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The Kids Are Alright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

,,,,

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

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

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

On that one BBC Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Visiting Kagoshima Again

Sakurajima, as seen from the highway bus on the way from the airport into the city.

Nov 10, 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve left the Kantô (the area around Tokyo/Chiba/Saitama), and I decided that with the Reimeikan Kagoshima Prefectural Museum holding a special exhibit on the Amami Islands, and the main gate of Kagoshima castle having been recently restored (in 2019), these are fine excuses to visit Kagoshima again.

This was my third time there, and so it’s certainly a place with which I have some familiarity; I’ve walked the main stretch between Kagoshima Chūō 鹿児島中央駅 (the most main, central, train station in the city, immediately surrounded by multiple shopping centers) and Tenmonkan 天文館 (the chief, central, shopping arcade sort of neighborhood) numerous times, ridden the shiden 市電 streetcars numerous times and have a fair sense of the station names and the route… I won’t say that Kagoshima feels like home in the way that Tokyo or Naha do, but, definitely a bit of familiarity.

Shiden streetcar near Tenmonkan.

But on this visit I found myself thinking in particular about what it might be like to live there and whether I would like living there. Certainly, I can imagine the value of being there for a longer period, six months to a year or whatever it may be, to get to delve more deeply into local collections (Kagoshima Prefectural Library, Kagoshima University Library, etc.)… The opportunity to use Kagoshima City as a base from which to visit all sorts of other cities and towns (and islands!) that sometimes feel a bit too overwhelming, too complicated, to think about traveling to when it’s as part of a broader X days Kagoshima trip.

To put it more concretely, I was visiting Kagoshima for just three days this time, and I decided that trying to organize for myself which days I’ll spend in Kagoshima City, vs. how long it takes to get to Sendai or Hioki or Ibusuki, and how much it costs to get to those cities (almost nothing) vs. how much time and money it takes to get to even just Tanegashima (16400 yen, or about $145 US roundtrip), and how it just somehow feels like too much to fly from Tokyo to Kagoshima and then also coordinate and pay for additional flights to Amami or Kikai or Yoron or Okinoerabu… it makes my head spin. But if I lived in Kagoshima, I could do one of these day trips on one weekend, and another on another weekend, space it out, focus on doing just one of them at a time…

The newly rebuilt castle gate, now the largest castle gate in Japan.

Anyway. The museum was great, the new castle gate looks amazing. I had a fine time visiting Miyama (Naeshirogawa) for my one little day trip excursion. But for some reason, this particular trip, I was surprised at how sort of unexciting the city as a whole felt. I am sorry to say so; I do feel bad for it. … I do think that if I were to live there, I could potentially very much enjoy a more local, resident, sort of mode of engaging with the city. Discover cool cafes, figure out my favorite restaurants, get connected to what’s happening in the city – concerts, theatre, etc. I think it could be a pretty cool city to get to know. And especially because I do have such an interest in the local history, I can imagine it could potentially be quite interesting (1) seeing multiple exhibits and events over the course of the year, at the City Art Museum and elsewhere, getting a deeper, more textured impression of the city’s history and culture rather than just the one-time dipping in helicopter approach, and (2) getting a better feel, for real, on the ground, of the vibe of the city itself, as a place I’ve actually lived.

But that said, again, I feel sorry to say it, but somehow the city just didn’t feel that exciting to me this time. Maybe just because it’s my third trip and it doesn’t feel so new. I loved the view of Sakurajima out my window, and one of these days I will have to make the trek out to actually visit the island, if only to see the old torii buried in rock from lava flows a hundred years ago. I love the streetcars and always will. What they do for the visual feel of the city, the feel of the streets, is just wonderful. And I do feel this strange attraction, or compulsion, towards Kagoshima Chūō, but when it actually comes down to it, actually walking around in the shopping centers at Kagoshima Chūō, or the shōtengai shopping arcade streets of Tenmonkan, I am sorry to say I actually got bored pretty quickly. Most of the shops at Kagoshima Chūō are the same sorts of shops you’d find at any large shopping center in Tokyo, or in other major cities, and I just didn’t feel compelled to want to, or need to, do any shopping for exactly the same brands, the same stores, the same sorts of things I could find back home. Of course, vintage and secondhand is much more random and mixed and who knows what I would have found if I’d taken the time to look a bit harder in some of those stores, but even so, meh. And Tenmonkan, which on my first trip felt so exciting and new, a whole neighborhood of intertwining avenues of covered market shopping streets evoking the history of a whole century of shops and fashions coming and going, people shopping and otherwise living, bustling, through these very same streets from the 1920s to the 1950s-60s to the 80s-90s to today, as things change around them bit by bit, changing with the times… But while Tenmonkan is home to a number of very new cafes in that particularly 2000s-2010s style we might associate with gentrification or avocado toast or whatever, most of it is just so ordinary. Maybe I’ve been living in Tokyo for too long – that Japan as a whole has lost its sparkle. Because I see a Maruzen bookstore, or a Mos Burger fast food joint, or the rows and rows of no-name mom & pop clothing shops, and none of it feels special or exciting or interesting anymore.

At Chinjukan, one of the chief historical pottery centers in Miyama (Naeshirogawa). The lineage of Chinjukan pottery masters trace their ancestry back to Koreans who came to Japan following Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the 1590s.

Kagoshima Chūō feels to me like the Hachiko of Kagoshima. I could be wrong; I have no idea what the young people actually feel about that. But it has a certain kind of energy to it. It feels like a place that’s just cool and fun to be at. The main stairs leading up into the station have one area to the side with seats built into the steps, where people are fully allowed to, actually encouraged to, sit and hang out. And right next to that is a little open plaza, a hiroba 広場, with fake (I’m pretty sure) grass, some benches, a couple of food trucks, where I am sure they have periodic fairs or the like, different pop-up events all the time. There’s two or three large shopping centers directly attached to the station, with bakeries and cafes and restaurants, a large electronics store in the back, a movie theater, a large ferris wheel on the roof … somehow or other it just feels like the place to be. And, on Halloween night, I did indeed see lots of young people in their Halloween costumes – most of them just dressed as sexy maids, but I guess more to the cute side than the over-the-top racy risqué type we might see in the States – seemingly, as far as I could tell, just walking around hanging out in the mall with their friends. I walked around too, for a little bit, but, again, somehow that energy just wasn’t there – to be excited at what shops I might find, or anything like that. It was all very much the same kinds of shops I could find anywhere else. Which is fine. Should be fine. But… if I lived here, would I get bored super quick? Would it start to feel super provincial super quick? Or would I grow to love the city, to enjoy its different ins and outs? Certainly Naha is much smaller than Tokyo, too, and more provincial in a sense in terms of its relatively few major shopping centers, its relatively few major excitement districts. For a particular brand of enjoyment, there’s pretty much just Kokusai-dori, and that’s it. And yet Kokusai-dori, Heiwa-dori, and the sort of broader area immediately around that makes me feel like I really could get so much out of living there. Becoming a regular at various places, getting to know shop owners, getting to know old shops and new shops…. And, weird as it may be, during my six months at Ryudai, I really did grow to love the Naha Main Place shopping mall in a certain way. It feels like home, like “my” mall in a certain sense. Kagoshima doesn’t.

The AMU Plaza Kagoshima shopping center attached to Kagoshima Chūō Station.

But, more importantly, thinking about Kagoshima as a city brought me to thinking more broadly about two themes:

(1) The ways in which contemporary urban design – I’ll have to look again at what Prof Alan Lew exactly calls this – creates spaces that you really do want to be in, to spend time in. Spaces that are enjoyable to be in. But then, they are ultimately spaces that are deeply commercial. So, just like with Kagoshima Chūō, where it feels welcoming and fun and somehow appealing and exciting, with the open plaza and the ferris wheel and just… it’s a bit hard to put into words just why it feels like a fun place to be but it really does, except that then you get there and there’s pretty much nothing to do but shopping. And just like that, Miyashita Park in Shibuya is much the same. They’ve built this whole complex with light, airy, welcoming sort of energy, lots of outdoor benches to just sit and relax, attractive architecture that makes just walking around feel enjoyable… And on the roof, a rooftop park with grass, a beach volleyball court, and other facilities for just hanging out and relaxing and enjoying as if it were a public park. But then, outside of that public park aspect, it is all just shopping, and most of it fairly upscale shopping. So, you’re excited to get there and check it out, and there very genuinely is something attractive, appealing, about it as a new center for wanting to be, wanting to hang out. But then you either buy things or you do nothing. …

This sort of urban planning feels on the one hand a wonderful, very positive thing, as it is actively creating spaces where people might actually want to be – beautiful, airy, green, not like the pure functionalism of certain past decades, and not privileging cars or certain other considerations over walkable, bikeable, spaces with trees and benches and grass and so forth… But then it also has this rather insidious side, of realizing that in many cases it’s not really about trying to create a pleasant space for people as a good thing in and of itself, as something that designers are doing for the city, for the people, in order to improve quality of life as an end in and of itself, but rather that people are designing and building these spaces to get you to want to come and spend money. And I hate it.

(2) The other thing that this trip to Kagoshima got me thinking about is Kagoshima as a sort of touchpoint for thinking about monuments, national and local history narratives. What should we be proud of? What should we take pride in? Which figures should get statues, and why?

I have to thank Thomas Monaghan for spurring these thoughts, because he pointed out that Zusho Shozaemon, a samurai official in service to Kagoshima domain who is very much memorialized all over the city and beyond – I’ve visited his grave, but there are also multiple statues of him around the city, numerous depictions of him or documents or items related to him on display in the museum, historical markers erected at the site of his former house – he’s celebrated as a hero for Kagoshima in large part because of his economic reforms which rescued the domain’s finances, rescuing them from incredible debt and bringing revenues back in again and so forth. And I suppose also celebrated for his loyalty or whatever the right word is, in that at the end of his career, he commit suicide in recognition of and apology for his administrative failures. I’m blanking on the words right now, but there’s something very noble in Japanese culture for someone who takes responsibility in such a way, literally to the point of killing himself as absolution.

And yet, one of the very key elements to Zusho’s scheme for reviving the domain’s finances rested on the colonialist exploitation of the Amami Islands. Little different from plantation schemes halfway around the world which Zusho himself may or may not have known about, he forced the people of the Amamis to grow only sugar, and to grow as much of it as possible, and to sell it all to the domain at artificially low pre-set rates… they were forbidden, I believe, from carrying any coin and could buy food and other necessities largely (solely?) only from official domain merchants, purchased in sugar cane at artificially high, set, prices. And so forth. I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but suffice to say, the more you read about Amami history, the more Zusho seems less like any kind of hero and more like a Cecil Rhodes or King Leopold type. Not quite as horrifically cruel as Leopold – few are – and not involving any outright slavery, like the American slave trade. But even so. Zusho begins to resemble precisely the kind of figure whose statues, arguably, perhaps, deserve to be torn right down.

Which begins the ball rolling. Who are all these other statues of? Largely, “heroes” of the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji state. And, alright, I do think there’s plenty to be proud of in contributing to the building of a modern nation-state, implementing “modern” forms of banking, industry, public education, and so on and so forth. I’m not placing blanket value judgements on modernity as good and premodernity as bad, or the Meiji state as “enlightened” and pulling Japan out of a “benighted” “dark ages”, or the Meiji state as fundamentally good, let alone democratic, or the Tokugawa shogunate as horrifically cruel, despotic. I’m not trying to support or reproduce those narratives, not at all, but just to say that on the surface, there are things to be seen as good things, things to celebrate, without having to get too deeply into it. A disproportionate number of the most prominent figures of that time – Founding Fathers, if we might want to use that term – were from Kagoshima. People who oversaw the implementation of modern forms of government, public education, etc., people who oversaw the construction of nationwide train lines, the electrification of at least some parts of the country, a modern postal service, all this sort of thing. So, good, celebrate them.

But how many of these same men were militarists and imperialists (both in the meaning of supporting Empire, i.e. imperial expansion into other lands, in the meaning of what we would see today as frighteningly rightwing nationalistic devotion to the Emperor)… and in what ways does lionizing them directly intertwine with nationalistic celebration of Imperial Japan – papering over the negative aspects while celebrating the very same people who oversaw not just the positive nation-building stuff but also the imperialist, authoritarian, colonialist, racist, patriarchal, stuff too?

At some point, one wonders if we should support the idea of tearing it all down. Or to put it another way, one wonders if we should be markedly critical of all of it – to see pretty much all of Kagoshima’s local pride as deeply flawed, tainted, and suggest in our armchair sort of way that it’s all bad, it should all be torn down.

And replaced with what? What should Kagoshima people be proud of? I personally think the newly restored gate is incredible. It’s beautiful, it’s impressive, and I see no problem at all with feeling pride of being from a city where you might see such a cool building every day as you walk to work or whathaveyou. Just so long as we don’t think too deeply about samurai lords lording over other people, the authoritarian aspects of the very nature of samurai rule. The ways in which the lords of Kagoshima invaded, subjugated, and then exploited both the Amamis and the Ryukyu Kingdom… and the fact that they became (or, more accurately, remained) lords of Kagoshima chiefly through bloody, vicious, brutal, warfare. Literally killing their enemies by the thousands, in brutal bloody battles, and claiming (or, really, retaining) lordship through sheer force of arms, and through commanding the loyalty of others. Which is, of course, the story behind nearly every monarchy in the world, so whether that makes it a good thing or not, excusable or not, I don’t know.

But, what to replace it with? Some would say heroes of the labor movement or something like that. But as much as I do support labor movements, and agree with the value of unions and stuff, (1) it’s dreadfully mundane. These very 20th century, ordinary everyman kind of figures. Mundane as hell. Honestly, I’d much rather have statues of cool samurai lords and national founding fathers than of some 1960s union leader in a suit and tie and briefcase, or with a construction helmet and jeans and boots. (2) We’re not Communists. Some of you may be, and you do you, but statues of farmers and factory workers is not my vibe. Tearing down all romantic heroes, all national or local cultural flavor to replace it with “the people”…. I just don’t know…

If we were to replace all the nationalistic and problematic stuff – all the samurai stuff, and the Meiji imperialist stuff – with some new, more progressive, focus for what Kagoshima should take pride in, then what might we suggest that this still distinctive of Kagoshima, that is still something to be proud of, that doesn’t feel ordinary, and doesn’t feel provincial?

To be sure, Kagoshima has plenty to be proud of in terms of music and art. I don’t know specifically which prominent jazz or enka or rock musicians came from Kagoshima, but I’m sure there could be something there. And Kagoshima certainly has its own history of both traditional Kanô school painting, and of Kagoshima people being among the first, or among the most prominent, to adopt and introduce European oil painting and modern art in other ways into Japan in the late 19th century…. so that’s something. But I still don’t think we need a giant statue of Kuroda Seiki in the central city plaza…

Anyway. Just a few rambling thoughts. Back in Tokyo now, and back to work.

I’m quite a few weeks late on this, obviously. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I have that much to say. But I just wanted to share a collection of videos I found, mainly from TikTok, highlighting different indigenous individuals and peoples represented at the 2021 (oops, I mean 2020) Tokyo Olympics, especially since many – whatever their relationship with and feelings towards their country may be – are obliged to represent that country, flying its flag, receiving medals to that country’s national anthem, rather than more overtly representing their own people.

So, first, a video from Connor, a Native American (Lumbee) TikToker from Lenapehoking (Lenape lands), talking about the Ainu, one of the indigenous peoples of the land now controlled by Japan, who were originally planned to have a bit more representation in the 2020 Olympics, but got less airtime in the postponed 2021 version of the Opening & Closing Ceremonies:

Uchinanchu (Okinawan) artist Dane Nakama expands on the above video to talk about the other major indigenous people of what is today controlled by Japan – namely, the Ryukyuan peoples:

Connor also posted a number of other videos during the Games, including this one about Carissa Moore, a Native Hawaiian surfer who won a gold medal in surfing, the first time surfing was included in the Olympics. I saw a bit of controversy on social media during the Games, about the whitewashing or appropriation or colonization of surfing… I’m glad a Wahine Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian woman) won gold, dominating the sport pioneered by her ancestors, a “sport” that’s not just a sport but has deep cultural and spiritual meaning.

It is a shame that she was not (as far as I’m aware) permitted to display the Hawaiian flag in any way, let alone of course to be awarded her gold medal under the Hawaiian flag or Hawaiian national anthem rather than those of the United States, which continues to illegally occupy the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Connor also talks about Pita Taufatofua, the tae kwon do competitor from Tonga who was also that country’s flagbearer in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 games, attracting much attention for his bared, oiled, muscular upper body. As Connor explains in this video, in 2016 Taufatofua was told he couldn’t wear his traditional taʻovala wrap-skirt, but he did it anyway; I love the way Connor talks about this, talking about how Native communities and individuals are often encouraged to hide their culture, and how inspiring and powerful it is to see people proudly display their culture in this way.

@connorbeardox

I think I’m going to do some content highlighting Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #olympicspirit #tokyoolympics #tonga #indigenous #firstnations

♬ Sunset – Chillthemusic

Connor also highlighted Patty Mills, an Australian Aborigine / Torres Strait Islander who was the first Native person to be flagbearer for Australia at the Olympics. He also plays in the NBA, on the San Antonio Spurs. I know next to nothing about basketball fandom – I wonder how well-known it is among NBA fans that he’s Australian Aborigine. Here’s your regular reminder that not all Black people are descended from slaves, or from otherwise relatively recent immigrants from Africa. Aboriginal folks from Australia, Torres Straits Islanders, Melanesians from places like Fiji and New Caledonia share many of the features we typical associate with Africans or African-Americans. Diversity means not only recognizing Black Lives, but the incredible diversity within, and beyond, Black Lives.

@connorbeardox

got some more content coming soon about Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #tokyoolympics #olympicspirit #aboriginal #indigenous #firstnations #fyp

♬ Triangle – Clutch

The Australian women’s football (soccer) team also honored and recognized Aboriginal peoples by posing with an Aboriginal flag and linking arms in a show of solidarity. I won’t pretend to know the history beyond the most minimal surface level, but Australia has a pretty heinous history of racist and colonialist policies, persecution, and so forth, in addition to the broader fact of the country as a White settler colony; and many of these racist attitudes and policies, sadly, remain in place today, as they do to one extent or another in many other parts of the world (e.g. the US, Canada).

Thanks to my friend Dr. Yuan-Yu Kuan, I also learned of a few heartwarming moments of representation by athletes from Taiwanese aboriginal backgrounds.

In this brief clip, boxer Chen Nien-chin, from the Pangcah/Amis people, shouts “I am a child of Pangcah” at the cameras in his native language. As Kuan points out, one of the few times a Taiwanese aboriginal language has likely ever been spoken (or, more to the point, broadcast on camera) during any Olympics Games.

His shout, “O Wawa no Pangcah” (“I am a child of Pangcah,” or 我是邦查(阿美族)之子!in Chinese) comes around 1m35s in this video:

Finally, the Bulareyaung Dance Company recorded and posted this video of them watching the Olympics awards ceremonies from home in Taiwan. Amis weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun took gold. Taiwan is, of course, barred from even representing itself at the Olympcis as a full proper country, with its proper national flag and national anthem, to begin with, because the government of the People’s Republic of China are all dicks and refuse to acknowledge Taiwanese autonomy and sovereignty even now, more than 70 years later. So, rather than celebrating the fake “Chinese Taipei Olympics team” flag and anthem that’s officially shown/played at the awards ceremony, this Dance Company sings over it a traditional Amis song. I don’t know the language or the song, or to be honest do I know that much about the people, but as someone with a special place in my heart for Hawaiian and Okinawan music, and for indigenous cultures more broadly, it really warms my heart and puts a smile on my face to hear it.

I’m sure these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to indigenous representation at the Olympics. But these are the stories I saw.

These Olympics were, of course, more controversial than most. Here in Tokyo, a great many people were staunchly opposed to, and critical of, the city / the country going forward with holding the Olympics despite the raging Covid pandemic, and the government’s incompetence in getting the vaccines rolled-out more widely more quickly. Of course, many people are opposed to or critical of the Olympics anyway, for a variety of other very valid reasons. And I don’t challenge or deny those people’s valid opposition and criticism.

But I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for displays of international coming-together, of cultural pride, of global diversity. This is something I feel we don’t see enough of, and something we need more of in this world. People coming together, regardless of country, race, ethnicity, religion, interacting together across these divides, building or showing friendships, learning about and celebrating one another even if only for a moment, and just showing and celebrating the incredible diversity of our world. A diversity that goes beyond nation, that extends to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities as well.

I apologize to leave on a negative note, but especially with me composing this post on Sept 6, the anniversary of the Munich massacre, I think it relevant and important to note that these 2021 Olympics were the first time that the terrorist violence that took place at the 1972 Olympics – in which 11 Israelis and one German police officer were killed – were formally commemorated in such a central, public, manner.

There are still far too many groups and governments in the world today who deny the peoplehood of other people, who deny their identities, their history, their indigeneity to their ancestral homelands, and who seek to deny them their rights to freedom, equality, safety & wellbeing, and self-determination as a people. Many peoples continue to fight courageously and persistently to gain, regain, or retain those rights. But there remain far too many who are powerfully determined to block them, oppress and persecute them, to claim their land as their own, and even to massacre them. I hope that someday we can see peace.

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.