Archive for the ‘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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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 Sound of One Hand” is an ambitious exhibition of works by Hakuin, one of the great masters of Zen painting, which opens at Japan Society in New York on October 1. I very much look forward to seeing the exhibition there. After it closes in New York on February January 9, it will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art (12 Feb to 17 April 2011) and then to LACMA (22 May to 17 August).

Zen, known as Ch’an in China, was introduced to Japan in the Muromachi period (1333-1467), and many of the most famous Japanese ink painters from that period, including Sesshû, Shûbun, and Jôsetsu, were closely associated with Zen temples and painting styles inspired by Ch’an painters. While one could certainly write treatises on the ways in which these paintings represented and embodied Zen concepts and philosophies, suffice it to say that the type of depictions we today stereotypically associate with “Zen” in our pop culture / new age collective consciousness, at least here in the US, were pioneered by Hakuin.

The work of Sesshû, Shûbun, and Jôsetsu is refined, careful, and expert. Even when it looks sloppy, there is incredible skill and intentionality behind every single drop of ink. Granted, the same could be said of Hakuin. But, nevertheless, as skillful and intentional as his works may be, and as deep in religious meaning, there is an intentional amateurishness and artistic naivete to his works that sets them apart dramatically from those of several centuries prior.

The exhibition catalog for “The Sound of One Hand,” a review of which is the main purpose of this post, is gorgeous. As always in my reviews I will express that I, personally, have no intention of ever paying $65 for a book, and that I wish art books & exhibit catalogs did not regularly cost so much. But, pricing aside, it is clear that Audrey Yoshiko Seo and Stephen Addiss (co-authors/editors of the catalog and co-curators of the exhibition) and the book designers with whom they worked were not excessive in cutting corners, and have produced a beautiful book, in hardcover, with nice solid pages, and full-color images (for those few Hakuin works which are not monochrome to begin with). Many of the images even include the silk mounting on the scrolls, a small point, but an important one in helping the reader appreciate the impact and impression a work, along with its mounting, makes. As I may have mentioned in another blog post, one of my favorite works in the MFA Boston collection, “Hawks in a Ravine” by Kanô Hôgai, though a monochrome ink painting, was, when I saw it, mounted in a bold “Meiji blue” silk mounting (and I believe I was told this was the original mounting); the images of only the painting itself have a completely different impact. Another element of the book’s design which I find worthy of praise is the choice to include not only translations of the inscriptions on many of the works, but the transcription of the inscriptions in romanization. It was not long ago that art historians tended to overlook or entirely ignore inscriptions, and even today I would venture to guess that there are very few scholars outside of Japanese native speakers (or Chinese, Korean, etc.) who can read these inscriptions, which are so valuable to understanding the meaning, or double or secondary meaning, of a work.

Some of the inscriptions provide great insights, such as one on a painting of “Two Blind Men on a Bridge” (plate 4.3), which states “Both the health of our bodies / and the fleeting world outside us / are like the blind men’s / round log bridge – a mind/heart / that can cross over is the best guide.” I appreciate that the translator has left the translation of kokoro somewhat vague, in that the original meaning, encompassing both “mind” and “heart”, doesn’t really translate directly. An entire essay could be written on the meaning of the word kokoro alone.

Others are kôan, giving us something to contemplate, consider, and attempt to decipher, where the image itself might have simply made little impression at all. An image of an ox (plate 3.11) is inscribed with the kôan “An ox passes a window. / The top of its head, its four hooves all pass. / Why can’t its tail pass?”, inviting us to contemplate and to wonder at the deeper significance.

Professors Seo and Addiss were very smart, I think, in the way in which they broke from the standard catalog format for this book. A great many exhibit catalogs (though of course not all) open with a few essays, and consist in their core main section of just page after page of plates (images) with captions. Sometimes the captions can be quite lengthy, insightful, interesting, and informative, and of course half the point of an exhibit catalog to begin with is to highlight the images; they allow the reader to remember and revisit an exhibition after they have attended, or to experience an exhibition they did not attend. So, I do not by any means criticize this standard format; it absolutely has its strengths, and there are many good reasons for creating such a catalog.

But this catalog breaks from that form, reading more like a scholarly book on art history, with full paragraphs running through page after page, with the plates interspersed into the essays, and not separated out into their own section. The text mentions, describes, and analyzes each of the images within a broader argument or explanation, placing each work, and Hakuin’s oeuvre as a whole, into a broader historical, religious, and cultural context. Having done a little work on Hakuin myself, and having flipped through a rather extensive collection of most (all?) of his works, I recognize many of the individual images in “The Sound of One Hand,” but really, Hakuin’s ouevre, unlike those of most artists we might discuss, is not one of individual masterpieces, but of themes repeated over and over again. Read just a little about Hakuin, and you start to recognize individual images – this monkey as being a painting you’ve seen before, that monkey as being quite similar, but definitely not the one you’ve seen before – but in the end, it’s not about the one painting or the other. In acknowledgment of this aspect of Hakuin’s work, Seo and Addiss have chosen not to highlight individual works so much as they use those individual works as examples in discussions of broader themes. Hakuin produced many depictions of monkeys, of Kannon, of Hotei, Shôki, Bodhidharma, foxes, monks’ staffs, and other themes. No one works necessarily needs to be selected out as a masterpiece; it is much more productive to seek to understand Hakuin’s production as a whole, through discussion of these themes or motifs, and their religious significance.

In light of the wide popularity of Zen, and its prominence and status in American society as “new age”, as something everyone thinks they know or understand already, something seen everywhere we look, in calendars, self-help books, and posters, I think it important also to point out the great value of a book like “The Sound of One Hand.” It serves as a serious, academic, but still accessible account of what Zen and Zen painting are *really* all about, approaching the subject from an informed, scholarly, Japanese religious studies / art history point of view. It counters the myriad books on Zen painting written from a more “new age” point of view by ignoring them completely, and simply providing the scholarly account. Right off the bat, from the first pages of the Introduction, the book delves into Hakuin’s place in the history of Zen in Japan, providing names and dates, and ignoring completely “John Cage Zen” or the other kinds of Zen that have taken up residence in coffeeshops and yoga studios in the US. I poke fun at these new age appropriations of Zen (the catalog is quick to point out that there is no word “clapping” in Hakuin’s original quote, translated here more literally as ‘the sound of one hand’), but for those whose interest in Zen is serious and goes beyond “koan a day” calendars and yoga studio wisdom, I think that this exhibition and catalog are a wonderful opportunity to learn more, and to engage with the true depths of Zen thought.

I am sure there is plenty of controversy in the academic world as to how Hakuin’s works should be approached – as “art”, or as expressions of religious philosophy – and I am not well-versed enough in those subjects to judge which side(s) Seo and Addiss have come down on, whether I think they’ve picked the right side(s), or not, but just from skimming the essays, it looks like they have written a text that does not skimp on the historical details or scholastic integrity, but is still wonderfully accessible and engaging for the non-specialist. I hope that others, with less experience in Japanese studies, art history, and/or Buddhist studies than myself would agree.

I hope to find time soon to read through the book more thoroughly, and look forward to seeing the exhibition itself during winter break. I intend to return with a second book review, and my thoughts on the exhibit. Until then.

“The Sound of One Hand” opens at Japan Society (47th St and First Ave) on October 1, and runs until Jan 9. The catalog, from Shambhala Publications, Inc. is US$65, is on sale already, and should be widely available, wherever fine museum exhibition catalogs are sold.

All images are from Japan Society or Shambhala Publications websites, and are being used here only to represent the book and exhibition, for the sake of journalistic review. No claim of copyright is made.

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A few days ago, I finally visited the Kyoto International Manga Museum. It’s a gorgeous museum, quite clean and sleek and well-put-together. It all looks quite new, as well it should I suppose, since it only opened in 2006, on the grounds of a former primary school.

The school folded under perfectly normal circumstances – as is happening all over Japan, and as happens around the world to one extent or another, sometimes there just are not enough children in a community to merit a need for as many schools as there are, and so schools are merged and old school buildings are either destroyed or repurposed. While Tatsunoike Elementary School is hardly a historical monument – no more historical than any other elementary school built and operating since the early Meiji period – I am quite glad that they kept its structure intact, repurposing it rather than tearing it down. The school atmosphere really suits a manga museum quite well, and helps make one feel like a child again, a bit. Piano music piped throughout the building, very similar to the light music reminiscent of the innocence of childhood expressed in Joe Hisaishi’s soundtracks for various Ghibli movies, contributes to this feel.

(The museum also maintains one room as an exhibition on the history of the school, and plaques throughout the museum explain what certain rooms were used for back when it was a school. The principal’s office is maintained just as it was, I guess, more or less, as a showpiece, and the Museum Director’s office is in the Vice Principal’s office.)

On the other hand, I thought the environment and atmosphere a bit sad, in that reverse backwards sort of way that bright, happy music and scenes can be quite sad when the children are gone. Like parts of movies when someone remembers all the wonderful times that were had in a place now destroyed, or with a person now gone. An elementary school devoid of children is a pretty sad place, the cheery music only adding to that feeling, 逆に, rather than dispelling it. Or maybe that’s just me…

In any case, I could have loved this museum’s design and architecture if it were a brand-new shiny steel and glass building in the ultra-modern mode. But I love it just as much if not more like this, with hardwood floors and steps, at least one room lined with tatami (oh how I love that smell), and the furnishings and such in the (closed to the public but visible through the hall windows) principal’s office and such.

The museum consists primarily of shelves and shelves and shelves of manga – roughly 50,000 in all, with another 250,000 volumes in the closed stacks. Though there are some permanent exhibits and temporary exhibit halls, the chief thing to do at this museum, it would seem, is to sit and read manga. A quite enjoyable way to spend a day, I must say, if a bit unorthodox for a museum (if it were a library, there wouldn’t be an admission fee, and there would be a way to take out books; so, really, it’s more like a manga café).

I was, admittedly, disappointed at this, as I don’t read much manga. I never felt particularly confident about my ability to read manga, since they have so much casual language and weird sound changes (much like how Japanese people might have trouble with words like “gonna” that don’t really represent “going to”, or the way things are misspelled to indicate the pronunciation of different accents), and so many strange words and jargon words referring to the magic or spaceships or whatever it may be for a given series. But… after not even trying to read any manga for a number of years, I picked one up (the first volume of Ranma 1/2natsukashii na!), and made my way through the first chapter, moving quickly and smoothly, and smiling all the way. Spending a few hours at the museum could be a fine way to get through series without having to buy all the volumes yourself… it’s a fine atmosphere for reading – clean, brightly lit, welcoming – though there’s no food or drink, and nowhere to really lay down and stretch out.

In any case, the one main permanent exhibit hall is really quite well-done. The walls are lined with manga organized chronologically, so one can skim the selections and sort of get a sense of how manga developed and changed over time. Actual exhibition displays address a number of fundamental questions and themes relating to manga, including some that we really take so much for granted, it’s great to see them addressed. First, there is a display or two or three on the history of manga. I was most pleased to see that the museum does not take a stand on where manga starts, since basically any answer one could give would be controversial and debateable. Does it start with the Chôju giga, a 12-13th century handscroll depicting anthropomorphized animals and something resembling an early relative of the speech bubble? Or does manga start with ukiyo-e prints? Or with kibyôshi illustrated novels? Or Hokusai’s sketchbooks that he just so happened to call manga (漫画, lit. something like “rambling, aimless, wandering pictures”)? Or does manga start in the Meiji period, with the introduction of satirical political cartoons from the West? That the Manga Museum didn’t set themselves up for being argued against by taking a stand on any one of these was a very smart move in my opinion.

The exhibits also address standards, symbols, and forms, pointing out that a lot of things we take for granted in comics are in fact quite artificial. The convention of the speech bubble, as opposed to the narrator’s speech which goes in a box, for example; and the ways thought bubbles are shown differently. In American comics and cartoons, we show that someone is asleep by having Z’s float in the air above his head; in manga, a small bubble (of snot?) emerges from the character’s nose to indicate they’re asleep. All kinds of lines and marks and symbols appear on or near people’s faces to indicate certain emotions, and lines and shapes can be used in other ways to indicate speed of motion, or great power… A small hands-on bit of the exhibit lets you mix and match eyes, noses, mouths, and other features to sort of show how versatile manga style can be, I guess, and yet how remixed. It’s amazing to realize just how much a certain mouth or a certain nose indicates a certain character type, and yet also how combining a different set of eyes with that same mouth or nose can change the impression of the character type completely.

The exhibit highlights a manga from the 1970s called “Bakabon,” which apparently was quite experimental in how things were rendered inside the panels. Sometimes he would use no words; sometimes no pictures; sometimes a scene would be laid out as if it were drawn as a picture, but just with words placed in different parts of the panel, where the images should be. Characters changed size and art style dramatically, highlighting the artificiality of the medium, but its versatility and value as well. Of course, any expert of American comics (whether he be a scholar or just an obsessive fan) could tell you quite a bit about innovation in the way the panels themselves have been used by various artists over the years, something that goes on in manga as well, but doesn’t seem as dramatically emphasized or as extensively used, even.

A kami-shibai performance rounded out the day; somewhat related to manga, kami-shibai (紙芝居, lit. “paper play” or “paper theatre”) was a street entertainment mainly in the early postwar period. Scenes would be drawn out on separate cards, and a storyteller would show each card as a visual aid while telling the story, serving both as narrator, and delivering all the characters’ lines, in different voices of course. I had never seen kami-shibai before, and actually had a very different impression of it, thinking it was more like shadow puppets, when in fact it’s a bit more like an anime with only one frame per scene.

I hope to post soon a separate post about the Murata Range exhibit that was up in their temporary exhibits gallery.

For now, then, I suppose that’s it. There is of course some controversy over the founding of the museum, since I gather it was sort of the pet project of a politician who is no longer in power… and while the especially strong prominence of manga in concerted, intentional, efforts by the Japanese government to represent the country and its culture, and to exert soft power, etc etc, is certainly bizarre and controversial in its own ways, I think it is great that such a place exists for those researchers who are in fact researching pop culture phenomena… And for the wider public as well, of course.

I’m glad I went and checked it out. If I were living here more permanently, I really might actually make a habit of spending time there, reading through another volume or two or three on each visit, slowly making my way through series without having to buy them myself.

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I don’t know when I’ll get around to reading any of these – it may be quite some time – but so long as I am in Japan and have access to cheap used books on Japanese history and the like, I just can’t help myself.

Oh, geez. Putting all my newly acquired books into a pile in order to write this post, I realize just how much I’ve bought. I’m going to have a lot of things to ship home.

*名城を歩く mook (magazine-book) series, volumes on Matsue and Matsuyama Castles

I quite enjoyed the Kanazawa Castle volume from this series and so was happy to come across two more volumes on castles I am interested in. Granted, I don’t know much about, for example, Osaka or Himeji Castles, and haven’t been to them, but for whatever reason I am much more interested in the slightly more obscure and more out of the way ones. Matsue (in Shimane) is one of only a few castles remaining today not reconstructed after the end of the Edo period; Iyo-Matsuyama (on Shikoku) is just interesting for being on Shikoku…

In addition to providing details about the individual buildings and distinguishing features of each castle, as well as map/pictures of the castle at its height and fairly solid narrative overviews of the history of the castle’s lords, one feature I quite enjoy is that each book in this series includes very brief descriptions of other castles in the area (generally ruins or even empty sites without even ruins). Where else would you learn anything about Uwajima castle (宇和島城) and Ôzu castle (大洲城)?

(Purchased at a used book store 井上書店 across the street from Kyôdai, for 200 yen each.)

*「琉球と日本・中国」 (Ryukyu and Japan & China) & 「琉球の王権とグスク」 (The Ryukyuan Royalty and Gusuku Fortresses)

Two books from the 日本史リブレット (Japanese History Libretto) series. I haven’t yet read anything from this series, but upon a quick glance, these seem to be relatively easy to read (i.e. not formal, dense academic prose), and at only 100 pages each, they’re not too intimidating, and won’t take too long to read (though it’ll still take some time). They’re published by Yamakawa Shuppansha, a publishing company which specializes in history books, which I think can be taken as a good indication that these are of a certain level of quality and reliability. Each has notes in the margins explaining names of people and places, and other terms one might not be familiar with, and both address topics very directly related to my interests and my research, meaning I’m not wasting my time by reading these, looking for, hoping for, elements that might be relevant. Both should prove to be useful additions to my foundational knowledge of these subjects.

(Purchased new in the Dôshisha Fusôkan bookstore for 800 yen each)

*Three volumes of 再現日本史 mook series, specifically on the years 1863-64; 1867; and 1877-1880

These magazine-books seem quite scattered, devoting only a single page at most to any given topic, but a quick glance would seem to indicate that they cover a fairly broad range of topics, thus providing a good overview of the events of each year; and of course since each volume covers such a short period, the topics addresses are not too general, but actually delve into some degree of detail and to some extent the more obscure events. The last volume devotes a whole page (and a whole other page of just image) to the subject of Shô Tai, last king of Ryûkyû, and to the overthrow and annexation of his kingdom. I am particularly curious to read this section, as well as whatever little bits there may be on Pres. Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879.

(Purchased at a BookOff for 105 yen each)

*Power of Okinawa

Presumably the only book out there in English on Okinawan music (especially on more contemporary music, not just traditional/classical music), the book, I must admit (sorry, sir) seems less academic, less dense than I might have hoped (Academic language is good in English; not good for my Japanese language level). Just judging from the size of the text, the feel and look of it, I get this impression. And, yes, I know I’m jumping to conclusions, but I am very much hoping that the content of the text proves me wrong.

I grew interested in Okinawa largely through the music, and am particularly eager and interested to read this, and learn more about this wonderful phenomenon that creates lively, contemporary, fun, entrancing music that incorporates traditional instruments (sanshin), themes and lyrics, and conveys the feel, the atmosphere of the islands. Perhaps I am too quick to use the word “perfect,” but I feel that much of the Okinawan popular music I have heard is an excellent combination of traditional elements and new, contemporary influences, conveying the traditional culture, identity, and atmosphere/feel, not tossing it away, while remaining quite current.

I am also eager to start learning sanshin myself, and so, reading up on Okinawan music is essentially a must. Can’t play the music without a fuller appreciation and understanding of the background, the culture, etc.

(Purchased directly from the author, through his website, for 2300 yen incl. shipping within Japan)

*Three volumes of 別冊太陽 (“The Sun”) from the 1970s, each a sort of mini-encyclopedia, 100 Merchants, 100 Daimyo Houses, and 100 House Elders (karô) respectively

This seems an amazingly good series. They’re still putting them out, and if you look at the website, you’ll see they cover a wide range of topics, one topic per volume, presumably in amazing detail. Each of the volumes I bought is a nice solid 200 pages, and sold originally, in the 1970s, for 1500-1600 yen.

They don’t devote a particularly great amount of text to any one topic – most get only a paragraph, sadly. But there are lots of pictures, and I am hoping these will prove quite useful for my exploits in compiling encyclopedia entries for the Samurai-Archives Wiki of Japanese History. I’ve never seen any book in English that devoted more than a passing reference to Suminokura Ryôi, one of the most prominent merchants of Edo period Kyoto, let alone to any of the 90+ lesser-known merchants included in this volume.

(Purchased for 500 yen each at the Kitano Tenmangû Flea Market)

*Four volumes of 古寺をゆく mook series, on Eiheiji; Kanzeonji; Byôdôin; and Kenchôji & Engakuji respectively.

Like the castles series listed at the top of this post, I think that these volumes could be quite interesting, and useful for the Samurai Wiki. Each focuses on a single temple (or two), providing good details on the history of the temple, its individual buildings, and famous or important Buddhist sculptures and other artifacts and art objects in the collection, as well as (like the castle mooks) providing smaller, brief descriptions of other major temples in the area.

The shop had an entire box of them, quite possibly the whole series. I wish I might have bought them all, especially at this price, since they go for 560 cover price, but I had to stick to picking just a few. As with the castles, I could have picked up volumes on Kiyomizudera, Honganji, Sensôji, Daitokuji, Hôryûji, but I decided to go with slightly less major temples of particular interest to me. Eiheiji is a Zen temple founded by Dôgen, whose story is told in the 2009 film ZEN, which I quite enjoyed. Byôdôin, of course, is the former villa of Fujiwara no Michinaga, one of the few surviving examples of something hinting at a fuller shinden-zukuri compound, and related therefore, though today a temple, to the exciting political intrigues of the late Heian period. Kenchôji and Engakuji, of course, are major Zen temples in Kamakura, a bit off the beaten path when it comes to the Kinkakuji/Ginkakuji-going masses. I’ve always liked Kamakura, and though I’ve only visited a handful of times and never lived there, I do feel something of a special connection to the place, and a desire to expound upon its temples, informing others who might only be aware of the big name ones in Kyoto and Tokyo. Kanzeonji, finally, was once the chief temple in Kyushu, and is connected to the history of the Dazaifu, and to that period and atmosphere. Despite its ancient importance, the temple is today quite obscure and largely unknown. Even a friend specializing in that period who once lived in Fukuoka told me he’d never heard of it.

(Purchased from a used book store across the street from Kyôdai, for 100 yen each.)

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I guess my blog has in recent weeks become nothing but reposts… I promise, soon, I’ll find the time to post my own fully formed posts again.

In the meantime, though, the Shogun-ki blog, the official blog of the Samurai Archives Japanese History Page, has posted an excellent interview with amateur historian Samuel Hawley, author of The Imjin War, a thick 664 page book on Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s. I must admit that I’ve never been too interested in the Imjin War, for whatever reasons, but from what I gather from the interview, it sounds like the general consensus on the Samurai-Archives Forum is that Hawley’s book is the best one out there right now in English, and is also one of the first.

If I’m not interested in the Imjin War, why would I bother posting about this interview?

I’m glad you asked. It’s because I really like Hawley’s attitude and approach to history, as revealed in some excellent quotes:

So why didn’t some history professor with much better language skills than me write a book on the Imjin War first? The reason, I think, is that the topic is too big, too wide-ranging for an academic to tackle. Academics tend to choose very narrow topics to specialize in (i.e. “The Impact of the Imjin War on Rice Production in Cholla Province”), then spend the rest of their careers protecting this little quarter-acre of ground. It’s the safe approach. I mean, once you become the foremost expert on Cholla rice production in the 1590s as it relates to the war, no one is going to be able to criticize your work, right?

“The book, you’ll note, is narrative history, not a dissertation. In other words, its purpose is to “tell the story,” not to advance any particular core thesis.”

“I wasn’t trying to put any sort of revisionist stamp on anything because I saw myself as a chronicler and storyteller (heck, it’s an interesting story and deserves to be told well), not as an academic trying to come up with some new interpretation.”

About the warrior monks, I’ll just say this: If I had written a dissertation on them, I bet I would have concluded that they had played a bigger role too. And if I had written a dissertation on the role of the Ming army in beating back the Japanese, hey, I bet I would have concluded that they had played the crucial role too. And if someone comes out with a book on the role of women in the Imjin War, I can tell you right now that the thesis will be that they played a darn big role. That’s the way it works when you set out to prove some sort of core thesis. My own book is not a dissertation; I didn’t have any core thesis to push, for example that the Koreans could have won the war on their own or something like that. I speculate on things along the way and express opinions, of course, but my ultimate purpose was just to tell the story.

And there it is. I could write pages on my thoughts on the subject, on how the academic drive to constantly find new interpretations and the obsession with having an argument obscures the actual historical narrative and interesting facts and discoveries you may have found… But I think I’ll just leave it there. Of course Hawley does not represent my view 100%, but suffice it to say, I appreciate what he has to say, and stand on his side for the most part, against the view that in academia the evidence must always be subsumed by the argument, and that narrative history – putting the facts, the events out there in the clear, chronological, expositionary, sometimes humorous and sometimes dramatic, way that really engages reader and researcher alike – is no good.

*Disclaimer, though, that I am fully aware of the issues surrounding the question of just how factual facts can be, how we can never really be sure about the real historical truth, how repeating the same versions of the story without questioning them is just perpetuating a possibly incorrect and flawed discourse, etc etc. Yes, I know. And I take that into account and everything. But, even so, does not new scholarship twist and skew the truth, too, by emphasizing one element (e.g. the importance of Cholla Province, because you haven’t bothered to research any other provinces) over others? Even if we accept that true objectivity can never be attained, does not the picking and choosing of this evidence but not that evidence in order to support your argument add extra subjectivity? Should not the goal be to represent history as truthfully as possible, and not through a lens?

… I’m starting to rant. I’m going to stop myself there.

If you’re interested, please do check out the full interview at the Shogun-ki blog, and keep your eyes open for other exciting stuff the S-A guys (and girls) are up to!

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Some years ago, the Honolulu Academy held an exhibition entitled “Taishô Chic,” displaying works, mainly bijinga (images of beautiful women) and kimono, representing the fashion, style, and aesthetic of Japan c. 1900-1930.*

Some of the works displayed at that time were on display again back in December when I visited the museum, and I was stunned by this piece by Yamakawa Shûhô, entitled Sannin no shimai (“Three Sisters”). It is a folding screen (byôbu) painting – a very traditional format – presumably done with ink and traditional mineral pigments, depicting three fashionable young ladies in front of & inside a beautiful c. 1936 automobile: hardly a traditional subject. Though the sisters are wearing kimono, tabi socks and geta clogs, they have modern hairstyles, and, I’m sure a textiles/fashion historian could even point out that the kimono designs themselves aren’t “traditional”.

I never used to think I was interested in Nihonga. Thought it was too modern. But now, this kind of thing really puts a smile on my face. I’ve grown to love the playful (or not so playful, and just matter of fact) juxtaposition of traditional and modern, Eastern and Western that one sees in the best Nihonga.

Thinking about this piece, I was excited to see the catalog for “Taishô Chic” on sale at the UH Bookstore for an absurdly low price. The book is not, admittedly, all that one might dream of a book on Taishô era art (even just bijinga/fashion) being. It contains only two short essays and though 74 objects is a pretty sizeable selection for an exhibition, in the catalog it feels limited. Seventy-four objects sounds like a fair number – and indeed it is – but if you’re interested in Nihonga paintings, there’s only X number of those, and if you’re interested in kimono, there’s only Y number of those, and Z number of shin-hanga prints… There’s likely only zero to two works by any given artist you may be interested in.

But, on the other hand, it is a very nice introduction to the topic and the period, and indeed contains some beautiful images – all full-color, glossy paper, hardcover.

If anyone would like a copy for $4.50 + S&H, I would be happy to oblige once the bookstore reopens after Spring Break (and assuming they still have copies).

* (i.e. the “Greater Taishô period”, the actual Taishô period having only lasted from 1912 to 1926.)

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I was privileged today to be given a tour of the preservation department offices here on campus.

I must admit I am not surprised that we should have here the best paper preservation/conservation lab in the Pacific, as defined by the Pacific Islands of Micronesia, Polynesia, etc. After all, if not here, then where? Rarotonga?

To be honest, I would not be surprised if this lab were pretty much on par with anything they have in Japan, as well – I’ve read a fair bit lately about how poorly equipped Japanese universities are in terms of their equipment across the board, and I know that the Kyushu National Museum, est. 2005, is one of the only museums in Japan to have conservation departments of any significance. In any case, if “the Pacific” were to be taken to include Vancouver, California, down to Peru & Chile, Australia, New Zealand, etc., then to have the top conservation lab in the Pacific is really something.

I don’t know that I’ve ever really been inclined to pursue this kind of work myself, in a hands-on way, as it does involve a great extent of understanding of chemistry and materials sciences, and as, quite simply, I would get nervous about handling rare, important, expensive, fragile materials myself. One has to be extremely careful. But I nevertheless find the whole thing quite fascinating and intriguing, and not only because of the “behind-the-scenes” feeling of special exclusive access. The objects themselves which are being preserved, conserved, and restored are incredible, and as a conservator, one gets to see all kinds of things come across your desk, and you get to handle them.

The library does a lot of binding and re-binding in-house, mainly of rare, fragile, or old books, though they also send a lot of newer books and periodicals away to be bound in a more commercial factory manner. (The in-house efforts, I presume, cannot handle such high volume of throughput.)

We were shown how books extremely damaged and fragile as the result of age, the acid in the paper gradually yellowing then browning and drying out the pages until they simply flake away, can be restored to a perfect white and to a considerable degree of resilience. This was truly a surprise to me. Granted, the lab also does a lot of digitalization, with cameras and scanners, and presumably reproduction as well. But this was the very same paper, the very same page, immersed in some solution to leach the acid and the discoloration from the page (somehow without damaging the text or images), restoring not only the whiteness but also the durability of the page, drying it out and protecting it with a thin, transparent layer of alkaline to further de-acidify the paper.

A professional expert paper conservator works with a number of different techniques and state-of-the-art equipment to restore worm-eaten pages, and repair or conserve numerous other types of damage.

Due to the climate and the local ecology (read: insects), the books here face a lot of dangers on a regular basis. I don’t know what it’s like at other libraries (I don’t recall this ever being a problem at Brandeis or SOAS), but it would seem that whole sections of the libraries here are regularly sectioned off for mold infestations. … While Hamilton’s climate control seems to do a pretty good job – bring a sweatshirt – for some reason, they don’t seem to bother in Sinclair, the other library on campus, which is always pretty stuffy.

But, mold and insects and regular concerns aside, the library also suffered a terrible disaster in 2004, when a flood struck the campus, filling the library basement with mud, and carrying many objects from the collection out onto the lawns.

Here is but one of many photos that can be found online hinting at the damage. It may not look like much, but look at how muddy those books are, and think of all the books, rare photographs, computers(!), and other materials and equipment covered in mud, drenched in water, which need(ed) to be salvaged, restored, conserved, in one manner or another. It’s easy to overlook it now, five years later, to not really think about what things looked like that day, to think it was “just” water damage to the library collections, but actually, a very quick search turned up photos showing severe architectural damage, overturned cars elsewhere in the Valley…. I am sure that none of these photos can truly capture what it must have been like to actually experience this – particularly to experience it as a conservator or librarian. We saw the head of the preservation department today crumbling pages in her hand just to show us how bad books can get, and how completely they can be restored – if our hearts twinge at seeing just one page of an old book destroyed, I can only imagine the heartbreak, the horrible feeling, these librarians and conservators – and researchers and scholars as well – must have felt seeing this at that time.

I’m not sure how much was salvaged, or how much conservation has already been done, but I do know that a lot is still left to do. I feel for these guys, for the impossible volume of work they have to do at any given time, and their extremely valuable – and perhaps often unrecognized – efforts. While I do not know that I will ever see myself working as a conservator myself, I absolutely applaud their efforts and quite enjoy learning about what they do and how they do it, and seeing it all in action.

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After a week or two of devoting my time chiefly to other things – tanken bouken (exploration adventures), Flickr photos, watching TV & movies – I have returned to the realm of reading journal articles and history books for pleasure. One absolutely needs a break from academic reading, no matter the topic, after a long and stressful school term, but I personally find I have little time or energy for reading during term, outside of those things assigned for class. The number of articles and books I’ve been meaning to read is quite overwhelming.

Today, I finally began reading James Brandon’s “Kabuki’s Forgotten War,” which deals with the nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays produced during the 1930s-1945. Brandon points out that according to popular conventional wisdom, and the vast majority of scholarship, the kabuki repertoire pretty much froze in the late Meiji period (c. 1890s-1910s), and that ever since then, only plays written before that time (or the rare more recent play written to fit pre-20th century themes, language, style and content) have been performed. Most treatments of the history of kabuki totally ignore the wartime period, breezing over it in superficial summaries.

It seems a standard trope to believe, romantically and stereotypically, that the people of the art world – artists, poets, writers, playwrights, actors – tend not to collaborate with oppressive regimes and political views, either lying low, organizing rebellion, or suffering persecution, as did indeed happen to a great many people in, for example, the Cultural Revolution in China. Whether because the heavily nationalistic and militaristic kabuki plays of the 1930s to early ’40s are no longer performed (for obvious reasons) or because we simply don’t want to believe it happened, we (kabuki lovers, Japan scholars, etc) seem to have convinced ourselves that kabuki did not so fully embrace the war effort and imperialistic ideology, but simply went on producing traditional dramas, and in essence lying low. Similar arguments have been made about a great many painters & other fine artists, who it is said painted subjects like Mt. Fuji in order to appear patriotic and to not attract the attention of the censors – for many, such a story may be true, but for many others, regardless of how much we may admire their prewar or postwar works, we must admit that such a story is a fantasy.

Brandon points out that, in fact, kabuki did not in any way freeze in the 1890s-1910s. New plays continued to be written and produced throughout the 1910s-1945, addressing contemporary issues and events such as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the so-called Fifteen Year War (1931-1945); contrary to what one might expect, these were often not couched in historical traditional dramas, using samurai legends as metaphors for current battles, but in fact represented the personages, events, and uniforms of the contemporary period quite directly. It was not until after 1945, he argues, that these plays of the 1910s-1945 were stricken from the repertoire (and from the public awareness, essentially) and kabuki’s repertoire and style was retroactively made to have frozen some time around the turn of the century.

Personally, I remain a bit skeptical. Given our perceptions and definitions of kabuki today – as a form that exclusively is set in pre-20th century traditional settings, with traditional costume, its own particular brand of traditional language and theatrical style – many of these plays of the 1930s-40s seem, to my mind, difficult to fully recognize or acknowledge as kabuki. The costumes are not traditional kimono but Western-inspired modern Japanese military uniform; the battle scenes are not portrayed stylistically, as over-the-top kabuki swordfights generally are, but are portrayed relatively realistically, with blood and bandages and screams of agony. The language, I can only assume, is more modern, leaving essentially only the acting style to truly mark it as kabuki. As this book of course cannot, does not, contain audio or video – and I’m not sure if film of these performances would be in any way widely available anyway, on YouTube or the like or elsewhere – it is hard for me to make any judgment on this matter, and must simply take Brandon’s word for it. He is a mightily respected expert, however.

Perhaps this is simply a function of the retroactive rewriting of kabuki’s tradition & history that occurred after the war. Perhaps, at the time, in the 1930s, this was seen as fully true kabuki. I shall have to reserve judgment, I suppose, until I finish reading the book.


The other text I read recently which I found quite interesting and enjoyable was a 1969 journal article by Richard Chang, which describes in great detail Ulysses S Grant’s 1879 sojourn in Japan.

I have never had too much interest in American history, least of all in the Civil War, so I must confess, I do not know very much about former President Grant. I am sure he is rather lionized in American history textbooks & public school classes, and by Civil War buffs, at least outside of The South, for his role in the Civil War. While General Grant may be a great hero, however, Chang describes President Grant in passing as “one of the two American presidents often rated as a failure in office.” Remember, Chang was writing at a time when the scandals and.. er.. failures of the last seven or so administrations had yet to occur. Off the top of my head, I would guess that the other president he refers to, who might be described as a failure in office could be Taft, though I know that plenty of criticism has been leveled against Wilson, Hoover (who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929), and others; certainly, as far as I am aware, Polk, Pierce, and a handful of others are not known for any great accomplishments. To be honest, I know next to nothing about the details of Grant’s presidency, and have no idea why he would have been considered a failure.

In any case, this makes it all the more interesting that Chang presents former President Grant (who left office in 1877 and traveled to Japan in 1879 as a private citizen, though he was welcomed as a great leader and military hero and given a welcome equal to that which would have been given a royal prince) in an extremely positive light. It is quite tempting to take this all at face value, and to truly come to believe that Grant was not only extremely sympathetic to Japanese feelings and ambitions, but was also amazingly refined and well-behaved despite the great potential for cultural faux-pas; that he presented himself as an amazing statesman and leader, comporting himself with a humility which came as a great shock to the Japanese who expected all Westerners – particularly Americans – to be loud, boisterous, obnoxious, racist, condescending, clumsy, etc., thus earning him great respect among the Japanese. One also wonders whether it could possibly be true that the advice given by Grant to Emperor Meiji in a private meeting on August 10 1879 could have been as influential in determining the Emperor’s attitudes and philosophies, Japanese Meiji era foreign and domestic policy, and the content and form of the Meiji Constitution, as Chang claims it was.

The article overall makes for relatively fun, light reading, as it rather brings to life the world of 1879 Japan through its descriptions of the many grand receptions and welcomes produced for the former president. Grant’s stay in Japan, it would seem, was filled with receptions, parties, lunch dates, dinner parties, and the like, all produced at great expense. The government and a handful of prominent businessmen combined spent the equivalent of roughly $60,000 in 1879 US dollars, on such events. Grant’s visit set a great many precedents, making him the first foreign head of state (former or sitting) to see a Noh performance, the first to see a Kabuki play… he and his wife were reportedly the first Westerners to be guests of honor at a “popular reception [given] … by the Japanese populace.” The article also relates many interesting and amusing anecdotes and bits of historical trivia, such as the presentation of a stage curtain to the Shintomi-za by the Grants, following the presentation of a kabuki play written especially for that occasion, relating events of Grant’s life, especially aspects of the Civil War, through the metaphorical mirror of a historical tale of the 11th century featuring Minamoto no Yoshiie as a stand-in for Grant, and Kiyohara no Takehira representing Robert E. Lee. … In another anecdote, Grant is invited to cross the famous Shinbashi (神橋) in Nikkô, a privilege reserved for those of royal or Imperial blood; he impresses and surprises his Japanese hosts with his humility by refusing, stating that he is not a prince or king, defying or disproving Japanese stereotypes or expectations about Americans as arrogant and domineering.

Grant’s visit was not all parties and tourism, however. He met with top government officials on a number of occasions, and with the Meiji Emperor directly twice, to discuss a wide range of issues, including a dispute, very heated at the time, between China and Japan over sovereignty over the Ryukyu Islands (you can see where my interest comes in here). As I alluded to before, Grant advised the Emperor on a great many things, including the importance of seeking revision of the Unequal Treaties with the Western powers, and how to pursue it; the importance of implementing democratic forms of government, and the caution that must be taken in implementing it gradually; taxes and economic policy; and the danger of assuming that any of the European powers would ever act altruistically in Japan’s best interests. Chang asserts that the Meiji government had not previously considered a diplomatic approach to reconciliation with China over the Ryukyus, and thus represents Grant’s involvement in pushing for both sides to engage in negotiations, as quite crucial. War was indeed averted for the time being, thanks largely (perhaps) to Grant, though the underlying issues would continue to simmer below the surface, coming to a boil in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, which resulted in Japanese acquisition and colonization of Taiwan.

I must admit I read this with a less cynical and skeptical eye than perhaps I should have… I hardly ever expected Grant, of all people, to become a historical figure in whom I should have an interest. But Chang’s writing is quite compelling, and I am, I guess, somewhat gullible when it comes to the light in which historians paint certain figures and events. I suppose I shall just have to see what other articles say, and how other scholars represent General Grant.

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There are an absolute multitude of aspects of “Dogs & Demons” I would like to address, but as I fear the tl;dr phenomenon, and believe that blog posts should not approximate the length of term papers, I guess I’ll just stick to addressing things one by one, topic by topic. At the risk of this turning into a Dogs & Demons blog, maybe I’ll come back and write future posts each centered around one quote from the book.

While I find Kerr’s writings, and lectures, and overall concepts quite intriguing and largely something I can get behind, his disdain for pop culture has always bothered me. Reading “Dogs & Demons,” it became apparent that he is also fairly clueless, or at least misguided, when it comes to his understanding of Japanese pop culture.

He makes a lengthy, and compelling, argument about the Japanese people being essentially coddled children – the obsession with cute, the ever-present super-saccharine automated announcements reminding everyone of things that any responsible adult should know already (be careful stepping over the gap; don’t forget anything when you leave the bus; make sure you have your ticket with you), etc.

But I truly do believe that his disdain for pop culture goes too far. He claims that animation is inherently a children’s medium, repeating the same misguided, stereotypical attitude that any and all lovers of anime, comic books, or other forms of new media are constantly fighting against. He cites Sailor Moon and Dragonball – shows blatantly aimed at children – as the key examples of what anime is all about, without mentioning Akira, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Monster, any of Kon Satoshi’s work, or any of the other anime which address much more serious themes and which are perfectly appropriate as entertainment for adults (not “adult entertainment”, which is a whole separate matter). Perhaps a lot of those things hadn’t come out when this book was written – I’m not so kuwashii on the timeline – but even in talking with him, or hearing him speak, it seems clear that his impressions and attitudes have not changed with the passing years. I doubt he’d even be open to the idea of trying out any of these anime in order to see what he’s gotten so wrong.

More frustrating is his constant association of the building of monuments with some kind of manga aesthetic or manga attitude. Monuments feature heavily in the book, and it’s worth taking a moment to explain precisely what he means by these. An old Chinese tale involves the emperor asking his court painter what is easy to paint, and what is difficult. The painter replies, “dogs are difficult, but anyone can paint a demon.” Dogs are so everyday that we don’t pay much attention to what they look like, or how to paint them accurately. The world of the everyday fades into the background, it is so familiar. This forms the core of the argument of the book, and, of course, provides the title as well. It is difficult to effect real reform, the political and logistical complexities involved in fixing zoning regulations, burying power lines, eliminating the excessive political power of the construction (concrete) industry. Kerr calls these reforms “dogs”. On the other hand, it is easy to build flashy monuments, rename ministries, declare new policies or new committees, things that Japanese politicians and bureaucrats do all the time, to create the illusion of progress or improvement. These are demons.

Rather than address the systematic faults that have led to the depopulation of the countryside, i.e. rather than think of real ways to revive the rural economy, Japan’s municipalities have resorted to building monuments – massive concert halls, town meeting halls and cultural centers, highway cloverleafs in the shape of an eight-headed dragon, “new cities” on landfill – under the pretense that this is meant to revive the local economy. These concert halls, museums, and cultural centers lay empty, the construction industry and the bureaucrats wrapped around its finger lining their pockets while no efforts are made whatsoever to preserve or restore those aspects of tradition and history which would actually attract tourists, nor to solve the problems actually facing farmers and other rural residents.

I agree with Kerr completely that these monuments are a disgrace, a complete waste of funds that, while flashy, completely fail to address the real issue, and which, one by one, are destroying natural scenery and traditional livelihoods without replacing them with anything truly desirable, truly modern, or truly beneficial to the rural communities.

However, his insistence that these buildings are somehow “manga-chiku” (I’m not sure if this is meant to be 漫画築, “manga architecture” or 漫画チック “manga-esque”) completely misses the mark. Yes, Japan is overloaded with obnoxiously cute and totally unnecessary mascots, such as the Metropolitan Police’s Pipo-kun and Nara’s Sento-kun. But what does the Japanese obsession with concrete modern architecture have to do with manga? If Kerr believes that this is what a manga world looks like, then he obviously hasn’t read much manga. There are tons of manga which simply reflect Japan as it is – covered in ugly concrete buildings – not in any way advocating that this is the way of the future, or the way an ideal manga world should be. There are also plenty of manga which portray a shiny, sleek futuristic Japan, and perhaps this is what Kerr is rebelling against, as these styles can be seen here and there, in the new shiny towers of Roppongi Hills, for example. But there are also manga which celebrate traditional architecture, whether Japanese or Western. And there are no manga that I know of that truly celebrate and extol the kind of 1950s-60s concrete blocks that continue to slowly take over Japan.

More to the point, perhaps, is that I feel Kerr somehow conflates the sleek, shiny, futuristic world of some manga with the squishy, colorful, super cute world of other manga, as if they are somehow the same. Kameoka Station, which I assume had a very basic, concrete platform and overall 1950s sort of aesthetic, was recently rebuilt. And while I can somewhat understand Kerr’s distaste for the idea that such a rural town has any need of a big city style station, I truly do not understand what he sees when he calls the new station “manga-chiku”. He also seems to find RFID metrocards bizarre and unnecessary – is this also part of his perceived “manga-chiku” world? I mean, granted, the ICOCA card has a cartoon platypus as its mascot, but the card itself is simply a technology that improves ease and efficiency, one piece of the puzzle that makes the Japanese rail system so much better, and more modern, than for example the NYC subway. Maybe Kerr just hates progress and technology.

Furthermore, he criticizes anime for never advancing technically or technologically, writing that “while Japanese studios continued to paint pictures on celluloid with skills little changed from the 1930s, Pixar and Disney were inventing brand-new digital technology with dazzling visual effects that amazed the world in Toy Story [and] A Bug’s Life.” Pardon me, but I thought you appreciated tradition in arts, Mr. Kerr. Many of us who love anime – and that’s not a geek, niche thing, but a fairly broad appeal across a wide range of demographics, and including the vast majority of Japan specialists in my generation – love the beauty of the traditional handdrawn style, and are disgusted or simply disinterested in the heavy reliance on CG in Western animation these days. I realize this is a totally subjective thing, but I for one much prefer the texture and feel of flat, hand-drawn animation. Do Toy Story and A Bug’s Life really compare to the beautiful art of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away?

In the realm of fashion, Kerr may very well be right to point out that the rebellious and crazy street fashions embraced by young Japanese does not translate, as it might in the West, to any actual socio-political statement or activity. These punks and goths will not be leading any kind of revolution, protests, or uprising. Nevertheless, I simply cannot share his dismissal of, and disdain for, street fashion. Just because it doesn’t have any kind of socio-political rebellious underpinning doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, intriguing, alluring, captivating. How is it that someone who so appreciates art and culture cannot find anything aesthetically interesting about the myriad of creative and ever-shifting Tokyo street fashions?

All in all, I think it a terrible shame that Mr Kerr cannot seem to find much in contemporary Japanese pop culture which he appreciates. His disdain for all things he considers manga-chikku, which extends far beyond what most of us would associate with anime/kawaii culture, taints his arguments for traditional culture, damaging their objectivity, and making him come across simply as someone with bizarre tastes and a bone to pick against all things modern. In a country which he asserts is so obsessed with a misguided concept of modernization, and with sacrificing all in the pursuit of a modernization it fails to recognize it has already achieved, someone like Kerr, who comes across as bizarrely obsessed with the old, the primitive, the backwards, and who shows no appreciation whatsoever for the modern, is not likely to garner much popularity.

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