Archive for the ‘日本史’ 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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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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The blog Heritage of Japan shares with us today a Japan Times article summarizing the history and importance of Hôryû-ji.

When UNESCO cast its beady, critical eye on Japan 18 years ago to assess the country’s cultural and natural merits with a view — in the agency’s ponderous prose — to “inscription on the World Heritage List,” it settled on four places that became the nation’s first entries to those ranks so adored by tourism associations.

It may have come as rather a surprise to some that Horyuji, located 14 km southwest of the city of Nara, should have been selected ahead of obviously much more famous Kyoto — and indeed Nara itself. But Horyuji really is exceptional. As well as being a landmark in Japanese history and the oldest existing Buddhist temple in the land, the complex of Horyuji contains the world’s oldest wooden buildings.

For those interested, you can read the rest at the original post on Heritage of Japan, or at the Japan Times.

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So, I’ve been cast as a taikomochi for the spring’s kabuki performance. But what is a taikomochi? No, it has nothing to do with Bubbie’s icecream-filled balls of pounded rice (mochi, 餅).

I figured it must be written as 太鼓持、taiko (太鼓) being a drum, and mochi (持ち) meaning “to carry.”

Right: A tsutsumi, or taiko, drum like that which a taikomochi would have played, though he would have also played shamisen and presumably other instruments as well.

c. 1925, by lacquer artists Kamisaka Sekka and Kamisaka Yûkichi; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2005.194.

Right: The wrong kind of mochi. We’re not talking pounded rice, here.

So, a drum-carrier. But what does that mean? Am I part of the hayashi, the orchestra? Judging from the context within the play, I could be a member of the retinue of the merchants and/or samurai who have rented out the back room of the teahouse for their party. But what would a samurai or merchant need of a drum-carrier? This isn’t the Union Army, that we should be talking about drummer boys.

Wikipedia identifies taikomochi as male geisha, before going into deeper detail. Okay, that makes more sense. A geisha (芸者) is a person (者) of the performing arts (芸); a “drum carrier,” too, would be a musician, an entertainer. That makes sense; I like that. So, I guess my character works for the teahouse, as a geisha would, providing entertainment, but not (necessarily) sleeping with the clients.

Let’s see what Cecelia Segawa Seigle, reigning expert on the Yoshiwara has to say on the subject.

One explanation for the origin of the term is said to derive from the time of Oda Nobunaga. The drummer Yozaemon, in service to Nobunaga, it is said, was “jealous of talented pupils, so he favored the untalented sycophant Idayû who was good [merely/primarily] at holding the drum;” Idayû thus came to be called taikomochi.1

I like the other story she provides better. In Buddhist processions, the drum would traditionally follow the bell. Since kanemochi (鐘持), or “bell-carrier,” is a homonym for kanemochi (金持) meaning “someone with a lot of money,” it’s a sort of ironic or sarcastic jab at the entertainer (the taikomochi) who follows around the wealthy client.1

Things, of course, do not remain constant over the course of the entire Edo period (1603-1868); after all, this is the period that saw the introduction of the shamisen, the rise of the geisha, the shift from male geisha to female geisha, and sooo many other shifts and developments over the course of the period. So, we cannot really generalize that the Yoshiwara (and the taikomochi) within would have operated the same in 1650 as in 1750, as in 1850. But, as our information is limited…

Segawa Seigle writes that in the Genroku period (1688-1704), this is more or less how it would have worked: A client would hire a taikomochi or two to entertain him and his party until the courtesans (who apparently took some time…) were ready.2 Have I mentioned that I have yet to read her book through? I do apologize that my understanding of other matters surrounding this is a bit weak – I’m really just skimming through the book for references to taikomochi and working from that, for now. I do very much hope to read the book eventually – maybe over summer break? – but for now, I apologize if I make any poor assumptions about aspects of how this all worked.

Apparently, though we rarely think of them being there, taikomochi were present throughout the history of the Yoshiwara, and in fact increased in number over the years, even as they lost their position as the chief entertainers to female geishas (and courtesans). They accompanied and entertained clients’ parties with song, dance, shamisen, and comic stories – pretty much the same things female geisha would specialize in. Apparently, at some point, the taikomochi split between musicians and those more skilled at comedy, and the term came to be applied more heavily to the jesters, to those who played the buffoon.3 Not that it necessarily makes a huge difference given my extremely small part, but I think I intend to play a proficient and upright musician rather than a buffoon, if given any choice.

Above: “Party Scene in the Yoshiwara” by Gessai Gabimaru, 1800. Hanging scroll; ink and color on silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.7592.
Could one of these men be a taikomochi? I wonder.

A novel from 1711 provides some tips for success as a taikomochi: To start with, a taikomochi must never upstage the clients, nor the women, but must always be humble; he is one of the lowest in station in the room, and must act like it. He must be sly and witty, but never show himself to be smarter or more knowledgeable than the patron, and must do whatever possible to protect the patron’s dignity and reputation. The taikomochi similarly must also watch out for himself, taking care not to drink more than the patron – or, if the situation allows, not at all. He must be witty in his foolishness, in just such a way as to make the whole situation playful and to make the patron say “what a fool you are!”3

The novel goes on to explain how patrons might sometimes buy a courtesan for the taikomochi, not as a genuine gift to the taikomochi (who, in the story, might prefer to have the money himself rather than having it spent on buying a woman for him), but rather, as an additional entertainer who would therefore be present at the patron’s parties.3

Here’s where it gets interesting. Who are the taikomochi? Where did they come from, and how did they get to become taikomochi? Well, the story for the women geisha and courtesans is a whole story unto itself, but Segawa Seigle writes that many taikomochi were themselves patrons, clients of the Yoshiwara who could not afford to maintain such an expensive lifestyle, and so turned to becoming entertainers. This was a way for men ruined financially by their expensive adventures in the pleasure districts, and now penniless, to still enjoy being a part of the world of the pleasure quarters – and possibly, I suppose, though Segawa Seigle doesn’t say it explicitly, to pay back debts owed. Known as nodaiko (野太鼓), these relatively talentless amateur entertainers would follow a daijin (wealthy patron/client) around, being the butt of his jokes, joking around with shinzô and kamuro (the child servant-apprentices to courtesans), eating, drinking, maybe even getting to bed a shinzô if the patron was willing to pay for it, and otherwise participating in pleasure quarters life as an actual member of that community, albeit a rather low-ranking one with little or no funds to his name. Nodaiko, like geisha or courtesans, also sometimes received garments or other gifts from patrons… Segawa Seigle describes them explicitly as “professional spongers.” Talentless though many of them might have been, they were valued by patrons who desired a larger entourage, and someone to make fun of, slap upside the head, and the like, all in good fun, of course.3

Taiko also sometimes acted as intermediaries, telling a patron when a courtesan was going to be late or couldn’t meet with him at all, and, leaving the patron there in the greeting room (or even in the genkan, I suppose, or even out on the street, perhaps), going deeper into the house to speak with the courtesan to arrange a new appointment on behalf of the patron. In her description of the patron striving to become tsû (that is, to become a real regular in the sense of really knowing his way around the pleasure quarters, being known, knowing all the ins and outs of the social protocol, knowing the girls and the teahouses), Segawa Seigle describes how a man might seek to manufacture an image of even being “too cool.” After finally earning the cred to be granted an appointment with a high-ranking courtesan, he sends two taiko to tell the tayû (the courtesan) that he needs to reschedule; furthermore, they were to then schedule him, intentionally, for a time when the tayû had another patron, thus essentially enforcing his image or position as being more important than that other patron…4 So, anyway, we can see that the taiko often played these kinds of roles as intermediaries. I still remain a little unclear as to whether the taiko belonged to a teahouse as geisha and courtesans did, or if they were more closely associated with a given patron, following him from one teahouse to another.

And, that is just about all that Segawa Seigle has to say about the taikomochi. Seems an intriguing sort of character. Not that I’d necessarily want to be one in real life, of course, penniless, constantly serving as someone else’s lapdog, always on a lower rung than nearly everyone else around – the women, the clients, even the children (read: apprentice geisha/courtesans) – but, as a character, and as a thread in the colorful tapestry of our imagined, romanticized Yoshiwara, I find the taikomochi quite interesting. … Maybe I could play one in an RPG sometime ^_^

A quick cursory Google search would seem to indicate that the tradition of the taikomochi as an entertainer – possibly moreso in the vein of the jester, the comic storyteller – continued until quite recently, or still continues today, judging from the posters and photos that pop up on a Google Image Search.

EDIT: An Update

I don’t imagine I’ll have time to read it any time soon, but I have finally obtained myself a copy of Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s book “Yoshiwara: The Glittering World of the Japanese Courtesan,” which contains wonderful anecdotes, bringing the pleasure districts to life, and providing greater details on the district than any other source I’ve come across. All footnotes/quotes in this post are from this book.
(1) Segawa Seigle. p256n30.
(2) p66.
(3) pp117-118.
(4) pp132-133.

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I’ve been saving up links for a few days now… Kept meaning to write a post about one or two of them, but then they became five, and now I must admit I just sort of feel like I need to get them done with. Lots of interesting stuff, though. Thanks, as always, to Archaeology.org’s news feed for keeping interested parties informed.

(1) Back in 2003, scientists in China discovered an ancient Han Dynasty village amazingly well-preserved under layers of sediment; it is believed that perhaps the Yellow River flooded too much, or somewhat out of season, catching the villagers off-guard and causing them to flee their homes.

More recently, however, archaeologists have found signs or remnants of even more ancient, that is, older, fields beneath the village. Discover Magazine has dubbed it one of the top 100 finds of the year; this could be a breakthrough in our understanding of ancient Chinese agriculture, and sericulture (the cultivation of silkworms).

The official website for the Sanyangzhuang Project can be found here.

(2) Meanwhile, a collection of Korean royal records known as the Uigwe, amounting to as many as 297 volumes, are to be loaned or returned entirely back to Korea after over a century in the National Library of France.

Looted by France in the 19th century (the article from the Korea Herald doesn’t provide further details on the circumstances of their acquisition), the books are records of royal protocols, including illustrations of wedding and funeral rituals, the receiving of foreign missions, and royal banquets, and are of a type of book which were traditionally stored on Ganghwa Island, as a means of protecting them from invaders.

Curators at the library have opposed the loan, citing laws against the loan of public property. The article suggests that curators’ requests to see the collection digitized before it is sent to Korea are efforts to delay the loan; this may be true – the reporter may have further inside information – but based on the cursory information provided here in the article, I would myself be a bit less hasty to be so cynical. Digitizing the books would mean the French Library, its patrons, scholars in France and elsewhere in Europe, not to mention around the world, would have greater access to the materials. It’s just something that is done these days, and is a good idea, especially if you are about to lose a series of objects. So, I don’t think it’s a delaying tactic, but rather a reaction, to say “oh, we’re giving the books away? we should make a digital copy so we can still have them. Maintain the connections between the objects and the library, and maintain access to them.”

(3) Speaking of France, congratulations to the country of France for the return of the embalmed head of King Henry IV (r. 1589-1610), which was stolen in 1793 and passed around by private dealers and collectors in the centuries since.

A head found in the attic of a retired tax collector has been identified as very likely being that of Henry IV, and will be reinterred in early 2011.

(4) Excavations at Nagaoka-kyô, which was the capital of the Yamato state (i.e. “Japan”) from 784-794, have revealed a set of walls which experts believe may be the first ever discovered signs of the West Palace of Nagaoka-kyô, heretofore only known from documents.

Other scholars, however, argue that these walls belong simply to a garden complex, arguing based on the layout of the capital at Naniwa.

(5) Finally, the New York Times today offers an extensive feature on the restoration of a portrait of Philip IV by Velasquez.

Identified by scholars at the Metropolitan in 1973 as being merely from the studio or workshop of Velasquez, and severely damaged, the painting has now been re-identified as having been by the hand of Velasquez himself, and has been beautifully cleaned and restored.

An interactive feature allowing you to scroll over the image to see the before and after is quite neat; the Times has been using this a lot lately, like a child with a new toy.

Images of the details, and of the before and after are truly stunning. If you’re interested, please do take a look at this article and feature, filled with quotes from curators and other experts, and interesting facts and narratives relating to Velasquez as a court painter, and similar works in other major museum collections.

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Above: An ukiyo-e woodblock print diptych by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, depicting Danjûrô VIII as Mitsugi on the right, and Arashi Rikan III and Iwai Kumesaburô III as Kisuke and Okon, respectively, on the left. From an 1852/4 performance at the Kawarazaki-za. Image from the Kuniyoshi Project website. Thanks to William Pearl, of the Kuniyoshi Project, for granting non-commercial permissions.

It’s always interesting, fun, and intriguing to discover the real stories behind kabuki plays, and more to the point, to discover the real historical sites related to them. As I have mentioned before, I am taking part this term in classes in kabuki voice & movement, in preparation for a performance in the spring, here in Hawaii, of “Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba,” or, as our professor has titled it in English, “The Vengeful Sword.”

Right: An old postcard photo of the Aburaya when it still stood, and a more current photo of the stele that marks the site today. Click on the pictures for more photos, and interesting blog posts (in Japanese) about the neighborhood.

The play takes place largely in a teahouse (read: brothel) called the Aburaya, in the town of Furuichi, near Ise, which, surprise surprise, genuinely existed. I have never been to that part of Japan, but my Google-fu reveals that if you go to Furuichi (now part of the city of Ise) today, you will find a stone marker for the former site of the Aburaya. So, it’s not just that Furuichi indeed had an active red-light district (third most famous, apparently, after the Yoshiwara in Edo, and the Shimabara in Kyoto), but that the specific name of the teahouse in the play corresponds to one by that name which genuinely existed.

Furthermore, nearby the former site of the Aburaya stands the temple Dairinji, mentioned but never seen in the play, wherein one can find the grave of Okon, the young courtesan (16 at the time of the incident upon which the play is based, though she lived until 49) who is the lover of one of the chief protagonists of the play, Mitsugi. Fukuoka Mitsugi is based on the real-life figure Magofuku Itsuki, who is buried with Okon in a lovers’ grave at Dairinji.

Above: The lovers’ grave of Itsuki and Okon at Dairinji.

It would seem that there is not too much left to see today of Furuichi, in terms of the teahouses and such still being active or even intact or anything. There may not be much more than just this stone marker for the Aburaya, and the graves at Dairinji. There are stone markers as well for at least one of the theatres in town (one of the conceits of the play is that characters in the play – courtesans and their clients – go out to the Furuichi kabuki theatre and come back), but that’s about it, so far as I can tell. I wonder if the Ise Ondo dances which appear in the title of the play, and in the final scene, are still performed.

In any case, I will admit that I previously had little interest in going all the way out to Ise just to see the outermost walls of a super super super famous shrine that I’m not allowed to go any further into. But now, I am quite eager to visit Furuichi, and visit the graves, take pictures of the stone markers for the theatres and teahouses, and just sort of feel like I’ve been there. If I go with a friend, we can reenact scenes in the streets, and elicit either strange looks or laughs from passersby.

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese embassy to the United States, and the Museum of the City of New York is acknowledging this with an exhibition focusing on the embassy’s visit to New York.

I am not very familiar with the museum, or with the kinds of things they generally do or do not do, but I think it fantastic that they should go beyond the typical local-community-focused exhibits about African-Americans or urban development or mayoral history* that one might expect of this museum, to devote efforts and space to as obscure a corner of history as this samurai embassy. Given that Japan Society and Asia Society didn’t do it, it’s especially wonderful that someone should put together this exhibition.

The year was 1860. Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. The tallest building in New York was Trinity Church. Japan had not yet seen the Meiji Restoration; the US had not yet faced the War Between the States. After crossing the ocean with a larger group, 76 samurai left San Francisco by boat, traveling across Panama by train and then boarding a different ship for the journey to Washington DC. New York was their last stop in the US before leaving for home.

The key goal of this nine-month round-trip journey was to exchange the Japanese and American copies of the Harris Treaty, thereby completing the ratification process begun with the signing at Shimoda two years earlier. In sharp contrast to later Meiji period efforts (such as the 1871 Iwakura mission) to acquire, adapt, and adopt Western technologies, culture, administrative methods, etc, the members of this 1860 mission were encouraged to interact as little as possible with Western people. This was a complete surprise to me, though I suppose the more I think about it, the more it perhaps makes sense, as the country simply had not started shifting in that direction yet.

However, despite these intentions, the samurai ambassadors were persuaded to visit a number of different cities, were regaled with numerous receptions, balls, and other events, had their photos taken despite their initial objections, and became the talk of the media.

The exhibition feels like it consists primarily of gallery labels, which is great for someone like me who adores names, dates, and narrative, though in fact there are *quite* a number of artifacts, and I was really surprised by how many of these things come from the collections of the Museum itself. I think I was most impressed by a sword blade, one of a number presented by the samurai ambassadors to their American counterparts, and forged specifically for that purpose. Passed down through the generations, this particular sword blade never left the family, but the story of how it was obtained was lost for many years until sometime recently, when an expert rediscovered the sword’s provenance.

Other objects included a folding fan with Commodore Perry’s photograph on it, two actual Japanese and American flags flown at the events, and a sketchbook in which one member of the samurai retinue recorded his impressions. Reproductions from the newspapers and magazines of the time were neat to see, but were sadly too blurry to be properly appreciated.

The museum also provides a small booklet – quite solid, and a good ten or so pages in length; not a tiny advertising pamphlet – incorporating much of the text of the gallery labels, and a good number of pictures. Since I’ve fallen into the habit, for better or for worse, of taking photos of gallery labels and objects so as to capture the information contained in an exhibit, for later perusal and remembering, this is a great saver of time and effort.

All in all, this exhibit provides a glimpse into a fascinating, if quite obscure, corner of New York’s history (and that of US-Japan relations), and I would love to see more exhibits like it. It’s tough trying to think of US-based Japanese historical events for which US museums would have good resources (i.e. objects in collections), but I would love to see exhibitions about Commodore Perry in Okinawa, about Japan at the World’s Fairs, about General Grant in Japan… Surely, the Smithsonian or someone has artifacts related to the latter, and presumably there are good newspaper articles and such to pull from, reproduce and present. Maybe one day I’ll find myself in a position to be able to organize such an exhibition.

In the meantime, “Samurai in New York” is up at the Museum of the City of New York (103rd St and Fifth Ave) until October 11, 2010.

*Another large exhibit up at the moment follows the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, i.e. the period 1966-73. A permanent exhibition at the museum features “New York Interiors.”

EDIT: All of my photos from this exhibit can now be seen on my Flickr page.

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