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Night in the American Village

It’s easy to think of things in black and white, and to paint things with a broad brush of imperialism, colonialism, racism, militarism (take your pick). But dig just a tiny bit under the surface, and you’ll find that reality is rarely that simple. Is the solution really so obvious, simple to achieve, and definitively the right thing to do? Is it truly the case that the only obstacles to that solution are bad people, villains? Or are the obstacles at least partially logistical, practical, and due to the complexity of the situation? Are there really only two sides?

Sometimes it takes far more courage than it should have to, to simply be willing and able to say that things are more complicated than a simple full-throated defense of one side (and an equally full-throated condemnation of the other) would have you believe. And it is precisely that courageous stance that Akemi Johnson takes in her book Night in the American Village (The New Press, 2019). As she writes:

I was tired of hearing these crude dichotomies, wielded for political use. The pure, innocent victim and the slut who asked for it. The faultless activist and the rabid protestor. The demonic American soldier and his savior counterpart. They’re all caricatures, and if we’re using them to understand the larger political, sociohistorical situation – the U.S. military in Okinawa, and by extension the U.S.-Japan security alliance and America’s system of overseas basing – we’re not getting anywhere. Dichotomies like these disempower and silence the real people involved with the bases, the full cast of characters who often inhabit ambiguous spaces. (13-14)

I had the pleasure of meeting Akemi in 2017, while I was in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and she, I presume, finishing up work for this book. I waited eagerly for the book, and as soon as it came out, I dove right in; Johnson’s narrative style makes it, for sure, a page-turner, though due entirely to my own distractions and faults, my hopes and intentions of devoting myself to it and finishing it quickly did not pan out. Still, better late than never to draft and post a few thoughts, I figure.

A road construction sign along the highway in Nago. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Over the course of years of fieldwork, Johnson spoke with, and lived among, Okinawan women with a wide range of relationships with the US military bases, and she relates their stories in a way that brings to life the complex, nuanced, realities of life in Okinawa. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, in most cases given by a pseudonym, using their experience as a window into, or jumping-off point for, discussing a different aspect or different side of life in Okinawa. The women range from military wives, on-base workers, and young Okinawan “amejo” girls at clubs + bars disparaged for seeking relationships with American men to devoted anti-base protesters; from exotic dancers, English teachers, and foreign workers to multiracial students. Relating all of these stories through a focus on women brings, of course, a feminist perspective to the entire subject, and we do see discussion of issues of sexual assault, the intersections between military culture and toxic masculinity, interracial & international marriages, sex work, and other issues one might expect in a “feminist” or “gendered” approach. But centering women also serves to de-Other them, implicitly showing that by virtue of women being people (imagine that) all issues, by virtue of being issues that involve and affect people, are thus issues that involve and affect women. Johnson masterfully weaves these themes together in a way that makes the entire book read not like a Women’s Studies / Feminist book that happens to be about Okinawa, but rather an Okinawa book – a book about politics and society – that happens to relate its stories and arguments through a focus on some people (women) much more so than others (men), naturalizing and centering women’s experiences and concerns as human experiences and concerns.

The book is thoroughly researched and extensively footnoted (well, endnotes, but “footnoted” sounds better), but at the same time reads engagingly, at times narratively, less like much academic writing (including my own) and more like, well, exactly the sort of non-fiction “trade” book that it is. Sections of artfully phrased, compelling writing about the situation in a grand scope are interspersed with ones relating elements of the life of an individual woman living on Okinawa.

For foreign host communities, American bases provide jobs but also eat up land and spew American soldiers, American families, and American culture; they fill the air with jets, the roads with tanks, and the ground with toxic waste. The United States is the only country in the world to have this worldwide network of bases, and yet they remain largely outside the American consciousness. Americans unconnected to the military don’t often think of them. (6)

Arisa had grown up to marry one of the men behind the fence. She was in her early thirties now, a beautiful woman with bright eyes and freckles. Her husband Brian had retired from the military and worked as an on-base contractor, granting the family SOFA status and access to the base. That day, she was headed with their one-year-old son to an international festival, where Brian was performing with his dojo. The festival was off base on Gate 2 Street, but Arisa was using the base as a shortcut. Driving around it would have taken much longer. (91)

Night in the American Village provides us with the kind of personal, emotional, human sense of the situation that is so often missing from academic writing and thus so refreshing to find in literature and art. But Johnson does not skimp on hard-hitting, important, and interesting facts. I learned more about the US Occupation of Okinawa, and the facts and figures of the situation today, than I think I ever have elsewhere. Though the themes and information are scattered throughout the book, making it difficult to think of assigning students (or friends, or relatives) any one chapter, the volume as a whole is probably the best introduction to the complexities and realities of race, nation, economy, and the US base situation in Okinawa today that I have read.

A restaurant/bar directly across the street from the fences of Camp Foster Marine Corps base. Photo my own, Nov 2016.

One theme I found particularly compelling, which pops up here and there throughout the book but particularly in Chapter Eight (“Miyo”), is that of biracial or multiracial (or, as is commonly said in Japanese, “hafu“) identity, the place of multiracial people within Okinawa, and the character of Okinawa (not unlike Hawaiʻi) as a place where cultural & ethnic identities mix enough that Johnson (someone of mixed Japanese/white background) should write that she felt more comfortable in Okinawa than in mainland Japan. I found particularly compelling the way that Johnson illustrates the complexity here as well – tensions and issues of “race,” “ethnicity,” or “identity” are not so simply a matter of Black and White, American and Okinawan, Okinawan and Japanese, “half” and “full.” It’s also the multiracial folks who speak English and those who don’t; those who by virtue of their family members’ jobs have access to base (and the experience of that very different cultural space) and those who don’t; the influences of mainland/mainstream American and Japanese discourses upon multiracial kids’ ideas about what sort of appearances or features are beautiful, or normal, or desirable; American and Japanese notions of Blackness; and so on and so forth. The complexities of the pros and cons to special schools for mixed-race kids that provide a conducive environment among other kids with whom they share the experience of being mixed-race (and mixed culture, and so forth), shielding them from the bullying or harassment they might suffer in mainstream public schools, plus the opportunity to have American-style, partial American content, and/or English-language instruction, but then also the question of whether separating students out in this way makes it more difficult both for them and for their mainstream public school counterparts (who are mostly of “full” for lack of a better word Okinawan or Japanese ethnic background) to engage with one another and get along once the mixed-race students are forced into mainstream public high schools, and of course after they graduate and go out into society as adults.

Johnson’s line that “to me, Miyo [a young woman of mixed Okinawan/African-American background] belonged here, to this whole island” (180) stood out particularly strongly for me. I am not mixed-race myself, but after living in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa for some time, I think I have some sense of what she is talking about. She goes on to talk about how being of mixed-race on Okinawa isn’t entirely different from being Okinawan more generally, insofar as all Okinawans – those of mixed-race and those not – all struggle with being seen as Japanese enough, and with the various ways in which their “Japanese but not Japanese [enough]” status or identity manifests itself. While the conversation around mixed-race people so often centers on belonging to multiple communities, and/or feelings of insufficient belonging or insufficient “fitting in” with any of those communities, and while that is of course very much true for mixed-race people on Okinawa as well, I think it also rings very true that being mixed-race is so typical in Okinawa (as it is in Hawaiʻi) that it results in an identity that in some ways perhaps helps one feel like they belong fully to that place, perhaps even more fully than someone of solely Okinawan or, especially, Japanese background. When mixed-race, or (Japanese but not Japanese) Okinawan, people are the majority, then being mixed-race doesn’t make you stand out, different, an outcast, only partially or imperfectly belonging – your mixed identity is fully matching with the mixed identity of the society you live in. Indeed, while white privilege certainly rears its head in Okinawa as it does almost everywhere in the world, at the same time, Johnson writes that in Okinawa, many White kids feel it’s the half-Okinawan kids who are the cool ones, for their ability to feel comfortable and fit in both on- and off-base, and their ability to navigate both worlds. One hafu woman said that she used to wear brown contacts to hide her blue eyes, so she could look more Okinawan (182). There is a privilege to being Okinawan, as well; and we can see a similar phenomenon in Hawaiʻi, too, where the White (haole) majority may on average be more wealthy, more well-placed and influential in local politics and business, and “privileged” otherwise in many of the typical meanings of the word, but where they will at the same time always be outsiders amongst the Asian/Pacific Islander (most of whom are mixed-race) majority.

Barbed wire blocking access to Umungusuku, the historical site of the kingdom’s chief storehouse. Base fences block many Okinawans from accessing their ancestral graves, the former sites of their ancestral villages and the associated sacred spaces, and indeed land their family once owned or still does. Photo my own, Aug 9, 2013.

The imperialist and colonialist treatment of Okinawa, and the negative impacts of the ongoing US military presence there, are real, and the impacts are profound, serious, severe. From the wide-ranging assimilation efforts following the unilateral annexation of the islands by the Empire of Japan in 1879; to the willful neglect of Okinawa’s economic development in the decades following; to Tokyo allowing, or even encouraging, extensive death and destruction to be visited upon Okinawa and its people in 1945 in the hopes that in sacrificing Okinawa in this manner, mainland Japan, the “real” “Japan,” might be spared the same; to 27 years of US occupation; to nearly 50 years now since the end of the Occupation, years filled with plane crashes, sexual assaults, murders, environmental damage, noise pollution, and in 2020, the spread of Covid-19 by American servicemembers into an Okinawan civilian population that had had zero known positive test cases for weeks on end. And on top of all of this, the utter falsehoods which too many in the military believe, and teach to one another, about anti-base protesters being shills paid by the Chinese Communist Party; or that they’re allied with mainland Japanese right-wing ultra-nationalists; the kinds of lies that, through denying the validity and seriousness of the protest, makes it even more difficult to ever reach a solution. All of these problems are real, and profoundly seriously impactful, and I am now and expect I will always remain deeply sympathetic towards the Okinawan people in their fight for justice and equality, for cultural revival and pride, and for reconciling with an extremely difficult past and attempting to build a brighter future.

But that alone is not the end of the story. When I visited Okinawa for the first time, way back in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of anti-American sentiment. I had certainly experienced plenty of it at SOAS, which is a story for another time, and I had never yet been to Hawaiʻi; had no experience yet with navigating that somewhat similar situation. Anxious about being associated with any sort of stereotype of the bad American, whenever people asked me outright where I come from, or if I’m American, I answered that “I am American, but I’m opposed to the bases.” To my surprise, though, people very often responded with something along the lines of, “oh, it’s not that simple. You can’t just be ‘opposed to the bases.’ They cause a lot of problems, yes, but a lot of us work on base. We rely on the bases for jobs, and for the economy. You can’t just say ‘get rid of the bases.’ And, besides, after so many decades, we’re a little Americanized. It’s part of what Okinawa is today. So, it’s more complicated than that.” Now, granted, there are all kinds of factors – this was said to me most often by older men, so perhaps it’s not perfectly reflective of what most Okinawans, old and young, men and women, would all have to say.

Driving past the gates to, I’m guessing, Camp Schwab, near Henoko Bay. I’ve never been inside any of the bases on the island. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

It’s exactly that complexity, that nuance, that diversity of opinions, experiences, and perspectives, that Akemi Johnson so adeptly and engagingly brings to life in Night in the American Village – far more masterfully than I can in my summary of it. Johnson devotes multiple chapters to the perspectives of, and issues pertaining to, activists. The book begins and nearly ends (but for a few pages) with discussion of the horrific rape and murder of a young Okinawan woman by a former Marine in 2016, just months before I arrived in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and explores at length the dangers of the US bases, the damage and problems they continue to cause, and the uphill battle to convince Tokyo and Washington to finally give up on building a new, way-over-budget and devastatingly environmentally destructive base in Henoko Bay.

But then she also presents stories and perspectives of women who find working or socializing with Americans a way of escaping gender inequalities or patriarchal or sexist attitudes in “regular” Okinawan or Japanese society, or simply as a practical choice for a good-paying, stable job with flexible vacation time and so forth. American women who never really asked to be involved in any of this, but have simply been deployed – or have followed along with a spouse who was deployed – to somewhere new and different, where they don’t speak the language and where they’re just trying to get by best as they can; I’m not sure if Johnson provides the numbers, but I get the impression that a very considerable portion of the US servicemembers in Okinawa have never lived outside the US before. Many may not have ever left their home state before. She presents a complicated story in which there is, to be sure, much to the idea that the fundamental culture of the military “breeds violence both at work and at home,” that military culture breeds toxic masculinity and thus domestic and sexual violence, and that the military presence is just, overall, across the board, dangerous and damaging; but, then, at the same time, marking the bases as “pollution” means that everyone associated with them is also polluted, stigmatizing everyone who works on base or has relationships on base, which both prevents them from feeling welcome in the protest movement, hardening people’s attitudes and exacerbating social/political divisions, and creates further problems among friends, families, and so forth. I very much felt when I was living in Hawaiʻi, and I can easily imagine in Okinawa too, that local community can be very tight-knit, or interconnected. Everyone knows one another. Everyone, even if they are strongly anti-base in their political attitudes, knows people who work on base or who are married to someone who does.

We are introduced too to women like the artist Ishikawa Mao who are strongly proud of being Okinawan and opposed to the bases (one of her art books is entitled 「フェンスにFuck You!」or “Fences, Fuck You!”) but who found themselves in working and socializing with Black men, and Black Panthers in particular, forming a bond with these men over their shared racial/ethnic struggles (155). And women who fight for women’s rights and women’s issues (e.g. protesting against sexual violence) as their contribution to the anti-base fight, but who are then criticized for focusing “too narrowly on women’s issues,” something many activists wrongly see as “non-political,” or the wrong kind of fight (139). Women who have set up English-language conversation groups or other activities in an effort to build bridges: not ignoring or denying the problems of the bases but trying to address them and seek solutions in a different way. And women who are simply apolitical regarding the bases because, at least as some older activists see it, they just don’t know any better; they grew up around the bases as an everyday element of what was normal, were raised by general Japanese popular attitudes to think of activism or protest as radical, extremist, and were educated in a public school curriculum set on the national (Japanese) level, with little instruction on Okinawan history.

And in the process, with these women’s experiences and perspectives as the jumping-off point, we learn so much that I had never known before about the history of the bases and of protest in Japan; the history of the bar/club/entertainment districts (and the associated world of sex work) in Okinawa; issues and complexities related to what happens when base land is “returned” to Okinawan control (most often, it’s made into strip malls and the like); complexities of Japanese attitudes and laws surrounding race, gender, sex, and sexual violence; people’s conceptions and misconceptions about media bias, the true intentions (and identities) of protesters; and a variety of other topics.

While, as I’ve said above, I remain deeply sympathetic to the suffering and struggles of the Okinawan people, to the anti-base movement, anti-colonial discourses, and efforts to raise awareness of – and reduce instances of – sexual violence, at the same time we come to appreciate that nothing is black and white. There is both good and bad on-base, and off-base; good and bad within activism and protest; good and bad within sex work. Taking people as individuals, few fully match any stereotype; we are complex beings, multi-faceted. Perhaps we should not take everyone to be wholly guilty or innocent solely based on which side of the fence they stand on. I think that reading this at this time, given what’s going on in our world right now (and most especially back home in the United States, something which of course bleeds over onto the military bases, and out of them, as well as bleeding over into civilian life here in Tokyo and throughout the world in other ways), the lesson is perhaps all the more important. If we want to solve any problem in the world – if we want to heal divisions, bring people together, find compromises and solutions – we have to first understand the true complexities and nuances of the reality of the situation, and not the strawman version painted by rhetoric within one echo chamber or another. I think this goes for problems in our own country and communities, but I think that, despite not being particularly overtly a book about (anti-)Orientalism or indigenous perspectives or the like, Night in the American Village is also a powerful read for helping us to appreciate the profound importance of not going into another community’s situation, another culture’s problems, and thinking you already know the right side to be on, or the right way to understand the entirety of the situation. “I’m an American but I’m opposed to the bases” doesn’t cut it.

The “American Village” of the book’s title. A shopping center in Chatan, just outside Camp Lester and south of the massive Kadena Air Base, that doesn’t resemble a theme park nor any sort of reproduction of American townscapes like I might have expected, but is truly just a place to shop during the day, and get drunk at night. Even if it wasn’t way too far from Naha or University of the Ryukyus for my convenience, I still wouldn’t want to spend much time there; I generally try to avoid the military folks as much as possible. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Night in the American Village is going immediately into any syllabus (reading list) for courses I might hopefully get to teach in future on Okinawan or Japanese Studies. Maybe even for World History, if I can squeeze it in. The one difficulty, though, is that if I were to assign Night in the American Village to students, it would be difficult to select which chapter to assign. Johnson weaves such a wonderfully intricate, complex, nuanced – and yet every easy-to-read, engaging, page-turning – picture of life in Okinawa today, it is difficult to pick out any one chapter to represent the whole. I may decide to have students all read different chapters, and then present on them so as to give one another an impression of the content, without having to burden non-native English speakers with reading an entire book.

I think it is so important for students – and, indeed, for all Americans (and Japanese) – to learn about Okinawa, to learn about this place that is so rich and vibrant and fascinating, and that also continues to struggle under burdens placed there by both Washington and Tokyo and yet which so few Americans (or Japanese) know almost anything about. I think it is so important for people to learn about the effects of imperialism and militarism, what it looks like on the ground, how it affects people’s lives, their culture, their peoplehood and sense of identity, and the path of their collective history. But beyond anything specific to Okinawa alone, I think it is also so important for people to understand and appreciate complexity and nuance, and this is something I think this book shows, teaches, in such a compelling and brilliant way.

I hope that many people interested in issues of militarism and its effects on civilian communities; colonialism and post-colonialism; women’s rights; history of protest; and so forth, far beyond those with a particular interest in or connection to Japan or Okinawa, will come to read this book. It sorely belongs on more undergrad + graduate reading lists, and on more “recommended reads” displays in local and big-box bookstores.

Futenma airbase, and a section of the city of Ginowan, the Okinawan, Japanese, American, and other civilians who live just outside its gates. Photo my own, Aug 5, 2013.

Attus and ruunpe traditional-style Ainu robes on display at the East-West Center, Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

I recently came across a podcast interview with Ainu Museum Studies scholar Marrianne Ubalde (Hokkaido University), talking about “Ainu & Japanese Identity.” The broader podcast series this is from is called Asians Represent. I haven’t listened to any of their other episodes yet, but I gather the focus is largely on the representation of Asian people and cultures in popular culture – especially in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. Certainly sounds interesting.

The whole podcast episode was quite interesting, and I encourage a listen, but I wanted to share some thoughts on just one bit of what they talked about during one portion of the conversation. The question of where indigenous peoples should be represented in museums.

At the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) – I suppose the main podcast host is based in Toronto – what small display of Ainu objects they have is, apparently, not located within the Japan gallery, but in a completely separate part of the museum, amongst objects representing indigenous cultures of “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific“; basically, more or less the whole world outside of Europe. (Canadian First Nations are represented in their own, separate, gallery.)

I was fortunate to get to visit the ROM myself for the first time last summer. It’s a pretty great museum, even if the Japan gallery, on the ground floor in a relatively central part of the museum, is surprisingly small compared to the adjacent China gallery, and compared to how much space Japan gets at many other major museums. Sadly, I don’t think I made it to this “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific” gallery; I wish I had.

The conversation on the podcast critiques this separation of the Ainu from the Japan gallery chiefly through the perspective of saying that by doing so, the museum is reinforcing Japanese nationalist and Nihonjinron myths of Japanese cultural and ethnic homogeneity; it effectively erases indigenous peoples and multiethnic / multicultural diversity from the “Japan” presented by the museum to its visitors. And it instead segregates out the Ainu into this separate space, one which is arguably hierarchically lesser insofar as it is located in a rather different part of the museum and one wonders how many (how few) visitors make it to that “Africa, The Americas, and Asia-Pacific” gallery.

Very interesting to have this pointed out, since actually one of the things I was most impressed with in the China galleries at the ROM was the emphasis on multiethnic and multicultural histories in China. Though small, the China galleries devote several glass cases to the Liao dynasty, ruled and populated primarily by the ethnic Khitans – a horse-riding nomadic people of the steppes who adapted/adopted a lot of Han (Chinese) culture, but who definitely were their own separate state with their own language and customs and so forth. And the exhibit doesn’t shy away from talking about Khitan “innovations,” or the “unique character” of their ceramics and other cultural products. Further labels touched upon the ethnic and cultural diversity of China overall in other periods, as well. I was particularly surprised and impressed to see the ROM devote one display to the histories of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in China. All three have had significant presences in China, going back centuries, and yet it’s so rare that we see them discussed at any length even in textbooks let alone in museums.

So, it’s odd that the Chinese galleries would include such an emphasis on diversity and the Japanese galleries would not.

But, I’m not sure I’m ready to so quickly scoff at the museum’s decision to place the Ainu elsewhere, outside of the Japan gallery; I think the question of whether this decision is woefully and obviously problematic is actually more complicated than it perhaps appears at first.

I can appreciate the pro-multiculturalism argument, that says that we should actively and explicitly push the narrative that Japan is itself multiethnic, multicultural, that Ainu people exist and exist within Japan. That they too are Japanese and deserve to be recognized and “seen.” I get that. Especially amidst stereotypes all too common in the cases of indigenous peoples around the world, misconceptions that the Ainu belong to the past, that they no longer exist. Exhibits focusing on and emphasizing Ainu life and culture today, amidst modern, contemporary, Japanese society, do really good and important work, placing Ainu traditions into a context in which they can be recognized as being no more “backward” or “primitive” or “stuck in the past” than (Wajin) Japanese traditions.

Photo from “Master: An Ainu Story,” a photo exhibit by Adam Isfendiyar at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London, Nov 2018. Photos of the exhibit my own.

But, what about the anti-colonial argument that says that the Ainu people and their culture are separate, and that by placing them within the category of the colonizer – that is, within the Japan gallery – it reinforces that they somehow belong to the Japanese state or the Japanese nation, that their cultural beauty is part of “Japanese culture” and contributes to the greatness and beauty (incl. multiculturalism) of “Japan” or of “Japanese culture”? There are Japanese ultranationalists who continue to promote the idea of Japanese cultural + ethnic homogeneity, and there are plenty of people in the general population who as a result of the particular character and content of state education, mainstream media, and so forth have been educated/socialized into thinking similarly and not knowing any better. But there are also imperial apologists and so forth who use assertions of a multiethnic Japan to advance notions of the superiority of the Japanese state or of Japanese culture. They say that “Japan” is made greater, better, by the cultures within it, including the Okinawans and the Ainu, and perhaps more problematically they talk about how these people are made better by their incorporation into Japan, repeating the same imperialist (colonialist) tropes of how the colonizer brought modernity and technology and infrastructure and modern medicine and modern amenities and quality of life and so forth to these people, and educated them and elevated or refined their culture, and took care of them …. So, this too is a problematic set of discourses.

Even among the most well-meaning of instructors, curators, cultural bureaucrats, etc., there can be inevitable, unavoidable, problematic implications in including or excluding groups like the Ainu or the Okinawans. If you say that Ainu and Okinawan sites are “National Treasures” or “National Heritage,” or if you push to get them designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites or UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage inscribed as belonging to “Japan,” well, arguably it’s better than not recognizing them at all, which would be an act of erasure and of dismissing or denying the cultural value or validity and historical significance of Ainu and Okinawan history and culture. But, this also inevitably raises problematic associations with the idea, again, that these sites and cultural practices belong to Japan, or are part of what makes Japanese history and culture so vibrant, so significant, so valuable as “world heritage.” It raises awareness about these indigenous or minority peoples but it also helps advance or promote the colonizer – the Japanese state, the Japanese nation, and its cultural status or cultural agendas on the world stage. It elevates the Okinawans or the Ainu, but it simultaneously allows the colonizer nation to be elevated and celebrated as well, contributing to notions of Japanese benevolence or beneficience towards Okinawa and the Ainu, and/or notions that their struggles or experiences of discrimination are solely in the past.

Returning to the question of where Ainu artifacts should be displayed in the museum, I tried to think about comparative examples, and what might ring positive or negative to me about those. If we think about, for example, Hawaiian history or Hawaiian culture, I think the complexity, the difficulties, are evident there just the same. I don’t like to see Hawaiʻi erased, overlooked, ignored when talking about people or places or cultures of the United States. Because they are Americans, and being there is part of being in the US. If you say “life in the US is like X,” well, that only goes for some places and not others. And especially when so many on the conservative / Republican side of the scale insist on forgetting about or even denying the Americanness, the valid citizenship and valid Americanness, of people from Puerto Rico, Hawaiʻi, and elsewhere, it is important to assert clearly and strongly that this is America, too, and these people are Americans, too.

So I wouldn’t necessarily want to see Hawaiʻi excluded or omitted from some “American history” gallery. And quite frankly, if more Hawaiian art were included in American art galleries, I think that could be a pretty cool strong statement, much like the way the Brooklyn Museum includes so much African-American, contemporary Native American, and other artworks representing a very diverse United States.

Pacific Hall at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, a gallery focusing on Pacific Island cultures outside of Hawaiʻi.

But at the same time, can you imagine a Pacific gallery that’s missing Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, and tons of others because those are each represented in the American, French, etc. galleries? Nonsense. Can you imagine what a tiny, marginalized representation they would get, off in one corner? Don’t get me wrong, an exhibit on Francophone art, or art from the current or past French Empire, or an exhibit on the history of that empire, that really pays attention not only to the French perspective but also to the deep, rich, histories of Tahiti, Vietnam, North Africa, etc., could be fascinating. I certainly enjoyed seeing the Morocco sections of the Delacroix exhibit that one time I went to the Louvre, and I could easily imagine a corner on Gaugin and Tahiti within a more general “Art of France” gallery potentially being quite effective and interesting. But, to subordinate these vast cultures – cultures unto themselves, peoples with their own histories – into being some small marginal part of the history and culture of the peoples who colonized them? If that’s the only representation they’re getting in the museum, my thought is no thank you.

There is so much that can be explored and shown, so much to be shared, taught, conveyed, in a Pacific Islands gallery that highlights the interconnections between Pacific cultures as well as their incredible diversity.

And so, while I absolutely understand the criticisms of having the Ainu artifacts displayed so totally separately from the Japan gallery – and those are indeed valid criticisms, and I do think there’d be great value in having at least some of them displayed there, in the Japan gallery – I’m not sure it’s necessarily such an easy slam dunk to identify their placement alongside Native cultures of the Russian Far East and Alaska as colonialist or otherwise wholly problematic. The Ainu are their own people, with their own history and culture, and while it is certainly valuable and important to emphasize their modernity and their membership in Japanese society – that they exist, that they are Japanese citizens, too, and that their presence and voices matter; that they are no less Japanese citizens, no less members of Japanese society than anyone else – at the same time, I think it’s important to be wary of the ways in which we might inadvertently lend credence to narratives which overlook or erase the coloniality of the situation, and which use Ainu and Okinawan bodies, artifacts, histories, practices to raise up the Japanese nation, Japanese history, Japanese culture – in short, “Japan” – essentially allowing “Japan” to take credit for and gain the benefit, in terms of cultural prestige, for that which, to put it bluntly, the Empire of Japan stole by force.


Tickets for VR Noh Ghost in the Shell went on sale a few months ago, and I can only assume they were snatched up quickly. My sincere thanks to Diego Pellecchia for alerting me to the existence of this production. Not knowing what the situation with the pandemic was going to be, and hoping with crossed fingers that things might be easing up by now, I thought I should take the opportunity while it lasted, to get tickets while I could. Besides, I figured that if the situation became/remained bad enough, they’d simply reschedule or cancel the performance anyway, so I wasn’t really in danger of losing my money.

As it turns out, even despite whatever the ongoing situation is, the Setagaya Public Theatre decided to go ahead with it, so I went out to Sangenjaya, masked up. Had my temperature taken at the entrance, used the hand sanitizer, and found my seat. There were empty seats in between every two audience members, and while I certainly don’t know the air exchange rate of the A/C system, fingers crossed let’s hope they were doing their due diligence to make sure the full amount of air in the room was being replaced at least X times per hour. We were also strongly discouraged from talking, even before the performance began, so really the only people projecting loud voices (and therefore risking spewing droplets in a significant way into the room) were the actors, and they were all wearing Noh masks, for whatever that might happen to be worth.

But, let’s get on to the show. Let’s see. Where to even begin. I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 anime film, in many years, though I’ve seen it multiple times in the past. I’ve never read the manga, I’ve only seen a few episodes of any of the series, and I certainly haven’t seen the live-action version that was so controversial a few years back. I don’t really recall the plot that well, but I definitely remember the themes and the general feel and aesthetic of the anime film.

One section of the utaibon for this performance.

As soon as I sat down, while we were waiting for the performance to start, I took the time to read through the utaibon (or daihon, the script of the play). I’m grateful they provided this – since the spoken (chanted) lines in Noh are chanted very slowly and stylistically, and since they are in a (somewhat) classical form of the language, trying to understand what’s being said (and therefore what’s going on) in any given scene is not nearly as easy as when watching, say, a more modern theatre production, or TV or movies in regular spoken modern Japanese. So, reading this through gave me an idea, ahead of time, of what was supposed to be happening in each scene. It’s also just a really cool touch that they included this, making the latter half of the program look almost just like an utaibon you would have for any more fully traditional Noh play; it’s quite common in my limited experience, I think, for those in the audience to bring their own utaibon with them and sort of read along as they watch Noh.

Even having read it, I can’t say that I actually understood the full plot of the play, or actually what happened in this or that part… but, overall, I think my impression is that Major Kusanagi – the main character of the original anime film – has disappeared from the physical world, and her (former) partner Batô has gone looking for her in “the sea of information” – the digital realm. While I do wish that I had understood the plot a bit more thoroughly, at the same time I think it’s less important than the performance / aesthetic, and the themes involved.

Initially, I had thought it a real curiosity, an oddity, that they would choose to do a Ghost in the Shell Noh, of all things. Combining something so highly technological, with not only themes of artificial intelligence and cybernetics and so forth but with high-tech digitalized aesthetics, with the wholly traditional world of Noh. But, actually, it works quite well. Aesthetically or stylistically, it’s an interesting juxtaposition; and if you can do a Noh about Hiroshima or about Elvis, and if you can do a Kabuki about zombies or One Piece or Star Wars, then you can do anything; it’s just a matter of getting it right; doing it well.

Promotional image for the play, showing Kusanagi Motoko (bottom left), her partner Batô, and the Puppet Master in white.

More importantly, thematically, once you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. One large subsection of Noh, the sorts of plays that I personally always think of first and tend to personally think of as being the emblematic “typical” types of Noh plays, are those known as mugen Noh 夢幻能、combining the characters yume 夢 (a dream) and maboroshi 幻 (a phantom vision, an illusion) into a term – mugen 夢幻 – which Jisho.org translates as “dreams; fantasy; visions,” with closely related terms meaning “transient; ephemeral; fleeting; evanescent” and “dreamlike; phantasmagorical.” In a play such as Atsumori, one example of a play of this type, a traveling monk1 reaches a particular site, in this case a beach but in other plays very often a grove or clearing in a forest, and encounters a ghost, or spirit, of a deceased warrior; the warrior, Atsumori, then relates through word and dance his story – the emotional events and karmic turmoils that keep his spirit tethered to this plane, unable to move on just yet. Mugen Noh plays exist in, or create, a liminal space between dream and reality, or between the physical world and the spiritual world. Like the monk who encounters a spirit, and can’t really be sure if that encounter is (was) real, or some kind of illusion, or a dream, just like him, we too – as audience members viewing the Noh performance – can sometimes, if we are lucky, find ourselves in a similar state: seeing the wooden pillars and painted-on pine tree of the Noh stage, and the physical conceit of actors in costumes, but seeing through or past these to wonder if what we ourselves are witnessing is not a stage but a forest clearing, and if it is not a play performed by human actors but some sort of dream, or some sort of glimpse into the world of spirits.

A tradition Hôshô school Noh performance of the play Atsumori.

In this way, the themes or atmosphere of mugen Noh actually fit Ghost in the Shell quite well, I think. Batô – a sort of cybercrimes police detective or special agent – here is played by the waki actor, taking on a role equivalent to that of the monk. Saying that he has not seen “neither form nor shadow” of Motoko for a long time (「素子は何処。姿も影もつかめぬ。」), he ventures not along roads and waterways, to beaches or forests, but into “the sea of information,” a virtual or digital realm that might as well be akin to the spirit realm, in search of the “spirit,” or in this case the disembodied digital consciousness – the “ghost” – of his former partner, Kusanagi Motoko.

The play begins in darkness; I kept waiting for the lights to come up and they never did. Only spotlights, a digital projection screen, and a few other small sources of light allowed us to peer through the darkness to glimpse the action. Noh chanting, flute, and drums opened the performance, and for a good portion of the ensuing 60 minutes or so, the music would remain wholly within the realm of traditional Noh utai (chanting) and hayashi (instrumental ensemble). Batô entered, in fully traditional-style Noh robes, albeit with the mask at least (if not the costume?) specially made to resemble the manga/anime character. There are no wooden pillars, no pine tree painted on the backdrop. This is not a traditional Noh stage, but rather a black box stage as is typical in so many modern theatres. A projection screen plays a variety of different images over the course of the play, but mostly images resembling leaves or flower petals swirling in the wind – or air bubbles or debris in the sea – suggesting though not overtly resembling something like the digital flows of the Matrix.

The use of controlled lighting techniques here is of course not something available to Noh performers hundreds of years ago, who performed simply by daylight or by torchlight, with no ability to control the lighting directly from a switchboard or the like; and which is therefore not a feature of traditional Noh today. Nevertheless, this creates a somewhat similar atmospheric effect to takigi Noh (torchlight Noh), which I imagine must enhance the sense of mugen so much more strongly. I really hope to get to see takigi Noh someday soon.

Motoko, played by a shite actor as Atsumori or other comparable figures would be, appears. Not “enters,” as in walks onstage, but actually appears out of the darkness, appearing first in a somewhat ghostly form and then quickly solidifying, appearing from where I was sitting just as real, just as three-dimensional, as if it were a real actor right there, in that spot, on stage. (But if it is a real actor, then how did they fade in that way?) This is where the “VR” aspect of “VR Noh” starts to come into play. Very cool.

She chants and dances her story, resembling very much in costume and stylistic aspects otherwise, and in her central location on the stage in contrast to Batô who remains near the front stage left corner for much of the play, the central shite figure of so many Noh plays, such as the warrior Atsumori in Atsumori or the heavenly maiden in Hagoromo. In doing so, she speaks of … well, I’m not exactly sure, but of questioning her identity and her reality. In one line, she speaks of her body having been only a hollow puppet, and of her soul having become distanced from the fences of the realm of people, melting in the sea of information.

「素子が掴みしは虚ろな人形の手。素子はいづくにや。人の世の柵を離れ。魂魄は。電脳の海に。溶けゆきしなり。」

Then she splits into two – one shite figure in white robes, young woman mask, and black hair down to her jawline suddenly becoming two, looking nearly identical, and standing next to one another, one looking more ghostly, more transparent than the other, but other than that both looking as though they are truly there on stage – not projected onto a flat screen, but present within three-dimensional space. And the chanting continues, as they speak to one another and to no one at all, questioning “if I am Motoko then who is she,” and so forth.

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Who (what) am I?”
「わらわは草薙素子。汝は何者なるや。」

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Is coming face to face [with one another] here coincidence, or inevitable?
「わらわは草薙素子。ここで相見えしは偶然か必然か。」

The effects they created with these so-called “VR” techniques were really impressive. I wish my friend Evelyn could have been there to see this play with me – I wish I could hear her insights as to the staging techniques and effects. From what little I could tell, I still don’t even know if it was simply very cleverly placed mirrors or if it was actually something far more technologically advanced involving holographic projectors or something; I’ve never been to a Hatsune Miku concert, so I’m not sure exactly what those are like, and Perfume won an award a few years ago for their use of a system that tracked screens and the performers’ bodies to project images onto them perfectly even as they moved around the stage.

But, whatever exactly the techniques were that were used in this “VR Noh”, the result, we managed by the end of the play to see, was that actors standing just slightly off-stage (and out of view) were somehow made to appear as though they were onstage, right in the center, rear. As the Motoko figure didn’t move much for her first X minutes onstage, and given the way she appeared as if out of nowhere and then faded ghost-like out of view, I at first suspected this was prerecorded video, projected onto the screen. But as I said before, it didn’t look flat. And when, later in the play, one of the figures actually stepped forwards, much closer to the center of the stage, a good 3-5 feet (or more? I’m terrible at numbers) separated from the screen, I gasped. This was obviously either an actual actor actually standing on stage, or, some technique other than simply being a prerecorded video played back on a screen. The fact that it was actual actors actually performing in real time – even if the images we saw were somehow reflected or projected and not directly the actual person themselves in the flesh – I think makes it a whole different thing from anything even partially pre-recorded. A very interesting experience created out of this effect. I would eagerly look forward to seeing more plays using similar technology.

I must admit, I somewhat lost the trail of the meaning of the plot after this. Batô sees Motoko, finds her, but then she disappears again. Whether they reconnect afterwards, whether she is lost to him forever, where exactly the plot goes from there, I’m rather unclear to be honest.

But regardless, what I most took away from this whole experience was (1) just being engaged, engrossed, by the aesthetic and thematic experience, impressed by how successfully it blended traditional Noh aesthetics and hyper-futuristic, cyber-digital anime content. In addition to the swirling forms on the projection screen not only moving and swirling but actually changing over the course of the play, from leaves or flowers to bubbles to something more explicitly digital, and back again, somewhere towards the middle of the play we also got the Noh drums being used in a decidedly non-traditional way to evoke a sort of robotic or heavy cybernetic sort of atmosphere as Motoko spoke, and then briefly a vocal musical piece utterly unlike anything you’d have in traditional Noh but closely resembling that from the opening of the anime film.

But also, and perhaps more so, (2) the mental or emotional experience of thinking about ghosts and spirits, reality and unreality. How are the themes of Ghost in the Shell – digital consciousness vs. natural consciousness, what separates real memories from digitally artificial ones, and therefore reality from unreality – all that different from the decidedly non-digital world of spirits / ghosts in traditional mugen Noh? One thing I thought particularly interesting, that came up during the after-talk, was when one of the actors (I believe it was Sakaguchi Takanobu 坂口貴信, the shite actor who played Motoko) said that while we’re all used to traditional stories being reinvented and re-presented in modern forms (e.g. Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm fairy tales reimagined into Disney movies), this is in some ways the opposite – a relatively new story, adapted into a much older, more traditional art form that’s actually less accessible for a modern audience. But then he also said that, as conservative as Noh is as an art form, is has continued for more than 500 years and has, certainly, evolved and changed in that time. Perhaps a few hundreds years from now, something like this VR Noh Ghost in the Shell will be seen as traditional and canonical. A very interesting thought.

(And, further, when we think about the fact that the Ghost in the Shell anime film is itself already 25 years old this year, and just how widely and deeply it has made an impact, it really is in some way, arguably, perhaps, not that different from the way that Noh plays of the medieval period retold and re-presented “traditional” and well-known stories of that time, from the Tales of the Heike, Tales of Ise, and so forth.)

That’s all I’ve got to say for now. But they suggested that they are planning to continue developing the technology, and the story, and plan to later have some sort of “version up” new iterations of the play. So, hopefully we’ll get another chance to see this, and to think about it further.

—-
1. In the play Atsumori, and in several other plays featuring the warrior Atsumori, the monk is in fact Renshô, aka Kumagai Naozane, the warrior who killed Atsumori in battle and who then became a monk in order to atone for his guilt and so forth. I wasn’t sure how to fit this into the body text above, but didn’t want to leave it unmentioned entirely.

SISJAC Summer Institute

The past two weeks (July 27 to Aug 7) I had the pleasure of attending an online summer programme in Japanese Studies organized by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture (SISJAC). I initially wasn’t sure if I should sign up to participate, because it was going to be really intense, demanding much of my time for about two weeks, and I wasn’t very clear on the content of the programme or whether it was aimed at someone like myself – a postdoc – or at others earlier in their studies. But, after a truly delightful experience visiting the University of East Anglia (in Norwich, England) this past Fall and meeting or re-connecting with quite a few of the Institute’s wonderful staff, I knew I could trust them and knew that I would very much like to visit them again and to otherwise cultivate a stronger or closer relationship with these wonderful people.

I was not disappointed.

Particularly as a historian – as someone who has bounced back and forth between fields/disciplines and who ultimately did a PhD in History with sadly little mentorship/guidance/coursework in the Arts for the last seven eight years or so – I found this workshop especially refreshing. It can sometimes feel like the field of Art History is overly concerned with personal expression and individual philosophies or politics on the part of the artist; with technical, compositional, and formal qualities of an artwork; with matters of reception; with overly abstract conceptual Theory; and with connoisseurial approaches in which I certainly envy the expertise but cannot effectively participate.

But there is this other side to the study of Arts and Culture, explored in so many of the talks and readings we have explored these two weeks, that has to do with issues of heritage and tradition, the construction of notions of “traditional” “authentic” “heritage,” the passing down of traditions and their simultaneous ever-changing vitality; how countries and cultures shape notions of their own culture or heritage, how they display or convey that to others, and how others receive or perceive that. To be reminded of these other approaches, to be once again immersed in them through the Ishibashi Lecture series and other materials we were asked to watch/read, and to once again engage in discussions along these lines with a crowd of people interested in these lines of thinking, was just so inspiring and refreshing.

On the first day of the programme, in addition to some other discussions, we watched two talks given by Morgan Pitelka and Robert Hellyer on the history of tea. Not retreading the same old territory that I feared a general overarching “Japanese Culture” summer program might, we started off immediately already addressing new and exciting and interesting ideas, and topics that we normally just don’t discuss in general mainstream surveys of Japanese Culture.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pitelka’s critiques of the traditional, canonical narratives of tea history that over-emphasize, romanticize, and lionize particular heroes – e.g. Murata Shukō and Sen no Rikyū – and his argument that the reinforcement of this set of myths in fact erases the more complex histories of tea gatherings / tea culture in the 16th-17th centuries, including especially the involvement of warlords. Just like in his book on the subject (Spectacular Accumulation), and in his new current project on Ichijōdani, Pitelka demonstrates so beautifully how History (or Art History) can tell stories that link visual/material culture and new insights about broader political/economic contexts in ways that are engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Ways that challenge the standard canonical understandings without destroying what makes these topics attractive to begin with – to the contrary, making them even more interesting, I think. The study of Art History does not have to be one that focuses overmuch on the aesthetics or style of individual art objects, absent broader considerations of the lively cultural “worlds” within which they were created or appreciated, and the study of History need not be limited to that which focuses predominantly on political/economic considerations devoid of culture.

Hellyer’s discussion of the evolution of tea culture in the West, and in particular in the US, is similarly a story we rarely if ever learn anything about, and an approach that I again find, well, I have no other word for it but refreshing. Tying in American perceptions of tea (and of Japan) both at that time and now, he demonstrates that economic or commercial histories do not need to be told through an unending sequence of mind-numbingly boring charts, graphs, monetary figures, economic theories, and political ramifications, but rather that the story of the rise and fall of (and shifts in) particular goods within particular markets can be told in such a way that it brings in the actual cultural life of the times: a cultural history of how tea was consumed in the US in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the types of tea that were drunk, how they were prepared and enjoyed (e.g. with milk and sugar; with or without Prussian blue for coloring; hot or iced), the shift from green to black tea and the concordant shift from the dominance of Japanese teas to British (Indian and Ceylon) teas. Rather than engaging with the topic through abstract graphs, charts, numbers, and theories, we are presented with lively colorful images of Americans preparing and consuming tea around a dinner table or picnic table; images of the way it’s advertised in newspapers and the way it’s packaged and arranged on shelves at the store; images of Americans visiting Japanese and British pavilions at World’s Fairs and engaging in conversation with Japanese and British tea representatives trying to convince them to buy a different tea or to enjoy it in a different way. We think about how we drink tea ourselves – what it looks like, smells like, tastes like; what the advertising and packaging is like today; what our own attitudes are towards green vs. black tea; we learn a history of our own society, our own culture, and not only a more abstract history of nations and corporations.

Later in the program, Dr. Robert Simpkins shared with us something about his research, exploring the music scene around Kōenji, a burgeoning hip neighborhood just a few train stations west of Shinjuku (in Tokyo).

Simpkins’ discussion of the music scene at Kōenji reminded me of so many inspiring and intriguing discussions I have had with anthropologists in recent years. Both as a historian, and if I were to perform ethnographic research, I know myself, I would choose a *topic* that interested me, whether it be a particular slice of the music scene in Tokyo, or political protest culture, or artisanal craft production culture, or whatever it may be, and I would want to explore that topic, in itself. But anthropologists like Simpkins manage to do that and to at the same time relate such incredibly meaningful insights about how this scene – in this case, the Kōenji music scene – is just one case example of much broader personal, emotional, psychological, and social matters such as intimacy and interpersonal relationships, things that are ultimately just so human.

We do learn, through Simpkins’ work, about a specific thing that we can immerse ourselves in and learn something about – something we can experience vicariously through reading or hearing about it, and in so doing, expand our personal cultural world, our personal knowledge of the incredible diversity and vibrancy of our incredible human world. We learn through him about a culture and a scene that takes place in particular physical (and geographic) spaces, that look and feel and sound a certain way. In short, he’s helping us to imagine and to understand the look and feel, the experience, of a particular cultural phenomenon in a particular time and place – not solely through sociological or anthropological theoretical concepts, nor through financial graphs or political forces, but through sight and sound and space; the actual lived experience of what these spaces look and feel like, as particular to early 21st century Kōenji, Tokyo, as compared to the “cultural” or “experiential” spaces of comparable music scenes in New York, London, Johannesburg, Beirut, or anywhere else. And I think that alone is so valuable: there are so many lessons to be learned from understanding something about how the music scene functions or operates similarly or differently in each of these places.

But we also learn from Simpkins something about human relationships, how particular experiences of (post?)modernity and urban life can make us feel emotionally, psychologically, socially isolated, and how seeking out a place like the livehouse (music bar) scene in Kōenji can be a way to forge interpersonal human connections that make up for that, or that satisfy and fulfill us in new and different ways.

In another set of talks from the Ishibashi Lecture series, Toshio Watanabe and Wybe Kuitert both speak of Japanese gardens outside of Japan – how Japanese, Japanese diaspora, and non-Japanese understand, interpret, experience, envision, and create “Japanese gardens.” What does the “Japanese garden” mean to them? What does “Zen” mean to them? What are the purposes, intentions, meanings, behind the creation of such spaces?

In chapters we read from the exhibit catalog Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan, Dr. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere talks about the establishment of categories of Cultural Properties or Cultural Heritage in 20th century Japan. Who gets to show at which national exhibitions, and under what labels or categories. Who gets honored as a Living National Treasure or a bearer of Important Cultural Properties, and who does not, and what that means. Which arts or crafts get national recognition and which do not, which get assistance to get maintained, protected, passed down … and how these arts, or crafts, are understood both in Japan and overseas. How transmission of a tradition functioned in the Edo period and similarly or differently today.

A porcelain dish entitled 「黎明」(“Dawn”), 1992, by Tokuda Yasokichi III 三代目徳田八十吉, which graces the cover of the book Crafting Beauty and which is regularly on display at the British Museum. Photo my own, taken at the British Museum, Aug 2015.

All of these many various themes, which may be addressed in the field of Public History – I regret not getting more thoroughly involved with those people – but which I remain surprised and disappointed are so marginalized in the field / discipline of History more broadly.

In theory, History should be a massive umbrella-style catch-all, and in some respects it is. But – whether this is unique to UCSB I cannot say – I definitely get the feeling that some themes and approaches are far more mainstream, far more supported, within History than others. I feel very lucky to have had a PhD committee who were supportive of whatever directions I tried to take things in, but even so, it takes a workshop like this to remind me of just what I was missing. To have these kinds of discussions about culture and heritage, politics of display, issues of tradition, be at the very center of conversation, as they so often are when speaking to people in a wide range of fields – Art History, Museum Studies, Theatre History, Ethnomusicology – and as they are frustratingly not when speaking to most of my fellow Historians, is really refreshing. Wakes me up, re-energizes me. Excites me to start exploring these themes again, and to know there are people out there – indeed, entire departments and institutes – that “get it,” that see things through this sort of lens and don’t put these sorts of approaches or perspectives to the margins.

Now I just have to figure out how to reintegrate such approaches into myself and into my work. How to make myself be the kind of cultural historian who I wish to be.

….

Postscript: The above is only a sampling of the topics we discussed in this programme; we also had thoroughly inspiring and engaging conversations with Drs. Ryoko Matsuba and Ellis Tinios about how online databases are making new kinds of research possible; with Dr. Joy Hendry about her 45+ years of visiting the same tiny Kyushu village and watching as a village and the individual families within it grow and change; with Simon Kaner about archaeology and cultural heritage; and so many others which just didn’t quite fit the themes or points I was making above.

These included some thoroughly enjoyable readings, which I thought I’d share here.
(1) Selections from Ezra Vogel’s apparently rather classic and best-selling Japan as Number One, written in 1979 and providing a thoroughly visual and tangible sense of Japan’s postwar economic growth, some of the key reasons and structures for its incredible success at that time, and perhaps still most prescient for today, Americans’ refusal to believe that they could or should have anything to learn from Japan, or from any non-Western country or culture for that matter, when it comes to big-scale things like how to run an economy (or how to fight a pandemic).

(2) A brilliant little short story by David Mitchell (of BBC fame) entitled “Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut.” A Rashomon-style short story, telling the same series of events from a number of different perspectives, all taking place inside a Mister Donut. If you’d told me this was an English translation of a work by a Japanese author, I’d fully believe you. Does the fact that it’s set in Japan and seems to accurately, correctly, evoke the atmosphere of contemporary Japanese urban life make it “Japanese literature”? I’d generally say no, but nevertheless we had a good discussion about the blurred boundaries of such categories. Suggested/assigned by the brilliant Dr. Nick Bradley, whose book The Cat and the City, also set in Tokyo, has just come out.

(3) A short story by Kyoko Yoshida entitled “The Eastern Studies Institute.” Not even really a narrative, but a description of a bizarre research institute that reminded me, if anything, of the anime “Tatami Galaxy” (四畳半神話大系) for some reason. I really don’t read fiction, short stories, creative fiction, anything like that almost ever; what little time I made for reading is either for random news articles, op-eds, blog posts and the like that come up on social media, or actual History books, on which I am perpetually way way way behind on where I wish I were.

Labels for boxes of Japanese tea for export, c. 1860s-1950s.

While in Shizuoka last month, I decided to check out the Verkehr Shimizu Port Terminal Museum, a really small local history / maritime history museum in the Shimizu area of Shizuoka City. I don’t remember how I first learned of it, but I was intrigued by their permanent exhibits of large models of different traditional Japanese ships. Not that I have ever been one to really understand anything of the fine details – this or that style of rigging, this or that style of rudder – but, nevertheless, there’s just something cool, appealing, about big sailing ships, and trying to learn just a little bit about what different types there were.

As it turns out, it’s a very nice little museum. The ship models were great; there’s also another gallery on the history of the development of the port itself, plus a tiny, slightly hidden Canning Museum in the back. Apparently Shimizu is (or was, historically) a major center of canning in Japan, and the source of much of the canned tuna, canned mandarin oranges, etc. that I ate even as a kid in the US, long before I ever had any inkling that I’d ever study Japan or travel here.

Models of various types of 16th-19th century Japanese ships.

But, as I learned, Shizuoka is also a major center of tea production, and lucky me, they had a beautiful temporary exhibit up at the time about the woodblock-printed labels used on crates of exported tea in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Entitled “Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates” or「蘭字 Ranji 輸出用茶箱絵の世界」, the exhibit of course did not allow for photos to be taken, because god forbid. But it was nevertheless wonderful to get to see these objects in person, get a sense of their materiality, and their diversity. We don’t normally think about such materials, such ephemera; I would imagine that even those historians who work on the history of the tea trade, especially within contexts of the history of capitalism, history of empire, don’t take the bother to look at these items from an art historical point of view either. And yet, they’re actually quite beautiful.

From what little I gleaned from glancing through the gallery labels (I didn’t have the energy to actually read them word for word; normally I would have taken photos and read them later), these represent a next step in woodblock printing, which I think I’ve either never heard of at all or if so only very briefly. Hiroshige II (d. 1869), a son-in-law of the Hiroshige famous for his c. 1830s landscape prints, was apparently also known as ”Chabako Hiroshige” 茶箱広重 (“tea crate Hiroshige”), and produced images of flowers or other designs for tea boxes.

Images of birds and flowers for tea boxes (chabako-e 茶箱絵) were also produced by artists such as Utagawa Yoshitora. These early tea box images were printed on a relatively thick paper as was typical for ukiyo-e. Later in the Meiji period, a thin ganpi paper came to be more typical. While earlier boxes were made of wood, with the images or labels stuck right on them, in Meiji the boxes came to be wrapped in a reed/straw material called anpera アンペラ.

Though I suppose it makes sense once you think about it – woodblock printing was the dominant printing technology in Japan at the time – it’s interesting and somewhat surprising to realize there was such a straightforward connection between this tradition that we today consider “art” (or even “fine art” or “high art”) and the very commercial matter of labels for export crates. Then again, on the other hand, we must remember that ukiyo-e woodblock prints were, for the most part, a commercial endeavor to begin with – very much a popular art.

Standard woodblock printing techniques were used for making the images to show on these export teas, and then Western-style typeset – “Dutch letters” 蘭字 – was used for the English or French words. What I found particularly striking is the second of the two galleries, as large as the first, but dedicated solely to designs for export teas to North Africa. When we think of “export art,” or export trade at all really in Japanese history, we’re typically thinking of Japan and Europe or Japan and the US. In other words, Japan and “us.” I don’t know what to say exactly about how that functions from the Japanese point of view – something about Eurocentrism and Occidentalist aspirations, I’m sure.

Labels for Japanese tea exported to French-speaking North Africa.

But, now, in addition to the designs marketed to the English-speaking world, we have all these designs aimed at a French + Arabic world. Japanese prints on Japanese tea, with sometimes very Japanese designs (eg a geisha), and other times Arab / North African scenes of mosques, camels, and so forth. Text in French and Arabic. I’m not really sure what to say except that it was a surprise, and quite striking. It’s romantic,* if that’s the right word, inspiring all sorts of thoughts and images of a stereotypical imagined North Africa… I have to wonder how this functioned in North Africa itself; was this a matter of appealing to the (white) French colonial community, and somehow making the tea feel more authentically part of the experience of being in North Africa? It’s interesting to see that on many of these labels, if not all of them, references to Japan or to any sort of Japanese motifs are largely or completely absent. If these designs were designed with the (Black/Arab/native) African consumer in mind, then the question of the design choices becomes a little less obvious. Is there an effort to make the tea seem like a normal part of local goods, not off-puttingly exotic/foreign? Perhaps. To a Moroccan or Algerian or Tunisian eye, do these images appear Orientalist, or just normal, typical of the motifs that are prominent/prevalent in their own culture? The fact that many of these labels are labeled not only in French but also in Arabic would seem to suggest to me that it’s not being marketed solely to a French (white) audience. But, then again, I’m in no way an expert on North Africa, the Middle East, French Empire, so I could be totally wrong.

Meanwhile, we read in the gallery labels that someone from the Japan Black Tea Corporation 日本紅茶株式会社, based in Shizuoka, brought back from Morocco some kind of guidebook for producing “Dutch” lettering (described in the gallery labels as 蘭字制作の指示書). Offset Ranji type 平板印刷=オフセット印刷の蘭字 was then used until 1960. It was stuck onto 貼る either Manila hemp マニラ麻 or veneer ベニヤ板. So, the connections with North Africa weren’t just one way – this wasn’t merely one of many places that tea was exported to. The connections were a bit stronger, and more complex.

As we learn from a fascinating lecture given by Japan historian Dr. Robert Hellyer (below) at the Kyushu National Museum in 2017 as part of the Ishibashi Lecture series, in the late 19th century up into the 1900s-1910s, as much as 80% of the tea grown for sale in Japan was exported to North America, and something like 90% of the tea consumed in the US was imported from Japan. So the ties were extremely strong. Hellyer suggests that such a high proportion of high-quality sencha was exported that the vast majority of Japanese people at the time had to content themselves with a lower-quality bancha tea. Of course, not everyone in the US could afford the top-quality sencha either, and so Prussian blue – the artificial pigment used to make the blue in Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and so many other ukiyo-e prints – was added to help make poor-quality tea look greener. How about that.

What’s really interesting, and I think would be surprising for most US viewers, is that according to Hellyer (and I’ve heard this before, perhaps from Prof. Erika Rappaport), it was green tea and not black tea that really dominated in the 19th century United States. Yes, Japanese at tea pavilions at the World’s Fairs tried (largely unsuccessfully in the end) to convince Americans to stop putting milk and sugar in their green tea, but nevertheless, it was Japanese green tea that they were drinking. This, up until around 1920, when the British finally won out, tipping the scales of general American opinion and preference in favor of black tea grown in India or Ceylon.

As a result of such shifts, at some point in the early-to-mid 20th century, the main destination for shipping Japanese tea shifted from North America to North Africa and the Middle East.

It was kind of on a lark that I went out to this small museum in Shimizu, but I am so glad that I did. In addition to the ship models, this Ranji exhibit was fascinating, and the woodblock-printed labels themselves gorgeous. I wonder if any major art museums – the Met, the MFA, the Asian Art Museum in SF, LACMA – have bothered to collect any of these tea labels, or would ever think of doing so, or of hosting a temporary exhibition. I think American audiences would find it rather captivating.

Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates is open until Sept 6, at the Verkehr Museum, 2-8-11 Minato-machi, Shimizu-ku, Shizuoka City.

*Romantic: 2. of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality.
“a romantic attitude to the past”.
**The East India Company tea dumped into Boston Harbor in 1773 was black tea, though.

Above: Watching and listening to the Kamogawa flow along. There’s just something wonderful about the Kamo, bringing this relaxing, refreshing energy to the city.

Time has flowed so strangely these past X months since the pandemic began. It’s hard to believe that it’s been roughly seven weeks already since the state of emergency was officially lifted here in Tokyo on May 25. I have been fortunate throughout this time to have my health, and to remain employed and safely comfortable otherwise in my cozy Tokyo apartment. And I have been exceptionally fortunate that none of my family back home in the US have fallen ill, and almost unbelievably, even out of my hundreds of Facebook friends, only a handful so far as I know have fallen ill with this. So, I begin this blog post by acknowledging, of course, that my “journey through Covid” or my experience of “living with Covid” is a very different one from those who are suffering from the disease, or even those living in high hot spots, dealing with the stupidity of our fellow Americans. I am so sorry to you all, and I hope so sincerely and so deeply that, somehow, things turn around for the better soon.

Glancing back again at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s official Covid Information Updates site, the state of emergency was lifted after the number of new coronavirus cases (new positive test results) per day had remained around or below 15 new cases per day for about 10 days. Things were really starting to look like they were under control, and might remain so. My university gradually, cautiously, began lowering its own internal threat level and gradually, cautiously, reopening campus in stages. From Level 4 down to 3, then 2, then 1, and now level 0.5. Even at level 0.5, there are numerous policies and safeguards in place, and the number of people actually present on campus at any given time is a tiny fraction of what would be normally.

Chart of official numbers of new Covid-19 cases discovered each day by the Tokyo Metropolitan government, April to July 2020. Rising again from a low of 10-15 new cases per day in late May to nearly 300 on July 17 and 18. Apologies the screencap is a little wonky. Click through for more data.

Now, I don’t know if this was selfish or irresponsible or what, but I considered the situation and decided that if the numbers continue to remain low, and the campus continues to open up more fully, before long I’ll be back in a situation where I’ll be expected to be in the office fairly regularly, X days a week, so therefore, so long as I’m still officially working from home but the state of emergency is lifted, the numbers are low, now might be the best time to squeeze in a little travel. I was cautious about it, waited until I had some sense that hotels would be willing to have me. I looked at which museums were open, and took that as an indication of how safe people thought it was, to what degree things might be somewhat back to normal in a given city or region, and to what degree the trip might even be worthwhile – no point in going if half the museums, archives, etc I want to visit might be closed. And so, even as numbers began to trickle back up, I decided to go on a little trip.

In Kyoto, the numbers have been super low for quite some time. One day while I was there, there were four new cases that day. And I get the impression numbers have been in that range all week, and maybe even for weeks before that. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be bringing it from Tokyo, and of course I don’t want to be responsible for a new outbreak / cluster. I don’t want to get into a whole lengthy thing about how I could have (should have) possibly calculated the risk – based on what numbers? what data? – and made a more fully, truly, rational, responsible decision. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m just a guy. And I was most certainly not the only person traveling at that time.

Social distancing, Kyoto-style. Stay far enough apart that your umbrellas won’t touch. A sign I saw posted in Fushimi.

A lot of people in Kyoto were wearing masks, and most stores and other establishments had some kind of precautions set up. Plastic sheets hanging over the counters, to block customers and staff breathing directly on each other. Windows open and fans running. Far more places in Kyoto than in my experience in Tokyo explicitly asked me to use hand sanitizer or alcohol when coming into their establishment, and far more of them tested my temperature.

But, then, at the same time, a greater proportion of people in Kyoto than in Tokyo were not wearing masks, a greater proportion of restaurants were open for indoor seating, and a greater proportion of people were taking them up on that. Narrow as the sidewalks can be in Tokyo – outdoor sidewalk seating is not nearly as common a thing in Tokyo as in, for example, New York, though that’s changing this summer precisely because of this pandemic – there’s even less space in Kyoto to put out tables & chairs outside of a bar or restaurant.

My first day or two in Kyoto I was definitely feeling off-balance – to take a train for a few hours and suddenly be in a world where the pandemic, or at least the general widespread response to it, is at such a different stage. What do I do? Do I apply my Tokyo-based routines and standards and tell myself I won’t eat indoors anywhere? Or do I adapt to what everyone around me seems to think is probably safe enough? (Not that they – customers or managers alike – are experts either…) And then, when walking around in some slightly more out-of-the-way places, in small towns and hiking up stairs or hills at shrines and temples, when there’s just totally no one else around me and I’m frankly having trouble breathing through the mask because of my exertion and because of the humidity, it’s alright to take off my mask, right? There’s absolutely no one around me who would breathe in my droplets, my exhalation particles. … But then once you start doing that, you get to a place where, well, if I’m not wearing the mask outside because it’s just too hot, and sometimes I’m not wearing the mask outside simply because I’m eating or drinking something and thus granting myself an exemption to wearing the mask for those X minutes, but then I’m also not wearing my mask when I’m eating indoors because how could you wear a mask and eat, even though there are still other people in the restaurant with you, who may or may not be six feet away… Well, then when do you wear the mask, and doesn’t it start to feel a little … what’s the word? Arbitrary? Hypocritical? I was surprised to sometimes see waitstaff not even wearing masks. On the one hand, this made me feel better that they might be feeling scared to come to work, feeling they didn’t even want to be there; I put off thinking about traveling for quite a few weeks, maybe even months, because I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to any such situation, where staff didn’t want to be there, or didn’t want to interact with me. But, now, the situation was reversed! I did what I could to wear my mask so long as I was interacted with these waitstaff at all, so long as I didn’t actively have food or drink in front of me, but they didn’t seem inclined to take similar precautions, getting quite close up to me, close to my face, as they served the food or as they asked me “is everything alright?” And, frankly, it made me a little nervous.

The almost completely empty streets of the city center in Shimizu, Shizuoka. Of course I’ll wear a mask so long as it’s comfortable; I think if I remember correctly, I did wear my mask while walking around on this street, just by default. But if there’s no one else around….?

I met up with some friends, too. Wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to meet up, or if it was wrong of me to even ask. But I told them all, if they thought it was not right, if they thought it was not being careful enough, I wouldn’t hold it against them or anything. That’s perfectly reasonable, and maybe I’m the one who’s being unreasonable. It’s okay. Just say so. … But, people were willing to meet anyway. So, I met with one professor (for the first time, someone I didn’t know) and we sat a good ten feet apart or something, inside his office, masks off, with the windows open and the fan on. I met up with a second professor, who I do know, who I figured I might as well just knock on his door so long as I’m in the building. We talked out in the hallway, masks on.

I met up with a couple of friends for dinner (masks off, obviously) on the roof of their building, with the thought process that even if we were sitting less than six feet apart, at least we’re outdoors. I met up with another friend and spent the whole day with him, wearing masks as we walked through the streets and museums and so forth, but taking them off when we went into restaurants and cafes together.

Oh, and of course, there’s also the question of trains. For I don’t know how many weeks, here in Tokyo, I avoided the trains completely. Walked everywhere. Was afraid of the subways and other trains – and the stations – being a bit too closed in, even with the train windows open (does that really do anything?). But one night in Tokyo (many weeks before this trip), as I began on what would be a 45-60 min walk home from wherever it is I was at that time, the skies started to give me the feeling like it might open up and just start pouring at any moment. So I took the train. It was midday, some random hour on a random day. Not rush hour. And I was only on the train for about 10-15 mins. There was almost no one else on the train. Now, of course, if I had caught Covid, and if there were any way to know that it was because of that train ride and not because of anywhere else I’d been, then of course a 10-15 min train ride just to avoid getting wet would not be worth the risk. But… *shrug*. How are you supposed to make that calculation? How are you supposed to know what risks to avoid, and at what point to allow yourself to let your guard down and just stop making things extra difficult for yourself for what may (or may not!?) actually be an unreasonable level of caution? In the end, now, these many weeks later, it was fine. I never developed symptoms, not after that short subway ride, and not after any other particular outing. But since then, and especially since the state of emergency was lifted, I started taking the trains a little more frequently. Still staying home the great majority of the time (outside of this trip to Kyoto), and still walking most places. Avoiding rush hour. Avoiding buses. (Are buses more or less risky than trains? I have no idea.) It’s a bizarre thing this pandemic – it’s not only invisible, it’s completely imperceptible. There is no color, no odor, no way of knowing at all whether you’re entering a dangerous (infected) space, or whether you’ve been through one, or whether you’ve caught it. So, it’s tempting to say “well, I rode the train once, and I was fine,” but of course you don’t know if you’re fine until 14+ days after that, when you start to have symptoms. Or maybe you don’t have symptoms. So, I suppose that logically that uncertainty means we should all be staying in our homes still, isolating as strictly as ever, still. For months and months on end. But, what can I say? I saw plenty of other people riding the trains; I tried to take others’ behavior as indicative of what might be a “normal” or reasonable level of caution. I always wear my mask on trains, or indeed when out in public in general (with small exceptions, as I mentioned above), and I try my best to stay a good distance away from anyone else, as best as I can within a narrow subway car.

And then came time to actually make my trip to Kyoto. I got up early in the morning, so that I might make it to Kyoto before noon and still have a good amount of the remainder of the day to do stuff in the city. But almost as soon as I stepped out my door, I could sense it was like rush hour. Maybe only half as busy as a fully normal (pre-covid) Tokyo rush hour, but even so. In all my weeks of cautiously starting to ride the trains again, this was certainly the most busy. And then once I got on the Shinkansen, it was the same. Yes, I know that the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route is the busiest in the country. But, really? This many people are on their way to Kyoto or Osaka right now? Amidst a pandemic? And on *this* train, and not on the train X minutes earlier or the one X minutes later? It was far from packed, but it was most certainly not empty. Even so, I thought this might be safer than flying. Is it? I don’t know.

Even before I left for Kyoto, the numbers in Tokyo were rising again. From 10-15 a day for however many days straight, it was back up in the 50s, then the 100s, then the 120s-150s. Governor Koike suggested that people not leave the prefecture. Oops, I was already gone. And then the numbers exceeded 200! … But, what does this really mean? We come right back to where we’ve always been: Tokyo is testing in such a limited fashion, that it’s hard to know what this really indicates. And, whatever the numbers are, they kept saying that they were in identifiable clusters. That one day that there were four cases in Kyoto, they were all delivery men from the same KuroNeko (Japanese equivalent of UPS or DHL) office. And in Tokyo, at least half the cases each day were traced to the nightlife districts, to bars and nightclubs. And then I saw something saying that whatever the numbers of new cases each day, there were fewer than 10 people in all of Japan in the ICU right now due to Covid, and that there had been no deaths (identified as) due to Covid for days and days, perhaps weeks. So, what are we to make of this? Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop wearing a mask, stop being cautious, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going to start having big parties in giant unmasked crowds. But, at least so long as I was in Kyoto and Osaka, maybe it was okay to ease up a little, not be unduly strict with myself. If you can’t find any restaurants with outdoor seating, and everyone else is eating indoors, maybe it’s okay? …. But now that I’ve come back to Tokyo, I’ve resettled back into a routine of not going anywhere except to the grocery store.. and always with a mask, and always washing my hands when I get home… Is this excessive? I don’t know. Is it hypocritical, given that I was looser about such things while I was in Kyoto? I don’t know.

Should I feel okay about going out and eating indoors more now, because I’ve seen how things are okay in Kyoto and Osaka and Shizuoka? Or should I make an active decision to be stricter about it now that I’m back in Tokyo, because Tokyo’s the one place where numbers are high and still rising? Or should I not worry about it too much because even with the numbers still rising (and about half the new cases are now from outside of identified nightlife clusters), there are so few people seriously ill and so few people dying that maybe it’s overall more under control than we think? And because I’m not taking rush hour trains, not going to the office, etc.?

I don’t know.

But the whole point of this post isn’t to put my own irresponsibility out on display in public, or necessarily to stage a critique of the absence of good news information, but rather to just touch upon or contemplate how our experiences going through this are so dependent on our own internal thought processes.

In some respects, the situation hasn’t really changed at all for months. In other respects, it has – changes in numbers, changes in state of emergency policy. But internally, personally, we’re each making these decisions, do we feel safer going outside, or not? What are the ups and downs, the curve-trend-lines on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking around Tokyo

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

And I’m of course not the only one.

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

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

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

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

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

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

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

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

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 1, 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…..

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