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A view of Sensuijima, Bentenjima, and the Inland Sea, from the Taichôrô in Tomonoura, Hiroshima pref. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

This week, amidst worldwide protests and peace marches in support of “Black Lives Matter” and against police brutality, the conversation about statues – esp. Confederate monuments, Columbus, and slavetraders – has come to the fore yet again. The US Marines and Navy are now moving to ban displays of the Confederate flag from public spaces and workplaces; a number of statues of Columbus have been toppled or beheaded across the US, while people call for others to be removed; BLM protestors tossed a statue of a slave trader in the British city of Bristol into the harbor; and there have been calls to take down statues of Captain Cook both in the UK and Australia. A statue of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo in an almost unspeakably brutal and exploitative fashion, was taken down in Antwerp. And that’s only the beginning; I expect we’ll see a lot more before this is over.

What I happened to come across today in my own fiddling around with photos from a few years ago isn’t nearly on that level. But it does pertain to how we think about monuments and historical landmarks, and the oft-overlooked questions of when, why, and by whom was a monument first erected, or a historical site formally designated.

The head of the 1711 Korean embassy to Edo, as seen in one section of a replica on display at the Taichôrô of a 1711 handscroll painting depicting the embassy parading through the streets of Edo in that year. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

The Taichôrô 対潮楼 is a guesthouse at the Buddhist temple Fukuzen-ji in Tomonoura, a small port-town in the Seto Inland Sea in what is today Fukuyama City, Hiroshima prefecture. On numerous occasions in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Taichôrô served as lodgings for the heads of Korean embassies making their way to Edo (Tokyo) for formal meetings with the Shogun, as well as on the embassies’ journeys back home to Korea. Several members of such embassies wrote that the view of the Inland Sea from the Taichôrô was the greatest, or most beautiful, scenic view in all of the East 「日東第一形勝」 (i.e. in Japan, being east of Korea).

The Japanese national government designated the temple and the Taichôrô a “historical landmark” (史跡, ”shiseki”) in 1994. And in 2017, UNESCO inscribed the peaceful diplomatic relations and lively cultural exchange represented by the Korean embassies to Edo into the “UNESCO Memory of the World Register.”

But here’s what struck me as interesting: the Hiroshima prefectural government designated the site a “historical landmark of the Korean embassies” (Chôsen tsûshinshi no shiseki) in 1940, at a time when Korea was fully incorporated into the Japanese Empire. A gallery label on display at the Taichôrô (which I visited in 2017), which I suspect is clipped out of a high school history textbook or perhaps a museum catalog or the like, says flat-out that Korea was “colonized” by Japan at that time, and that it was “a miserable time of ethnic discrimination” (当時の朝鮮半島は日本の植民地にあって、民族差別のあった不幸な時代です。), but goes on to say that even amidst this, scholars with heart suggested it be designated, and brought the hidden history of the Korean embassies to light (こうした中でも心ある学者たちが推薦して、県の史跡となり、かくされた朝鮮通信使の歴史を明かす出発になりました).

The Korean embassies to Edo are today celebrated as a symbol of peaceful relations and lively cultural exchange, and the Fukuzen-ji temple, local Tomonoura government, etc. play an active role today in coordinating reenactment events, Korea-Japanese friendship meetings, and so forth, using the 17th-18th century events as a tool for trying to repair, or improve, Korean-Japanese relations today. So, between this and just the more general absence of discourse within Japan of more fully, more thoroughly, coming to terms with that entire period of Empire and militarism and so forth, it’s unsurprising to me that they would represent it in this way: despite the dark times, scholars with heart recommended this – as if those scholars in 1940 had the same ideas about the Korean embassies that people are promoting today. It’s most certainly possible – we have to remember that in almost any time and place in history, there were people who resisted, who thought otherwise.

But what if that wasn’t the case? What if the scholars who recommended the establishment of “historical landmarks of the Korean embassies” were promoting a narrative about how Korea had sent embassies for centuries to pay respects and pay tribute to the greatness of the Tokugawa shoguns (that’s certainly how the shogunate represented it at the time)? That is, within a narrative justifying Japanese superiority and Korean deference to Japan, and justifying Japanese colonization and control of Korea now, in 1940?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that both a middle school or high-school textbook, and a tourist site, would seek to shove this under the rug, to hide it, and to try to play up a more positive version of the history. But as someone who’s been trained in postcolonial theory, and in Japanese modern history… look, I don’t know anything about the history of this – I don’t know who exactly these scholars were; I haven’t read their recommendations, or the language of the declaration of the designation at that time; all I’m going off of is this one text displayed at the Taichôrô when I visited in 2017. And I admit I’m an outsider; there’s a hell of a lot I don’t know. But from what little I do know of Japanese Empire, they used just about any historical straw they could grasp at as justification for Korea, Ryukyu, and other areas being historically subordinate to, or in some sense justifiably “belonging to” Japan. So I really wouldn’t be surprised if the language at the time, in 1940, was much more about the Korean embassies as supplicatory embassies, paying tribute in recognition of the superiority and centrality of Japanese greatness and authority, than it was anything that might align with the peaceful, diplomatic, reconciliation sort of view being promoted today.

So, while I recognize and admit the awkwardness of posting this right now – it may be a bit far off from the most prominent issues of the day, namely concerning Columbus, King Leopold, slave traders, Confederate generals, not to mention the ongoing protests against police brutality all across the country and around the world – it is something I happened to come across today, and I think there’s at least some tiny nugget of connection, of relevance. Whenever we see any historical landmark designation, statue, or monument, we must think about who erected it, when, and why. What is the message directly attached to the monument trying to promote, and what is it hiding? What history is not being told?

Fukuzen-ji temple, within which the Taichôrô is housed. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

Walking around Tokyo

I’ve actually grown quite used to this staying-at-home life these past, well, let’s call it two months. I don’t know what it is exactly about this apartment, but I feel I’ve sort of lucked out, somehow it’s been a very comfortable place to be spending so much time in these last X weeks. Not too small or too dark or too anything… and not too far from the supermarket, convenience store, etc. either. I’m glad I didn’t have to do stay-at-home in my previous apartment (dorm room). It would have been fine, no doubt. Of course. But somehow I do think I’ve been much happier here.

And I’m of course not the only one.

I do feel weird saying so, of course, since it was just today that the New York Times published a list of one thousand names of those killed in the US by the coronavirus – it fills the entire front page of the newspaper, and it’s still only 1% of the dead. Looking through visualizations of it, one name at a time, each with a short one-sentence obituary, is numbing. Among 100,000 people you’ll find those of every age, every race and ethnicity, every walk of life. People who made great discoveries and accomplishments, people who did incredible things for their friends and family. People who relished in their hobbies and interests. People who were taken from us far far too soon, and people who might have had a good few more years if not for this. And so many of them, of course, forced to suffer their last X days or weeks without direct contact with their loved ones. … The crisis in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is far from over. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. For now. For now, thus far, thankfully, I have not fallen ill and neither have any of my family members, nor, incredibly, have I lost any friends. Astonishingly lucky, if “luck” is even the right word.

So, what can I say? It’s a weird place to be in, and I don’t mean to sound too privileged or out of touch… I’m just being honest about my situation. Thankfully, I’m far from the only one who has survived through this whole crisis unscathed (thus far), and whose experience (thus far) has been simply one of adjusting to a new normal, working from home rather than going to the office, and so forth. I’ve been cooking real meals a lot more; nothing too fancy, but even so, a little bit, here and there. Made some pasta sauce from scratch; I think it was too much bother, actually, in the end.

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

And now, Japan has just lifted the State of Emergency. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but as of right now at least I haven’t heard anything at all about any museums, libraries, archives, or campuses reopening. To be honest, as much as I have been looking forward to visiting museums, archives, and libraries again, and to doing some traveling, I am not really looking forward to having to start commuting again, 9-to-5, to the office. In a sense, I feel like I’m only just now really starting to hit my stride – or, let’s call it a second wind, or third – in terms of getting used to the routine of being home. I wonder how long I’ve got before the office opens up again. I guess we’ll find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been avoiding public transportation entirely for I don’t know how long; at least six weeks or so, maybe closer to eight. And I’ve been walking places. Thought about getting a bicycle; this would have been the time for it, while there are fewer people on the road, but there’s nowhere at my apartment building to park a bike. So, anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

Tokyo is, certainly, a city full of exciting things to see and do and experience, when they’re open. Hop on the subway and venture out to museums, bars, art galleries, theater, all sorts of different sites and institutions. But walking, Tokyo is nothing like, for example, Kyoto. Kyoto you can walk around and just enjoy the experience of the architectural environment of Kyoto. The architecture, the machinami as they say in Japanese – I wish we had a good word for it in English, but it means something like the “street scene.” Like a skyline, but from down on the ground – the visual experience of the street as a whole, from one block to the next or across whatever distance, longer or shorter. Here in Shinjuku/Bunkyo/Chiyoda-ku, the machinami is very much the same as you walk. Sure, it depends on what neighborhoods you’re in exactly, but for the most part, branching out from where I am living now, I found just more and more of the same busy main streets, and quiet but architecturally disunited, aesthetically chaotic, residential neighborhoods, all of it very modern, with bits of more traditional architecture here and there… Chaotic and all mixed up, but largely a mix of the same things, or mixed up in the same way. Lots and lots of grey concrete. And where there is a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, it’s usually set back a ways from the road, so it doesn’t really enter much into the feel of the neighborhood – doesn’t break up the endless rows of concrete & glass storefronts.

Back in the pre-corona days, there were a number of times when I walked from Omotesando or Harajuku through whatever in-between neighborhoods, to Shibuya, and from Shibuya through Shinsen to Komaba, and then maybe even on past there to Shimo-Kita, and it was interesting and kind of fun to see how the neighborhoods changed as you walked, from some of the busiest areas in the city to quiet residential neighborhoods, from the quirky youth energy of Harajuku to the upscale vibe of Omotesando, but I haven’t found that sort of experience walking around these neighborhoods…

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

Another thing I noticed initially on these walks is that with my mask on I couldn’t smell the incidental smells so easily, or at all. One of the pleasant parts of going for a walk, one of the things that made me want to, is just all the incidental springtime smells you smell – flowers, food, incense. So, that felt like a terrible loss – missing out on the entire Spring, even more so than we already are. Fortunately, now that I’ve been wearing a different mask, I can smell it better.

You can capture sights and sounds to a certain extent on photo and video, but smells are one of those things you absolutely can’t. And there are so many smells here in Japan that I can’t even identify, can’t even necessarily say I miss when I’m back in the States, but when I’m here and I smell them, all sorts of memories come flooding back of previous times spent in Japan. The faintest of scents carried on the breeze alongside the warmth of the spring sun. That steamy smell in the air as you walk past a ramen place. Food smells, of course. But also, and I feel weird to say it, but clean smells, too; not that I’m yearning for the smell of industrial chemicals, but rather that whatever they use to clean places here makes me think of shops and restaurants and campus buildings over the course of my many trips in Japan. Temple incense, of course. But also countless smells I couldn’t name at all, but just which remind me of spring, and of fun and enjoyment and adventure of past times.

At Iidabashi Station. Feels weird watching trains go by. I haven’t ridden a train in weeks.

This is my fourth time living in Japan for any serious length of time. It’s interesting, and weird, and kind of disappointing, to realize how ordinary it feels in a certain sense. My first trip to Japan, I lived here in Tokyo for four months as a study abroad student. As I’ve probably talked about too many times before on this blog, it was my first time overseas on my own, my first time living anywhere on my own that was more than 4 hours drive from home (let alone overseas); it was a brand new city, a brand new country, and I was young and just so excited by everything. And, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t think I would necessarily ever come back. I thought this was like my one big adventure, and that after that I would just go back home to New York and be a New Yorker the rest of my life (something which a part of me is still very attached to, but that’s a matter for a whole other post).

The second time, it was a whole five years later; after five long years of thinking I might never go back to Japan again, boom, I was living the dream, living in Yokohama for nearly a full year. Again, definitely felt like an adventure. While I was spending the vast majority of my time in class or at home doing homework (or I suppose in various cafes? I don’t really recall), and even when I wasn’t, I was largely in Yokohama and not right in the heart of things in Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka or Naha), even so, I learned and gained so much during that year and had an incredible good time. It was my first time living in Japan for more than just four months, my first time on my own as a college graduate, as someone a bit more mature and independent, as someone with far better Japanese language ability than when I was in college. I was *living* in Japan, not just having some crazy study abroad adventure. … And then, I came back for three or four or six weeks at a time for quite a few summers. Six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (I can’t believe it was so long ago!) definitely gave me a feel for the city, felt like I was “living” there and not just visiting. I feel like I know that city better than most I’ve visited for less time (makes sense). I would *love* to live there again. But I’m not quite counting it.

Third time, was in 2016-2017 (I want to say “recently” but I guess it’s not quite that recent anymore…), when I was here on fellowship for dissertation research. Spent six months in Okinawa and five in Tokyo, blogged about it a lot. In part because Okinawa was so new – my first time spending more than a week there, my first time getting to really live there and experience it more deeply/broadly – this third time, too, was quite the adventure. In all of these trips, I felt like I was gradually becoming more and more a Japan Scholar, or Japan Hand, or Okinawa hand, or whatever the hell term you want to use. I’m not actually a big fan of the “China hand” “Japan hand” term, but in any case, it’s direct experience of having lived here, and traveled around Japan, experience of meeting people and making connections and experiencing all different sides of life here, that is so crucial to being … well, I hesitate to use the word “expert,” but, it’s crucial to feeling valid and justified in saying you’ve had those experiences. You know your way around.

This fourth time, I was excited to open a new chapter, to live and *work* in Japan for the first time. To be here on something other than a student or cultural activities or tourist visa; to actually live and work here. I’m not sure that I have any intentions of staying for the truly long-term, but at least it doesn’t feel temporary the way a 10- or 11-month program does. I don’t have any institution to go back to in the States right now. I’m for the first time in years and years not currently affiliated with or enrolled in any school in the US. I am University of Tokyo staff. A weird thing to consider. For the first week or so of this stay, it was really exciting. Look at me, I’m University of Tokyo staff. I’m one of those people now, who lives and works in Japan. Look at me, I’m going to go to conferences and it’s going to say University of Tokyo on my name badge and on my business cards.

Some beautiful but small and so far as I know historically non-significant random temple somewhere in the area.

But, being here, I really don’t feel like I’ve necessarily become all that much more … what’s the word? Local knowledge? Cultural capital? I don’t feel like I necessarily know Tokyo any better than I did before, like I’m becoming more expert. Maybe it’s still too early to say. I think the work environment has a lot to do with it – I spend far far far more time just going to the office and going home and going back to the office than I do networking; I haven’t gone to all that many conferences or lectures or workshops or anything, nor have I gone to very many meet-ups, stand-up comedy nights, or anything like that where I might meet people and get to know a scene outside of academia. I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself still very attached to the expat community; and I actually really like it that way. I love meeting other visiting scholars, expats, whatever word you want to use. And while I absolutely don’t want to live in some segregated expat bubble – I’m certainly not going to only English-speaking restaurants or Western-style cuisine places or something like that; I’m not trying to live an American or European life in Tokyo – I’m trying to live a Tokyo life and to enjoy and appreciate Tokyo alongside other people who appreciate it similarly to how I do, and with whom I can speak comfortably and stress-free in English. It’d be nice to have Japanese friends. It’d be wonderful. Especially if they might be true friends, to really meet up with and hang out with, and not have that awkwardness of being professional colleagues/coworkers rather than friends; it would certainly do wonders for my conversational Japanese. I feel like in Okinawa it’d be a lot easier. In part because there are fewer expats around, haha. But, when I was at Ryûdai, there was a small close community of ten or so Okinawan History grad students, and I sat in on their seminars and so forth, and every now and then they invited me along to welcome parties and going away parties, to end of year parties and karaoke nights and so forth. I wasn’t fully, truly, a member of their grad student cohort – I was only a visitor – but even so, living on a campus in a small town, if and when people are going to go out, well, they certainly didn’t have to invite me along but it was very kind of them to include me in the party as it were. And I think if I were to live there longer, one way or another, on campus or off, I would get to know people. Naha is just that small of a city, and that friendly and open of a place, I think; I mean, it’s complicated, because on the one hand, maybe as a tourist they’re just being friendly because they’re friendly to all tourists, but then again on the other hand maybe because there are so many tourists some people might appreciate me a bit more because I’m more serious, not in Okinawa for just a fleeting funtimes vacation. … Anyway, once this whole coronavirus thing is over with, maybe hopefully I can find a sanshin teacher here in Tokyo, and then maybe (fingers crossed) I might be able to actually make friends with people through that. I think having something in common, having a cultural group through which you meet people, is probably a good way to do it.

Meanwhile, I’m also not sure my conversational Japanese is getting any better. At all. … I didn’t mean for this post to be one about complaining, or being down on myself. Rather, I was thinking more along the lines of just isn’t it interesting how ordinary my life in Tokyo feels right now, rather than it being the kind of adventure that my previous times were. Isn’t it interesting how it feels so ordinary compared to what my excitement was in the first week or two. I think that not really being all that integrated into any kind of life on campus, but just keeping my head down and doing my work has contributed to this a lot. I also think that once things open back up again, and we’re able to travel again, and to have workshops and conferences and all the rest, that will help a lot. Being able to use this time while I’m here to meet people, to make connections and become situated as a member of a local network, and also being able to use this time to travel and get to see more of Japan, will help a lot. I think. We’ll see. We’ll get there.

May 1, 1945

Seventy-five years ago today, on May 1, 1945, Jewish prisoners being marched through the snow by Nazi soldiers, out of the Dachau concentration camp and to their deaths, encountered members of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the famous all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were liberated by them.

Photo of liberated concentration camp prisoners by Sus Ito, a member of the 522nd. (Sus Ito Collection, Japanese American National Museum)

I cannot be 100% sure – after all, there were so many sub-camps, and different US military groups liberating different areas at the same time – but I believe my grandfather may have been among those liberated at that time by these Japanese-American (Nisei) heroes.

A record, I presume from some branch of the US military, indicating that my grandfather, Abraham Seifman, was “liberated during the march of death 1.5.1945.”

Lisa K. Menton, a scholar with the Hawaii Holocaust Project, an oral history archive of interviews with some of these Nisei soldiers, writes that “Understandably, the men cannot remember the exact place or date when some of them first began to see people, wearing what many of them describe as blue-and-white pajamas, straggling along the wooded roads of southern Germany. Most of them distinctly remember, however, that there was snow on the ground, even though it was late spring, and they indelibly remember the dead and the dying.”1

She quotes Barton Nagata, a radio operator for the unit’s commanding officer, as recalling:

I think it was around Schaftlach, in southern Germany below Munich when I became aware of these people in this little village wearing this striped uniform. Well, looks like pajamas to me. I kept wondering, “Who are these people?” Then I found out these were concentration camp inmates. So, well, at that time, you know, it just didn’t strike us how much these people had suffered. But as I saw more of them the next day along the road, I see them dead or dying, I began to realize how much these people had suffered.1

My thanks to Joey Kamiya for posting the following video on YouTube, featuring interviews with some of the soldiers and survivors:

Shortly after receiving these documents and realizing – because of the date – the possible connections with the 442nd/522nd, I happened to mention my “discovery” to an Okinawan-American fellow from Hawaiʻi who I met one night at the Okinawa America Association in Los Angeles, who told me that his uncle was in the 522nd and was there, or somewhere in that area, somewhere in that same snowstorm, that same liberation effort, that day. I don’t know that I would have ever expected to find such close connections between this community and my own family history. I don’t think my grandparents could have ever imagined that their grandson would someday visit Japan, Okinawa, and Hawaiʻi, would end up becoming a scholar of Japanese and Okinawan history and culture of all things, would end up meeting the relatives of some of those involved in the liberation in this way.

I am so grateful to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum & the International Tracing Service for providing me with this and many other documents pertaining to my family. For years and years I had no idea about this service, and neither my father nor anyone else in the family, so far as I knew, suspected that we would ever find any records at all about our family from that time. But then, in the process of repairs and recovery after Hurricane Sandy (which struck NY in 2012), we found a shoebox, which I guess had been way in the back of a closet or basement somewhere, full of old family photos. This spurred me to start investigating. And so I found the International Tracing Service, an incredible resource. You simply enter as much information as you can about the person you’re looking for – name, birthdate, locations if known before, during, and after the Holocaust – and “museum staff will search the records of the ITS Digital Archive free of charge for survivors, their families, and families of victims.” Then they send you digital files; far more than I’d expected could be found so easily. “The Museum honors as Survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945.”

I’m still in only very early stages of investigating all of this further; I’ve only made a few tentative efforts to find any further materials, and haven’t gotten around yet to asking anyone for translations either. I know I certainly have a lot of reading to do – World War II, the Holocaust, and Japanese-American history are not among my professional specialties, and there are dozens upon dozens, probably hundreds and hundreds, of books out there where I could learn further context for the places and moments my grandparents experienced. I hope someday to take the time to look into all of this more deeply, hopefully if I’m lucky to find a lot more, and to pull it all together more. But, on this initial step, my deep gratitude to Lily Anne Welty Tamai who generously shared from her research and expertise on photographer Sus Ito and the 522nd, and to Anne Yonemura and others who shared from their family stories and pointed out further books, articles, and archives to consult, when I initially posted the above document on Facebook last year.

The 442nd / 522nd were incredible people. So much has been said about this group, the most decorated unit in US military history – the group with the motto “Go For Broke,” who in October 1944 rescued the “Lost Battalion” surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains in France – that I am not sure what to add.

You can read more about Sus Ito on the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) website. A member of the 522nd, he was (fortunately for us, for history and posterity) permitted to skirt the rules against carrying a camera, and brought home numerous photos of what he saw and did during the war. I wish I had gone to see this exhibit myself in 2015 when it was up at JANM. I was living in California at the time; I certainly could have gone. A terrible missed opportunity. Here is a video associated with the exhibit (for which, again, I expect we have Dr. Tamai to credit and thank):

Watching this video and seeing this one photo of Ito’s mother and sister in the Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas, I could not help but think of my grandparents, and two of their sons, my uncles, just babies at that time, who only a few years later were in Displaced Persons (DP) camps halfway around the world in Germany – camps which were, to some extent at least, run by the very same US government, the very same US military.

Photo by Susumu Ito of his mother and sister in the Rohwer internment camp, Arkansas. Early 1940s, presumably. Japanese American National Museum, 94.306.

My grandparents, Abraham and Zisel (Sophie) Seifman, and their eldest son, my uncle Chaim (David), in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, late 1940s.

The brave young men of the 442nd/522nd, even as their own families were being held in camps, treated as enemy aliens by their own government, went and fought for that government, for that country, putting their lives on the line, and in the process helped to liberate a continent, and to rescue countless lives. My grandparents met, married, and had two children in the DP camps after the war; camps built on former German airfields by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). They spent roughly six years in those camps, before coming to New York in 1951. Zeyde (that’s Yiddish for grandpa) came to own and run a luncheonette-style diner/sandwich shop, and then a newspaper stand, in Brooklyn; I imagine it as similar to what we today call bodegas, though perhaps I’m wrong and his shop wasn’t quite like that.

My father tells me that his parents, my Bubbe and Zeyde, never spoke much at all about their experiences before coming to the US, and I never got to know them, as they both passed away when I was a child. I would like to believe that they might have developed some kind of relationship with Japanese-Americans who came into my Zeyde’s shop, even maybe just one person, though I suppose that that fateful day in May 1945 was but one moment in a long line of unbelievable experiences, and that the demographics and ethnic politics of Brooklyn at the time, despite being literally one of the most diverse places in the world, may not have lended towards such encounters. I don’t know.

But I’m still thinking about it. As these events were happening at Dachau, at the same time, halfway around the world, US warships were battering Japanese defensive positions on the island of Okinawa, and US soldiers, having made their first landing on the island a month earlier, were gradually closing in on the military headquarters at Shuri. Fighting for Okinawa would not end until June 22. Some 240,000 people lost their lives, including according to some estimates as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians. Japanese- and Okinawan-American soldiers saved lives there, too. But the island, sacrificed by Imperial Japan in an effort to protect “mainland” Japan, was devastated, and in some meaningful ways might be said to still be recovering.

My awe, appreciation, and sympathy for what Japanese-Americans and Okinawans each suffered through during this time, and for how each group has survived, rebuilding new lives, with a spirit and strength and pride, only grows deeper, stronger, the more I learn.

——
1. Linda K. Menton, “Research Report: Nisei Soldiers at Dachau, Spring 1945,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies vol 8, no 2 (Fall 1994), 262-263.

I think that for a great many of us, the current situation has made us closer to family and friends, thinking about them more and valuing them more. It’s made us rethink our priorities, and what’s really important in life. Speaking for myself, I’ve been Zoom/Skypeing with people much more often, including a few people I honestly haven’t been in touch with very much at all in years. And I’ve reached out to more people on email or on social media, checking in, saying hello, seeing how they’re doing.

So, not to belittle that; I think for many of us, we’ve started to appreciate perhaps even more so than usual how much we value family and friends.

But spending so much time at home for the last six weeks or so, in addition to enjoying fresh parsley and cream cheese on toast, I’ve also come to really appreciate a number of little things around my apartment, which I thought I might share with you. It’s a weird thing to blog about, but, I dunno, maybe there’s some entertainment value in it? Or, maybe if others want to share their favorite things about their homes, so we can maybe try to benefit from each other’s tips and gadgets? Mine are pretty simple – you probably won’t learn anything here you didn’t already know. But, even so.

*This Vitantonio blender. I’ve been meaning to get a blender ever since I moved to Tokyo last year. I never used to be one of these smoothies people. But then I moved to LA. And moved in with a girlfriend who was all about making her own food and trying to watch her own nutritional diet and so on and so forth. Well, long story short, left to my own devices I eat too much of the same foods all the time, and having denied myself the option of going out to restaurants for however many weeks, one day I finally just lost any appetite for any of the foods that I had been eating. Blender to the rescue. Two bananas, one cup of milk, 1/3 tsp cinnamon, 1 tbsp almond butter, a nice hefty dash of salt, and boom you’ve got a really nice protein smoothie that’s cold and bananaey and cinnamony, a completely different taste profile than having eggs, cereal, and/or toast *again*. Lifesaver.

*Electric kettle – As pretty much any Brit will tell you, they (and I) don’t know why these kinds of electric kettles aren’t more common in the US. I grew up always making hot water for tea either with your standard old-school steel(?) kettle on the stove, or (*gasp*) by putting my tea mug in the microwave. But this guy is just wonderful. I don’t remember exactly how much I paid for it – hopefully no more than 2000 yen (~US$18.50) – but it heats up quickly, poses no electrical or heat danger (you won’t burn your hand on the plastic outside nearly as easily as with a steel kettle, and you don’t need oven mitts or whatever to handle the handle), has a super easy on-off switch, and even has a little lock on the spout so you can prevent it from spilling. This particular model is the Siroca SEK-208, and I love it.

*My office chair – I was worried when moving to a new apartment that I’d have trouble finding the right chair; that I would choose poorly and suffer from being uncomfortable (or worse, developing back problems, etc.) at my new desk, and have to deal with returns and exchanges and trying out god knows how many chairs before I found the right one. But I lucked out. I won’t say this is by any means the greatest, best, most luxurious office chair ever, but it most certainly does the job. I don’t even want to think about how many hours I’ve spent in this chair since it was delivered a mere month ago, but it is absolutely comfy enough. Rolls around, bends back just enough that I don’t feel forced stiffly upright… a good chair.

It wasn’t cheap, unfortunately; in the past, most often, I’ve obtained my work chairs either for free from some kind of “leave something take something” sort of situation, or secondhand/used in some fashion. For a simple chair like this that’s not one of those tall, black, leather executive chairs, I somehow had it in my mind that this would cost around $40. Well, what I ended up with was the Workchair Selt (Celt? Cert?) ワークチェアー セルト from Nitori, which with the additional 2000 yen attachable arms, set me back 11,990 yen (~$110).

*Daikin heater/AC unit. Thankfully not something I had to buy. One of the very few things pre-installed in my apartment (I actually did have to buy my own fridge and laundry machine, which was news to me since those sorts of large appliances are quite standard even in “unfurnished” apartments in the US). Pretty standard in Japanese apartments, this thing lets you set the exact temperature, operates as both heater and A/C unit, and even has a dehumidifier function for the summer. Probably other features I haven’t even played with. A lifesaver even in normal times, but all the more so when stuck at home for what’s starting to look like it might be all summer. And maybe even into the autumn :/

Three knobs. Imagine that. One on the left for controlling the temperature. One in front for turning the faucet on and off. And one on the right for turning the shower on and off. Simple. No need to mess around with figuring out the right temperature every single time, and no need to mess around with switching back and forth between faucet and shower. Genius.

*Shower. When I moved into this apartment, it was after a little bit of a process of looking at 10 or so other apartments with two or three different agents, finding almost all of them too expensive, too small, or otherwise undesirable, and then the one I really liked (and not even for any particular reason but just because it was big enough, cheap enough, in a good neighborhood and just sort of gave me a good feeling – sixth floor of an apartment building in a quiet neighborhood in Taishidô, had tons of sunlight and a great view over the city; something about it made me feel like it was a creative’s studio… Would have been great, but someone else got their paperwork in first while I was scrambling to find an emergency contact (as if that really ought to be necessary) and getting all my papers 100% perfectly into order. Boo. But, so, in the end, I’m sure I didn’t put in nearly as much time or effort or aggravation as most people; I gave up quickly, and just settled for this apartment, for which a friend said he could just introduce me to his landlady, skip over the intermediary agent, very simple approval process, nice and straightforward. No more difficulties or anxieties about whether I’d have a place to live by the time I had to move out of my previous place. And so, I just took it, not entirely sight unseen, but pretty much. And so, the one thing I was nervous about, but which I would just have to deal with no matter how it was, but which actually worked out great in the end, is the shower.

This apartment, like many hotel rooms I’ve been to in Japan, has a sort of prefab “unit bathroom.” Rather than being a room in which they then install toilet, sink, shower fixtures each separately, it’s like one bit unit that I guess they hoist up through the window or something (haha, I don’t know), in which the tub, floor, toilet, sink, are all one unit. Now, why should I care? Well, for one, it does mean that the bathroom is quite small, cramped. Thankfully, this one is not nearly as cramped as I have sometimes seen at some hotels. In any case, the key point I was concerned about here is that many of these unit bathrooms have a switch that switches the water over from the sink to the shower. Now, I don’t ever need to use both at once, but, even so, it’s just an annoyance. You turn on the water and put your hands under the faucet, and water sprays out of the showerhead; and quite possibly all over you, if the showerhead happens to be pointed a certain way and the shower curtain isn’t closed. Or, you’re in the shower and you turn the water on, and it comes out the faucet, and you have to sort of reach out of the shower over to the switch…

In my previous apartment, as most people I would imagine are quite used to, I had two separate knobs, hot and cold, and it took a while to figure out the precise balance – how much hot, how much cold. Pain in the ass. Fortunately, unlike in most showers I’ve had in the US, I was able to find that balance and then just leave the knobs in exactly the right place while I used a third knob to turn the water on and off without disturbing that balance (that temperature setting).

Long story short, the arrangement they actually have installed in this apartment is lovely. And it’s such a simple thing, I don’t know why we don’t have this more in the States. A dial that actually sets the temperature – I don’t know if it’s truly accurate, to X degrees Celsius, but at least it’s a single dial, and it stays where you put it, no need to play with trying to turn the hot knob and then the cold knob and then the hot knob a bit more, and then the cold one… And then two separate knobs for turning on the faucet, and the shower. No need to deal with a switch! So, that’s another little thing I’m very happy with in this apartment.

…..

All in all, I don’t know what it is exactly about this place, but somehow I feel I’ve really lucked out. Of all the places I’ve lived, moving apartments almost every year, this is probably one of the places I’ve felt happiest, most comfortable. If I had to get stuck anywhere like this, in self-isolation, this is a good, comfy, pleasant apartment to do it in. I hope you all are doing well also. Hang in there. Good luck, and stay safe.

Since the fire at Shuri castle / palace / gusuku this past October, I have been reading a lot about the site; about the process leading up to its postwar restoration in 1992; about the events that have been held there since 1992, including the revivals and reenactments of various forms of court ceremonies and entertainments; and about the meaning, significance, and character of the site for people before and after the tragic October 31, 2019 fire.

The royal throne, imperial plaques (扁額), and decorated pillars produced by Maeda, or under his instruction, in the upper throne room (大庫理, ufugui) of the restored royal palace at Shuri. All lost in the 2019 fire. Photo my own, Sept 2016.

In the process, I have enjoyed learning about some of the people who played a prominent role in these processes. Outside of the field of Okinawan art, I would imagine Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 isn’t a name very many people are familiar with, at all; probably not even within Okinawa, except among those within particular circles. But Maeda was perhaps the leading lacquerware master involved in the restoration work, creating reproductions of the ornate red-lacquered, gilded royal throne (with mother-of-pearl inlay); red-lacquered and gilded plaques which hung over the throne, bearing the calligraphy of Qing emperors, as well as plaques hanging over many of the castle’s gates; and the decoration of the pillars framing the throne, encircled with multicolored and gilded dragons; among many other objects.

Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 was born in 1936 in the village of Ôgimi, in the Yanbaru/Kunigami area of Okinawa Island. A small village near the northern end of the island, Ôgimi is today home to just over 3,000 people, and is famous for its shikuwasa (a fruit related to the lime), its kijumunaa (local spirits somewhat akin to leprechauns or menehune), and perhaps the highest life expectancy in the world, with a considerable number of residents over one hundred years old.

Above: Maeda on Oct 31, 2019. Image from the Okinawa Times.

Maeda would have been 14 when the University of the Ryukyus was established, in 1950, right atop the ruins of Shuri castle (destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the island). He later attended that university and graduated with a degree from the fine arts section (美術工芸科). His teacher Adaniya Masayoshi 安谷屋正義 (recognized now if not back then as one of the *giants* in early postwar Okinawan painting) then introduced him to a job as a designer in a lacquerware company. Five years later, he showed his works for the first time in a large lacquerwares exhibition, and reportedly made a big impact. In 1968, he opened his own workshop, the Maeda Shikki Atorie 前田漆器アトリエ (Maeda Lacquerwares Atelier).

At some point, he was later designated by the prefecture a “holder of Intangible Cultural Heritage” 県指定無形文化財保持者 – a title granted to those who are exceptional masters of particular traditional cultural techniques, skills, and knowledge. He also came to serve as an advisor to the prefecture on matters of traditional arts, and taught courses as a lecturer at both the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa geidai) and Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). It is difficult, he has said, however, to maintain and pass down a tradition of the most expertly refined skills, and of producing the highest-quality works, when popular conception is of your works as “souvenirs.” From the 1950s or so onward (if not in the prewar period as well), Ryukyuan lacquerwares began with increasing rapidity to be produced ever more cheaply, and ever increasingly with styles or motifs catering to a tourist or export market. Americans, as well as Japanese tourists and tourists from elsewhere in East Asia, wanted lacquerwares they could buy as affordable and stereotypically “tropical” or “Okinawan” souvenirs. As many lacquerware makers began to regularly cut corners and to use new techniques to save money, thus producing works they could afford to sell for less, the traditional techniques of how to produce the finest objects began to be lost; Maeda worked to revive that tradition by studying in mainland Japan and bringing such techniques, knowledge, and skill back to Okinawa – such as the skill to select the best part of the turbo shell, and to slice it as thinly as 0.07 mm, to produce the most delicately colorful and iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay.

When he was in his 50s (in the 1980s), he proposed to his partner by saying “let us rebuild Shuri castle together” (一緒に首里城を造ろう),1 which I think is really kind of beautiful, and says something about how engaged and supportive she must have been. Her name is 栄, and I want to be able to talk about her here by name, at the very least, rather than only calling her “his wife.” But I sadly have not yet come across anything which indicates how she pronounces her name. I’ve known some men named 栄, and they pronounced it “Sakae.” Is she Sakae-san? Or is it perhaps Yô-san? Clearly, she deserves profound recognition as well.

The “Shurei no kuni” 守禮之邦 (“Land of Propriety”) plaque hanging over the famous Shureimon near the entrance to Shuri castle is also one of Maeda’s works. Photo my own, Jan 2020.

In a 2013 interview, Maeda said he had discussed with his wife that he would retire at age 90. What will I do when I am 90 and weak? he says he asked her, to which she responded, it’s better to think of that once you turn 90.2

Learning of the fire on Oct 31, 2019 from his hospital bed, Maeda spoke of his hope to leave the hospital soon, after which he would immediately jump back into work reconstructing what was lost. “It’s not over” (「そしたら、すぐにでも復元に飛んでいきたい。まだ、おしまいじゃない」) the Okinawa Times quoted him as saying. His wife Sakae (or Yô?) added, “This is this man’s good point. He can’t help but to keep going.” (「それがこの人のいいところ。また頑張るしかないね」)1

Sadly, Maeda passed away a few month later, on Jan 14, 2020, at the age of 83. He lived to see the destruction of all those priceless lacquerwares in the castle fire, along with many produced in the time of the kingdom, but not to return to his workbench, or to the palace site to share his wisdom, his knowledge, his masterful skill to recreate what has once again been lost. But he will be remembered. If the name Maeda Kōin does not already appear in textbooks, I hope that it will. I most certainly will talk about him if and when I ever get to teach a course on Okinawan art history; Heritage & Tradition; or the like.

—–
1. 「「まだ、おしまいじゃない」 首里城の玉座制作の漆芸家 落胆の涙を拭い前向く」, Okinawa Times, 1 Nov 2019.
2. 「90歳までは仕事をして、90歳になったら遊ぼうねと、妻と話をしています。足腰も弱る90歳で何をするかと僕が聞くと、妻は『90になった時に考えればいいさぁ』。」“Shitsugei Maeda Kōin-san: Shurijō ni inochi wo fukikonda shitsugei sakka” 漆芸前田孝允:首里城にいのちを吹き込んだ漆芸作家, ”Shuri: Ryūkyū no miyako wo aruku” 首里:琉球の都をあるく, Momoto special issue 別冊モモト, Itoman: Tōyō kikaku (2013/8), 28.

Well, I guess it’s time to post another update on life under self-isolation, or whatever we’re calling it – 自粛 (self-restraint). Mostly, again, for my own personal record. Nothing here is new information you won’t get from the news or elsewhere, and it’s most certainly not as reliable as the news or anything. So, if you’re reading this, it’s just… just my thoughts. Don’t take me as a reliable source on anything. I’m just posting this so I can go back in the future and remind myself what the situation was.

Prime Minister Abe finally declared a State of Emergency yesterday (4/7), in consultation with prefectural governors and others, such that Tokyo and six other prefectures can finally start moving forward on taking more serious action. Which, of course, they haven’t. Look, I’m no expert at politics, nor at epidemiology, and I am sure there are myriad extremely complex considerations to take into account, with profound implications. But at the same time, looking at how things are in the rest of the world, I find it difficult to not feel that the Japanese government; corporations, universities, and other institutions; and the people in following with them, have been dragging their feet. As one colleague said on Twitter, 「中途半端。永遠中途半端。」, which we might very roughly translate as “half-measures. Half-measures forever and ever” (or something like “half-assed effort”).

The hesitancy is just unbelievable to me. I don’t really know what’s going on inside any of these discussions, so I’m just speaking out of what I feel, what I imagine is going on. Please don’t quote me on this, or hold me to it. I’m not an expert on corporate culture, or anything. But, just spitballing as they say, I would bet that it’s not so much about head in the sand willful ignorance, a refusal to appreciate how serious the situation is, but more to the point an incredible hesitancy (and unpreparedness) to change. If it’s standard operating procedure that all faculty & staff are expected to be at their desks even though they absolutely could be doing that work from home, then so it is, until someone higher up says otherwise. … Maybe it’s a hierarchy thing? I don’t know.

But, even with this State of Emergency finally declared on Tuesday (4/7), after days, if not weeks, of thinking it might come any day now, even now that that’s officially declared, little has actually changed. Yes, ridership on the trains and subways and the general size of crowds and numbers of people on the streets seems to have decreased to some extent – albeit with very notable exceptions. The official statistics provided by the Tokyo Metropolis, for example, show a more than 30% drop in Tokyo Metro subway ridership on 3/30-4/2 as compared to “typical” dates in January. And we see photos on Twitter of trains where the seats are all full – not empty – but no one is standing; a very notable decrease from the packed-in-like-sardines commute that’s often typical. But then we also see photos of certain stations at certain times of day that seem to show still very considerable crowds. Not as large as usual, but not empty, not absent, by any means. … This does seem to have been the impetus that many workplaces needed to feel it was finally okay to implement stronger or more widespread work from home than they had before. For weeks and weeks, even as Italy and New York City and numerous other places all around the world went into (more or less, to one extent or another) lockdown, total stay-at-home orders, each of these individual institutions dragged their feet. Like they needed permission from higher-up, I suppose?

But, regardless, while some institutions have finally started to move more completely than before to “work from home,” or to temporary closure, from what I’ve seen in my brief jaunts out to the supermarket or whatever, it looks like something like 90% of storefront businesses are still open. It’s now looking like even despite the State of Emergency it’s going to be days again, until Tokyo governor Koike actually makes official requests – on 4/10 or /11, maybe – for certain categories of businesses to close. What exactly a “State of Emergency” declaration means if you’re not going to implement any kind of requests or policy or anything, I don’t know.

One thing I guess we should say for posterity, in case I didn’t say it in my previous posts – and, again, I’m not promising I have this right, I’m just writing off the top of my head and do not have the energy or the inclination to bother “researching”, googling, checking, the fine details. This is not a politics or law blog. But just from what I think I understood from Twitter posts and news articles I skimmed and so forth, it would seem that the Constitution, and/or particular laws on the books, prevent the executive – that is, the Prime Minister’s office, or I suppose the Tokyo Governor as well – from “mandating” or “ordering” that people stay home, or that businesses close. They can “direct” 指示 certain things, but in most other arenas the best they can do is “request strongly” 要請 (a term some have said should really be translated as “demand”). Hopefully, now that the government is much more explicitly making this a serious matter, hopefully people will finally listen, and actually take it upon themselves to go home, to stay home. I’ve heard secondhand that in many neighborhoods starting today or yesterday the public neighborhood loudspeakers have been telling people to stay home. But I think the most important step is going to be convincing businesses to take severe measures, and/or to adapt. One thing we’re learning out of this crisis if we didn’t know it already is the unbelievable extent to which Japanese workplace culture is just so totally unsuited for, or unprepared for, work-from-home. As I’ve seen for myself and heard anecdotally from friends and colleagues, and as The Washington Post lays out,

despite the image of Japan as a high-tech nation, it simply is not set up for telework. … Japanese companies lag behind their Western counterparts in IT investment, and many are still stuck 20 years in the past, with old software and little awareness of cloud computing or video conferencing tools.

I’m not sure I like the idea of a singular timeline of what constitutes “living in the past” versus “catching up with the 21st century,” or similar sorts of phrasing. Japan in the early 19th century wasn’t “in the past” because they didn’t have the latest military technology; they were probably the most “advanced” pre-industrial (or proto-industrial) society on the planet, with rough equivalents to nationwide banking, futures markets, extensive trade networks, a very active publishing industry and probably the highest literacy rate of any pre-industrial society, and so on and so forth. Not “backward” or “stuck in the past,” but simply along a different cultural path. And today, too, Japan is not “stuck in the past” so much as it’s just maintaining a very different workplace culture – a culture that has chosen not to embrace (or even necessarily to explore) certain possible new avenues, new ways of working, etc., has chosen instead to use technology in a much more limited way, and that I personally believe brings a lot of disadvantages.

But even if I don’t like it, don’t agree with it, even if I think it frustrating and frankly pointless at times, I don’t think it’s “backward” in the sense of “belonging to the past” that

IT departments are so paranoid about protecting intellectual property and confidential client information that they allow employees to access work systems only on office computers.

That’s not a thing of the past so much as it is just … an approach I don’t like. And just a lack of imagination, lack of willpower, to want to consider that there might be alternative ways of doing it. Thankfully, my current workplace does have a VPN set up, so if I need to, I can login in remotely and access the internal shared folders and so forth. That said, I haven’t tried it yet, and everything on their network is set up with multiple different logins, different passwords, depending on which thing you’re logging into, so I’m thankful I don’t have to rely on it actually working.

I’m still doing fine at home. For all of those who are terribly stressed, depressed, whatever over all of this, I feel you, and you have every reason to feel that way. I thank my lucky stars that no one in my family (and not even anyone among my many friends) has gotten seriously ill from this epidemic yet. And so I have the privilege to just stay home, and to think (and I hope it’s not naive to think this way) that if I just keep staying inside, I’ll most likely be safe myself, and I’ll be doing my part to not contribute to spreading it to others, and that’s the best I can do. Whatever happens outside – and I don’t mean to be too blunt; I wish I could think of a nicer way to say this, but, whatever happens outside, I’m feeling like hopefully I can just stay home and allow it to pass me by.

I am in a very privileged position to be able to work from home; my salary / funding isn’t in any immediate danger, nor is my visa status. I feel for those who are in a more precarious situation; people who are here in Japan on just a one-year fellowship and one-year visa, for example. What do they have to go home to? Where do they have to go home to? … The whole situation just desperately sucks.

But I’m fortunate to have my bed and my books and just all the basic necessities I need. So long as there’s still power and internet, so long as the supermarket stays open and the paychecks keep coming in and the sanitation workers keep working, I’ll be fine. And, yes, I know that there’s this whole huge massive thing about how supermarket workers, sanitation workers, etc., the people who are among the lowest-paid and most precarious and so forth to begin with, are extremely disproportionately bearing the brunt of how this is all playing out. I acknowledge that.

As soon as it’s properly feasible and responsible to travel once again, Naha is of course high on my list.

My main concern right now, today, is the question of how much longer this is going to last. Because if we can start going out to restaurants and museums and whatever, and traveling (even if only domestically), in June, or if not June then July, or if not July then August, then yeah I can hold out until then. But if it’s going to be Fall, or Winter, or next Spring…. I mean, obviously I’ll still do whatever has to be done. I’ll obey whatever guidelines there are, to help try to do my part. I’ll hang in there. I’ll endure. Simply staying home is hardly the worst thing in the world to have to endure. But it’s just a very discouraging thought to think that there’s no end in sight. All my summer conference travel is canceled, and that’s okay. My own little personal weekend travel plans, to go here or there within Japan, have been put on the backburner, and that’s okay. Even if I were to break protocol and say fuck it and “escape Tokyo” out to Sunpu or Sendai or Hiroshima or something, not only is that a deeply irresponsible thing to do but, it’s kind of pointless – which museums and so on and so forth will be closed once I get there anyway?

Okinawa Prefecture is trying to encourage people not to come to Okinawa right now, at all. On the day the State of Emergency was declared, one of the top trending topics on Twitter here in Tokyo was 東京脱出 – “escape Tokyo.” Fortunately, a great many of the tweets under that hashtag were people talking about why people shouldn’t “escape Tokyo” to the countryside – why it’s irresponsible and dangerous to risk spreading the virus into these places where it hasn’t spread yet. Of course, it’s a complicated issue, and whether because of a desperate need for tourist revenue or whether just in order to maintain face and their reputation for being welcoming or whatever, it seems like certain voices on Taketomi Island are still saying that visitors are welcome there, and not to feel that it’s their own travel that’s the cause. (「『死因はあなたの旅行です』と感じてほしくない」) *sigh* … But, at the same time, they’re expressing frustration or dismay at how many visitors to the island aren’t even wearing masks. 「せめてマスクを着用してください!」(At the very least, wear facemasks!), a local Taketomi committee is saying, according to a Yahoo News article I saw today. As the article explains, the island is home to less than 300 people, and more than 100 of them are over 70. There’s only one clinic on the island, with one doctor and one nurse, and if even just the one doctor gets sick, that means the “collapse” of the entire medical infrastructure of the island, basically. There are boats (and I would presume, if absolutely necessary, helicopters?) to ferry people to hospitals on larger nearby islands, but, it’s just not a good situation. At all.

Well, anyway. I guess that’s it for now. My lists of books I want to get my hands on once the libraries reopen keep getting longer. My list of places I want to visit – including for research purposes, i.e. not just to visit cities but to actively attempt to get my hands on documents or archival materials there – just sits. Someday, I’ll manage to make it over there. I’ll be fine for now. I can be patient, and just continue to remain home. But, for how long?

「美術漆器製造販売」, Meiji period catalog for ordering Ryukyuan lacquerwares.

Here’s one of the many posts I drafted a few years ago and never got around to posting. Still relevant today, I think.

In the course of my dissertation research, I began to get the feeling that Okinawan history can often be prone to certain ideas of conventional wisdom being repeated over and over, without a real solid notion of their veracity. Gregory Smits’ critiques of the oft-cited official histories produced by the royal court in his recent book Maritime Ryukyu would seem to support this. Now, whether this is typical in other fields as well, or whether it is more distinctly an issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, I’m not sure. But, regardless, I grew worried – and to be frank, remain worried – about accidentally including in my dissertation (as well as in conference presentations or journal articles) the kind of statements that would make an expert shake their head at my mistake. Much like how I shake my head at people who say that Okinawan is a dialect, or that Japan was “closed” for hundreds of years, or, as much conventional wisdom in the karate world would have it, that King Shō Shin banned weapons in the 16th century and that Ryukyu has been a kingdom of peace, a culture of pacifism ever since.

I know most people worry the most about the argument, the theoretical interpretation, and so forth. And of course all of that is important. But I think getting the details right, and doing your best to be a source that people can learn (and cite) accurate information from is also important. Advancing knowledge of the field not only in our interpretations but also in our findings: in correcting misconceptions and putting forth correct information, best as we can.

An 1889 book called Ryūkyū shikki kō (琉球漆器考, “Thoughts on Ryukyu Lacquerware”), oft-cited and regarded as a classic on the subject, almost a primary source, tells us the lacquer tree is not native to Ryukyu and has never grown well there – that Ryukyuan lacquer has always been made with imported raw lacquer from Japan or elsewhere. A number of museum catalogs, academic articles, and the like from the 1980s to today say the same, citing only this source. A curator I spoke with during my time in Okinawa, whose specialty of expertise is Ryukyuan lacquerware, told me much the same. And yet, I then read an essay by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1933-2005)* explicitly addressing the point and saying “while many have long said that Ryukyu never had its own lacquer trees, most often simply citing the Ryūkyū shikki kō, as I have explained elsewhere, evidence shows that Ryūkyū certainly did produce its own lacquer, perhaps even since the Jōmon period, thousands of years ago”. Great. Now what? Absent the time, resources, expertise to hunt down the truth myself – which could, honestly, be an entire PhD project unto itself – which are we to believe?

One of the main gates into the portion of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is not open to the public. But prior to 1889, the emperor did not reside beyond this gate, but rather at a temporary palace outside of the current palace grounds entirely.

Learning new things very typically is not this ambiguous. I could cite numerous examples of things which I never knew, but which one scholar revealed, and which I feel I can now take to be true. To name just one, there is the basic general assumption that Edo castle quickly became the Imperial Palace after 1868; in fact, as Takashi Fujitani explains, Edo castle burned down in 1873, and for the better part of the next fifteen years – a pretty central key period in the development of the new “modern” Meiji Japan – there was nothing in the center of Tokyo but a gaping burnt-out hole, and the Imperial Court was based, instead, in the former mansion of the Kishû Tokugawa lords. If you never read Fujitani’s book, or certain other sources, you might never know, simply because so many other authors breeze past it or don’t even realize themselves that “the imperial palace” at that time wasn’t the same site or the same structure as post-1889.

Similarly, most discussions of Commodore Perry omit that he ever spent time in Okinawa. But, once you learn about it, you know it, and there’s no need to worry about doubting its veracity, or being unclear or undecided on which interpretation or account is correct. I could also cite numerous examples of things which remain a matter of interpretation, but at least there is a standard interpretation that’s widely popular and widely accepted among scholars today. I don’t have to feel frozen with indecision over whether to think Japan was “closed” in the Tokugawa period, when pretty much every major early modern Japan specialist today agrees that it wasn’t, or at least that it was no more “closed” than China or Korea at the same time, that “maritime restrictions” might be a better term, and that Japan did have very active and significant contacts with the Ainu, Korea, Ryûkyû, the Dutch, and the Chinese, albeit not with any other major Western powers.

But then you come back to something like the question of whether Ryûkyû historically, traditionally, had its own lacquer trees. And there just isn’t enough published on it to know. As of right now, as I sit here typing this, I have one curator telling me they didn’t (and I presume the gallery labels at that museum would say the same), and one rather preeminent scholar writing that that’s hogwash and that Ryûkyû did have their own lacquer trees. I also have a handful of museum catalogs and other books and articles on Okinawan art in general, or Ryukyuan lacquerware in particular, which make no mention of the issue. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much for my own work; I’m not basing my larger arguments on any of these particular points. And, besides, there are always the questions of who’s going to actually even read my dissertation? And even if they do, are they really going to take note of that one footnote? Ah, but if they do, and if they cite me as having said that Ryûkyû either did or didn’t have its own lacquer trees – and all the more so if they then make some argument that rests on this assertion, well, now I really am complicit, if that’s the right word, in perpetuating a misconception.

So, what am I supposed to believe? This isn’t about judging the quality of the argument, or the evidence – it’s just one assertion against another, with very little if any evidence being presented. Nor is it a case of an active debate in the field, so much as it’s just a lack of information. A lack of evidence. A lack of scholarship. And so, everyone goes along either believing the Ryūkyū shikki kō (and the lineage of scholarship citing back to it), or they believe Tokugawa-sensei. Either way, young scholars like myself who are trying to build up their own knowledge of Okinawan history and culture are left just not knowing.

A bingata robe, formerly owned by the royal family, now a National Treasure and held at the Naha City Museum of History.Gallery labels tell us that this brilliant yellow was restricted to members of the royal family. Is that true? Or another piece of potentially mistaken conventional wisdom?

And, it can be very hard to know who to turn to. I have great admiration for traditional practitioners – dancers, musicians, weavers, martial artists – and could indeed write a whole blog post about how I would love to have a stronger ability to see things through their perspective, a perspective of traditions, cultural significance, technique and aesthetic; understanding things within a cultural context, a context of the tradition to which they belong, and not merely a political, economic, or social history sort of context that may pay attention to that history but without the same sort of appreciation. And yet, at the same time, while some traditional practitioners will have a keen eye for the questions and problems involved and may be able to regale you with their brilliant personal knowledge – beyond anything that can be found in books – as to the entire history of the issue, many other traditional practitioners are simply going to tell you conventional wisdom. They’re going to tell you what their sensei told them, or what they heard through the grapevine, like it’s gospel.

And so, perhaps we turn back again to researchers. And, yes, I can and I should reach out to people like Sudō Ryōko, who is probably one of the leading experts within formal academia on garments worn in the royal court, and ask her what she knows of whether bingata (a particular style of resist-dye decoration) garments were in fact truly limited to only the aristocratic classes, and in what ways and in what contexts. But I fear there will always remain this niggling feeling in my mind that it still isn’t settled. Whatever answer she gives me, there will be some other person, or book, that happens to say otherwise, and I’ll be left not knowing again. This nagging, frustrating, feeling, that no matter where you turn – encyclopedias, or something like Okinawa bijutsu zenshû (“Complete Collection of Okinawan Art,” pub. 1989) – you’re still not getting a truly definitive answer.

Were sanshin truly limited to only the aristocratic classes as well? I have certainly heard it said, many a time, but I am not sure if I’ve read that in a proper scholarly article, let alone read a fuller explanation about it. If I say they were, and even if I cite it to this book or that book, or to a conversation with this sanshin master or that music professor, am I still shooting myself in the foot for other readers who will look at it and say

ugh, how can this guy be so clueless!? Relying on X, doesn’t he know that Y showed that it wasn’t that way? How can I trust anything else this guy is saying if he even gets this wrong!?

Thankfully, I don’t think many or perhaps even any of these debates are crucial to my own argument, and so I may be able to continue to just skirt them entirely. But, even so, wherever I do cite anything on any of these issues, I’m entering into the danger of myself unknowingly repeating the same problematic conventional wisdom. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

*Descendant of the Owari Tokugawa clan, and long-time head of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. Not to be confused with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) of the Mito lineage, and the final shogun.

I was originally going to write this as a comment on my last post; keep the “coronavirus diary” all in one place. But, as it’s gotten so much longer, I figured what the hell, might as well post it as a real post. We’ll see how many more of these I do. Whether I’m moved to do so. And to what extent I may get around to publishing posts in the coming days and weeks on entirely unrelated topics as well. We’ll see.

My workspace, now with newly-arrived comfy chair. All furniture from Nitori. A bit expensive, but saved me the bother of looking around from shop to shop to shop when I’m supposed to be self-isolating. I thought I’d saved myself the bother of having to assemble it all myself, too, but alas, no, I was mistaken.

3/27
It is now only a very few days later, and things have indeed begun to shift here in Tokyo.

The national government and the Int’l Olympic Committee have agreed to postpone the Olympics until 2021.

Whether by coincidence or by what factors exactly I won’t venture to say, but almost immediately afterwards, or in tandem with that solidifying, Gov. Koike Yuriko held a press conference – which I didn’t watch, but the gist I understand from what I’ve seen afterwards is that it’s about time to really start taking this seriously. Even with minimal testing, the numbers are rising, quickly, doubling every few days, just as in Italy, New York, other places among the hardest hit. And so, Koike suggested that this weekend (it’s Friday night now; I think she said this on Tues or Weds) people should stay home. It’s a small measure compared to what many major cities are doing in many parts elsewhere in the world, but it’s something. I don’t know whether there are plans to ask the Tokyo Metro, JR, etc. to reduce service, but a number of major stores, beginning with the big main 109 in Shibuya, have now voluntarily declared they’ll close for the weekend.

Almost immediately after the press conference, from what I hear, people started going to the supermarkets. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I left the house twice in one day, but I went to my local Maruetsu (full-size supermarket; not a Maruetsu Petit) in the early afternoon, and while the shelves were still largely fully stocked, the lines to check out went almost to the very back of the store – multiple lines, one for each register, each of them stretching almost all the way to the back of the store. But, still – I didn’t spy what other people were buying, but most seemed to be carrying just one shopping basket; not hoarding. And when I went back later in the day, many sections of shelves were empty, but even then, everything looked quite orderly. Not like I’d expect an American store to look, stereotypically speaking, like in a movie, where people are actively fighting over individual items, and the store overall has items strewn all over the ground, like the aftermath of some big panic. There was no visible, active panic here, just a busy shopping day.

But all of that we could hypothetically check, in future, by looking back at the newspapers or at Twitter archives overall. How am I doing?

Well, I guess I vacillate between being terribly worried and scared, at times, and being relaxed and comfortable and productive. I have been taking too many breaks, and spending too much time in bed; I haven’t been quite as productive as I might dream of. And I guess I have been finding myself at times glued to the phone, scrolling through FB or Twitter for tens upon tens of minutes… I’m worried about my family, and about my friends. With the US as a whole and NY in particular in only the early stages still of it getting much worse before it gets better, I’m scared and worried. We’ve seen people in Italy talk about moving from knowing people who lost their jobs to knowing people who lost their loved ones, or their own lives. As I said in the initial post, I know so many people all around the world; sheer statistics, sheer percentages, suggests that I’m going to lose friends before this is all over. I’ve lost enough people in my life already to have a hole in my gut, a space of just sucking void in my heart, when I think about them. I saw a thing online recently that I thought described my personal experience of this perfectly. Grief and loss are like a ball in a box. (https://twitter.com/LaurenHerschel/status/946887540732149760). It’s been very nearly 14 years since I lost my mother. I can’t believe it’s been that long. And something like 3 1/2 years since I lost my friend Bryan. I don’t feel that pain every day; I don’t think about them every day. The ball is small, and when it rolls around, or whatever the metaphor is, it doesn’t touch the walls all that often because it’s not so small. But, like the tweezers in the kids’ board game Operation, when it does touch the wall, when I do actively think about losing these people in my life, the pain, the sadness, is still there. It still feels like a cold, dark, black space – an absence in my life, an absence in the universe, where there used to be a person who was such a source of light and happiness and good in the world. I know so many young people who have so much potential; who still have so much to live for; people who bring such love and goodness and happiness to their friends, family, students, and to the broader world they live in. And I know many who are not quite so young, but who nevertheless still have so many potential years left – no reason to call them done yet – and who just the same bring so much light and love, so much good, into the world. I couldn’t bear to think of losing *any* of my friends, least of all my father. And so when I think about him, when I talk to him, I find I get emotional.

When I talk to anyone, these days, in fact, I feel a surge of love, stronger than I have usually. Of course I care about my friends; they wouldn’t be my friends if I didn’t care about them. But if there’s one thing that this whole situation has brought about – I don’t know whether to call it ironic, or perverse, or just normal – it’s that even as we isolate ourselves each in our separate places, scattered all around the world, despite being so isolated, or precisely because we are so isolated, I feel a stronger drive to connect with people. And I feel more emotional towards each and every one of them. I still haven’t figured out for myself the best phrase to say to people to express my caring; or the right emoji. I’ve been writing “take care. stay safe.” and things like that in many emails and texts. But it’s more like, I care about you, and I hope the best for you. All we can do is hope, and so even just saying “I hope” means acknowledging the possibility of things not going that way. I think all of this makes me feel so much more appreciative for each and every one of my friends, and to think of them, and to think, more actively than I imagine most of us ever do in the course of our busy workaday lives, just how precious each of our friends are. What incredible wonderful people they are. The things about them that make us love them. I love all of you, and I want the best for all of you. For all of us. Today, the bar is low. I hesitate to even say it out in words. But I hope you live. I hope you survive. Because you are so special, so precious. You are such a wonderful, incredible person. There are so many of us who could not bear to lose you; but more importantly, you don’t deserve that – you don’t deserve to have your life cut short. You deserve to live, to keep living and hoping and pursuing and creating. You deserve to keep achieving and accomplishing, to keep loving and being loved. I miss you all, and I hope we might Skype or Zoom or just talk sometime soon.

Small things. Supporting small businesses amidst this crisis. Ordered some cups from Yacchi + Moon, one of my favorite cute little shops along Okinawa’s “Pottery Street,” Yachimun-dôri. The “matcha chocolate” cup on the right is one of them. The one on the left is not.

But, as I said in my previous post, I have these thoughts, these feelings. These moments of feeling great love, and of feeling great sadness and pain, fear and worry. New York has… I don’t know the numbers… 1400 ventilators, is that right? And they anticipate they need 30,000? An exceptionally different number. And like Gov. Cuomo said, if we had a normal administration in the White House, everything would have already been mobilized, in an organized and professional way, with all due urgency, to provide New York with what it needs, so that as soon as New York is under control and is on the opposite side of that peak (i.e. when NY is starting to see a serious decline in cases), then New York can mobilize to send resources elsewhere, to help, to work together to deploy and redeploy resources all across the country in a systematic, intelligent, way.

But I don’t want to get into the politics. There are one or two people I’ve been communicating with regularly who just reiterate these same points – points of disbelief, of outrage. I guess maybe they need someone to vent to. Doesn’t accomplish much for me except to raise my stress levels and take up my time, to be blunt. If you’re telling me something I don’t know, that’s good – it’s good to be informed. But as for the rest; yes, we know that Trump and friends are the absolute worst. Yes, we know that tons of people here in Tokyo and elsewhere are (for now at least) being what we think is terribly irresponsible, and reckless, still being out and about when we all should have been exercising self-isolation more strictly for weeks already. What’s to be gained from reetreading that again and again?

But, as I said in my previous post, while I have my moments of stress, of sadness, of various other emotions, I am also finding this time relaxing and somewhat productive. Some have started to post “hey! this is not a writing retreat!” and other things about how (1) it’s okay to be stressed, to be discombobulated, to not be able to be productive during this time, whether because of personal mental/emotional stress, family obligations, and/or just general removal from any semblance of orderliness or stability that would allow you to make better use of the time, (2) we should keep in mind that many people are now home with children, or with parents or grandparents, and just simply do not have the kind of alone time that the rest of us are suddenly experiencing (and/or “enjoying”), (3) that there’s really something wrong with academia, and with all of us, to have this sort of work-oriented, productivity-oriented mindset, that even amidst a pandemic (!?!) we should be thinking about “doing work,” or moving forward on book reviews or journal articles or whatever such things that feel so petty all of a sudden.

Fair enough. And I absolutely won’t fault anyone for being in any of those situations. If you’re too stressed, or if you have hands-on obligations b/c of family or whatever it may be, or if for whatever other reasons this is not a time during which you can be productive, I don’t blame you. You do what you have to, and let’s hope we can convince our universities, and workplaces otherwise, to understand that. To recognize the exceptional circumstances, and to grant extensions and exemptions. A number of universities are indeed extending people’s tenure clocks; for grad students the situation seems more unlikely, more hesitant, but I sincerely hope that schools will start to step up to support their grad students – offering extensions on “norm time” and things like that, if not outright offering extensions of fellowship support.

But for me, I happen to be fortunate to be in a place, a situation, where I *can* actually take the time to be productive. Whether productive means progress on my “actual” academic work, or whether it means reading books I might not have otherwise, writing blog posts, or whatever it may be, I’m making the most of the time we have here, before I have to start going to the office again. And I’m enjoying it. I’m happy that I’m getting to be productive. Perhaps more to the point, feeling productive is one of the key ways I fight my stress and depression – I enjoy feeling like I’m moving forward.

Anyway. That’s where we’re at right now. We’ll see how things develop. Stay safe, everyone.


I’d been thinking I wouldn’t post anything about the coronavirus epidemic, since I’m no expert at all, and since, well, I just have other things to do. But I suppose it would be good to record for posterity, so to speak, how I was feeling, how things were going, at this particular time. I do often go back through old posts myself, to remind myself when something happened, or how I was thinking about it at a certain time. Plus, I felt I should post something about it before I start posting more posts about various other topics – I’m thinking that this self-isolation provides a good opportunity to go revisit old drafts from months or even years ago that never got published, which means my next few posts might be on really scattered, different topics. Before I do that, I thought I should post something about the current situation.

(Note: Please don’t take any of the information I’m presenting here as accurate. This is not a news report, or advice from an expert in the field. This is my personal recollections of what I think I’ve seen and heard, and how I’m feeling, and how I’m doing. It’s not about getting it right. For *information*, go check out some real proper news sources and the like.)

It’s March 24 right now. I’m not even sure exactly how long it’s been since we first started hearing about cases in China, and then cases in Japan. It’s been a weird experience. Most museums are closed, most theatre performances and other events are cancelled. Many schools are closed. Travel restrictions are tight. South Korea has implemented widespread testing and lots of other good procedures, and everyone seems to be hailing them for doing it right. China, where the outbreak began and was initially the worst, seems to be seeing a very significant decline in the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, Israel has blocked off nearly all travel in or out of the country, and Italy and Ireland (and now, if I have it right, Spain and France as well, as well as parts of the US) have gone on even fuller lockdown, with mandatory quarantine procedures in place for, if I’m understanding correctly, *everyone* in Italy, all stores closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and from what we’re hearing the medical facilities are just completely overwhelmed – more sick people in need of emergency treatment than there is emergency equipment (and even just space, i.e. hospital beds themselves) to go around. The situation sounds absolutely horrendous. Iran seems to be digging mass graves.

The Trump administration’s response has started to come around, maybe, a bit, but is still rightfully being roundly criticized from all sides (well, most sides – not from the “Dear Leader can do no wrong” camp among the Republican Party and Fox News, but their horrific misinformation campaign is a whole other story); but things are getting worse in New York, and elsewhere. I read recently that New York had something like 5% of all confirmed cases in the entire world, and overall a higher “attack” rate (i.e. confirmed cases as a percentage of total population, as opposed to confirmed cases as a percentage of those tested, though I think that number’s also high in NY). I’m worried about my family.

Anyone who’s doing full-on hanami parties right now is being terribly irresponsible. But if I should happen upon a nice tree on my way to the supermarket, my only one little outing from the apartment the entire day, with a mask on, that’s okay, right?

But here in Japan, or at least in Tokyo, it’s hard to know what to think, what to believe. I spent at least a week, maybe two, being just terribly anxious, nervous, stressed out about the whole situation until I finally decided to cancel my trip to Boston and New York to attend the annual AAS conference. As it turned out, the conference got canceled anyway. But worrying about it was driving me mad. On the one hand, everyone keeps saying very scary things about how horrible this disease is, how it’s far more contagious than SARS or Ebola and far more deadly than your typical flu – between these two factors combined, making for a serious genuine pandemic threat.

I remember thinking three years ago, that as dangerous as Trump is, at least we don’t have a massive crisis such as a pandemic for him to fuck up. … Well, now, here we are.

And as for the Japanese government response as well, the US and Japan stand out at the bottom of the list among major developed-world countries in testing the fewest people. I’ve heard countless anecdotes about people both in Japan and the US who are being denied testing for the coronavirus on account of they don’t match precisely the right criteria, e.g. they don’t have severe enough symptoms or they haven’t been to China recently… These are people who are afraid they might infect others, and yet many are being told to just go home. I, also, was told by the US Embassy’s Crisis Hotline themselves that so long as I didn’t have symptoms I was safe to fly – no consideration at all given to whether I might be asymptomatic but contagious. (Granted, this was around March 6 or so, before things got more serious, but even so, I think it was serious enough already at the time that the nonchalant attitude of the fellow on the phone was just confusing to me: is this a concern, or not? The CDC, the Embassy, at that time, were still at a very “light” stage of things, saying “if you’re sick, then maybe quarantine, but if you’re not, no problem,” or something to that effect. Frankly, even all these weeks later, my office is largely saying the same; they haven’t suggested everyone work from home, they haven’t closed down the campus. In any case, the point is, especially at that earlier time, I felt like I was getting really mixed messages, and not clear information, and I found it very stressful.)

Many people are saying that the Abe administration, like Trump, has its eye mainly on preventing panic, protecting the economy, and protecting that the Olympics might still go forward – rather than actually doing what’s right, or what’s needed, for the safety of the people. (Now, finally, on Mar 22-24 or so, the government has started to shift from that, saying they may need to postpone the Olympics; I expect this will become even more solid within the next few days.) A lot of people don’t trust the government right now; and after Fukushima, why should they? I did see one article explaining that, actually, the Japanese government is operating in a reasonable and rational way, testing enough people to get a strong sense of the outbreak as a whole, not on the individual/medical level but on a society-wide epidemiological level, so that they can manage the spread. I’m not sure I buy it, but it was interesting to get a real explanation at least.

A snapshot from the live feed camera over Shibuya Crossing, right now, tonight Mar 24. Not nearly as busy as I expect it typically would be on a Tuesday evening, but still plenty of people out and about, not actively making sure to stay X meters away from one another; many of them not wearing masks, in part because so many stores are completely sold out of them.

But even as we keep hearing all this scary stuff, and even as so many events have been canceled, institutions closed, people encouraged to work from home or to adopt shifted working hours (so as to avoid such crowds at rush hour), even so, life goes on here in Tokyo largely unaffected. I’m curious (and terrified) to see how this might change in coming days and weeks, but for now, even as so much of the world is in lockdown to one extent or another, here, restaurants and shops are open, and a lot of people are still out and about, albeit fewer than the massive crowds we’re normally used to. To a certain extent, I’m glad. First of all, because for the first couple of weeks of March, I was right in the middle of moving apartments, and if stores closed, utilities companies or shipping/delivery companies stopped operating, or if more so than that we actually went into some kind of citywide lockdown situation, I would have gotten stuck either in a new apartment with no bed, no appliances, no internet, no hot water, or in my old apartment which I might have needed to vacate by March 16 (who knows exactly what exceptions might have been made… especially if they need the room so someone else can move in and themselves not be screwed by the situation). So, I’m glad I was able to go around and do my shopping for furniture, and to have appliances delivered, and to have the electric company answer the phones (especially since f***ing TEPCO has decided to not have any in-person customer service centers anymore, and that’s long before coronavirus).

Secondly, I was for a time glad things are still more or less running like normal, because in the early stages of this, or even in a situation like Italy’s where the hospitals are totally overrun and the whole medical system is breaking down, even there I would venture that the externally-imposed closings, quarantines, etc. and not the epidemic itself exacerbate the difficulty for most people multiple multiple times over. Between people who can’t work, people whose small businesses (or not so small businesses) are going to be terribly strained or even go under, and so forth. But, that said, of course, we now understand that it’s **essential**, absolutely essential, to lock things down as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing, on a society-wide level, and probably more than just “social distancing,” we need to isolate ourselves, self-quarantine, as much as possible, if we all, as a city, as a country, are going to slow down the spread of this disease enough that we can manage to keep it at bay enough that the medical system won’t get overburdened. Flatten the curve, as people have been saying – so that instead of an insane number of cases all at once, maybe there might be more cases that don’t happen until later, until after there’s been more time for preparation, the development of treatments, etc., and until after X number of people with the virus have recovered [or died, I’m sorry to say] and thus opened up hospital beds, ventilators, etc.

But what’s scary is the false sense of security. As some have started to say in the last few weeks, with a situation like this, it very often can feel perfectly fine right up until it’s not. Italy in particular, but Iran and other places as well, saw such rapid changes of circumstances over a matter of just days. Going right from having a nationwide number of cases in the 2- or 3-digits to 4-digits in a matter of days. Going from cautionary measures to full lockdown. New York, too. The days bleed together, time feels like it’s flowing at such a very different rate than usual, but I think if I remember right it was only a few days ago that New York was just not quite there yet. And now they’ve got 5% of the cases in the world, 5x the attack rate of most other places, and a city-wide “stay at home” order or whatever exactly they’re calling it in New York.

Japan seems to be way behind the curve, in terms of many workplaces still saying “stay home if you’re sick,” and just wash your hands and be careful, rather than “we’re closing down. No one come in to work” or the like. I gather that a great many workplaces – or mine, at least – haven’t budged from that level for weeks. But does that mean it’s because things are actually okay here? Are we going to get put on lockdown tomorrow or the next day or the next day? I’ve been asking myself that question for at least a week and a half. It’s impossible to know.

The 7-11 near my new apartment, with plenty of canned mackerel and Monster energy drinks right up front by the door, because obviously that’s what people need to be stocking up on the most.

It’s a strange feeling, to be amidst such an incredibly uncertain, stress-inducing, emotional time, and yet at the same time find it actually pretty relaxing. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to compare, but when my mother passed away, it was in mid or late April, I don’t actually remember the date at all, but while it was in some respects the darkest, saddest day in my entire life, it was a sunny, breezy, happy day. The last few days before I heard that she’d gotten worse, before I knew that end was near, happened to be days of sunny warm weather, flowers blooming, birds singing.

When I read about the current pandemic situation online, or put my thoughts to worrying about it, I am in fact terribly worried, terribly scared, about how long this global societal shutdown might last, and the economic consequences. If “this is my life now” for so many of us, for how long might that remain the case? To say it might be a few weeks or a few months, well, that feels manageable. It’s only temporary, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.Though even if it does last just a few weeks, or a few months, who knows how that might actually feel on a day-by-day basis. The days certainly seem to be flowing much more slowly lately. The faster events change, the easier it is to feel like “I can’t believe it was only X days ago that this or that event happened.” Here it is, March 24, and so much has happened, I can’t believe it’s been only X days since we first heard of Italy going into lockdown, only X days before that that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, only X days before that that we first heard about the first cases coming out of China. … And now we’re seeing reports that according to some studies, some extrapolation models, we may need to stay in lockdown for up to 18 months (!?!), until such time as the vaccine can be mass-produced and administered to everyone in society, if we want to avoid millions of deaths. And, of course, that comes with tons of complications, whether the virus will mutate and the vaccine won’t be as effective.. All kinds of things. And in the meantime, whether it’s a (relatively mild) several-week or several-month slow down, or something like an 18 month lockdown, the economy is going to suffer hugely. How can we even think about the broader societal, economic, impact of so many small businesses going out of business, so many individuals losing their jobs (and then their homes, going bankrupt, etc., whatever may happen)? On a national level, on a national/global history level, this isn’t some blip. This has the potential to radically alter the balance of power, the quality of life, the status of conditions in many countries all around the world. As a historian and as a world traveler, I can’t help but think about that.

But as a person, of course, I’m also terribly worried and scared for my family, and more broadly for my friends and colleagues. My family has been lucky. From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to countless storms I don’t remember the names of, we’ve never lost a family member in any such disaster, and we’ve never lost our house. But my father and most of my aunts+uncles are over 65; my brother is young, and has no particular dramatic health conditions; but even so, contrary to earlier reports from China, Korea, and elsewhere, I’m now hearing that some significant percentage of young people who’ve gotten sick, 20-30% in some places, as high as 50% in some places, have developed truly severe or critical (whatever the precise technical term may be) cases.

If I should lose my father or my brother in this, I don’t know what I would do. It would be world-changing for me. I can’t even think about it. It would be so devastating.

And beyond that, I am fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues all around the world. Hearing that *any* of them have gotten sick and died from this – or even “just” lost their job, lost their house, whatever it may be – is a horrific thought. I just hope and hope and hope that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll all make it out okay at the end.

Not much to look at, I suppose, but, fwiw, on the left, some very simple french toast I made, with real genuine Canadian maple syrup which was a gift from a friend. On the right, my workspace, my world for the next X weeks.

But, even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but find this “self-isolation,” for the time being at least, to be rather relaxing and productive. Even while I am continuing to press forward on the work I’m supposed to be doing for work, devoting more or less the normal amount of time that I would to it (something like 20-30 hrs/wk), it’s wonderful to not commute, it’s wonderful to not feel that pressure of being in the office. I’m extremely fortunate to have a work situation where my supervisors aren’t present to physically see whether I’m ever in the office or not (they work in a different building), my coworkers aren’t interested in policing me or anything, and even on paper, officially, my schedule is pretty flexible: get the work done for our project, but also nip off and do what you need to as often as you need to, to continue making progress on your own research. That’s also part of the job, part of the professional obligations/expectations. I count myself exceptionally grateful to have landed such a position. But even despite the flexibility of that position, there’s still something about working a 9-to-5, going into the office, trying to devote yourself to a single project for 8 hours a day, that’s just tiring and draining… Being home, I find myself much more productive. And, we’ll see how I feel in a few more days, cabin fever and so forth, but for now at least, telling myself to stay home and to not go out to cafes or anything – forcing myself to stay home – has meant I’m not wasting time on my off-days traveling to some other neighborhood, walking around looking for a cafe to work at, getting antsy after just a couple hours, walking around looking for a different cafe to work at… or going to museums or anything else. So, while I’m definitely sad that so many institutions are closed and am missing that, the art, the theatre, the research trips, the little trips to explore different cafes/restaurants, being home means I’m actually getting a lot more done – whether that means actual work, or if it means blogging, connecting with friends, whatever it may be, I’m getting things done that I haven’t otherwise. And it’s a very nice feeling.

I know that’s an absurd note to end on. But this entire post is just tentative. Just some thoughts, somewhat stream of thought. Not truly fully considered, and it’s not meant to be. Just some thoughts, for now. We’ll see how things develop.

In the meantime, I am thinking about my friends and family all around the world. I hope you are all safe and healthy. I hope that you all remain so. This crisis is unbelievable. Larger and crazier and deadlier than most things we’ve actively, directly, had to experience and deal with in our lives. For most of us, anyway. Of course, there are those who are refugees from warzones, and who knows how many other different stories. But I think about my friends who are doctors and healthcare professionals otherwise, living an incredibly different life from the rest of us right now, devoting all of their time and energy, even more so than usual, to trying to save as many lives as possible amidst nearly impossible conditions. And I think of all the people I’ve met, however tangentially, in my life and in my travels, who for one reason or another, in one way or another, don’t have the luxury to just stay home. People without job security, people without health insurance. I’m worried about my home country, and about Japan, and about our world. But at the same time, I’m also at home, sleeping and eating and watching Netflix, and making more progress on my work than I have in months. I think the most any of us can do is to just do what we can, make do as best as we can.

JoJo Rabbit

I had heard good things about this film, heard it was funny. I was nervous at first, of course, because it’s a movie about Nazis, and that’s a difficult and complicated topic for me, as it is for a lot of people. But, I trust Taika Waititi (who, let’s not forget, is Jewish on his mother’s side), and Scarlett Johanssen (also Jewish), and even more than that, I’d just heard kind of general buzz, that it was a good film.

So, ultimately, I went into the film unconcerned, ready to have a good time. Within minutes of leaving the theatre at the end, I was bawling my eyes out. This was in part because Jojo loses his mother, and I’ve lost my mother, and it’s still a very raw spot for me. I think maybe it always will be. And because as the credits rolled, I for some reason started thinking about wanting to visit my grandparents’ village in Poland, and being there and what it might be like, and what it might be like to call my dad from there and surprise him that I was there… and thinking about all of that brought up some rather complex emotions.

But there was more to it, that I couldn’t quite put into words at the time; to a certain extent, I didn’t even know what I was upset about. But, a day later, having had some time to stew, and watching a lengthy and very interesting interview with Waititi about the film, I’m starting to put it together.

We are supposed to believe that Nazis, most of all, perhaps more than any other group of people in all of history, were just straight-up, irrevocably, unredeemably, bad people. We’re supposed to believe that anyone who went along with it was equally complicit, equally guilty, equally horrible. And, of course, in terms of outcomes, that’s certainly true. All of these people, who joined or otherwise supported the Nazi cause, regardless of their inner hesitations or justifications, even so they contributed to – or at the very least did not resist sufficiently against – the horrors of that time. The political system which utterly destroyed the lives of millions upon millions. And my own family among them. My grandparents survived horrors I cannot imagine myself ever braving; they lost countless friends and family to the gas chambers, to firing squads, to labor camps. They lost community, their homes and hometowns, an entire way of life. …

And I was raised to believe since childhood that if anything like that were to ever happen again, that we would do everything in our power to prevent it from happening. That we would protest, we would fight, we would resist. But I’ve always known that in such a circumstance, I’m not the guy who joins the resistance; I’m not the guy with either the brains or the brawn, or the mental/emotional fortitude or courage to survive and to fight. We all want to believe we would be heroes. But I’ve known for a long time that when the revolution comes – whether it’s fascists, communists, or something else – I’d simply be among the victims. I don’t know how to fire a gun. I don’t know how to keep hidden. I’d be caught, and I’d be killed. I hope I’d be killed, and not tortured, or put to hard labor, or whatever it may be.

But we’re getting a bit away from the point. The point is, we are supposed to believe that everyone should resist. That everyone has the equal power to resist. That everyone who doesn’t is just as fucking guilty as all the rest. And, sure, if we take the example of the countless Republicans who are still saying today that they don’t like X, Y, or Z about Trump but even so he’s doing good for the economy or whatever; people who try to distance themselves from the horrific things he’s doing… as my friend who I saw the film with helped me see quite clearly, by voting for him, by continuing to support him, by continuing to support Senators who have acquitted him, they are complicit. This blood is on their hands. They had a choice – even if they did nothing else, they had a choice to vote differently, and they have refused. They have chosen to vote for racism, sexism, for hate.

But in this film, we see children who don’t know any better. Children who have been taught to believe all these things about nationalism and Aryan supremacy and Jew-hatred and all the rest, and it’s not their fault. We’re given an image of the Hitler Jugend that really isn’t all that different from the Boy Scouts, and figures like Capt. Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), Finkel (Alfie Allen), and Frau Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who, while most certainly are not “good guys” by any stretch of the imagination, are also not quite the kind of intentionally evil, deliberately, fundamentally evil, Nazi figures we see in just about every other movie. We get the impression that they are people somehow, in one way or another, just sort of caught up in all of this. And what sense do we have about the townspeople? …. I am not saying that these various adults in Jojo’s life are necessarily sympathetic figures. We don’t really get a sense that they question or oppose the Nazi ideology all that much, if at all. I don’t think that overall as a film it’s a film that’s sympathetic to Nazi ideology. Not hardly. As Waititi has explained many a time, and as I think his performance as Hitler shows, it’s about satirizing them, about showing them for being ridiculous, absurd, and vulnerable. It’s about defanging them, making them less fearsome, and perhaps also contributing to, in the process, making them less impressive, less of an ideal model for neo-Nazis and the like today.

Actors dressed as Nazi soldiers, taking a break from filming on the streets of Dublin. June 2007. Photo my own.

But even so. Rosie says she does what she can, she does the best that she can. She’s actively part of the resistance in some way; to what extent exactly, we’re not sure. Waititi had to be sure to make her a particularly sympathetic figure; and yet, even so, she’s not some superhero. She’s just a woman doing what she can. Am I doing enough? Am I doing what I can? I know I’m certainly voicing good opinions, trying to stay on the right side of things. I’ve put a few tens of dollars – not much, I know, but something – towards the people I believe to be the best candidates. I’ve written many emails, made phone calls, sent letters. Not nearly as many as some people, but I’ve done some. And I will vote for those people I believe to be the best candidates. But I’m also going to work, and going out with friends, and trying to continue my life. I’m not ignoring protests outside my door and refusing to join them; there are no protests right outside my door to join.

If the current Left/progressive attitude is that a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi, and that a racist is a racist, regardless of nuance or complexity or degree or level or extent; and simultaneously also that all of us, most especially white people, are complicit simply by existing, and that if we are not doing everything in our power to contribute to the overturning of this racist society – “it’s not enough to just be not racist, you have to be anti-racist” – then that means that all of us, all of us, are horrible horrible people. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I haven’t been doing enough, but also thinking what can I do? What, really, truly, on a practical right here, right now, in my actual day-to-day life, what am I actually capable of doing to help? …. And so I cried.

The general attitude in Japan is that everyone was a victim of the militarist/ultranationalist ideology. That it was foisted upon them, that they were educated into it, that for the vast majority of people it wasn’t their fault. That that was simply the times they lived in. … I know a lot of people would say that’s simply justification; excuses; an easy out. Just like white people are constantly looking for excuses, for justifications. But I’m not strong enough to face this face-on. And no one wants to ever have conversations about it – they want to just call you a racist, call you complicit, call you guilty, and leave it to you to do better. And that makes sense, of course, on a certain level .By all means. But then even so. ….

And here you have Jojo and Elsa, with no parents, trying to make their way, trying to make a living, trying to find food, in a bombed out city, surrounded by Americans who don’t speak German…. how are they going to live? And are they ultimately going to get tired of each other, or frustrated or angry, or resentful, and leave one another? And then they’ll both be even more alone, more lost, more screwed amidst this wartorn devastation….? …. And so I cried.