Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Sometimes you have a blogpost which ends up so much longer than you ever intended it to be, and it just kept getting longer and longer, but you didn’t want to split it up into multiple smaller posts, so you just left it as is, in its crazy rambling length. This is one of those posts.

Homeland is a powerful documentary, which shares the stories of struggle of four indigenous communities in North America. The Penobscot Indians of Maine, fighting the pollution of their river by paper mills. The Northern Cheyenne in Montana, fighting against natural gas drilling which is destroying their land. The Gwich’in of northern Alaska, similarly fighting against oil drilling in their most sacred places. And the Navajo, who have suffered for decades the catastrophic effects of uranium mining.

I was on the verge of tears throughout much of this film, and once it was over, we all sat in stunned silence for a few moments, speechless at what we had witnessed.

Learning of these four stories made me feel great anger, but more than that, a deep sadness, for these peoples, who have lived on this land for thousands of years, and who have suffered so much at the hands of our government. Native peoples today control only 4% of the land area of the United States – when only, what, seven or eight or nine generations ago, all of it was inhabited only by Native peoples. It is not only what was done in the distant past – in terms of Western expansion and settlement, Little Bighorn, the Trail of Tears, etc. – but also what continues to be done today. Granted, local, state, and federal government do a lot of good things for Native communities; we should not demonize them entirely. But they do a lot of bad things, too, prioritizing industry and economics over protecting Native lives and lands – are these people not Americans as well? Are they not deserving of the government’s protection? Indeed, doubly so, since they are not only US citizens like the rest of us, but also have an entire federal bureau dedicated to their protection, in accordance with America’s own paternalistic rhetoric and laws regarding indigenous peoples. Though, indeed, our government and society, our American values seem, on a very fundamental level, to prioritize industry and economics over human lives and non-human ecology in general, destroying the land, air, and water for all of us, Native Nations and all other Americans alike.

Half the notes I took during the film, and during the conversation afterwards, are merely of terms: environmental racism, the disposability of human lives. Some lives, clearly, are held to be more disposable than others.

The Penobscot River. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We learn of the Penobscot people of Maine, who once lived all across Maine, and whose recognized territory is now limited to a few islands within the Penobscot River. And that river, which flows from the most sacred mountain in the entire world according to Penobscot beliefs, that river in which people canoe and swim, and from which they get their fish, continues to be polluted, day after day, by paper mills. This story struck me particularly for several reasons. One, the three other stories deal with severely extractive and “dirty” industries. Coal, natural gas, and uranium mining are easy to see as the face of Big Industry, as major environmental destroyers, and as connected to major political issues regularly debated politically – fossil fuels vs. nucleaar vs. clean “green” energy; and in the case of the uranium, the issues of nuclear weapons and of war, overseas military deployment, the military-industrial complex more broadly. But paper mills feel so much smaller, so much more local. Who knew a paper mill could be as destructive as these other things? And yet, for a small people who rely so closely on this river, it truly is. And, as they explain, it’s not just about Native lives and livelihoods – everyone in the US is poisoned by this sort of thing, which goes on all around us. The process of bleaching paper produces a number of by-products, including dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known. And paper mills in Maine spew billions of gallons of untreated by-product water into the river. People who swim or play in the water get rashes or lesions on their skin, and the dioxin concentrates in the flesh of the fish, and then in the bodies of those who eat the fish. Looking at the white foam that floats in that river, it made me wonder how many times I, too, in streams or rivers, saw curious white foam and assumed it must be natural, or something not to worry too much about, when in fact it may very well have been evidence of serious pollution. Of course, this dumping of untreated pollution into the river is illegal, but the fines are only, at most, $3000 a year, a simple price to pay for a paper company that doesn’t want to pay a far larger amount to retrofit their factories to run more cleanly, and perhaps more importantly for a company that simply doesn’t seem to care. Instead of regulating the industry more strongly, the local or state government opted to simply issue health warnings, warning people not to eat more than 8oz of fish a month, or for pregnant women & children to not eat fish at all. Yet the Penobscot people eat far far more fish than that – they are modern people, in modern homes and modern clothing, like anyone else, but just like anyone else, they have their customs and traditions, and fishing and eating fish remains a central part of their culture, their identity as Penobscot. It was devastating to me to see one man talk about comparing a fish to a cigarette. And, again, I don’t know which is more moving – to think of these people as uniquely affected, their traditional foodways and their land being destroyed, or whether it is more moving to think of how similar processes are destroying all of our land, all of our food. The Native Americans are not the only ones affected by this – the destruction of clean air, of clean water, of the land itself, and the pollution of our food sources, affects all of us. I don’t even want to think about how much dioxin and mercury are stored up in my body from all the things I’ve eaten over the course of my lifetime.

Image found here. Original source/creator unknown. Investigation of origin of the quote, traced most likely to an Abenaki, Algonquin, or Mohawk speaker in 1972, described here.

I was struck, too, by the language and rhetoric that was used, as the film spoke of Native Americans having to sacrifice – sacrifice their land, their well-being – for the benefit of all Americans. Not only were Navajo lands used for uranium mines, but the air and water was severely polluted by those mines, and a whole generation of Navajo men – working adults in the 1970s or so – worked in the mines, exposing themselves and their families quite directly to very long-term radioactive dangers.

As citizens of any country, yes we all must be willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, and NIMBYism (“Not In My Back Yard”) taken to its extremes would mean no factories, power plants, military bases, anywhere (because everywhere is someone’s metaphorical “backyard”). And so, I cannot deny there is nuance and complexity to be had here – there is a certain degree of logic to it, that the Cheyenne and the Navajo should have to sacrifice as well. If I have to deal with factories in my backyard, they should have to as well, or so the logic goes. But, there are also special conditions that have to be taken into consideration –

(1) these are a people who have been profoundly extremely wronged by the United States, its people, and its corporations. They have been killed in great numbers, their lands stolen, and it is about damn time they got a little justice;

(2) these are sacred lands – you wouldn’t build a factory or a power plant or a strip mine on the National Mall, or on Mt. Rushmore, and you wouldn’t build it in Bethlehem or the Old City of Jerusalem, so if we are sincere in our respect for other cultures, for diversity, then why should we be okay with building it on lands just as sacred to Native Americans as those other places are for us?;

(3) these people are formally recognized by the federal government as possessing a special status of national sovereignty that all the other NIMBY-ers do not. They are a Nation. A Nation that deserves to have a greater say than anyone else in what happens on their land, and to their people. We (the US) seek to protect our borders, our people, and our interests otherwise, both on US soil and beyond, and yet we deny that same freedom, that same right, to the sovereign Nations within our nation.

And let’s not even get started on the question of what does and does not count as “the greater good” (good for whom? by what metric? according to whom?). Yes, all people (including the Bundys and Hammonds) should have to sacrifice some of their freedoms, and their money (taxes), and so forth for the benefit of the whole. Locke and Rousseau, among many other thinkers upon whose thought modern Western political philosophy is based, argued as much quite convincingly. But all people should receive equal rights in return, and equal membership in the society – such that the society should care about their well-being. And this is not being extended, in a great many cases, to Native American peoples.

Returning to the point about language and rhetoric, I am struck by the parallels between the “sacrifice” of Native American lives and land, and the “sacrifice” of Okinawa and its people. The notion that Okinawa must sacrifice for the good of Japan runs deep, to the core of the modern narrative of Okinawan history and identity. In the 1870s, Ryukyu, a kingdom just as independent and sovereign as Japan itself1, with formal treaties signed with the US, France, and the Netherlands, and with strong political ties to China going back 500 years, was unilaterally overthrown and annexed by Japan. This was followed by decades of assimilation efforts to make Okinawa just as much a part of Japan as anywhere else. And yet, in 1945, rather than being considered more fully a part of Japan, to be protected as fervently as the rest of Japan, Okinawa was allowed to become a battleground, a land-stand location, in order to protect anywhere in “mainland” Japan from having to see on-the-ground fighting, and the death and destruction which would inevitably result. The island, and its people, essentially, were “sacrificed.” And when Okinawan people sought protection from their own country’s soldiers, they were told they must be willing to sacrifice themselves gloriously for the Emperor – they were made a target, placed in harm’s way as their homeland was made a military base and then a battlefield, and then they were forced to commit mass suicide rather than be protected by their own government’s army. Something like 50-75% of the island’s homes etc. were destroyed, and around 1/4 to 1/3 of the civilians killed. After the war, all of Okinawa was given over to US military control for nearly 30 years, and was allowed to remain under US martial law, “sacrificed” yet again, so that the rest of the Japanese people could be free and could return to self-governance. When Okinawa was returned to Japanese governance in 1972, some 1/5 of the island remained (and still remains today) under US military control – another sacrifice the Okinawan people have been told they must endure, for the benefit of all Japanese, for the sake of the military defense of the entire region against potential Chinese or North Korean aggression. Just as the Cheyenne and Navajo are told they too must sacrifice their lands, their health, their very lives, for the benefit of America as a whole.2

I think that all too often we think of Native communities as something different from the rest of us. We don’t understand their notions of ties to the land, their ties to their traditions. We see them through stereotypes of being opposed to modernity, opposed to progress, and as stuck in the past. But as we see clearly in this film, through conversations with real people, they really are modern people just like any of us (and, even if they weren’t, they’re still people and we should respect their culture, and their right to maintain their culture just like anyone else) … When you think about it, really, are their stories really so different from those of any of us? All of us, whether we are Irish or Polish, Vietnamese or Lebanese, we have stories of our people being invaded, colonized, or otherwise attacked or oppressed. We have stories of our people nobly and bravely fighting back, and stories of either winning against all odds, or of surviving the indignities of defeat and of the suffering which ensued. As a Jew, most certainly, I know of these stories. We were slaves in Egypt, but we escaped and suffered forty years of wandering in the desert to find and found a new homeland in Canaan. We were driven from that home by the Babylonians, and then by the Romans, suffering in the Crusades and in the aftermath of the Black Plague, and after that, the Inquisition. In lands further east, we suffered pogroms, and then in the 20th century, the Holocaust. My own grandparents survived Buchenwald, and saw nearly all of their friends and relatives rounded up and brutally murdered, along with some six million other Jews (as well as Roma, LGBT people, and those with mental difficulties). I have recently found hundreds of photos of my family in the refugee camps, in Poland & Israel in the 1950s, as well as some of their entry documents for the US. .. The United Nations granted my people a homeland, where we might be safe from persecution; one of the only cases in the world of an indigenous people returning to their homeland, enjoying true sovereignty there, with membership in the UN and so forth, and truly building an incredibly successful, stable, prosperous society there. And yet, this homeland remains one of the most controversial and embattled countries on earth.

My grandparents’ friends and neighbors in a refugee camp in Germany, in the late 1940s. Sure, the details are different, but at the core of the narrative, the Othering; the persecution; the loss of land, property, and livelihood; the restriction to camps or reservations… are we really so different? Can we not understand and sympathize with the plights of (other) indigenous peoples the world over?

If we think of what an indignity it was to lose Ireland, to lose Armenia, to face invasion, to be forced to assimilate to an invader’s culture, or to be driven from our homes, then whether we are Jewish, or Irish, Korean, Armenian, or whatever your background, then, I think hopefully we can sympathize with a people like the Cheyenne. After decades of fighting to retain their lands, and their sovereignty, the Cheyenne united with the Sioux and several other groups in 1876 at Little Bighorn, to make a last great stand. Think of William Wallace in Braveheart. They were defeated, and they were brought to Oklahoma. Somehow (I didn’t quite follow what the film said), the Cheyenne were able to convince their captors, the US military, to allow them to go, to walk north to attempt to return to their homelands. And walk they did, over a thousand miles. By the time they got to the Tongue River area in Montana, only 300 people remained. Only 300 people out of what was once a great nation. The 8000 people or so who live on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation today are their descendants. Only 8000. Embattled as I often feel as a Jew, a people who comprise only 1.4% of the US population, and whose homeland is smaller than New Jersey and being constantly in danger of being destroyed entirely, still we have something like 13-14 million fellow Jews in the world. To be one of only 8000, and to have your home constantly under threat from mining companies, I can hardly imagine.

A sign on the borders of New York State and Seneca land, alerting the driver that they are entering sovereign territory.

One issue that really stuck out for me from this film was the question of sovereignty. Many of these groups – the Penobscot, the Cheyenne, the Navajo, the Gwich’in – are formally recognized by the federal government as sovereign Indian nations. And yet, what does this sovereignty really mean? The Gwich’in live in a federally-designated nature preserve, which comprises only 5% of Alaska – the remaining 95% of Alaskan land is open for drilling. And yet, oil companies, with the backing of the George W. Bush administration, wanted, and still do, to drill for oil in what the Gwich’in people call “the sacred place where life begins” – the caribou birthing grounds. Disruption of this site could be devastating for the caribou, and for the Gwich’in people, who see themselves as intimately tied to the caribou. It burns and disgusts me that the woman still today calling for “drill baby drill” is not from some other part of the country, where they might not be aware of such issues, but rather is a former governor of Alaska, precisely the person who should, more than most, know, understand, and appreciate the concerns of the people of Alaska – the Gwich’in.

I know it can be difficult for those of other religious/cultural backgrounds to understand, but the caribou are important to the Gwich’in not in a hand-wavy, hokey superstitions sort of way; they are important in a deep, profound, way that cuts to the very core of what it means to be Gwich’in. If you wouldn’t drill for oil under the Temple Mount, or under the Church of the Nativity, then you should understand and feel the same for this caribou birthing site, and you should feel the same for the Penobscot River. Really, what it all comes down to is respect. Respect for others’ beliefs, whether based on recognizing the parallels with your own and having some sympathy, or whether it comes from stepping out of your own bubble, and simply more abstractly recognizing that not everyone should have to live by your values, your beliefs, your worldview.

The government of the sovereign Penobscot nation attempted to resist the paper companies’ demands for certain documents – they resisted by asserting that as a sovereign nation, they are not subject to US Freedom of Information laws. But, rather than recognize that sovereignty, Maine courts found the Penobscots in contempt of court. And when the Penobscots asserted that they have sovereign rights to protect their own lands and waters, and that since all Indian affairs are managed by the Federal government and not by the states, that Maine therefore should not have the power to issue licenses to the paper mills, the EPA, under Pres. George W Bush, for the first time in their history, sided with the State over a Native nation. Up in Montana, there are Federal agencies whose entire job is to help protect the Cheyenne and their interests. And yet, the Cheyenne have spent more time and money fighting these agents than anyone else. What does sovereignty mean, when the very government that has formally recognized that sovereignty, ignores it, pays it no heed?

This film opened my eyes to all kinds of issues I had not known about. And by the end I was wiping away tears. Native Americans are not some Other, to care less about. They are Americans like the rest of us, members of our society, members of our democracy, and their voices deserve to not only be heard, but to be respected, to be sympathized with, to be understood and appreciated. These people were here for thousands of years before us, and all they want is what most of us want – to live in peace, on our own lands, to observe our own traditions and to be able to pass them on to our children.

And, not only that, but the environmental issues they face affect us all. The people being poisoned by dioxin are not just the Penobscot – we all are. We are destroying our own land, air, and water, putting corporate profit first. This isn’t just a Native American problem. It is an American problem. It affects us all.

—-
1. Well, Ryukyu was a feudal vassal under Satsuma domain, and a tributary to China. But, then, Korea, Vietnam, Burma, Siam, were all Chinese tributaries, too. Tributary status doesn’t make you any less independent. And while Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma is complicated, Satsuma and Japan (the Tokugawa shogunate) both asserted Ryukyu’s foreignness and separateness in numerous ways on numerous occasions, even as they also claimed it in certain ways.

2. And that’s a whole other conversation, the centuries-long rhetoric of (neo)liberal capitalism and imperialism that equates the wealth of some with the well-being of all. We see it as early as John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1689) – I don’t know if it appears earlier: the notion that whoever uses an area of land to its utmost productive capacity is doing a good for all mankind, because God created arable land for us to farm it, and placed resources in the earth for us to mine it. Nature exists to be exploited for Man’s benefit, and if you are not using that land to its utmost, then you are not only depriving Mankind of those resources, of that wealth, but you are also acting against God’s plan. But, is “all of Mankind” really benefiting? Who is reaping the benefits of the extraction of those resources? Corporate coffers. Certain subsections of the population. Not *all* Americans, and most certainly not all mankind.

This sort of logic was fundamental to the stealing and pillaging of Native American land across the country in the 19th century, but of the histories with which I am most familiar, it is in the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi that I find it most glaring. (see To Steal a Kingdom by Michael Dougherty, and Dismembering Lāhui by Jon Osorio) When Americans and Brits were brought in to serve as advisors to the Hawaiian government, to help the kingdom develop itself into a modern, democratic, and prosperous country, Western advisors chiefly advised them as to how to make it easier for (white) entrepreneurs and (American) corporations. They gave white men the right to own land, and then they gave them a great deal of the land, and for a certain period they even added in the right to vote without having to be a citizen (without having to swear loyalty to the King and Kingdom). They avoided regulation of industry, and put into place a variety of policies and arrangements which made it all the easier and more profitable for plantation owners and other big-business types. Corporate profits within the islands were seen as the goal, and were equated with being the strength of the national economy. When Native Hawaiians submitted formal petitions to their government, hundreds of petitions with thousands of signatures, saying that few if any of these policies had improved their well-being at all, that many of these policies in fact severely damaged or harmed their well-being, and that the people – the people of Hawaiʻi – were suffering, the Western advisors insisted this was irrelevant and petty, of no concern. The wealth of corporations, and not the well-being of the people, is the wealth of the nation. And this same bullshit logic continues to dominate much of our political discourse, and most especially when it comes to Native issues like these.

Defining Engagement

Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009.

It is all too easy, and all too tempting sometimes to think of the Edo period as a single block, a single period that can be characterized in a single way. Of course there was change over the period, but the World History survey version of this, or very often even the East Asian survey or even Japanese history survey version of this, in my personal experience, has often seen simply one of (a) putting a system into place and then maintaining it, and (b) proto-industrial growth and “progress.” Of course, however, we all know that history is never so simple, and no society is ever so static. In Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides a more complex and detailed description of the changes and developments in Japanese foreign policy over the course of the Edo period, emphasizing the decentralized and at times highly contested nature of policy-making, implementation and enforcement, and the dramatic shifts in attitudes and policies across the period.
Based on Hellyer’s account, we can see a number of watershed moments in the progression of foreign policy, namely the 1630s, 1764, and 1853, marking the bounds of periods decidedly different from one another in character.

Hellyer does not dwell for long on the initial decades of Tokugawa rule, or on the debates or considerations surrounding the decision to impose maritime restrictions in the 1630s, but it would be hard to argue that this is not a significant dividing line, between a period of active engagement with many different trading partners – Portuguese, Spanish, and English, among others coming to Japanese ports, and Japanese operating in Southeast Asian ports, to say the least – and one of much more careful, restricted engagement with the outside world, in which only the Dutch and Chinese trade at Nagasaki, and interactions with Ryukyu and Korea (and via them, China) are handled exclusively by the domainal authorities of Satsuma and Tsushima. From the settling of this mode of engagement in the early decades of the 17th century, through to the 1750s, as Hellyer describes in his first several chapters, Satsuma and Tsushima enjoyed considerable autonomy and agency in their management of trade, as did merchants in Nagasaki and elsewhere in the realm. Both Satsuma and Tsushima were able to leverage their indispensability in these commercial and political relationships to gain considerable privileges or concessions from the shogunate, arguing not only for the importance of the goods they were bringing in, but also for the value of the intelligence – information about political goings-on in the region – obtained via these domainal relationships with Ryukyu and Korea. Here, and throughout the book, Hellyer emphasizes that “Japanese” foreign relations in this period were not directed wholly by a central authority, with a set plan that all domains followed through on; rather, the realm’s interactions with the outside world were constituted by the competing, and sometimes complementary, desires, intentions, attitudes, and actions of several different parties, the shogunate, the lords of Satsuma and Tsushima, and their advisors, chief among them.

Japan and its peripheries, as seen in one of the woodblock-printed maps from Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.

Hellyer also characterizes this first half of the Edo period as a period of desperate attempts on the part of the shogunate to stem the flow of precious metals (especially silver) out of the country, in negotiation or competition with Satsuma’s and Tsushima’s demands for their own continued access to precious metals to export as vital tribute goods for Tsushima to present to Korea, and Ryukyu to China, in exchange for the exotic goods (incl. chiefly Korean ginseng and Chinese silks). Repeated debasements of the coinage executed by the shogunate in attempts to reduce the amount of silver flowing out of the country present considerable difficulties for both Tsushima and Satsuma, but both domains are able, for the time being, to petition or argue successfully for exceptions, or concessions, allowing them to continue their “traditional” patterns of trade relations. This would change in the latter half of the Edo period (from perhaps the 1760s or so onward), as stronger shogunate control over certain aspects of the economy, and increased domestic production of various goods, diminished the shogunate’s reliance on the two domains, and thus their leverage and agency.

Where Miyagi Eishō, among others, have argued for the importance of Arai Hakuseki in engineering, around 1709-1711, a dramatic shift in how the shogunate viewed the purpose or importance of the Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, casting it as a major turning point, Hellyer merely touches upon these issues, dwelling little on the missions and their role in contributing to Tokugawa legitimacy and authority (but that’s okay. We’ve got Toby for that. Hellyer does mention logistical changes put into place by Hakuseki (62-63), but draws his dividing line at 1764 (73). Though I remain unconvinced that anything occurred in precisely that year which should define it as a watershed moment, it is clear from Hellyer’s descriptions that the 1760s-1770s saw a very dramatic shift in shogunate approaches to foreign trade. Beginning at that time, the shogunate moved to implement a more systematic and more directly shogunate-controlled system of funneling revenues and import/export goods, dramatically reducing the agency of Satsuma and Tsushima, and the independence of Nagasaki and Osaka merchants in coordinating exchanges of certain prominent goods and in profiting from those exchanges. This period sees the expansion of the activity of the Nagasaki clearinghouse and the establishment of other clearinghouses and shogunate-authorized guilds (za), directing silver, copper, and marine products through shogunate-controlled, or –authorized, channels, essentially monopolizing the import, export, and domestic trade in those commodities for the benefit of shogunate revenues, rather than private merchant profits. It was around this time as well that the shogunate finally managed to shift the flows of goods away from trade patterns based on the export of silver, to ones where the export of marine goods, including kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone, was at the center; demand for marine products throughout the region – and especially in China – was high enough to allow the Japanese, through their various channels, to not only dramatically decrease the amount of silver they were exporting, but to actually begin importing silver, in exchange for marine goods.

Commodore Perry’s fleet, as depicted in a scroll recently acquired by the British Museum. Image from the Museum’s online collections.

Finally, we come to the 1850s, when Western merchants enter onto the scene in a more major way, though Hellyer does describe earlier encounters. At first, Western merchants seek to insert themselves into the regional trade networks already in place, and for a brief time samurai officials consider using Western ships as intermediaries in the China trade, exchanging marine products for silver, among other goods. However, the focus quickly shifts to more direct engagement with the Western powers, within increasingly Western modes of exchange, and over the course of the 1850s-60s, the traditional systems, especially at Nagasaki, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

Hellyer’s account skims over the diplomatic or political aspects of relations between the various shogunal/domainal samurai authorities on the one hand, and the royal courts of Korea and Ryukyu on the other hand, and treats the Korean and Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the Satsuma presence in Ryukyu, and the Tsushima missions or interactions in Korea, very minimally. However, his narrative illuminates important factors contributing to shifts and changes throughout this period, including changeovers in shogunal advisors or leadership (focusing especially on the differing attitudes and approaches of Arai Hakuseki, Tanuma Okitsugu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu, along with a few others), and shifts in the supply and demand of certain goods. As Japanese silver mines run dry, domestic production of ginseng grows, diminishing somewhat the indispensability of silver exports to Korea; as Japanese copper exports are reduced, the Chinese expand their mining efforts in Yunnan and Vietnam. Matsudaira Sadanobu tries in the 1780-1790s to dramatically reduce foreign interactions, but concedes that the domestic demand for medicinal herbs, roots, and the like was too high to shut things down more fully. And then, just as marine products begin to dominate the export market, the people of the archipelago come, circa 1800, to have a taste for those products, for their own personal local consumption, like never before. This narrative reveals, or highlights, the powerful importance of goods like medicinal herbs and roots, and marine products such as kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone which generally go largely overlooked in favor of “sexier” or “flashier” goods such as gold, silver, silks, and porcelains, a product of our biases as scholars, given our own proclivities and/or cultural background. One thing missing from this narrative, however, even as Hellyer focuses on the attitudes and approaches of different shogunal advisors, is any detailed coverage of changes in attitudes or approaches among the daimyō of Satsuma and Tsushima. Those names already prominent in our historical awareness already due to their involvement in Bakumatsu affairs, such as Shimazu Nariakira and Shimazu Hisamitsu, are chiefly those discussed in any detail, leaving us in the dark as to who the daimyō of the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were, let alone their personalities or policies.

We do, however, learn about a number of significant figures and incidents within Satsuma and Tsushima history, however, which I imagine are scarcely (if at all) covered elsewhere in English. Thus, in addition to the great value and interest of this book for its coverage of economic and foreign relations matters, I also very much enjoyed seeing these domains’ histories “rescued from history” to a certain extent. We learn, for example, about the great efforts at domainal financial reform of Satsuma retainer Zusho Shôzaemon, and the foreign relations efforts of Satsuma retainer Godai Hidetaka, as well as about Tsushima’s foreign relations nightmares dealing with the Russians, and the incredible factionalism and numerous coups within Tsushima leadership in the 1860s. It frustrates me that these events are not more widely discussed, and incorporated into the narrative, and that figures such as Zusho and Godai, along with Sasu Iori and Ôshima Tomonojô, not to mention daimyô such as Sô Yoshiyori and Sô Yoshiakira, continue to languish in such obscurity outside of Hellyer’s account. I hope that my own work can bring to light the stories of more significant figures, not as pawns within broader developments, but as real historical individuals – though, to be honest, I’m not sure my current project actually will. I shall have to hold onto that for the future.

All in all, Hellyer provides a valuable contribution to discussions of Tokugawa foreign policy, both fighting back against survey level misconceptions about static systems of “isolationist” foreign policy dictated from the center, and doing much to inform the more specialist reader as to the complex shifts in domestic production and demand of certain goods, monetary policy, and shifting attitudes or approaches of shogunal elites versus the desires or needs of domainal lords, among other factors which all combined to produce a dynamic, multi-centered, and oft-times contentious economic and political scene in Tokugawa era management of foreign affairs.

Recently (okay, not so recently, a few months ago), Nate Ledbetter and Chris West, my fellow podcasters on the Samurai-Archives Podcast (where I am frequently the third person talking) did a two-part discussion (for which I was not present) about the tensions and difficulties surrounding the pursuit of Military History today within the fields of Japanese Studies, and History.

Frankly, I have little to add, but I did think it was a rather interesting, and important, conversation, so I wanted to re-share the two podcasts here.

EP118 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 1click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

EP119 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 2click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

Blogger T. Greer then responded, expanding upon Nate & Chris’ conversation on his blog (The Scholar’s Stage), in a post entitled East Asian Military History: A Few Historiographical Notes.

It is certainly an interesting phenomenon, that military history should be so discouraged, so marginalized, within our field. To be sure, social and cultural histories, including post-modernist and post-colonialist perspectives, histories of race & ethnicity, and gender studies, have grown more central and more dominant in recent decades, as the political and economic histories which were so standard in past generations have become decidedly less so. And, to a large extent, I think this is a good thing. We are engaging with myriad new and different perspectives that were never addressed before, challenging standard understandings, and exploring new aspects and new avenues which the old approaches – which excessively privileged political and economic narratives, particularly of institutions and great men – discouraged, marginalized, or ignored entirely. We’re seeing women’s perspectives, indigenous and non-Western perspectives, culturally-informed and interdisciplinary analyses, and so on and so forth. I am certainly glad that I get to do what I do, looking at Japanese and Okinawan perspectives (with a minimum of attention paid to European actors or European Theory), and doing capital-H History while looking at music, dance, costume, and art, as well as ritual/ceremony and identity performance, without being told I have to focus more on the politics or economics of the situation. I do think it a shame, though, as I have ranted about in previous posts, that detailed or narrative history, in general, is so discouraged, and theoretical or conceptual analysis so privileged. There is so much out there to know, to uncover and extract from the archive, and to simply put together and put out there – here’s something we didn’t know before, and now we do. Why should I always have to be forced to answer “so what?” and to have it connect into some broader conceptual argument?

The Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu held by the Gifu City History Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, I’m getting off-track. What’s interesting here is that among the innumerable aspects of history one could study, the myriad topics, military history seems the only one that’s as marginalized as it is. Maybe I’m just overlooking something, but I truly cannot think of a (sub-)field that’s discouraged and marginalized like Military History is. Sure, some things are crazy popular right now – Memory, Identity, and Empire, for example – and some things perhaps less popular. But I know people doing histories of science and medicine, deeply Marxist histories (yes, still), religious history, women’s history, urban histories of space and place, studies of travel and tourism, studies of radio and music in statecraft, studies of fashion and of sewing machines, studies of local wine festivals, and of horse racing. Some people absolutely are studying individual leaders’ policies, if not their biographies per se, and some are deep in economic history. Morgan Pitelka has just put out a new book on Tokugawa Ieyasu, focusing on material culture approaches, and in particular on Ieyasu as a collector of tea implements.

And yet, even among all these incredibly varied topics and approaches, one thing is still missing: military history. And, for example, in the case of Tokugawa Ieyasu, even someone such as myself, deeply interested in the material culture side, can see there is something ridiculous about the absence of works closely examining Ieyasu as a strategic & tactical commander. Nate and T. Greer suggest that the culture surrounding the Vietnam War – particularly on college campuses – brought a significant shift away from military history. It was no longer seen as appropriate, or acceptable, I guess, politically, within the discipline to be studying war. I myself really don’t know anything about this, though I can certainly vouch for the unspoken pressures to adhere to liberal/progressive ideological values, even as we speak about open-mindedness, critical thinking, and embracing diverse perspectives and ideas. Yet, regardless of politics, regardless of left/right, liberal/conservative, Nate makes an extremely important point, in that just because someone studies military history doesn’t mean they agree with war, or violence. So many of us study a great many things we don’t agree with, from slavery to imperialism to fascism. So, that’s really no explanation. In truth, the discipline of History (and academia more broadly) should be accepting and incorporative of the study of any and all aspects of history. If book history and the history of sewing machines are important and valid objects of study (and I believe they are – I’m not making fun), if the histories of chocolate, sugar, and coffee, of conceptions of race & gender, of theatre and painting, are all taken as valid – if the study of manga and K-pop and video games is taken as valid – then why not military history? It really seems a crazy oversight.

Statue of Ii Naomasa at Hikone Station. Photo my own.

And, as T. Greer points out, as in so many things with East Asian history (and, indeed, with non-Western history more broadly), the trends have leapt past too quickly, passing over all too many subjects. I would not be surprised if you told me that the major battles of European and American history – from Salamis to Agincourt, to Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima – have been analyzed and over-analyzed to the point of excess. And, from the Western point of view at least, things like the Boer War and the Maori Wars may have received considerable attention as well. So maybe it really is time for Military History, as a sub-discipline, to move on, in certain respects, and for History as a discipline to move on from tactical & strategic analyses, at least for certain topics. I do think that the new social-cultural directions military history has been going are fascinating, and important, including discussions of war photography, gender performance, the social & cultural impact upon civilians on the home front and on the battlefront. But, when it comes to non-Western battles, we can’t move on so fast! Firstly, there are plenty of battles to be re-examined from the non-Western point of view. I touched briefly, in a post last year, upon a fascinating essay by James Belich on how British historiography has severely distorted understandings about the wars against the Maori, in New Zealand. The British refusal to admit intelligence on the part of the Maori, or a lack of technical, technological, or strategic superiority on their own part, severely skewed the historiography on the whole thing.

But, secondly, and coming back once again from digression, while Crecy and Midway, Marathon and Antietam, may have been analyzed to death already, there are countless East Asian conflicts which haven’t been (not to mention conflicts in even less-studied parts of the world). The many campaigns and battles of Japan’s Sengoku period, the Taiping Rebellion, and the battles of the Qing conquest, are only three of the many, many, conflicts which desperately need greater attention. There’s seriously nothing I can add, except to repeat and support what Nate has said, which is (1) that much of what’s already out there about these battles is wrong, from a strategic and/or tactical point of view, and (2) that it’s patently absurd to study the political, economic, social, and cultural history of a particular time and place while just skipping right over the details of the warfare. For me too, it’s not at all my specialty, and I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be doing tactical or strategic analysis in order to really write a military history of anything, but I am definitely interested to learn more about, well, any and all of this, but in particular about the Okinawan conquest of the Ryukyus in the 1500s, the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa in 1609, and the 1874 Imperial Japanese Army expedition to Taiwan… but if military history continues to be as sidelined as it is, we’re only going to continue to be in the dark – repeating the same stuff we already know about the political implications, but still not better understanding just what kinds of weapons and tactics, what kind of military organization, these groups had. How exactly /did/ these fights go? You’d never skip over a political debate, to only talk about its outcomes, so why would you skip over a military campaign?

Native Fashion Now at PEM

It has been far too long since I’ve written an exhibit review. After all of these book reviews, maybe this could help mix it up a little.

Right: Eagle Gala Dress (2013), by Dorothy Grant (Haida).

The Peabody-Essex is really a wonderful museum. I would love to work there someday. An amazing collection of East Asian and Pacific art, the Yin Yu Tang house, and really top-notch temporary/traveling exhibits, especially for a small town museum. Plus, Salem is a wonderful cute little town; I have only ever been there for day trips, but I have *always* had a great time. I’m actually really kind of surprised that I don’t seem to have more photos from Salem; then again, I hadn’t been in many years, so maybe I wasn’t yet in the habit of using Flickr yet.

Right now, all the way up until March 6, the Peabody-Essex is showing an exhibit called Native Fashion Now, which highlights contemporary fashion designs inspired by Native American traditions. Hyperallergic, I guess I should not be surprised, has done a very nice review of the show, so if you want a better summary/overview of what the show actually features/contains, go read that first and then come back here, and we’ll see what sort of commentary I might be able to add.

Dorothy Grant, “She-Wolf” tuxedo (2014). I’m annoyed the photo didn’t come out sharper. But hopefully you can still make out the Haida patterning on the lapels. Click through for a larger image.

I do love the dresses, and the more art fashion pieces, but there’s also something wonderful about this very sleek, simple, elegant piece, with just enough of a hint of the Native motif. I can imagine that for a Haida person wearing this, it could feel quite powerful, as an expression of one’s identity – attending a black tie affair, and still expressing their identity, wearing a motif exclusive to them.

I have blogged on here about a few exhibits I’ve been fortunate to see, of high art fashion (mostly by Westerner designers) inspired by China, and of contemporary Japanese fashion. And I find all of this terribly fascinating. Just walking around Tokyo, or Kyoto, or elsewhere in Japan, one can see a huge range of fashions, all of them quite arguably “Japanese”, or “authentically Japanese,” authentic simply by virtue of the fact that real Japanese people are indeed choosing to wear them. Basically, a descriptive rather than prescriptive approach to culture. TokyoFashion.com is a great website for this sort of thing, too – though they do tend to focus on Harajuku, there’s a pretty wide variety of approaches and styles in there. Basically, the point I mean to reach in this side tangent is simply to say I do think it fascinating how Japanese (or Chinese, or people of many other cultures) employ, adapt, re-invent elements of their own cultural tradition to make a contemporary statement. That’s what a lot of Neo-Nihonga and such is, and what I find fascinating in that realm, too. And I would love to see a museum exhibit about, specifically, that sort of fashion – specifically Japanese fashion that incorporates elements of “Japanese culture” or “tradition.”

But, returning to Native Fashion Now, in a nutshell, “Native Fashion Now” beautifully exhibits how people can, and do, express their Native American identity, embrace it, perform it, display it, in thoroughly modern ways.

While it may be relatively easy to see the contemporary and the traditional as two parts of Japanese culture, neither less authentic or real than the other, Native American cultures (or perhaps, indigenous cultures, more broadly) tend not to be seen that way, in the mainstream imagination. Conventional mainstream attitudes view, or imagine, Native American culture and identity in a unique way, notably dissimilar from how we understand Jewish, Arab/Muslim, East Asian, or African identities and cultures. Or, if not unique to the Native American experience, perhaps it is something particular to how we approach indigenous cultures, as a category. There are few who would look twice, or protest, if they saw Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Africans adapting their traditional styles and motifs into modern fashions. Cultures change and evolve, and few (I should hope) would have much difficulty imagining, and accepting, that all of these cultures exist in a modern form, and that these people lead fully modern lives. Asian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, etc. “perform” their ethnic/national identities in thoroughly contemporary ways, adapting and innovating. But, because of the particular discursive constructions surrounding Indigenous Peoples – that is, because of the way 18th-20th century people conceived of indigenous peoples as primitive, as un-modern, as being in need of education & civilizing – mainstream attitudes have a problem with conceiving of how one could be Native American, and also modern. Native American and also “regular” American. In the mainstream discourse, in the mainstream mind, being indigenous means being traditional, and if living a typical modern life means being less traditional, then it means being less Native American, too, right? Wrong. If living a modern life doesn’t make you any less Jewish(-American) or Chinese(-American), just because the traditions have changed or evolved or diluted (weakened, arguably), then why should anyone be seen as being less Native American, less truly or authentically Native American, just because their lifestyle doesn’t match that of their ancestors?

Louis Vuitton Quiver (2007), Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman plays off of the expectations, the demands of mainstream stereotypes that associate Native Americans so closely with archery, and with feathers. What, as if they all wear feathers and carry a bow all the time? But then he combines this with Louis Vuitton patterning, a parody of sorts of what indigenous modernity should look like. Does being a Native American in the modern world mean having a Louis Vuitton quiver? Or maybe it means not having a quiver at all. I may be totally off-base, but I imagine that perhaps the artist seeks to shock with this very basic concept – what do you mean Native Americans are just like the rest of us, in t-shirts and jeans, or in suits and slacks? How can you be Native American without feathers and bows & arrows?

Maybe it’s just my own experience, growing up where and how I did, not being exposed very much to any Native American presence in my life growing up, that I had come to hold these stereotyped views about Native Americans. But I do get the sense – both from my own experience, and from serious classroom lectures, readings, etc. – that this is a widespread and extensive discourse, growing out of colonialism and racism and so forth of (especially) the 19th century. I would be curious what experiences or impressions those who grew up in other parts of the country – or in other countries – might have had. For those of you who grew up in areas, or communities, where Native American or First Nation culture was much more present, did you grow up having the same ideas about Native American culture & identity, as traditional, as being opposed to modernity? Similar ideas about people being somehow less authentic if they didn’t lead more wholly traditional lives?

Of course, talking about Native American fashions, and adapting them creatively, one can’t easily avoid the question, or issue, of cultural appropriation. After all, Native American culture – like other indigenous cultures around the world – has faced particularly severe assaults, such that traditions and identity, and in some cases entire peoples, have severely diminished or disappeared entirely; so these cultures, as understood and practiced and cherished by Native people, and not as appropriated and re-invented by others, ought to be approached with an extra degree of respect. Further, unlike many elements of many cultures, which have no real sacred or taboo power to them (*achem* like the kimono *cough*), in many Native American cultures, many garments, accessories, motifs, and so forth are very strictly associated only with particular events or rituals, or can only be worn by particular people, or have to be earned; and for anyone else to wear it, use it, or even touch it – let alone to appropriate it – is sacrilegious, a violation. It is taboo in the truest, original sense of the word.

I quite liked the way the exhibit addressed these issues, when it came to designs by non-Native designers. As one gallery label reads:

Totem-pole designs of the Pacific Northwest Coast captivated the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, inspiring him to create this masterfully embroidered dress. … And yet Mizrahi is not Native – so what to think of his appropriation of these motifs?

Cultural borrowing is complex. Fashion designers are renowned remixers – voracious consumers of images and ideas. Mizrahi makes reference to totem poles, but he does not replicate one exactly. He emulates, yet he also produces a new style.

I am by no means saying this is perfect, or that there is (or should be) any one, singular, way that is the only way these things should be addressed. I’m not putting my foot down and taking a stand behind this approach. But, I like it. It acknowledges that appropriation is problematic, but also acknowledges that cultural borrowing is complex (oh my god thank you. yes. nuance and complexity, people. come on, get it together.), and it encourages visitors to think about the complexities for themselves. Artists and designers, and indeed all people, are inspired by all the things around them. And a great many of those things are from other cultures, that are not one’s own, but they are present in one’s life, one’s experiences, and they are inspiring nonetheless. What kinds of derivative works – that is, what kinds of “inspired by” – are okay, and which are not? Who has the right to produce inspired or derivative works? As the label states, all the designers in this show, including both Mizrahi and the Native American designers, are borrowers, are remixers. And, as the Hyperallergic article says, let us not forget that many of these designers “have been consistently told they were “not Native enough” to be lauded as Native artists.” So, what kind of borrowing and remixing is okay, and by whom, and which is not? And as much as many blog posts, academic journal articles, and the like assert that there is a single definitive answer to that question, I’m not sure that’s really the case.

Left: Kimono and Obi (2011), Toni Williams (Northern Arapaho)

This brings us to another interesting item in the exhibit. A kimono – very clearly patterned after the Japanese garment – adapted with a Native American design. The artist, Toni Williams, is Arapaho, but she’s not Japanese (as far as we are told, on the gallery labels). Is this not cultural appropriation? For those screaming bloody murder about the thing at the MFA, is this not just as offensive? If not, why not? Is it perfectly okay because the Native American designer is a person of color? Can only white people perform cultural appropriation? Are all people of color, from Latinos to Native Americans to Asians to Arabs incapable of racism, even when it concerns a culture vastly different from their own? If the main objection to the kimono at the MFA was that using the kimono as merely a costume, merely an accessory, is offensive because it relates to a notion of simply taking anything you want from any other culture, willy-nilly, then isn’t this the same? Are all Native American cultures or identities one big group, and are they allowed to borrow from one another’s cultures? If a Diné were to appropriate elements of Haida culture for their designs, where does that fall on a spectrum of offensiveness, compared to a Japanese artist, or a Jewish artist, appropriating those Haida designs?

Did the Native American designer Toni Williams get special permission from a professional kimono designer to do this? And even if she did get permission from a professional kimono-maker in Kyoto, well, so did the MFA, so does it matter? After all, the Asian-American experience is not the same as the Japanese one (in Asia), and so how could a Japanese understand how Asian-Americans feel about this? Anyway.. I think it’s worth thinking about, and discussing. Is this okay? If it is, why? What makes it different? What makes this inoffensive, and how can we (others, everyone) seek to emulate that, in order to avoid offense?

Right: Carla Hemlock (Mohawk), Treaty Cloth Shirt (2012). Features the 1794 Treaty between the US and the Iroquois Confederation. I’m a bit surprised that the artist would choose a Treaty that’s actually been consistently honored, rather than the more political art message of choosing one the US has trampled on. I’m also surprised there are any Native American treaties the US has actually consistently honored.

Apologies to have allowed the cultural appropriation talk to dominate this post. It’s really not that central or prominent a theme within the exhibit. Rather, the theme I most took away was one of “indigenous modernity,” though I doubt that term would have appeared verbatim anywhere on the labels. Native American culture is living, and it is contemporary. Native Americans are no more obligated to be traditional in order to be “true” Native Americans than Jews or Chinese or Dutchmen or anyone else is. They are not less Native American for being less traditional – just as I am myself no less Jewish for not observing the same traditions and leading the same lifestyle as my ancestors. And once you “get” this concept, boy, contemporary Native American culture can be really cool.

Native Fashion Now is showing at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. until March 6, 2016. It is included with regular museum admission – no extra charge. A huge thank you to the PEM for that, and for allowing photos!

Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

In his discussion of fishing villages in Chikuzen province, Kalland provides an almost dizzying degree of detail about Tokugawa era fishing techniques and equipment, what kinds of fish were caught, and how they were used or prepared, and also about the complexities of economic logistics, tax structures, and regulations pertaining to fishing in Chikuzen. This book is surely a profoundly valuable resource for anyone studying Tokugawa period fishing villages, fishing, and the like, for the incredible level of detail he provides on a wide variety of aspects of fishing life. And, as such, it really fleshes out our picture of Tokugawa Japan, covering a very significant yet often overlooked sector, beyond the cities, beyond the samurai & townsmen, beyond even the agricultural peasantry.

However, for my particular project, since the Ryukyuan missions merely passed through these villages, I think Dusinberre’s brief Edo period chapter may be more directly applicable than Kalland’s entire book; in that brief chapter, Dusinberre mentions more about Korean missions, where they stayed while in Kaminoseki, how many houses they took up, and other key aspects of the logistics and burden of reception of these embassies than Kalland does in his entire book, mentioning next to nothing about inns, the harbor/port reception of any kind of official visitors, or the urban side of fishing villages otherwise. Kalland’s book is immensely valuable for one thing – for those interested in fishing villages – but I wish there existed an equally detailed, extensive, book on commercial port villages, more directly connected into networks of trade and travel.

That said, the one chapter on corvée labor (kako) could prove rather useful for my project, as Tokugawa systems of corvée – how people were called up, what types of tasks they contributed to – remain among the lacunae of my knowledge. Here, Kalland reveals that among the chief types of labor villagers in coastal villages were obliged to provide was, simply, the contribution of their boats and their labor for the transportation of officials and their associated cargoes. Though Kalland only speaks specifically of Fukuoka domain, it is easy to imagine, or extrapolate, that similar systems probably prevailed in other domains throughout much of the realm. Suddenly, we get a much clearer idea of how sankin kōtai missions, and Korean and Ryukyuan embassies, as well as any number of other official travels, were conducted: through considerable official appropriation of villagers’ boats and bodies. The numbers Kalland provides are a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around; that the reception of the 1748 Korean mission cost Chikuzen villages somewhere in the range of 120,000 man-hours worth of time/effort certainly makes an impression, suggesting the incredible magnitude of the corvée burden, but it does not give such a graspable, understandable, impression of the impact upon an individual fisherman, or upon a village. Still, combined with the figures and information given by Dusinberre as to how many houses in Kaminoseki and neighboring villages were taken up by Korean missions, we are able to begin to get some sense of the scale of the imposition.

Okinawan fishing boats on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Probably somewhat different from what they would have used in Chikuzen, but this is the closest thing I happen to have among my own photos.

Kalland’s focus on Chikuzen province (or Fukuoka han), however, presents some challenges. As demonstrated by numerous scholars, Mark Ravina in particular, Tokugawa period domains functioned in some important ways like (semi-)independent countries, and varied dramatically in their policies and political, economic, and societal structures and functionings. Thus, it is difficult to know how much of what Kalland shares here can actually be taken to be indicative of economic structures, etc., in any other province. Where the likes of Roberts, Sakai, McClain, and Dusinberre, writing on Tosa, Satsuma, Kanazawa, and Kaminoseki respectively, are to one extent or another clear about how their respective cases are indicative examples or atypical exceptions, Kalland’s engagement with this issue is lacking. He is neither sufficiently explicit about how or why Fukuoka might be an exceptionally distinctive case (as Satsuma would be in a variety of prominent respects), nor explicitly argues that his findings should be taken as applicable to the rest of the archipelago, leaving the question open and vague. As he describes, in many Chikuzen villages, fishermen did not actually own their own equipment, but used equipment owned by an amimoto, an entrepreneur who basically did the investment into the equipment and kept a good share of the return; or fishermen entered into net cooperatives, sharing the costs of the equipment. Did these amimoto and net cooperatives function similarly in other provinces? Did they even exist? Even without going into detail about other provinces, Kalland might have at least discussed whether anything he detailed was or was not typical for the archipelago as a whole. Was the domainal administration of Fukuoka more or less regulatory than in other provinces? Were tax rates particularly high, or particularly low? Were amimoto or net cooperatives particularly powerful or numerous, more so than in other provinces? And if so, why? What about Fukuoka’s location, or about the wealth/prestige of the Kuroda, made economic, social, and political structures regarding fishing exceptional, or typical? This sort of approach, as discussed to one extent or another by Sakai, Roberts, Ravina, and Dusinberre, would have dramatically enhanced the accessibility and usefulness of Kalland’s text.

Echoing my comments on Dusinberre and Amino, however, Kalland’s emphasis on fishing villages, and his arguments against seeing Tokugawa Japan as merely a dichotomy between urban merchants and rural farmers, are of great value in combating a conception which ignores coastal & maritime activities entirely.

Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002).

The Human Tradition in Modern Japan offers a refreshingly and intriguingly different perspective on the history of early modern and modern Japan. Through biographies of figures representative of perspectives, groups, or types largely absent from the standard historical narratives, the volume contributes to a more nuanced, complex, and diversified understanding of Japan’s history. By describing how conditions and developments of the Edo, Meiji, and later periods impacted, for example, court ladies, samurai women, Okinawans, and middle-ranking officials in a provincial domain, these biographies further challenge the ability of those standard narratives to present themselves as representing the “whole” story.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya, a daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, based on the princess’ diary, is of particular value in (at least) two ways. One, it indicates something of the activities and lives of members of the imperial court during a time when the court, and court aristocracy, had very little direct impact on political affairs, and are thus very often almost entirely absent from summarizing narratives. Our standard narrative of the Edo period, e.g. if one were to summarize the entire period in a lecture or two or three, might mention the court only so far as to say that, unlike in earlier periods, the court had effectively no power in the Edo period, and largely simply carried on in the cultural and ritual pursuits they had pursued previously. When asked about the role of the emperor during the Edo period, I myself often comment that the emperor did not leave Kyoto, and hardly left the palace, for a considerable span in the 17th-19th centuries. Only in a discussion of the period more centered on Kyoto, and on cultural activities (e.g. poetry circles), among a limited set of other aspects, might one expect to see the court aristocrats achieve any prominence in the narrative. Yet, just what did court nobles, and the imperial family, do during this time? Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya reveals, not in vague broadstrokes, but in evocative vivid details, the familial and cultural activities, and trials and tribulations of court politics of an imperial princess’ life. We learn that leading members of the five sekke families could expect to pass through certain high court positions (e.g. Kanpaku, Udaijin, Sadaijin), and that these rotated between the families in a standard enough fashion that one would feel directly slighted when passed over for such a promotion. We also learn that members of the court were entrusted, or at least saw themselves as having been entrusted, with maintaining and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors, an active responsibility importantly different in character from the passive continuation of these traditions we might have assumed – that is, the idea that the courtiers simply continued these traditions because that is what they did.

A second great contribution of Segawa Seigle’s essay is in bringing to the forefront the personal, emotional aspect of individuals’ lives, something all too often overlooked in history, often because of the inability to glean it from the documents, and thus easily forgotten. It is one thing to speak of court ladies, for example, as a group or as a type, offering generalizing descriptions of aspects of their lifestyles, their place in society, and so forth. Even in biographies, we often focus in on a chronology of key moments in their lives, noting the dates at which they married, had children, moved cities, or took up different ranks or positions, perhaps stopping at times to give more detailed treatment to certain political events. We see this in both Roberts’ biography of Mori Yoshiki, in which several pages are devoted to discussion of a particular murder, and in Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, where various personal political conflicts are described in some detail; and that is of course of great value as well, illuminating interesting and important aspects, respectively, of the functioning of systems of justice under the Tokugawa, and key social-political developments in Okinawa’s Meiji period history. But, it is quite another to do what Segawa Seigle does here, relating to the reader, by virtue of the fortune of having Shinano-miya’s personal diary, her thoughts and emotions, bringing to life the emotional humanity of the individual, and by extension inspiring, or challenging, us to think about the individual humanity of all historical figures. This is a major theme, too, of Anne Allison’s recent book, Precarious Japan, in which she emphasizes that economically and socially precarious positions – e.g. lacking in job security; financial savings or retirement funds; or familial, corporate, or governmental safety nets for social welfare – have not only economic and social impacts, but profound impacts emotionally and otherwise upon one’s sense of identity, of self-worth, and so forth, and that these need to be recognized as of profound significance.

Walthall does this to an extent as well in her essay for the volume, on Nishimiya Hide, a lady-in-waiting to the wife of a prominent daimyō, who after the Meiji Restoration struggles to get by. Nishimiya’s story also serves as suggestive of what many others likely faced in the early Meiji period, a period of incredible social, political, economic, and cultural upheaval. While we may have some conception, in broad strokes, of which types of people were “winners” and “losers” as the results of these changes, there are many who fall through the cracks. Nishimiya’s biography, in fact, makes one curious to read about others’ experiences at this time. In her biography, we see someone who, after passing an interview and being hired by a high-ranking daimyō family, enjoyed a rather stable and comfortable life, but who lost very nearly everything when the bakuhan system was dismantled. One can easily imagine that there were many of similar station who fared better, many worse, and many similarly; like Dusinberre’s treatment of the town of Kaminoseki, Nishimiya may not be “typical” or “representative,” but she is certainly suggestive or evocative of other cases. One is inspired to wonder about other cases, other stories from this period. We know of certain merchants, and certain daimyō who did quite well, and that in broad strokes there were many farmers who did not. What happened to other daimyō, other merchants? What happened to someone of similar rank and position to Mori Yoshiki? Nishimiya tried her hand for a time at applying her experience in refined arts and elite housekeeping to open a geisha house; in her case this does not last, but one cannot help but wonder about other cases where it might have succeeded. How many individuals from samurai or court noble families succeeded in transferring their abilities in the traditional arts (and/or in aspects of traditional lifestyle, such as Nishimiya’s experience in serving her lady) into successful employment or commercial pursuits in the modern period? At the very least, despite her geisha house not lasting very long, Nishimiya’s willingness to go that route, and to have her son become a leatherworker, is a dramatic indication of shifts in attitudes, as one allows oneself to (or is forced to) put aside “traditional” attitudes about “low” things that one of such elite birth could not imagine being involved in.

Jahana Noboru (left) and Narahara Shigeru (right), as portrayed in Ishikawa Mao’s photo installation “Dai-Ryûkyû shashin emaki” (2014).

Gregory Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, in addition to simply bringing Okinawa into the story of modern Japan, also serves as a good example of a point made by Anne Walthall in her introduction to the volume. Human lives and careers happen in fits and starts, and we should not allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into thinking that any person’s life takes place in a smooth, linear fashion, with all major occurrences prefiguring later key accomplishments. Jahana is remembered today as a hero, a champion of peasants’ rights and a defender of Okinawan interests against the predations of both government officials & corporate interests from mainland Japan, and of the former Ryukyuan aristocracy. Yet, as Smits points out, citing the work of other scholars, several years prior to Jahana’s famous stand-off against Narahara Shigeru in 1897-1898, and against the aristocratic interests of the Kōdōkai c. 1900, Jahana in 1894 was perhaps rather dismissive of peasants’ attitudes and demands, and resentful of their questioning his expertise, as someone trained at the top agricultural college in the country.

Biographies such as these contribute to our understanding of Japanese history in a number of profound and significant ways, providing diversity and challenging the national-level version of narratives of historical developments, and in doing so problematizing generalizing notions of “the Japanese people,” as well as inviting us to consider the personal and emotional, human, aspect of historical experience, and providing us with valuable details on specific cases and situations – even beyond these unquestionably important broader, historiographical aspects, these biographies also teach us much about the material and logistical culture of the court, of samurai life, and so forth, and about the names, dates, and events of Mito and Tosa domains, the Imperial court, the city of Tokyo, and of Meiji period Okinawa.

Amy Stanley – Selling Women

Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012).

Amy Stanley’s Selling Women provides a much-needed counterpoint to discussions of Edo period prostitution which focus on the pleasure quarters primarily, or solely, as a romantic(ized) site of cultural dynamism – a font of popular arts, fashion, and attitudes. Indeed, the significance of the pleasure districts upon painting, prints, publishing, music, dance, theater, fashion, and literature cannot be understated. Places like the Yoshiwara were in fact profoundly influential upon Edo period popular culture, and upon much of what has since come to be regarded as “traditional” Japanese culture, as described by Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her book on the Yoshiwara, Eiko Ikegami in Bonds of Civility, and in countless other works on ukiyo-e and Edo period popular culture. However, the suffering and exploitation of the women in these districts, the functioning of prostitution across the archipelago, and attitudes towards prostitution have very much been under-discussed in English-language scholarship.

Stanley’s Selling Women represents a powerful step in rectifying this. Though prostitutes were officially seen as marginal people in the official status hierarchies of the day, along with other types of entertainers, Selling Women clearly shows they were hardly marginal at all in the economy, local culture, and everyday society of many villages, towns, and cities throughout the archipelago. Moving beyond the Yoshiwara, Stanley discusses and contrasts prostitution in a variety of different spaces of early modern Japan, including the big cities of Edo and Nagasaki, a small mining town in Tōhoku, the ports of Niigata and of the Inland Sea, and post-stations along the Nakasendō, each at a different time within the period.

In the process, we also see something of how women, in general, were regarded in society at the time, as wives, as daughters, and sometimes as property, and how they were treated, economically and legally, as a result. By illuminating the logics underpinning women’s (and especially prostitutes’) circumstances in Edo period Japan, showing how fundamental assumptions and attitudes particular to that historical period contributed to a distinctive set of repercussions, Stanley makes a valuable contribution to a more global, more diverse, conception of women’s history, and to scholarly discourses on sex, women’s role in society, and so forth as well.

Right: An image of Nagasaki yûjo entertaining Chinese clients in Nagasaki, from the ”Nagasaki meishô zue”, c. 1820.

As Stanley explains, prostitutes in early modern Japan had the most advantage in defense against exploitation or ill treatment, ironically, when representing themselves as passive victims, and when having someone else speak for them. This was perhaps most powerful in Nagasaki, where girls of the Maruyama and Yoriai districts, who chiefly served European and Chinese clients in the foreign districts of the city, maintained close ties with their families and local communities. Parents or guardians could speak on a girl’s behalf, presenting her as a dutiful and filial daughter, working and suffering in order to help provide for her family. That prostitution contributed positively to moral order or the social fabric, or was at least a necessary evil, is a recurrent theme throughout the places and times Stanley discusses in the chapters of Selling Women. Among other arguments, brothel owners, local officials, and others argued that prostitution provided an outlet for men’s sexual urges (thus protecting village daughters from men acting on those urges), and also that it was essential in many cases (especially in port towns and post-stations) for the prosperity of the town, as it brought travelers and traders who would otherwise bring their trade and custom to other towns instead, thus dooming the town to economic decline or collapse. The ability to provide for one’s family by engaging in prostitution, especially if it means rescuing one’s parents from poverty, was also often seen as a virtuous and self-sacrificing act on the part of the girl. As such, protecting prostitution – and thus protecting the economic prosperity of the town, and the wellbeing of the prostitutes’ parents – is often framed as “compassionate” or “benevolent governance” on the part of officials, a key element of Tokugawa Neo-Confucian attitudes about government. Stanley shows, however, that at other times and places in the archipelago, however, especially later in the Edo period, commercialism grew more influential, and many brothel owners, as well as local officials, began to appeal less to the idea that prostitution served a valuable moral or social function, and more to the simple commercialist idea that businessmen had a right to a certain degree of freedom in how they pursued business. Producers supplied purchasable sex because consumers demanded it, these men asserted, and all was done fairly and properly according to contracts and agreed-upon (if unspoken) rules of the business.

An important and interesting distinction raised by Stanley throughout the book, highlighting differences from modern/Western discourses on sex, is that in early modern Japan, prostitution was not stigmatized for the same sorts of reasons that it has historically been (and still is) in our own society. Japanese did not see sex itself, female sexuality, or promiscuity, as inherent evils. That a woman was unchaste, or even promiscuous, was not seen to make her “dirty” or otherwise undesirable, let alone sinful. What was seen as dangerous, distasteful, and problematic, on the other hand, was women acting independently, for their own personal monetary benefit. This was seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal social order, to Confucian relationships, and thus to community and society itself. The stigma against prostitution thus came primarily not from any association of sex itself as being stigmatizing, but rather from a Neo-Confucian morality which both opposed greed, and supported a patriarchal conception of women’s passive relationship to the men in her life (father, husband, employer) as rightful and appropriate. When women were seen not as self-sacrificing dutiful daughters, but as profit-seeking independent women who sought to entice young men away from their work, their families, and their wallets, this, Stanley argues, was the key source of stigma and attitudes against prostitution.

Meiji period hand-colored photo of courtesans on display in the Yoshiwara.

Another significant trend seen in Selling Women is the commodification of women. Whereas in some times and places, such as Nagasaki in the mid-Edo period, prostitutes were treated much like full subjects and members of the community, with, Stanley asserts, prostitution being seen as little different from any other job, in others, such as the early 17th century northern Japanese mining town of Innai, or the highly commercialized networks of trading women from brothel to brothel across the mid-19th century Inland Sea, women were essentially objects, owned by their families or by brothel masters, to be bought, sold, loaned out, or moved about as men wished. The commodification, or objectification, of women is key to women’s exploitation and ill treatment both historically and today, and so in addressing this issue, Selling Women becomes an eye-opening introduction too, in some respects, to some of the most key issues in women’s history and feminist studies more broadly, bringing the reader insights into how these issues play out beyond their own place and time (the 21st century Western world / US), informing about early modern Japan while at the same time containing great relevance beyond simply that which pertains to the early modern Japanese case.

That Stanley addresses multiple different places, and types of places, across the archipelago and across the Edo period, makes her study far more valuable and meaningful than it might have been otherwise. The Yoshiwara cannot stand as representative of prostitution throughout the realm, but neither could a case study of a post-station, mining town, or port town alone appropriately represent the archipelago-wide situation and thus remedy that problem. In this sense, Selling Women could serve as a model, or as inspiration, for other works, which might similarly bring a more regionally diverse approach to any of a myriad of other topics. Certainly in my own work I intend to examine how the Ryukyuan missions processed through the streets, and were received, not only in Edo, and not only in Tōkaidō post-stations, but in Kagoshima and Inland Sea port towns as well. In doing so, Stanley provides a much more illuminating and informative treatment of how prostitution manifested itself, across the realm, than perhaps any other previous work.

However, her approach also creates some difficulties, in that by spanning both space and time, the book compares apples and oranges, and fails to provide a clear indication of which differences manifest across time, and which across space. In Chapter Four, village headmen and the like in villages surrounding Kantō area post-stations are shown to have seen prostitution in the post-stations as a distraction pulling young men away from the farms, as a waste of money, and as a threat to social order and to village culture otherwise. Meanwhile, Chapter Five illustrates that urban/commercial town officials in port towns in the Inland Sea encouraged the opposite, seeing prostitution as essential to the prosperity of the port. It is laudable that Stanley shows both townsmen and villager perspectives, silencing the voices of neither. However, her case studies leave unclear the ways in which Inland Sea port officials’ attitudes aligned (or not) with those of the post-station officials the Kantō villagers were opposing, and likewise, how much the people of fishing villages in the Inland Sea might have been comparable in their views and desires to those of the Kantō farming villages. Similarly, Chapter One describes the all-but-complete commodification of women in the mining town of Innai, in northern Japan, in the early decades of the Edo period, before the reach of Tokugawa legal & administrative authority had quite extended into such an area. Yet it is left fairly unclear whether the same took place at that time throughout the archipelago, or only in the north, or perhaps even only in some towns and villages of the north and not others. As women are presented as more commodified again towards the very end of the Edo period, in the Inland Sea ports of Chapter Five, here too we are left wondering whether this is something distinctive of the Inland Sea cross-temporally, or distinctive of more archipelago-wide developments by the 1850s-1860s.

A view of the Inland Sea port town of Mitarai.

The question of the representativeness of each of Stanley’s cases, and the extent to which they can stand to inform us as to circumstances in other port towns or post stations, recalls an issue we have wrestled with throughout this reading list, perhaps most eloquently addressed by Martin Dusinberre in defense of his discussion of Kaminoseki. No case can be truly representative. Reality is more complicated than that, variation is everywhere, and no study could truly even begin to approach representative comprehensiveness without doing an even more thorough examination of a far greater number of cases. None of the places described by Stanley in this book can truly stand as indicative that all other post-stations, or all other mining towns, were just the same. Indeed, she even notes that, for example, some domains (such as Hiroshima) largely looked the other way and tolerated prostitution in their ports, while others (such as Takamatsu) were far stricter on prohibiting it outside of entertainment districts such as those associated with shrines and temples. Yet, while Mitarai might not be able to stand for Murotsu, nor the Kantō area post-stations of the Nakasendō for those of the Tōkai region along the Tōkaidō, some general trends and recurrent themes are evident.

Prostitution in Japan is argued to have grown chiefly in the big cities in the 17th century, before expanding out to provincial villages and towns in a significant way only beginning in the mid-18th century. While Stanley’s often conflicting examples remind us to always acknowledge the great degree of variation which existed, still there are enough similarities between the cases to allow us to generalize about what likely took place, if not in any one particular locale untouched by Stanley, then still about what “likely” “often” happened in “many” cases. Officials often prioritized economic prosperity over protecting the social order, claiming this to be compassionate & benevolent governance and to be a defense of the economic well-being of the people, even as they ignored the suffering of a sub-section of those people: their female subjects sold into, essentially, sex slavery. Indentured servitude was represented as dutiful and self-sacrificing, and not as an affront to women’s personhood and autonomy, and assertion of that autonomy on the part of the woman was seen as socially destructive, and as deriving from selfishness and greed. As a prostitute, she was meant to be an outlet for others’ desires, not to possess or act upon her own, and since female passivity was seen as a virtue, a woman could not assert her own agency without compromising her own moral position. Though one of Stanley’s key purposes in this book is to counter the romantic vision of the Yoshiwara put out by much other scholarship, and thus she does emphasize the difficulties and suffering of women forced into prostitution, she also notes beneficial or progressive aspects of cultural developments. She notes, for example, that even in the case of Inland Sea ports in the 1860s, where girls were legally bound to their contracts, and to the unspoken “rules of the teahouses,” and where a brothel manager could transfer a girl to another establishment as far as several provinces away without much room for moral appeal by her parents, and indeed even in most prostitutes’ circumstances throughout the archipelago and across the period, even in these cases they still were treated as something more than purely property with monetary value. By contrast, in the mining town of Innai, a man frequently could not petition for debt forgiveness unless he had sold his wife and daughter along with all of his other possessions.

Thus, we are presented with both a handful of focused and informative case studies, and considerable overarching general understandings. Selling Women goes far beyond what (almost?) anyone else has previously done, examining prostitution and attitudes towards women across numerous different places and circumstances across the early modern Japanese archipelago, and while noting trends across time. Her study shows how many of the same issues which plague women in other times and places throughout world history played out in Edo period Japan, both similarly, and in distinctive ways particular to this case.

Public domain and Creative Commons images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,797 other followers