Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Taiwanese Identity

My interest in Ryukyu/Okinawa has begun to pull me towards a stronger interest in Korea and Taiwan… or, perhaps it is an interest in the less-central, less-discussed, which brings me to all three.

A couple weeks ago I got to sit in on a class in Taiwanese “humanities”, as a guest speaker, T.Y. Wang from Illinois State University, gave an interesting talk on Taiwanese identity. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that over the last decade or two, the percentage of people who identify as “Taiwanese” has grown dramatically, while the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify as “Chinese” has shrunk to single digit percentage points. The vast majority (around 80% according to Wang’s numbers) support independence if it can be obtained without war, and similar numbers (70-75%) support what is called “Double Renunciation,” having Taiwan renounce any intentions to push for official de jure independence, in exchange for the PRC renouncing the use of military force against Taiwan – in other words, more solidly & officially reinforcing the status quo. (My sincere apologies, by the way, if I mistake or misrepresent any of this – I know this is a sensitive issue, and I am only just beginning to learn about it; so please do correct me.)

From the 1940s-80s, Taiwan was under the martial law of the KMT, a Mainland Chinese political party which in the 228 Incident of 1947, and the forty-year White Terror period which followed, imprisoned, “disappeared,” and on occasions even massacred Taiwanese elites who opposed their rule, or who were suspected of Communist leanings. Though Mainlanders (Han Chinese) make up only about 12% of the Taiwanese population today (I suspect numbers were similar in the past), with 10% Hakka and 77% Minnan, throughout this period they were the dominant group, inspiring much ethnic political tensions.

Authoritarian rule came to an end in the 1990s and was replaced by truer, freer democracy, resentment by Minnan and Hakka people about being ruled by Mainlanders (those who came with the KMT in 1949 or before or afterwards, and were closely associated with the party) was replaced by a stronger feeling of equality, and according to Prof. Wang, ethnic divisions are not nearly as much a source of tension as they once were. Furthermore, with the de-Sinicization policies of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000-2008 came an even stronger collective notion of “Taiwanese” identity, regardless of Han, Minnan, or Hakka background. This Taiwanese identity, support for independence, and a distancing from, or drop-off of, Chinese identity, is buoyed all the more by bullying from Beijing; while Beijing may think it is punishing a rebel province, or using isolation and sanctions to drive Taiwan to have no choice but to return to Chinese control, such bullying has only hardened the resistance. One student in the class even spoke passionately about fears, especially among the younger Taiwanese generation such as himself, that China’s policy of economic integration with Taiwan is in fact a Trojan Horse – as it leads to Taiwanese businessmen who enjoy good business interactions with China, and indeed whose business success and personal livelihoods rely on good relations with China, gaining in economic and then political influence in Taiwan, a very valid concern, I think, given the excessive political influence of wealthy individuals, and of corporate special interests, in our own country.

The streets of Jiufen, Taiwan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These are pretty much the highlights of the talk. And there’s a lot in there; a lot that gets me thinking about Okinawa, and about other places around the world. The comparisons are quite intriguing, though in most cases it’s more of a contrast, coming at similar issues from opposite directions. Taiwan is, of course, in a particularly special position in the world, being de facto independent, perhaps one of the most strongly and long-lastingly de facto independent states in the world without having much official recognition. By contrast, Okinawa used to be properly independent, and is no longer, having been annexed, colonized, assimilated by Japan. Okinawans are historically, traditionally, a separate people from the Japanese, in terms of language, culture, historical political association & structure, even genetically. But, the idea of people throughout the island chain, from Yonaguni up through Okinawa Island, considering themselves “Ryukyuan” or “Okinawan” is a relatively new concept, as under the Kingdom, people of each island would have associated far more strongly with their island, and many may have even seen the Okinawans as conquerors, foreign interlopers, occupiers; the languages are certainly different enough. It is only in the modern era (since the late 19th century), as a result of the formation of Okinawa Prefecture, and the administrative, economic, and political constructions of that, along with assimilationist public education curricula, I would wager, that people in Miyako and Yaeyama began to consider themselves “Okinawan,” and all the more so as an identity in solidarity with the people of Okinawa Island, against the Japanese colonial overlords. Here too, in Okinawa as in Taiwan, identity is contingent upon how people perceive themselves to be treated by the metropole (Tokyo), and here, too, particularly explicitly in recent weeks and months, there is a case of the metropole government bullying, or punishing, a distant province (prefecture) for acting up, or acting out, against national interests. (See Shingetsu News’ tweet from Jan 10 2015: “Abe govt official tells Jiji that Okinawa budget cuts are because “it is necessary to reward good conduct and punish bad.””)1

The Ryukyus, as seen on a Pacific map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

But, bringing it back to Taiwan, one of the things I find so fascinating about Taiwanese identity is that we can practically see a new ethnic identity forming before our eyes – and thus serving as a stark example of how ethnicity isn’t necessarily really tied to genetic/racial origins, but is more complicated than that. For many people, “Taiwanese” may be purely a nationalistic, political identity, but I have no doubt (though I also have no surveys or studies immediately at hand) that for many others, they see their cultural identity as different enough from “Chinese” that they really consider themselves members of a different people entirely.

Prof. Wang is a political scientist, and so it comes as no surprise that his survey data about “Chinese” identity pertains to asking people whether they consider themselves 「中国人」 (Zhongguoren), “people of China.” It is certainly interesting to see the shrinking proportion of people who still think of Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” and/or as the legitimate government of all of China, and to consider how this plays out conceptually – if one thinks of Taiwan not as the “Republic of China,” not as “China” at all, then, yeah, your conception of being (politically) Chinese is going to diminish, and a sense of being “Taiwanese” is going to emerge. But, I was sad to see that he did not in today’s talk delve much at all into the nuances and meanings of the ways in which people do or do not still consider themselves culturally or ethnically Chinese. The question about being 「中国人」 is an interesting one, but I would have liked to also see the data for “do you consider yourself 「中華人」, and what does that mean to you?” I’m sure there’s all kinds of nuance I’m failing to grasp, or even if I am grasping it, I may be failing to express it properly, so forgive me, but as I understand it, 「中華」 (Zhonghua) means, roughly, “Chinese culture” or “Chinese civilization,” in a sort of trans-historical or solely tied-to-tradition sort of way, divorced from the connotations of today’s post-1911 or post-1949 political context. Essentially, it’s a word closely related to the concept of the Chinese diaspora – a diaspora which has existed in Singapore, Malaysia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia since the Ming Dynasty, if not earlier; we’re not talking only about late 19th-21st century immigration to Hawaii, North America, Europe, and so forth. Anyway, my question is, for a Taiwanese who identifies as Zhonghuaren (or whatever the appropriate term may be), or for a Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does Zhonghua mean to them? And for the Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does being “Taiwanese” mean to them? The idea of being “culturally Chinese” or associating oneself with “Chinese culture” may seem simple on the surface, but drawing upon my knowledge of East Asian history & culture, and my own personal thoughts on my identity as a Jew, I would hazard that there are several different parts, or different categories to this. First, there is the folk culture, folk practice, everyday lifestyle culture aspect of a cultural identity. There are presumably many Taiwanese who, by virtue of the fact that they speak Chinese, read/write Chinese, use chopsticks, eat Chinese food, follow (at least some version of) Confucian ethics, and so forth, consider themselves to have some connection to Chinese culture, or Chinese identity. And there are likely those who consider their Taiwanese dialect/language, Taiwanese food, and so forth to be different enough from Standard Mandarin and from either Shanghai or Beijing food and culture that they see Taiwanese culture as a distinctive thing. And, to be sure, for those who might point to fashion, cafés & teahouses, 7-11, boba tea, honey toast, and Taiwanese shaved ice, and other aspects of postmodern contemporary streetlife culture, not to mention various aspects of Japanese influence, etc., I wouldn’t blame them for seeing something distinctive about Taiwanese culture.

Trailer for “Cape No. 7,” the second highest-grossing film in Taiwanese history; it brings together Chinese, Japanese, traditional, modern, histories and culture and shows Taiwan’s unique (different from mainland China) history and culture.

I wonder to what extent people think about, or identify by virtue of, being Minnan or Hakka rather than Han (or, conversely, to what extent they consider themselves Han even if of Minnan or Hakka background), or how strongly the idea of their family, their lineage being in Taiwan since the Qing, or since the Ming, figures into all of this. … Coming back around, I said First is folk culture.

But, then there is high culture. I wonder, to what extent, even for those who do see their folk culture and their pop culture as being distinctive enough, separate enough, to consider it Taiwanese, and combining this with a strong political association with being Taiwanese, and not Chinese, to what extent do these people also see themselves as claiming no relation or connection to the greatness of Chinese civilization? This is something Prof. Wang began to hint at. Zhongguo (中国, “China”) does not only mean the People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China. It also means a historical China. He didn’t get into it at all, to my disappointment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people who, even while completely rejecting any association with the PRC, might still see themselves as descended from, or having some association with, the culture of the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, Qing; the culture which claims a history stretching back over 4,000 years; a culture which produced such great poetry, painting, calligraphy, music, architecture, drama; a culture which invented paper, the compass, and so much else besides; a country which, historically, was the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful country in the world for centuries and centuries. I know it sounds like I’m building up to something, but I promise I do not mean to. I am neither critical nor disbelieving of those who might articulate their Taiwanese/Chinese identity differently – I just find it a very interesting question. To truly sever oneself from those things, to truly identify oneself with Taiwan and only with Taiwan, is to take up an identity that is at its most fundamental core something very different. Not bad, not inferior – just different. And, then, what is that Taiwanese identity that one takes up? Is it an “island country” (島国) identity akin to that of the Okinawans and the Japanese? Is it one that has some particular relationship to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who today represent less than 2% of the population of the island? Indigenous peoples aside, Taiwan has only about 400, not 4000, years of history. It’s an interesting history, with Dutch and Portuguese trading bases, which were driven out by Ming loyalists who were also active pirates and who were the dominant power on the island for quite a few decades until the Qing drove them out, after which the island was controlled by the Qing for over 200 years and inhabited by a mix of Chinese peoples who settled there at various times across the generations, and then by the Japanese for about 50, before becoming the home of the KMT government in exile in 1949. It’s an interesting history, but it’s also a short one. Films by Wei Te-Sheng, such as Cape No. 7 (trailer above), Seediq Bale, and the 2014 film KANO (dir. by Umin Boya, a member of the Seediq tribe), show that very vibrant, multi-cultural, complex history, or rather, one view of it, one perspective on it. It’s a complex topic, to be sure… I look forward eagerly to visiting Taiwan some day, and to learning more about their history otherwise.

——
1) At the risk of incurring trolling or flamewar by bringing up Israel, here too, with some parallels to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, we have a case of a democratic country where a great many of the citizens have been put on the defensive, their resolve hardened, and their inclination to vote more conservative/right-wing, both by pressure from international diplomatic action (e.g. UN resolutions, EU resolutions) and by independent movements and protests such as the despicable Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and by terrorist attacks. I very much appreciate what supporters of BDS, Hamas, and these UN & EU resolutions think they are doing, “punishing bad [conduct],” to paraphrase Shinzô Abe; showing their disapproval and putting pressure on an oppressive regime. But, counter to their desires, and truly to no one’s benefit at all, such pressure has only hardened the resolve of Israel’s right-wingers. This is not the way to bring peace to the Middle East, my friends. The only way to do that is elimination of the terrorists.

Somehow I didn’t hear about this until just now, and didn’t catch it when I watched Kôhaku myself, but apparently the Southern All-Stars’ performance of their song “Peace and Hi-Lite” at the annual New Year’s Kôhaku Uta Gassen event (broadcast on NHK, and watched by about 35-42% of Japanese households) earned the ire of many right-wingers.

This is the same band which wrote & performs “Heiwa no Ryûka” (“Ryukyuan song of Peace”) about which I’ve blogged over on my tumblr. It’s a pretty boldly political song, asking “who decided that this land is at peace?,” and then going on to speak of Okinawa under the American “umbrella,” of the way Okinawa’s people were abandoned, or forsaken, and how the wounds of the past have still not yet been allowed to heal (or, that Okinawa and its people have not yet been allowed to recover)… I wish they might have sung this at Kôhaku, especially right now as protesters against the military base they are building continue to be harassed and arrested at Henoko. But, I don’t think we can reasonably expect that such a thing would happen at a show like Kôhaku, which is so much about coming together as a country, to remember the previous year and look towards a positive future… such a political song would never play at an equivalently mainstream patriotic event in the US, either, would it?

Of course, the Japanese relationship with political satire (and the resulting relative lack of it in Japan e.g. as compared to the Daily Show, The Onion, and countless other satire venues in the US), goes far beyond that.

In any case, in the Southern All-Stars’ first Kôhaku appearance in 31 years, leader Kuwata Keisuke started by appearing with a stick-on Hitler mustache. Some have said it was more meant to reference a comedian, Cha Kato, and I hope it wasn’t meant as a direct intimation of comparison of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Hitler, as that really is going too far, or is just misplaced, when it comes to just about anyone alive today. But, still, I think anything that draws attention to the fact that Abe’s policy positions & rhetoric smell of the authoritarianism and damaging ultra-nationalism of the 1930s, are more than deserved. Tell it like it is. Japan is seeing more protests today than our stereotypical imagining of the oh-so compliant (that’s not the word I’m looking for; what is it?) Japanese would ever have it – and for damn good reason. Get people mobilized, get people talking. Abe and his people need to go.

I won’t rehash any further the details of the event and right-wing reactions to it. You can read more about it at Global Voices Online, Japan Times, and the Asahi Shimbun (all in English).

What I will do, though, since no one else is doing it, is provide a translation of the lyrics. First, of “Peace and Hi-Lite,” the song they performed at Kôhaku this year:

I happened to look at the news today
The neighbors are angry
Even now no matter what dialogues we have
The various contentions don’t change

Textbooks run out of time
Before reading modern history
Even though that’s what we want to know most
Why does it turn out like this?

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Until the flowers of peace bloom in the future … Blue [Melancholy/Depression]
Is it a pipe dream? Is it a fairytale?
To wish for one another’s happiness, etc.

Wouldn’t it be good to come together and help one another
check our history?
Raising a heavy fist
Won’t open hearts

A world ruled by an emperor without any clothes
Waging disputes
By convenient explanations ([claiming] a just cause) is … Insane
We should have learned by experience [being disgusted by] the 20th century, right?
This is just the flaring up of old sputtering embers

There are various considerations, though
Understand one another’s good points!

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Being born into this beautiful world (hometown)
A sad past and foolish actions too
Why do people forget these things?

Don’t hesitate to love.

And, the lyrics to Heiwa no Ryûka (video above), an even more explicitly, directly, political song, about the Battle of Okinawa, and the continuing US military presence there today:

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
Even as people’s tears have not dried

Under America’s umbrella
We saw a dream
At the end of the war in which the people were forsaken

The blue moon is crying.
There are things which cannot be forgotten.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people whose wounds have not healed
In order to it pass down

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
As atonement for one’s filthy self

Why do you refuse
To live like people?
You soldiers gathered next door.

The blue moon is crying.
There is a past which is not yet over.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people who don’t forget the song
Until the day when someday the flower blooms

Thanks to J-Lyric.net for the Japanese lyrics. Translations are my own; my apologies for any mistakes or awkwardness in the translation.

I went down to LA recently, to LACMA, to see this Samurai show which I had heard was all the thing. And it certainly was. Like many people, my interest in Japan started with a middle-school and high-school boyish enthusiasm for cool awesome samurai battles, and so forth; my interests later shifted, away from such things, towards popular arts and theatre, and the vibrant cultural life otherwise of a realm at peace, once the samurai wars ended. But, boy was this a great exhibit. It certainly served those intrigued or obsessed with the samurai – one kid, maybe about 7 or 8, who I saw several times over the course of the day, running around taking pictures with his iPad, was just so excited… I’m glad to see him having such fun, and taking such an interest. And, I’m glad to see a non-Western and non-modern show featured in the main central Special Exhibits hall. Not that that’s so unusual for LACMA, a museum with an entire pavilion dedicated to Japanese art, and most likely the largest Korean galleries in the country.

The label descriptions – which I presume came with the exhibit and were not by LACMA curators – really brought out the appreciation for the craftsmanship, design, and aesthetic quality that Mr and Mrs Barbier-Mueller clearly see, and thus helped me too see and appreciate these objects not just as cool awesome artifacts of a romanticized warrior class, but as art objects.

One thing that did bug me, however, was that the exhibit reifies, reinforces, rather than challenging, the myth of Bushido. It doesn’t come up too often, thank god, but here and there you see labels talking about the noble, honorable, spiritual moral code of the samurai. Bushidô as we know it comes mainly from two periods: (1) the Edo period (1600-1868), when books like Hagakure and the Book of Five Rings, and plays like Chushingura (47 Ronin), were written, long after the fighting ended, and at a time when samurai are struggling with their identity as “warriors,” and trying to reclaim something, and (2) the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan in an attempt to describe something in Japan equivalent to Europe’s chivalry, in order to support arguments and ideas that Japan had just as noble a tradition, and a history, as Europe. Very much a product of his time, Nitobe was not a historian, nor really an expert in samurai philosophy, but rather an expert on race and colonial studies (as such things were understood by, e.g. the British and French at that time as well), eager to find a way to put Japan on equal footing among the great powers of the world, such that the Western powers would not see Japan as lesser or inferior. The word “bushido” was so little known in Japan in 1901 that Nitobe is said to have believed he was inventing (coining) it.

A helmet by Masuda Myôchin, c. 1730, bearing the seal of the Matsudaira clan.

Looking at the show, and thinking about these issues, inspired me to think of how I might like to do a samurai show in future, if I were ever to get to curate one:

*Contrast the samurai arms & armor with paintings and other works that emphasize Japan’s peaceful and highly cultured artistic heritage. In any samurai show, there will always be those visitors who take it as supporting their understanding that Japan is somehow inherently, has always been and always will be, a militarist country. I suppose one response to such ignorance would be to just ignore it, but another possibility is to educate. Japan is now, and has always been, a country with deep aesthetic appreciation (at least among elites, prior to the Edo period), and since the 1600s, a very lively urban commoner culture, including beautiful paintings, pottery, architecture, poetry, and so on and so forth. And, let’s not forget that Japan was (with the exception of peasant rebellions here and there) at peace for over 200 years in the 1640s-1850s. How many countries can claim that?

*On a somewhat similar note, I would love to do a show that emphasizes the samurai in the Edo period – display and pageantry. Catering to the popular desire for cool, awesome, samurai warriors, most samurai shows focus on the samurai during the Sengoku Period, the age of the country at war, and then sort of say, well, most of the arms & armor we have today in our collections and on display is not from that period, but it would have been largely kind of sort of similar. Instead of showing Edo period objects and identifying them as simply being a later version of what things would have looked like during the height of samurai warfare, I’d rather do a show that is wholly situated within the Edo period. This is how samurai of the Edo period lived, this is the role of parade armor in politics of display and pageantry. The exhibit would talk about how the samurai identity changed in the Edo period, and how a warrior class that was now a bureaucracy, now struggled to define or redefine, to understand, their identity as “samurai.” We could describe it not as a “decline,” but simply as the next stage, and if anything, it’s a “rise,” as the samurai develop more fully into cultured and cultural elites.

Triptych, Snow, Moon, and Flower, by Tokugawa Nariaki, Lord of Mito, c. 1840-1860. LACMA Collection.

Returning to talking about the LACMA exhibit, the Barbier-Mueller Collection includes many beautiful pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised with how many are identifiably associated with rather major families. The structure and display of this special exhibit was impressive, really impactful. But, for me, I quite enjoyed the sort of complementary exhibit they were hosting on the other end of the museum complex, in the Japan Pavilion. Since the Barbier-Mueller Collection, or at least those objects loaned to LACMA, includes mostly armor, and very few weapons, LACMA supplemented the exhibit with a great show of samurai paintings, prints, pottery, and yes, weapons. This show included many pieces borrowed from Tetsugendo.com, and the Museum of Global Antiquities (which, interestingly, I cannot seem to find, or find out about, at all from basic Google searches); between those and LACMA’s own collection, I was kind of amazed to see sword accessories crafted by Miyamoto Musashi himself, and blades by Muramasa and some of the other most famous swordsmiths in Japanese history, as well as examples of weapons like Japanese matchlock guns that we just don’t see very much of. A triptych of calligraphy scrolls by Tokugawa Nariaki – one of the most prominent and influential figures in Japan’s supposed “opening” to the West in the 1850s, and a member of one of the top samurai families in the country, was a highlight as well. One cannot help but wonder why such a thing is not in the Tokugawa Art Museum, local Mito area museum or archives, or the like, and how it came to be owned by LACMA.

Anyway, I suppose this review has sort of petered out. But, if you’re in the area and you’re into samurai armor and such, do check out Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at LACMA, before it closes on Feb 1st!

All photos are my own. Thanks so much to LACMA and the Barbier-Mueller Collection for allowing photography in the exhibit!

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

I don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

I have had my eyes set on seeing “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society for quite some time, and after Kathryn’s review of the catalog on her blog, I was all the more excited for it. Garden of Unearthly Delights is Japan Society’s latest show of contemporary Japanese art, featuring works by Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi – two artists they also featured in their exhibit Bye Bye Kitty a few years ago, and who I’ve written about before – as well as works by a collective known as teamlab.

The show opens with a series of works by Ikeda. I had previously only seen his “History of Rise and Fall” and “Existence“, which were included in Bye Bye Kitty. To see these other works now gives a larger sample size, so to speak, and thus a better sense of what type of thing he does. This first gallery is painted a light blue, and there is a sense of calm, happy, uplifting beauty. His works feature flourishing nature – trees and grasses, and beautiful blue waters – as well as birds and people living vibrant lives amidst it. There are bits of ruins, giving the sense of a society building a brighter future atop the ruins of industrial steel-and-concrete modernity. There is a sense of hope, and of just beauty, in these astonishingly painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink pieces.

Ikeda Manabu, “Imprint” (2011). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Detail.

But then, as we enter the next room, there is great sadness and contemplation, too. A copy of Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (which seemed oddly boldly put out in bright lights, but then again Prussian blue isn’t so fugitive, so I guess maybe it’s okay?) echoes Ikeda’s “Foretoken”, his largest work yet. But before we get to looking at that any more closely, there is “Imprint,” done in 2011 while Ikeda was an artist-in-residence at a program in Vancouver. Much has been said since 3/11 about the beauty and yet destructive power of nature as a theme in Japanese art & literature, especially since 3/11; I’m not sure I have anything more eloquent or meaningful to add on that point.

Here we see brilliant blue water and white crests of foam, what would be a beautiful, entrancing, ocean scene, like the brilliant blue of the waters off a Hawaiian or Okinawan vacation beach… except for the red torii peeking out in the darkness beneath the waves. Though “Foretoken” was made in 2008, it eerily predicts (foretokens) the terrible tsunamis of March 11, 2011, which so ravaged not only much of the Tôhoku coast, but also had great impacts upon Japanese national identity and social/political/cultural discourse. I was not in Japan on 3/11, nor for several years afterwards. But I have heard professors speak who were there, especially anthropologists & sociologists who more so than us historians are keenly in touch with the contemporary, and it is evident that this has had a profound impact upon them, and in their eyes, upon Japan, in ways beyond what I myself might perceive or be aware of.

Above: Ikeda Manabu, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Below: Detail.

In large pieces like “Foretoken,” or like “History of Rise and Fall,” Ikeda says he thinks of new ideas as he works. Both of these pieces are giant jumbles of new and old, manmade and natural. A red-bottomed industrial-looking ship is beached, practically embedded in the rocky mountainside. Trees grow out of a giant crack in its side, and birds fly past, while only a few inches away (on the work), skiers slide down snowy slopes. In another section of the work, people stand on a ledge formed by what looks like the remnants of a passenger jet’s wing, before a torii embedded in ice, while nearby a fire burns deep in the mountain. I am told the crests of the wave that dominates the piece are meant to resemble the shapes of the Japanese islands. Ikeda produces this works one pen-stroke at a time, with a simple nibbed fountain pen, and as he goes, filling in the textures of one square inch at a time, he apparently improvises and creates new “hidden” details – the skiers, the torii, a twisting green slide, a flock of birds – as he goes. A video in the small middle gallery shows Ikeda at work – it’s really kind of incredible how slowly the process goes. Ikeda even jokes that his guests – the host of the TV show this segment is from – won’t be able to really see any big change, in the brief time they’re filming.

I continue to learn new ways of looking at and thinking about art – perhaps it is a result of my recent readings & discussions about performance theory, but I found myself thinking, asking, not about the “meaning” of elements of these works, but rather about their effects. What effect does it have that Ikeda so often represents people and animals in white silhouette? I feel like it actually enhances the feeling of energy and dynamism of their interaction with the environment; they are not simply a part of the static scene depicted on the canvas, but are separate from it and yet embedded in it, interacting with the slopes, spans, and surfaces. Beyond that, I don’t know. What do you think?

Though Ikeda does not use traditional materials or techniques, and does not reference traditional aesthetics, subjects, or iconography as directly as Tenmyouya, his work speaks to Japanese identity and Japanese history in a way that makes him very solidly a “postmodernist” artist in my mind, even if not necessarily a Neo-Nihonga (neo-neo-traditional Japanese painting) artist as Tenmyouya describes himself. This is a theme I’ll return to in my last post about the exhibit, and explain further what I mean by “postmodern.” But, one thing that is often cited about Ikeda that does connect him to Japanese tradition is the idea of mastery, of taking a long time to do something very precisely, very carefully. The word takumi (巧, meaning “skill,” or 匠 meaning “master craftsman”) is often used to describe him. I don’t want to get into it here, but this is a big deal; I don’t know about in Japan, but one often gets the sense – and this is not just me talking; I’ve heard MFA Studio Art students themselves talk about it – that (post)modern art in the United States, especially as taught within MFA programs, has become so much about the theory and the conceptual, and so little about the skill or the technique. That showing great attention to masterful technique alone – showing that one has mastered their craft, or mastered the art of painting, the art of sculpture, the art of … etc. – makes Ikeda stand out as different, and as evoking tradition, really says something about the state of art today, don’t you think?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the teamlab installation, and Tenmyouya Hisashi’s works in this exhibit. Thanks for reading!

A big shout-out to the Japan Society Gallery for putting together this fantastic exhibit, and for allowing photographs! I know it’s difficult with contemporary art especially, given the active copyrights and such, but you made it work, where so many of your exhibits in the past it wasn’t allowed. Thank you! (After all, as a friend pointed out, what am I going to do with the photos anyway? Sure they’re up online now, but the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot digicam are nowhere near publication quality. If I really wanted to do anything real with them, I’d still need proper permissions; so, might as well allow photos, I guess? Right?

Garden of Unearthly Delights is open at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, at 1st Ave, NYC) until Jan 11. Go see it now! And, if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, Ikeda is currently artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Wisconsin Chazen Museum.

Are Ashkenazi Jews White?

An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, depicting “French Jews.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hila Hershkoviz posted an interesting op-ed/blog post in the Times of Israel recently, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent) are not white, and should stop self-identifying as such.

(This, in response to a Haaretz article on the somewhat separate but also powerfully important subject of “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” – in short, why Jews as white elites aren’t as active as we should be in continuing to fight racism, oppression, and discrimination against others, esp. as it pertains to Ferguson protests & systematic racism against blacks in our law enforcement & justice systems.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything Hershkoviz says here – in the end, I think the answer is more complicated than a simple white/non-white binary – but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

*First, let me begin with two critiques, or critical thoughts. One, while who we self-identify as is important, who others identify us as is equally powerful, if not more so, operating upon our conception of ourselves, and upon our interactions and position in society in different ways, on different planes. Regardless of how I identify, with whatever nuance I might use to describe my own identity to others, so long as others perceive me as “white” in a myriad of everyday interactions and systematic ways, I will benefit from, and be accused of, white privilege. White privilege is real, and I have genuinely benefited from it, both in my socio-economic status, and in how people regard me in everyday interactions.

It doesn’t matter if I carry around a copy of Hershkoviz’s article to show people. It doesn’t matter – and I say this genuinely, and not sarcastically or by way of complaint – that my grandparents were survivors of one of the worst attempted genocides in world history explicitly because they were not “white.” It doesn’t matter that no one in my family was in the US before 1900, and that I have no direct familial/ancestral ties to any of the whites who were responsible for the worst parts of our country’s history (e.g. seizing of Native American lands, black slavery, etc.). What matters is the fact that I’m here now, and that for three generations, my family has benefited from others perceiving us as white, in everything from bank loans to how we’re treated in the classroom. It doesn’t matter if “white” is an artificial category, which changes over time, and which cannot necessarily be too easily defined. This has real impacts in our society. Even if I’m not “really” white, as articulated by Hershkoviz, for all intents and purposes in our racialized society, I might as well be; or, to put it another way, since race is socially constructed, so long as society sees me as white, I /am/ white – that is the identity category that society places me in.

Two, Hershkoviz’s assertions about who we really are as Jews, compelling though these narratives may be, are ultimately problematic. Identity is constructed and constantly being renegotiated. It’s tempting to want to look back across centuries or even millenia of history and think, this is who we are, this is who we have always been. To think that we are a “tribe,” as Hershkoviz asserts, following certain ideas of identity and membership millenia old. But is Hershkoviz’s idea of tribal identity, what it means and how it works, only a 21st century idea? Would the Zionists of pre-1948 Palestine have agreed? Would Herzl? How would Maimonides describe his identity, in terms of religion, ethnicity, nation, or tribe? Seven, eight hundred years ago, the dominant idea in Western Europe as to identity was not race, ethnicity, or nationality, but religion. Europe was “Christendom,” more so than it was anything else, and while the Europeans certainly also saw themselves as Franks, and the Muslims as “Turks,” “Saracens,” or by a variety of other names which might be said to be ethnic identifiers, the dominant worldview was still one of religious spheres, not one of nations or ethnicities. A few hundred years later, even as national identities (e.g. French, Dutch, English, Spanish) began to emerge more solidly, identity as part of the Catholic world or of the Prostestant world, remained extremely powerful. Today, there are countless groups around the world reimagining, reasserting, their identities in various ways – indigenous groups, new nation-states… In short, how we identify – and what the relevant categories are – changes over time. In all times, we assert that our identities are true, stretching back centuries. But in all times, these identities are constructed more by the needs, and the terminologies, of a given time, than by the past. Just as Japanese look to defeat in World War II and the subsequent turn to pacifism of their nation, among many other things, as key to how they define their identity today; just as the Hawaiians look to the overthrow of their kingdom and the current illegal US occupation of their land as fundamental to their identity; so too do we as 21st century Jews look to the Holocaust, the state of Israel, worldwide anti-Semitism, and our personal or familial experiences of immigration and diaspora, for our constructions of identity, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise – we shouldn’t pretend that our identity as Jews is just as it has always been, stretching back unaltered, as if none of these more recent events/experiences, nor the needs & desires of our contemporary political situation, have any impact.

That said, I think there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of this article.

*I find Hershkoviz’ idea that we need to “decolonize our minds” intriguing. Like Okinawans raised in the Japanese education system (I know it’s an odd example to choose, but it’s one I know better than most), we Ashkenazi Jews are similarly raised in the US (and I would imagine the same goes in Western Europe and many other places, with variation) to think of England, and to only a slightly lesser degree France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany, as the source of our heritage. Now, granted, there is an argument to be made that the United States /is/ founded upon Western European ideas and culture, that that is the majority culture into which we have assimilated, and that it is a major part of who we are as Americans regardless of where we come from – and that while you get your American education in public school (and from peers, media, and so on), you can still get your Jewish identity, heritage, and education from your parents, and from synagogue, Hebrew school, etc. I imagine much the same could be said for Vietnamese-, Indian-, and African-Americans, not to mention just about everyone else – even the Irish- and Italian-Americans get some different identity from their parents, church, etc. in addition to and separate from the public education “American” identity.

But, at the same time, I think there’s something valuable and interesting in the idea that we need to remind ourselves that we do indeed come from a different heritage, that we are immigrants to this land, and that in a sense, really, we Eastern European Jews, descendants of Kiev, Lvov, and Krakow, have no more connection to the heritage of London, Paris, and Rome than do the Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that the latter have no trouble understanding this.

Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.”

*Identity and history is complex, and this issue of us being not a religion, not a race, but a Tribe, and having particular ideas of identity and membership as a result, brings up a much broader issue – broader beyond the topic of the Jewish people – which is that in our ever-increasingly globalized world, how much else has been homogenized into global/modern conceptions and categories? How much cultural diversity has been erased by those categories, even as we use those categories to celebrate diversity? We take it for granted today that the hundreds of national flags represent a great diversity of nations in our world. But where does the idea that a nation must have a flag, and that it must be rectangular, come from? What about all the many traditions and histories in which national identity was expressed otherwise? Here too we have homogeneity masquerading as diversity. There are thousands of languages on this planet, hundreds of countries. Does everyone, from the French to the Saudis to the Hawaiians, from the Catholics to the Sikhs to the Quechua, have the same ideas of what it means to be(long to) a religion, a nation, an ethnicity? Surely we Jews are not the only people who assert an identity that does not neatly fall into the global/modern categories of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality.

Of course, there is a need for globally agreed-upon notions, to a certain extent, for the sake of passports and treaties and national representation in the UN, census statistics, and all sorts of things. But, imagine if we more consciously and explicitly acknowledged a wider diversity of ways of thinking about identity, and didn’t insist to other people that their own identity categories don’t make sense, or aren’t real. Imagine if we didn’t force all people all around the world to conform to /our/ conceptions of how identity works. What a world that would be.

Flags at the United Nations, New York. Photo my own.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,459 other followers