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Shlepped myself out to Chiba last month, to the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku) to see their new temporary special exhibit, Umi no teikoku: Ryukyu 海の帝国:琉球 , which focuses on “medieval” Ryukyu from the perspective of Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama. These are the island groups to the north and south of Okinawa Island, each with their own distinctive histories and culture, that were forcibly brought under the sway of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15-16th centuries, where notions of being “colonized” by Okinawa can still today be heard, in contrast to notions of unity or solidarity as fellow Ryukyuans.

This is fantastic. It’s rare enough to see whole special exhibits dedicated to Ryukyuan history, and as wonderful and special as it would have been to do a Shuri-centered or Okinawa-centered exhibit (both in general, and in the wake of the fire at Shuri gusuku in 2019), it’s really something to see them do a show based on perspectives from outside of Okinawa Island. I have to wonder, when was the last time that any of the most major museums in the greater Tokyo area did a show focusing specifically on these “outer” parts of the Ryukyus? And, not only that, but as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, there a several current trends in Ryukyu Studies for reassessment of the Ryukyu Kingdom as an “empire,” reassessment of just how unified even Okinawa Island really was prior to the 15th or 16th century, and an increased focus on these outer islands and the differing perspective they can offer. So, as I’m sure the curators are well aware and did quite intentionally, this exhibit comes at an extremely timely time, in terms of its relation to current trends in scholarship. I know for myself, having enjoyed the privilege of visiting Okinawa quite a number of times but largely remaining centered in Naha, and outside of my trip to Amami last year, having never been to any of the other islands, I learned so much from visiting Amami, and sorely want to visit some of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas. Beautiful, fascinating, culturally rich places, and places which will surely provide new perspectives, new insights, on Okinawa.

Just walking into the gallery was a pleasure. I’m not sure whether I feel I should compare it to the feeling of seeing the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit at LACMA back in 2016, when the gallery was filled with special guests from Hawaiʻi, and it just felt like I was back in the Honolulu Museum or something; amidst a community. But there was maybe an inkling of a similar feeling that day last month, as I stepped into a space that made me feel as though I were transported to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Amami Museum. Made me feel like I was in a wholly different cultural space, learning about the local histories of a place far from Tokyo or Chiba, and seeing artifacts and topics discussed that would be exactly what’s expected from a (beautifully newly redone) local history museum, yet transported, transposed, to this national museum and made available, visible, to people in the metropole.

Furusutubaru ruins フルスト原遺跡 on Ishigaki Island.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

After a brief section of maps showing Japanese and European awareness of Ryukyu in the region, the very next section introduced us to the history of medieval settlements in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. Now, I suppose I should take a moment to mention, I’m using “medieval” here only as a standard translation or equivalent for the Japanese term chūsei 中世, used to refer to the period between (in Japan) roughly 1185 to 1600. As it happens, there’s a discussion on the Premodern Japanese Studies (PMJS) mailing list right now about these periodizations and what we should call them and questions of just what was “medieval” about this period – of course, applying Japanese periods to islands with minimal Japanese contact yet at this point is even more iffy. But, for simplicity, I’m sticking with it. The exhibit uses the word 中世, as does the 2019 book Ryūkyū no chūsei 琉球の中世, which represents some of the newest scholarship on the subject, so I’ll just stick with it too.

In any case, apparently many of the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands feature the remains of chūsei-era settlements encircled with stone walls (石垣を積み上げた集落) in forms unlike anything seen on Okinawa Island. Archaeological excavations at these sites have uncovered large amounts of Chinese pottery, porcelains, and coins, and something about the relative absence of these same styles of porcelains from other islands or from mainland Japan at the same time strongly suggests to scholars that there must have been some kind of direct trade/interchange between the islands and mainland China at this time – i.e. these porcelains and pottery were not coming in via trade with Japan. The Japanese describes these materials as 白磁 and 青磁, literally “white porcelain” and “blue porcelain,” and to be frank I was a bit confused because these were most certainly not the “blue and white porcelain” we are most familiar with seeing – white porcelain decorated with bold cobalt blue designs. Now that I’m home and writing this up, I googled and found that 白磁 refers to a plainer white porcelain (without cobalt blue designs) and 青磁 to celadon, which is like a lightbulb moment – makes a lot of sense, since when we read about medieval Ryukyu or Japan in English, we hear a lot about celadons. In any case, shards and scraps of such porcelains were overwhelmingly the most numerous artifacts in the exhibit. The exhibit notes that it’s unclear exactly what the islanders traded in exchange for these Chinese goods, but Korean castaway accounts record indigo dyeing in the Yaeyamas, and it’s believed that textiles, lumber, and grain are likely candidates.

These settlements mostly seem to have appeared around the 13-14th centuries, enjoyed their peak in the 14-15th centuries, and declined and disappeared in the 16th. I didn’t read every word of every label, and I’m not taking the time to check again in the catalog (which I bought for a surprisingly reasonable 1300 yen), but I’m pretty sure the exhibit didn’t talk explicitly at all about the ethnic (for lack of a better word) origins or character of these people.

In his 2019 book Maritime Ryukyu, Gregory Smits argues (based on the work of Okinawan and Japanese scholars too) that most of the big-name figures in medieval Ryukyu history, including in Miyako and Yaeyama, were likely not “indigenous” islanders in the sense of being some completely different ethnic group from the Japanese, but rather were likely wakō sea lords, likely of Japanese descent, who had come into the islands and established themselves there only a generation or two or three earlier. Overall, he suggests that “the Ryukyuan people,” such as they are understood today, are descended primarily from a number of successive waves of migrations into the islands from Japan in the 11th-15th centuries, completely displacing or absorbing the non-Japonic (Austronesian? Filipino?) indigenous peoples who may have been there previously. Scholars such as Mark Hudson, similarly, suggest that while up until a certain point the islands were inhabited by Austronesian or perhaps pre-Austronesian peoples2 with stark cultural differences from the Japonic peoples of the northern and central Ryukyus, isolated to a certain extent by the Kerama Gap – a large span of ocean between Okinawa and Miyako in which there are no islands – the indigenous languages spoken on all the southern islands in early modern and modern times are all related to one another and to Japanese – they are not Austronesian languages.

Given the implications for popular and scholarly understandings of just who the peoples of these southern islands are today, and who they were centuries ago – indigenous Ryukyuans? indigenous peoples distinct from the Okinawans who invaded them? descendants of Japanese migrants? – I was a bit disappointed, and frankly confused, that unless I missed it, I don’t think the exhibit actually talked about who it was that occupied these 13th-16th century (pre-Ryukyu Kingdom) settlements at all. Still, it was fascinating to learn about these, and to learn the names of specific ones; many of these stone-walled ruins later became sacred sites, which islanders respect as associated with their distant ancestors, performing ceremonies or ritual acts of respect or honor, apparently in ways (traditions) unrelated to Okinawan religion. Very interesting. And now that I know the names of these sites (incl. Furusutobaru on Ishigaki, Komi harbor on Iriomote, and Mishuku & Mashuku mura on Hateruma), I can add them to my list of places to hopefully visit someday.

Model of Yoron gusuku. Property of Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Image from this Asahi shinbun article, because god forbid Rekihaku should make any effort to grant visitors permission to take photos of things in Rekihaku’s own collection, or to secure permission from other museums for visitors to take photos of what’s not even a precious historical artifact but only a model.

The exhibit continued by then jumping from the Miyakos and Yaeyamas in the south to the Amami Islands to the north of Okinawa. We got to see a nice model/diorama of Yoron gusuku, which I had not known about. And which I now wish I’d snuck a photo of, since the image in the catalog is terrible. Not that I would have had a chance to see this gusuku on my 45 min layover or whatever it was on Yoron last year, but, well, one more place to know about to try to visit in future. The northernmost of the large-scale Okinawan-style gusuku fortresses (i.e. akin to Zakimi, Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Nakijin on Okinawa Island), Yoron gusuku apparently still has some significant remaining ruins of stone walls, occupying two or three levels stepping up along the side of a cliff, in the southwestern portion of Yoron Island, facing Okinawa (the next island to the south). According to the exhibit, legend says it was built by Okinawan-based rulers (i.e. the kingdom of either Hokuzan or Chūzan) in the 15th-16th centuries, but archaeological evidence suggests it was built earlier. This is just my amateur opinion, but if a fortress is facing towards Okinawa, seems to me more likely it was built as a watchtower and defense against the Okinawans than being built by them, no? In any case, perhaps this is just one more example of (1) Okinawa-centered narratives, and (2) speaking more globally, narratives which presuppose that the most dominant culture in a region must have built X, because surely the local indigenous people couldn’t have done so. … Of course, that said, it’s also quite possible that “local indigenous people” had less to do with this than, again, sea lords (brigands/smugglers) of some sort.

Moving on, the exhibit talks briefly about the early history of Kikaigashima (Kikai Island), saying that the ki in the name of the island was originally written with the characters 貴 (ki, precious, valuable) or 喜 (ki, rejoice, take pleasure in), because of its association with the shimmering, precious, turbo (turban) shells (J: yakо̄gai 夜光貝) which were a highly-prized and widely traded luxury good in the region in ancient times. Kikai and the surrounding islands were apparently regarded even in ancient times by the Dazaifu (the branch headquarters in Kyushu of the imperial government in Kansai) as being in some way part of the territory of the Yamato state (i.e. “Japan”) – as it’s phrased in the gallery labels, 「南九州の領主、内の世界とし自分たちの所領として確保」. Still, that said, the earliest record of an island by the name of Kikaijima is an entry from the Nihon kiryaku 日本紀略 corresponding to the year 998, in which Dazaifu orders the capture of “nanban” 南蛮 – southern barbarians – from Kikai. Based on a document from the previous year called Shōyūki 小右記, scholars apparently understand that “Nanban” here refers to Amami Islanders (even though the same term is much more familiar to most of us in Japanese Studies as a term referring in the 16-17th centuries to Europeans).

By the late 12th century, Kikai became a place for the Heian court or the Kamakura shogunate to exile people. It then became common to replace the “esteemed” 貴 or 喜 in the name of the island with the character 鬼 (ki, demon), making it Kikaigashima 鬼界ヶ島 – the Demon World Island. There were a number of prominent historical figures exiled there over time – one of the most famous being the monk Shunkan, who got in trouble for plotting against Taira no Kiyomori (top samurai puppetmaster of the imperial court at the time) in the 1177 Shishigatani Incident, and whose grave can still be found on Kikai today. I sorely regret not visiting when I had the chance a year ago, when I was on Amami; if I’d planned my time better, or had just one more day, I could have taken a little boat over to Kikai, poked around the sites, and come back all in one day. I think. Maybe.

1306 shobunjо̄ associated with Chikama Tokiie. Reproduction owned by National Museum of Japanese History. Image taken from somewhere on the internet because, again, god forbid the museum should allow photos of an object in their own collection, which isn’t even an original artifact but is merely a reproduction.

In any case, the exhibit then jumped ahead a few centuries to show a series of documents indicating the progression of which of the northernmost Ryukyu Islands were regarded as included within Japanese – really, Satsuma province – spheres of authority or conceptions of outright territory, and how this changed over time.

The first is a shobunjо̄ 処分状 – a document dividing up [territory] – associated with Chikama Tokiie 千竃時家, a gokenin (houseman?) for the Kamakura shogunate, c. 1306. Originally from Owari province (Nagoya), he was appointed jitôdai (steward?) of Kawanabe district in Satsuma province (basically, somewhere in the western fork of that southernmost part of Kyushu, south of Kagoshima castle-town). This was really interesting to see, for two reasons. Firstly, according to the interpretative information on the gallery labels (I couldn’t read through the document on my own), the document somehow shows an awareness or acknowledgement at the time that Kawanabe district or Satsuma province collected revenues and resources (収益と資産) from the islands of Kikai, О̄shima, Erabu, Tokunoshima, Yakushima, and “the seven islands” (a reference to the Tokaras), but did not control / administer (支配) those islands. So, that’s really interesting. I’d have to read up more – I’m only learning a lot of this for the first time – but it would definitely be interesting to learn a little more extensively just how territory or the bounds or extent of “Japan” was imagined or regarded at this time. The second piece of this that was really interesting was that the document then divides up those revenues or resources among the members of Tokiie’s family – *including his wife and daughters*. I suppose I did know on some level that elite women had quite a bit more social rights and privileges in earlier periods, e.g. pertaining to inheriting headship of a family, owning land, calling for their own divorce. But, again, this is way outside my field and period of specialty, so… it’s interesting to see how women may have been included in this, with seemingly some sort of rights to actually be granted, or to claim, a share of the family’s revenues or inheritance or whatever it may be. If anyone reading this knows gender politics in medieval Japan better, please do let me know your thoughts or knowledge on this.

The next was a document from 1227, associated with Fujiwara Yoritsune, which documents the transfer (譲与) to Shimazu Tadahisa (d. 1227) of the position of jito (steward) overseeing the twelve islands (the five Kuchi islands 口五島 and the seven islands 七島).1 A document from 1363 in which Shimazu Sadahisa describes the territory he is granting to his heir Morohisa acknowledges the “twelve islands plus the five islands” (which islands? beats me) as being attached to 付随 Kawanabe district. So, basically, we’re seeing Shimazu claims to territory – or to rights to revenue, or something – gradually increasing. From these documents alone, of course, it seems arbitrary and one-sided, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true; but we don’t have the in-between information, or, at least I didn’t happen to notice such information in the gallery labels.

The exhibit devoted quite a bit more space than I would have expected to developments on Okinawa Island. I suppose that this is likely due to either my misinterpreting the theme – it’s “empire of the sea: medieval [Ryukyu] as seen from Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama,” i.e. an exhibit focusing on the “empire” and not solely on those “outer” island groups. Or it could also be in part because of a lack of artifacts, documents, or content to share if they had focused more exclusively on those islands; also, given how infrequently the museum does special exhibits on Ryukyu, perhaps they also felt they just had stuff they wanted to share.

The Engaku-ji bell as pictured in the exhibition catalogue. Because, again, no photos allowed in the gallery for god knows what reason.

One particularly striking item, which I was surprised to learn about, was a bell from Engaku-ji 円覚寺 – the Zen Buddhist temple located just below Shuri gusuku – which includes in its inscription the phrase Shо̄ Shin teiо̄ 尚真帝王, using the character 「帝」for “emperor.” What. Wow. While I’m beginning to be convinced that Ryukyu functioned like an empire in certain ways, in terms of the way the center extended its power over the peripheries, etc., I had always fallen back on the argument that Ryukyu very explicitly had a “king” 国王 whose legitimacy was invested in him by the Emperor 皇帝 in Beijing, thus making him a “king” of a “kingdom,” and not an “emperor” of an “empire.” But, if Shо̄ Shin is explicitly calling himself teiо̄ 帝王, then that complicates things a bit. Hmm. Food for thought.

The exhibit continued in the back corner of the first gallery, where we were treated to a brief overview of early developments on Okinawa Island itself. Migrations from Kyushu and elsewhere around the 11th century spurred the introduction or expansion of agriculture and a shift away from more exclusively hunter-gatherer / fishing lifestyles; in connection with this, many settlements began to move inland from the coast, i.e. towards agricultural land and not only grouped up on the coast where fishing and other maritime activities could be the sole / primary source of survival. This was when we began to see post-construction homes and storehouses, it seems.

Then, in the 14th century or so, gusuku. Though most gusuku today are known most famously or most iconically for their winding stone walls, it makes sense that the earliest gusuku (like early medieval fortresses in Japan) began with wooden fences and the like, before stone walls became a prominent feature in later decades/centuries. The exhibit devotes a little space to highlighting the Mekarubaru settlement as an example of one site from this time. Dating to roughly the 12th-13th century, digs at Mekarubaru have uncovered great amounts of Chinese pottery and porcelain, an indication of the interconnectedness of even these slightly less-central settlements into region-wide trade networks. Sadly, the site of Mekarubaru (near Ameku, in what is today northern Naha City) was largely destroyed during the establishment of US military bases on the island in the late 1940s or later. Sadly, a very common story in Okinawa and around the world. (Interesting to see how when one Googles “US military babylon,” the first three results are an article from the UK-based Guardian entitled “Babylon wrecked by war: US-led forces leave a trail of destruction and contamination in architectural site of world importance,” and two from US-based news agencies, with much softer, hedgier, headlines: “U.S. troops accused of damaging Babylon’s ancient wonder” and “U.S. admits military damaged Babylon ruins.”)

Model / diorama of Naha harbor. To the right we see the two fortresses of Mii gusuku 三重城 and Yarazamui gusuku 屋良座森城, which guarded the entrance to the harbor. On the left, Umungusuku 御物城 hanging out in the middle of the water – this was iirc a relatively general storehouse, while the one near the bottom left corner of this image is Iо̄gusuku 硫黄城, the sulfur storehouse.

Finally, the last section of the exhibit focused on how goods (tribute or taxes) from the various islands were brought into Naha harbor, and where they were stored. There were a couple of gorgeous models of the harbor, with each fortress and warehouse labeled, which I sorely wish I had snuck photos of, since I didn’t realize they weren’t going to be depicted well in the catalog, and since I have never seen these on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (which owns them). I am not really properly expert at the urban history of Naha, but I’ve spent enough time in the city – including walking around to as many historical sites as I can – that I have a pretty good sense of the basic geography. As a result, as someone who does have some sense of the geography, I found it particularly interesting and meaningful to see on these models and on maps/diagrams just where each of these different sites had been located. The Iо̄ gusuku 硫黄城 warehouse for sulfur (iо̄ 硫黄) from Iо̄torishima, which I’d already known vaguely of, was in the area of the city known as Watanji 渡地, and what I didn’t know is that another warehouse was quite nearby – known as the Miyako-gusuku 宮古城, it held goods shipped in from the Miyakos.

Finally finally, we saw a few of the original handwritten notebooks of Ifa Fuyū 伊波普猷, “father of Okinawan Studies.” Like those of Kamakura Yoshitarо̄, these are just beautiful. I wonder if I could get a chance to see them in person; they’re held at the Hо̄sei University Okinawan Studies Center, here in Tokyo, which is certainly easily accessible. But, I always get nervous requesting to see items that I don’t actually have a serious research reason to see… and especially things like these. I mean, it’s funny – they’re 20th century items; a lot younger/newer than most of the original historical documents I handle. Newer, in fact, than most of the hand-copied manuscript copies that are just sitting on the shelves at my own Institute. But, even though, they’re fragile and precious… One thing I do think I’ll be able to get access to, though, is a set of illustrations or paintings which are held by my own Institute and which I had no idea about, depicting shrines, temples, and various other locations in Naha.

I’m not sure I have anything to say to wrap this up… It was fantastic to see an exhibit focusing on Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama, and to learn more about these “outer” islands of the archipelago. The Ryukyus are marginal enough in Japanese history (and all the more so in world history) – to get to learn about these fascinating different islands, deepening my understanding and appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within Ryukyuan or Japanese or East Asian history, was just great. It’s a shame the exhibit wasn’t larger, and didn’t allow photos. To be honest, it felt like sort of a start, a gesture in the direction of that there might be a fuller exhibit at some point… but it is most definitely a start.

The exhibit is still open until May 9. National Museum of Japanese History 国立歴史民俗博物館, a short walk from Keisei Sakura station [1 hr from Ueno; 20 mins from Narita Airport, by local train], in Chiba.

——-

1 The seven islands here again refers to the Tokara Islands. The five Kuchi islands, I’m assuming includes Kuchinoshima and Kuchinoerabushima, but which other three I’m not sure.

2 The idea that the peoples of Sakishima prior to Japonic migrations were Austronesian means they were descendants of people who came into the Yaeyamas and Miyakos from Taiwan; it means they would have been ethnically or culturally related to the indigenous groups of Taiwan today, and a bit more distantly but nevertheless related to Micronesians and Polynesians who settled the Pacific. “Pre-Austronesians” here means they may have been descended from peoples pushed out of Taiwan when those Austronesian (today “indigenous” or “aboriginal”) groups gained dominance.

Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Back to a manageable, pleasant level of crowds. This is more like what it was when I came to Tokyo the first time in 2003; in recent years, it’s gotten so packed-solid crowded with tourists that it’s become an area to avoid. But during Covid, ironically,
it can be enjoyed again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with this blog in any way. So, starting to catch up a little. Here’s a post I wrote way back in October, but it’s basically still true today.

I’ve been in Tokyo for more than a year now. Almost a year and a half. I can’t believe it. The longest stretch I’ve ever spent outside the US.

Of course, this is like my eighth time or something being in Tokyo, so it’s not the same as almost any other city…

But what does the city feel like after being here for so long? In some respects it feels too ordinary, like I’ve gotten used to it and it’s lost a sense of adventure to some (albeit only partial) extent. But at the same time, I do still very much feel like someone still finding their feet. Like someone who’s still visiting, or who hasn’t necessarily gained a deeper, stronger familiarity with the city than a year ago. Granted, I think a lot of this has to do with the Covid situation. Here in Tokyo, we’ve never had a real serious lockdown, and we still don’t now. Even during those weeks/months when I was more seriously trying to avoid public transportation and to avoid sit-down restaurants, etc., even at those times I still went for walks, experienced the city in a sense. I wonder how my familiarity with the city, my feeling of living here, might be different if this pandemic never happened, and if I might have spent more of this past year and a half more actively hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and museums and so forth in a more lively fashion; then again, we’re researchers and full-time workers, and so forth, and even in non-Covid times it probably would have been a lot of just day-in day-out regular workdays.

In any case, with the pandemic or without, on some level I suppose I have gotten more familiar with, more used to the city, but that said, it feels more ordinary, not less. I might have expected that gaining the cultural capital of being so familiar with Tokyo would feel cool, amazing, empowering, but instead it just feels ordinary. 

The imperial palace moat at Ichigaya. An area deeply nostalgic for me from my very first time in Japan.
I never tire of seeing the trains running right along the water.

Sure, I can go visit anywhere in the city and find my way around no problem, but I could do that before. And I’m not too unfamiliar with various archives, etc., even having some sense, some image in my mind of what’s nearby in each neighborhood. I can walk around in certain neighborhoods – certainly not the whole city! but certain areas – and just sort of know what’s around the next corner, or where to find a bathroom nearby or whether there’s a good café I know nearby. 

And I don’t think my language skills have gotten all that much better in the one year I’ve been here. I’ll blame it on the pandemic, that I’ve been spending so much time isolated away. And I do plan on taking sanshin classes and/or Uchināguchi classes once we can, and I very much hope that that might be a good angle for improving my Japanese by meeting and interacting with Japanese classmates. But in the meantime, I dunno, it’s just a weird feeling to think about being here for a full year, and what my relationship with the city has become.

Akamon, the famous red gate of University of Tokyo’s main campus.

Thanks to Risako Sakai for sharing this article from yesterday’s Okinawa Times (17 Jan 2021) on Twitter:

There has been some progress in recent years in having universities and other institutions in Japan gradually begin to repatriate human remains (bones, etc.) in anthropology research collections back to Ainu communities; the Ainu situation still has its problems, with many universities having extremely poor records, poor management of the collections, and being very passive, half-hearted, and slow (if not outright resistant) to conduct proper investigations into the provenance of their collections or to begin the repatriation process at all; prior to Covid turning out world around, I witnessed protests outside the gates to University of Tokyo on exactly this point. Further, while some number of items have been returned to individual Ainu groups in Ainu Moshir (Ainu homelands, Japanese: Hokkaido), many have now been returned to the new National Ainu Museum Upopoy (opened in July 2020). Also known as 民族共生象徴空間 (roughly transated, “Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space”), a name which makes me roll my eyes and want to throw up, Upopoy has come under considerable criticism for being very much a national project, run by the state as part of some effort to pretend to show the state cares about the Ainu people, while not actually giving them the power to tell their own story, not sufficiently asking for or properly responding to Ainu people’s requests or desires for what they want from the national government (and from the museum), and so forth. It is my understanding, and please correct me if I am wrong, that the national government and/or the Museum is (mis)representing the Museum as in some sense belonging to the Ainu people, and that therefore remains placed in the collective memorial structure 慰霊施設 are considered “repatriated.” This is in contrast to, for example, the National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, DC, which I’m sure has its problems and its criticisms as well, but which is at least run through extensive involvement of Native American staff, curators, input from Native American Nations who actually agree to and/or recognize objects in the museum as counting as being “repatriated”, and so forth.

But, to get to the point, whatever progress is gradually being made with Ainu remains, the Ryukyuan peoples are still not officially recognized as indigenous peoples by the Japanese state, and efforts to get universities to repatriate remains stolen from Ryukyuan gravesites are seeing more foot-dragging, more obstacles and difficulties, and little progress. I’m a little embarrassed to admit, even as I read bits and pieces here and there about the Ainu case, I didn’t really think about Ryukyuan remains that might also exist in such university collections, that were also excavated (tomb-robbed); I especially didn’t think that there would be remains explicitly identified as relatives of the royal family, robbed from known and named tombs, still in university collections today.

In any case, here is my rough translation of the Okinawa Times article above:

Repatriation of Ryukyuan Remains Not Progressing ー Japan Failing to Keep Up with World Trends


The use or return of human remains taken from gravesites in Okinawa and Hokkaido for anthropological research purposes is becoming a problem. In a lawsuit calling for the return of [the remains of] Ryukyu royal family descendants held by Kyoto University, the university has not made sufficiently clear the conservation status or details of how/when they were collected [i.e. provenance] of these remains. Lack of transparency and … [?] of the management [of these objects] is emblematic of the state of Japan amidst global trends towards continuing returns to indigenous peoples.

Anthropological Research Kyoto University Collects

In the field of Anthropology, which spread from Western Europe, research also continues to progress in Japan, and in the 19-20th centuries, human remains were collected all over the country. Whereas excavation of shellmounds predominated in the mainland, in Okinawa and Hokkaido, which were de facto colonized by the Japanese government, there was also grave robbing of gravesites which were the sites of reverence and worship.

The remains which are under contention in the Kyoto District Court were collected in 1929 by Kyoto Imperial University Assistant Professor Kanaseki Takeo from the Mumujana gravesite in Nakijin village [in the northern part of Okinawa Island]. The university, based on writings by Kanaseki indicating he had the approval of the Okinawa prefectural government and police at that time, emphasizes that “the proper paperwork/procedures were followed, so it was not a crime.”

However, a survey performed by Doshisha University professor Itagaki Ryūta suggests there is a strong possibility that most of the remains were collected on Amami Ōshima and Okinawa in 1933, by lecturer Miyake Muneyoshi, at the direction of Kyoto Imperial University professor Kiyono Kenji. The numbers assigned to his Ryukyuan remains match those of 25 out of the 26 items under dispute. Kyoto University has explained that “Miyake and Kanaseki had a close friendly relationship, so it can be thought that Miyake, too, would have gone through the proper procedures in the same fashion,” but they have not found detailed records of the collection of these items.

The plaintiff, Ryūkoku University professor Matsushima Yasukatsu, is indignant that “there is no registration ledger for these remains, so even Kyoto University cannot clearly say who collected them. This is evidence that their management is sloppy and that they have not sincerely investigated the details.”
In recent years, through the advancement of DNA analysis techniques, the information that can be gleaned from bone has expanded, and research into the origins of the Japanese people is flourishing again. The Anthropological Society of Nippon in 2019 submitted a written request expressing the principle that “ancient human remains are cultural properties belonging to the people of the nation which have academic value. They must be conserved and made available for research.”

The Anthropological Society of Nippon, Japanese Archaeological Association, and others that same year, regarding the Ainu people who are recognized by the state as an indigenous people, also formulated a proposal (or draft) of guiding ethical principles demanding that human remains for which there is a possibility that they were looted without agreement [from the Ainu people] not be used for research. Prof. Matsushima argues “it’s a double standard; it’s discrimination against Ryukyuans.”

Overseas, a movement for conducting thorough investigations and returning remains to indigenous or formerly colonized peoples is growing. Kyoto University’s collection also includes remains collected in Taiwan and Korea, but their conservation status is unclear. Prof. Itagaki pointed out that “compared to overseas it is a remarkably passive stance. Kyoto University must be transparent, immediately conduct investigations, and discuss the methods for repatriating the remains, etc., in earnest.”


(inset box, left) Repatriation Problem
In the late 19th century, scholarship measuring the size and shapes of skulls in order to learn the state of development [process, advancement] or superiority or inferiority of different races spread, and the remains of people from various ethnic groups were collected. In a Ministry of Education survey, twelve universities in 2018 held more than 1500 items of Ainu human remains. Trials have resulted in objects being repatriated to Ainu groups in the regions they were taken from, or being placed in a memorial structure at the Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space (Upopoy). Surveys of the conservation status or [possibility of] repatriation for remains collected in Okinawa, Amami Ōshima, etc. are not progressing.

Glad to have learned about this. My thanks again to Sakai-san for re-tweeting about this. I have yet to read anything else about it, so I won’t go on and on speculating or commenting further, but will just leave this here for now.

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything at all, and many years, in fact, since I’ve posted anything on gender. For those new to my blog, please understand that I am not a Gender Studies expert, and I am not looking for trouble. I am just one man, just a guy, just one individual, thinking through thoughts based on my own gendered lived experience.

A TikToker who lists their name as リア充爆破しろ recently released a few videos complaining about how, because the West views Japanese men as effeminate or emasculated to begin with, their hopes of passing as male / masculine in the West (or in the US in particular) are especially difficult, if not impossible.

There’s a ton to unpack or respond to here, beginning with why they should think of any kind of femininity or softness as “emasculating” – i.e. as a negative thing – rather than thinking of it the way I always have, as being a much healthier view of gender or masculinity. I’m not saying that I’m right and they’re wrong – this is my own personal view, based on my own inclinations. But, the idea that any sort of weakness, gentleness, femininity, softness to any degree, is “emasculating” – i.e. an embarrassment, an attack on one’s masculinity – is one of the very key elements, in my understanding, of what makes masculinity fragile, and therefore toxic. If men think they need to be constantly posturing, constantly making a conscious effort to act manly, to perform manliness, for fear that even the tiniest slip-up will be seen as a crack in their masculinity, that’s one of the key elements contributing to why men can’t or won’t deal with their emotions in a healthy way, can’t or won’t treat their male friends / colleagues / others in a kind and caring and emotionally engaging way, can’t or won’t treat women with proper respect.

But, that’s a whole other conversation.

What really interests me here is the notion that American and Japanese culture have fundamentally different definitions of “masculinity” to begin with. What is and isn’t considered masculine, or feminine, within standard, mainstream, American or Japanese society?

In a second video, this same TikToker points out that the American ideals of manliness, stereotypically, include large, broad, heavily muscled bodies, thick body hair, thick facial hair. They don’t quite get into it, but we could name numerous other attributes – a rough, tough sort of character or personality; being emotionally reserved; being interested in and good at particular activities (hunting, fishing, cars, handyman sort of stuff) over others deemed effeminate; and so forth. By contrast, the TikToker says, in Japan this sort of “hypermasculine” image of the big, muscular, hairy guy is actually associated chiefly with gay culture (as is the imagined hyperfeminine guy). According to their video, Japanese ideals of normative masculinity basically fall into four categories: the bishо̄nen, biseinen, kakkо̄i, and kawaii (lit. beautiful boys, beautiful men, cool, and cute), which they don’t really unpack (it is only a 1-2 min TikTok after all), but they do give examples from which we can extrapolate what the stereotypical “types” are like, with some of the key features including a slimmer, more lithe frame, less facial hair, more focus on looking beautiful / handsome / cute / cool in various ways.

(Of course, while this might characterize certain ideal “types” of men in Japanese society – that is, idols, celebrities, Japanese ideals of men’s beauty or gentlemanliness, I wonder – in another digression – about standard mainstream notions of masculinity as they pertain to the average guy, the salaryman. What sort of ‘masculinity’ does the balding, alcoholic, exhausted, suit-wearing, salaryman match up to; I’m not interested here in getting into any discussion of the continued prevalence within the home of conservative notions of highly gendered gender roles between the husband as provider and the wife as stay-at-home caregiver, etc. etc., but that’s a whole other side of “Japanese notions of masculinity” that is surely of some pertinence, even as I choose to put a pin in it for now.)

Thinking of the TikToker’s characterization of differing ideals of male beauty, or masculinity, this is precisely where I’ve always gotten stuck. To my mind, as an American, because of my upbringing and the social/cultural norms that I was raised with, I see these handsome/cute/cool men and I think that Japanese culture/society (and S Korea, and probably to a certain extent Taiwan and maybe some other places too but let’s not get into it) offers a lot more allowance for men to be more feminine or effeminate. I touched upon this in a post way back in 2013. But to the small extent that I’ve spoken with (or in the case of this TikTok, simply heard from) Japanese or Korean people speaking explicitly to this point, I get the sense that to their minds this isn’t femininity at all, but is simply a part of their Japanese/Korean conception of masculinity.

I so desperately want to unpack this, and get a better sense of what we’re actually talking about here. Of course, it makes sense that different cultures would have different conceptions of something as culturally constructed as masculinity. But just what is that Japanese or South Korean conception of masculinity, and how can we talk about it without shared, mutually understood, agreed upon ideas of what features or characteristics are ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine,’ ‘manly’ or ‘boyish,’ etc.?

Now, I know I’m complicating things by mixing up Japanese and S. Korean masculinities and not doing my due diligence to distinguish between them, but, if you’ll forgive me and bear with me… If I look at, for example, K-pop star G-Dragon in his “Crayon” video from 2013 – not particularly tall; slim frame; wearing eye makeup and I presume some sort of concealer/foundation; dyed and carefully styled hair; wearing Wonder Woman pajamas for part of the video, a cutesy little boy outfit playing on a rocking horse for one bit, and full-on disguised as a girl in a long blonde wig in another bit; not to mention the ample use of rainbows – I look at all of this and I see a man who isn’t afraid of looking boyish, girly, feminine, soft, and I want to talk about that, and interrogate it, but then my Korean friend says that all of that is just part of masculinity, and that he’s no less masculine, no less of a man, than anyone else.

Now, maybe we’re just talking at cross-purposes, but I’m trying to suggest that there’s perhaps – at least in some respects – something less toxic going on here. Is there? Maybe there isn’t. Maybe Japanese and South Korean masculinity is just as toxic as American masculinity, just in different ways, or in the same ways but just not in surface appearance / presentation. I honestly have no clue. Whatever minimal expertise I may have in certain aspects of Japanese history and traditional culture, I make no claims to know the private, complex, and diverse attitudes of people all across Japanese society. And, of course, I am all the more ignorant about S. Korea. But, just to hypothesize, just to pose the question, if Japanese and Korean men (and women) won’t judge each other harshly for presenting in a way that we as Americans would consider more effeminate; if Japanese and Korean men are able to relax and not have to posture so much to try to live up to some manliness standard; if their masculinity is therefore, as a result, less fragile, isn’t that something worth talking about?

Then again, perhaps posturing is still exhausting, it’s just that the standard is different? In a recent talk given online, Sharon Kinsella talked about many young men (teenage boys) in Japan now starting to encounter some of the same struggles with beauty standards that girls long have – on the one hand, we might see it freeing for boys/men to be allowed to want to look cute/pretty, and to experiment with hair styles, makeup, jewelry, without fear of the kind of homophobic or toxic masculinity bullying that their American counterparts may fear. But on the other hand, just as girls have experienced for generations, doing your hair and makeup is time-consuming, takes a lot of effort to learn to do right, can be stressful and competitive, and so forth. Knowing how to do your hair, makeup, etc. comes to be mixed in with standards of basic life skills, and a pressure to be at least half decent at it in order to not be seen as inept, immature, undisciplined. These days, at least for some Japanese young men if not others, there is a culture of seeing skill at hair, makeup, etc. as “leveling up” or “skill up” in a sense of personal improvement; young men who fail to put sufficient effort and discipline into their appearance are seen as ugly, undisciplined, perhaps in a way not dissimilar from how young women might be judged for not having the basic skills to maintain their appearance.

But, returning to my point from a little bit earlier, I find it very difficult to talk about these sorts of things if our baseline conceptions of what the words “masculine” and “feminine” even mean are different – it’s one thing to say that all of these elements are part of a healthy masculinity, that in Korea and Japan it’s more okay to be more soft / gentle / cute / pretty, and that it’s even okay to act or dress in overtly feminine ways sometimes (e.g. crossdressing as a joke, or even as a hobby, e.g. cosplay/crossplay/josо̄, which I’ll come back to) … But it’s quite another to deny that any of that is in fact feminine at all, and to not understand what one another mean when we talk about what is and is not “boyish” or “manly” or “girly” or [insert descriptor here]. To deny it – to have fundamental disagreements about what even is or isn’t “feminine” – means we might as well be speaking different languages. Hard to have a conversation if you can’t have a mutually shared vocabulary, and shared understanding of what those terms denote or connote.

These friends are brilliant people – far more well-read in Gender Studies, more insightful and critical and analytical than myself; truly smart people. But I felt sometimes like they didn’t even understand the premises of my question. Given their expertise, and their direct lived experience within the culture, perhaps it is my failing, my fault, for not being able to explain myself better. Still, their assertions that all of this, everything about the way that K-pop idols for example present themselves is all masculinity (including all the many aspects I might see as “feminine,” “soft,” or by whatever other term), … well, if that’s the case then, let’s talk about how it’s a different conception or construction of masculinity, but for some reason I never seemed to be able to have that conversation. I sorely don’t mean to dunk on anyone, that’s by no means the intention or purpose of this post, but certain friends seemed more interested in just taking it as given that they’re manly, perhaps (I’m not sure) implying that they’re just as toxic as any other men, that there’s nothing to admire about this, and that we should be asking different questions in different directions, e.g. how this is a performance for female fans, and how gay male fans and others outside of the explicitly intended audience receive it. That’s not what I’m interested in.

To be honest, I’m not positive what this line is supposed to say… something like “Beautiful men’s makeup lasts, continues to look good, even more so than women’s!” From an article on men’s makeup, including one man (lower left) who identifies as a “genderless man,” and who “even though he dresses as a woman, that doesn’t mean he wants to become one.” (女のコの格好はするけれど、女のコになりたいわけではない「男の娘」として活動するジェンダーレス男子。)

If in standard mainstream US notions of masculinity, men who wear makeup, who put more than a minimal amount of effort into styling their hair, men who wear pink or dress cute, men who dare to wear anything perceived as “women’s clothing” at all, are seen as deviating from, or even posing a threat to, those standard gender norms, and if societal pressures to not deviate, i.e. pressures to “be a man,” are intimately connected to the deeper problems of toxic masculinity, then what about these Korean and Japanese men, for whom dyeing their hair pink, wearing makeup and earrings, and behaving cutely and sweetly not only towards women but also towards one another in ways which American norms would rail against as unmanly and “gay”, are all far more societally acceptable and normal? Is there nothing at all worth saying about this?

With certain friends, every time I have tried to raise this issue – to try to suggest that from my vantage point, Japan and S Korea seem like safer, healthier, places to try to be a man, where one can be more beautiful / cute / stylish in certain ways without it going against social pressures and norms, inviting verbal harassment or even physical violence as it would in the US – those friends always bring it around to talking about American racist stereotypes about Asian men as effeminate – in other words, arguing that these men, who are slighter in build, less hairy, less afraid to wear makeup or dye their hair or reach for “cute” or “beautiful” rather than ruggedly macho aesthetics, are not in fact feminine or effeminate at all, that they are in fact totally masculine, and how dare I (or anyone) even begin to suggest otherwise? … So, rather than being able to get into an earnest conversation about different forms or conceptions of “masculinity,” instead we’re diverted into a conversation about racism and Orientalist stereotypes.

Or, they turn the conversation to how deeply homophobic South Korean society/culture is. And while Christianity is not nearly as widespread or powerful in Japan as in South Korea, homophobia is pretty strong here too. Of course, homophobia has relevance to this discussion, insofar as it is not simply a religious, societal, or moral aversion to the idea of men loving men, but is intimately intertwined with false assumptions about a linkage between sexuality and gender, i.e. a fear or hatred of male femininity, perhaps not only on an individual basis, but in terms of fear of some kind of societal breakdown, and of emasculation of the national body. There’s a whole lot to be explored in that direction, to be sure.

But, I still think it’s a distraction or a digression. On my previous post about K-pop and “Alternate” Masculinities, way back in 2013, a kind reader commented that “the reason that things that are considered ‘feminine’ in the west are accepted in SK is precisely /because/ SK is so homophobic, to the point where being gay wasn’t even considered a possibility until recently. Men in the states used to hug and kiss each other in the early 1900 in the states, where homosexuality was not talked about either. Acceptance of a feminine masculinity comes at expense of lack of acceptance of LGBT.” I think there’s a very strong possibility that they’re right here, that there is indeed something to be said about the way that homophobia and denial of the very existence of sexual or gender minorities – i.e. a general basic assumption that everyone is cishet – opens the door for a broader masculinity, in an ironic, backwards, and problematic way. That is to say, I can imagine that in some societies, because there’s a general societal assumption that no one is gay, therefore in an ironic, backwards sort of way, the stigma against looking or acting gay almost doesn’t exist. Men can be free to dress and behave in a wider range of ways (i.e. extending into what we in the US would consider effeminate) because there’s a general assumption that underneath those superficial behaviors, one is still a toxic male just as toxic + homophobic gender norms expect you to be. There is no risk of being perceived (negatively) as gay, because the possibility of actually being gay is so powerfully suppressed / denied. If you want to make some kind of argument like that, that homophobia in an interesting, backwards, sort of way, creates greater freedom of expression, I think there really might be something there, and I’d be interested to read more about it, or to explore it out in conversation.

If you just want to focus on how conservative and backwards and bad it is that South Korea (and Japan) are such homophobic societies, and … something about disconnects or difficulties in the intersection between K-pop fandom and the actual LGBTQ+ communities both in Korea and in the West, of course that’s serious and important in a social justice sense, and I would never seek to deny it. Homophobia and inequality and discrimination and so forth are, absolutely, major issues in S Korea and Japan. I have no doubt whatsoever that people who are genuinely LGBTQ+ in their sexuality or gender identity have a very hard time growing up in these cultures, coming out to their parents, being out in society, finding a partner… and my heart goes out to them. There’s a lot of progress still yet to be made, a lot of problems to be raised and addressed, to raise awareness of, to have sympathy towards, and to actively support activist efforts in that arena. Absolutely.

But that’s not the question I have been mulling over and seeking to raise for years, and which I am attempting to raise, if not to answer, in this blog post. The question at hand is, what is and isn’t considered “masculinity” in these two cultures? How can I, as an American, learn to understand how this is viewed within Japanese (or Korean) culture?

To take one example that’s somehow been on my mind lately, there is I suppose a growing popularity within Japan of the hobby of josо̄ 女装 – lit. “girl’s clothes,” meaning basically crossdressing. Sharon Kinsella identifies this as having gained popularity and some small degree of mainstream existence in the 2000s and especially in the 2010s, so I guess my own sense wasn’t mistaken. It’s fairly common within very particular contexts, e.g. school festivals or graduation parties, for boys to dress up as girls more or less as a joke, to put on a musical performance / dance number while dressed up as girls, and to laugh at the novelty of how good/cute – or how bad/awkward – the guys look in such outfits. That’s one piece of this, to be sure – you couldn’t do that in the States without people assuming you’re queer, or leaning towards queer, or something. And people will either verbally harass or even physically attack you, or they’ll be wonderfully supportive, but either way it’s still seen as outside the norm, outside of standard modes of masculinity, whereas in Japan, near as I can tell, it’s not seen as only something queer men do, it’s not seen as really all that out of the ordinary at all – it’s seen as just a costume, just a thing that’s done for fun, within particular contexts.

Indeed, even for those like the TikToker 1999abc5 (below), who engage in josо̄ more extensively, Kinsella writes that “most [who practice josо̄] described their cross-dressing as an amateur activity, like a hobby. … [Many don’t] like to see josо̄ from a gender perspective and only [focus] on fashion.”1

So, for someone like this, for those who are into josо̄ as a more regular hobby, not just for isolated events, I’m terribly curious:

(1) how common this is, or how niche,

(2) how it’s viewed by classmates, teachers, parents, general public folks on the street, as bizarre, deviant, etc., or perfectly acceptable – whether boys who dress up as girls are seen as queer/gay, whether crossdressing has the same sort of stigma as it does in the US of being associated with fetishism or sexual deviancy – do boys who engage in josо̄ get ostracized or made fun of at school? Are they seen as less manly, or not? Are they friends with the jocks or bullies or whatever you want to say – the manly men / boyish boys? Are they themselves jocks, bullies, whatever, with or without there being some conception of an incongruity there?

Is practicing josо̄ something embarrassing, to keep secret?

(3) in what contexts do people dress up? Do they dress up only in private, only with friends? Kinsella suggests that many do so in the way that certain sub-groups of (Western) TikTok and Instagram users do, dressing up chiefly at home, and chiefly in order to post photos, videos, or live-streams in order to appeal to friends and fans online? Do they crossdress in public, going out to cafés or clothes shopping or whatever in josо̄, and if they do, do they do so only in places like Harajuku, or just anywhere/everywhere? I know I’ve seen guys on the street from time to time, and even in, for example, the airport, so to some extent at least some people do dress in josо̄ just anywhere. How are these men viewed? Quite obviously I am sure there is the conservative element in society that will decry it, or simply not understand it, but, again, what do most young people think of it, or see it as? Is it like being goth/punk/emo? Is it more normal? More niche?

Kinsella is one of the few Western scholars who has investigated and written about this. But her scholarship goes off in different directions, and doesn’t actually address any of the questions that I’m most interested in. Not yet, at least; I must acknowledge that she is still in early or middle stages of her research on this, and while she gave a talk and published an article on this in 2020, there is supposedly a book and a documentary film on the way. So, I eagerly await those.

In the meantime, it’s definitely interesting and important to be made aware of the distinction between kawaii danshi かわいい男子 (“cute boys”) and josо̄ – i.e. that many boys/men use makeup, hair, clothes to pursue a cuteness that is still masculine, not trying to dress as or pass as girls. Through the work that Kinsella has shared thus far, we learn that even among those that do dress as girls, a lot of josо̄ practitioners don’t identify as gay, queer, or trans, and we get to read/hear a bit about how some see themselves as having a looser or more flexible gender, or a looser or more flexible masculinity, with or without identifying as “queer” or “x-gender” in the sense of the Western or international context of being LGBTQ+ // sexual and gender minorities. I thought it particularly interesting to hear how some otoko no ko 男の娘 (lit. “boy daughter,” or “a young woman who is a boy”) distance or distinguish themselves from more traditional notions of crossdressers, saying that their notions of cuteness, and of the appearance they want to embody, derives not from an imitation of, or aspiration towards resembling or becoming real girls/women in real life, but from a desire to embody a cuteness or look derived from 2D media (i.e. manga, anime, video games). This reminds me, actually, of some discussions I’ve read of the femininity embodied by onnagata – professional Kabuki actors specializing in playing female roles, who base their movements and mannerisms not on real women but on the onnagata tradition.

But, for all that Kinsella talks about the history of josо̄ in magazines and how it got sexualized, with certain terms getting coopted by the porn industry leaving crossdressers and gays to have to come up with new, less tainted, terms to refer to themselves, and new magazines and venues.. and as much as Kinsella talks about certain other angles, I don’t think she addresses the questions above, and I don’t think she gets at fundamentally the key questions of:

(1) how does the practice of josо̄, its acceptance or nicheness, attitudes towards it, etc. help us to understand how “masculinity” is understood, constructed, and performed in Japanese society today? And

(2) what’s the relationship between notions of masculinity or toxic masculinity and the practice of josо̄? What do josо̄ practitioners themselves have to say about the relationship between wanting to be cute/pretty/girly and perhaps wanting to distance themselves from or escape from norms and standards and pressures of masculinity that don’t suit them personally?

Are josо̄ practitioners just like other men? Is it just clothes, just a hobby, just for fun? Is it just a matter of superficial presentation? Or are they in some way internally – emotionally, or in terms of their personality or character – non-toxic, “good” men, of some sort? Is the practice of josо̄ in any way interconnected with a resistance against toxic norms of masculinity? During Kinsella’s online talk, a graduate student (I don’t know if it’s better to name them and give credit, or to leave it anonymous since I don’t have their permission…) raised the idea that for many men, masculinity seems to be a dead end, seems to offer no good answers. No guarantees of happiness or a good life. And so maybe embracing or incorporating or flirting/experimenting with femininity in some way might offer some kind of possibility of a different, happier, more successful, way of being? This is something that very much interests me. Let’s talk about how men struggle with, or against, gender norms; how boys might see being or becoming men unappealing; how they might question what there is to masculinity that’s not toxic masculinity. And how josо̄ might or might not be, for some of them, an attempt to find a way out. Kinsella, sadly, does not seem interested in addressing this – to the contrary, she goes so far as to compare josо̄ to blackface at one point, and to cultural appropriation, focusing as feminist discourse so often does on how men are a problem for women, rather than on how men are themselves human beings who face and struggle with their own gendered problems. [Though I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions and I’m not trying to call out all feminist scholars or get myself in trouble or anything like that. I consider myself a feminist, or at least an ally, too. I promise. Please don’t come after me.]

I’m sure there’s piles and piles of stuff one could read about Masculinity in Japan, starting perhaps with work by, for example, Sabine Frühstuck and James Welker. I sorely regret never having read almost any of this already, and for never having gotten into Gender Studies in any depth during my many years of grad school. But even so, I have to wonder what it is that I’ll find. If Kinsella’s pieces on josо̄ – and my conversations with various friends about K-pop – have been so off-target compared to what lines of questions/thinking I’m interested in, will these other scholars offer what I’m looking for, or will it be a wild goose chase of just continued disappointment? Perhaps there’s an opening for someone new (myself?) to take up these lines of inquiry, and to pursue it precisely along the lines I am myself interested in. But, of course, I have zero foundation of expertise in this, no experience or training in fieldwork, and plenty of work to do in my own Okinawan Studies corner…


  1. Sharon Kinsella, “Otoko no ko Manga and New Wave Crossdressing in the 2000s: A Two-Dimensional to Three-Dimensional Male Subculture,” Mechademia 13:1 (2020), 49-50.

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?