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

In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.

Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.

But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?

Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.

However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1

*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.

It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].

One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.

Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.

So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.

So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.

EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.

(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first panel I made it to during the Assoc. of Asian Studies conference this year was one titled “Early Modern News: The Fall of the Ming on a Global Stage.” The use of the word “stage” here is quite clever, as the panel was discussing the representation of the Ming and its fall in theatre.

Now, before I go further, I’d like to offer a brief disclaimer: I apologize if I may misrepresent the facts or the arguments from any of these papers – I am merely going from my notes, and there is plenty of opportunity for mis-hearing or misunderstanding things said in an orally presented paper. Also, I am sure that in these panel summaries/reports, for the sake of brevity and cohesiveness of my blog posts, or for whatever reasons, I will be skipping over major sections of papers, or skipping some papers entirely. No offense is meant to those scholars; I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated all of the papers I heard presented at the conference.

More about 李漁全集The panel began with Sarah Kile, professor at U Michigan, who presented on Chinese playwright Li Yu (1611-1680). I’d never heard of him – I wonder how big-name he is, and if it’d be possible to study the sort of Chinese history in which he’d come up, rather than the course I took last quarter, which was pretty much a total wash, more or less completely useless for my interests. In any case, he sounds like a really interesting figure. I’m not positive what type of theatre he was involved with (kunqu? It’s too early for jingju, right?), but the ways in which he was involved in popular culture & literary circles, as well as his thoughts on theatre, make me very interested to learn more about him, and about the early Qing popular culture realm, in comparison/contrast to that of Edo period Japan.

Right: A collection of the complete works of Li Yu.

Kile said that Li Yu made himself known, by appearing in a variety of publication as commentator, author of the preface, etc. He wrote not only a lot of theatrical plays, publishing the scripts, but also wrote & published a lot of commentaries and writings about theatre. In these writings, and especially in composing his plays, Kile says, Li Yu was perpetually concerned about always staying on the cutting edge, producing something new, in order to attract audiences. I haven’t read that much of contemporary (Edo period) kabuki commentaries, but hearing about this makes me much more curious. How did kabuki commentators or playwrights talk about these same issues? How flexible was the early Qing theatre? Kabuki generally adapted plays into new and different forms with each production, so even if the play itself was largely the same, it still was very much aimed at remaining fresh. … This also places Li Yu more firmly into a popular culture sort of discourse, a very separate set of concerns from those concerned with maintaining tradition, and performing something “properly” according to the proper forms. Did even Noh have the same concerns of maintaining tradition during the Edo period that it does today? I wonder. Perhaps Thomas Looser’s new book “Visioning Eternity” has some answers.

Another very interesting bit that Kile introduced from Li Yu’s writings was his musings on the role of lighting in the theatre. He asserts that the dim light of evening is better than daylight for helping the audience focus in on the play. Daylight, he writes, allows the audience to see everything at once, and for their attention therefore to drift all over the stage; too much light also reveals too much of the artifice of the production, whereas dim light hides the artifice and emphasizes the drama or artistry. This certainly sounds like something relevant too to Kabuki and Noh, especially in terms of cultivating the correct spiritual atmosphere and effect, yûgen or whatever it may be called, in Noh, as well as a much wider variety of effects and atmospheric moods in kabuki. I wonder what kabuki and Noh commentators of the time said about lighting.

The second paper in this panel was given by Prof. Paize Keulemans of Princeton University. He presented on the fall of the Ming in Dutch literature, poetry, media, and theatre, touching especially on the idea of the fall of the Ming as the first instance of “global news”, and on certain prominent discourses at the time in Northern Europe regarding Self, and China.

The Ming capitol of Beijing fell to Manchu invaders in 1644. By July 1650, agents of the Dutch East India Company had conveyed the news to the Netherlands. Impressive though this may seem, given that it is, quite arguably, the first instance of worldwide news, transmitted/known in a great many places all across the globe in a relatively short amount of time, I’m frankly surprised it wasn’t faster. How long did it take for the news to travel within China and to reach Canton or Fuzhou or wherever it was the Dutch were based? Given the constant back-and-forth travels and trade of Dutch and Chinese ships going to and fro between China, Japan, Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), and Europe, you’d think it’d have spread much faster. No?

Well, in any case, some of the most interesting aspects of Keulemans’ presentation were the discussion of discourses relating to Dutch “Enlightenment.” He highlighted mainly two manifestations of these, both dealing with conceptions of “openness.” Firstly, the idea of China as “closed,” as represented for example in an illustration from the 1655 Novus Atlas Sinensis (“New Chinese Atlas”), which depicts Atlas opening a gate to China, and stating in a sort of “word ribbon” (the word balloon having not yet been invented), “I open that which had been closed.” The gate itself is in a large wall which might be taken to represent the Great Wall of China. By portraying China as “closed,” Kaulemans argues, Europeans could see themselves as “open,” by contrast, as valuing openness, and therefore as more Enlightened, in terms of the European intellectual Enlightenment movement, placing great value on the “open” free flow of information. The free flow of information is a progressive thing, a key to advancement and development of a society, while China’s closedness (to Europeans, at least; whether info flowed freely within China or not is a separate matter) is seen as backwards and self-stifling.

The second side of this Enlightenment discourse of openness which I thought quite interesting was the suggestion that (some? many?) Dutch writers saw the key to advanced, Enlightenment-era power not in possessing territory, but in strength in maritime trade. The idea of the oceans as being an open, free space belonging to no one (and thus to everyone), Keulemans tells us, was a rather new idea at this time, and a major element of this discourse of Enlightened “openness.” I think it should come as no surprise that the Dutch, who were a rather powerful maritime power & wealthy economy at this time and who controlled very little territory compared to Spain, Portugal, France or England, should think this way.

Joost van den Vondel, a rare Catholic Dutchman writing at the time, drawing upon similar discourses, and informed by Jesuit missionaries operating within the Chinese Court, blamed the fall of the Ming on the Emperor’s isolation from knowledge of the outside world. The walls built by the Emperors, he wrote, proved insufficient to defend the realm from invaders. If only they had converted to Christianity, he asserted, China would be able to defend itself against any invasion. In true Catholic fashion, he ignores, or is incapable of seeing, that converting to Christianity would itself be succumbing to foreign influence. How much of Chinese culture and identity – from ancestor worship & local deities, to the political culture surrounding the Emperor’s relationship to Heaven, to the geomantic significance of the layout of palaces and cities, to the numerous Court rituals – would be irretrievably destroyed, lost, if the country converted to Catholicism? But I guess we can’t blame van den Vondel for being a product of his times.

This idea of “openness” is, of course, not so foreign to us, as it is not so different from the logics behind the Open Door Policy extended to (imposed upon) China by the Western powers in the 19th century, and the attitudes surrounding Commodore Perry’s mission to “open” Japan in the 1850s. But, to see it emerging two hundred years earlier, and in a particularly Dutch flavor, is quite interesting. I’d be curious to learn more about exactly how it was articulated, and how it played out, at that time.

For the sake of length, I will leave my summary/discussion of the third paper on this panel, one by Satoko Shimazaki, until the next blog post.

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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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Sometimes I find myself quite well-informed about certain exhibitions I wish to go to; other times, I’m afraid I don’t quite do my research. When I visited Boston just past Christmas, I had hoped to go to the Peabody Essex Museum, but missed out. I knew they were having some show of treasures from the Forbidden Palace, but I basically figured it was just another paintings / ceramics / etc. show, and it wasn’t the end of the world if I missed it. Which I did, on account of the snowpocalypse, as they’re calling it. I was home in New York for a week earlier this month, saw that the Metropolitan was now having some show of treasures from the Forbidden City – didn’t make the connection – but boy oh boy am I glad that I took the time and made sure to see the exhibit.

It turns out that The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City is a stunning, breathtaking, incredible exhibit, just about as close as one imagines they could ever get to actually transporting the Forbidden City into the inside of the Metropolitan Museum. Hardly just a show of paintings, ceramics, and other relatively easily transported treasures, this show included window trimmings and door frames, actual thrones that the Qianlong Emperor himself (presumably) actually sat on, and all kinds of other things that I never expected would ever leave their place, let alone leave Beijing, let alone leave China.

The exhibition focuses exclusively on the “Qianlong Gardens,” completed around 1776, at the orders of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-96), an emperor particularly known for his love of art, and for his embrace of Western ideas and influences. It was under the Qianlong Emperor that a great many treasures of painting entered the Imperial collection, and that the Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione was welcomed into the Court and commissioned to create a great many Western-style, relatively realistic, oil paintings of the emperor and of other subjects. A great many of the most famous Chinese paintings today bear the seal of the Qianlong Emperor.

The “garden,” really a sub-palace all its own, consisting of 27 buildings and pavilions, was intended to be Qianlong’s retirement palace. But he never retired, abdicating three years before his death, and continuing to wield power during that time. As the Emperor had a separate Summer Palace, the buildings of this retirement palace are grouped very close together, for greater warmth in the winter months.

Upon entering the exhibition, we are presented with a pair of large vases to the left, with a photograph plastered on the walls to give the impression of looking out into a garden or bamboo grove; and to the right, a door frame or wall decoration, with, beyond it, a wall painting that employs Western-style linear perspective to great effect, giving the illusion of being led deeper into a larger space. The Qianlong Emperor loved these kinds of illusions, and one can see why. Naive though it may be by Western oil painting standards, or modern photography & digital media standards, in terms of its relative lack of realism, the illusion still works – the painting still does not fail to produce the effect it was intended to, and definitely impresses.

Above: A perspectival illusion wall painting from the Supreme Chamber for Cultivating Harmony. Image from Metropolitan Museum website; you can find images of other works from the show, with curators’ descriptions, by clicking here.

We are then presented with two portraits of the Qianlong Emperor, one of which is one of multiple versions of the famous portrait you see here. Seeing it on slides, in books, and here on the computer screen does not compare to the actual artwork. The details of the robes, chair, and face are unbelievable, the pigments are thick and bold, and there’s just something really impressive, and truly breath-taking (yes, I know my adjectival vocabulary is a bit limited) about the way the colors are employed. The way the red shows through the gold of the chair is really incredible, and helps the image seem more real and more three-dimensional…. At first this may seem an extremely traditional & Chinese painting, and it is of course both of those things; but having focused so much in recent semesters on the adaptation of elements of Western artistic techniques into East Asian neo-traditional arts, it becomes obvious to me those non-traditional elements which have been employed here. Individualized, realistic, detailed depiction of the face; the use of shading and shadow to imply roundness of form and volume; and of course, linear perspective.

It was really wonderful to get to examine these paintings so closely. I’ve seen exhibits where paintings are kept back in full display boxes designed for, for example, standing folding screens, blocking you from getting anywhere near close enough to really examine the piece and appreciate the details. That was not a problem here – the vitrines were nice and shallow, allowing you to get within inches of the surface of the painting, and allowing the details to really shine.

Among other objects I was amazed to see was a paper & wood model of one of the halls & gardens, presumably created as part of planning and preparation to build the palace originally, back in the 18th century. That such a thing still survives is fairly unexpected, but that it should leave the archives and come all the way to Boston and New York is astonishing.

In addition to the inclusion of a number of 18th century Chinese treasures from the Metropolitan’s own collection, the exhibition included a very short, but well-done, video virtual tour of one section of the Palace (the juanqinzhai), and some displays on conservation efforts. If you have ever studied Chinese architecture at all, even in an intro survey art history class, you’re probably familiar with the Qianlong Emperor’s indoor theatre, with the ceiling painted with blue sky and purple wisteria on a trellis to give the illusion of the summer sky, with linear perspective wall paintings giving the impression of a much larger space, and of hidden doors behind mirrors leading from one room to the next. It was fun to be reminded of this room, and to realize where it fits in to the wider story – where in the Forbidden City it is located, and which emperor (Qianlong) it was built for.

Conservation efforts have been ongoing since 2001, if not earlier, and have employed, to the greatest extent possible, expert craftsmen in various traditional specialties, who had to be sought out and recruited from all over the country. As we learn in the exhibition, it is in large part due to conservation efforts begun in 2001 that these objects have been removed from their original context to begin with, and are therefore a bit freer to travel, before being permanently reinstalled in the Palace.

Having spent a lot of time in Japan, I think I’ve gotten a fairly good sense of a lot of the basic aesthetics, forms, and elements of Japanese traditional architecture and interior design; but it would be a fallacy to think the Chinese to be fairly similar. While nowhere else in China could compare to a Palace, of course, still, I think this exhibition – in addition to being visually stunning – really helped me gain a better understanding of what sorts of ways the Chinese traditionally decorated: with paintings and works of calligraphy incorporated into intricately carved wooden frames, and the wonderfully ironic and schizophrenic way that the Emperor embraced both signs of extravagant wealth and luxury, and signs of the rustic, simple, spare lifestyle of the cultural/moral/intellectual elite scholar-literati.

The Emperor’s Private Paradise is showing at the Metropolitan Museum, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, until May 1st. I strongly encourage you, if you have the chance, to make a visit. This is not just an exhibit – it’s an experience: as close as we might ever get in New York to the feeling of actually being inside the Imperial Palace.

All images are taken from Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons, and are used under a Creative Commons license, except where indicated otherwise.

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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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