Feeds:
Posts
Comments

“Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs,” an event my friends and I had been planning since last year, finally came to fruition this past February, and I flew back to Santa Barbara very briefly (from Okinawa, where I had been pursuing my dissertation research for a six month stay) to take part. Not quite a symposium or conference, but also not simply an art exhibition, “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” combined an exhibit of new works by MFA student Yumiko Glover with a series of talks by Yumiko, EALCS PhD student Carl Gabrielson, EALCS Professor Sabine Frühstück, Art History PhD student A. Colin Raymond, and myself, plus video interviews of all of us, conducted and edited by YouTuber / LGBT-activist Naoya Matsushima.

Now that the website is complete, I thought it about time to finally post on the blog about this.

The event was originally conceived as something of an “experiment” in graduate-student-initiated and cross-department / interdisciplinary events, which might stand as an example in incremental moves towards (1) greater interdisciplinary collaboration within the academy, (2) greater variety in the style and character of academic events, and (3) more student-initiated events on campus. Of course, few events I’ve ever participated in have ever been nearly as radical, or impactful, as we might imagine or expect or hope for them to be, and all of them, once they are over, are simply over, but I’m still rather proud of, and happy with, what we accomplished.

Yumiko Glover, “Tomoko vs. Mr. A” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 77″ sq. Photo my own. (Sadly, I can’t seem to find any of my photos from that week, so I’m using photos from another art show.)

Yumiko’s artwork continues to get my gears turning – not only beautiful, and masterfully executed, but also wonderfully thought-provoking, containing or suggesting references in numerous different directions, to themes of contemporary Japanese social and political issues, but also anime/manga and youth fashion aesthetics, bubble-gum-bright pop colors, hyperreality and technofuturism – they are highly contemporary works, in modern media and techniques, featuring contemporary or even futuristic subjects (schoolgirls, metropolitan skylines, subways, cellphones, the digital world) but also while subtly referencing or even re-imagining / re-creating (mitate-e) classic images from Japanese art history, such as woodblock prints by Harunobu and Utamaro.

The exhibit opened on Sunday Feb 26, and on the Tuesday, three of us (Yumiko, Colin, and myself) gave brief presentations in Prof. Helen Taschian’s ART 1A: Intro to Visual Literacy class, in addition to all five of us giving talks in a more formal panel event the following day at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre. I could certainly appreciate how these talks at Prof. Taschian’s class might be seen as tangential, or incidental, to the overall project – and there have certainly been plenty of times that I, as a mere attendee to a “main event” panel discussion have not felt that the classroom visits and other activities I didn’t see constituted part of the main event – but, this time around, as a direct participant in this classroom visit, I really did feel it to be a part of the overall event, the overall experience. This has really given me a new appreciation for how it feels to be a visiting speaker, not just for one “main event” but for other things done in conjunction, and a new appreciation for appreciating the fullness of such events. Even with the talks being just tweaked slightly different versions from what we presented the following day at the formal panel discussion, the classroom visit felt quite different. A different audience, with different background and interests and perspectives. The Visual Literacy class itself provided a different context within which – building on their basic foundational knowledge of art & aesthetics acquired over just the past seven weeks of the academic quarter – we were introducing them to Yumiko’s work, to a brief sampling of Okinawan art today (my presentation), and to some issues and problems in thinking about contemporary art, through examples from contemporary Japanese art (Colin’s presentation). It felt really cool to be including a bit of Japanese, Okinawan, and Japanese/American art (or however Yumiko may identify/categorize her own art practice) into their Visual Literacy class. I don’t know how global (how US/Eurocentric or not) Prof. Taschian’s course is to begin with, but I definitely get a kick out of exposing students to non-Western examples as major examples of how we think about art, etc. American or European art – or particular standard canonical examples of non-Western art – need not be the default go-to examples. We are global citizens of a global world. Let us act like it. And talking about some of the biggest artists in Tokyo, and in Okinawa (or we might just as well have said Tahiti, Hawaii, or countless other marginalized, peripheralized places), plus works by someone like Yumiko Glover, using these and not more standard examples from a canon of Western (or non-Western) modern art, is a key element of doing that. Prof. Taschian’s class also did a walkthrough of the exhibit on the Thursday, along with a formal “critique” of Yumiko’s work by professors and grad students from the Studio Art program, and while I wasn’t able to be there for this part, this too is to my mind very much a part of the overall event, making “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” overall a fairly complex, extensive, event, and one I’m all the more satisfied with and proud of having been a part of.

Still, the exhibit itself (and gallery opening reception), and the panel discussion at the MCC, were the real centerpieces of the week. I am so glad to have gotten to do this in the MCC theatre. If we had gotten a classroom, that would have been fine, but doing it in the MCC made the whole thing just feel one level “higher” – classier, nicer, more properly put-together, in a sense. Yumiko talked about her artworks, how they were inspired in large part by her own identity and experiences, growing up in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture (about 63 miles from Hiroshima City), and being Japanese, seeing how Japanese popular culture, media, everyday life, and national-level politics have developed over the last several decades. Yumiko’s works are not only about hyperreality and a colorful, pop-aesthetic Tokyo-urban landscape of everyday life infused with youthful energy, referencing or built upon a backdrop history of Japanese art tradition, but the most recent batches are also increasingly engaged in political commentary, against the renewed militarism and nationalism of the Abe administration and its supporters.

Sabine Frühstück and Carl Gabrielson then talked about that recent trend of rising militarism, particularly in terms of the imag(in)ed role or place of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces within Japanese life or Japanese society, the step-by-step shift of the JSDF from total non-involvement in warzones in the 1990s to increased engagement first in postwar minesweeping efforts in the Persian Gulf overseas construction efforts in Cambodia, and then later in an active warzone (although still not with combat troops – only medics, engineers, etc. etc.) in Iraq in the early 2000s, to now, since 2015, a formal reinterpretation of the Constitution newly adopted into law, which would allow Japan to deploy full-on combat troops not only in defense of Japan (or reaction to attacks against Japanese people or property) but also in response to attacks on allies.

Carl talked in particular about the way the JSDF is marketed to the Japanese public, as protectors of an idealized clean, honest, peaceful, prosperous Japanese everyday life – a very common trope throughout Japanese media – and as protectors who do so without any explicit or overt discussion or display of violence. JSDF ads include very little, if any, depiction of weaponry or action, at all, focusing very much instead on a more quiet, soft perhaps, dignified image of people – largely unseen, unheard, in everyday Japanese life, operating somewhere at a physical remove, a distance – who work to protect Japanese life from turmoil and threats. Even the threats themselves are not only not named, they are left entirely undefined: these ads don’t so much stir up “fear” (e.g. fear of Islamic extremist terrorism) as they do, arguably, perhaps, merely emphasize the goodness of what needs to be protected.

I next shared a glimpse, a sampling, of what I’d seen of Okinawan art in the preceding six months or so. I would say my main intention was twofold: (1) to just simply share something of my experience; even those who’ve spent more time in Tokyo, who know the Tokyo and national art scene better than I do haven’t been feet-on-the-ground seeing all this stuff in Okinawa right now, in 2016-17 as it happens. And (2) to try to contribute just a bit to combatting the continued US/Eurocentrism of our understanding and vision of the art world. This is the 21st century. We are global citizens, Let’s fucking act like it. Okinawa is a part of the world, no less so than California or New York or Texas, no less so than England or France or Japan or China. No matter how small, no matter how seemingly peripheral in one way or another, it is a part of our world, a jigsaw puzzle piece that is essential to a more complete vision of the whole.

Finally, Colin talked about how we understand art and aesthetic categories. In the aftermath of minimalism and modernism reaching (arguably) their limits, the movements having been played out to their fullest possible extent, now what? In our frenetic postmodern moment, when absolutely anything can be art, what now is (and is not) “Art”? Also, as we become increasingly interconnected into the global, just because we have access to seeing more art from around the world doesn’t mean we actually understand it in cultural and political context. It may actually be easier than ever before to think we do – seeing artworks from all around the world on the internet, and at a first glance thinking we “get” it, based on preconceptions about Japan. But, in truth, as Colin explained, there is historical, cultural, and political knowledge that is essential to understanding more validly, more deeply, more truly, what an artwork is referencing or pointing to.

Matthew Limb did an excellent job as moderator, guiding us through some important themes and questions at the end of the panel.

These were accompanied by the brilliant inclusion of a series of video interviews organized by Naoya Matsushima, projected onto the wall of the gallery. While five of us gave talks in UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre in a formal panel event on the Wednesday, that’s ephemeral – even more ephemeral than a one-week gallery show – and these videos, summarizing the main themes of our talks in a (hopefully) even more accessible manner than the talks themselves, brought those talks, those topics, more directly into conversation with the artworks.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with these folks, and to have such an event under my belt, keeping me connected into fields of Art and Art History, and to get to contribute to having just a bit more Japan-related events on campus, introducing our audiences to these various aspects of Japanese & Okinawan art and politics. I look forward to hopefully many more fruitful collaborations in future.

Advertisements

Istanbul

The Istanbul skyline, with the 15th c. Galata Tower in the center.

I decided to do just a little traveling before returning to the US from Japan. This was my first time in Turkey, and wrote a first draft of the following:

For these whole five or six days in Istanbul, I’ve been mulling over what my impressions of the city are. Is Istanbul a European city? Or an Asian/Middle Eastern city? A secular city, or a fairly orthodox/religious theocratic city where I need to be concerned about accidentally offending? A relatively free and safe city, or should I be worried about the recent coup, protests, and creeping authoritarianism? Further, thinking historically, should I be looking around and thinking about the medieval/early modern Ottoman city? the Byzantine Eastern Roman one? late 19th or early 20th century Ottoman modernity? There are certainly plenty of buildings and monuments from across history to remind us of each of these periods, each of these aesthetics.

Sadly, there was some sort of conservation work going on in the Hagia Sophia when we visited, and half of it was off-limits.

The Roman and Eastern Roman is seen everywhere, well, at least in the historical/tourist center of the city, the Sultanahmet area. The Hagia Sophia was of course originally built by the Romans, and is full of Eastern Roman mosaics and so forth. The area immediately outside the Hagia Sophia was, in fact, a Roman hippodrome, an area for racing horses, and it contains several Egyptian obelisks erected there by the Romans.

Then there is the Ottoman side of things, with tons of mosques, and all sorts of other elements and aspects. All over the city, we saw shops that date back to Ottoman times, and bits and pieces here and there of historical sites or markers or other things suggesting the history of the Ottomans as one of the world’s great empires, engaged in diplomatic interactions with the Great Powers of the rest of the world. A fountain associated with Kaiser Wilhelm, located in that former hippodrome, is just one of many such sites. I’m told there’s some Japanese building somewhere in the city as well, though I haven’t come across it.

The Kılıç Ali Pasha mosque, designed/built in the 1580s by Mimar Sinan, who also designed the Suleiman Mosque and hundreds of other famous structures across Turkey and beyond.

The Ottoman aspect of the city also connects in to the maritime, Mediterranean, aspect. A major mosque we keep passing (as it’s right by one of the main tram stations) is named after Kilic Ali Pasha, a 16th century admiral of the Ottoman navy who was originally from Italy and converted to Islam. The Galata Tower, one of the most iconic sights in the city, was built by the Genoese and while I’m not truly expert at architectural history, it did indeed strike me as Italian from the very beginning. I don’t know all that much, actually, about the history of the Ottoman navy, and its involvement in Renaissance/Early Modern history, but I do know that it’s a very defining feature of the Ottoman faction in the board game Here I Stand, which takes place in the Reformation era.

We see, too, numerous restaurants and other elements and aspects here and there throughout the city relating to the immediate post-revolution period, in the 1920s. Again, I’m no expert at Turkish history, and I wish I knew better, but just on the surface, this very “modern,” European (yet distinctly Turkish) aesthetic, with the fezes, mustaches, fancy formal dress, and salon-like decor, has a real appeal. One night, we went to a “tavern,” or meyhane, where live music was playing, and while this place wasn’t explicitly marked or marketed as being 1920s style, there were some old photographs on the walls, and there was a certain something to the decor. Other restaurants we went to, or simply passed by, were explicitly labeled as Istanbul 1923, or Istanbul 1924, and one restaurant in Istiklal Street (one of the main shopping/tourist areas of the city) is explicitly marketed as being designed to recreate that 1924 atmosphere.

Baylan, a nearly 100-year-old café/bakery on the Asian side (near Kadıköy), long owned by Greeks, and located in a neighborhood where there had once been a strong Armenian community.

Finally, there is the contemporary situation. We didn’t see or sense any major political problems or tensions while we were here, thankfully. No protests, no riots, no crackdowns. Despite what you might hear about Turkey in the news – and believe me, I am sorely sad and worried about that country, and Ergodan’s ever-increasingly dictatorial and theocratic regime – we did have a fantastic time, and I never felt especially unsafe, nor even all that worried about the authorities. That said, we stayed fairly close to Taksim Square – where major protests took place just a few years ago – and both there and elsewhere we saw some fairly intimidating police or military presences.

I also enjoyed learning a little about – and meeting some members of – the lively Jewish community there. Jews have lived happily and peacefully in Turkey (for the most part, or, to some extent) since the 1490s or so, when Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews of Spain, and the Ottoman Sultan reportedly was happy to take them in. While many Turkish Jews have moved to Israel, the US, or elsewhere in recent years, those we spoke to say they are quite happy, and feel safe; they tried to disavow us of the notion that Turkey was a particularly dangerous or anti-Semitic place to be at all.

The Neve Shalom synagogue in Istanbul.

I was glad to hear this. Still, there were notable protests outside of one of the city’s main synagogues just a couple months ago, which included the throwing of rocks, and violent threats against Jews trying to get into the building. This synagogue, Neve Shalom (“Oasis of Peace”), was attacked in 1986 by the founder of Fatah, who murdered 22 people who had gone there to pray. The synagogue was attacked again in 1992, by Hezbollah, and again in 2003, when simultaneous car bombs went off outside Neve Shalom and another synagogue in the city, killing some 23 people. I’ve seen pretty serious security precautions taken at synagogues in London and Tokyo as well. But, still, there is enough of a Jewish community that there remain quite a few active synagogues in the city, which in photos online look gorgeous (we didn’t get a chance to visit any, since they require prior reservation, and some sort of screening process – I’ve been told that even Ashkenazi Jews like myself are not so trusted, not let in as easily as Sephardim). The city is also home to several Jewish music groups, two Jewish newspapers, and so on and so forth. And, they’re not entirely unknown – regular people here seem to have some sense about Turkish Jewry: one, in terms of people saying we look Jewish, and either based solely on our looks or on that we said we speak a little Spanish, they then assume we’re Jewish. One small music group at a small “live house” café even burst into a Turkish fasil-style rendition of Hava Nagila for us! Plus, when we went to the Grand Bazaar, we found lots of tchotchkes, necklaces, etc. being sold with Stars of David, Hebrew writing, or other Jewish elements.


One of the fasil live music bars we went to: Abbas, on Nevizade Sk.

The Armenian history is of course another thing, too. Everywhere around there are Armenian churches, or other churches formerly used by the Armenians – and some of these have some serious security precautions like the synagogues. There are of course no historical plaques or anything put up by the city or the state talking about the Armenian Genocide (though we did see a plaque talking about it at an Armenian church in Jaffa), but if you know even the tiniest bit about it, you can imagine, fill in the gaps. My girlfriend also told me about certain events, massacres, in certain neighborhoods in the 1890s, as we walked through those neighborhoods. I don’t know anything about the current contemporary situation in terms of attitudes towards Armenians, or how well they get by in society, but, it’s definitely a history that’s hidden, yet very much present, if you have it in mind.

Some lovely fresh produce for sale in Nevizade Sk.

For all it’s problems – and we all know the US and Japan have their problems too – Istanbul is a very modern, cosmopolitan, urban, in some ways very European city – really feels cosmopolitan, feels like a “world city” (like New York, London, or Tokyo) with just so much going on – but then of course it’s also non-Western in many ways, first and foremost I suppose because of its Muslim and not Catholic or Protestant religious character – to a certain extent, Istanbul was the very city (or, the Ottoman Empire the very country) against which “the West” or “Westernness” was constructed and defined, even going all the way back to the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, which were considered “byzantine” and “Oriental”, and were not considered part of the “true” or “main” or “catholic” Roman or Christian heritage.

The music was wonderful, and the food as well. I never understood my girlfriend’s obsession with borek until I came here. I could eat borek every day. And I so wish that we had this more regularly in the States.

In the food and music, as well as in the architecture and history, we see too the many cultural influences that come together in Istanbul. Turkish, Arab, Jewish, Balkan, Circassian (Black Sea/Russian) cultures… all these different cultures, different cultural influences, that for all our talk about “diversity,” we just don’t see/hear/learn that much about in the US.

Omg, borek. So yum. Above: Su böregi (water börek) with cheese and spinach. Below: Chopping up börek in a shop. (Photos from Instanbul Free Walking Tour.com and Panning the Globe blogs.)

All photos (except the börek) my own.

The main tower keep of Fukuyama castle.

Finally, we decided to say goodbye to Tomo, and so long as we were in the area, maybe try to visit the Hiroshima Prefecture History Museum, in Fukuyama City. Sadly, we didn’t get there before they closed for the day; another thing to add to my list to see next time. But, we did get to see Fukuyama Castle, which was quite special. Admittedly, not really all that different from other castles I’ve visited – in fact, the exhibits inside the main tower keep (tenshu) reminded me very much of my visit to Hiroshima castle some 14 years ago. If we were allowed to take photos, or if I had the time and energy to take notes, one could perhaps learn a lot about the Abe clan lords of Fukuyama. But, for me, the key thing about visiting the castle was just simply that it’s another Japanese castle I might never have thought I’d ever visit. I still have never been to Kumamoto, Himeiji, Matsumoto, or some of the other really famous castles, but I have been to castles in a number of major cities that I’ve visited: Edo castle (Tokyo), Nijô and Fushimi castles (Kyoto), Hiroshima, Kanazawa, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Odawara… To add Fukuyama is just really unexpected, and neat. Plus, they had a statue of Abe Masahiro, who I needed a picture of for the Samurai Archives Wiki.

Finally, on my final day in Hiroshima, we again remained in Kure City proper, and paid a visit to the City Central Library. I was surprised and disappointed to find there was no research section – no open stacks of books about Kure or the broader local region. Sure, they had books in the basement, which I could request, and actually the librarians were quite helpful, in bringing up large piles of books on closely related topics, that they hoped or supposed might be useful. But, still, it would have been nice to just have shelves I could browse. Granted, I suppose this is a city library and not a prefectural library, but, every prefectural library I’ve been to has had a more general public area, and then a researchers’ area, with browseable open stacks. In any case, I did manage to get scans of a few publications I might not have been able to find elsewhere – but nothing too special, actually. What would have been particularly nice would have been if I could have gotten access to modern-typeset transcriptions of the Mitarai monjo (“Documents of Mitarai [Port Town]”). But, since I didn’t have an appointment or anything, I guess I shouldn’t have expected too much. Well, maybe next time I head out to Hiroshima, I’ll make a better effort to contact people ahead of time, and make appointments to look at documents.

And… wow. Well, that’s about it. Thus, my Hiroshima adventures came to an end.

Mmm Okonomiyaki.

The famous iconic lighthouse of Tomo.

The next day, we made the two-hour or so drive to Tomonoura, another one of these Inland Sea port towns. Tomo is one of the more famous ones, around the country, whether simply as a tourist destination, or for its role as the inspiration for Ponyo Ponyo. Apparently, a number of live-action films have also been filmed there, including Logan and Gintama, using the town’s traditional architecture for backdrop.

Our first stop within Tomo was Komatsu-dera, a small Buddhist temple where a member of the 1790 Ryukyuan mission, Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, was buried.

Right: The stone marking the former gravesite of Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, at Komatsu-dera.

Traveling to Edo as a musician at the young age of 22, he fell ill aboard ship, and died on 1790/10/13. He was, sadly, one of a few tens of Ryukyuans to die over the course of the missions. Later missions made a point to visit the graves of such individuals, to pay their respects. The body has since been removed to Okinawa, but a stone marker still stands at the temple today marking the former site of his grave. Further, a wooden plaque still hangs inside the temple’s main hall, inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather. It was really something to see these things, these artifacts, which I had been reading about for so long.

Plaque (hengaku) inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather Fukuyama Chôki, reading 「容顔如見」 (roughly, “his face appears before me”), and still hanging inside the main hall at Komatsu-dera.

Sadly, the family who used to live on-site and manage the temple no longer do. Whether the temple has no caretakers at all, or what, I am not sure, but it seems a terrible shame. I imagine that a great many temples all across the country are sadly in similar circumstances. On the plus side, this meant we could let ourselves in, and take photos of the plaque, without anyone saying no (and without fear of anyone overhearing us being there, and watching, or coming out to tell us to leave or anything). But, I just fear for the continued wellbeing of places like these – the temple itself as a historical site, the wooden plaque as an artifact…

View out over the town and harbor, from the former site of Tomo castle. Now, the site of the Tomonoura History Museum.

Walking through the small streets of Tomo, many of them lined with traditional-style buildings, cute shops, and so forth, we trekked up a hill in the center of town to the former site of Tomo castle. Through the Edo period, this did not function as a true castle – there was no daimyo here – but it did house the residence and offices of the Tomo Magistrate (Tomo bugyô), an official appointed by the daimyo of Fukuyama to oversee the town, and especially matters of trade and travel, who was coming in and out of the port. Today, there is basically nothing at all left of the castle, but the local history museum stands on the site.

I was annoyed to once again find myself in a local museum that doesn’t allow you to take photos. And they don’t publish a catalog either of the permanent exhibits – so the only option is to painstakingly write down everything on the labels, and commit to memory the images of what the museum looks like, how it’s arranged, what the individual objects look like… I hate it. But, still, it was cool to get to visit, to learn something about the history of the town. My friend got into a really lengthy conversation with the curators, and was lucky to have them offer to give her a copy of one of their exhibit catalogs – an especially rare book that can’t be found in any used book stores, and which I’ve been sorely looking for myself. Oh well. Maybe next time, I’ll go by myself, and they’ll be impressed over again by how knowledgeable and interested this random foreigner is, and they’ll give me a copy of the book.

I feel like most of the documents they hold at the Tomo museum I have already seen in reproduction or transcription, so there’s not necessarily too much need to try to set up a real appointment to see the originals. But still it might have been nice. Maybe next time. I did get some good notes from the gallery labels – learned just a few more points to fill in a few more small holes in my work.

One of many beautiful traditional-style shopfronts in the streets of Tomo, with a sign reading “Homeishu.”

We then headed back down into town. Tomonoura, like Mitarai, has lots of quaint, small walkable streets of traditional machiya-style shopfronts, perhaps even moreso than Mitarai, and it’s just nice to walk around. We found one shop selling tai-miso – that is, miso paste made from sea bream (fish) instead of from soybeans or whatever. Weird. But a very traditional way of running the shop, with a sort of showroom in the main front space, and no shelves to just walk among. Customers walk in and sit on benches, while the staff person sits on a raised tatami-lined section of the floor. A very few samples are placed out on display, and in order to buy anything, you engage with the shopkeeper, who offers you tea and samples of the miso, and you really talk to her and try out the goods, before deciding what you want. Some of the equipment they were using – such as the rotary landline telephone – were also quite old, like stepping back into the Shôwa period, if not quite into the Edo. And, incredibly, she said she left her husband and children back in (I forget where, Tokyo? Osaka?) to come down here to Tomo to work. Presumably she visits every weekend, or something like that. What a job, what a career, to choose to focus on like that!

The interior of the above shop.

Tomo is also famous for its homeishu (lit. “protecting life wine”) – a liquor brewed with tons of spices, that’s supposedly supposed to be good for your health. Reminds me of how Coca-Cola and certain other soft drinks were marketed at first. Homeishu goes back hundreds of years, and the Dutch, Ryukyuans, Koreans, as well as various daimyo put in orders to be able to take bottles with them when they passed through Tomo. The Nakamura family, who used to be one of the most famous, most prominent purveyors of homeishu, are no longer in business. But I bought some homeishu from another shop – here’s hoping it’s “authentic”, whatever that means, with some real connection to historical recipes, and not just some tourist garbage.

Many of the key historical sites in Tomo are clustered around the harbor, where the land sort of comes to a point, or a spit, with an iconic, famous, large stone lantern at the end. It was really something to see this after reading about it, and seeing it in pictures, so many times. Mitarai and Kamagari have this too.

One of the main streets of Tomo, with the Ôta family house on the left, and Chôsôtei on the right.

My main number one destination in mind was the old Nakamura family house, now known as the Ôta family house. A nationally-designated Important Cultural Property, the house, along with the Chôsôtei building across the street, served as the honjin or chaya, one of the main elite lodgings for the port town, in the Edo period. I don’t know precisely what we would have seen had we gone inside, how revelatory it would have been – likely not all that much – but, this is where the Ryukyuans would have stayed when they stayed in Tomo. Depending on how it’s done up, how the displays are done, we might have gotten to see a real sense of what their accommodations looked like, and how they were arranged, which could be quite nice for my dissertation. Sadly, however, they’re closed on Tuesdays. (grrrr) We of course should have looked into that earlier, and prepared properly for it, but, still, I was *super* bummed. If not for the typhoon, our schedule might have played out differently, and we might have ended up in Tomo a different day. Of course, if it were a Monday, the Ôta house would have been open, and the history museum closed. And, apparently, for some reason, the Chôsôtei is never open to the public. So, whatever. I’ll just have to go back another time, and prepare more properly that time – scheduling out which days they’re open, and also emailing or calling ahead to see about the possibility of getting special access to the other building, or to documents, or something.

Incidentally, I’m not sure if it’s the exact same Ôta family house, but somewhere right in this area, is where seven Kyoto court nobles came and stayed for some time in Tomo, in 1863, after being expelled from Kyoto for plotting against the Shogunate (and the Court). Other buildings very nearby right around Tomo’s port area are associated with the ever-present Sakamoto Ryôma, who accidentally crashed his ship, the Iroha-maru, into a Kishû Tokugawa vessel, in the waters off Tomo in 1867, and who then stayed in Tomo for a time while negotiating for reparations. Or something. I have little patience for Ryôma – so over-lionized, so over-discussed, as if he’s some incredible legendary hero. He’s a historical figure like any other, who said and did and was involved in some really important or interesting things – but as an individual, as a figure, I just don’t subscribe to that form of history fandom.

The view out from the Taichôrô at Fukuzen-ji, a view that one Korean envoy called the most beautiful view in all of Japan.

Making our way around the harbor to another part of town, we visited the Buddhist temple Fukuzen-ji, famous for its Taichôrô (“Tower Facing the Tides”), a guestroom explicitly constructed as such, to welcome and host elite figures such as Korean envoys. Here, we saw a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, which one Korean envoy back in 1711 described as the most beautiful scenery in all of Japan. And we also got to see some displays about the Korean missions – mostly news clippings, photocopies from textbooks, print-outs of copies from museum catalogs, that sort of thing, along with some genuine artifacts from the temple. I suppose the Korean envoys were housed right in that room – I could see that being the case. Large tatami room, just throw down some futon, bring in some small lacquer tables or whatever… not sure what I’d expect an elite guestroom to look like, to be honest. But that was about it – I might have liked to see a bit more about exactly how they were housed, but, no such luck.

Still, it was some comfort, after not being able to get into the Ôta family house, to at least be able to see this space, and all the displays there.

Tomo was the last of the port towns we visited. I had considered trying to visit others to the west (e.g. Tsuwaji and Kaminoseki), or to the east (Onomichi, Murotsu, Kobe, Osaka), but it just didn’t happen this time. Still, the adventure wasn’t over quite yet. In my next post, the last in this series, I’ll talk a little about Fukuyama castle, and my last day in Hiroshima.

All photos my own.

The port of Mitarai, as seen in a c. 1904 photograph, on display at the Wakaebisu-ya in Mitarai.

After a bit of a drive from Shimo-Kamagari, past sea shores and mountains of lemon & mikan, we arrived in the old port town of Mitarai. Even more so than Kamagari, Mitarai is fitted out as a tourist town – with a welcome center, tourist walking maps posted here and there, traditional-style inns, and so forth.

Walking through narrow streets of traditional homes, we made our way to the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji. Surrounded by high stone walls, it seems like a fairly major site, but once you get inside, there’s actually not much there. Looks abandoned, even. But, hanging over one small secondary worship hall we found what we were looking for – a wooden plaque, reading simply the name of the temple, Manshû-ji, but written in the handwriting of a Ryukyuan ambassador, Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi, from 1806. The Japanese poet Kurita Chodô, who arranged for the plaque to be made, is buried at Manshûji, but we weren’t able to go looking for his grave – the graveyard areas of the temple were blocked off-limits, and very little was well-maintained at all (high grasses, no path).

A wooden plaque hanging at the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji, copying the calligraphy of Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrat Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi.

The small hall at Manshû-ji over which the plaque hangs. I thought it kind of incredible that the plaque is still kept there, in this place of honor, rather than having made its way to some storehouse or museum. While I worry about the conservation issues, it’s also wonderful to see it in context, in its “correct” historical place.

We then took a set of steps down back into town, into what I suppose is the main touristy/historical stretch. A renovated 100-year-old building converted into a hip youth hostel, a former inn for Ryukyuans and others associated with the Shimazu now operating as an art gallery, and so forth. The Shiomachi (“Waiting for Tides”) Visitors’ Center doubles as a café, specializing in shave ice, and similarly has this sort of young, youth hip travelers’ sort of vibe.

One of the old buildings in the area, the Waka-ebisu-ya, was once an Edo period brothel. Many of these ports presumably had their share of “courtesans,” or “women of pleasure,” to cater to the various elites + merchants who came through, but we saw no mention or evidence of this in the other towns. By contrast, Mitarai is somewhat famous for having that history, and indeed Amy Stanley devotes a chapter to Mitarai in her excellent book on Edo period prostitution, Selling Women. I find it a little hard to believe, but according to some things I read, it seems like as much as 1/5 of the town’s population at times were courtesans. The building is maintained today seemingly as just an open space, presumably used by the community for various community events and activities – I noticed several mikoshi (portable shrines, for use in local festivals) and other such things stored atop a small stage, or in the backstage area. The space is otherwise just open and bare, albeit with a number of photographs and framed copies of documents or the like hung on the walls, explaining the history of the brothel and of the town.

I’m glad Prof. Stanley suggested taking only one day to visit Mitarai – there’s not that much to see. But it’s definitely a cute, fun town. A nice place for a day trip, just to walk along the streets sided with traditional architecture…

The Shiomachi-kan Visitors’ Center / Shave Ice Cafe.

That night, we went into Hiroshima City proper, for the Lantern Floating Ceremony, the last of the major memorial events of the day. I’m not even sure what to say about this. It was quite a change of mood, and mode, to go from thinking about early modern port towns, and inns and merchants and traditional architecture, to this site of modern, international, war remembrance. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of people were gathered in the Hiroshima Peace Park that night. We waited on a line that snaked around and around and around, far longer than we’d imagined possible, to wait for our turn to lay our paper lanterns in the river, sending messages of peace and of memory, to speak to the spirits of the dead.

A small group of Okinawan high school students were there, interviewing people – Japanese and foreigners alike – as to their thoughts and feelings about “peace,” and teaching them about the Battle of Okinawa. This was my second time in Hiroshima – my second time being there on Aug 6 – and my first time experiencing or taking part in any of the memorial events. I am glad, as a Japan specialist, and as an American, and just as a human being, to take part, to witness it, and to be able to say that I’ve done so.

A 1/10th size scale model of the battleship Yamato, at the Yamato Museum in Kure.

The next day, a typhoon hit (though it was actually not nearly as bad as expected), and so we stayed close to “home,” and spent the day in Kure City proper. In the Edo period, Kure was just a grouping of small villages – obviously, every place has its history, I won’t say those villages have no history, but, insofar as looking around for any notable historical sites or anything, as far as that sort of thing goes, Kure’s history begins, basically, in the Meiji period, the late 19th century, when it became a major center for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

We visited the Yamato Museuma museum dedicated to the naval history of Kure, and especially to the story of the Battleship Yamato, one of the heaviest battleships ever built, which was built here, in Kure. The berths where it was built are visible just outside the museum.

I’ve never been that much of a military buff, and I don’t know quite that much about military history… the museum was an interesting combination of military buff sort of history, and a sad story about the lives lost when the Yamato was sunk – and the impacts upon families, and the city, back home. I didn’t read things closely enough to be able to really comment on precisely how the museum addresses the issues of militarism and imperialism; there’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had about how we memorialize those killed in battle – who did die, and who did have families, and who were the core of the community of this city – who deserve, arguably, to be remembered sympathetically, but then again, who died in service to imperialism and ultra-nationalism and so forth. I’m not expert at such things, but a friend who is, says this is one of the best museums in that respect – sometime I’ll have to maybe ask him for more detail on what he means there.

A sailor’s notes, recording his thoughts regarding the Yamato’s Okinawa mission.

What I thought most interesting in the museum was a section discussing the Yamato’s dispatch out to its final mission. As Allied troops began to shell the island of Okinawa, and to make landings, the Yamato was sent to contribute to fending the Allies off – and the plan was going to involve an extensive use of kamikaze tactics, both in planes and in “human torpedoes.” The Yamato, ultimately, was sunk on its way to Okinawa, never arriving and never taking part in that battle. But what would be really interesting would be to read through the letters and diaries of people aboard the Yamato, talking about their thoughts as they head to Okinawa. How do they talk about going there to “defend Okinawa” or “defend the Okinawan people”? It would certainly be interesting as texture for the broader narrative within Okinawan history that the Japanese government and Imperial Japanese military “sacrificed” Okinawa to protect the mainland, and didn’t actually care about protecting the Okinawan people – trying to convince them to sacrifice themselves nobly and gloriously in the name of the Emperor, rather than making proper efforts to save anyone’s lives…

The Naval Shipyards at Kure. I believe that much of what we’re seeing here is civilian/commercial use today, but the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces uses a considerable portion of land and harbor just to the right of that.

After the Yamato Museum, we went up to a hill overlooking the harbor, and could see all the naval construction & repair facilities, and a bit of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces base… A lot of the prewar brick architecture – warehouses, and the main command headquarters – still survive today. Definitely lends to the flavor of the city, given that in so many Japanese cities the prewar buildings generally don’t survive.

I’m definitely glad for the opportunity to visit Kure, a city I can’t imagine I would ever have visited otherwise, and to see this other corner of Japanese history. A city so centered around the navy, and with so many prewar red brick buildings surviving, reflecting the feel and atmosphere of that particular period…

Red brick warehouses in Kure.

All photos my own.

The view from the Kanchôrô (“Tide Viewing Tower”) in Kamagari.

After much delay, I finally in my second-to-last week in Japan took a bus down to Hiroshima and visited some of the small Inland Sea port towns that envoys from the Ryukyu Kingdom passed through on their way to and from Edo (the seat of the Tokugawa shogun).

This was my second time in Hiroshima, having visited very briefly once way back in 2003. At that time, I spent just one day seeing all the most major sights – the Peace Park, the Peace Memorial Museum, the castle – and another day on Miyajima. This time, I would skip Hiroshima City almost entirely, and spend several days in Kure City, and in some small island port towns today administered as part of Kure and Fukuyama cities.

It was really something to get out and visit these towns after reading about them, and thinking about visiting, for so long. It was really something just to get out of Tokyo – I hadn’t realized it, but actually the entire year, while I did get around Okinawa a fair bit, actually I hadn’t gone anywhere at all the entire year outside of Okinawa and Tokyo (and just a very little bit of Yokohama and Chiba, which don’t really count). This whole notion of having “a whole year” and that I might visit Kyoto and Osaka, and Kagoshima and Fukuoka, and Sendai, and Toyohashi, none of that came to pass. But I did at least make it out to Hiroshima.

When embassies from the Korean court arrived at Kamagari, they were received quite warmly, with red carpets laid down along the harbor’s main walking paths, allowing the Koreans to travel all the way to their lodgings without setting foot on the dirt roads. Model on display at the Gochisô Ichibankan museum.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), diplomatic missions from the Ryukyu Kingdom, passing through the Inland Sea on their way to Edo, stopped at Inland Sea port towns such as Tsuwaji, Kamagari, Mitarai, Tomonoura, and Onomochi, as did missions from Korea and the Dutch East India Company, and other traveling elites – such as Imperial envoys and provincial lords (daimyo). These towns are super small and provincial today, subsisting as far as I can imagine on just tourism, fishing, and I guess some very small-scale workshop/factory sort of operations. Back in the Edo period, too, these weren’t very large towns. But they were significant, notable, and in a number of these towns, historic buildings or entire historic sections, have been maintained or restored.

It’s always wonderful to get out and see another part of Japan. I really wish I had done more of this. See a different side of things. Driving around Hiroshima prefecture, we saw roadside highway rest stops – something you don’t see if you’re always just flying or taking the train – and what sort of local goods and products they have. Hiroshima Carp (baseball) merchandise. Setouchi lemon flavored everything. Andersen – a Danish-themed, Hiroshima-based, bakery chain. Not to mention the souvenirs (omiyage). Momiji manju (little red bean cakes in the shape of maple leaves) are a major Hiroshima thing, apparently.

The gangi stone steps at Kamagari.

But, returning to the port towns. I arrived on August 6, the second time I’ve gone to Hiroshima and it accidentally turned out to be the anniversary of the bombing. We had planned to spend the day in Hiroshima City, therefore, and see some of the memorial/anniversary events. But, as there was a typhoon expected the following day, we instead headed out straight-ahead, to Shimo-Kamagari.

Strangely, Kamagari didn’t come up as much in my reading as much as some of the other towns – in fact, it wasn’t on my radar at all. But I am so glad we went. At what I suppose we could call the center of town, a set of stone steps (gangi 雁木) extend up out of the water – this, in place of wooden docks. And immediately across the street, the former honjin (special inn for visiting elites), today operating as a small art museum. A man was standing in the parking lot, working on a brightly-colored traditional-looking wooden rowboat, and when we asked him about the boat, it turned out he’s a volunteer tour guide in the town, and he kindly took of his time to really show us around. As he explained, the town would prepare for welcoming Korean missions by erecting temporary wooden piers extending out over the water, and red carpets would be laid down all along the main walking paths, so that when the Koreans came, they could walk on these red carpets – never touching the dirt – all the way from the boats to the lodgings. The gentleman, whose name was Funada-san, then took us down a short walking path running past the honjin, and then a left and a right, and up a short set of stairs, to where the ue-no-chaya, or “upper teahouse,” used to stand. Along with the honjin and the “lower teahouse”, this was one of the chief lodgings for Korean, Ryukyuan, and other visiting elites. Today, a stone marker stands on the spot, saying simply “former site of the lodgings for the Korean missions,” as if Ryukyuans and others never stayed there? He then also showed us a nearby Buddhist temple, and Shinto shrine.

I could have read this in a book – that the Koreans were welcomed in such a fashion. And maybe the book might have even had maps or diagrams. But actually seeing it in person, and being shown around, was really another level. This was the only time during the week that we really got such a tour, but still it was really great to have my friend there to initiate conversation with people, ask things, and get such a response – I wonder whether I would have asked, or not, and what sort of response I might have gotten; whether he would have given me a tour had I been alone.

One of the main museum buildings at the Shôtôen, which used to serve as lodgings for foreign embassies.

The two of us then made our way to the Shôtôen and Gochisô Ichibankan (Shôtô Gardens and Reception Number One Hall), another set of reception halls, located just a short ways down the shore, which are today maintained as museums. Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t get to see the whole thing, but we saw the most important part: the museum of the Korean embassies. The rest of the buildings were mostly pottery displays and so forth. One whole building of lanterns, supposedly, though I didn’t get to see that. But, on the second floor, which we did get to see, the Kanchôrô, or “Tide-Watching Tower,” a small space for just sitting and enjoying the view – a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, as the tides flow in and out, and of one of the other islands just across the way.

The Korean embassies museum was small, but pretty good. They spend a disproportionate amount of space and attention on the food served to the embassies, and nearly no time on the aspects of “reception” I’d be more interested in: banners, curtains, processions, further details about these red carpets and so forth; not to mention the comparative information on how the Ryukyuan missions were received by contrast. But, so it goes. Sadly, they didn’t allow photos inside the museum, so I could only do what little I could do to read some of the labels and jot down some notes. But, it’s a nice museum. A few procession scrolls on display, including one really interesting one of Korean boats passing through the Inland Sea – an interesting slightly sketchy sort of painting style, perhaps a local or amateur painter, quite skilled but not professional, sketching rather than truly fully illustrating out the procession in a finished-looking way. And there was a model of the reception, with the honjin and the red carpets and little dolls of the Korean envoys marching into the town, as well as a larger model of their ship.

Opening section of a 1748 handscroll painting depicting the Korean missions as they sailed through the Inland Sea. Collection of the Gochisô Ichibankan, in Kamagari.

It was starting to rain, and it was already getting a little late in the day, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Mitarai, another notable port town two or three islands over. More on that in the next blog post.

All photos my own.

I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”