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What with exams and everything, the links have really piled up. So, here we are, two (somewhat?) recent articles from around the Internet. I shall endeavor to keep my commentary short, but, we all know I will fail to do so.

To start off, we have a sort of masterpost by Ube Empress on “An Exploration of Orientalism & Asian Cultural Appropriation as Found in American Music (And Why Being a Non-Asian POC Doesn’t Excuse You).” In this lengthy and extensive post, Ube Empress covers everything from Geisha to Bindi – and I am so glad she does, because, surprise, not all cultures are the same! and not all appropriation is the same! – and then lists out a long list of celebrities (mainly in Western pop music), from Gwen Stefani and Katy Perry to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce, who have arguably committed crimes of cultural appropriation in their music videos and performances.

There’s still a lot to be said here. But it’s a really good foundational post, from which we can springboard and ask further questions. If appropriation is all about “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission,” then whose permission is necessary? Who stands as representative of the culture, and arbiter of the appropriate? In some cases, it’s a bit easier, as there are traditional practitioners well-respected, well-established, or even officially licensed, as “teachers”, who can provide that permission. But, in other cases, if one group of POC friends gives permission, and another group of POC individuals say it’s offensive, are you in the right, or in the wrong, for having performed that thing? And if you are of that heritage yourself, and someone else of the same heritage says it’s inappropriate & offensive, that you should be ashamed of yourself, and/or that you’re perpetuating negative stereotypes, who is in the right? Do you, as a member of that identity, have the right to perform that identity how you wish, based on what being of that heritage means to you? Or are the other people in the right? Who gets to play appropriation police?

I wish, too, that Ube Empress had gone further to say just a little more boldly, a little more explicitly, why being a Person of Color is not a transitive quality – why it’s not only whites who are horrible when they appropriate, and that being Latino or black doesn’t give you the right to appropriate elements of Asian or any other culture. Because it’s not about being a fellow minority, or sharing in having been oppressed. It’s about having proper respect for other cultures, and borrowing elements in ways that are respectful, knowledgeable, and appropriate within that culture. This is the same reason that Gananath Obeyesekere’s arguments that as a Sri Lankan he has some special insight into Hawaiian culture, as a fellow non-white/non-Westerner, are, frankly, bullshit. Every culture has different attitudes about what is sacred and what is not, what “sacred” means and how it works, what is and is not offensive, what is and is not deeply associated exclusively with particular purposes or occasions, and should not be performed outside of those contexts. A kimono is not a qipao is not a bindi is not a hula skirt, and being black or Latino does not mean you have any more intimate knowledge than the average white person as to the precise meanings and connotations of elements of particular cultures.

The comments on this article are quite interesting too (though, of course there’s also plenty of racist bullshit mixed in), as some people have expanded on the post, and even offered corrections. Nicki Minaj, of course, is not simply black, but of Trinidadian background, which is a particular thing, different from mainland US African-American background, and she’s apparently 1/4 Indian, which some argue in the comments makes her a fellow “Asian.” Yeah, no. You don’t get a free pass simply for being “Asian.” You cannot go on TV talk shows and talk about how Miley Cyrus twerking is cultural appropriation,1 and then go dress as a geisha in your music videos, followed by a sequence of a karate dojo with all (seemingly, apparently) black participants and no Japanese or Okinawans in sight, as if being 1/4 Indian gives you some special permission or authenticity in Japanese culture.

That said, though, life is complicated. Our identities, our lives, are complicated, and as I return to this post to edit it for the umpteenth time and prepare it for final “publication,” so to speak, I hesitate to even post it at all; I hesitate to contribute to a discourse that says we can (and should!) make assumptions and attack people without considering all the possibilities and asking all the right questions. Are there plenty of cases out there that are just straight-up gross examples of cultural appropriation, in which someone (and their production teams, costumers, choreographers, whomever) just blatantly took cultural elements out of context and used them just for their aesthetic, or worse, to play to certain stereotypes? YES. There absolutely, absolutely, are. And I do not mean to excuse or condone those acts one bit.

But, as I looked for additional photos with which to pepper this post, I came across the following two from Beyonce’s own Tumblr.

In the first, Beyonce is wearing a so-called “coolie hat,” and a yellow top that seems to recall elements of the aesthetic of Qing Dynasty robes. Plus, she’s making a very stereotypical gesture. Very easy to jump on this and just cry “appropriation.” I very nearly used this at the very top of this post, with a caption simply reading “Seriously, B? Really?” But, you know what, we don’t know anything about the context of this photo. Beyonce’s a world traveler – I could absolutely believe that this might have been taken in China, or Vietnam, or Taiwan, and that the local people right there could have been perfectly fine with it. We have no idea who gave her cultural “permission,” and we have no idea the context within which this took place. Maybe people did use that hand gesture with her, in that part of China, to show appreciation, and encouraged her to do the same. Maybe they didn’t.

Here’s another question. Plenty of tourist sites around the world give tourists the opportunity to “dress up” in traditional clothing. I’ve certainly done it once or twice, but I’ve also declined to walk around in public in kimono, outside of cosplay conventions + traditional festivals (when everyone else was also wearing yukata). If Beyonce were wearing something culturally authentic, as part of taking part in a demonstration or workshop, or even just as a touristy “dress up” thing, but totally authorized by the local tourist site, and with the clothes provided by the tourist site, would that be okay? Would it not? Given that the clothes she’s wearing in this picture are terribly inauthentic, but are clearly only inspired by Qing fashions, does that excuse it (how can it be appropriation if it’s not even all that close to the real thing)? Or does it make it worse? I don’t really know…

In the second picture, she’s wearing a hula skirt, and seemingly dancing the hula, or at least trying to. First thing I did was look on her biography on Wikipedia to see if she has any Polynesian ethnic background, or if she lived in the islands for any amount of time. Teen Vogue recently got chewed out on Twitter for using a light-skinned model with dreads, and talking to her about dreads. Well, surprise, the girl is half-Fijian, coming from a culture that has been wearing dreads for centuries. So, it pays to ask questions, and to not just jump to conclusions. In the second half of this post, I return to the point that a “black/white” dichotomy conception of race excludes, erases, the great diversity of other racial/ethnic identities that exist in the world, such as Fijian.

Returning to Beyonce’s photo, the leis, aloha shirts, and white slacks on the musicians in the background lead me to believe this is not just some backyard party, but that this is likely taking place in Hawaii (or another Pacific Island), and that these gentlemen are hired professional musicians. Thus, there is the possibility that there is an authentic kumu hula (hula instructor) present. Again, Beyonce is a professional musician & dancer, and a world traveler, and I really don’t think it out of the realm of possibility that she’s receiving proper formal hula lessons, even if only for a one-time workshop, and that she at least tried to be respectful, best as she knew how. Granted, she’s also extremely wealthy and I wouldn’t put it past her to have all kinds of lavish expensive parties (e.g. renting a beachhouse on Maui and then having a “Hawaiian” party). So, it could go either way. We don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue against Ube Empress at all. Quite the contrary, I’m sharing her post in order to promote it. She does a really good job of explaining out the intricacies and complexities of cultural appropriation – what it is, why it’s wrong, how it varies from case to case, because not every cultural element is equally sensitive, sacred, or meaningful – and calling out a long list of very prominent celebrities who I think are almost unquestionably guilty. Perhaps most importantly, she holds non-white celebrities to the same standards. Being black or Latina or 1/4 Asian Indian does not give you any extra claim, or rights, to other cultures, any more so than being white.

When cultural appropriation is taking place in an offensive way, it is offensive. Period. And it should be stopped. But, all I mean to say with these Beyonce pictures, and with the Teen Vogue Twitter link, is that culture and identity are complicated. Really complicated. Cultural appropriation is not as simple as “if it looks like a duck.” We need to ask questions, before we condemn someone. Who is the person doing it? What potential cultural authority or rightful claims might they have to these cultural elements? What is the context? Who might have given them permission? And then, if the answers to these questions are that the person does not have rightful claims to authority, and do not have permission, and if the act is offensive to the culture in question, because of the way the cultural element is used or because of the stereotypes it perpetuates, then it is cultural appropriation, and should be lambasted with all due piss and vinegar.

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Okay. So, let’s move on. On a somewhat related topic, we have an article from the Good Men Project by Warren Blumenfeld, on the In-Between “Racialized” Category of European-Heritage Jews. In this excerpt from a longer essay, published in the book Everyday white people confront racial & social injustice: 15 stories, he discusses something I have touched upon before, when I asked Are Ashkenazi Jews White?.

I’m not sure I have anything much to add to what Blumenfeld has to say, except to quote some choice bits from his article, and invite you to read more if you are so inclined.

…the workshop would concentrate on the concepts of “race” and dialogue across racial divides, and include two separate panels of participant volunteers: one composed of four people of color, the other of four white people. … As she explained the intended focus and agenda, great confusion came over me: Should I volunteer? Well, maybe, but I really can’t because I’m not sure if either of the categories on which the panels are organized include me. I know for certain that I am not eligible to volunteer for the “persons of color” panel. But, also, I feel as if I somehow don’t belong on the “white persons” panel either.

I think this speaks to a lot more than just the Jewish experience alone. Our society is incredibly diverse, ranging from Irish-, Italian-, and Anglo-Americans to blacks of slave ancestry, both from the mainland US and the very different circumstances of the Caribbean; blacks with no slave ancestry, coming more recently from Africa, and from very different parts of that massive continent; Arabs; Turks; Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi Jews; Persians; Tamils, Sinhalese, Bengali, Gujarati and Punjabi; Mexican, Guatemalan, Chilean; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; Samoan, Chamorro, and Hawaiian; Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese; Haida, Lakota, and Muscogee; and so on and so forth. And yet, our discourse on race in this country, all too often, is very black and white (plus Latinos). Where do all of these people fit? Are all People of Color, in all their diversity, all essentially the same, a single category situated oppositionally against Whites?

Blumenfeld suggests a different model:

As a visual organizer, imagine a vertical line dissected by a short vertical line. Below the left side of the vertical line, write “People of Color,” and below the right side, write “White.” Now imagine how your society constructs or places identity groups upon the top side of the vertical line, including such groups as, for example, English American Protestants, Irish American Catholics, Italian American Catholics, Greek American Christian Orthodox, Polish American Catholics, Mexican American Catholics, Puerto Rican Catholics, Argentinian American Catholics, Afro-Caribbean Americans, Cuban Americans, African American Protestants, African American Jews, recent African immigrants to the United States, Native Americans, Chinese American Catholics, Indian American Hindus, Jewish American Ashkenazim, Jewish Ethiopian Americans, Jewish American Sephardim, Iranian American Muslims, Iranian American Christians, African American Muslims, Honduran American Atheists, Atheists of any ethnicity, and so on.

I see Ashkenazim primarily constructed in the U.S. today on the “white” side of the horizontal line upon the vertical continuum, and I contend that we definitely have white privilege vis-a-vis all the groups placed on the left side of the horizontal line of “people of color.” I argue, however, that we do not have the degree and extent of white privilege in many sections of this country as white mainline Protestants, or other white non-Jews. In fact, in some countries, for example, in Eastern Europe still today, we are not constructed as “white.” Obviously, so-called white supremacists believe this as well in the United States.

All of this, of course, is an ongoing conversation. I hope I have spurred some thought, or at least just provided some interesting articles. None of this is my complete or definitive word on the subject… and my own thoughts and attitudes on these exceptionally complex and touchy subjects are constantly shifting, too, as I read and think and learn more. Let us all give one another the benefit of the doubt, yes?

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(1) Okay, I admit, I’m stretching it a bit. I can’t seem to find a clip of Minaj really talking at any length about appropriation. But, still, the point remains the same. We could instead cite Azealia Banks, who has been quite vocal about appropriation of black music, of twerking, and so forth, and who then goes and wears bindis and the like all over the place.

Continuing my attempts to catch up on the many blog posts & articles which have caught my eye in recent weeks…

A Lakota or Yankton robe, produced by a group of men c. 1780-1825, detailing their victories in war. Native-tanned leather, porcupine quills, bird feathers, plant fibers, and pigment.

Hyperallergic reports that while the Metropolitan Museum’s recent show The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky was quite well-received in many mainstream publications, such as the NY Times and the New Yorker, some Native American scholars, such as Joe Horse Capture, were not so pleased. In short, Horse Capture felt there were not enough Native partners involved in putting together the show, and that those who were involved were only involved as lesser consultants, and not as equals (let alone being in charge) in the curatorial process.

I am somewhat surprised to hear this, as I was rather impressed with the exhibit. Now, I am no specialist in Native American histories/cultures, but I do have some experience with Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, and with discourses in Museum Studies specifically addressing issues of Orientalism, post-colonial contexts, and of respectful, proper representation of indigenous cultures in museums. So, not to discount, challenge, or oppose Mr. Horse Chase’s position – I would never dare to do so; after all, who the hell am I? – but for whatever it is worth coming from me, I was quite impressed to see the Met devote one of its chief exhibition galleries, where they might normally exhibit yet another Post-Impressionists show, instead to a very extensive and beautifully done exhibit on the Plains Indians. An exhibit which the New Yorker tells us “is the most comprehensive of its kind.”

And, not only did the museum devote this large and prominent space to this exhibit, but they did so with an exhibit that tells the history of these people, showing their works as beautiful, expertly crafted, and culturally meaningful, not as backwards or savage at all; plus it incorporates a great many contemporary works, including works boldly critical of the US government, of Orientalism/racism, and so forth.

Gifts for Trading Land with White People, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 1992.

I guess it comes as no surprise that someone should express criticism – after all, Native Americans are not a monolith, and just as among any group, whether it be feminists, Jews, whites, blacks, Japanese, Okinawans, or Native Hawaiians, you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. And his anger, or frustration, is easy to understand. As the Hyperallergic article states, “that a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects.” And yet, there were Native partners on this, who as far as I can know involved in the project quite willingly, and supportive of the exhibit. But, then, as a mere museum visitor who has not read up on this exhibit extensively, let alone spoken to the curators or anyone, I certainly admit I have no real way of knowing.

Breakfast Series, by Sonny Assu Gwa’gwa’da’ka, 2006, on display at the Seattle Art Museum.

Meanwhile at the Seattle Art Museum, to which Hyperallergic compares this exhibit, it comes as no surprise at all that the museum should have such an extensive gallery of Pacific Northwest Native American art, including some really wonderful contemporary pieces, some of which show the beauty, power, and vital vibrancy of the culture today, and some of which are just fantastic critiques of history, of racism, and so forth. I was disappointed to see the Seattle Museum show no more than three or four Pacific Islands objects – much like the so-called Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena has only two or three Pacific Island objects on display, as of my last visit; though the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience, in Seattle’s Chinatown, incidentally, does a much better job, with numerous works by Native Pacific Islanders mixed in with the Asian-American exhibits. But, despite its woeful lack of Pacific Islander art, the Seattle Art Museum truly surprised me with its two or three entire rooms dedicated to Australian Aboriginal art, something I have never seen to such an extent at any other museum. So, huge kudos for that.1

Returning to the Metropolitan’s Plains Indians exhibit, the Hyperallergic review of the exhibition is quite powerful, and contains much incisive and critical commentary. It touches upon many of the most important issues inherent in doing any show of works from an indigenous culture, or from any other colonized culture for that matter. As Ellen Pearlman’s Hyperallergic review states,

a number of Plains Indians artists and their extended families, … remarked about the “power” many of the pieces emanated, and that they contained “blessings” that typical museum goers had no idea about. They were happy to have these items back in “Turtle Island” (America)… [but that] “These are our people’s treasures, and others control and dominate them”

There is also the concern that the Met, as per usual, focuses on these objects as beautiful art objects, to be appreciated for their aesthetic value. It continues to frustrate me, just as a historian, art historian, and aspiring museum professional, that while Europe, and other parts of the world, have great museums dedicated to the histories and cultures of the peoples of the world, here in the US all our greatest museums are *art* museums, and are thus inclined to do just what the Met has done here. It’s even right in the title, “Artists of Earth and Sky,” as if they are chiefly to be appreciated as artists, and for the beautiful objects they produced, rather than being appreciated as peoples with full, rich, cultures and histories, who produced objects with rich, deep, cultural meaning. There is, I think, very much an argument to be made that an art exhibit such as this seeks to rectify past racist/Orientalist wrongs by elevating Native American culture, within elite mainstream discourses, to a more equal status with European or other culture, by showing that they, too, are a culture which produced “high” art, beautiful art. And, indeed, it would be dangerous, I think, to say that these cultural objects do not count as “art”, and should not be included in an art museum, because of their ritual or otherwise cultural meaning beyond mere aesthetics. To do so would only serve to reinforce old prejudices, that Native American culture is/was lacking in art, and/or incapable of producing art, and was thus a set of inferior, lesser, savage or primitive cultures.

Yet, still, as Pearlman’s review notes,

One of the artists told me, “We struggle with identity, and struggle to reidentify with who we are.” If only the Met had foregrounded that issue alongside the aesthetic object, instead of relegating it to ancillary, supplementary materials, this could have been a show that rectified a host of wrongs, turning them into an abundant basket of rights.

And so, as we can clearly see, there are profoundly deep, serious, ways in which, for an artist and activist deeply in touch with her Native American heritage and identity, this exhibit did not go nearly far enough, or maybe didn’t even represent progress at all. I, personally, was very pleasantly surprised to see the Met doing this exhibit at all, and was quite impressed with the size of the exhibit, the histories and issues it addressed, and so forth, but clearly the Met still has a long way to go. Perhaps the Seattle Art Museum might be one of the better models to follow, at least in some respects.

McKinley High School, in Honolulu.

Meanwhile, on a separate issue, the Hawaii Independent published last week an article “On Renaming Hawaii”: De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

This is most certainly an interesting and important notion. After all, why the hell is there a McKinley High School in Hawaii!?

After President Cleveland denounced the annexation of Hawaii, and if memory serves assured Princess Kaiulani he would do whatever he could to protect her kingdom, assuring her too that Congress could not legally annex another country unilaterally without Treaty, Pres. McKinley came along and just snatched up the islands, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, like it was no thing.

As President Cleveland wrote in 1893:

Thus it appears that Hawaii was taken possession of by the United States forces without the consent or wish of the government of the islands, or of anybody else so far as shown, except the United States Minister.

Therefore the military occupation of Honolulu by the United States on the day mentioned was wholly without justification, either as an occupation by consent or as an occupation necessitated by dangers threatening American life and property.

…. By an act of war, committed with the participation of a diplomatic representative of the United States and without authority of Congress, the Government of a feeble but friendly and confiding people has been overthrown. A substantial wrong has thus been done which a due regard for our national character as well as the rights of the injured people requires we should endeavor to repair. The provisional government has not assumed a republican or other constitutional form, but has remained a mere executive council or oligarchy, set up without the assent of the people. It has not sought to find a permanent basis of popular support and has given no evidence of an intention to do so. Indeed, the representatives of that government assert that the people of Hawaii are unfit for popular government and frankly avow that they can be best ruled by arbitrary or despotic power.

And just a few years later, we have from McKinley:

“We need Hawaii just as much and a good deal more than we did California. It is manifest destiny.” – William McKinley, remark to personal secretary George Cortelyou (1898).

“The American flag has not been planted on foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” – Quoted from July 12, 1900, on 1900 US campaign poster, of McKinley and his choice for second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt.

The Dole Corporation, still flaunting it today. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And the same goes for Dole, Baldwin, Castle, and others, all streets in Hawaii today, named after sugar magnates or American business leaders otherwise, who pursued, and in some cases played a rather direct role in seeing through, the destruction of the kingdom, the destruction of the independence and self-governance of the Hawaiian people, all in the name of US corporate interests, i.e. personal profits, albeit at times under the masquerade of a civilizing mission.

While Robert E. Lee and all the other Confederates after whom streets and schools are named were traitors to the United States in a more direct way, these men were to an equal degree – perhaps even greater, given their ultimate success and the Confederacy’s failure, with several of these corporations still going quite strong today – traitors to the Hawaiian Kingdom to which they had sworn their allegiance. And while I wish I could say they were traitors, too, to the highest ideals of this nation, the United States, sadly, I begin to think it was precisely their adherence to and promotion of the ideals of this nation – anti-monarchism, “progress,” Manifest Destiny, and above all capitalism in the spirit of Locke, Smith, and Smiles – that caused the downfall of Hawaiian independence, self-governance, and well-being. One really begins to understand, or at least to imagine, to get a glimpse, of what it might feel like to be a Native Hawaiian, not only living one’s life every day in the lands of one’s ancestors, occupied or colonized by outsiders, but having the fact of that occupation, that colonial situation, blared in one’s face all the more loudly by the public celebration of figures like McKinley and Dole.

I find this issue particularly interesting, though, because there is the question of what to rename these streets and schools if not after Anglo/American figures. In an article I have cited before, entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, RDK Herman argues that the expansion of Hawaiian-derived street names – such as Kalākaua, Kapahulu, and Kuhio Aves, Kapiolani Blvd, and so on – makes it look, feel, as if real change has taken place, and serves to paper over the real problems, which remain unaddressed. This constitutes what is called “anti-conquest.” Leaving placenames like McKinley High School and Dole Street in place may serve better as a reminder that Hawaii is still under illegal occupation, that Hawaiians are still not in control of their own land or their own destiny, and that this still needs to be addressed, whereas the deploying of Hawaiian names – often somewhat willy-nilly without Native input as to their desires as to placenames – makes it all too easy to think that real progress has been made, when it in fact hasn’t.

The Confederate battle flag flying over the South Carolina State House in Columbia, SC, in 2008. Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user eyeliam. Much obliged.

There are likely connections to be drawn here to the various articles that have been published in recent weeks contending that racism and so forth is not only a problem of the American South, but of the North as well, just hidden better, and more overlooked, because of the relative absence of the Confederate battle flag and other boldly displayed symbols of racism. Perhaps there is value in keeping the Confederate flag, because as John Oliver stated on his show, “The Confederate flag is one of those symbols that … help the rest of us identify the worst people in the world.” I support all of those who have argued passionately and eloquently, and quite correctly, for the removal of the Confederate flag from public buildings; as Ta-Nehisi Coates so eloquently stated,

the flag’s presence was a humiliating insult, an unabashed display of nostalgia for the good old days of white supremacy, the celebration of a centuries-old ‘heritage’ — not of hate, … but of plunder, an organized system of ethnic piracy that for centuries has worked to transform black blood into spotless white coinage.

I cheer on Bree Newsome who took matters into her own hands. I only wish she had burned the flag, rather than just hand it over to the cops so they could put it back up in time for the scheduled 11am white supremacist bullshit. But, while some are praising political and corporate leaders who have called for the flag’s removal in recent days, I fear that many of these people – governors, Wal-Mart execs – are just sticking a wet finger in the wind, and doing what’s politically advantageous, doing what they feel they must to retain a positive reputation, and not actually acting on changed attitudes. The removal of the flag, and if it were to go further, the removal of statues and monuments, street names and school names, would be important and powerful acts discursively – I would be going against some of the core premises of my own research, and of certain portions of the fields of art & architectural history, performance and ritual studies, to dismiss all of this as nothing but “show” – it certainly does send a message that these people and their ideals are not to be celebrated, lionized, worshipped, and that African-Americans are Americans too, just as much so as the rest of us. Conveying that message through the taking down of Confederate memorials and symbols would have real, powerful, impacts upon whites and blacks both living in that environment, including especially the next generation of schoolchildren who will grow up not seeing these figures as heroes (provided textbooks and curricula are changed as well, which is another fight entirely). Having said so, I suppose this really does represent a step of real progress, if celebration and lionization of the Confederacy were really, truly, to be removed from public life. But, still, in other important ways, it does give the illusion that even greater progress is being made, when it is not, and for that reason, Ben Ehrenreich, over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, has another suggestion:

Until we summon the courage to become something different, let us remember who we are. Let the Confederate battle flag fly. It is an ugly and an offensive symbol, but the reality that it represents, which is not past, is uglier still, and all the more so because we so willfully ignore it. As long as black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, as long as black Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed, to be impoverished, and to be hungry as the rest of the population, the Confederate flag will be no relic. So let it fly. Not just outside the statehouse in Columbia, and not just in the South, but outside every government building in the United States. Let it fly from every courthouse, every police station, every prison. In New York as well as Ferguson, in Oakland and Los Angeles as well as Sanford and Charleston. Let it fly in front of every public school, just above the metal detector, where the armed policeman waits. Let it fly from every bank too, every mortgage lender, and every payday loan shop. Let it fly above every far-flung US military post in every corner of the globe. Let police officers wear it on their shoulders beneath the other flag, or above it. Slap it on the uniforms of our troops. Paint it on our bombers. Stamp it on our drones. Let the flag fly. Let the flag fly, a mirror on a pole, and a reminder that there is a great deal of work to be done.

On this very subject, Zachariah Mampilly has a compelling article in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies in which he argues what I think for many Americans is a novel concept: that we, too, are a post-colonial society, and that we, too, need to work to Decoloniz[e] the United States.

I have to admit I have not yet read through this article, but the Introduction was quite compelling. This is all very complicated business, and I do not know what the right answers are – what the right path forward is, precisely. But, the first step is to recognize that there’s a problem, that the entire US – and not just Hawaii – is in meaningful, valid, serious ways a (self-)colonized society as well, and that there are problems inherent in the current situation that need to be addressed, in order to properly move forward. Much thanks to Dr. Sarah Watkins for pointing out this Mampilly article, and for general all-around African Studies awesomeness.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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(1) And, just incidentally, kudos to SAM as well for this very nice page addressing Provenance concerns.

I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.

James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”

These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.

Right: Hone Heke cuts down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill at Kororāreka, in 1845. Public domain image from a 1908 book, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).

Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.

Left: A Maori carving of Taranga giving birth to the god Maui. The carving a gift to the East-West Center from the head of a Maori delegation to Washington DC. Photo my own.

Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.

“The Natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] Attacking Captain Wallis the First Discoverer of That Island”. Date, artist, unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.

I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).

Queen Oberea welcoming Captain Samuel Wallis. Engraving, 1827, as reproduced in Le Costume Ancien et Moderne ou Histoire by Giulio Ferrario. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).

Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.

To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.

Rock, 2010.

I recently had the pleasure of going to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, along with LM of Odorunara.com, and seeing an exhibition of Chiho Aoshima’s work. I can’t remember where I learned of Aoshima previously, but she’s definitely one of the bigger-name contemporary artists out of Japan today, and it was great to get to see this exhibit of her work, including three rooms of digital prints, sketchbook pages, and a large video installation entitled Takaamanohara (the High Plains of Heaven).

In many of the works I took photos of, the land itself is anthromoporphized, contemplating itself, contemplating the beauty of nature. We are perhaps witnessing regrowth, and perhaps witnessing a contemplation on the fate or future of natural beauty amidst continued urbanization and industrialization. In other works, skyscrapers are portrayed with happy cartoon faces, and we are made to feel for them when the city is inundated by a tsunami in the video piece. So I don’t think Aoshima is speaking against urbanization, but perhaps questioning how we can protect our way of life, our society, our country – both its urban environments (modern, advanced, society) and natural beauty – against natural and other disasters.

I find an interesting dichotomy in many of these pieces, as they do deal with death and destruction, with volcanoes and tsunami, but they deal with them in such a lively, colorful, cartoon fashion that it seems like no actual harm, injury, or even death is possible. Anthropomorphized airplanes play under blue skies and tell us to “RELAX!” (in big English letters). A naked figure plays atop a volcano and farts clouds into the wind in a piece entitled “Onara-chan igyô wo nasu” (roughly, “Lil’ Farty effects a great enterprise”). In a digital print at the beginning of the show, a girl admires a tree, with doves and rainbows in the background behind her, and it is not a tree, but two different cityscapes, urban skylines, which are reflected in her eyes. In another digital print, happy cartoon-faced skyscrapers hang out, as a phoenix flies past.

I suppose the theme becomes obvious – it is hard to fight it when we see such things as the contemplation of nature, and visions of cities reflected in that; when we see a cityscape honored by the presence of a phoenix – the ultimate symbol of rebirth, at least in Western mythologies – flying by.

And yet, there is plenty of death and destruction here, too. A long digital print which extends nearly from wall-to-wall of the first gallery features blood-red rain and an utterly desolated middle portion of the scene, with the vast majority of the figures in the image holding hands and dancing among the clouds, presumably the spirits of the dead. In the center, a scraggly greyish structure which one might have taken to be a warped post-apocalyptic skyscraper turns out to be a pile of gravestones, atop the large head of a cartoon figure. The immediate surroundings are littered with human skeletons and dead trees. In a small painting later in the show, we see a tree holding a bucket & cleaning a gravestone, and in another, an anthropomorphized gravestone dancing with two trees.

In the video piece, Takaamanohara, a set of cartoon-faced skyscrapers play happily on the far left, while across a small body of water, on the far right, a far greener scene plays out, also happily, with birds and rainbows and so forth. Then things get dark. A volcano at the far right, also cartoon-faced, innocent and cute, blows its top, pouring out lava and spewing dark clouds into the sky. The whole video turns from whites and blues and greens to blacks and reds. A tsunami siren sounds, and waves inundate the immobile skyscrapers, who cry out in anguish. Some go up in flames, and some topple. But then some are rebuilt, and the world eventually returns to blue skies, lush greenery, and birds and rainbows.



A piece entitled “Sensô nante yaritakunaindayo ~hontô” (“Don’t Wanna Wage War… Honestly”) seems at first an outlier, but in a sense it fits in with the theme, too, as Aoshima points towards a desire for a peaceful, beautiful, future, for Japan and for the world. While her anime style, use of Japanese language, and other elements very much point her out as a Japanese artist, Aoshima also includes a number of works that point to a more international outlook. In one, we see a girl busking with a guitar, under a sign which says Union Square clearly in English, and she sings, in Spanish, “Dicen que soy muy borracho” (“They say I am very drunk”). Is she commenting on 3/11 and particularly Japanese concerns, or is she speaking to broader concerns, for all mankind, the world over?

Given the title, “Rebirth of the World,” and the content, including tsunami in the video installation, it would be very easy to jump to the conclusion that Aoshima is yet another artist talking about, thinking about, reflecting on, 3/11 and life in a post-3/11 Japan. This has most certainly been the dominant theme in the last few years in commentary on contemporary art, and contemporary culture more broadly, and I do understand that for those who were in Japan at the time, and those more closely in touch with contemporary culture (e.g. anthropologists), this is a huge thing. But, is that necessarily what’s going on here?

Many of these pieces were made in 2010 or earlier. They take on new meanings for us now, in the wake of those terrible events. The earth-girl gazing at an islet in Rock might be taken to be crying, for Matsushima, or for any and every coastal site ravaged by the tsunami on that terrible day. But this piece was made in 2010, and the bits of blue just under her eyes might just be the seawater in which her face and arms are resting. What might Aoshima have meant by the work at that time, before the disasters?

I struggle with this installation for bizarre reasons. It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on. The theme is so obvious: Rebirth of the World. And yet, because it is so obvious, it makes me wonder what else is going on, what other themes, what deeper messages. And I cannot seem to quite find them. I’m not saying Aoshima’s work is shallow; or even if it is, that that’s a problem. These are beautiful and powerful pieces. I’m just not really sure what more to say, or think, about them…

It is a beautiful installation, though; they have repainted the walls to make it a decidedly, distinctly, Aoshima space, and a number of works are on display that, we are told, have never been shown before. If you have the chance, go check it out.

All photos my own. Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World is on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park until October 4.

I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

Machiya storefronts at Ogawa-Kami-goryô-mae, one of countless sights I would not have experienced/enjoyed if not for simply taking a walk (or bike ride) with no particular destination in mind. Immediately nearby you can find Fushin’an, a temple with some connection to tea master Sen no Rikyû, and the remaining foundation stones of Dôdôbashi, a bridge famous as the site of clashes between Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sôzen.

I have been following Michael Lambe’s Deep Kyoto for several years now, at least, both the blog and on Facebook, and have thoroughly enjoyed the posts, which come not from the perspective of a tourist, writing to a (potential) tourist, but rather from the perspective of someone deeply situated within the life of the city. I was fortunate myself to spend six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (and unfortunate that it wasn’t longer), six weeks which felt like (and continue, in my memory to feel like) several months at least – a real experience. During those six weeks, I of course visited tons of historical sites, and in fact spent a few hours nearly every day riding my bike off in search of one, and seeing what else I came across along the way. But, in those six weeks I also got a taste – just a taste – of what it might be like to live there more long-term. I was generously invited by a friend to attend his Noh recital, and to go to dinner afterwards, a private reception on the second story of a Mukade-chô shop. I went to a local public bath several times, and got to know a handful of wonderful cafés. The couple from whom I was renting a room invited me to go see their aunt’s paintings at the city museum.

Hanging out along the riverbanks at Sanjô, as people have been doing for centuries.

Through Deep Kyoto, I get a sense of this kind of life on a regular basis. If you’re visiting for just a few days, you’re going to go to all the big-name tourist sites, or at least as many as you can fit in. And for that, you’re going to want a typical sort of guidebook. But, if you’re going to be in Kyoto for longer, or if you’re like me and you’re not sure when you’ll be in Kyoto again any time soon, but you (want to) feel some sort of connection to the regular ongoing cultural events and life of the city, you’re going to be interested in art openings, performances, all sorts of out-of-the-way cafés, restaurants, shops, and sights. And that’s what Deep Kyoto provides. If I were living in Kyoto more long-term, this would be among my chief sources of information on all the exciting things going on, from wine festivals and record & CD sales to the International School’s annual bazaar, album release parties, and gallery openings. And that’s all just within the last month or two (May-June 2015).

So, I guess it should have come as no surprise that Deep Kyoto’s first book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is not your typical guidebook. Available only on Kindle, for the nice low price of US$7.99 or 811 yen, it contains 18 travelogues, stories, accounts, musings, by a handful of different authors, writing about different walks through the city.

I loved riding my bike around, and got a very different feel for the city as a whole, or for individual neighborhoods, than I would have gotten focusing only on the destinations. Indeed, whenever my father and I visit a city together, we do a lot more walking around, just generally getting a sense of the place, than frantically crossing off a list of must-sees. And I think this approach – whether on bike, or walking – works especially well for Kyoto. There is so much to see, it’s like almost every single city block contains at least one “destination” of note; and beyond that, Kyoto is such a historical, cultural, romantic, city, and that really comes out in “Deep Kyoto Walks.”

The Rokkakudô, seen through a Starbucks.

These, then, are not your typical “walks” that you’d find in a guidebook. They don’t say “look to your left, and you’ll see such-and-such. Such-and-such has a long history, and is famous for this-and-that. Be sure to notice the X and Y.” These are not pre-programmed tourist walks for you to emulate, per se. They are accounts of personal experiences, which bring the city to life, fleshing it out with the lives of people who have lived there and experienced the city for themselves, in a deep way, and I suppose setting a model or an inspiration for you to go and experience it for yourself. Still, these stories are deeply rooted (I used “deeply” at first in this post by accident, by coincidence, no pun intended; but now I’m just embracing it) in specific places in the city, and so one could certainly take them as guides to places to visit, as well.

In a chapter entitled “Old School Gaijin Kyoto,” Chris Rowthorn writes about his experiences in Kyoto in the early ’90s as a young man his mid-twenties. He touches on big-name sites like the Gosho – the Kyoto Imperial Palace – though only as a public park he happened upon in his wanderings one day, and stopped to scarf down an orange on one of the park benches. He talks about the English school he worked at, and the Japanese language school he took lessons at, not that either do anything for the aspiring tourist, but I suppose that’s not the point. Most of the chapter is dedicated to talking about cafés, bars, and restaurants he enjoyed during his time in Kyoto – these, too, are written from his own experience, a first-person autobiographical anecdote, and not necessarily as a “guide” to the reader, though one could certainly take him up on his recommendations and search out some of these places.

Some chapters take a somewhat more standard form. In “In Praise of Uro Uro,” Joel Stewart walks us through an actual walk through the city, from Daitoku-ji, past Imamiya Shrine, through some neighborhoods and other sights not explicitly named, to Shôden-ji, a small temple I have certainly never heard of, but which from Stewart’s story sounds like a precious hidden gem. A number of the other chapters follow this similar form, providing an actual walk one could recreate, from one place to another, commenting on history and things to note seeing, though still from the point of view of personal experience, of a traveler’s anecdotal story, not through the voice of a tour guide embedded in the oh-so-artificial tourism industry.

The Takase Canal, which runs alongside Kiyamachi-dôri.

A chapter by Michael Lambe entitled “Up and Down the Ki'” takes the reader on a bar crawl in Kiyamachi and Pontocho – probably Kyoto’s most famous or stereotypical nightlife district – with a particular focus not only on the bars, and drinks, but also on music.

The book ends with an Epilogue by Judith Clancy, author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital and Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces, two books which I own but must admit I have yet to get around to reading at all, but which I imagine are quite useful. Having lived in Kyoto for 40 years, Clancy writes in general about the experience of walking around in Kyoto – the experiencing of the city itself – and what one gains by looking around, and especially looking down. I find this amusing, and intriguing, pointing to just how special and different Kyoto is, as so many writings will advise you to look up in New York, for example. In New York, or Tokyo, you look up, and you see the architecture, the impressive height of the buildings, the impressive totality of the urban environment. In Judith Clancy’s Kyoto, you look down, and notice potted plants outside of rows of houses along a quiet side street. I quite appreciate her closing words,

Nihon ni Kyoto ga atte yokatta. Thank goodness Japan has Kyoto. … I agree.”

And I agree as well.

The book’s appendices contain bios of each of the authors, representing a fair diversity of Kyoto experiences, and a set of nice maps to help guide you through your own exploration of the city. If you’re reading it on a device with proper capabilities, each clean and easy-to-read map is also accompanied by a link to view the same area on Google Maps. I don’t personally own a Kindle (read this on my clunky laptop), and am not well accustomed to such devices, but for one who is, I can easily imagine this working well, to have just the map open, full-screen, as one walks around the city, possibly taking breaks at a temple or a café to read through the chapter. Just remember to look around, and experience Kyoto for yourself – don’t get lost in your screen.

As for me, I cannot wait to go back to Kyoto again.

All photos my own.


“Japan Travel Guide: The Ultimate Itinerary Planner: All the cool places, the ass kicking festivals, and the sweetest cherry blossom spots you need to plan your trip to Japan” by Emma Chan and Christopher Crane launches today, and I’ve been asked to spread the word. It is a short (~60 pages) and very basic travel guide which could serve as a good very basic intro for a Japanophile on their first trip to Japan.

The guide consists largely of very brief descriptions of sites and events in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Okinawa, and one of the things I really like about this guide is that unlike many other guidebooks, it’s not seemingly aimed at the generic world traveler, either the backpacker (at one end of the economic spectrum) or the high-powered jetsetter (at the other). This is a Japanophile’s guidebook. It doesn’t guide you to only the most standard touristy sites, doesn’t exoticize Japan as a “travel experience” in general, but rather as a Japan experience in particular, and it doesn’t focus on super expensive things to see and do.

I remember being a study abroad student, my first time in Tokyo, and being so eager and excited to see both the ultramodern “wacky Japan” and also the traditional and historical side of Japan. I wasn’t interested in the super standard touristy things – the kind of things a non-Japanophile would be looking for, visiting Tokyo only once in their lifetime alongside trips to Florence, London, and anywhere/everywhere else. I was interested in those things that might specifically appeal to a Japanophile like myself.

Akihabara, Tokyo’s center of anime/manga/video games and electronics, way back in 2003.

This travel guide addresses those interests, those interested parties. For the Kyoto section, it touches on not only Nijô Castle, Gion, and Kiyomizu-dera – the standard must-see tourist sites – but also the International Manga Museum, and a couple suggestions for live bars, and advises against the touristy bar scene at Kiyamachi. Similarly, for Tokyo, the guide mentions Meiji Shrine, Sensô-ji, Tokyo Skytree – a lot of the standard things – but also cat cafés and French pastry bakeries. The guide’s sections on festivals includes not just the most traditional things like Gion Matsuri and Aoi Matsuri, but also AnimeJapan, and Asakusa’s annual Samba Festival (yes, as in Brazilian samba).

There are definitely places mentioned here I have never heard of, let alone been to, which I think is saying something – I have been fortunate to visit Japan five times now, and to go to pretty much all the most major sites in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, as well as to many other places. So, if you can recommend gardens, temples, bars, cafés that I’ve never heard of, it means you’re going off the well-beaten path. Good on you.

The Great Buddha (Daibutsu) at Kamakura.

The guide can be far too basic at times – for example, devoting only a paragraph to Kamakura, saying very little about what to see there, how to get there, how to get around while there, but only saying very general broad basic things about it.

Kamakura is a small city at the south of Tokyo. Simply put, it’s beautiful. If you’re into
visiting shrines and temples, spend the day there and pay your tribute to the giant Buddha
of Kōtoku-in. The city hosts five Zen temples. Visit the eastern part of the city, which is
more tourist-free and still full of sacred places. Here, you can witness a tea-ceremony,
walk through a sky-scraping bamboo forest, and face the Pacific Ocean.

On the flip-side, though, they could have done the same for Nara, but instead they do a nice job, devoting quite a few pages to giving Nara more or less as in-depth a treatment as Tokyo and Kyoto. I’ve been to Nara several times, but still absolutely learned something from this section of the guide – next time I go back, I’ll know where to find a saké museum, and reportedly excellent curry.

The guide also includes a brief section on Okinawa, which is more than can be said of many Tokyo/Kyoto-centric guides. As with Kamakura, we get only the briefest descriptions of a dozen different places, and basically nothing at all in-depth. For the capital city of Naha, the guide says only that you can find all of Okinawa here, in one place, but makes no mention at all of Shuri castle, Naminoue Shrine, or any other specific sites.. instead guiding the reader to a theme park Okinawa World in Nanjô, a bit of a distance away from Naha. But, still, I guess it’s good that they’ve mentioned Ôgimi-son, Yaeyama, and a handful of other things a bit off the beaten path, rather than repeating the standard things about Kokudai-dôri (International Street – Okinawa’s equivalent to Times Square, the super touristy area that probably should not be the center of your Okinawa experience).

Ashita no Joe hanging out on Kokusai-dôri in Naha.

So, all in all, this guide is probably best as just a starting point, to be used in concert with other resources, which can fill it out, flesh it out, tell you more about each of the cities and sites mentioned so briefly in this guide. But, the guide is only 99 cents on Kindle from Amazon, and right now (for a limited time, I presume), it’s free!! So, at those prices, it certainly cannot hurt to grab it up.

All photos my own.

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