carving and printing process itself, including brilliant photos of the chisels and baren and how they were used, and of a key block and its resulting printed image, visually demonstrating the process beautifully.

This post has gone on long enough, so I suppose I shall stop here. I eagerly look forward to reading this through more fully, and seeing what new things I might learn about prints that even I had not come across before.

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