It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.

仮宅の後朝 (Scene in the Yoshiwara) by Utamaro, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.

To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.

So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,

“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…

Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.

An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.

On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.

And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.

The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.

Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.

One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.

Further, Young writes:

Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.

It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.

Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:

In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.

Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?


This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.

Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.

I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.

But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.


In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.

She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.

But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,

There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …

Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)

I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?


Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that

“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.

A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.

Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.

1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.

Nic Maclellan & Jean Chesneaux, After Moruroa: France in the South Pacific, Ocean Press (1998).

In this next installment of my book reviews on readings done for a field in Pacific Island history, we move away from Hawaiʻi, to a different part of the ocean. I do believe that if/when I ever teach a course on Pacific history, Hawaiʻi will likely be quite prominent, because it is most directly relevant to our experience as Americans, to understand what the US stood for, what it stands for, how American values led to the downfall of the Hawaiian Kingdom… and because Hawaiʻi is the most prominent in our popular culture or collective consciousness, and the most likely of the Pacific Islands that students might visit (or might have visited). It is “close to home” conceptually and politically if not geographically, and so there are powerful reasons to devote particular time and focus to studying it. However, in the broader sense of studying non-US, non-Western histories, in the sense of learning about foreign peoples and places in order to attain a more global perspective, I was astonished at myself to realize how much I, even with my powerful interest in non-Western and non-ethnocentric perspectives, still tended to cleave to an Anglophone perspective of which parts of the world I am more interested in. After Moruroa discusses not the US, UK, or Japan’s involvement in the Pacific, but rather, that of France. And it really opened my eyes to how little I know of French history, French imperial history – how much my knowledge of world history, of world imperialism, is still through very much a US/British lens.

In After Moruroa, Nic Maclellan and Jean Chesneaux provide an overview of the political/colonial history of France’s possessions in the Pacific, with a particular focus on the second half of the 20th century, but with a seemingly thorough summary, too, of the earlier periods of “discovery” and colonization.

One of the key themes in the book is that the character or nature of France’s relationship to its Pacific territories is quite different from that of the US or UK to their current & former territories in the region, in certain important ways. The US, UK, and other colonial powers recognize their overseas territories as belonging to a separate category, both conceptually and politically, from the mainland; as one of the fifty states, Hawaiʻi stands as an exception, but places like American Sāmoa and Guam are decidedly in a separate category, both conceptually (in terms of how we imagine the space of “the United States”) and in terms of political status and rights. By contrast, France considers its overseas territories integral parts of the Republic, and sees the preservation of the integrity of the Republic’s territory as a constitutional imperative (21). Maclellan and Chesneaux also write that the typical colonial concerns of access to natural resources and military strategic locations are less prominent in French policy positions in the Pacific, than broader-ranging ideas of the importance of maintaining a Francophone community around the world (241), and a French presence otherwise in order for France to remain a “medium-sized world power” (82). The latter was seen as particularly important in the aftermath of World War II, as the US and USSR emerged as superpowers, and France desired to avoid being eclipsed; the role of the Pacific islands as nuclear testing sites, and as therefore essential to France’s becoming and remaining a nuclear power, ties into this as well (78). While the same could probably be said for the United Kingdom and certain other nations too, in terms of the desire to remain prominent on the world stage, the UK and other nations granted independence to many of their former colonies in the 1960s-70s with less difficulty and hesitation than France; one stark example of this is seen in the case of Vanuatu, which had been a condominium between Britain and France, and where the British administrators left relatively freely, while the French only grudgingly gave up following a brief but genuine violent conflict (73-74).

“Mururoa lagoon” by Georges Martin, May 1972. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

That said, while France’s attachment to the Pacific territories may be more deeply connected to broad nationalistic and global geopolitical concerns rather than more specific and explicit military or economic advantages, Maclellan’s discussion of the territories, and in particular his discussion of the period “after Mororua,” i.e. the late 1990s and the future, is strongly grounded in practical political and economic matters. While much of what I have read on the Pacific focuses on issues of cultural identity, cultural sensitivity (e.g. combating Orientalism and Eurocentrism), and maintenance or revival of traditional culture, Maclellan here emphasizes the very practical concerns of UN Resolutions, Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), labor migrations, and the legal & political rights and statuses of citizens of the overseas territories, making for a vitally informative look at the region from a different perspective. That France is part of the European Union, and citizens of the overseas territories carry EU passports, he explains, presents new complications for the economic, legal, and political interactions between these territories and the Continent. Many fear that as France becomes more integrated into Europe, French identity in France may dissolve, leaving those in the Pacific the “only French people left on the planet.” Meanwhile, others also fear that as it becomes easier for Europeans to move more freely to France’s Pacific territories, gaining French voting rights despite being Belgian, German, or Spanish, this will pose a threat to Pacific identity and autonomy (229); though Maclellan does not draw the comparison, this seems a very reasonable concern, given the dominating political power of Asian-Americans and whites in Hawaiʻi, for example, overpowering native voices.

All in all, this was a fascinating introduction to the very different history and contemporary circumstances of the Francophone Pacific. Despite the fact that we are studying non-Western peoples and places to begin with, we do tend to focus excessively, perhaps without even realizing it, on Anglophone parts of the world; limited though my knowledge of the Pacific may be, of what I have read, the majority has been on Hawaiʻi, Aotearoa, Guam, Fiji, Sāmoa, and Tonga, and on the involvement of the US and UK in these regions, with France rather further off the radar. Yet, it is clear from After Moruroa that the French territories in the Pacific have their own distinct histories and contemporary conditions, important to understand, and inappropriate to assume to be perfectly comparable to other parts of the region. This also makes the Pacific an interesting place to look at to see how different imperialist powers operated very differently (and sometimes, perhaps, quite similarly) in neighboring parts of the world. The histories of Hawaiʻi and Aotearoa are interesting and important, but they are not representative of what went on in Fiji, Tahiti, Tonga, and so forth – between the various sets of Polynesian islands, we have examples of states, overseas departments, independent countries, colonies, incorporated & unincorporated territories, condominiums, and sovereign states in Free Association, and we have peoples and places treated in a variety of ways by the Spanish, French, British, Germans, Japanese, and Americans over the last few centuries. I know embarrassingly little about African history – I truly would love to learn more, and have no doubt there are innumerable lessons to be learned from African history exclusively, specifically – but, I would imagine that there are many lessons, in terms of varying modes of, and attitudes towards, colonialism, that we can learn not only from Africa, but from the Pacific as well. And After Moruroa, by pulling us away from focusing only on the Anglophone Pacific, really helps illuminate that, and fill in the reader’s understanding of the diversity of situations in the broader, wider, Pacific.

Greg Dening’s Performances (University of Chicago Press 1996) is largely a collection of previously published essays. They are a mix, with some being essentially history/anthropology articles on specific topics, such as Captain Cook, the 1814 Battle of Valparaiso, and the first Native-European contact on Tahiti, and others being more theoretical essays on approaches to the practice of history. While the former are great, it is really for the latter that I am adding this book to my short list of things to strongly considering assigning to my own students in future, and something I will very much hold onto, and look back at, to help inform my own approach, in my research.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about Performances is that it serves as a guide to the postmodernist approach – in a nutshell, the idea that there is no singular, knowable Truth, that everything is relative – but in a way which feels genuine, like truly engaging with the lived experience of the people of the past, and not like abstract hand-wavey capital-T Theorizing. Dening writes:

All my academic life I taught history by first requiring my students to transcribe some event or ritual or drama in their lives into narrative. I called this ethnography. They soon discovered how difficult that was to do. They soon learned that there was nothing that they observed but was the subject of some reflective discourse by somebody else. Knowing what that discourse was, what questions shaped it and in what way their own ethnography added to it was to be the cultural persons they needed to be to write history. (30)

And, in discussing whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a god:

Of course the Hawaiians did not call the Euro-American strangers “gods.” They called them akua. Tahitians and Marquesans called them atua. I should have written “Hawaiians,” “Tahitians,” “Marquesans,” of course. In the years of the first encounters, these islanders knew themselves as something else – kānaka, maohi, enata. That is the problem of cross-cultural history. Both sides experience one another in translation. I, for one, believe that cross-cultural history should be written in such a way that the reader is always reminded of strangeness by leaving key words untranslated, and by attempting to describe more discursively what is the cultural experience behind the word. (76)

In emphasizing the use of terms from that culture, and a description and analysis based on the cultural understandings of that culture, rather than the terminology and interpretive structures of Western Theory, Dening advocates an approach which is far more respectful of other cultures, and respectful of the validity of their perspectives and worldviews. This is also an approach which produces, frankly, better history, insofar as it comes closer to the “truth,” such as it is, of what actually happened, or at least of how it was actually understood by the people who were there at the time. Western Theory purports to be universal, but it is a product of the modern or post-modern West, of a particular cultural perspective, and while we can never wholly escape our cultural and chronological biases, we can at least try, by avoiding the skewing impacts of Marxist, Foucaultian, or Weberian approaches. Luke Roberts’ Performing the Great Peace seems to follow in Dening’s advocated approach in this respect, carefully examining how different terms were used in early modern Japanese interactions, in differing contexts, and how this informs our understanding, of their understanding, of their own time.

It is extremely rare, I think, that I feel this way about a book I read, but with Greg Dening’s Performances, I really feel that I wish I could speak with him, take a course with him, rather than get his wisdom only through this limited and mediated form, the monograph. Dening seems like he would have been a marvelous professor for a seminar in Historiography (or Theory and Methodology), and every time he speaks in the book of metaphors, or of his own personal ways of understanding things, I wish I could ask him to explain further just what he means – and it’s not because he’s being obscurantist, like all too many Theorists do; rather, it is only because these are his own personal metaphors, which he has so internalized, and which I am sure one could come to understand better if one were to take a course with him, or to have him as an advisor. The notion of history as performance, for one, and of history as “cargo,” for another.1 I can gather my own imagined understanding of what I think he means when he says these things, but like a primary source history text itself, all I have is the book, and cannot ask the person.

The past is everything that has happened – every heartbeat, every sound, every molecular movement. This totality is both objectively specific (it happened in a particular way) and infinitely discrete (the happenings are not connected). … Yet we have a common-sense confidence that the ‘real’ past, like the ‘real’ present, is much more connected and ordered. We have a confidence that the past is ordered in itself in such a way that we can make a narrative of it. It is text-able. We are confident that our selection is an exegesis of an order already there. It is the same common-sense confidence we have in the cultural systems of our present. … This mythic confidence in a text-able past is the ambience in which histories are made. The past itself is evanescent: it has existence only in histories. Histories are the texted past. (41)

I may be reading into it my own desires, but I think it is valid to say that Dening’s history (or ethnohistory – incorporating at its core an ethnography of past peoples/cultures) exults in the vibrancy of historical cultural life in a way that really emphasizes those aspects of History that attracted me to the discipline to begin with, and then to Art History when I found History surprisingly lacking. For a great many scholars, it is all about types, structures, and forms, and about determining how societies, in general, function. For them, all societies have political leaders – they differ only in type. And all societies have goods that they produce, goods that they buy, and goods that they sell – the only difference is in what precisely those goods are. For these scholars, it is structures and systems that are important, and the moving parts that are the most important are political, economic, or social in nature. All cultures have sacred objects, ritual practices, and art, and we can categorize that into playing some political, economic, or social role, in a system. The differences are unimportant. But, to me, it is precisely those differences which are the most important. It is those differences which make history vibrant and exciting, and which allow history to be a vehicle for celebrating the glorious diversity of our world. And I sense that Dening feels similarly. As he writes on p23, quoting Herbert Marcuse,

“All reification (all essentializing, I would add) is a process of forgetting. Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance.”

It is this singing, dancing, world that so intrigues me. A living world, made up of people living complex, colorful lives, filled with historical architecture and fashion, sounds and smells and sights.

Dening writes of the difference between “reality” and “actuality.” In our analytical interpretations, we seek to discover what “really” happened – what was X event “really” about? We place all sorts of analytical structures on it, comparing it to social science constructions of abstract models and types, in order to categorize it. But in doing so, we miss what “actually” happened. As he writes:

Imagine we go to the theatre to see Death of a Salesman, a part of life and life’s relationships and structure, set out, like life itself, in a series of conversations. We hear the sentences of the conversation on the stage – about baseball, about dingy hotel rooms, about careless children and too careful wives … We know the sentences in their unity to be concerned with coping or not coping with the emptiness of public presentations of self. … Let us say we go to the theatre. The curtains are pulled back. There is Arthur Miller sitting on the stage. ‘Death of a Salesman,’ he says, ‘is about Everyman, Willie Loman, in an entrepreneurial society, and Everyman’s inability to cope with the emptiness of the public presentation of self. That will be $10 please.’ We would not know it at all. … The medium of most of our living is conversation, of texted narrative. The clothing of our structures is the trivialities of everyday existence. (47)

Captain Samuel Wallis of HMS Dolphin being received by the Queen of Otaheite, July 1767. Image from a 1773 book illustration plate, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening’s “Possessing Tahiti,” which I discussed in a previous blog post, is lively with ethnographic and/or historical narrative. We can picture the people, the events – the costumes, the flag waving in the breeze. We can picture the perfect blue sky, white clouds, gorgeous blue waters, and green swaying trees of Tahiti. And quite central to Dening’s narrative are the culturally diverse ways in which British, French, Spanish, and Tahitian peoples claim “possession” of one another – in the case of the Europeans, claiming Tahitian land, and in the case of the Tahitians, taking down the flag and incorporating it into their chief’s malo ura skirt, thus “possessing” the mana, the spirit-force, of the British captain. We can see the flag, the malo ura, the cross erected by the Spanish and then defaced by the British, and the glass bottle buried by the French. And, as Dening discusses how the Tahitians might have viewed the British – as “gods” or not – it is of course a conceptual argument, in the sense that it deals with perceptions, conceptions, and imagined or metaphorical realities. But it is not conceptual in the sense of being capital-T Theoretical in an analytical sense. These people are not pawns in a Structuralist or Post-Structuralist system, nor merely a case study in some [insert Theorist here]-ian articulation of the functioning of societies. They are real people, with lively, vibrant cultures, engaged in historic interactions. And that is what I wish to be able to reproduce in my discussion of the Ryukyuan missions to Edo. I want my reader to be able to envision the road, the lodgings, the costumes and banners, the music, the local officials formally welcoming the envoys, and the local people come to witness the spectacle – I want my reader to envision these things, and to find it interesting, exciting, captivating even if I can manage it, and most of all, I want my reader to be caught up in the narrative, the ethnohistory, just enough to not say “so what?”, and to not wonder what my argument is. The Ryukyuan envoys are not pawns in my analytical game; they are not merely case studies in the service of my argument. They were real, living people of the past, who like the Tahitians and the British possessed lively, vibrant cultures; and personal interests, attitudes, and desires; and who engaged in historic cultural interactions that should be interesting, and valuable, for their novelty if nothing else.

Ryukyuan officials welcoming a Chinese investiture embassy at Naha harbor, as depicted in an 1788 painting by Japanese artist Yamaguchi Suiô. University of Hawaii Library, Sakamaki-Hawley Collection.

At the end of the day, my analysis and my argument are tools in the service of allowing me to tell this narrative, to share this story. It is not the other way around. I feel quite strongly about that – Dening warns against dehumanizing our subjects, and I feel quite sensitively about that. Early modern Japan, and early modern Ryukyu, were entire worlds unto themselves, filled with real people living real lives. And while I may be guilty of romanticizing them, of over-emphasizing the vibrancy of their cultural environment, I refuse to be guilty of stripping them of their cultural and historical specificity, to make them merely examples of people (any people) in a society (any society) that functions according to X, Y, and Z features, in service of an argument. Just because something is not important to my argument does not mean that it is unimportant for producing a lively and compelling picture of the topic as a whole. This does not mean that I have any desire to run it into the ground by going overboard with detail. I have no desire to put my reader to sleep. No one needs to see extensive lists of precisely which goods they carried and precisely how many of each, or of precisely where in the audience hall each figure sat, down to the precise number of tatami mats north and west of the entrance. But, if describing the appearance of the audience hall, and the impressive impact it may have had on foreign guests, can help bring the event, the experience, to life for my readers, to help present it as a living event and not as a systematic structural procedure, then I want to include that regardless of whether it contributes to an analytical argument.

The “Performances” of the title references both the idea that all of life, both today and in the historical periods & events we study, is performance, and that the writing of history is, likewise, a performance. Dening advocates recognizing, acknowledging, and reviving the vibrant, lively reality of the past, as I have already discussed.

Participles … soften the essentializing quality of nouns with the being and acting quality of the verb: not life, but living, not gender, but gendering; not culture, but culturing; not science but sciencing; not change, but changing. The way we represent the world is hindsighted, past participled, stilled like frames on a film. The way we experience the world is processual, unfinished. We see the real; we experience the actual. (119)

But he also speaks of the writing of history as intimately intertwined with acts of memory, and storytelling, and as a very human thing to do, something that all peoples, of all cultures, in all times do. We all tell stories. We all remember our own histories, in one form or another. I personally have found much post-modern theory to be quite frightening, and stultifying, as it asks us to believe there is no Truth, and then just leaving us out in the deep. For someone who got into history precisely because there were facts to be learned, facts which come together, bricolage-style, to form an ever-more-complete, if never truly completable, picture of a particular time & place, post-modern Theory is deeply troubling. How are we to be able to say anything at all about history, when post-modern theory tells us the Truth is unattainable, and that everything we think we know is inevitably wrong? What are we even doing, as historians, if the only things we can ever say are half-truths, and mistaken guesses? It’s like the rug has been pulled out from under us; no, worse, it’s like the entire floor has dropped out. When I asked one of my more Theory-minded professors what to do, how we can possibly move forward in such a situation, she said that exploring History is like being in a wilderness, and you just have to pitch a tent, and stake your claim. This was quite encouraging in the moment, but I think I may need a re-explanation.

Dening comes to the rescue, however. Whereas most Theory seems to lend itself towards total abstraction, breaking down any Truth you might have ever believed existed, Dening’s “historical ethnography” focuses on the telling of history as storytelling, as contributing to an ongoing discourse of meaning-making. I suppose, in a sense, it’s really not so different from the post-modern critique. Not really so different at all. And, perhaps, depending on how one feels on a given day, or how one thinks about it, maybe this isn’t any more freeing or encouraging; or, maybe the post-modern theorists are, for some of you, plenty freeing and encouraging. For me, the idea of trying to produce academically rigorous analysis amidst a chaotic wilderness of unattainable Truth is terrifying, and paralyzing. But, the idea of being a storyteller, telling and re-telling stories in order to bring them alive again, in order to re-enter them into the collective memory – that is, the idea of the writing of history as a performance, as a performance of that story, is quite freeing in a way. We are, after all, only continuing the same activity all cultures do – telling stories, constructing memory. And so, accepting that it is not about finding real Truth, that it can never be about that, but that it is really about trying to understand others, to see different perspectives, interpretations, and worldviews, and to bring those alive again for others, by re-telling the stories, that, I can do. Or at least I can try. I can do my best. And that’s a start.

Telescoping seeing, whether into the past or into the heavens, is likely to foster a certain delusion of apartness in the observer, a sense of separateness from nature, and in that a sense of ‘objectivity.’ It is microscoping seeing that destroys the notion of passive observation. … Quantium physics … obliges us to take seriously what has been a more purely philosophical consideration: that we do not see things in themselves, but only aspects of things. What we see is an electron path in a bubble chamber, not an electron, and what we see in the skies are not stars, any more than a recording of Caruso’s voice is Caruso. By revealing that the observer plays a role in the observed, quantum physics did for physics what Darwin had done for the life sciences: it tore down walls, reuniting the world with the universe. (220)

Everyone who would represent the past must ‘go native’ in some way or be condemned always only to represent the present. Even the ‘native’ must ‘go native’ in finding a past. We might think we are privileged in some way towards a past by being black or white, male or female, poor or powerful, but that privilege is only towards all the others of our living present. The past to which we each ‘go native’ is a lot farther off and no one gets there but by giving a little. … Few of us can find a voice which is neither white nor black, male nor female, young nor old. Few of us can deny the hegemonic mode in our translations of other linguistic forms into our own. ‘Going native’ … is actually a very difficult thing to do. That is why I used to take comfort from a headstone in the cemetery outside the Hawaiian Mission Archives … ‘Sister Kate,’ the epitaph reads, ‘She Did What She Could.’ (124)

(1) Reading his discussion of this on page 46, I think he might be imagining standing on a beach, and having things wash up on shore which came from another island. Unable to go to that other island, we are unable to know what it is really like. But we can make some educated guesses, do our best, based on what has washed up. Documents and artifacts are all that remain of the past; we cannot visit the past, we can only know it from what few things have survived.

I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it. – Kurt Vonnegut.

I do not know if it may just be the accidents of what I have and have not read – the echo chamber or confirmation bias effects – but, it has been very interesting in the last week or two to see a shift in the conversation, and I am very glad to see the conversation continuing. I hope that at least some of the protesters feel satisfied – they wanted a conversation, and they are getting one. Hopefully this can be a productive conversation, informing views on both/all sides, and representing some kind of genuine step forward, even if a very small one. I have certainly learned a lot, and further nuanced my views on such matters.

Here, I share a few of the articles and blog posts I have read in the last couple weeks, simply to share what perspectives have emerged. I attempted to inject as little as possible of my own commentary or positions, but I don’t think I was very successful at that.

One blogger, by the name of Keiko, on her blog Japanese-American in Boston, has provided by far the most detailed, informative description of the background of the “Kimono Wednesdays” activity that I have yet seen. It answers a lot of the questions I had had, beginning with who made the replica kimonos: they were commissioned by NHK, and made by traditional textile artisans in Kyoto, working for Takarazuka, a prominent and well-established theatre company in Japan which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.

We are still seeing a number of posts emphasizing the offensiveness of cultural appropriation, and providing valuable insights into just how and why such things can be so hurtful to many Asian-Americans.

However, we are now also seeing many posts that stand in defense of cultural exchange, and critiquing the protestors, as well as the museum for retreating so quickly/easily. I have seen a great many really interesting FB posts and mailing list comments in the last week or so, but I will refrain from sharing them, because (1) I lost a previous draft of this comment, and simply cannot find all the relevant comments again, and (2) because most were shared in various private circumstances, and probably should not be re-shared without explicit permission from each and every one of the commenters I might seek to quote. So, there’s that. So, this addition will only include a sprinkling of some of the additional perspectives from the last week or two.

*Keiko of “Japanese-American in Boston” provides a thorough description of why she personally does not feel this is racist, “yellowface,” or cultural appropriation, and also discusses what would have needed to be different for this to be offensive to her, while also noting that there are a number of things the museum could have done better. In another, more recent post, she breaks down a number of Myths and Facts about Kimono Wednesdays and the Protests.

*Major art critic blog website Hyperallergic, in a post entitled The Confused Thinking Behind the Kimono Protests at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has been one of a number of voices recently emphasizing that the idea of getting a feel for the weight, the heft, the feel of a garment is not itself an act of “dressing up” as anyone, or any type, and that what was really key to altering the character of the event, and moving it into more problematic territory, was encouraging visitors to take photos of themselves in the kimono.

The Hyperallergic writer adds:

However, protesters have been too quick to use the term “racist” to describe this program. To suggest, as one commenter has, that this event is akin to visitors attending museums to see people from Africa in cages, is a mistake. To be racist is to employ or advance the rhetoric and (economic, social and political) practices of reducing another human being to a set of signs (within a certain pre-existing hierarchy) that are primarily physical features, and thereby dehumanize him or her. I do not see that happening here, particularly because the woman being mimicked is Camille Monet, who is signifying a type of ridiculous European posture vis-à-vis fascination with Japanese art.

More, there is a kind of megalomania at work here with protesters conflating Japonisme with stereotyped images of Asian-Americans. The Japanese are not the same as, nor should they be confused with Chinese, Korean, Laotian, Vietnamese or Thai. The Japanese were a colonial power. In the late 19th century they willfully provided their art for Western consumption and consciously contributed to its circulation in markets fueled by exoticized fascination with the East.

Of course, it is important to remember that Japan engaged in such “cultural export” specifically within a context of desperately trying to prove their worth to Western notions of “modernity,” in order to avoid becoming colonized or otherwise exploited. I thank my friend Nick for reminding us of this; it is a point that is very much prominent in my mind when thinking of the Meiji period, in architecture, in politics, in imperialism, in court ritual, and in the World’s Fairs, as well as in painting, sculpture, ceramics, and so forth, but I am embarrassed to admit it didn’t occur to me to link that with textiles. So, the Hyperallergic commentary misses, a bit, on this point. But, still, this adds valuable nuance – not all Asian cultures are the same, and not all Asian-American experiences are the same. The kimono, Japan, Japaneseness, are particular, just like everything in the world is particular, and should not be painted with a broad brush, under umbrella notions of appropriation, racism, etc.

The Hyperallergic article concludes:

For me, the worst aspect of this debacle is that it feeds the notion that culture is a kind of precious object that may only be doled out to those outside the specific culture by those designated as appropriate cultural handlers. I do believe that culture is a precious resource. However in the view propagated by the Boston protesters, the emphasis for non-Westerners should be on guarding and regulating the representation of culture, instead of making it available in ways that are productive to a more profound understanding. …

… This was an opportunity to really engage the museum in a conversation around cultural appropriation and useful types of enhanced interaction and Japonisme. This chance seemingly has fled because of fear and the protesters mistaking umbrage for insight. We need to allow people to play with charged cultural symbols. This is how we learn. Museum visitors should not be learning the lessons of fearing an engagement with cultures not their own, even if they don’t get it right the first time.

To be sure, the museum absolutely could have done better, in a great many ways, to contextualize the activity differently, to discuss Orientalism and its impacts and implications more explicitly. It seems well-established at this point that, in this particular case, they really didn’t think about it sufficiently before doing it. And I am still unclear as to who was involved (European art curators, Asian art curators, Education), and to what extent. But, at its core, I agree, and I have read many others – top experts, with decades of experience in Japan and in the field of Japanese art – saying essentially the same thing, that we need to work to engage with one another, to talk and exchange and learn about one another, in order to move forward with greater understanding, and not to shy away from such exchange (or encourage others to refrain from such engagement) at the slightest hint of offense; we should find ways to engage in cultural exchange and experience in respectful and productive ways, and not shut down that discussion by compartmentalizing culture away – especially when it comes to something like kimono, which is not sacred, which is not traditionally associated with only being allowed to be used by particular groups; hula and feather headdresses would be a different story.

Indeed, in fact, today as well there are a great many people in Japan and in the US – traditional textile makers, traditional dance experts, and so forth – for whom the kimono is the centerpiece of cultural outreach, encouraging foreigners to try on kimono and to engage in Japanese culture. And some of them have begun appearing in the gallery, staging small, quiet, counter-protests. It simply goes to show that neither Japanese nor Japanese-Americans are a monolith. One Japanese-American wrote in an op-ed piece recently, which I touched upon and linked to in my previous discussion, “To consider that the OK of one Japanese friend who likes your kimono doesn’t mean wholesale approval from all Japanese people, let alone Asian-Americans.” This is extremely valid and important, and indeed her entire op-ed piece is extremely thought-provoking, and sympathetic, and I encourage you to read it. However, these counter-protests, both in person, and on Facebook, blogs, and elsewhere, clearly show that the reverse is true as well – just because one, or fifty, or a hundred Asian-Americans are offended, doesn’t mean that all Asian-Americans find it offensive.

As a friend pointed out, one of the really key elements of offensive, inappropriate, cultural appropriation is when someone is practicing something incorrectly, and mistakenly believing they are learning or experiencing the authentic. This is highly problematic, as it perpetuates misinformation and misunderstandings; it perpetuates a skewed, incorrect Western imagination or understanding of “the East,” of Asian cultures, and worst of all it perpetuates Westerners believing themselves to be correct when they are not – and then acting upon, or passing along, that mistaken knowledge. But, not all cultural exchange is incorrect cultural exchange. Here are experts in traditional dance, in traditional kimono-making and kimono-wearing, encouraging people to engage in this, to learn about it.

As Japanese sources – newspapers, blogs, individual commenters – continue to express their confusion at Asian-American protestors’ reactions, many protestors and critics have dismissed the Japanese viewpoint as deriving from ignorance of the Asian-American experience, and of the politics of race/ethnicity/identity in the United States. To be sure, there is that to a certain extent. I saw it myself, as Japanese newspapers reported that protestors were describing the kimono-wearing event as “racial discrimination” (人類差別) or as “imperialist” (帝国主義), which many protestors were, but which misses the point entirely. One wonders what the popular Japanese conceptions of “Orientalism” and “cultural appropriation” are, if they mistake these accusations for being the same thing as “discrimination” or “imperialism.” No wonder they were confused – this is very clearly not a case of discrimination, or imperialism. Then again, one wonders what these protestors are thinking, to themselves also confuse Orientalist perpetuation of stereotypes, and cultural appropriation, with every brand of oppression under the sun, from imperialism to white supremacy. I have even seen some Tweets tagged with “#whitesupremacykills” or something to that effect, as if white people trying on a kimono for five minutes was actively killing anyone; as if this was problematic in precisely the same ways and for the same reasons as the Confederate flag, police violence against blacks, church burnings, and so forth.

Now, I would like to reiterate, as I did in my previous post on the subject, my sympathy for the protestors’ views and positions. These are extremely valid attitudes and emotions, stemming from as genuine/authentic a lived experience as could be, and I think these perspectives absolutely need to be considered in the conversation as it continues. However, what continues to annoy and frustrate me about the attitudes many are expressing is the complete disregard, and dismissal, of the authenticity and authority of cultural experts. A tenth-generation kimono maker from Kyoto may not have the lived experience of the particular ethnic/racial environment of the United States, but she’s not an idiot. She has grown up her entire life surrounded by the people who have been the center of kimono production in the world, for centuries, people who have centuries of inherited experience in thinking about cultural issues – how to make and wear kimono, how to respect traditions, how to maintain them, and also how to allow them to change, and how to encourage others to engage in that cultural experience respectfully and appropriately. If they can’t be said to have authenticity and authority to say that it’s okay for foreigners to wear kimono – that it’s not offensive to the tradition, that it’s not a violation of cultural context – then who can?

As a recent Japan Times piece indicates,

The reaction… from Japan — where the decline in popularity of the kimono as a form of dress is a national concern — was one of puzzlement and sadness. Many Japanese commentators expressed regret that fewer people would get to experience wearing a kimono. … In fact, many in the kimono industry see growth in foreign markets as essential to the garment’s survival.

Meanwhile, both in Japan and in the West, many people of Japanese descent, from fashion designers to everyday sartorialists on the street, wear kimono in all kinds of ways, mixing it up, bringing it very much into the postmodern contemporary world. Kimono are, quite simply, *not* exclusive to particular traditional contexts. Manami Okazaki, Yohji Yamamoto, and Hiromi Asai are among those fashion designers seeking to bring the kimono out of its culturally-specific context into being “a modern form of dress that “is beyond cultural and ethnic boundaries.”” This is a considerable step further, beyond what traditional arts practitioners, cultural exchange workshops, and the like are trying to do, and, frankly, I’m not sure what I think about this. But, this too is a valid, genuine position, coming from a place of authenticity and authority, and should not be lightly dismissed. Speaking of Okazaki’s book Kimono Now, as well as interviews with Yamamoto, Asai, and others, the Japan Times goes on to say that

those trying to modernize the kimono by ushering it into the fashion world — rather than preserving it strictly as a national dress — will likely be set back by the controversy surrounding the exhibition in Boston. … Okazaki is also concerned that the industry will suffer if Americans are scared to wear kimono lest they are accused of being racist. … “Absolutely no one (interviewed for the book) found Westerners wearing kimonos to be remotely offensive,” Okazaki tells The Japan Times. “(They) all gave me interviews because they wanted people overseas to share this culture.”

So, this is a complex issue, and I am glad to see the conversation continuing.

Adrienne Kaeppler, The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Oxford University Press, 2008.

In The Pacific Arts of Polynesia & Micronesia, Adrienne Kaeppler not only provides a broad-ranging and detailed survey of material cultural forms and objects of the various cultures of these two regions, but also introduces the reader to a number of crucial theoretical or critical issues in approaching these objects and traditions.

The first chapter provides an introduction and overview of the geography and history of the islands and their peoples, and of those peoples’ various types of arts.

In the second chapter, in the course of discussing various forms of ritual containers, Kaeppler discusses the inseparable interconnectedness in Pacific cultures between objects, ritual use, and meaning. As she explains, these objects can be considered in isolation, for their purely visual and formal qualities, and they often are, in museums and similar institutions around the world; however, within Pacific Island cultures, the arts are surface manifestations of systems of knowledge, forming the scaffolding of meaning that encompasses visible, verbal, musical, or performative instances of art. As a result, visual arts, performing arts, and ritual should be understood together, and not in isolation from one another. The Fijian kava bowl has certain formal and visual qualities that make it a beautiful work of art in the Western sense of the term, but it is through understanding its use in the ritual of mixing and serving kava that we gain a deeper appreciation for the way Tongan people might understand and appreciate the object.

Hawaiian royal feather cloaks on display at the Bishop Museum, in Honolulu. Photo my own.

The importance of ritual meaning and use otherwise within cultural contexts is seen further in chapter four, in which Kaeppler discusses textile arts. As she explains, textiles can be embodiments of ancestors, genealogies, histories, or memories, or prayers given solid physical form. The specific examples of individual named kie hingoa woven mats passed down through the generations and worn by kings and queens of Tonga at weddings, funerals, coronations, and when receiving foreign royals (such as Queen Elizabeth II) help the reader to appreciate how this functions, including how these objects become prized, their power as symbols, and the ways in which they come to be associated with powerful individuals and significant events. The related Hawaiian belief that garments contained the mana of their wearers, and how this sacred (or kapu) quality makes them dangerous becomes clearer in a discussion of Hawaiian royal feather cloaks in the fifth chapter (on tattoo and personal adornment), which also discusses the personal sacredness of Māori moko and facial & body tattoos in other Pacific island cultures.

Various objects from the Sepik Basin in Papua New Guinea, one of the most studied places in the Pacific, on display at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo my own.

Jumping back to the third chapter, in her discussion of carvings, Kaeppler provides a lengthy unpacking of Western concepts of “aesthetics” which not only (hopefully) helps us move further towards being able to more appropriately understand and appreciate the ways in which Pacific Island peoples appreciate their own “artworks,” but also seems a profoundly useful set of passages for inviting reconsiderations of how we approach all art, Western and non-Western alike. As Kaeppler explains,

When one decides whether something is beautiful or not, a value judgment is being made. Beauty of course is not inherent in any object or thing but is a mental construct of an individual that may or may not be shared by others. The basic concept here is evaluation (that is, whether something is beautiful or not) and how this mental construct is part of a system of thought.

Further, “ways of thinking about cultural forms, including the standards by which they are judged, are largely determined by the cultural tradition of which they are a part. … Members of different cultures simply do not react in identical ways to the same stimuli, artistic or otherwise.” These 2-3 pages alone, and the book as a whole all the more so, provide a powerful argument for a more culturally sensitive and globally-minded (non-Eurocentric, cultural relativist) approach to the arts and cultures of the world.

Finally, throughout the book, Kaeppler intersperses discussions of contemporary art, and quotes from contemporary artists & traditional practitioners, with discussion of older objects and traditions. That Pacific Island cultures are alive and well and that traditional cultural attitudes continue to be powerful and relevant – while having also developed and changed over time, as in any society – is presented not so much as an argument, but as a matter of fact, woven throughout the book.

Canoe/Waka, by Māori artist Lewis Tamihana Gardiner and Haida (Pacific Northwest) artist Preston Singletary, 2007, on display at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo my own.

Kaeppler’s incorporation of contemporary arts & attitudes, and discussion of aesthetics and the importance of appreciating native uses and understandings, serve as powerful models and arguments for culturally sensitive, global or non-Western, approaches. Meanwhile, her elaboration of specific concepts such as the association between danger and the sacred, and the importance of objects as embodying oral histories, provide a detailed and important foundational sense of the cultural character, attitudes, and beliefs of the various Pacific Island cultures, and the similarities and differences between them.

Kabukiza: Final Curtain

This is my 700th post. Incredible. It’s been a long journey. Thanks to all of my loyal readers for your support!

Well, after quite some time, I finally got around to watching “Kabukiza: Final Curtain,” or, in Japanese, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za (わが心の歌舞伎座, “The Kabuki-za of Our Heart”), the official Shôchiku documentary about the closing of the Kabuki-za back in 2010.

Since 1889, Kabuki-za, located in Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, has been the main Kabuki theatre in the world. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times over its history, but in the postwar period, the same building, the same version, survived from its initial postwar reconstruction in 1951, down to 2010. At that time, they knocked down the building, and reconstructed it to be more earthquake-safe, as well as making various other changes, though in a great many ways it remains loyal to its traditional form. The construction was completed in just under three years, and the Kabuki-za reopened in April 2013. This is presumably a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I was very sorry to not get to be there for any of the Sayonara performances in 2010, nor for the events surrounding the reopening, though I did make it there again finally in July 2013, a few months after the reopening, which was still technically considered part of the many-months-long “grand reopening” kokera otoshi performances.

In conjunction with a massive eight-volume DVD box set covering 16 months of Sayonara Performances of regular kabuki plays, Shôchiku (the cinema + theatre company that runs professional kabuki) released this documentary. From the trailer alone (above), I knew that for a kabuki fan like myself, Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za was sure to be a nostalgic and moving look into the history and memories of that building. After all, for every kabuki actor, and fan, of the last several generations, this was the place, the center of the kabuki world.

Kabuki-za in April 2008. Photo my own.

Much of the film is pretty much what you might expect – conversations with some of the greatest actors of the current generation, talking about their memories, and walking us through the building. And there were certainly some wonderful stories. One of the things that sets kabuki apart from the typical mainstream forms of theater that we think of as typical here in the West is that it’s to a certain extent a hereditary occupation, and a life-long occupation, largely within that one theater, the Kabuki-za (albeit with plenty of touring and such too). So, most actors have not only spent their adult careers here, but have literally grown up in the Kabuki-za, alongside brothers, cousins, fathers, uncles, grandfathers. We hear a number of stories in this film, but one can only imagine just how deeply this place feels like home to all these people – stagehands, crew, staff, etc., too, but most of all for the actors – and just how innumerable the memories must be. Of the stories we do hear, one actor talks about measuring his son’s height in marker on one of the wooden pillars in his dressing room, and now being sad to realize it’s going to be gone, and he won’t be able to show his son those same marks when he’s older; another talks about a staffer who worked loyally behind the reception desk, for forty or fifty years, and who was brought back one day long after her retirement, to see the place one last time – she died very soon afterwards. Another talks about coming to Kabuki-za as a child, and being so awed by the actors, by his father’s colleagues or costars, and how special it felt to then get to use one of those very same dressing rooms that was so incredible to him as a child.

One of the most moving stories was one by Nakamura Baigyoku, who spoke of his father Nakamura Utaemon VI’s death in 2001. It came the very day before Baigyoku was set to begin a whole month of performances in which he played Shogun Minamoto no Yoriie, anguishing over the death of his father, Shogun Minamoto no Yoritomo. Baigyoku went through with the month’s program, and when the time came for the funeral, he first brought his father’s ashes to the Kabuki-za once more, so Utaemon could “see” the theatre one more time, dressed up in the set pieces for Dôjôji, a piece for which Utaemon was particularly famous.

On a similar note, it was really something to see this documentary, released quite soon after the closing of the theater, with Ichikawa Danjûrô XII and Nakamura Kanzaburô XVIII, two of the absolute top actors of the last several decades, as two of the chief people featured. This makes the film particularly poignant, and a record of a really particular time in Kabuki history. No one could have known at that time, in 2010 as the theatre was closing, that these two greats would not live to see it reopen. I count myself terribly fortunate to have seen them both perform, and to have even met Danjûrô, and gotten his autograph, all thanks to the amazing Kôno-sensei from IUC.

Tying into this, I do wish that we might have heard from some of the younger actors – Nakamura Shichinosuke or Kankurô, Ichikawa Ebizô, or Nakamura Shidô – on their thoughts and experiences, a younger memory and a different perspective on the Kabuki-za. But, then, I guess it does make sense to have it really focus on the older actors, the big names, the real mainstays of post-war Kabuki, whose memories stretch back further, and who really represent the period that’s ending, as opposed to these fellows, who will eventually, a few decades down the road, become the greats themselves.

Kabuki-za following the re-construction, in 2013. Photo my own.

But the film isn’t just about the actors, and it isn’t just about the building. I was pleasantly surprised to see it really devotes a good amount of attention to many of the other people who have such strong connections to the building, too, and without whom the marvels of a Kabuki production wouldn’t be possible – musicians, stagehands, set builders, and so forth. As I was watching the film, I found myself thinking about whether this would make for a good film to help introduce kabuki, e.g. perhaps to show to students in an introductory/survey course on Japanese theatre. On the one hand, it shows clips from many different plays, and introduces you to a number of the major actors, as well as to a sense of how deep the family ties and the lifelong experience of growing up in the Kabuki-za runs. One of the parts I was most taken with was that they show tons of behind-the-scenes stuff, like how these massive, very complex sets get changed by a team of people working so systematically in only about ten minutes between scenes. We see the dressing rooms. We see what it looks like from an actor’s point of view just before he emerges onto the hanamichi, or just after he exits along it. We see storage spaces for countless props and set pieces, and a painting studio somewhere upstairs, where new set pieces are made for every single production. We see elements of rehearsal, and we see how the leading actors actually have considerable directorial(-esque) input on, for example, not only directing other actors and shaping a scene, but also in determining how the sets should be done a little differently – e.g. if the sky is too light, and needs to be repainted a little darker. I certainly learned a lot from this, and I think that for a student first learning about kabuki, this could be really interesting – whether for the Theatre major whose experience themselves as cast or crew might make it interesting for them to see how things are done so differently or so similarly in a place like Kabuki-za, as well as for the student (more like myself) who had very little theatre experience at all when he first started learning about kabuki, and was excited and eager to learn about this whole other world of the theatre. In the end, I think that “Kabukiza: Final Curtain” might be a good thing to watch towards the end of a course, once students are more familiar with a lot of the stuff that isn’t explained in the documentary, or something to just show clips of. It is about two and a half hours long, after all.

So, in summary, I think this is a really great documentary. I’d be curious to hear what others less familiar with kabuki, and less fannish than myself, might think, but for me, it was not only (a) a nostalgic look at the history of Kabuki-za which adds to my emotional experience as a Kabuki fan, and (b) an informative film as to clips from tons of plays, bits about many of the actors of past & present, and about much of how the theatre works behind the scenes, but also (c) gives an interesting perspective on the Kabuki stars as actors, and also as family. Somehow, I think of them as celebrities, as contemporary historical figures, I dunno, but to really see them as actors, rehearsing, acting, talking about how a given scene might be done differently this time, talking about the legacy of how other actors have performed the same role and what it feels like for them to get to do this role… along with learning more about the actual workings of set construction and so forth, it just really deepened my appreciation for and understanding of Kabuki.

Go see it.

“Kabuki-za: Final Curtain,” or Waga kokoro no Kabuki-za, is in Japanese with English subtitles. Like most DVDs in Japan, Kabuki DVDs included, it is absurdly overpriced, at a sticker price of just over 4900 yen (approx. US$40, but only because the exchange rate is good right now).

The closing ceremony for the old Kabuki-za, April 2010.

Let’s move on, and continue with my responses/reviews of some readings on Hawaiian history. In this post, I look at three journal articles on somewhat unrelated but complementary topics.

*DeSoto Brown, “Beautiful, Romantic Hawaii: How the Fantasy Image Came to Be.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 20 (1994): 253–71.

*Lori Pierce, “The Whites Have Created Modern Honolulu”: Ethnicity, Racial Stratification, and the Discourse of Aloha.” In Paul Spickard (ed.) Racial Thinking in the United States, 124–54, 2004.

*John P. Rosa “Beyond the Plantation: Teaching about Hawai’i before 1900.” Journal of Asian American Studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 223–40.

University of Hawaii students sit together to show the ethnic differences of Hawaii’s population in 1948. Image from NPR.

These three articles address somewhat different topics, but overlap in interesting ways. All three seek to address aspects of Hawaiian history outside of the standard stereotypical understandings, complicating or challenging those stereotypical views.

Lori Pierce’s essay “The Whites Have Created Modern Honolulu” discusses the ways in which haole businessmen & other haole community leaders in the 1910s-1930s constructed and deployed discourses of ethnic harmony in order to promote their own interests, including protecting (maintaining) their own superior political, economic, and social position in Hawaiʻi. This aligns well with DeSoto Brown’s article “Beautiful, Romanic Hawaii,” which explains how films, travel advertising, aloha shirts, popular/folk music and other elements of popular media discourse combined to construct idyllic or otherwise romantic impressions of Hawaiʻi among American mainlanders – impressions which do not accurately, or “truthfully,” match what life in Hawaiʻi was ever actually like, and impressions which continue to fundamentally inform stereotypes of Hawaiʻi today, even as the golden age of popularity of a particular cultural concurrence (aloha shirts, fake luaus & hula, tiki bars, etc.) has become largely a thing of the past. Pierce’s article also aligns with John Rosa’s essay “Beyond the Plantation,” in a different way, insofar as both address ethnic relations in the islands. Rosa addresses the emphasis on plantation life in Asian-American Studies approaches to Hawaiian history, suggesting that a greater focus on Native Hawaiian demographic & economic history, and on the history of haole political and economic activity, would better inform a fuller understanding of the history.

Rosa touches briefly upon ancient Polynesian voyaging traditions and origins, the role of the sandalwood, whaling, and other industries in the economic “development” and political changes in early 19th century Hawaiʻi, and the political events surrounding the overthrow in the 1880s-1890s, with a particular focus on population decline and decline of political power for Native Hawaiians. I can imagine that for an Asian-American Studies audience (given that this was published in the Journal of Asian American Studies), it might be of particular importance to press such an audience to remember to think about these events & their surrounding issues; however, even as a novice historian of Hawaiʻi & the Pacific, I feel that there is little of Rosa’s argument that is new for me; little of it is anything I did not already believe was important – central, even – to the basic historical narrative of Hawaiʻi’s history. Still, this article serves as a useful basic primer to these issues, and to some key sources for learning more about certain issues and events. When I come to putting together a syllabus for a survey of Hawaiian or Pacific history, I will look back to this article, among others.

“Hawaii welcomes you as you’ve never been welcomed before…” Come enjoy our harmonious paradise, where everything is perfect, because if you knew it wasn’t, it would harm the tourist industry, and never mind the ethnic resentments seething just below the surface :) Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user Don O’Brien.

The two articles by DeSoto Brown and Lori Pierce are quite interesting and informative for thinking about my own experience moving to, and living in Hawaiʻi, negotiating between preconceptions and reality, as well as for engaging with how to think about, or teach, the construction of stereotypes and misconceptions. The “discourse of aloha” that Pierce describes, a belief in the harmonious relations between ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi, remains a constant refrain today in Hawaiʻi, despite serious ethnic issues and divisions. It is interesting to see how this was constructed in order to promote American travel to the islands, and general positive attitudes towards the “project” of Americanization assimilation efforts in the islands, as part of broader discursive efforts to justify and normalize haole political, social, and economic dominance. Haoles have never been an ethnic majority in the islands, and in the early 20th century feared the growing influence of those of Asian descent; many, Pierce relates, feared that such a small number of haoles would not be able to exert sufficient cultural force to properly or fully Americanize these non-whites, and viewed labor strikes on the plantations not through a lens of morality of labor practices, but rather as a matter of insufficient Americanization – that is, insufficient loyalty on the part of these Asian workers to American businesses & American national / patriotic interests. And this sort of attitude hasn’t ended. Look at how Native Hawaiian protest against the TMT telescope project on Mauna Kea is viewed. This sort of attitude seems all the stronger in Japan, where just about any protest, especially those by Okinawans, is inevitably described by at least some source, some contingent, as being financed by China or Korea to make Japan look bad – in other words, they are viewing the protest as an attack on the Japanese nation, as a sign of insufficient loyalty, and not considering the protest for its own words, its own meaning, as is being expressed.

Rose C. Davidson, leading the Floral Parade in Waikiki, 1911. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Returning to Pierce’s article, parades, pageants, and the like organized by haole community leaders celebrated Hawaiʻi’s ethnic diversity at the same time that they emphasized Americanness and patriotism – in fact, some of the organizers explicitly intended these events to educate children in Hawaiʻi in American history and American viewpoints, instilling in them a sense of American patriotism. Yet, despite this haole origin for the “discourse of aloha,” it seems to have been wholeheartedly adopted by the “local” Asian-Pacific Islander-American population, cited time and again today. It would be interesting to learn how and why this came to be the case – whether this discourse can be said to have been appropriated and re-conceived, or adopted wholesale – but this seems to fall outside of Pierce’s intentions.

Her discussion, however, of the multiple visions that haoles had at that time for America, and for an Americanized Hawaiʻi, are particularly informative for our broader understandings of the ethnic or cultural character or nature of the United States today. As she explains, some believed in assimilation into a standard, established, Anglo-American culture, seeing assimilation into this culture as uplifting, civilizing, and moralizing. In this view, all people regardless of their ethnic or cultural origins are entitled to the equal opportunity to become (Anglo-)American. A similar notion is often cited, stereotypically or popularly, as being the dominant notion of equality in France today – everyone is equally welcome to “become” “French.” A second vision articulated by Pierce is that of an American identity born out of the “melting pot” combination of diverse ethnicities and cultures, resulting in a new and distinctive American identity that takes the best of all these diverse influences, becoming something (ever) better and greater. Some promoted Hawaiʻi as a living example of this mode, as an ever-increasing proportion of the population in Hawaiʻi were not solely haole, Asian, or Pacific Islander, but rather were (are) hapa, a mixture of Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, and/or haole ethnic and cultural backgrounds. A third vision celebrates cultural diversity that remains distinct – the salad bowl model, perhaps, rather than the melting pot. All three of these visions are still prevalent in the United States today, remaining powerfully fundamental to citizens’ understandings or beliefs of what the United States is, or should be, and it is not hard to imagine the profound and powerful role these conflicting visions play, on a fundamental level, in contributing to our broader, ongoing, political debates on a variety of issues, and to a deep sense of cultural divides.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,530 other followers