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Quick Links: Japan

(1) The fourth anniversary of the 3/11 Triple Disaster has now come and gone. Ima, Futari no Michi (roughly, “Today, Two People’s Roads”) is an anime short, just over five minutes, released a month or so ago, in conjunction with the anniversary. It employs Tôhoku voice actors, and tells the story of two young people who have come back home to Tôhoku to try to help with the recovery. It is available streaming for free via NicoNico only until mid-April; you can find it at Anime News Network. The link provides an explanation of the plot/content in English, but I’m afraid the video itself is not subtitled.

Meanwhile, in other Japanese history:

(2) The Japan Times reports on new research which shows that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was in London, not California. While the standard story has it that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was established in 1899 in California, work by Brian Bocking of the University of Cork, working with two other historians of Japan, has revealed the story of Charles Pfoundes, who educated thousands of people in Japanese Buddhism in his London home, beginning in 1889, a full decade before the California mission was established.

The main gate at the Yushima Seidô, center of Confucian learning in Tokugawa era Japan.

(3) Dissertation Reviews has a nice, thorough review of a dissertation on the Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan, by Doyoung Park. Park completed this dissertation at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) under Ronald Toby; I was particularly interested to come across this review having read an article by Park recently describing the attitudes of Korean envoys to Tokugawa Japan, regarding the Japanese scholars they met with, and the quality of Confucian scholarship in Tokugawa Japan.

Korean-Japanese relations today, and impressions of one another, are heavily colored by the brutal events of the first half of the 20th century, and understandably so. Yet, it should come as no surprise that relations were quite different prior to that. While Toby and others have written on Tokugawa efforts to make the Korean missions to Edo convey an impression of Tokugawa power and legitimacy, by representing the Koreans as having come to pay tribute to the Tokugawa shoguns, according to Park, the Korean envoys saw these missions as opportunities to show off their superior culture to the backwards Japanese. Even meeting with Hayashi Razan, one of the most famous and celebrated of all Japanese (Neo-)Confucian scholars today, Korean envoys wrote that “Razan seemed to have some trivial knowledge of Chinese history and culture, but his writing was crude and he did not seem to understand the real meaning of the scholarship,” and further, that “the writing ability of the sons of Razan is quite terrible. I do not understand how these poor scholars are able to work for the government” (Park, 12). I find this rather fascinating, and valuable, given that all I had read up until them about the Korean missions was from the Japanese Studies point of view; we in Japanese Studies, of course, think of figures like Razan as truly great scholars – genius-level talents, even, perhaps – so it’s great to get an alternative perspective, and to get a better sense of how Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Ryukyuan elites understood their position within the region, and perceived one another, at that time. The full article, “A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chosen Tsushinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan,” is freely available here.

As for the dissertation review, intellectual history has never been one of my strong points, but as my research begins to take me further into consideration of the classical Sinocentric world view, especially as understood and appropriated by the Japanese, and scholars’ understandings and usage of political ritual in that time, I have found myself of necessity reading more conceptual & intellectual history material – specifically on Neo-Confucianism – and actually finding some of it quite interesting. Park’s analysis of the rise of Neo-Confucianism in Japan, particularly surrounding Fujiwara Seika in the very last years of the 16th century, and the very first years of the 17th (at the beginning of the Tokugawa period), brings in some interesting ideas about Japanese, at least initially, not seeing themselves, or presenting themselves, as “Neo-Confucian scholars,” but rather as simply scholars advocating or considering Neo-Confucian ideas. The interaction between Neo-Confucianism and Zen, and the role of Seika’s interactions with Korean envoys in spurring the introduction and spread of Neo-Confucianism into Japan, are also quite interesting. If you’re interested in further detail, I invite you to check out the review; I will certainly be keeping my eyes out for Park’s republication of the dissertation as a monograph.

(4) Finally today, we have a blog post from Rekishi Nihon about Jokanji, the “Throw-Away” Temple of the Yoshiwara Prostitutes.

I explored the Yoshiwara area a little a few years ago. There’s very little to see there today – unless you know what you’re looking for, and I didn’t. The former site of the Yoshiwara’s Great Gate (Ômon) survives as the name of an intersection. A “backwards-looking willow” (mikaeri yanagi), a famous sight associated with the trip to the Yoshiwara, has been replanted and maintained there, but that’s about it. There are some traditional-style buildings off to one side, but I have no idea if they bear any historical connection to the Yoshiwara… The embankment (Nihon-no-tsutsumi 日本堤) which led to the gate similarly survives as a place-name, but throughout the area, at least of what I saw of it, there is absolutely nothing to be seen that’s recognizable about the geography/topography, and few if any historical buildings other than Buddhist temples. You can see this at the end of the Jokanji article, as the author shows a street from Hiroshige’s prints, as it looks today – a perfectly ordinary, undistinctive-looking Japanese street.

But, now that I’ve read about Jokanji, it’s one more place to take a look at the next time I’m in Tokyo. Some 25,000 women from the Yoshiwara were unceremoniously dumped after their deaths at the gates of the Jokanji, also known as “Nage Komi Dera,” (投込寺,) the “Throw-in Temple,” where they are thus now interred. While the Yoshiwara is celebrated as a vibrant center of the flourishing of popular culture – fashion, art, literature, dance, music – it very much had a darker side, as a center, by its very nature, of sex slavery, something that very much needs to be acknowledged as well. While the Yoshiwara looks glorious in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and literature, it was surely an extremely sad, difficult, and lowly life of exploitation for the women who lived and worked there. Amy Stanley’s Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (2012) does a great job of bringing out these issues… I look forward to reading more along those lines, in order to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what went on there, beneath the flash and glitz; and I look forward to visiting Tokyo again, and checking out some of these sites.

All photos my own.

“What’s Going On in Okinawa,” located at whatsokinawa.wordpress.com, has emerged in the last few months as a go-to site publishing English translations of Okinawan news. Run by a US-based MA student in Japanese-to-English translation, the blog provides a most valuable service, making Japanese-language news articles from the Ryukyu Shimpo, Okinawa Times, and other papers available to the English-reading audience.

While there is no shortage of English-language material on the ongoing military base conflict, written from an Okinawa-sympathetic point of view, and thoroughly well-informed on Okinawan history and conditions, if you know where to look for it – the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus is one such place – the average reader who knows about Okinawan matters only from the Economist, ABC News, Foreign Policy, and so forth, is going to get a very different impression. The major mainland Japanese papers, such as the Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun, also convey a rather different impression of what’s going on in Okinawa than the Okinawan newspapers. And while all of these different perspectives are valuable for having a fuller understanding of the situation, the Okinawan papers are, I would imagine, for most policy wonks and so forth who read only the policy-driven media, a crucial missing link in understanding both the Okinawan perspective on these matters, and what is going on on a day-to-day basis.

(In searching around for links with which to populate the above paragraph, I actually found that the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Japan Times, and quite a few other papers are actually quite balanced, or Okinawa-sympathetic. Which is certainly encouraging, though it does weaken my argument for the importance of this new blog. Nevertheless, I think the blog provides an extremely valuable service.)

To summarize what has been going on lately:

First, some background: The US military controlled all of Okinawa under martial law from 1945-1972, twenty years after the rest of Japan regained its sovereignty following the Allied Occupation. Though Okinawa has been restored to Japanese sovereignty, and to equal participation in Japanese electoral/representative democracy, the US military continues to control about 20% of the tiny island of Okinawa, and Okinawa accounts for something like 75% of the total US military presence in Japan. The US has been saying since 1996 – nearly twenty years ago – that they are going to close the noisome Futenma Air Base. However, the military (backed by Washington and Tokyo) have responded to Okinawan protesters not by closing the base any faster, but quite to the contrary by delaying and delaying, saying that Futenma will be closed when a new base is completed to replace it. Okinawans have shown their collective will, through democratic elections, through protests, and through news coverage and editorials, among other means, that no new bases be built /and/ that Futenma be closed. But, again, rather than take the blame themselves, the US military, and Tokyo, have placed the blame on the Okinawans, for delaying construction at Henoko.

Henoko is a site in northern Okinawa, more remote to be sure than Futenma, which sits right in the middle of the city of Ginowan like an off-limits militarized Central Park, but for most Okinawans, who live on an island smaller and more densely populated than Oahu, this is hardly remote enough. They want to see the bases – or at least some of them – removed from Okinawa Prefecture entirely. And, with Okinawa representing less than 1% of Japan’s land area, is that really so much to ask? There’s plenty of space elsewhere. Maybe on Tsushima, which, though smaller, is far less densely populated, and has none of the exploitative colonialist history that Okinawa does. Henoko is also home to the second most bio-diverse coral reef ecosystem in the Pacific, after the Great Barrier Reef – or at least it was up until construction started, last year – and marks the northernmost portions of the range of the rare Okinawan dugong.

Protest posters hung on the fences of Camp Schwab, at Henoko, Dec 2013. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent round of elections (in 2014), Okinawans elected an anti-base governor, in Onaga Takeshi, an anti-base mayor of Nago (the city where Henoko is located), and all anti-base representatives to the National Diet (Japan’s national parliament). I think the Okinawan will is clear. Out-voted and unheard in their own national political organs (much as Hawaii’s delegates are, on similar issues, in our own Congress), the Okinawan prefectural government has issued support for the establishment of a new think-tank and lobby group based in Washington, to make Okinawa’s voice heard. I find the organization’s name wonderfully snarky: New Democracy Initiative. The US claims that its military presence in Okinawa, and indeed around the world, is there to defend “freedom and democracy.” And yet, as we continue to squash the democracy and freedom of the Okinawan people, we really have to ask, “Security for whom?

While the US Marines have executed a variety of tactics to ensure that construction goes forward – such as bringing in trucks overnight when fewer protesters are around to block the streets – protestors have been demonstrating outside the gates to Henoko almost continuously since construction began last August (if not earlier). Despite freedom of speech and of assembly (i.e. peaceful protest) being enshrined in both the American and Japanese Constitutions, protesters at Henoko have been harassed, assaulted, and arrested, and both high-ranking American military officers and Japanese officials have laughed off accusations of such harsh treatment, going so far as to question the authenticity of the protests (suggesting many protesters may be plants hired by the Chinese Communist Party to cause trouble for the Japanese government), and to characterize the anti-military protests as anti-American “hate speech.” On February 22, just a few weeks ago, protestor Yamashiro Hiroji was physically grabbed and dragged across the pavement, off of Japanese land and onto base property, so he could be charged with criminal trespassing and arrested by security guards in the employ of the US Marines.

Protestors playing sanshin outside Camp Schwab at Henoko, March 4, 2015. Photo copyright Ryukyu Shimpo.

On March 4, “Sanshin Day,”1 protesters – including Living National Treasure Shimabukuro Eiji – played Okinawan folk songs, and protest songs, and managed to maintain their composure, playing peacefully even as police got “very worked up,” and forcibly removed the tarps protecting the protestors from the rain.

And, all the while, PM Abe Shinzo’s administration has been wholly unsympathetic, even willfully ignorant of the reasons behind the Okinawans’ demands or desires, painting them on occasion as petulant children, or even politically ignorant masses. (I have no idea if the term gumin 愚民 has actually been used, but as one of the standard terms used over 120 years ago when ex-samurai elites were arguing that the ignorant masses were incapable of self-rule, it would certainly bear some powerful resonances to imperialist and colonialist rhetoric of that time) Or, to make another comparison the Abe government should hopefully find embarrassing, they have been treating Okinawa like a “rogue province” which must be punished for its insolence – a rhetoric and policy stance not so different from Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan, at times.

Finally, the US military & Japanese government have hidden from the public the extent of the planned construction, sometimes lying about it outright. Concrete blocks have begun to be dropped into the ocean outside of the permitted area, damaging coral in violation of the permits, and while I can’t seem to find the article again at the moment, various blog posts and the like have expressed that the presence of the USS Bonhomme Richard would seem to suggest much larger or more extensive port facilities than the military had said they were going to be building.

Even as Nago city mayor Inamine Susumu and Okinawa governor Onaga Takeshi continue to work to find ways to repeal the permits granted by their predecessors – thus denying the national government and/or the US military use of Nago roads to bring in the construction trucks and materials – along with other legal and bureaucratic tactics, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga was quoted as saying:

“Our country is governed by the rule of law and our procedures are based on law. The permission for the landfill work has no legal problems at all, so our position to proceed with the work remains unchanged.”

thus showing, once again, the completely dismissive attitude and willful cluelessness of the national government when it comes to the issues most important to its citizens.

Much thanks to What’s Going on In Okinawa, for keeping us informed!!

1) The sanshin is a three-stringed banjo-like instrument which forms the core of most Okinawan music. “Sanshin” literally means “three strings,” and the development of the Japanese shamisen, essential to kabuki and Japanese puppet theatre, and to geisha & courtesan music, owes its origins to the introduction of this Okinawan instrument into Japan in the late 16th century. “Sanshin Day” is a rather unofficial holiday, but widely acknowledged or celebrated in Okinawa, as a result of the coincidence of 3/4 (i.e. March 4th), san shi in Japanese, sounding like sanshin.

Taiwanese Identity

My interest in Ryukyu/Okinawa has begun to pull me towards a stronger interest in Korea and Taiwan… or, perhaps it is an interest in the less-central, less-discussed, which brings me to all three.

A couple weeks ago I got to sit in on a class in Taiwanese “humanities”, as a guest speaker, T.Y. Wang from Illinois State University, gave an interesting talk on Taiwanese identity. It comes as no surprise to me to learn that over the last decade or two, the percentage of people who identify as “Taiwanese” has grown dramatically, while the proportion of people in Taiwan who identify as “Chinese” has shrunk to single digit percentage points. The vast majority (around 80% according to Wang’s numbers) support independence if it can be obtained without war, and similar numbers (70-75%) support what is called “Double Renunciation,” having Taiwan renounce any intentions to push for official de jure independence, in exchange for the PRC renouncing the use of military force against Taiwan – in other words, more solidly & officially reinforcing the status quo. (My sincere apologies, by the way, if I mistake or misrepresent any of this – I know this is a sensitive issue, and I am only just beginning to learn about it; so please do correct me.)

From the 1940s-80s, Taiwan was under the martial law of the KMT, a Mainland Chinese political party which in the 228 Incident of 1947, and the forty-year White Terror period which followed, imprisoned, “disappeared,” and on occasions even massacred Taiwanese elites who opposed their rule, or who were suspected of Communist leanings. Though Mainlanders (Han Chinese) make up only about 12% of the Taiwanese population today (I suspect numbers were similar in the past), with 10% Hakka and 77% Minnan, throughout this period they were the dominant group, inspiring much ethnic political tensions.

Authoritarian rule came to an end in the 1990s and was replaced by truer, freer democracy, resentment by Minnan and Hakka people about being ruled by Mainlanders (those who came with the KMT in 1949 or before or afterwards, and were closely associated with the party) was replaced by a stronger feeling of equality, and according to Prof. Wang, ethnic divisions are not nearly as much a source of tension as they once were. Furthermore, with the de-Sinicization policies of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2000-2008 came an even stronger collective notion of “Taiwanese” identity, regardless of Han, Minnan, or Hakka background. This Taiwanese identity, support for independence, and a distancing from, or drop-off of, Chinese identity, is buoyed all the more by bullying from Beijing; while Beijing may think it is punishing a rebel province, or using isolation and sanctions to drive Taiwan to have no choice but to return to Chinese control, such bullying has only hardened the resistance. One student in the class even spoke passionately about fears, especially among the younger Taiwanese generation such as himself, that China’s policy of economic integration with Taiwan is in fact a Trojan Horse – as it leads to Taiwanese businessmen who enjoy good business interactions with China, and indeed whose business success and personal livelihoods rely on good relations with China, gaining in economic and then political influence in Taiwan, a very valid concern, I think, given the excessive political influence of wealthy individuals, and of corporate special interests, in our own country.

The streets of Jiufen, Taiwan. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

These are pretty much the highlights of the talk. And there’s a lot in there; a lot that gets me thinking about Okinawa, and about other places around the world. The comparisons are quite intriguing, though in most cases it’s more of a contrast, coming at similar issues from opposite directions. Taiwan is, of course, in a particularly special position in the world, being de facto independent, perhaps one of the most strongly and long-lastingly de facto independent states in the world without having much official recognition. By contrast, Okinawa used to be properly independent, and is no longer, having been annexed, colonized, assimilated by Japan. Okinawans are historically, traditionally, a separate people from the Japanese, in terms of language, culture, historical political association & structure, even genetically. But, the idea of people throughout the island chain, from Yonaguni up through Okinawa Island, considering themselves “Ryukyuan” or “Okinawan” is a relatively new concept, as under the Kingdom, people of each island would have associated far more strongly with their island, and many may have even seen the Okinawans as conquerors, foreign interlopers, occupiers; the languages are certainly different enough. It is only in the modern era (since the late 19th century), as a result of the formation of Okinawa Prefecture, and the administrative, economic, and political constructions of that, along with assimilationist public education curricula, I would wager, that people in Miyako and Yaeyama began to consider themselves “Okinawan,” and all the more so as an identity in solidarity with the people of Okinawa Island, against the Japanese colonial overlords. Here too, in Okinawa as in Taiwan, identity is contingent upon how people perceive themselves to be treated by the metropole (Tokyo), and here, too, particularly explicitly in recent weeks and months, there is a case of the metropole government bullying, or punishing, a distant province (prefecture) for acting up, or acting out, against national interests. (See Shingetsu News’ tweet from Jan 10 2015: “Abe govt official tells Jiji that Okinawa budget cuts are because “it is necessary to reward good conduct and punish bad.””)1

The Ryukyus, as seen on a Pacific map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

But, bringing it back to Taiwan, one of the things I find so fascinating about Taiwanese identity is that we can practically see a new ethnic identity forming before our eyes – and thus serving as a stark example of how ethnicity isn’t necessarily really tied to genetic/racial origins, but is more complicated than that. For many people, “Taiwanese” may be purely a nationalistic, political identity, but I have no doubt (though I also have no surveys or studies immediately at hand) that for many others, they see their cultural identity as different enough from “Chinese” that they really consider themselves members of a different people entirely.

Prof. Wang is a political scientist, and so it comes as no surprise that his survey data about “Chinese” identity pertains to asking people whether they consider themselves 「中国人」 (Zhongguoren), “people of China.” It is certainly interesting to see the shrinking proportion of people who still think of Taiwan as the “Republic of China,” and/or as the legitimate government of all of China, and to consider how this plays out conceptually – if one thinks of Taiwan not as the “Republic of China,” not as “China” at all, then, yeah, your conception of being (politically) Chinese is going to diminish, and a sense of being “Taiwanese” is going to emerge. But, I was sad to see that he did not in today’s talk delve much at all into the nuances and meanings of the ways in which people do or do not still consider themselves culturally or ethnically Chinese. The question about being 「中国人」 is an interesting one, but I would have liked to also see the data for “do you consider yourself 「中華人」, and what does that mean to you?” I’m sure there’s all kinds of nuance I’m failing to grasp, or even if I am grasping it, I may be failing to express it properly, so forgive me, but as I understand it, 「中華」 (Zhonghua) means, roughly, “Chinese culture” or “Chinese civilization,” in a sort of trans-historical or solely tied-to-tradition sort of way, divorced from the connotations of today’s post-1911 or post-1949 political context. Essentially, it’s a word closely related to the concept of the Chinese diaspora – a diaspora which has existed in Singapore, Malaysia, and much of the rest of Southeast Asia since the Ming Dynasty, if not earlier; we’re not talking only about late 19th-21st century immigration to Hawaii, North America, Europe, and so forth. Anyway, my question is, for a Taiwanese who identifies as Zhonghuaren (or whatever the appropriate term may be), or for a Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does Zhonghua mean to them? And for the Taiwanese who rejects such associations, what does being “Taiwanese” mean to them? The idea of being “culturally Chinese” or associating oneself with “Chinese culture” may seem simple on the surface, but drawing upon my knowledge of East Asian history & culture, and my own personal thoughts on my identity as a Jew, I would hazard that there are several different parts, or different categories to this. First, there is the folk culture, folk practice, everyday lifestyle culture aspect of a cultural identity. There are presumably many Taiwanese who, by virtue of the fact that they speak Chinese, read/write Chinese, use chopsticks, eat Chinese food, follow (at least some version of) Confucian ethics, and so forth, consider themselves to have some connection to Chinese culture, or Chinese identity. And there are likely those who consider their Taiwanese dialect/language, Taiwanese food, and so forth to be different enough from Standard Mandarin and from either Shanghai or Beijing food and culture that they see Taiwanese culture as a distinctive thing. And, to be sure, for those who might point to fashion, cafés & teahouses, 7-11, boba tea, honey toast, and Taiwanese shaved ice, and other aspects of postmodern contemporary streetlife culture, not to mention various aspects of Japanese influence, etc., I wouldn’t blame them for seeing something distinctive about Taiwanese culture.

Trailer for “Cape No. 7,” the second highest-grossing film in Taiwanese history; it brings together Chinese, Japanese, traditional, modern, histories and culture and shows Taiwan’s unique (different from mainland China) history and culture.

I wonder to what extent people think about, or identify by virtue of, being Minnan or Hakka rather than Han (or, conversely, to what extent they consider themselves Han even if of Minnan or Hakka background), or how strongly the idea of their family, their lineage being in Taiwan since the Qing, or since the Ming, figures into all of this. … Coming back around, I said First is folk culture.

But, then there is high culture. I wonder, to what extent, even for those who do see their folk culture and their pop culture as being distinctive enough, separate enough, to consider it Taiwanese, and combining this with a strong political association with being Taiwanese, and not Chinese, to what extent do these people also see themselves as claiming no relation or connection to the greatness of Chinese civilization? This is something Prof. Wang began to hint at. Zhongguo (中国, “China”) does not only mean the People’s Republic of China, or the Republic of China. It also means a historical China. He didn’t get into it at all, to my disappointment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some people who, even while completely rejecting any association with the PRC, might still see themselves as descended from, or having some association with, the culture of the Han, Tang, Song, Ming, Qing; the culture which claims a history stretching back over 4,000 years; a culture which produced such great poetry, painting, calligraphy, music, architecture, drama; a culture which invented paper, the compass, and so much else besides; a country which, historically, was the greatest, wealthiest, most powerful country in the world for centuries and centuries. I know it sounds like I’m building up to something, but I promise I do not mean to. I am neither critical nor disbelieving of those who might articulate their Taiwanese/Chinese identity differently – I just find it a very interesting question. To truly sever oneself from those things, to truly identify oneself with Taiwan and only with Taiwan, is to take up an identity that is at its most fundamental core something very different. Not bad, not inferior – just different. And, then, what is that Taiwanese identity that one takes up? Is it an “island country” (島国) identity akin to that of the Okinawans and the Japanese? Is it one that has some particular relationship to the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, who today represent less than 2% of the population of the island? Indigenous peoples aside, Taiwan has only about 400, not 4000, years of history. It’s an interesting history, with Dutch and Portuguese trading bases, which were driven out by Ming loyalists who were also active pirates and who were the dominant power on the island for quite a few decades until the Qing drove them out, after which the island was controlled by the Qing for over 200 years and inhabited by a mix of Chinese peoples who settled there at various times across the generations, and then by the Japanese for about 50, before becoming the home of the KMT government in exile in 1949. It’s an interesting history, but it’s also a short one. Films by Wei Te-Sheng, such as Cape No. 7 (trailer above), Seediq Bale, and the 2014 film KANO (dir. by Umin Boya, a member of the Seediq tribe), show that very vibrant, multi-cultural, complex history, or rather, one view of it, one perspective on it. It’s a complex topic, to be sure… I look forward eagerly to visiting Taiwan some day, and to learning more about their history otherwise.

——
1) At the risk of incurring trolling or flamewar by bringing up Israel, here too, with some parallels to Taiwan’s relationship with Beijing, we have a case of a democratic country where a great many of the citizens have been put on the defensive, their resolve hardened, and their inclination to vote more conservative/right-wing, both by pressure from international diplomatic action (e.g. UN resolutions, EU resolutions) and by independent movements and protests such as the despicable Boycott, Divestments, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and by terrorist attacks. I very much appreciate what supporters of BDS, Hamas, and these UN & EU resolutions think they are doing, “punishing bad [conduct],” to paraphrase Shinzô Abe; showing their disapproval and putting pressure on an oppressive regime. But, counter to their desires, and truly to no one’s benefit at all, such pressure has only hardened the resolve of Israel’s right-wingers. This is not the way to bring peace to the Middle East, my friends. The only way to do that is elimination of the terrorists.

Somehow I didn’t hear about this until just now, and didn’t catch it when I watched Kôhaku myself, but apparently the Southern All-Stars’ performance of their song “Peace and Hi-Lite” at the annual New Year’s Kôhaku Uta Gassen event (broadcast on NHK, and watched by about 35-42% of Japanese households) earned the ire of many right-wingers.

This is the same band which wrote & performs “Heiwa no Ryûka” (“Ryukyuan song of Peace”) about which I’ve blogged over on my tumblr. It’s a pretty boldly political song, asking “who decided that this land is at peace?,” and then going on to speak of Okinawa under the American “umbrella,” of the way Okinawa’s people were abandoned, or forsaken, and how the wounds of the past have still not yet been allowed to heal (or, that Okinawa and its people have not yet been allowed to recover)… I wish they might have sung this at Kôhaku, especially right now as protesters against the military base they are building continue to be harassed and arrested at Henoko. But, I don’t think we can reasonably expect that such a thing would happen at a show like Kôhaku, which is so much about coming together as a country, to remember the previous year and look towards a positive future… such a political song would never play at an equivalently mainstream patriotic event in the US, either, would it?

Of course, the Japanese relationship with political satire (and the resulting relative lack of it in Japan e.g. as compared to the Daily Show, The Onion, and countless other satire venues in the US), goes far beyond that.

In any case, in the Southern All-Stars’ first Kôhaku appearance in 31 years, leader Kuwata Keisuke started by appearing with a stick-on Hitler mustache. Some have said it was more meant to reference a comedian, Cha Kato, and I hope it wasn’t meant as a direct intimation of comparison of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Hitler, as that really is going too far, or is just misplaced, when it comes to just about anyone alive today. But, still, I think anything that draws attention to the fact that Abe’s policy positions & rhetoric smell of the authoritarianism and damaging ultra-nationalism of the 1930s, are more than deserved. Tell it like it is. Japan is seeing more protests today than our stereotypical imagining of the oh-so compliant (that’s not the word I’m looking for; what is it?) Japanese would ever have it – and for damn good reason. Get people mobilized, get people talking. Abe and his people need to go.

I won’t rehash any further the details of the event and right-wing reactions to it. You can read more about it at Global Voices Online, Japan Times, and the Asahi Shimbun (all in English).

What I will do, though, since no one else is doing it, is provide a translation of the lyrics. First, of “Peace and Hi-Lite,” the song they performed at Kôhaku this year:

I happened to look at the news today
The neighbors are angry
Even now no matter what dialogues we have
The various contentions don’t change

Textbooks run out of time
Before reading modern history
Even though that’s what we want to know most
Why does it turn out like this?

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Until the flowers of peace bloom in the future … Blue [Melancholy/Depression]
Is it a pipe dream? Is it a fairytale?
To wish for one another’s happiness, etc.

Wouldn’t it be good to come together and help one another
check our history?
Raising a heavy fist
Won’t open hearts

A world ruled by an emperor without any clothes
Waging disputes
By convenient explanations ([claiming] a just cause) is … Insane
We should have learned by experience [being disgusted by] the 20th century, right?
This is just the flaring up of old sputtering embers

There are various considerations, though
Understand one another’s good points!

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Being born into this beautiful world (hometown)
A sad past and foolish actions too
Why do people forget these things?

Don’t hesitate to love.

And, the lyrics to Heiwa no Ryûka (video above), an even more explicitly, directly, political song, about the Battle of Okinawa, and the continuing US military presence there today:

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
Even as people’s tears have not dried

Under America’s umbrella
We saw a dream
At the end of the war in which the people were forsaken

The blue moon is crying.
There are things which cannot be forgotten.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people whose wounds have not healed
In order to it pass down

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
As atonement for one’s filthy self

Why do you refuse
To live like people?
You soldiers gathered next door.

The blue moon is crying.
There is a past which is not yet over.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people who don’t forget the song
Until the day when someday the flower blooms

Thanks to J-Lyric.net for the Japanese lyrics. Translations are my own; my apologies for any mistakes or awkwardness in the translation.

I went down to LA recently, to LACMA, to see this Samurai show which I had heard was all the thing. And it certainly was. Like many people, my interest in Japan started with a middle-school and high-school boyish enthusiasm for cool awesome samurai battles, and so forth; my interests later shifted, away from such things, towards popular arts and theatre, and the vibrant cultural life otherwise of a realm at peace, once the samurai wars ended. But, boy was this a great exhibit. It certainly served those intrigued or obsessed with the samurai – one kid, maybe about 7 or 8, who I saw several times over the course of the day, running around taking pictures with his iPad, was just so excited… I’m glad to see him having such fun, and taking such an interest. And, I’m glad to see a non-Western and non-modern show featured in the main central Special Exhibits hall. Not that that’s so unusual for LACMA, a museum with an entire pavilion dedicated to Japanese art, and most likely the largest Korean galleries in the country.

The label descriptions – which I presume came with the exhibit and were not by LACMA curators – really brought out the appreciation for the craftsmanship, design, and aesthetic quality that Mr and Mrs Barbier-Mueller clearly see, and thus helped me too see and appreciate these objects not just as cool awesome artifacts of a romanticized warrior class, but as art objects.

One thing that did bug me, however, was that the exhibit reifies, reinforces, rather than challenging, the myth of Bushido. It doesn’t come up too often, thank god, but here and there you see labels talking about the noble, honorable, spiritual moral code of the samurai. Bushidô as we know it comes mainly from two periods: (1) the Edo period (1600-1868), when books like Hagakure and the Book of Five Rings, and plays like Chushingura (47 Ronin), were written, long after the fighting ended, and at a time when samurai are struggling with their identity as “warriors,” and trying to reclaim something, and (2) the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Nitobe Inazo wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan in an attempt to describe something in Japan equivalent to Europe’s chivalry, in order to support arguments and ideas that Japan had just as noble a tradition, and a history, as Europe. Very much a product of his time, Nitobe was not a historian, nor really an expert in samurai philosophy, but rather an expert on race and colonial studies (as such things were understood by, e.g. the British and French at that time as well), eager to find a way to put Japan on equal footing among the great powers of the world, such that the Western powers would not see Japan as lesser or inferior. The word “bushido” was so little known in Japan in 1901 that Nitobe is said to have believed he was inventing (coining) it.

A helmet by Masuda Myôchin, c. 1730, bearing the seal of the Matsudaira clan.

Looking at the show, and thinking about these issues, inspired me to think of how I might like to do a samurai show in future, if I were ever to get to curate one:

*Contrast the samurai arms & armor with paintings and other works that emphasize Japan’s peaceful and highly cultured artistic heritage. In any samurai show, there will always be those visitors who take it as supporting their understanding that Japan is somehow inherently, has always been and always will be, a militarist country. I suppose one response to such ignorance would be to just ignore it, but another possibility is to educate. Japan is now, and has always been, a country with deep aesthetic appreciation (at least among elites, prior to the Edo period), and since the 1600s, a very lively urban commoner culture, including beautiful paintings, pottery, architecture, poetry, and so on and so forth. And, let’s not forget that Japan was (with the exception of peasant rebellions here and there) at peace for over 200 years in the 1640s-1850s. How many countries can claim that?

*On a somewhat similar note, I would love to do a show that emphasizes the samurai in the Edo period – display and pageantry. Catering to the popular desire for cool, awesome, samurai warriors, most samurai shows focus on the samurai during the Sengoku Period, the age of the country at war, and then sort of say, well, most of the arms & armor we have today in our collections and on display is not from that period, but it would have been largely kind of sort of similar. Instead of showing Edo period objects and identifying them as simply being a later version of what things would have looked like during the height of samurai warfare, I’d rather do a show that is wholly situated within the Edo period. This is how samurai of the Edo period lived, this is the role of parade armor in politics of display and pageantry. The exhibit would talk about how the samurai identity changed in the Edo period, and how a warrior class that was now a bureaucracy, now struggled to define or redefine, to understand, their identity as “samurai.” We could describe it not as a “decline,” but simply as the next stage, and if anything, it’s a “rise,” as the samurai develop more fully into cultured and cultural elites.

Triptych, Snow, Moon, and Flower, by Tokugawa Nariaki, Lord of Mito, c. 1840-1860. LACMA Collection.

Returning to talking about the LACMA exhibit, the Barbier-Mueller Collection includes many beautiful pieces, and I was pleasantly surprised with how many are identifiably associated with rather major families. The structure and display of this special exhibit was impressive, really impactful. But, for me, I quite enjoyed the sort of complementary exhibit they were hosting on the other end of the museum complex, in the Japan Pavilion. Since the Barbier-Mueller Collection, or at least those objects loaned to LACMA, includes mostly armor, and very few weapons, LACMA supplemented the exhibit with a great show of samurai paintings, prints, pottery, and yes, weapons. This show included many pieces borrowed from Tetsugendo.com, and the Museum of Global Antiquities (which, interestingly, I cannot seem to find, or find out about, at all from basic Google searches); between those and LACMA’s own collection, I was kind of amazed to see sword accessories crafted by Miyamoto Musashi himself, and blades by Muramasa and some of the other most famous swordsmiths in Japanese history, as well as examples of weapons like Japanese matchlock guns that we just don’t see very much of. A triptych of calligraphy scrolls by Tokugawa Nariaki – one of the most prominent and influential figures in Japan’s supposed “opening” to the West in the 1850s, and a member of one of the top samurai families in the country, was a highlight as well. One cannot help but wonder why such a thing is not in the Tokugawa Art Museum, local Mito area museum or archives, or the like, and how it came to be owned by LACMA.

Anyway, I suppose this review has sort of petered out. But, if you’re in the area and you’re into samurai armor and such, do check out Samurai: Japanese Armor from the Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection at LACMA, before it closes on Feb 1st!

All photos are my own. Thanks so much to LACMA and the Barbier-Mueller Collection for allowing photography in the exhibit!

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

I don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

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