Twenty Years Ago Today

Sakura near Ichigaya's Imperial Moat
Sakura along the imperial canal near Ichigaya / Iidabashi, 1 April 2003.

I’m not 100% positive on the precise date, but I believe today marks the 20th anniversary of my first ever arrival in Japan. Unbelievable. How.

As a college student, I felt that study abroad might be my one and only chance to visit and experience life in a place like Japan, before returning to the US and settling in to a life in New York or New England. My whole family – aunts, uncles – all live in and around New York City, and at that point in my life I think I had only ever left the Northeast US a handful of times, including if I am remembering correctly only one overseas trip ever yet in my life. My parents had traveled a little bit in their 20s, I knew, backpacking across Europe or spending X months on a volunteer program before returning to New York, having their first child (me) around age 30, settling down and only very rarely ever making such big trips ever again. The idea of traveling more regularly, to more diverse places, was certainly very enticing and exciting for me, but I don’t know that I imagined that I would ever actually do so, let alone live overseas, let alone live in a non-Western, predominantly non-English-speaking place like Japan.

It just seemed so obvious to me at that point in my life that I would finish college, move back to New York, and end up making my life there, as in fact a great many of my high school era friends have, and good for them – absolutely nothing wrong with that, and in fact I envy some considerable aspects of that lifepath as well, as someone who never ending up having that experience of living in Brooklyn or elsewhere in NYC in your 20s or 30s, or of remaining in one city for years and years, developing the kinds of friendships and personal networks, community membership or belonging, familiarity with the city, that one only can over the course of many years.

So, I wanted to take this opportunity and make the most of it – not that London or Sydney or certain other English-speaking / Western destinations couldn’t have been amazing, but if study abroad was going to be the avenue for me to have this once in a lifetime chance to give this a try. Those four short months in 2003 were an absolute blast. The most fun, the most intense exciting, enjoyable, pleasant, adventure – everything was so new, and so exciting. Tokyo, the land of robots and video games and anime and Harajuku fashion, of J-pop and ukiyo-e and kabuki, and all these things.

Japan - last set 161 - Akihabara, Electric Town
Akihabara at night. August, 2003.

Of course, my relationship with Tokyo, with Japan, has changed so much since then. I have been fortunate, in ways that 20-year-old me could never imagine, to come back here so many times, to travel and explore and experience so much of Japan. I quickly fell away from being nearly as interested in anime, manga, video games, as I once was – or once expected I would become. And whether I want to blame it on graduate school / academia leading me towards refining into an ever-more-narrow focus in terms of my research interests, or whether to say more broadly this is just how life is, I also quickly came to realize that there are not enough hours in the day, enough days in the year, enough years in a lifetime to ever explore and experience all the things I expected I might one day become familiar with. As an example, not only have I consumed astonishingly little anime, manga, or video games in the last twenty years, but even as my Japanese reading ability has become nearly fluent, and even after now living here for the past 3.5 years, I still have never found or made the time, or gotten into the habit, of reading almost any magazines – it was easy for me to imagine at age 20 that someday I might come to read Casa Brutus or Bijutsu techо̄ every month, or otherwise come to become deeply familiar with Japanese visual culture, fashion, travel, in a certain kind of local knowledge, cultural capital, immersed in the local culture kind of way. And that hasn’t happened. But, I have, actually, in the last year or so since things opened up a bit more after the first years of the pandemic, begun to feel that I have started to actually get to know a community, and certain corners of Tokyo life in that sort of way. Even as I continue to not actually have that many Japanese friends (which is a whole other topic about foreigner life, etc etc), I have in just the last few months started to get to know so many more drag queens, designers and fashion people, stand-up comedians… Though I still do not go to art museums or theatre nearly as regularly as I might have imagined, still know next to nothing about the art gallery scene here, still am very much on the outside of many communities here – e.g. arts, theatre – I feel like developing those networks is within reach in a way it never did before.

But, I suppose I am drifting off topic. This 20 year anniversary just so happens to coincide with me leaving Tokyo after 3.5 years, and moving to Kyoto where I expect to stay another three to five years. So, I’ve got a lot to reflect upon and think about, and it all sort of merges together.

Clothes shopping in Harajuku with a friend, M.K. Haven’t been in touch since then, so I’ve added this little bar for privacy. I wonder how she’s doing, where she’s living and what she’s up to these days.

In any case, what more can I say? It is wonderful to be still in touch, still in communication with a few friends from that time – thanks to the wonders of social media and the internet, but even with that, it really is just such an incredible thing to still be in touch with these folks at all, and so mind-boggling to reconnect with one another and to actually think that it’s been twenty years, when in some respects I feel like we haven’t changed that much as people. I mean, of course we have, but we’re also not total strangers. That said, the majority of people I met at that time, with whom I developed such intense, close friendships over those four months, I have since fallen out of touch with entirely. It would be wonderful to see them again – see how people are doing, learn what direction life has taken for them these past twenty years.

Meanwhile, so many of the places where I spent so much time during study abroad, which might be sites of nostalgia had I not lived here again, have become so familiar – the experiences of that time have been overwritten with so many more times that any particular nostalgia from 2003 has dissipated, or disappeared. Which is, in a sense, rather sad I think, that I no longer remember almost anything about those days, let alone the feeling, the emotion, of shopping in Harajuku or of daily commuting transfers through Ikebukuro. I am grateful to still have photos. But, of course, in another sense it’s also very cool, to think that Ikebukuro, Harajuku, Shibuya, have become so familiar to me. They may have lost a certain magic – and, the demolition of the old Harajuku Station building *fistshake*, and other physical changes to these neighborhoods, has certainly contributed to the loss of an ability to feel nostalgic feelings of being in that same place or seeing those same buildings. But at the same time, possessing a deep familiarity with these neighborhoods, the kind of familiarity that comes from not just visiting but from living here for X years, is a very cool feeling to have.

Harajuku Eki
The old main building of Harajuku Station, built 1924, demolished 2020. (Photo, June 2013.) An absolute landmark, a source of great nostalgia for me every time I visited, until it was disappeared.

One thing that has, for some reason, remained very nostalgic for me, though, is the chimes or tunes that are played at each station of the JR Yamanote line as trains arrive and depart. I am not sure why this in particular, so much more so than anything else, still to this day reminds me of spring/summery feelings, feelings of a youthful time in my life when despite being on study abroad and having classes to attend and homework to do I nevertheless felt so free, and just excitedly soaking it all up, as we explored and experienced Harajuku, Shibuya, Shinjuku, and other parts of the city.

I do sorely wish I’d had more confidence, less anxiety or being self-conscious, at that time; this is getting into a whole other topic that I could write at extensive length about, but, I have always found, on all my visits to Japan, that this feels like a very freeing place (for someone of my particular package of white foreign privilege, etc.) to get to try out different fashions, different ways of expressing yourself. And I never really embraced it until a couple of years ago. But, wow, if only I had done so at age 20, while on study abroad. What a thing that could have been. Not that I had the money – that’s always been another major impediment to such things. But, to explore, embrace, leap head-on into, or at the very least try Harajuku fashions at age 20, rather than at age 40… I could have had twenty years of young adult life enjoying such fashions. Oh well.

In any case, every spring & summer in Japan reminds me of those times again. That sunny, airy, free and open feeling that I get from so many anime & live action films about high schoolers. The excitement of going out in the city, to explore new areas or to enjoy cafes and shopping in vibrant places like Harajuku and Shibuya.

The cherry blossoms are I think just past full bloom right now. Spring is here, and as oppressively hot and humid as summer in Japan can be, I eagerly look forward to the reliable warmth – no need for a cardigan or back-up jacket – of the next X months. And to this adventure continuing – this next stage of my relationship with Japan, a place that 20 years ago I thought was a one-time luxury, a once in a lifetime experience. I feel so fortunate, so grateful, and still frankly so amazed, that things have turned out so differently, have turned out the way they have.

Went to the new NahART なはーと arts center today and saw “Shurijō akewatashi” 首里城明渡し, a 1933 play by Yamazato Eikichi 山里永吉, relating the 1879 events of the Empire of Japan forcing King Shō Tai of Lūchū to turn over Sui gusuku (Shuri castle), the royal palace, and move to Tokyo. It was beautiful to get to see it performed. Beautiful costumes, beautiful sets. I had not anticipated that it would be in Uchinaaguchi – the Okinawan language – rather than Japanese. Which was wonderful for helping it feel and sound right – Though it did mean I spent most of the play trying to read along in the Japanese translation, with the little light that was coming from the stage. (No house lights.)

The play begins with two top court officials, Giwan peechin and Kamekawa ueekata, talking about the circumstances of the times – whether to lean towards Japan or to believe that China will send help… (it’s more complicated than that, but… in essence.)

The last two scenes were, I thought, particularly beautiful, and moving. In a hall at Sui gusuku, painted/lacquered lavishly in red, the top officials in their stark black court robes and young princes in stunning golden robes, argue with Japanese gov’t official Matsuda Michiyuki about what is to happen to Lūchū. Michiyuki, in Western-style formal dress, and backed up by several riflemen, reads out the imperial edict declaring Ryūkyū Domain (est a few years earlier with the unilateral declared abolition of the “kingdom”) to now be abolished, Okinawa prefecture established, and the king and several princes made Japanese aristocrats and forced to relocate to Tokyo.

Still screenshotted from the trailer for the play, showing Imperial official Matsuda Michiyuki reading out the imperial edict to Prince Nakijin and other members of the royal court.

This is not just part of the play. Hearing it recited out felt to me, and I presume to at least some of the Okinawan audience, as a direct reminder of what happened at that time. This is not a personal drama, merely set against the backdrop of a historical time: it is very much so a play reenacting for audiences the historical events themselves, so they might understand and feel the emotional impact of what happened. The political violence committed against Lūchū, and presented in a way that highlights the patronizing self-important attitude and unilateral action of the Meiji state. Michiyuki stands, while the Luchuans all sit, the power differential symbolized and felt in the difference in height. King Shō Tai comes out and says something to the effect of, “perhaps this is happening because I am lacking in virtue. But, whatever happens to me, Lūchū will continue.”

In the next and last scene, the officials are gathered at Naha Port along with the Chifijin (Kikoe-ogimi, the chief priestess of the kingdom) and several other priestesses, as Michiyuki declares it is time for Shō Tai and the princes to board the ship to Tokyo. I was certainly moved as he departs, and everyone who is left behind sobs and cries out, knowing this might be the last they see of him.

I would be very curious, and eager, to produce a translation of the play (it’s less than 30 pages, and in fact only about half that, since each page of the program is half Okinawan and half Japanese translation), and more than that, to try to see what I can do about placing it in context, trying to see what I can say meaningfully about the politics of the time in 1933 (the context in which Yamazato wrote it), and what might be said about why it ends how it does, why it includes and excludes the scenes that it does, why it phrases things in a particular way.

What might Okinawan audiences have thought of it at that time (maybe I can even find reviews!) and what might be said about the choice to perform it again today – in 2022, 150th anniversary of the kingdom being made a Domain, and 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s post-Occupation Reversion to Japan, but not the 150th anniversary of the 1879 events of the play. And, performed right now (late Oct 2022) to coincide with Uchinanchu Taikai (a major event in which thousands of people of Okinawan descent come to Okinawa once every 5-6 years as a sort of diaspora reunion) and with the Kobikishiki 木曳式 for Sui gusuku – the Main Hall of the palace is not by any means done being rebuilt yet, but this week marks a formal ground-breaking ceremony (kikôshiki 起工式) and a ceremony presenting lumber for the reconstruction from the Yanbaru forests up north…

Yamazato is an intriguing figure himself. I don’t know much about him, but once I became aware of his name, it popped up again and again. He was not only the author of this 1933 play, which was performed a number of times down through the postwar era, including as part of a 1980-something benefit event raising funds for the rebuilding of the palace (which was destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa), but also the author of a series of newspaper opinion pieces in the late 1960s opposing Reversion to Japan, which were republished in English as a booklet entitled “Japan is Not Our Fatherland.” He also wrote a number of essays I have come across about Sui gusuku and other related topics of revival of Okinawan traditional culture and heritage.

I have to finish revising my dissertation into a book manuscript first, but, I feel like this could be really interesting to look into as a next project, dealing with contemporary heritage politics, intersecting with issues of colonialism and imperialism, how the arts relate to the complexities of Okinawan politics in the 1870s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s…

This year has seen numerous events commemorating or marking or otherwise being held in connection with the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s “reversion” to Japan in 1972, after 27 years of US/Allied Occupation. And rightfully so. It’s an event worth marking; the Occupation period is not only fascinating, but extremely impactful and significant for understanding Okinawan politics today. I’ve certainly learned a lot from these exhibits and other events, and feel very fortunate and grateful to have been able to be in Tokyo throughout this year (even if I wasn’t in Okinawa for any of the events held there); I am eagerly looking forward to seeing some exhibits in connection with this event, when I go back to Okinawa later this month.

The 1872 edict, reproduced in a book entitled Dajōkan nisshi 太政官日誌。

But, what has gotten far less attention for some reason is the fact that 2022 also marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of what’s come to be known as the Ryūkyū Shobun 琉球処分 – often mistranslated as the “disposal” or “disposition” of Ryukyu, but really meaning something more like “dealing with Ryukyu” – in short, the beginning of a seven-year process of abolishing the Okinawan kingdom of Lūchū (known as Ryūkyū in Japanese) and annexing it to Japan. This began 150 years ago today, on 16 Oct 1872 (the 14th day of the 9th month of the 5th year of the Meiji era on the Japanese calendar), when the Japanese imperial court presented Prince Ie Shō Ken Chōchoku 伊江王子尚健朝直, a royal prince of Lūchū, with an imperial edict declaring that the Ryūkyū Kingdom 琉球王国 was now to be “Ryūkyū domain” 琉球藩. The following year, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs transferred jurisdiction over Ryūkyū to the Ministry of the Interior. After various other changes and developments over the course of the ensuing years, in 1879, Tokyo finally effected a fuller takeover of the governance and administration of the islands, abolishing the “domain” (i.e. the former kingdom) entirely as an entity and renaming the jurisdiction “Okinawa prefecture.”

The dismantling and annexation of the Kingdom of Lūchū was a long and complex process, taking place over seven years, from 1872 to 1879. But today is the 150th anniversary of the first key moment beginning that process, and so in this post I’d like to focus on the events of that day (and some of the immediately preceding days).

After a number of discussions and back-and-forths both within Tokyo and between the new imperial government and the royal government in Lūchū, on 15 Aug 1872 (7/12 on the Japanese calendar), the Meiji government officially requested that Ryūkyū send a formal embassy to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor and congratulate him on acceding to the throne (in 1867) and on the restoration of imperial power and the establishment of a new, imperial, government (in 1868). I have not yet found anything explicitly discussing what the Lūchūan government thought of this, whether they knew it was going to be markedly different from previous embassies merely acknowledging new Shoguns and reaffirming the status quo of Lūchū’s largely autonomous relationship under samurai authority, or not.

Model of the Saga domain steamship Ryōfūmaru, potentially similar in style to the Hōzuimaru 豊瑞丸 and Sanpō-maru 三邦丸 which transported the 1872 Luchuan embassy.

But, one way or another, they organized an embassy, led by Prince Ie (uncle to King Shō Tai), with top-ranking court official Giwan ueekata Chōhō 宜湾親方朝保 as his deputy envoy, and about 34 others. On 7/25 (Aug 28), they departed the Luchuan port city of Naha aboard the steamship Hōzui-maru 鳳瑞丸, sailing to Kagoshima in southern Kyushu and then from there to Tokyo aboard the steamship Sanpō-maru 三邦丸. Ie Tomoo 伊江朝雄 (15th head of the Ie house of which Prince Ie was the 11th head)1 writes that this was perhaps the first time that anyone from Lūchū (or any court officials?) had ever ridden on a steamship, but I have no idea if that’s accurate or not. An evocative point of trivia if true.

After arriving in Tokyo on 9/2 (Oct 4), the envoys stayed overnight at Shinagawa and then were taken by horse-drawn carriage and rickshaw (both very new things in Meiji Japan) to their lodgings in the Atago (Shiba) neighborhood of Tokyo. Not the mansions of the Shimazu family, former lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, who had exercised authority over Lūchū for more than 250 years from 1609 until the abolition of the domains the preceding year (1871), but for whatever reason, the former mansion of the Mōri family, lords of Saeki domain in Bungo province (today, О̄ita prefecture).

The Luchuans reportedly recorded that the Japanese food didn’t suit them あーらんやっさー(合わない), and complained there weren’t enough oily or fried foods あんだむん (揚げ物). But they brought their own abura-miso あんだんすー, and their own salted pork すーちかー. They also brought, as souvenirs/gifts for Foreign Minister Soejima Taneomi, some rock candy 氷砂糖, sugared dried citrus fruits きっぱん、and winter melon しぶい・冬瓜(とうがん), as well as salted pork.

“Opening of the First Railway in Japan: Arrival of the Mikado,” Illustrated London News 21 Dec 1872.
Note the Japanese officials (and the emperor himself? I’m not sure) in traditional Japanese court costume to the left, and foreign dignitaries in Western-style formal outfits on the right. And between them, a bearded figure in a slightly floppy white hat, depicted in Luchuan-style robes.

A week after their arrival, on 9/9 (Oct 11), telegraph lines connecting Tokyo and Kyoto were completed. And then, on 9/12 (Oct 14), the Luchuans participated in grand opening ceremonies for the new Shinbashi train station, and for the train line connecting Shinbashi (Tokyo) with Yokohama (today, Sakuragichō Station). I don’t know why, but I feel like there’s just some kind of あこがれ, some kind of attraction or intriguing appeal, to the early history of Japanese railroads; if I had all the time in the world, I’d love to look more deeply into the precise details of this event. But, suffice it to say, interesting enough for me is that

(1) these Luchuan envoys happened to be there at all; I don’t know if we want to call it a “coincidence,” but it’s certainly some kind of chance co-incidence. This was, I can only presume, the first time for a Japanese emperor to ride a train, the first time for almost any of the top-level Japanese officials involved (excepting those, I suppose, who had previously traveled in the West), and surely the first time that any Luchuan royal or scholar-aristocrat had ever ridden a train. I wonder if there are any surviving diaries that describe their feelings and thoughts on the experience.

(2) These Luchuan ambassadors participated in these events alongside not only Japanese imperial government officials and diplomatic representatives from various Western countries, but also alongside Qing envoys. Lūchū at this time was still a loyal tributary to the Qing, and their king received investiture from the Qing in 1866, only a few years earlier. During the investiture ceremonies, all the Lūchū court officials, as well as the king himself, kowtowed to the Qing envoys as representatives of the Qing Emperor. A decidedly, powerfully, unequal hierarchical relationship. And, yet, now, here is a Luchuan royal prince and his entourage, participating in the opening for a train station & train line, and then riding that train, in close proximity to Qing envoys. What interactions did they have, if any? What words were exchanged?

(3) Whether in anticipation of the edict the Meiji government had already drafted (or was already drafting), or in light of Lūchū’s already less than fully autonomous status within the Japanese order, the Luchuan envoys were not treated like foreign diplomats, but as a sort of ambiguous or in-between status unto themselves. Records of the ceremony list all the foreign diplomats as 公使 (envoys, diplomats, ministers), and Prince Ie as 公子 (a noble), and list him as parading / processing to the station not amongst the diplomats, but at the end of a long line of Japanese officials and the like.

Gishiki roku, Meiji 5, 9/12: Procession to Train Station 儀式録明治五年巻之四中:九月十二日鉄道館へ臨幸 行列
Collection of Imperial Household Agency Archives & Mausolea Dept. 宮内庁書陵部所蔵

In any case, the Luchuans rode in the same train car as a number of former daimyō, including Shimazu Tadayoshi (Mochihisa), who up until the previous year (1871; or maybe only up until 1868?) would have been their lord, claiming and exerting a position of authority above (over) the Luchuan king. After arriving in Yokohama, the train returned to Tokyo, where a grand banquet was held at the Hama Rikyū Gardens 浜離宮 – a former shogunal palace, now [in 1872] home to the Enryōkan 延遼館, the first Western-style guesthouse built in Japan for Western dignitaries. Some 100,000 regular Tokyo citizens were apparently in attendance to witness the fireworks and other festivities. One wonders how much of a glimpse of the Westerners, Chinese, or Luchuans they got, or if there was any actual direct interaction. Then again, by 1872, perhaps direct interaction with foreigners wasn’t the rarity it had been previously.

A digital rendering of the view from the lower level 下段 of the Great Audience Hall (О̄hiroma 大広間) of the Honmaru Palace, gazing “up” towards the Shogun’s seat in the upper level 上段. Probably not too different from how the Great Audience Hall of the Nishinomaru Palace, i.e. the Imperial Palace of 1872, would have looked.

Two days later, Prince Ie, deputy envoy Giwan Chōhō, and mission secretary Kyan Chōfu 喜屋武朝扶 (and others?) went to the Imperial Palace for their formal audience (meeting) with the Meiji Emperor. Nearly every discussion of these events I’ve read – and, indeed, of most other imperial audiences and the like around this time – say simply “the imperial palace,” without making it clear just what sort of place we’re talking about. The Imperial Palace that was built for the Meiji Emperor, for the new modern / Western imperial country, was not completed until 1889. It took far more digging than it should have for me to determine that when the Luchuans visited “the imperial palace” in 1872, they were not received in a reception hall that was in any way Western-style, or newly-built, but rather in the О̄hiroma 大広間 of the Nishi-no-maru 西の丸 (Western Bailey) of what had been the Shogun’s castle until just four years earlier. This О̄hiroma audience hall was exactly the same one in which Luchuan envoys in previous generations (in 1850, 1842, 1832, 1806, the 1790s, and on back) had met with shogunal heirs and the like after their formal audiences with the Shoguns in the О̄hiroma of the Honmaru 本丸 (Main/Central Bailey) of the castle. The Honmaru burned down in 1863 and was never rebuilt. The Shogun, and then the Emperor, made the Nishinomaru Palace the new “central” or “main” portion of the palace, and even today, the Imperial Palace remains centered on that location. As much as I would love to see the Honmaru Palace rebuilt as a historical site, so that we as visitors can see firsthand what the space would have looked like, I am sadly not aware of any efforts or initiatives to even think about doing that – instead, the former site of the Honmaru Palace remains today just empty grassy area (the East Gardens 皇居東御苑).

A Luchuan royal prince in Ming-style court robes.
江戸上り使者並びに道具の図」 (detail).
Ink and colors on paper, handscroll.
Date unknown.
Lost in 2019 Shuri castle fire.

So, the Luchuans were received by the Meiji Emperor in a tatami-lined room with fusuma walls, presumably I imagine painted with images of birds and flowers or something like that on gold foil backgrounds, and perhaps with one or more sides of the room being plain white shōji paper screens. The emperor, I presume, would have sat in a section of the room where the floor was raised just a few inches higher than where the Luchuans sat – again, a nearly identical situation to how they were received by shogunal heirs and the like in generations past. All the Japanese officials wore traditional Japanese court costume, in tune with the traditional space; as far as I gather from the surprisingly scarce records I’ve read, none were wearing Western-style garments. The Luchuans typically would have appeared before the Shogun or others in replicas of Ming court costume bestowed upon them by the Ming or Qing Empires, as a symbol of Lūchū’s close ties to the source and center of High Confucian Civilization, and a symbol of their kingdom’s sovereignty, granted to them and recognized by the Ming & Qing Emperors. But on this day, they were told by Foreign Minister Soejima to appear, instead, in Luchuan court robes. As these were not Japanese robes, they still marked them as foreign (i.e. as culturally different), and as high-status (expensive, lavish, formal royal court robes), but they did not have those symbolic resonances of Luchuan sovereignty.

I have been frustrated to not find records detailing precisely how the audience ceremony went; I know it sounds extremely in-the-weeds, but shogunate + Shimazu records show in fine detail where the Luchuan envoys sat relative to the shoguns and to everyone else, how many times they bowed, and so forth – all details that could be really meaningful to try to compare how this imperial audience treated them as greater or lesser or same or different as when they were ritually reaffirming their status quo relationship to the Shoguns.

But, in any case, we know that Prince Ie presented the Emperor with a formal letter from his king, and with gifts of Luchuan products – including textiles, aamui 泡盛 liquor in jugs made in distinctive Luchuan styles of pottery, some lacquerware items, and a few sets of inkstones, calligraphy brushes, and hanging scroll works of calligraphy or painting. The Emperor reciprocated, presenting the envoys with Japanese brocade textiles, some hunting guns, one or more sets of saddle & stirrups, some sake cups, lacquerware boxes, and 30,000 yen to circulate in the islands, thus incorporating the Ryūkyū Islands monetarily into the same currency as was now being used in modern Japan.

And then there was the edict. Much ink has been spilled talking about the political implications and significance of this. The basic gist of it being, to my understanding, two fold:

(1) that the Empire of Japan was unilaterally declaring that Ryūkyū was to no longer be a kingdom, but now a domain, ruled by a “domain king.” This is weird, given that all the samurai domains were abolished a year earlier – all of Japan is now divided into prefectures, and all the daimyō have been replaced by Governors, very few if any of whom are the same person as had previously been daimyō (lord) over those lands. And yet, despite these radical changes to the political geography and regional administration of (mainland) Japan, the Ryūkyū Islands were now being incorporated not yet as a prefecture, but as a domain? And with Shō Tai being declared “domain king” 藩王, a title which has never existed before in Japanese history, and which is abolished seven years later in 1879, to never exist again? Weird. But then again, maybe not weird insofar as the very new, very young, Meiji government was still in the midst of trying to figure out what its norms and structures and standards would be. But then again, definitely weird.

(2) that this was the first time any Japanese authority (shogun, emperor, or otherwise) had ever formally “invested” 冊封 a Lūchūan ruler. In the past, kings of Lūchū got their legitimacy from the Ming / Qing emperors, and from domestic Luchuan sources of legitimacy. The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima (Satsuma) and the Tokugawa shoguns recognized or acknowledged each royal succession in Lūchū, but they did not claim that Luchuan kings’ legitimacy or authority was granted to them by the Japanese in any way. Now, the Meiji government is asserting exactly that: that they have created the title of “domain king,” and are in some sense, to some extent, in some way, claiming all of Ryūkyū as Japanese territory which they are then granting to Shō Tai to govern/administer as “king” of that domain. A big difference.

If you’d like to read more about this, Marco Tinello and others have written at length about these political changes.

For the purposes of this already rather lengthy and detailed blog post, which I should have taken the time to prepare ahead of time so that I could simply hit “Publish” on the correct day of the anniversary rather than sitting down to write it all out on the day of, I would like to instead move on.

Exhibition poster for Ishikawa Mao’s “Dai Ryukyu shashin emaki” (Photo Scroll of Great Ryukyu), showing a detail from the photo scroll. An imagined reenactment of the reaction of the Luchuan officials (here, in Luchuan style court robes) as they hear the imperial edict read out.

I cannot imagine the emotion in that moment, as Prince Ie and his compatriots were presented with this edict, to bring home to Lūchū. Were they surprised by this? Did they expect that this ceremonial meeting with the emperor would go like so many meetings with shoguns had gone in the past, marking little or no political change? Or did they see it coming? Discussions within the Lūchū royal court, or between the court and the imperial government, in the months and years leading up to this, are well beyond my research focus, and I have never happened to read almost anything of that content, so I am not sure.

But I think this imagined representation of it by contemporary photography artist Ishikawa Mao 石川真生 (b. 1953) conveys one strong possibility. I am not even sure the words to use to describe the expressions on these men’s faces. Distress. Sadness. Anger and frustration at the Japanese government doing this, and at their powerlessness in the moment. The difference in height between the standing Japanese official and the seated Luchuans certainly gives an impression of the power differential, of the hopelessness or powerlessness of the Luchuans, to have to deal with this declaration that is going to overturn their world.

There is surely a lot more to be said here, but as I don’t have access to what anyone involved actually thought or felt at the time, I am just going to finish up by moving on and saying a little more about the events and activities of the embassy following this profound event.

A photo of the chief members of the embassy. Front row, from left: Giwan Choho, Prince Ie, Kyan Chofu. Back row: Yamasato peechin, a Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official. I am unclear if this is the photo taken in Asakusa, but it’s the only photo of the group I’ve seen, so I presume it is.

Prior to leaving Tokyo, the embassy had formal photos taken at a photo studio in Asakusa, by photographers Shimooka Renjō 下岡蓮杖 and Uchida Kuichi 内田九一.2 I wonder whether this was the first time any members of the royal court were photographed. The first photo ever taken by a Japanese photographer was about 15 years earlier, in 1857, by a Kagoshima domain retainer (and of Shimazu Nariakira, lord of Kagoshima domain), so I feel like there’s a possibility that Luchuans visiting Kagoshima might have had their picture taken at some point, but I’m unaware of any concrete examples. Incidentally, Uchida was the only photographer to ever photograph the Meiji Emperor – so, this wasn’t just some random commercial studio.

The Luchuan envoys were also shown around the naval yards at Yokosuka and the foreign settlement in Yokohama. Another set of interactions I’d be curious to read more about, if there are any sources surviving. Lūchū had seen its share of British, French, American, and other foreign visitors beginning in the 1840s, and top-level officials like Prince Ie and Giwan ueekata may have had some interactions with those figures; but unless I’m overlooking something, I imagine that visiting the foreign settlement in Yokohama – by this point, well-established for nearly 20 years, with a sizable population and numerous Western-style buildings, etc. – would have been quite the experience.

The envoys were then provided a steamship to take them back to Okinawa. After departing Tokyo on 10/5 (Nov 5), they were caught in a typhoon and were castaway or shipwrecked on Kikaijima 喜界島, reportedly cutting their long hair and burning some of it as part of prayers to the sea deities for a safe return. They finally returned to Naha on 2/5 of the following year (March 3, 1873),3 and then, to Shuri, to report to the royal court.

I imagine that 2029, the 150th anniversary of the abolition of Ryukyu Domain and the establishment of Okinawa prefecture, will see more events marking or commemorating that anniversary. It will be interesting to see how celebratory vs. solemn/respectful they will be – celebrating the establishment of Okinawa prefecture? Or commemorating the loss of the kingdom? But, that process started here, in 1872, 150 years ago today.


1. 伊江朝雄、「琉球慶賀使節:維新後間もない東京での足跡」、沖縄学 7 (2004).

2. Ie Tomoo writes Shimoda Renjō 下田蓮杖, but I’m presuming this is a typo.

3. The 3rd day of the 12th month of the 5th year of the Meiji era coincided with Jan 1, 1873 on the Gregorian calendar, and it was on this day that Japan formally adopted the Gregorian calendar for all official purposes, doing away with official use of the lunar calendar. So March 3, 1873 is also 3/3 on the Japanese calendar, but I am not sure when Lūchū formally made this switch.

Got to go see some Kumi udui this weekend, and.. it was wonderful as always.

Kumi udui / Kumi wudui 組踊 (or, Kumi odori in Japanese) is an Okinawan form of dance-drama originated in the Luchuan (Ryukyuan) royal court in 1719. It bears many similarities to Japanese Noh or Kabuki, and I suppose perhaps to Chinese theatre forms such as kunqu or jingju as well. You can read a bit more about it at the Samurai-Archives Wiki or on the National Theatre Okinawa’s website.

While Kumi udui is now regularly performed at the National Theatre Okinawa (est. in Urasoe in 2004), among other venues in Okinawa, this weekend’s performance at the Yokohama Noh Theatre was a wonderfully rare opportunity to see it performed here in the Tokyo/Yokohama area.

I am embarrassed to admit, I struggled to focus during the performance of Nidu tichiuchi 二童敵討, a play about two brothers who scheme to get the lord Amaohe and his men drunk, and distract them with dance, in order to get the upper hand on him and kill him in revenge for Amaohe having killed their father. One of the five plays written by Udui bujо̄ (Magistrate of Dance) Tamagusuku Chо̄kun 踊奉行玉城朝薫 and performed in that first ever kumi udui performance in 1719, this remains one of the most frequently performed plays in the small classical repertoire.

I’ve enjoyed the privilege of seeing it performed two or three times before, and unfortunately, embarrassingly, found it difficult to get engrossed, especially during the first half, which is slower, lower energy, consisting chiefly of dialogue. But the costumes were gorgeous as always, and the second half, in which the brothers dance lively dances and execute their plan, that was lively and always fun. 

But the second play of today’s program was a new one for me, and I had far less difficulty paying attention – my mind not wandering – and just getting absorbed into the story and the aesthetics. 

Based on what very little I thought I knew of the play Wunna munu gurui 女物狂 (J: Onna mono kurui), I assumed it would be essentially a variation on the Noh play Sumidagawa, in which a mother in search of her son, kidnapped by slavers, is mad with grief, and eventually learns her son has died. 

But as it turns out, the play has only some few basic similarities. I don’t believe there’s video of the performance I saw, but here is a recording of one from the National Theatre Okinawa:


The kumi udui play begins, not with the mother, but with the slaver, who introduces himself to the audience, and then comes across the boy, Kamimachi 亀松. The kid playing this role, Tomishima Kanon* 富島花音, was incredible. Not that I would know precisely what all the marks and movements should be, but as far as I could tell, they certainly seemed very restrained, professional, their movements very controlled and rehearsed, not loose or imperfect at all. I’ve seen a lot of kids in Noh and Kabuki (albeit often perhaps a good few years younger) who were clearly doing their best, but were fidgety, too loud or too high-pitched, more shouting their lines than chanting them properly. And they had much smaller roles than Kamimachi, who has quite a few lines and who is on-stage for a sizable portion of the play. This kid was so impressive. And adorable in their yellow bingata robe, oshiroi makeup, and wig and hair ornaments. Beautiful. 

The boy dances with a pinwheel, and is then captured by the slaver, who takes him to a temple. While the slaver is asleep, the boy tells the monks about the kidnapping, and the monks concoct a fake “wanted” order, describing the man as wanted by the authorities. It was wonderful to see how a 300 year
old play, performed in highly stylized traditional forms and in a language few if any in the audience understand (the Okinawan language is a distinct language from, not a dialect of, Japanese), could still inspire laughs – as the man tries to make himself look shorter, or to wipe or scrunch his face in different
ways to try to avoid matching the description. 

After the slaver is taken away (or flees? it is unclear), a bunch of other kids appear, in adorable red robes, also with lavish hairdos and ornaments. I didn’t quite understand, in terms of the plot, who they were supposed to be. But their performances were excellent too. 

The mother then appears, in gorgeous bingata robes, dragging a willow branch. I know willow features in Sumidagawa too, as a symbol somehow of the grief and madness, though I don’t really know the history or symbolism of why. She dances briefly, recites some lines, and collapses on the ground. 

Then, finally, the monks reunite her with her son. A happy ending, compared to Sumidagawa

Wish I knew what exactly to say further, except that visually, aurally, it was a real pleasure. Tomishima-san was incredible, and of course the adult actors were as well. I would love to see this again. Though I am also now all the more curious and excited to eventually see Mikarushii 銘苅子, a kumi udui play with similarities to the Noh play Hagoromo (“The Feather Mantle”); the costume for the heavenly spirit in this play looks absolutely incredible. While the costume for the shite character in Hagoromo – a celestial maiden – looks like a fancy Noh costume, that for Mikarushii is rainbow-colored, like some of the most brilliant Japanese paintings of phoenixes, ethereal in multiple gossamer layers, and includes a long train which flows behind the figure like a trailing train or clouds. Well. In any case, hopefully someday I’ll get to see this. In the meantime, Wunna munu gurui was a pleasure, and I look forward to seeing this performed again someday as well.

*I am unfortunately unsure of the reading of the actor’s name.


Tsushima 対馬 is a really interesting place. Halfway between Korea and Japan, it was ruled for hundreds of years by the Sо̄ samurai house 宗家, retainers to the various successive shogunates *and* by the late 16th c. if not earlier, vassals to the kings of Joseon 朝鮮 (Korea) as well. Unlike the Shimazu house 島津家 of Kagoshima 鹿児島, who conquered the kingdom of Lūchū (Ryūkyū) 琉球 and then treated it in some respects as a vassal state, including by bringing Luchuan embassies to Edo as part of their retainer band and/or simultaneously as representatives of a foreign kingdom under the Shimazu’s sway, by contrast, the Sо̄ did roughly the reverse. Though certainly powerfully protective of their special status as intermediaries with Korea, they were retainers or vassals to both the Tokugawa shoguns and the Korean kings, and so they escorted Korean embassies to Edo less as a display of power than as a fulfillment of obligations of service.

A Korean embassy procession (18th-19thc), as depicted in Tsushima nikki 対馬日記 (replica), on display at the Tsushima Chôsen Tsûshinshi History Museum. Photo my own.

Though the island had been ruled by samurai houses for centuries upon centuries, if I recall correctly, I believe that Joseon officials, scholars, poets, etc. regularly wrote of the island as being fundamentally Korean territory, stolen from Silla or Paekche. And come the late 19th century, Tsushima, like Ryukyu, Ezo (Hokkaido), and several other locations, became a contentious borderland, with Russians and others testing the shogunate to see if it would defend the idea of Tsushima being fully Japanese territory; the Sо̄, understandably, were out of their depth against this threat and begged the shogun to strip them of their fief – that is, for the shogunate to take over Tsushima and deal with the issue themselves.

A view of Tsushima from the jetfoil ferry, just after leaving Izuhara port. Photo my own.

A location like this… I’ve always thought about how the Sо̄ – and their retainers, and others from the island – might perhaps feel a strong sense of ownership and/or belonging to this island, and a conceptual or cultural distance from mainland Japan. I guess in a way it’s a bit hard to put into words what I mean; and, to be honest, the idea I’m trying to get at could honestly go for a wide range of other domains (regions, prefectures), and not only in Japan but in almost any country. Still – I always imagined a sort of feeling of difference when thinking about places like Tsushima, Kagoshima, Matsumae, though again it could apply just as easily to almost anywhere else. This idea of one’s domain as one’s own, distinct, separate territory – “home” – as contrasted with the feel, the vibe, not to mention the climate (and flora and fauna and so forth) of Edo or Kyoto. Coming to Tsushima feels like I’m visiting a particular family’s personal domain, in a way that visiting Fukuoka, Osaka, Kyoto, Yokohama, does not.

That said, how does it actually feel? Well, Tsushima is a massive island, and since I had only 24 hours on the island, and no Japanese driver’s license, I stayed in a rather small, walkable, central downtown part of Izuhara 厳原 – the main port city, home to the current modern City Hall and to the former castle seat of the Sо̄ house. So, I can’t say what the rest of the island feels like. But, just from walking around town, visiting temples, shrines, castle ruins, etc., I have to say, I’m actually surprised to feel like it doesn’t feel all that different from some … for lack of a better word, generic, mainstream, mainland Japanese feeling.

Looking out over Izuhara
A view of a section of Izuhara Town. Photo my own.

When I visited Kagoshima, or islands in the Inland Sea (Hiroshima prefecture), each of those two places felt very distinct. Felt like I was really experiencing the vibe of a different side of Japan, a different region. And Amami О̄shima and Okinawa of course all the more so. Going from Tokyo to Yokohama, Kamakura, Kyoto, Osaka, each of these also had their own distinctive feel. Izuhara… surprisingly… doesn’t. Or, didn’t, to me, in my personal and very limited one-day experience of the island. I dunno. Felt, really, not all that different from other parts of Kyushu or slightly rural / small-town mainland Japan that I’ve been to. Not precisely the same as Wakayama or Utsunomiya or Hikone, of course, but shades of difference rather than a more fully distinct, unique, Tsushima vibe.

Nevertheless, of course, I am very glad and excited to have visited there.

Trying to remember what other towns it sort of reminds me of. The walk from the port terminal into town reminded me of some slightly more rural parts of mainland Kagoshima I’ve been to, and parts of Naze or Kasari-chо̄ on Amami, where you’re walking in an area that really is meant for cars, and you’re wondering how much farther it’ll be before you get to a more properly walkable area with a denser collection of shops, etc. But, on Tsushima, I knew from Google Maps that it would be only a 10 minute walk. And then, bam, there it was – a main street with a large supermarket, post office, banks, a real “city center” sort of feel – like being in Fukuoka City, or any random part of Tokyo, just, smaller. Confined to a much smaller area.

Walking out past that area, it starts to feel like a lot of former castle-towns, or former post-station towns, that I’ve been to. A mix of traditional and modern architecture, dense but not super dense. Hard to know the right way to put it into words. Kind of quaint and touristy in some small sections, and very ordinary urban in some other sections, and then just quiet and “I don’t think there’s anything really to see farther out this way.”

Buke yashiki neighborhood streets
One of the old samurai residential streets in Izuhara; remnants of stone walls, and (original?) wooden gates give the neighborhood some quaint, traditional vibes. Photo my own.

While not being able to drive out further on the island is a bummer, the historical center (I shouldn’t call it “touristy”; I’ve seen literally *one* touristy shop selling souvenirs, postcards; that’s it) is thankfully very walkable. I was nervous about the timing, since I couldn’t get a jetfoil ferry over there from Hakata any earlier than one which arrives on Tsushima at 12:45pm; and I couldn’t get one back that leaves any later than 13:25pm. So I literally had just an afternoon, and a morning – nothing even approaching two days on the island, even though I stayed overnight. But, nevertheless, I was able to walk from the port to the center of town in about 10 mins; from there to the new Museum, the only slightly older Korean Embassies Museum 朝鮮通信使資料館, and the Banshо̄-in temple in about 10-15 mins; from there to Chо̄ju-in temple, where the famous Tsushima foreign relations official Amenomori Hо̄shū 雨森芳洲 is buried, in another 15 mins or so… And, my “hotel” for the night was also only about 5-10 min walk from the center of town. I actually rented a room at one of the town’s historic temples, and in terms of how new and nice the room felt, and the amenities and so forth, it was certainly as nice as any hotel I’ve stayed in.

The entrance to Temple Stay Seizanji – a beautiful guesthouse as clean, newly remodeled, well-apportioned as any hotel. Photo my own.

One point, for anyone thinking of visiting – while the city center is not by any means devoid of banks, a post office, one singular FamilyMart, a Docomo store (where I was able to rent a portable cellphone charger), and so forth, and while all of these are with very easy 5-10 walk from the center of town, I realized very quickly that, unlike in Kyoto or Tokyo or other places, you can’t just walk and expect to run into them. In big cities, I will usually just head to a given temple, museum, or other site, and expect that I will reliably hit a convenience store or at least a vending machine along the way. Not so in Izuhara. Going from the main tourist info center to the Museum, to Banshо̄-in, you will encounter zero cafes, zero convenience stores, zero ATMs, I’m not even sure there are any soda vending machines (until you get to Banshо̄-in), unless you intentionally go and walk 5 mins in the opposite direction, deeper into the real center of town, to get to those destinations.

But, back to talking about the sights:

Hyakugani Steps
Hyakugangi 百雁木 stairs up to the Sо̄ family graves at Banshо̄-in. Photo my own.

Visiting the Sо̄ family temple of Banshо̄-in and getting to see the graves of each of the successive heads of the family, and many of their wives and children, was very cool. It’s something like this that I think makes me feel especially strongly that feeling of this being their domain. And while the fact that lords’ wives and children (and the lords themselves, especially when they were children) typically spent an extremely significant portion of their lives in Edo and not “home” in the domain complicates this, nevertheless, there is this feeling that Tsushima is where the ancestors’ graves are, where the family “home” castle and home domain is. The mountains, the rivers, the docks, the particular temples and shrines and town streets that are “home” to someone from Tsushima. Of course, there’s the complicating factor again of the question of just how often a lord – or any other particular individual of any status – actually walked those streets, or visited those ports, or those temples or shrines. But, let’s not get ourselves distracted. It’s the feeling that comes with knowing, and seeing, those ancestral graves here, on Tsushima, in/atop the earth of this island, at Banshо̄-in and not at some temple in Kyoto – the Banshо̄-in, the Banshо̄-in temple that means so much to the Sо̄ family and which most people not from Tsushima would never have heard of. The Kaneishi castle which was home to so many generations of Sо̄ family heads, their wives and other relatives, their retainers and officials and their staffs… The Kaneishi castle that felt like home to so many – and like an intimidating, impressive, center of power to so many others – and which, again, was utterly unknown to so many more.

Restored main gate of Kaneishi castle (left), and the new Tsushima Museum (right). Photo my own.

Today, there is even less of that castle than I might have expected. The main gate has been restored, and looks very cool and iconic. But beyond it, there is (unless I missed something?) more or less nothing to be seen. At Fukuoka castle, at least, there are stone walls and moats, and one can walk around and see signs denoting what buildings used to stand where, and what portion of the castle grounds you’re now in. Not so much at Kaneishi.

The Tsushima Museum. Photo my own.

What there is, however, is the brand new Tsushima Museum 対馬博物館, which opened literally less than a month ago – April 30, 2022. I had heard about it, somehow, and – not as if I was going to zoom over there anyway, in the middle of a pandemic, and amidst various other trips that I did end up making over the past several years – I waited and watched, and paid attention, so that I could be sure that when (if) I ever did go to Tsushima, it would be after they opened.

One of a number of tables, seating areas at the Tsushima Museum. Not sure if this is just totally open for free use by the public, but some other similar areas are. If I by chance lived in town, I can imagine coming here and using it as just a cool place to sit and work. If they allow food/drink. Photo my own.

It’s a gorgeous, impressive, building. Looks great inside and out, I feel. A distinctive, dark, style – this was definitely a choice – but I think it works. Sleek, looks and feels very new. Feels to me like a cool, very compelling place to want to have meetings, or just to spend time. If there were a café or something, I’d definitely see it as a place to just go and enjoy the atmosphere, to either sit and read/work or to talk with friends… there are several spaces in the building with chairs and tables in beautiful nooks that could be great for this, if only there were a café serving food and beverages.

The permanent exhibits galleries were, as might be expected, very sleek, new, very contemporary-feeling. As much as I wish I were more expert at gallery design, I don’t really quite have the eye for what exactly to note, what exactly was or wasn’t innovative or up-to-date reflective of the newest trends. But it certainly felt sleek and new to me.

I am so glad the Museum allowed photos in the permanent galleries. I did buy a catalog, but even so, so happy to have been able to take and keep all these photos, remind myself not just of the items but of the views and spaces and experience of walking through it. And to be able to share these images with you.

First gallery: Prehistory

Several of the galleries featured “open storage” style displays, which allow visitors to not just look at a very few items selected out to be highlighted, but rather a larger number of items, all at once. For prehistoric and other archaeologically excavated artifacts, I think this is particularly wonderful, as it gives a sense of the number/volume of items discovered, the wealth of finds, as well as the variety.


The exhibits begin, as we might expect, with the earliest periods of prehistory. I was surprised to read that, even though much evidence has been found of human settlement on “mainland” Kyushu, and in Korea, i.e. both north and south of Tsushima, going back tens of thousands of years – including some of the oldest pottery in the world, dating back roughly 10,000 years ago – no such evidence has been found on Tsushima: nothing older than about 7300 years ago. A really interesting question and mystery; surely if people found their way from the continent (Korea) to the Japanese islands so many tens of thousands of years ago, you would think they would have settled Tsushima as well. And we must remember, this is a span of tens of thousands of years we’re talking about – even if the island wasn’t settled 10,000 years ago, or if it was and then the settlement died out, why wouldn’t new people come and settle there (again) ten or a hundred or a thousand years later? Tons of time, tons of opportunities for settlements to happen – and from what little I understand, I can only presume that they did – and yet, for some reason, no evidence has yet been found. I loved the way they represented this with an empty display case, rather than with no display case at all (and just solely text).


The galleries also included a small number of videos and animation screens, and a few hands-on activities, such as getting to lift and sense the weight of an ancient (Kofun era) sword or printing your own real and imposter seals, helping make the exhibits feel, if not “innovative,” then still certainly fresh, cool, contemporary. It may be difficult to tell from these static, flat, photos, but the aesthetic mood or atmosphere in the galleries was actually very cool. It looks dark in the photos, perhaps, but it was certainly well-lit enough to make your way around, and to see everything well enough; while some museums are rather well-lit, and some dark enough (for conservation reasons) that you can’t really see the works properly, at the Tsushima Museum, the darkness functioned (for me at least) to give everything just a bit of a sense of mystery and a sort of air of impressiveness, while still being well-lit enough that you could make your way through the galleries and see the works clearly enough very easily. I quite liked the choice.

A 1469 temple bell, made in Japan with Korean stylistic features. Nationally-designated Important Cultural Property. Photos my own.

One item that was particularly interesting was this 1469 bronze temple bell. It was beautifully situated, with spotlights that really centered it and drew attention to it, and to a small bronze Buddha in the same room, making the two very clearly highlights of the exhibit. I would never have known or realized on my own, but as the gallery labels explain, this bell shows a combination of features of Japanese and Korean bells; and the labels further explain, or point out, a number of the differences in those features. Made me think back to the fact that some of the most famous historic bells in Ryukyu were made in Korea, and to want to take another look at them to see what features I can notice.

After seeing this, I then saw the famous Bridge of All Nations Bell 万国津梁鐘 on display at the Tokyo National Museum – cast in 1458, right around the same time as many of Okinawa’s most famous bells, and hung for centuries at Shuri castle, but I don’t think I ever realized before that it’s actually of Japanese, not Korean, manufacture. Brought up this photo of the gallery label from the Tsushima Museum, and was able to look at what features mark it as Japanese-style. Very interesting to be able to do. I’m certainly going to try to keep it in mind the next time I’m at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and have the chance to see some of those bells.


Next, there was a wonderful small section talking about the use of fake seals to help allow for a greater volume of trade. This was a major element of roughly c. 14th-16th century trade in East Asia, as regional governments – China, Korea, Japan – implemented various sorts of policies around legitimate, authorized, traders having to have the proper seals, or sealed documents, to mark them as being authorized traders and not smugglers, brigands, pirates. And so, with trade being at times so narrowly limited, and localities such as Tsushima relying heavily on trade to survive or prosper, there ended up being a lot of fake seals in use.

The actual seals on display at the Tsushima Museum were all replicas, but since the Kyushu National Museum doesn’t allow photos in their galleries, this was the closest I could get to being able to photograph the seals and gallery label content about them, and I really appreciated it.

The exhibits then moved on to also display a number of documents faked by Tsushima domain in the early years of the 1600s, during what has come to be known as the Yanagawa Incident. Eager to secure rapprochement and re-initiate friendly relations between Japan and Korea (or, that is, between the Joseon royal court and the Tokugawa shogunate, with the Sо̄ house as intermediaries) in the aftermath of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s devastating invasions of Korea in the 1590s, the Sо̄ forged a number of letters pretending to be from the shogun to the king of Korea, or vice versa. I need to read up about this more, learn more precisely the ins and outs of what happened, but in the end, if I remember correctly, Sо̄ house retainer Yanagawa Shigeoki was severely punished, but the Sо̄ were able to make like it was all his fault, done under their noses, something like that, and so they were able to keep their domain. Would have been hard for the Tokugawa to oust them, anyway, since it was the Sо̄ and the Sо̄ alone who had hundreds of years of experience and good faith in effecting relations with the Korean court. I’m not sure what role Korea might have played in actively petitioning the Tokugawa to allow the Sо̄ to stay – or not – but it’s a really interesting incident. And here we got to see on display not just some of the forged documents, but also a diagram – a sort of floor map or seating chart – showing how notable figures were arranged for the formal meeting in 1635 between Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, Sо̄ Yoshinari (lord of Tsushima), and Yanagawa Shigeoki, at the Shogun’s castle in Edo, to address this issue.

Seating chart for 1635 audience, at the Grand Audience Hall of Edo castle, granted by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu to Sо̄ Yoshinari and Yanagawa Shigeoki (among others) to address the falsification of documents incident. Photo my own.
A video animation of a Korean embassy procession, and several procession scrolls on display in the Early Modern gallery. Photo my own.

This last gallery in the permanent exhibits – which I didn’t realize was the last gallery, already – was dedicated to the early modern history of the island, i.e. the history of Tsushima domain, and consisted chiefly of (1) a few beautiful displays of Korean embassy procession scrolls and discussion of the role of Tsushima in effecting Korean-Japanese relations in that period, and (2) an open storage style display of pottery and other artifacts found at the former site of the Sо̄ clan castles and mansions, and elsewhere.

I feel bad to be negative, and perhaps if I were a specialist in particular other periods or aspects of the history I might, actually, have felt the same way about those sections, but as an early modernist, I have to admit I was disappointed at how small, and brief, the early modern section felt. Thinking about the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum (Reimeikan) or the Fukuoka City Museum, the volume and density of information presented at those museums about those domains’ early modern history, from domain governance and economics to demography and social organization to local culture (prominent artists, poets, writers) to a chronology or brief biographies of each of the successive lords, to discussions of notable incidents in the history… By contrast, the Tsushima Museum felt like there was so much more they could (should) cover. Felt beautifully designed, impressive, enjoyable, but just too brief.

Documents of the Sô Clan (Sôke monjo) 宗家文書

Still, just before leaving the galleries, there was one more display that was particularly interesting, describing the Sо̄ke monjo 宗家文書, or “Documents of the Sо̄ House” – an incredible array of over 100,000 original historical documents (and other materials?) pertaining to the history of the island, and in particular to the history of the Sо̄ house, its governance of the island, and so forth. These documents are today divided up between about six different archives, with about 80,000 items now held at the Museum on Tsushima, in a newly-established (or newly rehoused, at least) Nagasaki Prefectural Research Center for History of Tsushima, about 28,000 held in Seoul, and the remainder held at the Kyushu National Museum or at various institutes & museums in Tokyo. As with other similar document collections, historians are doing tedious but fascinating, incredible, vital work at gradually transcribing and publishing these texts, reading through them and making new discoveries that deepen our understanding of not just local Tsushima history, but the history of Korea-Japan relations, the history of domain-shogunate relations, samurai culture, and so forth throughout the medieval and early modern periods.


Leaving the galleries, one is then directed to a series of small displays about individual events or aspects of Tsushima’s modern history, including the abolition of the domain and incorporation of the island into Nagasaki prefecture in 1872; the Battle of Tsushima in 1905; the wedding in 1931 of Sо̄ Takeyuki to Deokhye, the daughter of the last kind of Joseon – which is actually really interesting, and something I did not realized had happened; and the beginning of reenactments of the Korean embassies in 1980.

And then the special exhibits gallery – a beautiful small exhibit, and if I lived here or were able to visit more frequently, I’d be genuinely and eagerly excited to see what themes they might cover in future; I’m sure many of them will be quite exciting. But it’s so small! I’m not sure the current (first) special exhibit has more than 15 or maybe 20 items in it. I’m hoping that maybe they have a second or even third special exhibits gallery that could accommodate a larger exhibit, but just isn’t being used for this one. I do think, if I remember correctly, there were some signs or closed-off doors, suggesting there is more space that just wasn’t being used at the time.

The remainder of the building is a gorgeous, impressive, airy space, with much of it given over to a massive lobby and to a number of small meeting rooms, lounges, and so forth, plus of course research offices, storage, and so forth. As a visitor, I cannot help but to think it a shame that so much of this space is taken up by this grand atrium, and not by more exhibition space. But, then, what do I know?

Not sure what to say in conclusion, except that it really is a beautiful museum, and it was a pleasure to get to visit and explore Izuhara, and to finally see for myself first-hand a little bit of a taste of what this particular corner of Japan – this island situated between Japan and Korea, separated from the “mainland” islands, with its own fascinating distinct history – looks and feels like. I wish it might be easier, and cheaper, to be able to go visit again. I suppose I will keep my eyes on what temporary exhibits they’re doing in future, and try to take that as an impetus for when might be the right time to try visiting again. I hope I get to do so someday.

Boats in Izuhara

There are, of course, constantly new news articles about various aspects of the ongoing military base issue in Okinawa, and I cannot take the time (or energy) to read them all. In fact, I’ll be honest, I rarely read any of them at all.

But the image in this article (originally from the Ryukyu Shimpo, reposted by Yahoo News) happened to catch my eye, for some of the phrasing on the sign. The middle line, which was the first to catch my eye, reads 「日米のやりたい放題を許さない!」(Nichibei no yaritai hо̄dai wo yurusanai!), or roughly “We do not permit” or “We will not forgive,” “Japan and the United States doing what they want as much as they want.” Perhaps if I followed the protests more closely, I might be more familiar with this phrasing, but in my personal experience, I think this was the first time I’ve seen this, and I just love the phrasing. I’m not sure that my translation quite captures it, but in Japanese it feels rather compact and to the point to me – hо̄dai 放題 means “as much as you want” or “as much as you can,” and is a phrase we see all the time, e.g. at restaurants advertising a flat price for “all you can eat” (食べ放題, tabehо̄dai) or “all you can drink” (飲み放題, nomihо̄dai). But here it’s やりたい放題 yaritai hо̄dai, “all you can want to do,” which I think captures the apparent attitude of the Japanese gov’t and American military pretty well. This is of course seen in the now 25+ year long refusal to close the Futenma Air Station, and insistence on building a new base in Henoko Bay, despite extensive local protest, as well as decades of the military’s endangerment of the Okinawan people and their land through the transport and storage on Okinawa of sarin and other chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, and experimental aircraft, and through the countless never-ending cases of physical and sexual violence and other crimes committed by servicemembers. If the military is protecting Okinawa in some grand geopolitical or regional security sense, is it really doing enough to protect the Okinawan people locally, on the ground, from itself? … We see this, too, in the secrecy and denials surrounding the number of Covid cases on-base in Okinawa over the past several years, when new daily Covid cases among the civilian population were in the single or very low double digits each day for months at a time, and then on multiple occasions exploded due to outbreaks on-base when then spread into the population; and we see it paralleled as well in the Red Hill fuel leaks, in which military jet fuel was leaking into the main watershed for the City of Honolulu, on and off, from time to time, over the course of the last 80 years, and even after the military finally declassified it, they then continued to downplay it, distract, deny, and delay taking the necessary responsible actions.

In any case, I did have to look up the first big word in red on this protest sign, which reads ガッティンナラン (gattin naran). My Okinawan is sorely rusty, and was never more than a very beginner level to begin with, but if I’m understanding correctly, it basically just means “there is no consent!”

The words in black, 日本「復帰」50年 (Nihon fukki gojūnen) translate to “Fifty years since Japanese ‘reversion.'” I can’t be sure if these brackets are intentionally being used the way we would use quotes in English, to sort of question the veracity or meaning of the word “reversion,” but I would imagine we can take it that way. This year, 2022, does in fact represent the 50th anniversary of the end of the US Occupation of Okinawa and the “reversion” of Okinawa to being a part of Japan, in the sense of being ruled by a civilian government, elected officials in municipal, prefectural, and national government just like all other parts of Japan. I am not expert at the precise ins and outs of just how much support there was in Okinawa for which eventualities, and under what assumptions. But my general impression is that, yes, there was a lot of popular support in Okinawa for “reversion,” for a few key reasons: (1) who wouldn’t want the end of a military occupation, rule by a foreign military under essentially martial law? (2) the belief that the end of the Occupation would bring a very significant reduction, if not total removal, of the US military presence in the islands, and (3) looking at how comparatively democratic and economically prosperous Japan was becoming at the time, Okinawans wanted a part of that. At least, this is the basic story I’ve heard. Someday maybe I’ll read more deeply and gain a more nuanced, complicated, understanding of the whole thing – postwar is not my period of expertise. But, even if a majority of the Okinawan people did want reversion, the fine details were worked out entirely by Tokyo and Washington, without Okinawan leadership at the negotiating table. Ultimately, reversion took place when and how Tokyo and Washington agreed it would, and Okinawa had to simply go along with it – and go along with, in particular, the US military presence not being reduced very much, if at all. (I think it may have grown considerably, in fact, though I may be confusing that with a slightly different time period.) Further, I imagine that at least some Okinawans today question the notion of “reversion” as a notion that erases the history of Ryukyuan independence and sovereignty, and of Japanese (and American) imperialism and colonialism. I am reminded again of a pamphlet I was very lucky to get my hands on in the Okinawa Prefectural Library, entitled “Japan is Not Our Fatherland” (Yamazato Eikichi, 1969).

The final line on this sign, in blue, reads 命どぅ宝 (nuchi du takara, “life is a treasure”), and then the name of the organization, 琉球の自己決定権の会 (Ryūkyū no jiko ketteiken no kai). I am not sure if the group has an official English translation of their name, but I’d venture to call it something like “The Association for the Ryukyuan Right of Self-Determination.” I must admit, I’m not sure I’d come across the Japanese word for “right of self-determination” before. So, they’re not pulling any punches. Admittedly, they haven’t included any words pointing to indigeneity, but they’ve come right up as far as that line, with the term “rights of self-determination.”


A very rough translation of the news article itself:

Prior to welcoming (meeting) the 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, a rally (held by the Nuchi du Takara! Association for Ryukyuan Rights of Self-Determination) took place on the 3rd in Yogi Park, holding signs saying “Gattin naran! Japan reversion 50 years! We won’t forgive Japan and the US doing as they wish as much as they want!” Speakers expressed voices such as that the continued US military base burden and movements toward the strengthening of Japan Self-Defense Forces bases since after reversion perpetuate a situation completely opposite to the desires expressed by the Reversion Movement for a peaceful Okinawa devoid of bases. And they appealed for the establishment of rights of self-determination, for Okinawa to decide its own future.

Yogi Park sits next to the Naha Civic Hall* where the Reversion Ceremony took place on the day of reversion, fifty years ago. Anti-reversion protests took place in the park that day; it was the very center of the reversion [and anti-reversion] movement. Amid intermittent rain, those attending the rally held up umbrellas and turned their ears to what the eight speakers were emphasizing. Yonamine Yoshio pointed out that even though the burden of the military bases, and sacrifices for maintaining the US-Japan Security Treaty order/system are concentrated in Okinawa, the people of Okinawa are not able/ready to be aware of this truth. He argued that since the reversion movement itself was based in assimilation to Japan, the contradiction has become difficult to see. Yokota Chiyoko (93) recalled that when she was living on Saipan during the war, people were unable to secure safe water, and many children died. Touching upon the pollution of the water supply caused by PFAS chemicals that is, incident by incident, becoming public knowledge in Okinawa, she criticized that even fifty years after reversion, even the situation of the dangers of drinking water continues. Following the rally, participants marched down Himeyuri Avenue.

沖縄の日本復帰から50周年を迎えるのを前に「ガッティンナラン! 日本『復帰』50年! 日米のやりたい放題を許さない!」と題した集会(命どぅ宝!琉球の自己決定権の会主催)が3日、那覇市の与儀公園で催された。登壇者らは復帰後も続く米軍基地負担や自衛隊基地増強の動きに、基地のない平和な沖縄を願った復帰運動とは「真逆の状況に置かれている」(主催団体の与那嶺義雄共同代表)などと声を上げ、沖縄の前途は沖縄で決める自己決定権の確立を訴えた。  与儀公園は復帰当日に記念式典が行われた那覇市民会館に隣接し、当時復帰に抗議する「5・15抗議県民総決起大会」が行われるなど、復帰運動の拠点となった場所だ。時折雨が降る中、来場者らは傘を差して登壇者8人の主張に耳を傾けた。  与那嶺氏は日米安全保障体制維持のための基地負担と犠牲が沖縄に集中しているにもかかわらず、「その事実を県民が自覚できていない」と指摘。復帰運動自体が日本への同化を基調としていたために「矛盾が見えづらくなっている」と問題視した。  横田チヨ子さん(93)は、太平洋戦争当時に暮らしたサイパンでは、安全な水を確保できず多くの子どもが亡くなったと振り返った。県内で次々明るみになる有機フッ素化合物(PFAS)による水質汚染に触れ「復帰50年たっても飲み水さえ危ない状況が続いている」と批判した。参加者らはその後、ひめゆり通りをデモ行進した。


*This Naha Civic Hall (那覇市民会館, Naha shimin kaikan) is, I believe, either currently slated for demolition or has already been demolished. I don’t know anything about whether there are or were plans to keep it intact until, or renovate it or replace it in time for, the anniversary of Reversion on May 15, 2022, but the last I saw it, it was surrounded by high construction fences and looked entirely derelict and abandoned. Not that it ever looked like it was in good shape to begin with, ever since my first time coming across it in 2013 or 2016 or so. I wonder what the plans are for it, in fact. If it has been, or will be demolished, then what might be built in its place. I guess we’ll see. Hideous building, in any case.

The King’s Dream

I saw a rather interesting one-man play the other day, which I thought I’d like to share about.

I guess I’ll say from the opening that I don’t know what exactly I have to say – I only saw the play once, and don’t have any images or recording from it to go back over it again, and I didn’t take all that many notes during the show. But it was an interesting performance, about an interesting topic, and so I figured I should write and post something , at least, before it all fades from my memory entirely.

The show itself was interesting, but I guess maybe I’ll start with the content, the subject matter.

The King’s Dream is a one-man show about Elias Abraham Rosenberg, an Ashkenazi Jew from San Francisco who became a trusted advisor to King David Kalākaua of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Surprising? Not so surprising? Little is known about Rosenberg, as you might expect, and I wonder if interest in him might be restricted to an incredibly niche audience – namely, Jews living in Hawaiʻi. Or might he be of some broader interest? I guess you’ll have to tell me.

Photo my own. Taken at Temple Emanu-el, Honolulu, Dec 2011.

Though, I’d imagine, that even if only as a point of trivia, as a matter of a weird, interesting, surprising thing, you might be surprised to hear that a Torah scroll and a silver yad (a special ritual pointer used when reading Torah so you don’t touch it with your filthy fingers) gifted to the king by Rosenberg still survive, and are today displayed at Temple Emanu-el, the only dedicated-built synagogue in the islands. I wonder how many other Torah scrolls in the world have a royal crest affixed to their cloth coverings.

The play itself was, as I suppose many one-man shows are, a bit more a matter of narrative storytelling than “acting.” Which isn’t to impugn the talents of Dr. Michael Schuster, who created and performed the piece, but just as a matter of description.

The play opens, first, with a medley of pieces played beautifully by violinist Rachel Saul, leading from traditional Jewish songs (a Yiddish klezmer dance, and the Hebrew prayer Etz Chaim) into Sweet Lei Lahua (written by King Kalākaua himself) and a Kalākaua March written in his honor, and then back to another Jewish song (Simon tov) – a striking but beautiful combination.

Schuster first comes out, playing the role of an unnamed narrator, perhaps meant to be Schuster himself. He introduces his own background somewhat, showing photos of his grandparents or great-grandparents, talking about the time and place they lived in, and if I remember correctly, that they, like Rosenberg’s parents, similarly fled persecution or violence in Ukraine or Russia. Showing images and talking about them, or using images as visual embellishments to the verbal storytelling, would be the prominent mode in this performance. Schuster is, after all, a scholar of Asian storytelling and puppetry, and an experienced puppeteer and storyteller himself – this is his mode.

He then goes on to recount the biblical tale of the Patriarch Joseph, who was taken to Egypt, imprisoned, became a sort of soothsayer or advisor to Pharaoh, interpreting the monarch’s dreams. Rosenberg would end up following a somewhat similar path.

Schuster later changes clothes several times, taking on the identity of Rosenberg and reading from a small book said to be Rosenberg’s diary, putting on a Yiddish accent to evoke the culture which Rosenberg was from. I wonder what a 19th century Jew from San Francisco, the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, might have actually sounded like. Well, in any case, it worked for me – evoked a certain era and culture beautifully. And the costume as well, with a flat cap, vest, and a certain style of shirt and trousers… matched a particular image of the 19th c. Ashkenazi peddler type beautifully.

In any case, both in this Tale of Joseph section, and as he later moved into telling Rosenberg’s story, Schuster made use of a beautiful and intricate wooden cabinet, which at first appeared to be a set piece, a lectern like one would find on the bimah, the stage at an Ashkenazi-style synagogue, from which a rabbi would lead services and from which individuals would read from the Torah. However, doors or panels on the front of the cabinet are opened to reveal beautiful pictures of scenes from the story being told, and then fold back or aside to make way for further doors to be opened again, revealing new sets of images, again and again, in a marvel of woodworking and design that, alone, was really quite impressive and marvelous. The program tells us this was designed and built by Schuster and Troy Walden, and was inspired by the Rajastani tradition of kavad storytelling. Beautiful.

Schuster uses this and several other sets of images to tell his story, reminding me of the Japanese kami shibai (“paper theatre play”) tradition, though I am sure that many cultures have equivalents.

I’m a little unclear on just how much of the play was based directly on what’s known, and what may have been a bit fictionalized to fill in the gaps. I am particularly skeptical that Schuster had a copy of Rosenberg’s actual diary, as the unnamed narrator of the play claims, and frankly I wouldn’t know if such a diary even exists at all. But, then again, if it does, I’d presume it very well might be found in the Hawaii State Archives or the Bishop Museum (which hosts one large portion of the royal family’s collections), and that Schuster therefore very well may have been able to access and read it. Even if it’s written partially, or largely, in Yiddish or Hebrew, I wouldn’t be surprised if Schuster has the language skills to read it.

In any case, I apologize for not taking the time to go read up and confirm or check the details, as to just what might be the truth of Rosenberg’s life and what might have been invented or embellished for the play, but, in a nutshell, here’s what I remember from Schuster’s narrative: Rosenberg’s father fled pogroms (violent antisemitic mobs or riots) in Ukraine to move to the US, and then some decades later, Rosenberg was living in San Francisco when he ran afoul of the police. Whether he was actually guilty or not, and of what, I’m unclear, but Wikipedia tells us he may have been illegally selling lottery tickets. In any case, he fled San Francisco in order to avoid getting arrested or imprisoned, and made his way to Honolulu.

How exactly he attracted the attention of the King, I’m afraid I didn’t quite follow. Somehow, I missed that part of the story. But, somehow, he did. Kalākaua was a deeply religious Christian man, raised in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church like other Moʻi or Aliʻi Nui (“high chiefs,” i.e. kings) before him, and was also a powerful promoter of the revival of ancient Hawaiian knowledge and traditions, including hula, mele (chants), and oral mythohistories such as the Kumulipo. So I would not be at all surprised that Rosenberg’s knowledge of Torah and Talmud, of Jewish theology and philosophy, and so forth, and the Hebrew chants, songs, and prayers, and Jewish ritual practices Rosenberg would have been able to demonstrate, could have been of great interest to the king. Kalākaua was a highly educated, talented, and culturally experienced man, as well – he was the first monarch of any country to circumnavigate the globe, visiting a great many countries; I am not sure how many languages he spoke, but he composed music, wrote and published the Kumulipo, oversaw the construction of a grand palace combining Western and Hawaiian stylistic elements (and equipped with phones and electric lighting before most other royal or presidential residences in the world) as well as designing a grand coronation ceremony for himself which did similarly in order to impress upon the Western powers that Hawaiʻi was a modern and sovereign nation, to be treated with respect and as a member of the family of nations; he also commissioned a now-famous statue of Kamehameha I, and made efforts to negotiate a grand Pan-Asia-Pacific Alliance, which, if the Empire of Japan had joined, well, who knows what might have happened in terms of repelling Western imperialism in at least some parts of the world (much of the Pacific had already been colonized by that point).

But I suppose I’m getting off-topic. In any case, I’m not really sure what to say about precisely which stories or lessons or topics or discussions Rosenberg discussed with Kalākaua, but, again, we are led to believe that his knowledge of the Bible, of Jewish values and philosophy, of perspectives and attitudes about G-d, interpretations of Scripture, and so forth were of great interest to, and were greatly appreciated by, the king. Rosenberg was at some point named kahuna kilokilo, a term which Wikipedia suggests might be translated as soothsayer, or even prophet.

Was Rosenberg indeed some kind of great scholar or sage? Who knows. Was he a mystic or otherwise in possession of some kind of particular spiritual powers or supernatural vision? Unlikely. Was he some sort of shyster, con artist, or charlatan? Well, as someone intrigued by this story of surely the most prominent Jew in Hawaiian history, I would like to think not; I would like to think more highly of him, that he’s someone worth at least some degree of looking back upon as a good person, an impressive person. But, who knows?

As it happened, Rosenberg left Hawaiʻi in 1887 just weeks before the so-called Bayonet Constitution was forced upon the kingdom, stripping the king and the Native Hawaiian nobility (the aliʻi) of much of their power and granting considerable power to prominent haoles – sugar plantation owners and others, many of them officially royal subjects (i.e. Hawaiian citizens) but essentially Americans. This was a major step in the dismantling of the kingdom, following various other stages inflicted upon the kingdom in decades prior, beginning with the introduction and rapid expansion of Christianity; the royalty themselves overturning various ancient kapu (taboos) and sacred practices and ordering the destruction of kiʻi (statues of the gods) and heiau (temples); the implementation of earlier Constitutions which granted greater political power and land rights to haoles and diminished the power of the Hawaiian people to have control over their own lands, society, economy, and destiny; and so forth. Following this Bayonet Constitution, the kingdom would be more completely occupied and placed under haole control in the 1890s, with the support of US Marines, and then unilaterally declared annexed by Congress in 1898, an act which of course has no legal basis in US or international law. Congress might as well declare England or Japan to be US territory – doesn’t make it so. It has been well-established since that the overthrow, annexation, whatever we want to call it, was illegal then and remains illegal now; Congress itself declared in an official Apology Resolution in 1993 that “the Native Hawaiian people never directly relinquished to the United States their claims to their inherent sovereignty as a people over their national lands, either through the Kingdom of Hawaii or through a plebiscite or referendum,” though, of course, apology or no apology, Hawaiʻi remains occupied today.

In any case, I wonder what Rosenberg saw or knew of these coming developments when he left in June 1887, just before the Bayonet Constitution was imposed. If he was close with the Moʻi, then surely he had considerable knowledge of political developments and crises; how close might he have been with the haole community, and with these prominent traitors, to have been in on their plans or intentions?

According to the play, he left when he did because he had heard that somehow circumstances had changed in San Francisco and that he would be able to return and be reunited with his wife and children without being sought after by the police. Wikipedia says it was because of his own bad health and/or because of the political unrest in Hawaiʻi. Either way, he was hospitalized soon after returning to San Francisco and died just a few weeks later. Schuster showed photos of his grave, which is in a cemetery affiliated with Congregation Sherith Israel of SF; I’d be curious to visit it myself someday, perhaps the next time I find myself in San Francisco.

Michael Schuster as E. Abraham Rosenberg, from the program to the play.

Wikipedia tells us that Rosenberg was perhaps born around 1810, which would have made him around 75-76 years old when he first left California for Hawaiʻi to begin with, returning roughly a year later and dying around the age of 76-77. From what tiny bit I ever knew of him before – basically nothing except for having seen the Torah scroll and yad on display and reading/hearing that he’d been some kind of adviser to the king – I never imagined him so old. I don’t know if I thought he was in his 30s or 40s, or in his 50s or 60s when he was in Hawaiʻi, but just given the length of the sea journey, and the diseases and so forth of the time, it just didn’t occur to me that he might be that old. Kalākaua was born in 1836, making him about 50 years old when he first met Rosenberg – very much fully a mature, capable, experienced, adult, but nevertheless young enough to see a 75-year-old man as a sage-like figure, an elder, from whom he might learn. But Kalākaua himself died in San Francisco just a few years later, in Jan 1891, of disease, at only the age of 54. His predecessor as king, Lunalilo, died of tuberculosis in 1874, at the age of only 39. So, I think we have good reason to have not initially imagined that Rosenberg would be 75 already before ever first traveling to Hawaiʻi.

Schuster concluded the performance with some of this epilogue, describing what happened to the kingdom after Rosenberg’s departure. The play overall was, indeed, a rather enjoyable, and unique, experience, and I’m so glad I caught it during my brief time in Hawaiʻi. I hope that it was recorded in some fashion; even if the recording is never made widely available, it would be wonderful just to know that this distinctive event, performed only twice for very small audiences, was captured, recorded, in some fashion, and won’t be simply lost to time.

I of course take a particular interest in this sort of thing because I am myself Jewish. And it is because of my own Jewish background that I also take a particular interest in the histories of the Shanghai and Kaifeng Jews, and of the various Sephardic, Mizrahi, and Romaniote* communities with their fascinatingly diverse cultures and (sadly, in most cases tragic) histories all across the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, the Arab world, Iran, and beyond.

But I would think this sort of thing hopefully of at least some interest to others as well – as I said at the beginning of this post, an unexpected, surprisingly, interconnection of different peoples, different threads of history. We learn from the story of Elias Abraham Rosenberg that Hawaiian history is not 100% a story devoid of any prominent Jewish actors, and that Jewish history does not take place solely in Europe, the United States, and Israel/Palestine. Kalākaua traveled the world, meeting with the Meiji Emperor and proposing the marriage of his niece Kaʻiulani to one of the imperial princes of Japan, though that never ended up taking place. Kaʻiulani herself traveled in 1893 to Washington DC in an effort to convince Pres. Cleveland to halt or reverse the dismantling of the kingdom, and her aunts, Queen Kapiʻolani and then Crown Princess (later ruling Queen) Liliʻuokalani attended Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in London in 1887. Jews occupied prominent positions in the Ottoman and Persian courts, and Sephardic Jews from the Caribbean were among the first Jews to ever settle in what is now the United States – before any Ashkenazi Jews came over from Europe. I’ve seen Torah scrolls from China written on silk instead of deer hide, and a rubbing from a 15th c. Chinese stele from a Kaifeng synagogue. Cultural exchange and interesting, unexpected, intersections and interactions are everywhere across history. You never know what you might come across.

*Sephardic Jews are descended from those expelled from Spain and Portugal in the 1490s. Settling in the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and North Africa, they maintained a variety of Judeo-Spanish languages, such as Ladino, down to the present day while incorporating numerous cultural influences of the places where they settled, as well as influencing those cultures.

Mizrahi is, to my knowledge, a relatively recent new term, encapsulating the Jewish communities of the Arab world and Persia, descended not from the Sephardim, from Spain, but from Jewish communities which have lived in the Middle East since before Islam. Not in any way thieves or appropriators, let alone colonizers, of Middle Eastern foods and culture, they are – as a group, if not in the case of every last family – descendants of the peoples who lived in those lands since long prior to the Arab invasions.

Romaniote Jews, a group which I myself only learned of a few years ago, are Greek Jews, also descended not from the Sephardim, from those who left Spain, but from the Greek Jews who’d been there since the Roman Empire, if not earlier. A number of the Apostles in the Christian Scriptures were Greek Jews, who spoke + wrote in Greek. Where do you think they came from, if not from this sort of origin? Certainly not from Poland and Lithuania.

Given all the much-merited focus over the course of this past year on the incredible lies being peddled by Harvard Law professor J. Mark Ramseyer and the ways in which ultrarightwing ethnonationalist liars (history deniers) work with figures like him to attempt to strengthen their positions and to validate their bullshit, I suppose this is old news in a sense, and the very same Okinawa Times article I discuss here may have made the rounds on Twitter already, I’m not sure.

But, I was just curious to see what the Okinawa Times had to say about Ramseyer’s racist lies, so I went and dug up this roughly 9-month-old news article in the microfilm. I am not sure to what extent the Times has reported on Ramseyer otherwise, but this was the one article I happened upon.

The first half of this short article largely just summarizes what’s said in this excerpt from one of his (unpublished?) English-lang papers which he apparently presented (at some venue?) in Jan 2020. The paper in full (entitled “A Monitoring Theory of the Underclass: With Examples from Outcastes, Koreans, and Okinawans in Japan”) can be found here: http://chwe.net/irle/ramseyer_monitoring_theory.pdf. Much thanks to Prof. Michael Chwe for making this, and so much else of crucial relevance to these “history wars” issues, available.

I have not yet read the paper in full, and I don’t know if I care to, but from the excerpt reprinted in the Times, we can already see some very standard rightwing mischaracterizations of the Futenma issue and some rather racist suggestions about Okinawan capabilities and society. This is textbook orientalism and colonialism.

First, of course, there is the racist notion that Okinawans are somehow fundamentally less capable, blaming their poverty and various societal problems on some “dysfunctional” failing of the Okinawan people themselves, as if it’s inherent in their race, genetics, or culture, with zero mention of their colonization and neglect by Japan, the negative impact of the military bases, etc. Again, I admit I haven’t read the full paper, but even so, the argument suggested here is appalling.

And within this very same article, he explicitly states

“I avoid the well-known ethnic disputes in the U.S. and elsewhere deliberately but reluctantly — for the simple reason that the hyper-polarization within the academy has made candid discussion of ethnic politics extraordinarily hard. Perhaps otherwise unfamiliar examples will permit freer discussion” (p2)

in other words essentially saying that he uses the Japan case to say things he would never get away with saying about ethnic minorities in the US. My thanks to Timothy Amos, Maren Ehlers, et al for highlighting this, in their discussion of his equally horrid “scholarship” on the burakumin – descendants of Japanese former outcastes. Others who are more thoroughly expert in Race & Ethnicity Studies can speak to the fuller trajectories & implications of these racist discourses better than I can, but the parallels are blatantly obvious between what Ramseyer says about minorities in Japan and what many on the right-wing regularly say about minorities in the US.

Continuing on in the quoted excerpt at the top of the Okinawa Times article, Ramseyer then goes on to speak about the agreement between Washington and Tokyo to relocate the Futenma base as if the Okinawans agreed to it, or as if they didn’t have to in order for it to be perfectly righteous and appropriate. As if security policy should operate purely on the national level, and local sentiment (or local interests, needs, well-being) simply need not enter into it. Or, as if the Okinawan people are in his eyes essentially children, who cannot be and should not be trusted to understand what’s best for them, or to make decisions for themselves; children for whom the national government should make decisions on their behalf. Basically, it smacks of paternalistic logic. Daddy knows best.

One wonders whether Ramseyer himself can’t conceive of the notion of questioning this, if he just takes his readers to be that stupid, or if it’s all part of a highly calculated, intelligent, effort to mislead. Not to get off-topic, but I have to admit, this is the sort of question I’ve been thinking about a lot these past five years or so, not just with Trump but with a lot of the most prominent Republicans in what Chris Hayes has appropriately called “the troll caucus.” People speak of Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” But, there’s a part of me that just really wants to know, needs to know: are Trump, Cruz, Gaetz, Greene, Jordan, Graham, McConnell, this stupid? Or are they “crazy like a fox,” as the saying goes, and are not stupid but are simply this genuinely malicious? One cannot help but wonder the same about Ramseyer.

Maybe I’m reading into it too much, but I can’t help but imagine an attitude of, sort of, “because it’s legal, therefore it’s right.” As if it’s just genuinely inconceivable that there’s anything wrong with the agreement, or worth questioning or criticizing about it. And as if the people opposing this are going against their own best interests – don’t know what’s good for them.

Ramseyer accuses Okinawan political elites, construction firms and other business elites, the owners of the land under the military bases to whom the US pays [grossly low rates of] rent, and others of being in cahoots with one another, duping the wider Okinawan population, and drumming up political tension and opposition in order to line their pockets. Focusing on this intentional mischaracterization of elites as fanning the flames of what he calls “fringe-left … anti-American” protest for their own corrupt self-interest, he completely ignores any valid arguments against the bases, and indeed actively works to invalidate them, to present them as worthy of being dismissed entirely. As the Times article states explicitly, 「根拠は示していない」- he does not describe (at all) the core reasons for the anti-base protests. And, I would add, that by omitting any discussion of the real problems caused by the bases, Ramseyer and his ilk are able to imply – or to at least leave open to readers own imaginations – that the protests have no reasonable basis whatsoever; that there are no problems at all, or none worth considering.

This tracks closely with false conspiratorial assertions by Robert Eldridge and others that all the protestors are in some fashion CCP plants or supporters, and that the protests are “anti-American hate speech” and are part of efforts to undermine the US, Japan, and the US-Japan alliance – always coupled with denying any validity to Okinawans’ actual complaints, painting them as plants of a fringe agenda, and dismissing entirely the idea that this actually represents Okinawan public sentiment. This is of course not the only protest movement in the world that the rightwing seeks to invalidate by erroneously characterizing them as communists, Chinese agents, and/or fundamentally anti-American, instead of recognizing them as expressing the actual voice of actual citizens. Like Ramseyer, Eldridge also has a pattern of painting local Okinawan politicians as corrupt or inept, and as therefore not properly representing and/or not acting in the best interests of the Okinawan people, working to undermine sympathy or solidarity for the Okinawans’ circumstances.

Returning to the excerpt, Ramseyer also reiterates an argument I’ve seen before, suggesting that it is primarily the fault of the protests that the relocation of the Futenma base to Henoko has been so delayed, as if it is the protestors’ fault – and not that of Washington and Tokyo – that Futenma still has not been closed. Completely ignoring that the US has had plenty of opportunity in the past 25 years to agree to close Futenma *and* cancel the construction at Henoko, which is exactly what the protestors, for the most part, have been asking for. The willful blindness, the profound determination to not even argue against but to simply ignore outright various alternative views and possibilities, would be astonishing if we hadn’t seen it all before, far too many times.

Okinawans have made clear, not only in protest, but in countless newspaper articles and opinion pieces, referendums and elections, and by other means that they want no new military facilities built in Okinawa.

By completely ignoring this possibility, presenting the closing of Futenma as inextricably tied to the construction taking place at Henoko, and thus the opposition to Henoko as inherently equal to obstructing the dismantling of Futenma, Ramseyer and others are able to push forward their racist characterization of the protestors as irrational and self-destructive. It is this take that allows Ramseyer and others to mischaracterize the entire thing as being part of some kind of corrupt, self-interested schemes by political & business elites, to the detriment of progress on something that would be good for the Okinawan people. 

I am genuinely curious as to where this take originates. Is Ramseyer echoing Eldridge? Is Eldridge simply rendering into English what Japanese ultrarightwingers have said? Or are the right-wingers relying on Eldridge or others to have invented this spin to begin with?  I’m tempted to wonder whether it originates within the US military, but that opens a whole other can of worms, as to questioning to what extent such attitudes are or are not circulated within the military, and believed and acted upon, or not, at what levels, to what extent… The colonialist and paternalistic statements of Kevin Maher (former US consul general in Okinawa, former director of the State Department’s Office of Japan Affairs, who “abruptly left his post” in 2011 after calling Okinawans “lazy” and “masters of extortion”), beginning with the idea that “We cannot sacrifice the lives of young Marines for the sake of local politics” – in other words, that military objectives and logistical operating norms supersede “petty” concerns about the well-being or desires of the members of the colonized native populace – is probably indicative of something, and could be the topic of an entire blog post of its own.

But, again, that’s a morass I’d rather not get involved in. Probably best to just move on. 

Finally moving on into the second half of this newspaper article, the Times reporter points out an important inaccuracy – a misrepresentation – by Ramseyer regarding the history of the Futenma base. In a section of the paper not excerpted here, Ramseyer asserts that “The Japanese military had bought (n.b.: not rented, bought) the land for the base [at Futenma] and started work on it in 1942. The war ended before it could finish, so the U.S. completed construction shortly thereafter.” I suppose that the implication here is to suggest that the initial selection of Futenma as the site for an airbase should be pinned not on the US but on Japan, and that it’s all totally legal and above board, again, appealing to the fallacy that “legal makes moral.”

The newspaper article explains this is simply not true – that the base had its start in the US military requisitioning lands by force during the Battle of Okinawa, and that the Japanese military played no part in this. Now, I’ll admit, I do not know this history in detail down to such particular points, and a few quick cursory Google searches have not brought up anything I’d consider definitive – so, in the interests of academic integrity or whatever we want to call it [something Ramseyer is blatantly devoid of], I’m admitting that I’m not coming here with proper sources backing up the newspaper. But, for whatever it’s worth, this short, well-cited, ArcGIS StoryMap presentation about the history of the base indicates clearly that

the United States … started construction on an airfield … previously … home to 14 village sections. … Okinawans were forced into … camps while their lands were seized for the airfield, and the existing village’s municipal office, post office, and schools were razed. The United States military … has often insisted that Futenma was built on empty land.

Tess Kelley, “World’s Most Dangerous Base: The History of Futenma Air Station,” 24 April 2021.

So, on empty land, or by razing villages. Not by commandeering an existing Japanese airfield. I am unsurprised to discover that Ramseyer’s untruths extend not only to mischaracterizing the demands of protestors, the true reasons behind their political opposition, the fundamental character of the Okinawan people and their elected leaders, the first-person testimony of comfort women, and so forth, but also historical facts otherwise.

In response to a request for comment from the Okinawa Times, Ramseyer reportedly replied simply that “this paper is not published.” When the Times attempted to confirm whether this means the paper is not yet ready for publication, or whether it has been taken down (withdrawn) in some fashion, Ramseyer did not respond. Harvard University also did not respond to inquiries.

The Times article then touches briefly upon the more infamous matter of Ramseyer’s dangerously denialist article on the Korean “comfort women,” published Feb 2021, which has emboldened ultrarightwing ethnonationalist history deniers and spurred unbelievable torrents of online and offline harassment against scholars who have worked to set the record straight. As the Times article explains, researchers have pointed out that regarding this issue as well, Ramseyer has arbitrarily (恣意的に、i.e. cherry-picked) pulled from inaccurate sources (不正確な資料). A rigorous, thorough, professional critique of his “comfort women” article – his misuse of sources, his misleading assumptions and arguments – can be found here.

Perhaps someday I’ll take the time to read his unpublished paper on Okinawans, Burakumin, and Zainichi Koreans, so that I can help to bring to light (just a tiny bit more, in my own small way) the kinds of grossly misleading lies and blatantly racist, orientalist, colonialist, and paternalistic attitudes that continue to be ferried around in right-wing (and, more broadly, law and policy) circles, and the kind of profoundly irresponsible and unprofessional scholarship that apparently Harvard Law School is seemingly happy to have represent it. One can only wonder how many more Ramseyers there are, in equally secure (tenured) positions of authority, not only using their positions to promote dangerous, extremist political agendas and to wreak havoc on popular understandings of the truth, but also in the process, simply by occupying those positions, denying opportunities for other scholars to attain job security, financial stability, and the ability to potentially use such a position (teaching, publishing, etc.) for good.

The Kids Are Alright

Very gradually working through the backlog of blog posts I drafted months ago and never finished with. This one is from this past August, not that I think it makes a difference.

This NY Post article entitled “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values” popped up the other day on my Google Android News Alerts or whatever it’s called – I don’t actively follow or read the NY Post – and I was just so struck by it. Not by any means the most egregious example of conservative ‘news’ or anything like that, but just, struck me as indicative. It’s so important, I think, to understand the narratives or worldviews that others live according to. To understand what traditional worldviews or narratives are, how they’re articulated, what precisely their reasoning and values are, so that we can understand the world we live in, how it was built, what it is exactly that people are still fighting for today, and why they believe what they believe.

Again, this is by no means the most egregious example of such things – goodness knows we have an endless supply of that sort of thing today. But even so, to look at something so seemingly mundane, and realize that for so many people, this is marketed as objective truth. This is the basic, white bread, reality in which they live, and depending on what they read or watch, they see no counter-narrative. The fear-mongering, and the sort of self-blindness, the narrow-minded refusal to even consider – to even allow yourself to be aware of – counter-arguments or other ways of thinking, is just… really something.

Now, I know that half of you reading this would be able to articulate things far better, would have a lot more to say, more critically, more insightfully, so I guess I’ll apologize ahead of time for my fumbly, imperfect attempt to recognize and address everything that’s going on here. But let’s get started.

First off, the headline: “Gen Z is made of zombies — less educated, more depressed, without values”

Immediately, I have to wonder what he’s talking about. Speaking of education, it’s been quite a while since I’ve been in the classroom, but I’ll certainly be the first to admit, there are vast bodies of knowledge that young people (I’m thinking of first-year starting college students) aren’t aware of. From popular culture that’s a just a bit too old for them to whichever canonical big-name literary authors they didn’t cover (or don’t remember) from high school, to aspects of basic geography, to the difference between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, to a whole array of skills having to do with reading and writing and research and basic grammar & spelling, there’s a lot they don’t know. So, I’ll certainly grant that. But “less educated” than older generations? I have a strong guess of what he means by that, but for the moment we’ll put a pin in it and just say I think it’s a fair bet that a great many NY Post readers – and I’m not picking on them specifically, but let’s just say a very significant portion of those older generations they’re talking about – also don’t know half these things. They’re not masters of geography, history, math, science, literary history, themselves.

More depressed? Well, there’s a lot to be depressed about. Stagnant wages and skyrocketing cost of living. Tuition and student loans. Endless GOP efforts to destroy reproductive freedoms and numerous other types of freedoms. Police brutality and institutionalized racism. The already dreadful impacts of climate change. Gun violence. There’s a lot to be depressed about.

But perhaps more to the point, more people are being recognized and treated. It’s doesn’t necessarily mean there’s more mental illness than there used to be – it means people who were previously forced to suck it up and deal, people who were forced to live with horrific mental and emotional difficulties, to struggle through life, are finally being given the recognition, sympathy, and treatment they deserve. The willful ignorance, the blindness, on this is just unbelievable to me. I don’t understand why stoicism, struggle, “suck it up,” and so forth is such a powerful value in our society. Why hold onto this? Why make it your hill to die on (your hill that you walked up uphill both ways, in the snow)? One could easily list countless examples of medical advances and other technologies that make life easier. If you don’t want people treated for depression do you also not want them treated for physical ailments and disabilities? If you want people to learn to be tough, and to tough it out, and that struggle makes people strong, then what are you yourself doing driving a car instead of walking, sitting around in your cushy house with central air and numerous other amenities instead of toughing it out like your parents and grandparents did, and working a nice white collar job in an air-conditioned office with an ergonomic chair instead of killing yourself in a coal mine? Medical and technological advances, and societal changes (incl. acceptance of difference, etc) make life easier for people. Make it better. Why don’t you want that?

And we come to “lacking values.” We can already guess what values he means, but to me it’s just such an astonishing statement. I know I’m speaking from a very biased sliver of Gen Z, of whose opinions and perspectives I am exposed to, primarily in my role as a classroom teacher and as someone who spends way too much time on TikTok and Reddit – I have no doubt that millions of Gen Zers think quite differently, and that my limited experience is not necessarily the most representative sample. But even so, from what I see online, the idea of these kids “lacking values” is just absurd to me. They care about climate change and the environment. They care about sexism and misogyny and gender inequalities. They care about racial and ethnic disparities and matters of intersectional privilege. They care about the impacts of neo-colonialist and neoliberal “values” or ideologies upon our world. They care about freedom of religion, and freedom from religion. They believe that all people are equally human, equally deserving of respect and rights and freedoms, regardless of their gender, sexuality, disability, or ethnicity. They believe that there is no one way to be a valid family. They believe that people have inherent worth beyond the economic value of their labor, and that access to a basic minimum of quality of life – access to water, food, clean air, shelter, health care – should not be dependent on whether you can work for it, whether you can afford it. They believe that no full-time job should pay so little that one cannot live off of it.

You may disagree with their political perspectives, but to say they don’t have values requires a very intentionally narrow definition of what does and doesn’t constitute “values.”


And we haven’t even gotten into the article yet. Well, here we go.

“When he shows pictures of celebrities like Kendall Jenner or Miley Cyrus to his students on a screen, they immediately recognize them. But faced with photos of policymakers like Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi, the children stare blankly. “

Yeah? And? Classic example of conservative handwringing and fear-mongering. That’s just the reality of the society we live in. I’m a couple of decades older than these kids, and I think when I was their age I cared less, and knew less, understood less, about news or politics than they do. These days, I do read enough and watch enough to know Pelosi and Schumer from Greene and Gaetz. But, so what? That’s partially just from being kids, and it’s partially just a natural part of the world we live in. I promise, you could ask most adults, most Boomers, and they’ll also know plenty of celebrities better than they know politicians. And if they happen to be someone who does know these politicians, watch them squirm and be utterly clueless when it comes to foreign politicians. Or politicians from a different state than theirs. Or whatever. The expectation that people need to know politicians is such a narrow criterion… out of all the fields of knowledge in the world, this is the *one* you really want to focus in on, alone? I don’t deny it’s important, of course. But….

““We need to brace ourselves for what lies ahead. I write this book as an alarm bell . . . a project born out of worry, concern and frustration.” “

Frankly, I have nothing but hope. Not to say that all old people are conservative or that all young people are progressive, not by any means. But we are gradually – far too slowly, but even so – gradually moving towards a world where more people believe more strongly in the urgency of addressing climate change, where more people believe more strongly, on a fundamental level, in the importance of reproductive health; the validity of non-cis gender identities; the importance of easier, more affordable, access to quality health care. These shifts may be an alarm bell for old money, for corporate interests, for deep-seated pearl-clutching Christian fundamentalists and white supremacists, for certain particular institutions, but if you’re concerned about the collapse of society, I think you need to think about what exactly you mean by “society.” One very particular set of visions of what America is, or should be. And, yes, maybe those visions, those versions of America, are under threat. But is that really such a bad thing? I think people need to get over themselves, get over their panic attacks and realize that the United States isn’t going anywhere. American quality of life isn’t going anywhere – if anything, people are trying desperately to fight to be allowed to make it better. The only things being threatened and attacked are institutions and norms that are holding us back from a freer, better, more equitable, society, with better quality of life.

 “barren of the behavior, values and hopes from which human beings have traditionally found higher meaning . . . or even simple contentment.””

I can’t guarantee what he means by this, but it reminds me of the way that transphobes talk about “learning to be happy as the gender [sex] you were born as [assigned at birth].” Instead of thinking outside the box, thinking critically, being open to the idea that anyone should be free to live as they wish – instead of thinking about what we could do to open up that door, to stop restricting ourselves and others in such nonsensical arbitrary ways (what you can and can’t wear, or how you can or can’t be, because you’re a man or a woman) – instead, they say “you just can’t.” Suck it up and deal.

Why? For what purpose? To what end? Why is there such a valorization of suffering, of self-restriction? Why is there not just a willingness but an outright insistence on allowing the world to be such shit, refusing to believe that we can even try to want to make it better?

Rather than believing that we should engage in understanding the wider world and how to fix it, how to make it better, instead Farley wants us to focus on creating, inventing, contentment where it doesn’t exist. Finding a way to be okay even when things are not. Suppressing or denying mental health issues, non-cishet gender identity or sexuality, or whatever it may be that’s bringing you difficulty. Find reassurance in church, family, or community, and learn not to address it, not to fix it, not to make it better, but to deal with it.

I am not an out-and-out atheist, and I hesitate to get involved in a conversation about critiquing or criticizing religion. I myself still believe strongly in, and practice to a certain extent, Jewish practices – not just secular but also religious – as part of my culture, my heritage; as something that connects me to identity and tradition; something that gives live richness and texture, and that brings me comfort, community, spirituality, and a connection to my roots.

But, as much as I hesitate to get into deeper, more extensive conversations about religion, I cannot help but feel like to at least some extent, in the specific context of what Farley is talking about here, religion is a way of helping you to invent or to believe in meaning that’s, for lack of a better word, out of left-field. It’s bringing you contentment not by believing in actual hope in the world, but by shutting yourself off from seeing or engaging with the wrongs and problems and difficulties in the world.

“teachers once helped students become their “best selves” by putting the focus on curriculums, lesson plans and test scores”

Is that really your best self? Rote learning of a standard curriculum? Don’t get me wrong, by all means, a thorough working knowledge of math and science, history and civics, and so forth, are vital skills for any person to have to go out and be a successful and educated adult out in society. By all means, it would be ideal if the vast majority of members of society, regardless of their occupation, had enough math ability to handle the various things that come up in their everyday lives, enough understanding of science to believe and understand what they read in the papers and to be able to deal with basic domestic or otherwise in-person everyday tasks, to take care of yourself, children, and pets on some basic level, to envision what would or would not make sense to do in the kitchen or in the garage, all sorts of things like that. (Not to mention, having enough familiarity with the basics of science to make rational decisions about mask-wearing, vaccines, and so forth, and to understand why we should trust scientists. But that’s a whole other can of worms.)

Whether Farley himself is this blind, this ignorant, or whether he’s intentionally trying to mislead or something, I don’t know. But, the idea that such a standardized curriculum is truly helping students become their best selves is just unfathomable for me. What are we, children of the corn? Think about all the negative stereotypes Americans, especially conservative Americans, have about Chinese or Japanese children being raised as robots, rote memorization, and so forth. Are you so blind to the ways that American education is just the same, or would be just the same if that’s where you really want to place your emphasis?

“that’s given way to trying to “understand” young people through programs emphasizing suicide and depression awareness”

Yes, yes it is. God forbid we should try to actually understand people, engage with our children and our students as human beings who have thoughts and feelings, who have a diversity of perspectives and experiences. God forbid we should take mental health seriously, as actual illnesses that should be acknowledged and addressed. God forbid we should listen to people and allow them to voice their own creative insights and innovative ideas, to contribute their perspectives or ideas, rather than just ramming a standard curriculum down their throats.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that freedom of expression is allowed and celebrated in our country. That we should be free to explore and experiment and express ourselves as we wish. God forbid we should allow students to dress as they wish, to explore and forge their identities as they wish, rather than feeling like there’s something wrong with us for simply wanting to be kind instead of stoic, or tough instead of relenting, for simply wanting to be graceful instead of strong, or handsome instead of pretty, for wanting to wear makeup and dresses or for wanting to not be pressured or obliged to do so.

God forbid we should allow students to believe that the infinite differences between us – in how we feel emotions, how we have different pain tolerances or differing levels of bodily strength; different tolerances for cold or heat or illness, or whatever else it may be – are okay, are natural, are human. That we’re all equally human, all equally deserving of sympathy and support, and that there is no need to force ourselves to suffer and struggle just to live up to some false notion of “normal.” God forbid we should take people seriously when they say that traumatic experiences have had real mental and emotional impacts on them, that they deserve sympathy and understanding for the ways they’ve been hurt, and for the ways that certain experiences “trigger” hurtful, damaging, emotional or mental reactions for them.

The lack of sympathy for others, the bold, outright, refusal to even entertain the notion of sympathy, is just unbelievable to me. Suck it up and deal. Suppress it. Push it down. Deny it. Be strong.

There are those who are just clueless, and enforce this damaging bullshit on the rest of us. Whether we’re talking about mental health, or things like toxic masculinity. But then there are also those who are secretly suffering, who are so messed up inside themselves, so hurt, and who don’t believe that they’re allowed to deal with it in a healthy way – who they themselves have been taught they have to be strong, to deny it, to suppress it. It makes me so sad, and so angry, that this is the world we have to live in. So many men who are the worst offenders at imposing their toxicity on others, and if you could only get them to break down and be open, you’d find that so many of them hate themselves, or hate society, for not allowing them to show emotion, to show weakness, not allowing themselves to show vulnerability. Not allowing themselves to show kindness, softness, gracefulness; men would be embarrassed to say so but to go through your entire life always thinking you could never be pretty, never be cute. That there are so many simple, basic, stupid things that you can never be allowed to experience – from heels to skirts to makeup to ponytails – just because you were born a guy. Far from the most major serious issues in our society, I know, and far from how serious the problems are that women face everyday at the hands of men, I know. But real, nevertheless, and so emotionally destructive. It eats away at you.

“Religion has been replaced by “a mass culture of ‘banality, conformity, and self-indulgence,’ “

If religion isn’t conformity, I don’t know what is. And, quite frankly, I may be extrapolating here, but I’d wager the religious, family, community-centered life Farley is imagining, is pretty fucking banal and self-indulgent too. Frankly, it gives me anxiety just thinking about it. Pressuring people, forcing people, to have to live according to a particular vision of what family and community should look like. What ideal American married life should look like. Talk about banal. But also, everything we’ve been talking about up until now has been about conformity. About ignoring people’s individual identities, their individual mental or emotional individuality, to instead teach them a standard curriculum, raise them in a standard religion, fence them in to a standard set of family values and structures… if that’s not conformity, I don’t know what is.

I’ll admit, I don’t think he’s 100% wrong. I’m sure there are elements here of social interaction – interacting with other people and not just with devices; people feeling more distant and less well-socialized and more lonely and depressed because the patterns of our social interactions have changed – there are things here that are real problems. And by all means, I am sure that having a loving supportive family, good connection with community, etc., are valuable and positive. I was extremely lucky to grow up in what I feel was an excellent family environment; parents who really cared about how I was doing in school, who were always home in the evenings and provided dinner and who talked to me and my brother over dinner; a family that took us out into the city, or elsewhere, to go to the beach or the park, to museums, theatre, and concerts. Family that loved us and supported us in all sorts of ways. And having community through the synagogue that I’m sure provided really good things for me growing up that I can’t quite name or put my finger on. And I can easily envision that if we knew our neighbors better, if we had a stronger sense of community right there in the neighborhood, yeah, I can easily imagine the positive advantages of that. The incredible group dynamics, the incredible interconnection, that one experiences at summer camp, on-campus small liberal arts colleges undergrad experiences, 3-week summer intensive paleography workshops, these sorts of things, as compared to what I have now, living in a big city, by myself, surrounded by kind, well-meaning, strangers but strangers nevertheless, seeing friends maybe once every few weeks… yeah, I can easily imagine the advantages of a stronger community environment for children, for families, for adult life in general. So, Farley and his ilk aren’t 100% wrong there.

Farley ends, of course, with a needlessly patriotic call to blind nationalism.

“I never hear young people professing love for their country,” Adams writes. “I used to. But not lately. That is when I really think teachers have a front row seat for America’s decline.”

What is this love for country supposed to be based upon? I mean, my grandparents / great-grandparents on each respective side of the family came to the US escaping persecution, and they found in their new lives in the US greater freedoms, greater safety and security, greater opportunities, and in the end, greater well-being if not outright prosperity. I don’t know the details at all, but my great-grandparents on my mom’s side came from Russia. Whether they were fleeing outright antisemitic violence, or just simply poverty, lack of opportunity, something like that, I’m not sure, but they did quite well for themselves in the US. My grandparents on my father’s side – my father’s parents – survived one of the worst manmade horrors in recent memory, one of the worst crimes against humanity in all of modern history. And when asked where they would like to be settled after the refugee camps closed – I have the documents – they explicitly answered “there is nothing for me anymore in Poland.” There is nothing left. And so they came to the US, and while my grandfather and grandmother worked their hands to the bone, working 80-100 hours a week or who knows what it was, barely managing to put food on the table to raise five boys, just a generation later, several of those boys did quite well for themselves, truly comfortable lifestyle, and more than comfortable enough to support the remaining brothers. Working white collar jobs – not cushy, not easy, still grueling and exhausting and time-consuming in their own ways, but still – owning a home, owning a car or two, going on vacations, paying for their kids to go to college, not being utterly devastated by medical bills, retiring on a handsome pension. And one of their grandkids, me, well, I don’t own any homes or make anywhere near $100,000 a year, or have almost any money saved in the bank, but I’ve had the privilege of traveling the world and have earned a PhD and am living a comfortable enough life like my grandparents couldn’t have imagined. Free of the kind of poverty they experienced, free of the degree or type of antisemitic violence they experienced. When we look at life in Russia or Poland today, or in a great many other countries around the world, there is a lot to be happy about, about living in the US.

And I do worry sometimes that many of my fellow progressives don’t see that or don’t believe that. Is it just that they’re not voicing it? That they do believe in it but they’re just not saying so? Perhaps. I do think that critical views of American policy, domestic and foreign, can get taken too far. People act as though the US is the worst country in the world, the most violent, the most unequal, the most exploitative, the most racist, when it’s certainly not. There’s a lack of balance, a lack of proper perspective, there.

But even so, what is the obsession with love of country? Again, why? To what end? I’d much rather have children who are worldly and cosmopolitan, who are intelligent and knowledgeable, who are emotionally and mentally healthy, who are creative and innovative, who are physically healthy, monetarily comfortable, and free to live their lives as they choose, than I care about having children who revere the flag, or “love America,” whatever the hell that means, or who hold Jefferson, Washington, or whoever else up on some imaginary pedestal… for what?


I don’t know what to say by way of a conclusion to this, except to say that the divides in our country are perhaps greater than they’ve ever been – or, at least, those divides are on display in a way they’ve never been before, more widely shown and known. And articles like this show us clearly just what it is that a lot of people in the country are thinking; their perspectives, their concerns. It’s important to know what others think, to try to have some grasp of what it is they want to push, and what we need to be pushing back against. What the thinking is behind some of their positions, and what the emotion is. Where are there spaces for mutual understanding, for compromise, or even for agreement?

I think that people on both sides like to paint the other side as ingenuine, as just out for power, as using any tactic they can just to “win.” But people have real reasons for believing what they do, for supporting what they do, and for having the concerns and worries that they do. I may disagree with a lot of these people, often rather vehemently, and my stomach may turn and my head grow faint with anxiety about what happens if they manage to get their way – but understanding what’s out there, understanding just what it is they’re arguing for, and why, is crucial I think (rather than dismissing it out of hand as just power-hungry nonsense, or as just “evil”) for understanding where we are as a nation, as a society, and how to try to move forward.

As frightening and worrying as all of this is, however – as indication of what many millions of our fellow Americans do think and believe, and as an indication of the kinds of rhetoric they consume, e.g. through trusting the NY Post over other papers as their chief source for how think about things – at the same time, I am hopeful. Because, as I have said already, granted I don’t really know just what the breakdown is in what percentage of Gen Z is where on the left-right political spectrum, but fingers crossed, it feels like overall we’ll be moving in a good direction with them. It’s an uphill battle – they’ve got an even harder fight I think than my generation did (and still does; I’m not that old!); on numerous things, it really feels like we’ve fallen significantly backwards in recent years rather than make continued progress (however slowly). But then again, perhaps there is some truth to the saying that “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Eventually we have to reach a point where climate change denial, transphobia, certain other things reach their last gasp, however vocal that last gasp may be, and we really can move forward.

On that one BBC Interview

I’m sorry to be behind the times and bringing back up that horrible BBC interview everyone was talking about a few weeks ago. The one where she called for trans women to be lynched. Perhaps the best thing to do is to just forget about it, let it be, not stir things up again. But, I can’t just leave it. So, this is just a bunch of unpolished thoughts… I am sure there are things I’m overlooking, not thinking through quite enough; things I’m not wording quite as well as I should. But I hope you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt and just allow this to be a first draft, a just rough collection of thoughts – not something that needs to be perfect. My sincere apologies if unintentionally offend, or if I misinterpret or misrepresent anything.
But, yeah. This isn’t the final word on anything. Just some thoughts in the moment. Just a blog post, which I scribbled down at the time, so to speak, then sat on, and am now hitting Publish on.

I’m not going to name their name, or repost their disgusting content. I couldn’t even if I wanted to: looks like the BBC has altered the article, taken down the most offensive parts. So I can’t even go back to double-check what exactly was said anyway; I mean, I’m sure the original is saved somewhere, if I just hunted a bit more deeply – someone’s probably posted screenshots somewhere. But I hope you won’t mind if I don’t bother. This isn’t really about this hateful asshole anyway. It’s so much broader than that.

In any case, the gist of it was to deny that trans women are women, and to essentially call for the murder of all trans women. Calling for something to be done so that no man dare call themselves a woman, or dress or behave like a woman again; calling for specific individual famous/prominent trans women to be lynched, calling them pedos and child molesters, and calling for them to “stand up as the men you all know they are and hold them accountable in their shame.” And calling for the army, the marines, someone, to come in and protect … who exactly, it’s unclear, though we can certainly fill in the blanks – protect women, protect white women, protect society, from these supposed monsters. Not the first time we’ve heard that bullshit. Not the first time my heart has pounded and my head gone light reading such incredibly hateful words. And yet, still, it boggles my mind, how people can be so blind, so willfully, deliberately, hatefully ignorant. How people can claim to be feminists, to be so powerfully opposed to toxic masculinity, and to then turn around and tell men to be ashamed for daring to step out of masculinity? For daring to go against masculinity? What.

I think this kind of rhetoric shows how women like her see men to begin with – not just trans women, but all men – not as sympathetic fellow human beings first and foremost, but as threats, as perverts, before anything else. It shows that they never really saw toxic masculinity as the problem, or as something that could be reformed – they see it as inextricably linked with maleness, and men as irredeemable. And yet, if they see men as predators and a threat and irredeemable, then why push men to be men, to try to force men into adhering to traditional gender roles and having to be happy about it? They hate men, they see men as oppressors and sexists and misogynists and predators and all these things, but then at the same time they want to reinforce traditional masculine gender roles? Huh?

It’s really terribly illogical, and inconsistent. So many of these TERFs see themselves as feminists – it’s right in the name. And many of them speak openly and explicitly about supporting the elimination of sexism, the elimination of barriers against what you can and can’t wear or do. But then they turn right back around and reinforce the sexual (gender) binary, the idea that biological features (i.e. sex) determines your gender role and identity, and that men and women must forever be separated and different. It’s irrational. Nonsensical. And yet so many people believe in it, spout it, fight for it so strongly.

If you truly believe in the abolition of sexism, the abolition of inequality between the sexes – if you truly do see other people as human beings first and foremost, and especially if you’re a true feminist, then you should understand why gender roles are stupid and restrictive. If you believe that a woman should be able to do anything a man can do – wear pants, have pockets, ride a bicycle; vote; be strong, be a leader, be assertive – then where is the failing of the logic that it must surely go the other way around as well? That men should also be allowed to do anything a woman can do, e.g. wear dresses or heels or makeup, be soft, be graceful, etc. I feel bad to name stereotypes; it’s so hard to discuss this without falling into a trap of naming stereotypically “feminine” things that reveal just how messed up our stereotypes are to begin with. But, understanding that some people want to be tough and some want to be pretty, some want to be sporty and some want to be artsy – if you really understand this, then understanding why some people would rather not be a man (or would rather not be a woman) isn’t difficult. It’s just one step farther. 

But it’s precisely this belief that men and women are entirely different, entirely opposed, types of beings, that seems to be at the core of these people’s rage. (And, incidentally, it’s not just women; I’ve seen cis gay men scream terf shit right alongside them.)

As if we are made of different stuff. As if we are different species. We’re not.

And I think that fundamentally, it comes from an attitude that women should be allowed everything that men have, but men shouldn’t be allowed that same flexibility, that same openness. That men are not human, or not equally human, but that we are fundamentally, to our core, made of something inferior. Like a cancer to be cut out of humanity.

It reveals, I think, a fundamental lack of caring – they don’t care about men, period. They don’t care about our feelings or our desires or our wellbeing. They don’t care about our troubles. And that, I think, is really one part of what makes this so disturbing, so saddening, so frustrating for me. All I ask is that you see my humanity. I am not a threat first and foremost. I am not a pervert or a danger or an inept toxic asshole. I am a human being, and all I want is to be permitted some of the same things that women already have: to be permitted to not be stuck in a box of what men can and can’t do or can and can’t be. To be allowed, like women are, to be sympathetic, to be vulnerable. To take interest in and care for my appearance, without having to feel ashamed for doing so. This is precisely an example of how cis women – women who probably consider themselves feminist – play right into the very same toxic masculinity that they claim to be so opposed to. Telling trans women, gender-nonconforming men, amab nonbinary folks, men in general, to “be a man.” That men are not only not allowed to do X, or to be Y, but that wanting to do/be those things is horrid, immoral, despicable, shameful.

Even just in the short clips I read – I am not going to seek out the rest of the piece – she uses the word “shame” numerous times. Shaming us for not being man enough – for not being a man in the right ways. Shame is right at the very core of toxic masculinity. Shame is what makes us feel less than, makes us feel broken, makes us feel wrong. Shame is what forces us into these horrid boxes in which we are so ashamed to even be caught walking a certain way, talking a certain way, gesturing a certain way – let alone, god forbid, wearing pink – lest we be seen as “gay,” a “wuss,” or whatever. And somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if L.C. is precisely the very same kind of person who would then turn it around and shove it in our faces, shaming us for daring to want to break free from the mold, but then when we instead toe the line and adhere to that mold, turning right around and laughing about fragile masculinity, saying “is your masculinity so weak that you’re afraid to be seen as effeminate in even the smallest way?” It’s completely self-contradictory.

I am not a stereotype. I am not your idea of a man, I am not anyone’s idea of a man, as some type, some archetype, some characterization. I am a full human being, with emotions and desires, with feelings that can be hurt. I am a person who has no interest in devoting his entire life to playing some role, of acting the good father, the good husband, as if in a movie. I am a full human being, and I want to explore interests and hobbies, fashion and personal expression and personal style. I genuinely don’t even know who people like this want us to be – what kind of man does she want me to be? A traditional manly man, who doesn’t dare show any hint of femininity? But, then, isn’t the manly man, the toxic man, precisely the predator, the asshole, the sexist, that feminism is always fighting against? She writes with fire and brimstone as if men desperately need to be put in our place, but I am thoroughly, genuinely, unclear as to what that place is in her mind – unless it’s six feet deep.

The idea that women can be anything they want to be, anyone they want to be, but that men still have to be… something, some box, some set of standards and norms about the right way to be a man, hurts. It’s painfully restrictive. And yet so many women really don’t seem to care; don’t seem to care about men one bit. I can’t be sure what the author of this hateful screed thinks, but some women seem to think that men’s value is only in who we are to the women in our lives – as if we exist just to be a good boyfriend, a good husband, a good father; or that we exist to be a threat to women, a danger to women, a disappointment to women, an obstacle to women – rather than being *people* ourselves, with our own feelings, desires, strengths, struggles.

I hope it’s clear enough from the above, but just in case it’s not, I’d like to spell it out, lest anyone get confused: I am not a toxic rightwing MRA. I am not anti-feminist. Not by any means. I support gender equality, for people of all genders. I support trans rights, and the idea that we all should be allowed to be who we want to be, the way we feel is right for ourselves – to live our best lives, or to live our truth as some people say. I consider myself a feminist, or I would, except too many women (and nonbinary folks) have told me I can’t, I shouldn’t, I’m not allowed, I’m not welcome. Well, screw you too. But that’s not going to stop me from believing in gender equality and feminist goals and ideals.

I will never understand this form of supposed feminism that insists so hard on the fundamental separation of the sexes, on keeping gender tightly fixed to sex, and on adhering to bullshit notions of men and women as fundamentally alien to one another, to be kept separate at all costs. Separate but equal is not true equality. You can’t achieve gender equality by putting the men in their place, keeping us separated. True gender equality comes from the abolition of restrictive gender roles and stereotypes, the elimination of pressures to have to be this kind of person or that kind of person, to have this kind of personality or that, to dress this way but not that way, all based just on certain happenstances of your biology.