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I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization” (International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

—–
*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

How Do We Do Better?

Way back in 2014, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco invited artist Chiraag Bhakta to produce an installation artwork for their exhibit on Yoga. The piece, which Bhakta ended up calling #WhitePeopleDoingYoga, was meant to critique the colonization and appropriation of Indian culture.

Right: A sign at the San Francisco airport.

This past October, Bhakta wrote in a Mother Jones article entitled The Whitewashing of “#WhitePeopleDoingYoga” about the museum seeking to appropriate, whitewash, and “dilute” his installation. In the piece, he indicates that lead curators, education staff, and others expressed that “they wanted something innocuous like #PeopleDoingYoga, without the word “white,” because the term “white people” could be “offensive” to museumgoers, donors, and staff. During our initial meetings at the museum, they told me to “turn down the volume” of my critique.” They also suggested that he eliminate a “shrine” Bhakta had designed in which white people would occupy the spaces that should belong to Hindu deities. Mother Jones’ editors indicate that “museum reps acknowledge[d in communications with the magazine] that there had been misgivings over the title and the installation in general, which they emphasize was intended to be “educational” rather than artistic.”

Bhakta goes on to talk about how Avery Brundage, the International Olympics Committee figure whose collection is at the core of that of the Asian Art Museum, was a horrific anti-Semite and racist. He writes that Brundage:

was “the preeminent American apologist for Nazi Germany,” in the words of author Jeremy Schaap. In the ’60s, the Olympic Committee for Human Rights, a group protesting racism in sports, demanded Brundage’s removal as the Olympics president. The committee had exposed his ownership of a country club in California that excluded Jewish and black people from its membership. In response to a potential boycott by black athletes of the 1968 Olympics, Brundage notoriously said, “They won’t be missed.” (He had been instrumental in preventing a US boycott of the so-called Nazi games in 1936.) Brundage was “a racist down to his toes,” said Lee Evans, an American sprinter on the 1968 Olympic team. “A brutal, racist pig,” said a teammate, Marty Liquori. A “Jew hater and a Jew baiter,” was the verdict of Gustavus Town Kirby, delivered in a 1936 letter to Brundage himself.

As a Jew, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, but also simply as an American and as a human being, I am appalled to learn of Avery Brundage’s politics. And in light of this, appalled that the Asian Art Museum continues to have his bust and his picture and his name plastered all over the place.

This debacle over #WhitePeopleDoingYoga is far from an isolated incident. It is far from the first time that the Asian Art Museum and other major museums have made problematic decisions, done problematic things, have failed in their duty to lead and to educate. When it comes to engaging with other cultures (and with our own), museums should represent the best of us. They should be the ones to educate us about the problems of our wrong thinking, and to lead us into new understandings. Articles like these are an indictment of so much that is so wrong within the museum world, and it is so important that these things are critiqued and brought to light.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, in 2011.

Still, while articles like these, which say “you” or “they” ought to do better, ought to do different, are exceptionally valuable and important in their way, I cannot help but wonder where are the articles that say “how can we do better?” It’s one thing to say “Brundage was a Nazi apologist, a horrible person, and it’s offensive to have his name and face so ever-present in this space.” But it would be quite another to have an article that actually engages with this issue in a complex way: if Brundage is so horrible, then what’s the right way, what’s the best way, to address this? Do we take down all reference to him in the museum? Or would that just be setting the museum up for accusations of trying to hide or bury unsavory history and uncomfortable truths? Do we try to do the reverse, putting up more text (perhaps displayed prominently in the main lobby or near the entrance), more descriptions and explanations of who he was and why he was a horrible person, providing context and explaining definitively that the museum denounces such racist and antisemitic views, but then providing some kind of justification for keeping and using the collection anyway, to use it for progressive, educational, restorative purposes with aims of cultural/social justice? Or is the whole thing just so tainted that the best thing to do is to sell off or otherwise dispose of the collection entirely? It’s easy to point fingers, but as someone deeply interested in the museum world, who has devoted pretty much his entire adult life to the study of East Asian cultures and the pursuit of a career in that field, and as someone who cannot help but to be white but who wants to do the right thing when it comes to these sorts of issues and problems, we need to be discussing not only problems but also solutions. What are the solutions?

The Enola Gay on display at the National Air & Space Museum annex, with barely any context around it. A compromise.

The same goes for the matter of museums having to contend with the real or imagined demands of trustees, donors, and other stakeholders, and with the real or imagined expectations and attitudes of museumgoers (i.e. the public), not to mention the way the museum is represented in the media and seen or known or understood by the public more widely, i.e. even amongst those who aren’t regular museumgoers. I have heard countless anecdotes of tensions between curators and education department staff, or between curators and trustees, directors, etc., regarding exactly the same types of issues as are raised in this piece. Some people may find it offensive; some people might not understand the nuances/complexities of the message here; many people just want their stereotypical understandings reinforced. We’ve seen this when it comes to national(ist) American narratives about Pearl Harbor1, Hiroshima1, 2, and the Wild West1 – the incredible pushback and difficulty that museums get when they dare to question the standard narrative on these events/periods and to offer alternative perspectives (i.e. those of the Japanese, or of Native American Nations, not to mention the Hawaiian people). But then we’ve also seen the criticism the museums get from people like the author here, when museums give in to that pressure, at all, when they compromise on a radical/ progressive/ antiracist/ anticolonial approach, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve heard of outside curators getting incredible pushback from museums when trying to bring a feminist critique to the Japanese “pictures of the floating world” genre which so romanticized the so-called “pleasure quarters” (read: brothel districts) of early modern Japan, and when trying to challenge the positive spin on samurai as cool, honorable, heroic, cultured, peaceful – trying to show how they were, in fact, warmongers. Audiences wouldn’t like it. It’s too shocking to their expectations. People come to the museum to relax, to enjoy, and to appreciate beautiful things, not to be attacked for their beliefs, attitudes, understandings. … Okay, so we know the problem. But instead of just pointing fingers and saying “white people,” how do we actually contend with this? Is the correct answer that museums should simply tell it as it is, hold nothing back, shove the antiracist / anti-colonial truth in people’s faces, like a giant middle finger to all the racists? Perhaps. Should museums boldly expel any staff or board members who are pushing stereotypical, culturally appropriative, colonialist approaches and practices, no matter how difficult that makes things for the museum financially or logistically? Perhaps.

But I’d love to see these things actually discussed, considered, rather than just boldly asserted. What is the right way forward? What is the best way to address these cultural, political, racial matters in a way that considers curators, museum staffers, etc. not as enemies or opponents, not as upholders of “white supremacy,” but as sympathetic human beings who are trying to do their best within a complicated circumstance of competing pressures and logistical challenges? How can “we” as artists, scholars, museumgoers, and museum professionals – not “us” (people of color, outsiders to the museum, critics) vs. “them” (the museums), but “we” as a single group of people with shared interests and attitudes – work together towards shared goals, to face these challenges, and to do better?

As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

Moving Back to Tokyo

The iconic Akamon, or red gate, entrance to the University of Tokyo.

I should have posted this months ago, but I strangely felt I didn’t have that much to say on the topic, I guess. And perhaps more to the point, things just got very busy, hectic, and so here we are, almost at the end of four months since I moved here to Tokyo, and I’m finally posting this now. Oh well, better late than never, I suppose. Even though I guess I’m not saying all that much of substance here, still I wanted to get it down, for posterity if for nothing else.

I’ve started my new job in Tokyo, and things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that happened in the previous few months. 

The Tokyo skyline as seen from high above Ichigaya.

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not moreso, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest.
 
But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again.

Getting some work done at the Aoyama Flower Market Teahouse.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō Kōyō 維新史料綱要, a collection of some 30,000 entries summarizing in a day-by-day fashion the key events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of the entries. Whenever it does go live, a few years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what events are pertinent to your search terms. For example, search the name of a shogunate official such as Ido Satohiro and you can trace his key activities, promotions, reassignments, and so forth across the period. Search for a placename, such as Shimoda or Yokohama, or Ryûkyû, Tsushima, or Matsumae, and you can see a listing of the progression of events pertaining to that place across the period.

Copies of the Tsûkô ichiran, a compilation of Edo period diplomatic records.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research. I guess I’ve been sidetracked the last couple of months, thinking, reading, and writing about Shuri castle, but I suppose that counts as “my own research” too. I’ll get back to thinking about Ryukyuan embassies, diplomatic ritual, and so forth soon.

In the meantime, everyone at the Hensanjo has been really quite kind and supportive, encouraging me to take time to do my own research, that that’s included in the position and counts as part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. It’s a real pleasure.

Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

Early in the morning on Thursday Oct 31, 2019, exactly 27 years to the day after its postwar restoration was complete, seven of the central buildings of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku) the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, burned down in what seems to have been a tragic, tragic accident.

The front page of the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, Nov 1, 2019.

I awoke that morning to this shocking news. Whether I saw it first on Twitter or on Facebook, I don’t recall. I had actually been in Naha just a week or so earlier, but hadn’t made it to the castle on this visit. Video of the castle in flames was showing amongst other news briefs on the video screens on the Tokyo Metro subway as I made my way into work, and by the time I got into the office, there was an email very kindly forwarded to me by a friend, from Singapore-based Channel News Asia looking for someone to speak briefly, live on-air, via Skype. We had already begun to see reactions in the English-language news, social media, and elsewhere – of which I, I will admit, was guilty as well at first – dismissing the fire as being not that important, since the buildings destroyed were all 1990s-2000s reconstructions and not authentically historical buildings. As I later learned, contributors on Wikipedia similarly came to a swift conclusion not to include the fire in the “In the News” section of Wikipedia’s front page because, as one user wrote, “If this was about the original buildings being destroyed, it’d be newsworthy,” later adding “Thanks for the correction, let’s make it a strong oppose then. I’ve got clothes older than the buildings destroyed. This is completely misleading and not in the slightest newsworthy.” Having since read much, not only in scholarship and newspapers, but also on friends’ social media accounts, about how much the castle meant to them, I was saddened and infuriated.

I still feel conflicted about having accepted the invitation to speak on-camera, rather than doing the “recognize your privilege” thing and deferring to Okinawan or Okinawan-American friends – I hate that anyone should think that I would be eager to use such a tragic event as an opportunity for self-promotion. But I did think that most Okinawans or Okinawan-Americans I might pass it along to were likely plenty busy with commenting or responding in other ways – and many did end up being interviewed by the media, or having an opportunity to respond publicly in other ways, and I hope I can feel okay with the idea that I wasn’t really stealing anyone’s spotlight but simply adding an additional, supporting, voice, repeating and amplifying the voices I had heard, to do what little I could to try to help correct some misunderstandings and, simply, to bring Okinawa, its people, and their history and culture, to the world’s attention if only for a moment.

Jon Itomura, executive director of Hawaii United Okinawa Association, being interviewed by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Company (琉球放送, RBC):

Since then, I have been keeping up with the news as much as I can, and with individual friends’ and colleagues’ social media posts, as well as discussing the fire and the significance of Shuri with friends both here in Tokyo and overseas. That very night, after the fire, I immediately started reading two books which had long been near the very top of my “to read” pile: Tze May Loo’s Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation Into Modern Japan, 1879–2000, and a chapter on Shuri castle and “Ryukyu Restoration” in Gerald Figal’s book Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa. Thanks to another kind recommendation, I was able to share some of what I had learned, about Okinawans’ own feelings about the significance of the 1992 restoration, the existence of the castle since then, and the tragedy of its loss, in a piece for a UK-based art world magazine, Apollo. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Simon Kaner for passing this opportunity along to me, and to Apollo for seeking to publish something on this beautiful and powerful place that has such a special space in so many people’s hearts.

The main hall (Seiden 正殿, or Momourasoe udun 百浦添御殿) at Shuri castle, in a photo I took in Sept 2014.

There is still so much more that I have to say, and that so many others have been saying. It’s been more than two weeks since the fire now, and a part of me felt that I really ought to post something here on the blog almost immediately. Some of my loyal readers, if I indeed have any (I don’t presume I do), may have noticed the conspicuous absence of any comment on the event until now. But I delayed because I felt there was still so much to read, and to think about, and to synthesize. And I think there will still be more posts yet to come. But I wanted, now, finally, today, to start to share some introductory thoughts. Over the coming days and weeks, if I end up keeping to it, I may end up posting more.

For those interested in contributing to the reconstruction efforts:
*One way to do so, particularly for those in the US, is through a GoFundMe organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
*Those who pay taxes in Japan can redirect their furusato zeikin to the reconstruction effort: https://www.furusato-tax.jp/gcf/717.
*And the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper is maintaining a list of other ways to donate: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/entry-1019118.html

Those who have visited the castle may wish to share photos with a lab at the University of Tokyo which is working to combine crowdsourced photographs into a 3D virtual digital model, or recreation, of the castle. See this link: https://www.our-shurijo.org/index_en.html

Another organization is working on creating an archive of people’s thoughts and experiences regarding the castle – not just rebuilding the castle, and continuing to try to safeguard the roughly 1100 out of 1500 physical historical cultural treasures which survived the fire, but to build and maintain an archive of memories. Watch this space: https://miraifund.org/kikin/shurijo/

The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.