Archive for the ‘日本’ Category

I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

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I’ve recently gotten my hands on a copy of Andreas Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680-1900 (published by Tuttle). It is a mighty hefty book, over three hundred pages long, hardcover. And at $35 right now on Tuttle’s own website (on discount from the real cover price of $50), it’s not an unreasonable price, either, which is a wonderfully welcome rarity when it comes to these kinds of books – large, hardcover, filled with full-color images, you’d expect them to slap whatever the hell pricetag they feel on it, asking for $60, $80, or even $100. In light of that, $35 seems almost reasonable.

But let’s get into the meat of the book, shall we? It opens with an essay by the author, introducing and summarizing the topic of woodblock prints, overall, with a refreshingly particular focus on the commercial, ephemeral nature of the prints – subject to the market, to popularities of the time – and a focus on the importance of the publisher, and others, not only the print designer (the “artist”), in the design and production of these prints. Combined with the brief introduction by Stephen Addiss, which says essentially the same, the book makes clear that it is working to try to push (or simply participate in, or be reflective of) a shift in the way we think about ukiyo-e. This might be my axe to grind more than Marks’, but for too long, ukiyo-e has been seen as some elevated art form, to be appreciated for its aesthetic and design elements, the artists lauded and celebrated as Japanese Michelangelos. But, as Addiss and Marks emphasize here, designers worked closely with publishers and others, who had a great deal of influence upon the subjects that would get published, and the style and designs they wished to sell; and, that print designers were further subject to the demands of the market – they had to design prints that would be popular, prints that would sell. Not entirely unlike the relationship between a comicbook artist, his editor, and the fans/consumers today, perhaps.

This introductory essay is followed by a nice little sidebar which talks about the different kinds of names artists held (yômyô, zokumyô, gasei, some given by parents, some by teachers, some chosen oneself as an art-name), Western vs. traditional Japanese dates, and the various sizes of prints in both cm and inch equivalents (e.g. ôban as 27x39cm or 10.6×15.4in). Far too many authors in my experience – not just in art books, but in Japanese Studies more broadly – aren’t clear whether the dates they’re giving are Western dates, or references to a Japanese date, and aren’t so diligent about informing the reader about different types of names, so it’s nice to see Marks put this in clearly and explicitly.

Most of the rest of the first half of the book is taken up by biographies of artists, ranging from one paragraph (in the case of Kiyonobu II) to the better part of a full page in length (in the case of Utamaro), interspersed with multiple, large, full-color images of selections of each artist’s works. His use of single names – e.g. Kiyonobu instead of Torii Kiyonobu – in the main headline or title of each bio rubs me a bit the wrong way, like he’s buying into, or perpetuating, the elevation of these “artists” as personalities, as individual geniuses, but then again, he could be doing this in order to help highlight that artists’ names were multiple, and sometimes misapplied. For example, Hiroshige has come to frequently be called Andô Hiroshige, using his family name inherited from his father; but as Hiroshige is an art-name, I have read elsewhere that he would never have used these together. Utagawa is the name of the studio or school in which he studied, and so he earned the right to use the Utagawa name from his teacher, but he’s not a typical Utagawa artist, and went on to do other things. Then, Ichiyûsai is just his own fanciful studio name he invented himself. So perhaps there is something to be said for not perpetuating a canonization of any one of those names as the chief one? But, even so, to see “Sukenobu” and “Toyohiro” instead of “Nishikawa Sukenobu” and “Utagawa Toyohiro,” I cannot help but feel there is an energy of mythologization, as if we were to pluck these people out of their specific historical context and place them into a canon of the greatest artists, all so great they’re known by just one name – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Madonna. As someone who is not a specialist or expert in European art, I feel it all the more, because I genuinely don’t know the fuller names, in many cases, of even the most famous European artists. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn feels like the name of someone who might have lived in 17th century Amsterdam, but “Rembrandt” transcends time and space, and cultural and historical specificity in a way that I think we need to stop thinking about our artists.

Given Marks’ introduction, his emphasis on the importance of publishers and of the market, I find it strange, and off-putting, then, that he would continue to do this sort of thing with the single names, and in fact that he continually uses the word “artist” – including in the title of this section – rather than pushing the discourse by using a term like “print designer.” If you believe that these individuals were not uniquely divinely inspired geniuses, but were instead commercial designers hired by and restricted by publishers and by the demands of the market, then don’t call them “artists”! Call them print designers – and encourage the popular perception today, among collectors, dealers, enthusiasts, to change!

Skimming through the book, I expected to find bios that look great at first glance but are actually far less informative, less thorough, than one might wish for. I’ve certainly seen plenty of books of this sort, on a wide range of topics, which look great on first glance, but when you get into actually reading them, you realize they say so little about each individual thing – lords, clans, events, port towns, individual merchants – as to be essentially worthless for learning anything about those individual things. Many of the older Taiyô Bessatsu (“The Sun” Special Edition), sadly, seem to be of this sort.

However, as one reads a bit more closely, Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints does not seem to be doing that. Sure, granted, one could write an entire book on Utamaro, Hokusai, or Hiroshige, and of course many people have. Marks’ book certainly cannot be said to be as thorough as any of those, nor as meticulous as Richard Lane’s work listing every known work by a given artist. But we don’t need Marks to do that, to be that, because we already have Lane. What Marks does here, what he provides here, are good, solid, biographies of a great many artists, including many who I imagine are given short shrift in most other publications – even three paragraphs on Chôkyûsai Eizan is three paragraphs more than I think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. And it’s not a light bio full of useless fluff – in these three paragraphs, Marks informs us of Eizan’s birth year, the name of his father, the neighborhoods he lived in, the artists he studied under, the year and age of his death, and the name of the temple where he is buried. Granted, we only get a brief bit on what types of works he produced, and his stylistic influences, but for me at least, this is actually better. Marks provides the kind of concrete biographical details that most art historical treatments, more focused on style, genre, and influences, would pass over. And, besides, even for a minor artist like Eizan, we’re given five full-color images of examples of his work, one of them a full-page illustration, giving us a sense at a glance of his style – we don’t need it described out in lengthy paragraphs. So, in this way, I do think that Marks’ book is a wealth of knowledge, a real deep, solid, source to consult for names and dates and the like, a true compendium of artists.

The fact that Marks includes publishers at all is also fairly revolutionary, since “traditional” scholarship on ukiyo-e has always focused on artists almost exclusively, elevating them, and all but ignoring publishers and others involved in the process. Newer scholarship including Marks’ works have tried to instead emphasize that ukiyo-e was a commercial venture, and a process that involved multiple figures. The print designer only ever painted designs for prints, often with considerable influence from the market (i.e. what would sell, what was popular) and/or input from publishers – we really should be comparing them more to designers, illustrators, comicbook artists and the like, who do not simply produce whatever they want, out of their personal emotional expression and individual genius inspiration, but instead are hired or commissioned by publishers to produce specific products, often with particular content and in a particular style. In ukiyo-e, the designer’s design would then be carved into blocks by a professional block carver, and printed by hand by a professional printer, with the original designer very often /not/ having the final say on colors. Furthermore, it was whoever held the woodblocks (a person called the hanmoto, often the publisher) who had the right to reproduce, or even to alter, images – in this way, too, the ukiyo-e print designer resembles the comicbook artist; the basic design, the likeness, the character, of Wolverine and Batman are owned by Marvel Comics and DC, and not by the individual writers or artists who originally designed them. In short, print designers were not “artists” in the Renaissance/post-Renaissance modernist / post-modernist way we tend to think of artists today; they were not the individual inspired genius who produced whatever he chose, and was celebrated for his inspiration, as we tend to think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Pollock, Rauschenberg, today. And Marks addresses this in the book, not only in essays, but also by including such a large section on biographies of publishers. Apologies for repeating myself, but I am surprised, therefore, that he would nevertheless employ the word “artists” in the title, and throughout the book. I wonder if this was pushed upon him by the publisher, in order to make it more accessible to a wider, more popular audience, or something.

Some of Marks’ publisher’s biographies are quite good, quite thorough and informative as they are for the artists. With others, however, I have some difficulties. In some of these bios, he explicitly discusses who took over a publishing operation (and the name of the head) in each generation – who was the second Tsutaya Jûzaburô, and the third? Were they biological sons, or apprentices adopted in? Or were they son-in-laws, who married Tsutaju’s daughters? For some of the publishers, we get these narratives. For others, from Marks’ biographies, you might almost be inclined to think that a given publisher – the same individual person – was actively active in publishing for decades and decades, since he spends so little time talking about how many different people took on each publisher’s name, when they succeeded one another, etc. Moriya Jihei, for example, is described as having been a member of the Jihon toiya, or “Picture Book and Print Publishers Guild” in 1807, worked with Utamaro around that time, with Hokusai in the 1830s, was a member of the “Old Faction,” or moto gumi, of that same guild as of 1851, and as of 1876 was still active. That’s an active career of nearly seventy years; not just a life of seventy years – this man would have to have been at least 80-something in the end, and that’s if he started when he was 12. Was this the same man? Who knows? Marks doesn’t seem to even /acknowledge/ the question.

In any case, and this is an important point – I do not have Marks’ Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, published only a year earlier, immediately at hand, but from what I remember seeing in there, I would not be surprised if much of the content is duplicated. So, be careful. Don’t buy both thinking you’re going to get 100% all-new content.

By way of saying something overall about this book, in the end, I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for out of a book on woodblock prints. For someone looking for their first book on woodblock prints, I think I would recommend Frederick Harris’ book, which I reviewed recently, over this one. Whereas Marks’ book is devoted chiefly to individual bios of individual artists and publishers, Harris’ book will take you through the styles and genres, the chronological progression of the evolution of the art form, the introduction of different materials and techniques… much of the foundational narratives and other concepts and knowledge about the history and development of woodblock prints in general. You won’t get such a clean narrative from Marks’ book – outside of the essays, within the bios, I’m not sure you’ll really get a good sense of when and how woodblocks got started, when and why landscapes became a big thing in the 1830s, when and how Prussian blue was first introduced and why that’s a big deal, or how prints flowed commercially and functioned discursively, as well as you would with Harris’ book. But that’s fine. Because not everyone wants or needs such a general, and introductory, sort of book. I am more than happy to have Harris’ book on my shelf as a great foundational, and broad-coverage book to turn to, but when it comes to ukiyo-e in particular, such a popular topic, popular among art collectors and just general public armchair enthusiasts, as well as those who just dip their toe into Japanese things only a little, those who are just buying it as a neat present, or as a coffee table book, there are a wealth of introductory-level books out there on ukiyo-e. So I am glad, too, to have a book like this one by Andreas Marks, which does something very different. He allows those other books to cover that other stuff, and focuses in on providing bios of tens and tens of artists and publishers, many of whom I’d only ever find the tiniest bit about in most of those other books. So, the next time I’m looking for something on Adachi Ginkô, Utagawa Kokunimasa, Eishôsai Chôki, or Toshinobu, I’ll have somewhere to look. Or even, if I’m looking for some names & dates sort of details about the life of Hiroshige or Hokusai (e.g. when did he take on the name Hiroshige? 1812.) without having to wade through pages and pages about style, I’ll have this book to turn to.

Much of the information on the publishers does seem to duplicate what’s in the compendium, so I’m not sure whether or not it’s valuable to own both; this is something I’ll have to look into. Also, I must note that while Marks does include many lesser-known ukiyo-e print designers here, there are still plenty he does not cover. If you want to learn anything about Ekin, or Hiroshige II or III, you won’t find them in this book. And you also won’t find much about ukiyo-e painting, a topic still woefully overshadowed by the popularity of prints. I’m still waiting for books (there might be a few out there, but waiting for them to become more numerous and more dominant) which talk about ukiyo-e as a school, or movement, or genre, that included both prints and paintings and illustrated books, all at once, pushing a shift in popular perception from the idea that “ukiyo-e = prints” to the idea that prints are no more major, no more important, no more emblematic of ukiyo-e than books or paintings. The vast majority of these “artists” were doing all three, and some would likely privilege paintings or book illustrations over prints, in fact. It’s about time we get the popular public conception to acknowledge and accept that.

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Having a blog really has its perks every now and then. I was recently contacted by some folks at Tuttle Publishing, who were gracious and generous enough to offer me a review copy of their 2010 book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, by Frederick Harris. I’d seen the book on Amazon, but didn’t think too much of it, given how many other books with similar titles are out there, most of them really quite ordinary.

It’s only been offered to me a couple times, but generally, I’m a bit hesitant to agree to review books. What if they turn out to be really quite ordinary? What if I find I have nothing too much positive to say? Well, in this case, it turns out I needn’t have worried. Really. I have to admit, I have not had the time to read it through, cover to cover, but this book is gorgeous. Tons of full page full color images, and whereas many museum exhibition catalogs, by their nature, devote upwards of 75% of their pages to just catalog entries, Harris strikes a great balance, with lots of images but also lots of essays and other content. This is very much not the type of book which contains one to five introductory essays, and then just catalog entries for the rest of the volume.

Harris has twelve full chapters, on topics ranging from Materials and Techniques to Collecting and Caring for Prints. And while he does do service to the standard categories of images, such as landscapes, beautiful women, actors & sumo wrestlers, and heroes & ghosts, he also has chapters dedicated to book illustrations and “foreigners in Japan” (chiefly Yokohama-e, from the Bakumatsu period). This is a big deal, as Harris departs beautifully from the artificial boundaries that so many books on prints elect not to cross. I don’t know whether it has to do with the influence of collectors and dealers (rather than professional art historians or curators) on the historiography, or if it’s the nature of art history and art museum curation as well, but, for a long time, writing on ukiyo-e has been dominated by aesthetic and stylistic concerns, categorizing prints into numerous sub-categories, and categorizing them as entirely separate from illustrated books, paintings, or anything else. Only recently, I think, have we started to see much more discussion, in books such as this one, in museum exhibits, and elsewhere, emphasizing a more holistic, integrated view of Edo period popular culture, placing the prints into their cultural context and describing them alongside their cousins – the illustrated book, and the painting.

As a result of this particular history of the discourse on ukiyo-e, the average person on the street, even if they know something about Hokusai, something about Japanese woodblock prints, probably does not know that most ukiyo-e artists, Hokusai included, did just as much painting and book illustrations as single-sheet prints, and some in fact specialized much more in one or another, but their work is no less magnificent or worthwhile for it. And most ukiyo-e artists also did just as much work in shunga (erotic prints) as in non-erotic pieces, if not more. Hokusai, Utamaro, Kiyonaga – all of them. And while Western and Japanese audiences alike may have been embarrassed by these pieces, or otherwise thought them inappropriate, for over a century – I believe their exhibition is still extremely restricted in Japan – at the time, such distinctions were not really made, and these works would not tarnish an artist’s reputation in any way; to the contrary, shunga were extremely popular.

So, I really applaud Harris including all of these things in his book.

Now, Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print is a book on prints, not on paintings, and that’s fine. Harris certainly goes more than far enough in his scope, including into the realm of prints all sorts of things all too often left out. (If you’re interested in a book on ukiyo-e painting, I would recommend the MFA’s exhibit catalog Drama and Desire.) Rather than focusing only on single-sheet prints from the Edo period, and rather than perpetuating the lionizing and canonization of the likes of Hokusai and Hiroshige (those these two certainly get their share of coverage in the book), Harris starts with the 8th century Hyakumantô darani, the oldest examples of woodblock printing from anywhere in the world surviving today, and incorporates here and there throughout the text images of shin hanga (“new prints”) from the 20th century as well. Further, in addition to devoting entire chapters to illustrated books and shunga, as I mentioned, he also sprinkles throughout the book images of aizome-e, which I’m pretty sure is the same thing I’ve seen referred to as ai-e or aizuri-e – variant impressions of prints which used only blue, in place of both the black lines and any other colors in the print. These were exciting experiments at the time when they were made, in the early 1830s, when Prussian blue, aka Berlin blue, the first artificial chemical pigment in the world first became available in Japan (as opposed to vegetable dyes, which often faded or discolored easily). It’s this Prussian blue which gives the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” its brilliant color, and indeed the examples of aizuri-e Harris includes on pages 106 and 115, by Hokusai and Hiroshige respectively, are stunning, especially in their use of bokashi (fading of color, frequently used in the blue of the sky fading into white at it approaches the horizon). These experiments in all-blue prints did not continue for too long after the early 1830s, though, as the blue pigment wore down the woodblocks much faster than other pigments did, and perhaps in part simply because the fad passed – in short, it got old.

I would need to read the book word for word to see how Harris addresses a variety of subjects, but from what I see from a cursory skim, Harris’ writing is not only easy, quick reading, and engaging, but also thorough and informative. If you’re already fairly knowledgeable about prints, this might not provide the most radically new insights or approaches for you; but, I can see this as an excellent book for someone just first getting into Japanese prints – nothing will ever be as classic a mainstay as Richard Lane’sImages from the Floating World,” but Lane has some problems, and Harris’ book is not too dense, or dry by a long shot, but also not at all too shallow, or misinforming. Harris uses lots of specialty terms, such as uki-e, bokashi, and hanshita-e, but introduces them properly, making them easy to follow and to learn.

He also includes or emphasizes a number of points which, if not entirely new and radical, are certainly not emphasized strongly enough or often enough elsewhere. To point to one example, people commonly believe that the designer of each print was an “artist,” uniquely inspired, brilliant in his design abilities and aesthetic sense, a creator of works which are distinctive expressions of his unique personality. The decades and decades of love for Hokusai, Hiroshige, and all the rest, canonized by name, doesn’t help. Yet, here, Harris emphasizes on the very first page of his Preface, that “it is also important for readers to realize that the making of prints was a collaborative effort between the artist, woodblock carver, printer and publisher.” He also goes into fuller detail than I’ve seen many other books do as to the block-carving and printing process itself, including brilliant photos of the chisels and baren and how they were used, and of a key block and its resulting printed image, visually demonstrating the process beautifully.

This post has gone on long enough, so I suppose I shall stop here. I eagerly look forward to reading this through more fully, and seeing what new things I might learn about prints that even I had not come across before.

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Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.

This post was just a cheeky mini-update to share a print series I happened upon.

William Pearl, a local Honolulu-based art collector and overall really nice guy, has, in “The Kuniyoshi Project“, put together a beautiful and thorough website cataloging and sharing the works of Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861), an ukiyo-e artist especially known for his print series depicting famous warriors, and for the innovative effects deployed in them. You may know him from a particularly famous work depicting a skeleton spectre.

In any case, in 1847-48, Kuniyoshi apparently produced a series of 10 prints depicting famous swords and the warriors / stories to which they belong. The one above features our “hero”, Fukuoka Mitsugi, with (presumably) Okon (a courtesan in the teahouse, and Mitsugi’s chief love interest character) in the background. Unless that’s Manno (the scheming mama-san of the teahouse)… I find it interesting that in a series of famous swords, it is Mitsugi’s name, and not the words “Aoi Shimosaka” (the name of the sword) which appear in the cartouche (the title box).

I have not taken the time to read through the whole inscription (it’d be better/easier if I had a larger version of the image), but one can assume it tells the story of the play. We see the artist’s signature in the mid-to-lower left, with a seal that I guess belongs to the artist, though it could belong to the publisher, Ise-ya Ichibei (a coincidence, I am sure). Another publisher’s seal, reading “hanmoto [printer/publisher] Ise Ichi”, appears on the stone by Mitsugi’s foot.

I was also interested to notice that another print in the series also features a sword by Shimosaka Yasutsugu, though I have yet to find anything much at all about the play “Oriawase Tsuzure no Nishiki” in which this character, Shundô Jirôemon, appears.

I love the splotchy texture of the red used here, and the realization that Kuniyoshi would have had to carve a separate woodblock of just handprints and such for applying the red ink onto the print. I cannot say for sure in what order the colors were applied, but the idea of having each copy of this print be relatively “clean” and then be “bloodied” in the course of its production is pretty interesting and amusing to me.

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The elaborate, ornate costume associated with the Ming in kabuki, loaded with ruffles, can be seen in this “Battles of Coxinga” triptych by Kunichika.

Satoko Shimazaki was the third presenter on the panel “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage,” which I wrote about in my previous post. I was particularly excited to meet her, as she is not only a kabuki specialist, but combines this with research on popular publishing, and on perceptions of the foreign – all things at the core of my research interests.

In her presentation, Shimazaki discussed the appearance of Ming China, or Ming individuals, in kabuki, with a particular focus on the 1715 play “The Battles of Coxinga” (Kokusen’ya kassen).

She first introduced the 1818 play Shitennô ubuyu no Tamagawa (四天王産湯玉川), in which a Ming princess travels all the way to Japan to see the great actor Ichikawa Danjûrô, and showed us some images of that scene, from illustrated woodblock-printed books of the time. I tried to find a similar image, on Google Image Search, to share with you, but was sadly not successful. This seems a wonderful, amusing example of how playful and humorous kabuki can be – and, also, the cult of the actor, i.e. the power of celebrity, which plays such a major role in the character of the kabuki theatre.

She then turned to discussing The Battles of Coxinga, an epic-length jidaimono based on the legend of Coxinga, aka Zheng Chenggong, a half-Japanese Ming loyalist who led forces on Taiwan in raiding the Chinese coast and otherwise fighting off the Qing (Manchu) forces which had taken much of mainland China. In the play, Zheng is referred to as Watônai, typically written 和藤内, but a reference to 和唐内, meaning “between (内, nai) China (唐, ) and Japan (和, wa).” Shimazaki argued, however, that these three characters can also be interpreted as meaning not only “both Chinese and Japanese,” but also “neither Chinese nor Japanese,” or “heard of in both China and Japan.”

Shimazaki tells us the term “Japan” appears numerous times in the script. What form this takes, whether it’s Nihon, or Wa, or some combination of those and other terms, is unclear (though I imagine one could figure out quite easily by just finding a copy of the play… and, at least in one scene, a Ming princess in Japan, asking for help, employs the term “Nihonjin”), but, regardless, this is pretty important. Many scholars argue that there was no sense of “national” identity in the Edo period, but, while I agree that there certainly is no integrated nation-state of Japan in the modern sense, and that modern(ist) discourses of “nationalism” might likewise not apply, it is nevertheless clear that there was a conception of “Japan” during the Edo period. It was not solely a local conception, in which identity was based in village, province, or domain. This conception of “Japanese” identity was, however, different from modern conceptions of ethnicity in important ways. David Howell writes about the Ainu being able to become Wajin (and vice versa) simply by changing their appearance, behavior, and customs. This sort of malleable notion of identity is seen too in the play, as Watônai converts some Tartars into Japanese by shaving their pates (i.e. giving them Japanese hairdos) and giving them samurai swords.

This brings us to the question of the word “Tartars.” “Tartar” is a broad, all-encompassing word employed in pre-modern Europe to refer indiscriminately to any and all steppe peoples, including Mongols, Manchus, and various sorts of Turks. This seems a pretty good translation for the Japanese word Tattan (韃靼), which similarly refers indiscriminately to a variety of steppe peoples. The similarity between these two terms – neither of which refers accurately to a specific people – is surprising and interesting; I wonder if Shimazaki addresses this in a fuller (published or to-be-published) paper. I’ve looked it up briefly in JapanKnowledge (an online resource which searches multiple encyclopedias and dictionaries), but didn’t find anything much on the origins of the term… Though, we are told that the Wakan sansai zue (one of the most prominent encyclopedias published in Edo period Japan) associates the term Tattan with the Mongols, Jurchens, Manchus, and even the Russians – anyone who could fit within the category of “Northern Barbarians” (北狄). Part of the identification of the Tattan as barbarians, Shimazaki explained, derives from their identity/location outside of the classic Three Realms: India as the home of Buddhism, China as the home of Confucianism, and Japan as the Land of the Gods (i.e. the home of Shintô), with Tattan thus being the home of none of the major Teachings (教) or Ways (道).

Through these examples, and others, Shimazaki showed that the Ming represented in Edo period popular culture was not the actual contemporary China, but rather an idea, an imagined space of a past era. In other words, the Ming survives on, as an idea in the Japanese collective imagination.

This can be seen, too, in some of the works which I’ve been looking at in my own research, and which Shimazaki brought forward too; books such as Bankoku jinbutsu zue (“Pictures of the Peoples of the World”) by Nishikawa Joken show the Ming and the Qing separately. Of course, there is some validity to this, as in our modern conception of race and ethnicity, we would think to organize such a book separating the (Han) Chinese from the Manchus, which is essentially what they’re doing. But, in works such as Joken’s “Peoples of 42 Countries” (四十二国人物図) and “Expanded Thoughts on Trade & Commerce with Civilization & Barbarians” (増補華夷通商考, Zôho ka’i tsûshôkô, 1708), he labels the Ming explicitly as equaling Chinese civilization or culture (中華), and the Qing as being the Chinese civilization or culture of “today” (今の中華). In other words, there is a sense that the Qing is not the real China, that the Ming is the real China, controlled, occupied, or suppressed, that the Qing may be temporary, and that the Ming could come back. Of course, as of 1708 or so, not even the Qing Court could have predicted that their rule would last the better part of 300 years, all the way until 1911. Even today, when “The Battles of Coxinga” is performed, the Qing is represented as lasting only 180 years, as Chikamatsu had it (actually, it’s kind of surprising that Chikamatsu, in 1715, would put it at 180 years, and not some shorter period, if indeed people had a sense of the Qing being only a temporary blip, and the Ming rising again). Of course, it’s not as if the play is particularly historically accurate in other respects, anyway. It does end, after all, with the revival of the Ming, something that (sadly, arguably) did not occur in reality – the entirety of the Chinese Imperial system, and so much of its traditional culture, fell with the Qing, in 1911, or with the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

As the Qing Dynasty went on, Shimazaki argues, the concept of the Ming became detached somewhat from the geography – people recognized that Qing Dynasty China was the China of their time. Ming thus became a marker for historical China, for Chinese culture and civilization in a somewhat free-floating way, existing no longer in the physical space of China, but now in a more free-floating cultural, intellectual, conceptual space.

And, while certain aspects of the understanding or conceptualization of the Ming may have been based in accurate historical/cultural understandings, as Keiko Suzuki and others have also detailed, the conceptualization of what comprised Ming culture or identity quickly came to be confused and conflated with a variety of other elements, forming a broader, more general concept of the “foreign.” Shimazaki cites pennants carried in the production of The Battles of Coxinga which read 「清道」 (lit. “Pure Way” or “Way of the Qing”?), and which closely resemble those carried by Korean – not Chinese – embassies to Japan. Another prominent element which she shows us appears frequently in theatre and in prints is the association of the Ming with lavish, ornate clothing, with lots of ruffles. I am no expert on Chinese theatre, but I can kind of see how elements of this aesthetic could be taken from jingju costume; that said, however, when would kabuki performers or ukiyo-e print designers have gotten a chance to see jingju costumes or performances? Shimazaki also pointed out that the goddess Benten is often depicted in these Ming-style robes, looking very much like a Ming princess from the kabuki theatre; why, however, remains unclear, as Benten is, so far as I know, not generally associated with being Chinese any more so than the other six of the Seven Lucky Gods.

In the course of the Q&A after Shimazaki-sensei’s presentation, a number of other questions and issues came up. One was the question of how depictions of China in bunraku & kabuki, as discussed in her talk, compare to representations of China in the Noh. This is certainly an interesting question, given that the Noh comes from a different period, and a rather different cultural context. I would imagine, just off the top of my head, I feel as though Noh is more connected to classic stories of classic figures, and would represent China more as a classical source of Confucianism, Taoism, wisdom, magic, certain legendary figures or certain gods, rather than as a contemporary foreign country or culture in the way Coxinga does, when it engages with recent historical events.

Shimazaki had also mentioned at one point that it was difficult for theatres to put on productions of Coxinga, explaining that kabuki theatres operated on a schedule organized around certain themes. The majority of kabuki plays retell stories from the Japanese past (or from legend), and most plays fit into a particular sekai (“world”), whether that be stories of Yoshitsune & Benkei, or stories of the Soga Brothers; Coxinga, Shimazaki argued, did not fit well into this schema, and so, thematically, it was difficult to find a thematically appropriate time/space to fit it into the schedule of a theatrical season. Indeed, many 19th century guides to the various sekai of kabuki plays either omit Coxinga entirely, or list it under “miscellany.” I have never read or seen Coxinga myself, or studied much about it, but I was interested to learn that, in fact, it was originally composed as a gamble, as something very new and different, to draw audiences to the theatre and keep the theatre going after it lost its chief chanter (Takemoto Gidayû – more or less the founder/inventor of the chief bunraku chanting style). This brings us back to Sarah Kile’s presentation about Chinese playwright Li Yu, who was constantly preoccupied with remaining cutting-edge, new, and fresh, and which I wrote about in the previous post.

I think that Prof. Shimazaki’s research on conceptualizations of the foreign in the Edo period will be of great use for me as I move forward with my research on Ryukyuan-Japanese interactions in that period, and I love that she does kabuki as well. I suppose I won’t be working with her directly any time soon, since we are not at the same institution, but I do eagerly look forward to reading more of her scholarship, and perhaps getting a chance to speak with her more in future.

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I was down in SoHo yesterday evening to check out a clearance sale happening at a Taschen retail store. You may think you haven’t heard of Taschen, but in truth you probably have – they’re a Germany-based publisher of art and design books, and have a fairly distinctive style of book design consistent across nearly all of their publications. In any case, though many of the books at the store were surprisingly cheap, none were what I had gone hoping for (Japan art/design books, of course), so I left Taschen and went off in search of dinner.

I am not so familiar with SoHo, so I didn’t know where to go or where to look, but just wandered, keeping my eyes out for anything that looked good. Broadway (near Prince), along with many of the surrounding streets, is loaded with clothing stores and boutiques – from H&M, Uniqlo, Louis Vuitton, and Banana Republic to smaller, smaller-name shops. Exploring out a tiny bit further, I found plenty of bars and slightly upscale restaurants. But none of these was a place I’d feel comfortable going and sitting by myself and reading a book. Table for one, please. It takes a special type of establishment for that to not be awkward or out-of-place. Also, since the whole reason I was down there looking for dinner instead of just rushing home was so that I could try to partake a tiny bit in the experience of being in New York, I wasn’t going to just settle for Subway or a pizzeria. There are hundreds (thousands?) of wonderful, different, special, unique, interesting eateries in New York, and if I couldn’t find one, I was not going to go somewhere so totally standard (or sub-standard).

Then, just as I was about to give up and head home, I came upon Hiroko’s Place. The menu features such items as omuraisu, Japanese curry rice (kare-raisu), melon soda ice cream floats (クリームソーダ), spaghetti with tarako sauce, and green tea parfaits. A bookshelf near the entrance is loaded up with Japanese-language manga for guests to peruse. The walls are covered with amateur sketches of geisha and little girls, many of them in a style reminiscent of the edginess of Yoshitomo Nara. The tables, floor, and overall decor are dark wood, the chairs an eclectic mix. Boxes of Pocky, Hi-Chew, and other Japanese sweets/snacks line the counter. And the Japanese-speaking waitresses call out sweetly “Irasshaimase!” as you walk in the door. Yes, this is the perfect place to sit, have a good meal, and to relaxedly take my time, over tea or a parfait, as I continue making my way through Luke Roberts’ new book.

There are plenty of excellent Japanese establishments in New York (and plenty of not so good ones), but Hiroko’s Place takes it a step further in terms of authenticity and inspiring a feeling of natsukashisa (nostalgia). Sitting there, I could almost forget that I’m in New York, and not in Kyoto, or in Shimo-Kitazawa. There is no one element that makes it so special, but rather the overall look and feel of Hiroko’s Place just seems pittari (spot-on), just like the café/restaurants one might discover in certain neighborhoods throughout Japan.

I wish Hiroko’s Place were located in a neighborhood I more regularly frequent. It is a true Third Place – somewhere you spend time outside of home or work/school – or has the potential to be such, and outside of cookie-cutter corporate places like Starbuck’s, I find these to be surprisingly rare; the atmosphere and style of the place invites one to relax, take your time, reading, doing work, chatting with friends, or just hanging out in an environment that’s something of an escape from the outside world, and from time and responsibilities. There’s something about the place that makes it feel like you’re truly a “guest”, and it feels like a more cultural, more artsy, more ideal place than the mundane world outside. Like it exists in a world where the ideals of beautiful, relaxing cafés can be more real than they apparently can outside.

The decor, the menu options, and various other aspects of Hiroko’s Place remind me of countless places I’ve been to in Japan. But in terms of this particular point of the oh-so-special feel of the atmosphere, it reminds me in particular of Sarasa, a café/restaurant I discovered in northern Kyoto, a few blocks from the house I stayed in two summers ago. In the end, I only went to Sarasa twice, but it felt very much like the kind of place I would want to make a regular part of my life, and to become a regular at.

Sarasa also has shelves of manga, and like Hiroko’s Place, this is not a corporate space, not sleek and shiny and mass produced. Rather than the sterile feeling of a chain restaurant, it feels more human, and more real, like real people actually went out to vintage furniture shops or something and picked what they liked – that personal taste, more so than corporate market research, determined the look and feel of the place. I don’t know the story behind Sarasa, if it used to be a bathhouse, or if it still is, or if it only looks like one. But, like a bathhouse, or a ski lodge, it has a feeling of a gathering place where people come and spend time in a common space. It feels like a place to spend time, rather than a place where you come to eat, pay, and leave. Even in the heat of the summer, in the middle of the city, the blue tile walls and unfinished wood furnishings somehow reminded me of a ski lodge – not that I’ve ever actually been to one – and of the feeling of escaping the cold snowy outdoors, retreating here after a long day outdoors, to pass the remaining hours of the evening relaxedly, reading or chatting, and just enjoying the physical proximity of strangers doing the same.

Of course, there are a great multitude of things I love about Kyoto – from its historical sites to its art galleries & museums, traditional crafts, traditional performing arts, natural beauty, bikeableness, and traditional architecture – but the fact that Kyoto is filled with cafés like Sarasa, like Café Bibliotic Hello, and eFish (the last of which I have not yet written about) is high on my list. It is places like these that help make Kyoto feel so much more human, more welcoming, more livable, that make it a place I would want to live and not just to visit. A city where I can bike to my favorite café, where I am a regular, and sit and do reading or homework of whatever sort, and just relax and savor the fact that I am living “the life” as it were. Rather than just running around as a tourist trying to see as much as I can as quickly as I can.

I eagerly look forward to the next time I get to live in Kyoto for a spell, so I can go more regularly to places like Sarasa, and maybe someday live or work in SoHo, so that I can go to Hiroko’s Place as well more regularly.

What are some of your favorite cafés that you’ve been to?

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A continuation from my last post – today, a quick rundown of some of the many things I would love to see and do on Okinawa Island and its small neighboring islands; I hope that some of you might share similar interests, or might, after visiting Okinawa yourself, develop an interest.

(Click map to embiggen.)

*Okinawa Island
I went to Okinawa once before, just for a few days, exploring the capital city of Naha, which has grown to contain the historical capital of Shuri. The city is as modern as any provincial city in Japan, and parts of it in fact feel not all that different. There are apartment buildings, shopping malls, all the things you’d expect to find in a modern city.

The Okinawa Monorail, or Yui Rail, runs from Naha Airport to Shuri, and there are plans underway to extend it further; in my limited experience, I think it should be able to take you to pretty much anywhere in Naha City that you’d want to go.

The main attraction in Shuri, not immediately outside the last stop on the monorail, but a short walk away, is Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, utterly destroyed in 1945 and rebuilt in the post-war. The famous Shureimon, one of the most famous symbols of Okinawa, is part of the palace complex. Perhaps not as extensive as some Japanese castles, Shuri castle is nevertheless a fairly large set of grounds, with many baileys or sections, as well as several halls you can enter and walk through, plus the Engakuji, Benten-dô, Ryûtan Pond, and a few other historical sites and the like in the immediate vicinity. Tamaudun, the royal mausoleum, is a short walk to the west.

The Kinjô-machi Stone “Tatami” Road is a cobblestone walking path with leads from the area around the castle, through a residential neighborhood with a somewhat more quaint, traditional sort of feeling, down to the Shikina-en Royal Gardens. The gardens were closed the day I went, so watch out for that, but the walk was still quite enjoyable.

In contrast to the historical adventures of Shuri, Kokusai-dôri, the main road running through the center of town, is the chief place for shopping and nightlife. Starting at Kenchômae Station, and walking east, this is where you’ll find aloha shirts and all sorts of other tourist goods (souvenirs), and shimauta (lit. “island songs”) live bars. Kokusai-dôri also connects into the Heiwa-dôri and Makishi Markets, a huge sprawl of alleys and lanes lined with street stalls selling fresh fruits & veges, fish, meat, noodles, etc., as well as saké & awamori, and other goods, along with some noodle shops & other small “luncheonette” style restaurants and the like.

Walk north from Kenchômae Station, and you’ll be moving towards Kume and Naha Port. As you get closer, it’ll start to seem even more and more like a beach town sort of neighborhood. Kume was, historically, the center of Classical Chinese learning in the Ryukyu Kingdom, and the home of the aristocrat-scholar-bureaucrat class from which most government officials came. Today, a beautiful Chinese garden called Fukushûen (built in the 1990s) reminds us of the neighborhood’s historical cultural identity. Keep moving towards the beach, and you’ll find Naminoue (lit. “Above-the-Waves”) Shrine, perched atop a cliff overlooking the only public beach in Naha City. (Maybe it was a bad day, but I was severely underwhelmed by Naminoue Beach.) A small handful of other temples and such can be found in the area here, along with, somewhere, a plaque that I never managed to find, commemorating Commodore Perry’s time in Ryukyu.

Finally, one more neighborhood of Naha worth mentioning is Omoromachi, also known as Shintoshin (lit. “new city center”), an area which has recently come to be developed, with high-class shopping malls, a very nice public park, and most importantly the new prefectural museum which opened in 2007.

I’m sure there is plenty more to see and do in Naha, but I think it’s about time we moved on to talking about the rest of the island, which I myself have yet to visit, but would very much like to.

The main sites in Southern Okinawa seem to be Sefa-Utaki, the most sacred place in the traditional indigenous Ryukyuan religion, and a variety of sites associated with the Battle of Okinawa. You can visit an underground Imperial Japanese Navy Headquarters, as well as several memorials, including the chief Battle of Okinawa Memorial & Peace Park & Memorial Hall. The Navy HQ is apparently only a five-minute taxi ride from the Onoyama-kôen monorail stop; the Peace Park / Memorial Hall, and the Himeyuri Monument & Museum, in Itoman City, are a bit more difficult to get to, but it seems the public buses will get you there. The public buses can also take you to Sefa-Utaki.

Good to know – when I went to Okinawa, I was given the impression (I don’t really remember where, or by whom) that the public buses didn’t really go to most of the sites I’d want to visit, and that really the only way to see Okinawa is by taxi or rental car. Since I don’t drive, it’s good news to read that the buses, in fact, can take you to many of the major sites. Though, considering my more obscure historical interests, I’m sure there’s still plenty I won’t be able to get to so easily.

The main attractions in Central Okinawa, judging from the Tourist Bureau pamphlets, seem to be the gusuku. Gusuku are Okinawa’s distinctive form of castle or fortress; the only one in any state close to being intact is the rebuilt Shuri Castle I mentioned above; all that remains of the rest, so far as I know, is the winding stone walls, although given that these castles would have been built in wood, with tile roofs, and given the extent of the shelling and battle on Okinawa in 1945, this comes as no surprise. Three of the more famous/major gusuku sites – Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Zakimi – can be found in Central Okinawa. The latter two seem to be accessible by bus, but the pamphlet suggests taking a taxi to Nakagusuku from the bus stop. The Nakamura House, a traditional 18th century nobleman’s house (seemingly intact, having survived 1945?) is quite near to Nakagusuku castle.

The other Central Okinawan site highlighted in the pamphlet is Ryukyumura, a sort of theme park of traditional Ryukyu culture. Could be pretty cool, especially if you don’t have the time or money to visit the other islands, but I wonder if the experience at Ryukyumura isn’t something that can be had on some of the more remote Sakishima Islands. I’d be interested to check this out, for sure, if I happen to be in that part of the island; but I think I’d be more inclined to visit a historical theme park in mainland Japan, where I think it’s valid to make the blanket statement that there are likely extremely few neighborhoods or towns that are really as traditional as the experience of the theme park; by contrast, while I’m sure that even the most remote of the Ryukyuan Islands have modernized to an extent, I imagine that a relatively “authentic” “traditional” experience can still be had.

Northern Okinawa has the Churaumi Aquarium – one of the largest aquariums (aquaria?) in the world, and a definite must-see. The pamphlet doesn’t list it, but Nakijin gusuku is up here in the north, too. It was once the “capital”, so to speak, of the kingdom of Hokuzan, before the central Okinawan kingdom of Chûzan conquered it. Which reminds me, somewhere further south, maybe just north of Naha, in the city of Urasoe, is Urasoe yodore, a site where several Ryukyuan kings (prior to the construction of the mausoleum at Tamaudun) are buried. Northern Okinawa is also the home to America-mura, a USA-themed theme park, which I’d love to check out just for yuks.

I’d be remiss if I did like the pamphlets and just ignored the US military bases which occupy something like 20% of the land area of the island. Having only stayed in Naha during my one visit, I have no experience with how difficult it is to get around the bases in traveling to other parts of the island, or how much certain neighborhoods may be really dominated by the military (or anti-military) atmosphere… In my three days in Naha, I didn’t run into any of it. But, it’s something to be aware of when visiting. I really hate the idea of equating Okinawa with the military, as I am sure so many do, and I really want to push the idea that there is so much else to Okinawa other than the US military presence – namely, the local contemporary and traditional Okinawan culture – but, it does have to be acknowledged. Can’t just ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist. I’m sure the Okinawans have tried that already, and it didn’t make the bases go away.

Tonaki Island

The Outer Islands immediately surrounding Okinawa Island have plenty to see as well. Izena and Iheya, in particular, two small islands off the northwest coast of Okinawa, are the birthplaces of the founders of Ryukyuan dynasties, and feature statues or steles, at the very least, which I’d love to see.

Iejima, or Ie Island, boasts the tallest mountain in the prefecture, though it’s not much taller, I’m sure, than most of the most humble mountains in mainland Japan. Because of its geological origins as coral (limestone) islands, the Ryukyus are, on average, far closer to sea level than Taiwan or Japan, which boast actual mountains born of tectonic activity. Iejima also features a memorial to Ernie Pyle, the famous American wartime journalist who died there.

Aguni Island, 2hrs by boat from Naha, and one of the more distant islands in the “Okinawa Islands” vicinity, was the filming location for “Nabbie no koi“, a very touching Okinawan film directed by Nakae Yuji.

Tonaki Island, a similar distance from Naha, is known for its traditional architecture, according to the pamphlet. Makes me wonder what kind of architecture we would find on Aguni or Iejima or any of these other remote islands, or the extent to which those islands are more “traditional” or not, if this one is selected out as being especially known for this.

And that is that for the pamphlets. As I come across references to other historical sites, or other places of interest, in the islands, if I remember, I may come back here and edit these entries to turn them into more complete compilations of what to see in each area / each island.

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Returning to the July symposium I wrote about some time ago, Dr. Soren Edgren of Princeton University, and of the Chinese Rare Books Project, also spoke about a rather remarkable collection which has recently come to light.

I know next to nothing about Ming Dynasty publishing, and less about Chinese erotica, but apparently a very long-lived Japanese collector by the name of Shibui Kiyoshi (1899-1992) had a collection of early 17th century (very late Ming dynasty) Chinese erotic books that has proven quite valuable for scholars, revealing brand-new insights into technical and stylistic aspects of Chinese publishing at that time.

When Shibui passed away in 1992, whether out of embarrassment at the erotic nature of the collection, or for some other reason, his family apparently simply shut the door to his study and left it closed, locked, sealed away as if it had never existed. They told scholars the collection was lost or destroyed. And so, for roughly 10 or 15 years, so far as the scholarly/museum world knew, the collection was indeed lost forever. Yet, finally, recently, the family began granting access to the collection again for the first time.

Shibui had worked closely with Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik, a collector himself, and author of the Judge Dee Mysteries. Van Gulik was stationed in Tokyo from 1935-1942, being evacuated after the outbreak of war between Japan and the Netherlands, but he returned after the war, and began writing books such as “Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period” in 1951, and “Sexual Life in Ancient China: A Preliminary Survey of Chinese Sex and Society from ca. 1500 B.C. Till 1644 A.D.” in 1961. Oh, and by the way, he also raised gibbons in Malaysia. Because, you know, why not?

In any case, Shibui published some works himself, in the 1940s, on the role of Chinese prints in the origins of ukiyo-e, works which were noticed and cited by the likes of van Gulik and Richard Lane. Shibui graduated from Keiô University in Tokyo, and taught there for a short time …. I’m afraid Dr. Edgren did not into too much more detail about Shibui’s biography.

… When his study was finally opened a few years ago, scholars discovered a small collection of roughly nine Ming books from around 1600 to the 1640s, containing polychrome prints unlike anything seen before in Chinese art. Very few Ming erotic woodcuts survive today, apparently, and *none* outside of Shibui’s collection are in color. Scholars determined that these color prints were made primarily in Anhui and Nanjing, and, in contrast to the multi-block method pioneered by Suzuki Harunobu (d. 1770) and used extensively in Japan from then on, these Ming prints were made by applying color ink to different sections of the same woodblock.

These Chinese books, however, date to roughly 150 years before Harunobu, and seem, from what I’m gathering, to feature some technical aspects that, by Japanese standards, were really rather ahead of their time. Beginning in the 1620s, the Chinese began to produce multi-colored texts, using multiple blocks, with a main text in black, and then, for example, blue for punctuation and red for commentary. These books employed a registration system similar to the kentô system Harunobu would employ in 1765-70, in order to make sure the multiple different blocks lined up correctly on the page. Though something of a breakthrough in the 1760s in Japan, these Chinese books made use of what’s really a rather simple system. The black ink “main” block would print a small corner marking on the edge of the area imprinted; the corner of the red ink block could then be lined up with that marking. Very simple.

Printing in two colors in China actually goes back as far as the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), but the first book to make use of more than two colors was the Chengshi Moyuan, printed in 1604. This volume contained reproductions of European artworks, as well as an essay by Matteo Ricci, the earliest extant example ever of printed, published romanization for Chinese.

A technique used extensively in these books, however, which was not used very much, if at all, in Japanese printing, however, was something called douban (餖版) or “assembled block” printing, in which not a single block, but multiple smaller blocks would be arranged into the printing table, and then printed all at once onto the page. One end of the paper would be secured to the end of the table, so that it could be flipped over on top of the blocks (the printing surface), but would not slide or shift. The blocks were then affixed to the table with some kind of gum, and the paper flipped over on top of them, to be printed using a technique not unlike the Japanese way – using a piece of wood or something else to press or rub the paper into the inked blocks, by hand.

An example of this technique can be seen in book copies of the Ten Bamboo Studio Manual of Painting, where the douban technique is employed in an attempt to reproduce the effect of the boneless technique of painting (i.e. areas of color without line). Since all these different blocks are being printed at once, the need for registration marks or registration techniques is essentially eliminated, but since you’re using a number of small blocks, and not a single full-page-size block, the ability to have registration marks is also largely eliminated; If and when you finish a given print run and move the blocks off the table, you’ve lost your registration and cannot easily produce the same image again. Or so I understand.

Dr. Edgren showed images from Shibui’s collection, and I noted based on my own experience the surprising similarities of style to early ukiyo-e. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to find any images to share with you here. One example he shared is a very short book of only a few pages, lacking a title but called Sheng Peng Mai (I think). Each page has poetry on one side and an image on the other, a very standard Chinese format. The images use multiblock registration techniques to add some yellows and blues, limited colors. Thin black lines and generalized (i.e. not individualized) faces resemble early ukiyo-e very closely in the simplicity and soft, curvy gracefulness of the forms, and in the specific appearance of the faces. Much more dense, complex treatment is given to clothing, and to objects in the background, such as furniture.

Another book from Shibui’s collection is one for which I did not catch a name or title. It comes in several volumes, and Shibui owned several copies, one of which was previously owned by Kimura Kenkadô (!!)(1736-1802). Handwritten notes in the margins may be by Kenkadô himself. The images in this book less closely resemble ukiyo-e, but are close enough to make the date, 1606, quite impressive considering the similarity to Japanese materials of nearly 100 years later.

Perhaps one of the most impressive and interesting books in Shibui’s collection is one called the Huei Ying Jing Zhen (sp?), which Craig Clunas – one of the most respected Chinese art historians active today – has described as no longer being extant. He didn’t know about Shibui’s copy; no one did. Shibui owned two copies of the polychrome edition of this book, remounted as handscrolls. They consist of 24 images, followed by poetry. What makes these books so important, or interesting, is their full-color four-color covers, unlike anything seen even in the (later) Qing period, when the Japanese were producing things with five to ten colors using tens of blocks in some cases. The Huei Ying Jing Zhen also makes use of colors in the text.

Incidentally, another interesting and important difference between Chinese erotica and the shunga materials we are more familiar with from Japan is that while shunga generally depicts a “pleasure quarters” context, i.e. a brothel, the Chinese images generally take place in a domestic setting, i.e. at home.

As with Japanese shunga, the significance of these books is not limited to their identity as erotica. I have as little interest in erotica as the next guy, preferring cleaner subjects. But, to push these aside and ignore them would be to lose out on extremely important examples of early Chinese multi-color printing. Dr. Edgren concluded his talk by discussing briefly that books like these were used by ukiyo-e artists as well, and may have had some influence on their style, though I of course would be extremely hesitant to place too much importance upon the Chinese role in defining the ukiyo-e style. I think these artists were definitively Japanese, drawing upon earlier Japanese modes and styles, and also innovating dramatically; I think that figures such as Hishikawa Moronobu, Okumura Masanobu, and Nishikawa Sukenobu were innovators and creative pioneers, not simply copying from Chinese materials, but really developing the start of something new. Still, it is quite interesting and fun to think of the interchange and trade in published materials going on at the time, and to think of these artists having copies of Ming erotica.

It is wonderful to hear about this collection being re-discovered and made accessible. I hope that more good scholarship can come from this, and from other collections that are only first coming to light today.

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Matthi Forrer, curator at the National Museum of Ethnology (Museum Volkenkunde) in Leiden, and quite likely *the* leading scholar in the West on Hokusai, spoke with us yesterday about Edo period books, and things to notice and pay attention to when examining books. It was really enlightening.

I had known, on some level, of course, that there were different editions or versions of books, and that surely there must be ways to tell what’s a first edition, and what’s a later reprinting… I had known, that “artists” such as Hokusai were, when it came to books, really more like illustrators, holding very little power as to how their images were to be colored, altered, published and republished. But, it’s hard to shake that idea of the book as artwork, and the artist as the chief creative agent, with the publisher being just sort of an afterthought.

Dr. Forrer’s knowledge of Hokusai books is astonishing. He’d pull out a series of books from the shelf, and immediately knew what to look for to see if it was a first edition or a later edition, which volumes had prefaces or colophons or advertisements and which didn’t… I never really gave it too much thought myself, but while he did point out things to notice within the book’s core content (printing quality, etc.), he impressed upon us the understanding that the most important things to look at are the inside front and back covers, and the first and last few pages. This is where title pages, advertisements, and colophons would be found. Comparing these elements across different copies of the same book can reveal surprising insights into the different editions of a book.


Now, let’s see. Where to start. I guess let’s start with copy rights – who had the right or power to create new editions and how they used that power.

In Edo period Japan, as in most pre-modern or early modern societies, there was nothing resembling the concept “intellectual property” as we understand it today. Characters, stories, even artistic compositions (i.e. the arrangement of elements within a picture) were pretty much up for grabs. Painters copied one another’s works, and especially works of their masters and of the great masters of the past as a matter of course, as an essential part of their training, and often copied compositional or stylistic elements in order to pay homage or make reference to particular masters or works of the past. As for characters and stories, a popular character and story such as Sukeroku, for example, started out as bunraku (puppet) plays in Kyoto or Osaka, inspired perhaps by a real-life merchant and his affair with a courtesan. The story was soon adapted into a variety of different versions on the Kyoto Kabuki stages, and then adapted again by Ichikawa Danjûrô of the Edo kabuki actors, and adapted again roughly 100 years later into another version, from which today’s version most closely derives. Meanwhile, families other than the Ichikawa developed their own versions, and more to the point, print artists, book illustrators, painters, and the like produced countless different versions of pictorial and literary depictions of the character Sukeroku and his story.

No one owned a character, or a story. In fact, kabuki actors gave no permission and gained no profits from their own depictions in ukiyo-e prints – in a way, it could be said that actors didn’t even own their own likeness, or crests.

But publishers did own woodblocks. And they bought and sold them, inherited them, traded them or gave them away. The ability to produce or reproduce copies of a given book, such as Hokusai gafu (a picture album of works by Hokusai), relied upon possession of the blocks. We can determine who owned the blocks at the time of the publishing of a given edition by looking at the colophon (奥付, okutsuke), which, fortunate for us, was required (or merely standard practice?) to be included throughout much of the Edo period.

I certainly could have made out parts of this before yesterday, but Dr. Forrer showed us how to break down just about everything here. One key insight was that while a book might list a number of publishers, the leftmost one is the one who owns the blocks. So, in this example, just left of the dividing line, we see Kadomaruya Jinsuke (角丸屋甚助) of Edo, followed by Eirakuya Tôshirô (永楽屋東四郎) of Nagoya (尾州 standing for 尾張国, Owari province), each with their address given. And then, all the way to the left, we see Minoya Iroku (美濃屋伊六), with the 同 above his name meaning “same as” the Owari province, Nagoya designation of Eirakuya to the right.

Now, I would never have known any of this before yesterday, but Eirakuya Tôshirô was actually the publisher who worked directly with Hokusai on this and a number of other books in Nagoya – in books where his name is given on the far left, those are (I believe, in most cases if not straight across the board) earlier editions. Tôshirô worked with Kadomaruya Jinsuke to publish and distribute the prints in Edo, and so, if I understand correctly (and I very well might not), books with Jinsuke’s name on the far right were produced in Edo, not in Nagoya, and were slightly later editions. Jinsuke or Tôshirô later sold blocks for certain books to the famous Tsutaya Jûzaburô (or his successor, I guess? since the famous Jûzaburô who worked with Sharaku and Utamaro died in 1797 and most of these Hokusai books are around 1815-1830s), and so there are other editions that have his name to the far left, which are again later editions. I’ve never heard of this Minoya Iroku, so I don’t know what the story is there, but I can only assume this is an even later edition. Sadly, it’s not dated.

But, even if there were a date, it’s important to remember that this date would almost never be the date of printing, but the date of the original carving of the blocks. This is very useful, when looking at a book, even if we don’t know if it’s a later or earlier edition, to be able to very easily see what date that book was first published. Every copy of the first volume of Hokusai Manga, for example, should say Bunka 11 (文化十一年) in the back, which corresponds to 1814. Excellent information for knowing that that is when Hokusai Manga was first published. But it does not tell us whether the volume we hold in our hands is an 1814 copy, or a later edition.

To the right of the dividing line, we see Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) listed under 東都 (“Eastern Capital”, meaning Edo) and 画工, meaning “artist.” To the left of that we see the ‘O’ (尾) for Owari province, and Nagoya (名古屋) [I don’t know what the 陽 means here.], with Hokusai’s assistants or disciples (校合門人) in Nagoya, who contributed to the volume, listed.


Returning to the point about publishers having the power, and artists having little say, Dr. Forrer shared with us a number of anecdotes or examples of Hokusai’s works being changed up, mixed around, and republished under different titles, or even of other artists’ work being published under Hokusai’s name.

I had never expected to see such a thing, but he showed us how, even if two books have the same title, and look identical upon a quick glance, different editions of what claims to be the same book may easily have a few different images between them. One book might have pages ABCDE, and the other ABGHDE, if you follow my meaning. Some might have extra pages, or fewer pages.

He showed us a book, I think it may have been Ryôhitsu gafu (両筆画譜), which was created when the publisher took a series of blocks designed by Osaka artist Rikkôsai (立好斎), featuring poems along the top register, and altered them. He cut out the kabuki scenes, leaving borders of trees and rocks roughly an inch thick on all sides from Rikkôsai’s work, and then had Hokusai redesign the compositions, inserting his own scenes of peasants gathering firewood, or a number of other subjects. Rikkôsai is given credit in the book’s colophon, which says something like 「山水草木 浪花立好斎 ・ 人物鳥獣 江戸葛飾北斎」, meaning “landscapes and trees and plants by Rikkôsai of Naniwa [Osaka], and people, birds, and beasts by Katsushika Hokusai of Edo.” But, even so, this is a pretty dramatic alteration of the original composition, done presumably without any kind of permission or agreement from Rikkôsai, and simply at the whim of the publisher. Dr. Forrer pointed out to us how clearly you can see, on some pages, where the block-insert for Hokusai’s work didn’t align properly with the “frame” of the original, mutilated, Rikkôsai blocks.

One of Hokusai’s publishers, I think it was either Eirakuya Tôshirô or Kadomaruya Jinsuke, republished many of Hokusai’s books under new titles, combining pages from multiple books, say, three-quarters of “Hokusai Gafu” and one-half of “Hokusai Soga” (I’m making up the numbers, and probably getting the titles wrong – it’s just for an example) as a new volume, “Hokusai Gashiki.” For example. But then he’d go even further, using new pictures by artists such as Hokkei and Hokuun to create new volumes which he’d pass off as the same old ones – perhaps indicating Hokkei or Hokuun as the artist in the colophon in the back, but still labeling the book with the title “Hokusai Gafu” or whatever on the front.

Another of Hokusai’s books was republished in a smaller format, the blocks quite simply chopped off at the edge. Dr. Forrer showed us how a given page from an earlier edition might have a man holding an umbrella, with the umbrella about a half-inch from the edge of the page; in the smaller edition, the full circle of the umbrella’s shape is now cropped off by about half an inch. The same could be seen on every single page, where a figure or an object previously shown in whole was now cropped off. The cropped compositions looked just fine – even better, arguably, compositionally. But there was one which absolutely didn’t. I guess the publisher wasn’t really paying attention to what he was doing, when his cropping cut off the head of a pheasant, leaving the rest of the pheasant still on the page. Dr. Forrer was surprised to see in our edition a non-decapitated pheasant, surmising that this must be a later edition, and that the publisher must have at some point finally realized what he’d done.

I wish I had pictures of any of this to share with you… But, in a couple of years, when the Freer finally puts up its online catalog of all the book images we’re photographing this summer, we’ll all be able to access those pictures, every page, cover to cover.

COLLECTORS’ SEALS and other ephemera

Dr. Forrer spoke with us for about three hours – a serious privilege, an incredible opportunity. He talked about dealers and collectors, about the importance of recognizing marks and stamps and stickers. He pointed out in one book a stamp that read something like 高井蔵書院, meaning “Takai Zôshoin”, and said that from the quality and vividness (or, rather, lack thereof) of the red, he guessed it was an older seal, roughly contemporaneous with when the book was first published in the 1830s or so. Hokusai had direct interactions with a certain Mr. Takai, and so Dr. Forrer wondered if this might belong to him. He also noted that a certain French collector by the name of Gillet (sp?) is known for rebinding his Japanese books with silk-brocade-covered hardcovers and shiny gold title slips. We’ve seen a lot of these – they’re quite recognizable. Many of the books also come with extra slips of paper on which a collector, dealer, or the like has written their own notes, usually including the artist, date, title, and some other comments. Dr. Forrer immediately recognized the handwriting on several of them, including comments by Heinz Kaempfer and Jack Hillier.


I’ll leave this by touching upon one more topic. For any single edition or print-run of a single title of an Edo period book, how many copies do you think were printed?

I think it’s difficult to imagine or to estimate the size and scale of pre-modern or early modern societies. We know that the world was much less densely populated, and we assume that because of a relative lack of technologies and communications/transportation networks as compared to today, the numbers must have been much smaller.

He asked us this question, and we sort of looked around at each other. I, personally, have always been bad at estimating scale. Show me a crowded subway car, and I couldn’t tell you if that’s 50 people, or 100, without counting or otherwise calculating/estimating it out. So, I don’t know what numbers others were thinking… but considering that there were no automated factories of any kind, no large bookstore chains, no trucks or trains to carry copies all over the country, picturing individual printers having to sit down and physically rub out each printed page, one by one, and then give the copies to a small number of peddlers, streetside vendors, and the like, I figured how high could the numbers possibly be? I figured there couldn’t be more than 60-100 at most in a single print run. After all, how many people did Eirakuya Tôshirô have under his employ, to rub out pages? And how many street peddlers were there in Edo who had direct, in-person interactions with Kadomaruya Jinsuke in such-and-such street, such-and-such neighborhood, over in that particular corner of Edo, to pick up as many books as they could carry (and how many would that be?), to carry on their back as they walked around town advertising their wares?

No one else said anything. So, I said, “I think I remember reading somewhere recently that they did not in fact do large print runs, but only produced in accordance with demand, a few tens of volumes in this month, a few more tens of volumes in that month, so as to meet a perceived, or explicitly stated, demand.” Dr. Forrer replied something to the effect of “that’s what they want you to believe. The dealers, with their small print runs and their high prices for the rare objects would want you to believe that.”

He went on to explain that Edo in the 1810s-1830s or so had roughly 1.3 million people, and that a best-seller is defined as (defined by whom?) a book that reaches 1% of the population. So, a book like Hokusai Manga or “100 Views of Mt. Fuji” must have sold over 13,000 copies.

This is made possible, in large part, because of the materials being used. Sumi ink causes very little wear on blocks because the pure carbon is a very small particle. This compared to Prussian blue, or indeed any color, which is made up of larger particles, and causes much more wear. This is part of why the fad for printing in all blue, rather than all black, as seen in variant series of the 36 Views of Mt Fuji, did not last.

Unlike the incredible pressure applied to the plates in Western technologies of copperplate engraving, which results in great wear on the plates and low print runs, Japanese methods create very little wear on the blocks. Western printing using copper plates used some sort of mechanical device to press the plates into the paper, applying a great deal of pressure. By contrast, Japanese printing was done by hand, laying the paper over the inked block and rubbing the back of the paper onto the inked block by hand, in a process not entirely unlike taking a rubbing from a tombstone. The only weight or pressure involved is that of a seated man (read: not using his full body weight), using only the pressure exerted by his hands and arms upon the block. Thus, print runs in the thousands, or even above 10,000, were possible, the fine sumi and relatively light pressure creating relatively little wear on the blocks. (Blocks did get chipped, dinged, and repaired or altered, though, and we were shown some examples of how to notice that too.)

So, this is the scale of publication we’re talking about. I guess. I don’t understand the logistics of it, but, there is a lot out there on the Japanese book that I have yet to read, including Mary Beth Berry’s “Japan in Print” and Roger Keyes’ book on Ehon.

So, there you have it. More to come on Japanese books as my internship continues (and, soon, comes to an end), and as I gradually get around to typing up posts about other things I’ve read and seen and attended and heard. Cheers, all. Have a good weekend!

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As I mentioned a few days ago, I am working (interning) this summer with a collection of Japanese illustrated books, collected by Dr. Gerhard Pulverer, and now owned by the Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian.

The collection includes roughly 2,000 books, most but not all woodblock-printed, dating from the 17th century to as late as the 1950s, if not later. I think the latest book I’ve come across so far was dated 1955; the earliest, c. early 17th century, such as some hand-painted by Hon’ami Kôetsu (1558-1637).

Today, I thought I’d share some highlights of the collection. These are just things I have come across that grabbed my eye; I don’t know the whole collection inside and out that I can definitively say what are the highlights of the whole collection – this is just out of what I have seen so far. Ideally, I might have liked to Tweet or blog about these as I saw them, one highlight a day, or so, but it’s too late for that. Also, ideally, I really wish that I could share pictures with you all, since text descriptions are wholly inadequate, and if anything serve only as a tantalizing temptation, spurring a desire to see the actual images. Well, it may be a few years before those images are available, but I hope to come back at that time and share more about these books, more in-depth, or at least with images. For now…

*A thin memorial booklet in memory of kabuki actor Arashi Rikan, published on the occasion of his death by his fan club. I am told this is the only known extant copy of the book, which is a really gorgeous work. Though only about ten pages in length, every page features lavish decorative elements such as gold, silver, or mica, embossing, and/or really good, bold colors, all on a much thicker paper than you’d see in most more commercial books.

Right: A memorial print of kabuki actor Nakamura Kanjaku (1834-1861) by Utagawa Yoshitaki. Not an object in the Freer/Sackler Pulverer Collection, but of a type with the Arashi Rikan memorial book this post focuses on.

The book reflects a number of distinguishing features of the Kamigata (Kansai, i.e. Kyoto-Osaka area) popular culture of the time, in contrast to Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Firstly, kabuki fan clubs, especially fan clubs that organized their own publications, put on their own plays, composed poetry together, and often even enjoyed the company of the actors themselves at the club’s meetings, were much more common in Kamigata, and more prominent. By contrast, while I am sure there must have been fan clubs in Edo, the publishing of actor prints, and a wide variety of other activities associated with the theatre, were much more dominated by “professional” artists, publishing houses, and the theatres themselves. In short, it was a more commercial endeavor, in some ways, in Edo. Whereas this memorial booklet was put together by a fan club, in honor of the actor they adored so much, in Edo, I can only imagine memorial booklets, or prints, being put together by a big-name print designer, in concert with a big-name publisher, both of whom have had long and close relationships with the theatre that actor belonged to.

A second feature is the surimono quality of the book, in the high quality of the paper and printing techniques. Surimono (刷物) literally just means “printed thing,” but the term is used to refer specifically to a type of higher quality, limited print run print, often made on commission and/or for a specific patron. They were much more expensive, and were not made for general sale. Though full-color ukiyo-e printing, known as nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”) got its start with a commission from a small exclusive circle, who hired Suzuki Harunobu (d. 1770) to produce calendar prints for them, it was in Kamigata where surimono really took off. They were produced by publishers sometimes purely as gifts, other times on commission, but often in connection with an exclusive poetry circle or kabuki fan club, groups of actors, artists, merchants, samurai (sometimes), and other cultured, urban, high-class types who sought surimono either as gifts for one another, gifts for a guest, or, in this case, as something produced for the members of a fan club (and only for members of that fan club).

While I think the term surimono is generally used to refer to single-sheet prints, this book is, in essence, ten or so surimono stuck together as a book. Each page is on thick, stiff, expensive paper, with various patterns embossed into it (such as, perhaps, the pattern on the actor’s kimono in a given image), gold and silver foil, and expensive full-color pigments that are laid on thick.

This is the first and only such actor memorial book I’ve seen, and it’s really an incredible thing. Especially considering how, the vagaries of time and chance being what they are, we could easily have ended up instead with a book about a much lesser-name actor, and yet instead we have Arashi Rikan, easily one of the most prominent actors of his day.

Learn more about memorial portraits, or shini-e here.

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