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「美術漆器製造販売」, Meiji period catalog for ordering Ryukyuan lacquerwares.

Here’s one of the many posts I drafted a few years ago and never got around to posting. Still relevant today, I think.

In the course of my dissertation research, I began to get the feeling that Okinawan history can often be prone to certain ideas of conventional wisdom being repeated over and over, without a real solid notion of their veracity. Gregory Smits’ critiques of the oft-cited official histories produced by the royal court in his recent book Maritime Ryukyu would seem to support this. Now, whether this is typical in other fields as well, or whether it is more distinctly an issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, I’m not sure. But, regardless, I grew worried – and to be frank, remain worried – about accidentally including in my dissertation (as well as in conference presentations or journal articles) the kind of statements that would make an expert shake their head at my mistake. Much like how I shake my head at people who say that Okinawan is a dialect, or that Japan was “closed” for hundreds of years, or, as much conventional wisdom in the karate world would have it, that King Shō Shin banned weapons in the 16th century and that Ryukyu has been a kingdom of peace, a culture of pacifism ever since.

I know most people worry the most about the argument, the theoretical interpretation, and so forth. And of course all of that is important. But I think getting the details right, and doing your best to be a source that people can learn (and cite) accurate information from is also important. Advancing knowledge of the field not only in our interpretations but also in our findings: in correcting misconceptions and putting forth correct information, best as we can.

An 1889 book called Ryūkyū shikki kō (琉球漆器考, “Thoughts on Ryukyu Lacquerware”), oft-cited and regarded as a classic on the subject, almost a primary source, tells us the lacquer tree is not native to Ryukyu and has never grown well there – that Ryukyuan lacquer has always been made with imported raw lacquer from Japan or elsewhere. A number of museum catalogs, academic articles, and the like from the 1980s to today say the same, citing only this source. A curator I spoke with during my time in Okinawa, whose specialty of expertise is Ryukyuan lacquerware, told me much the same. And yet, I then read an essay by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1933-2005)* explicitly addressing the point and saying “while many have long said that Ryukyu never had its own lacquer trees, most often simply citing the Ryūkyū shikki kō, as I have explained elsewhere, evidence shows that Ryūkyū certainly did produce its own lacquer, perhaps even since the Jōmon period, thousands of years ago”. Great. Now what? Absent the time, resources, expertise to hunt down the truth myself – which could, honestly, be an entire PhD project unto itself – which are we to believe?

One of the main gates into the portion of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is not open to the public. But prior to 1889, the emperor did not reside beyond this gate, but rather at a temporary palace outside of the current palace grounds entirely.

Learning new things very typically is not this ambiguous. I could cite numerous examples of things which I never knew, but which one scholar revealed, and which I feel I can now take to be true. To name just one, there is the basic general assumption that Edo castle quickly became the Imperial Palace after 1868; in fact, as Takashi Fujitani explains, Edo castle burned down in 1873, and for the better part of the next fifteen years – a pretty central key period in the development of the new “modern” Meiji Japan – there was nothing in the center of Tokyo but a gaping burnt-out hole, and the Imperial Court was based, instead, in the former mansion of the Kishû Tokugawa lords. If you never read Fujitani’s book, or certain other sources, you might never know, simply because so many other authors breeze past it or don’t even realize themselves that “the imperial palace” at that time wasn’t the same site or the same structure as post-1889.

Similarly, most discussions of Commodore Perry omit that he ever spent time in Okinawa. But, once you learn about it, you know it, and there’s no need to worry about doubting its veracity, or being unclear or undecided on which interpretation or account is correct. I could also cite numerous examples of things which remain a matter of interpretation, but at least there is a standard interpretation that’s widely popular and widely accepted among scholars today. I don’t have to feel frozen with indecision over whether to think Japan was “closed” in the Tokugawa period, when pretty much every major early modern Japan specialist today agrees that it wasn’t, or at least that it was no more “closed” than China or Korea at the same time, that “maritime restrictions” might be a better term, and that Japan did have very active and significant contacts with the Ainu, Korea, Ryûkyû, the Dutch, and the Chinese, albeit not with any other major Western powers.

But then you come back to something like the question of whether Ryûkyû historically, traditionally, had its own lacquer trees. And there just isn’t enough published on it to know. As of right now, as I sit here typing this, I have one curator telling me they didn’t (and I presume the gallery labels at that museum would say the same), and one rather preeminent scholar writing that that’s hogwash and that Ryûkyû did have their own lacquer trees. I also have a handful of museum catalogs and other books and articles on Okinawan art in general, or Ryukyuan lacquerware in particular, which make no mention of the issue. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much for my own work; I’m not basing my larger arguments on any of these particular points. And, besides, there are always the questions of who’s going to actually even read my dissertation? And even if they do, are they really going to take note of that one footnote? Ah, but if they do, and if they cite me as having said that Ryûkyû either did or didn’t have its own lacquer trees – and all the more so if they then make some argument that rests on this assertion, well, now I really am complicit, if that’s the right word, in perpetuating a misconception.

So, what am I supposed to believe? This isn’t about judging the quality of the argument, or the evidence – it’s just one assertion against another, with very little if any evidence being presented. Nor is it a case of an active debate in the field, so much as it’s just a lack of information. A lack of evidence. A lack of scholarship. And so, everyone goes along either believing the Ryūkyū shikki kō (and the lineage of scholarship citing back to it), or they believe Tokugawa-sensei. Either way, young scholars like myself who are trying to build up their own knowledge of Okinawan history and culture are left just not knowing.

A bingata robe, formerly owned by the royal family, now a National Treasure and held at the Naha City Museum of History.Gallery labels tell us that this brilliant yellow was restricted to members of the royal family. Is that true? Or another piece of potentially mistaken conventional wisdom?

And, it can be very hard to know who to turn to. I have great admiration for traditional practitioners – dancers, musicians, weavers, martial artists – and could indeed write a whole blog post about how I would love to have a stronger ability to see things through their perspective, a perspective of traditions, cultural significance, technique and aesthetic; understanding things within a cultural context, a context of the tradition to which they belong, and not merely a political, economic, or social history sort of context that may pay attention to that history but without the same sort of appreciation. And yet, at the same time, while some traditional practitioners will have a keen eye for the questions and problems involved and may be able to regale you with their brilliant personal knowledge – beyond anything that can be found in books – as to the entire history of the issue, many other traditional practitioners are simply going to tell you conventional wisdom. They’re going to tell you what their sensei told them, or what they heard through the grapevine, like it’s gospel.

And so, perhaps we turn back again to researchers. And, yes, I can and I should reach out to people like Sudō Ryōko, who is probably one of the leading experts within formal academia on garments worn in the royal court, and ask her what she knows of whether bingata (a particular style of resist-dye decoration) garments were in fact truly limited to only the aristocratic classes, and in what ways and in what contexts. But I fear there will always remain this niggling feeling in my mind that it still isn’t settled. Whatever answer she gives me, there will be some other person, or book, that happens to say otherwise, and I’ll be left not knowing again. This nagging, frustrating, feeling, that no matter where you turn – encyclopedias, or something like Okinawa bijutsu zenshû (“Complete Collection of Okinawan Art,” pub. 1989) – you’re still not getting a truly definitive answer.

Were sanshin truly limited to only the aristocratic classes as well? I have certainly heard it said, many a time, but I am not sure if I’ve read that in a proper scholarly article, let alone read a fuller explanation about it. If I say they were, and even if I cite it to this book or that book, or to a conversation with this sanshin master or that music professor, am I still shooting myself in the foot for other readers who will look at it and say

ugh, how can this guy be so clueless!? Relying on X, doesn’t he know that Y showed that it wasn’t that way? How can I trust anything else this guy is saying if he even gets this wrong!?

Thankfully, I don’t think many or perhaps even any of these debates are crucial to my own argument, and so I may be able to continue to just skirt them entirely. But, even so, wherever I do cite anything on any of these issues, I’m entering into the danger of myself unknowingly repeating the same problematic conventional wisdom. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

*Descendant of the Owari Tokugawa clan, and long-time head of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. Not to be confused with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) of the Mito lineage, and the final shogun.

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Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

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Amami: Yamato or Ryukyu?

I count myself just so incredibly fortunate that I get to travel the way I do. After a brief trip back to Okinawa yet again, which I may write about in a separate soon forthcoming post, I managed to take a few days and visit the island of Amami Ôshima, a beautiful and fascinating place which despite being the 7th largest island in Japan (i.e. still pretty sizable) is I would venture to say far off the radar of most tourists and travelers, Japanese or otherwise.

First of all, before I say anything else, I guess I should simply say that it’s beautiful. The greenery, the sea, the sky, it’s beautiful. I’m not sure what I expected – I guess that since I was leaving Okinawa prefecture, that I’d be going back into winter. And, in a certain sense, that’s true. The entire region, from southern Kyushu down through Okinawa, saw a bizarre few days of genuinely summery weather for pretty much the whole time I was in Okinawa (75F / 24C in Naha on Sat Jan 25!), and then several days of very strong and cold winds, and on & off rain, while I was in Amami. So, not necessarily indicative of a difference between the two places so much as changing weather patterns across the week. But, in any case, who am I kidding? It was beautiful when I visited Hiroshima back in 2018 too. Regardless of whether you’re in “the islands” or the “mainland,” there’s still plenty opportunity for beauty.

Tiny lanes with stone walls, in a section of Tatsugô Town near where Saigô Takamori’s old house has been reconstructed. One of many little village communities on the island; reminds me of Ôgimi, way-out-there inaka village in the northern part of Okinawa Island.

So, I guess before I delve into the history or the culture, I should say something about just the general feel of the island, in terms of how rural or urban it is. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But now that I’ve visited, looking back over the last few years I’m realizing that my sense from X years ago that actually I’d only ever seen the big urban centers, the major touristy cities, in Japan and had never actually really seen other parts, let alone truly “countryside” parts – that is no longer true. Amami is definitely inaka – the countryside, or however you might want to translate that. I mean, it’s a big island, over 700 sq km (roughly 275 sq mi?), but with only about 73,000 people, and while I sorely regret not visiting any of the shimanchu marts, which is just adorable, there are only five or six big chain convenience store locations (all FamilyMarts, no 7-11 or Lawson) on the entire island, for whatever sense that may give.

In terms of the general feel of how it looks and feels driving around here, what the roads and the view along the sides of the road look like, and so forth, I’m not sure I thought about it in this way at the time, but sitting in the hotel room and looking back upon today, I think it was very much like driving around the more rural parts of Okinawa. Long stretches of little more than lush greenery and wide open sky and the occasional (or much more than just occasional) view of the ocean; and in town, not sure how to describe it, but a level of urban/rural that reminds me very much of, for example, Ginowan. Much more of a working, industrial city than a touristy one. Even with the beautiful view of the water from my hotel room, it felt like grey, concrete, industrial. Not the sort of semi-tropical “island vacation” feel you get in many parts of Okinawa or Hawaiʻi. And as soon as you leave the most central urban part of urban Naze, you get into long drags with intermittent large box stores with large parking lots, though I suppose it reminds me of many mainland Japanese cities as well – driving around Hiroshima or Kure, for example, but not Tokyo.

Above: a warehouse in central Naze. Below: Tecchan, a great little keihan restaurant on the side of the highway.

Amami is located roughly halfway between Okinawa (to the south) and Kyushu – i.e. “mainland” Japan – to the north. A part of the broader Ryukyuan/south Kyushu cultural zone in ancient times, and in fact a major center of trade and activity in the 10th-11th centuries or so before Okinawa Island ever was, Amami was forcibly incorporated into the orbit of the Okinawa-centered Ryukyu Kingdom in the mid-16th century, and then conquered and annexed just a few decades later by the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Kagoshima. Unlike Okinawa and the other islands to the south which remained under the control of the largely independent Ryukyu Kingdom (though the king was counted as a vassal of the Shimazu, and owed various obligations to them), Amami and the surrounding islands came under more direct Satsuma control, and thus for several hundred years longer than Okinawa and the southern Ryukyus had at least somewhat more direct and extensive Japanese influence. Jumping ahead to the end of the post-WWII Occupation in 1952, the US military thought for a fancy moment that they just might get to keep all of the Ryukyus indefinitely, as one giant military colony, a whole series of “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” But while they managed to continue the Occupation in Okinawa for another 20 years, Amami was “reverted” to Japanese authority in 1953. So, building upon a fundamental base of indigenous/ancient Ryukyuan culture – which can still be seen in the language, the local deities, folk music and folk festivals, etc. – Amami has a far longer history of being (in one way or another) under the control of, or incorporated into, some form of “Japanese” polity, nation, cultural sphere.

As a result of this geography and history, the one main thing I’d think anyone should expect when coming to a place like Amami is a preconception or expectation of curiosity of just how “Ryukyuan” vs. “Japanese” it’s going to be. And I found my experience of this to be, well, interesting. When I visited Japanese restaurants in Okinawa, I was struck, really struck, by how “Japanese” they felt. Like it really was a foreign culture; the Japanese restaurant at Naha Main Place felt to me no less foreign to Okinawa than being in a Chinese or Indian restaurant, and I consciously felt, or imagined, an added layer of colonial imposition. Being in that restaurant it was just so easy to imagine up some image of Japan having come in and inserted Japaneseness, including Japanese restaurants, into everyday Okinawan life. … And of course I’m in a different position myself right now, having been in Okinawa for only the last few days, and Tokyo for months before that, as compared to the time I went to that Japanese restaurant in the mall in Naha after having lived in Okinawa for months, eating a lot of Okinawan food and having not been to a soba/udon/washoku place for a long time. ….

But still all of that said, getting to the point, I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that shock value on Amami. I did feel there were clearly many things around that were decidedly Ryukyuan, intermixed with many features that make me feel like it’s just another region of Japan – like it’s not a different culture entirely, but just one possible variation, just like I might expect to find in traveling around various parts of “mainland” Kyushu or Shikoku and seeing what the local culture might happen to be like there. From certain local food specialities like keihan, to individual local products like the “shima ramune” (ramune soda made with juice from local citrus), to t-shirts and tote bags labeled with Amami themed images, I feel like it’s just the Amami equivalent of exactly the same kind of “local” stuff I’ve seen in the Inland Sea, for example. But it’s interesting, that at least in this very few interactions or experiences so far, it hasn’t struck me as decidedly Ryukyuan or decidedly Japanese, or as intriguingly mixed. It just is what it is. To be sure, if you wrote out a list of cultural features, you could say which things can be put in a Ryukyuan column, and which in a Japanese column, and you could craft out an imagined understanding of Amami that is, indeed, a matter of multiple different cultural layers placed upon one another. The Ryukyuan deity Amamikyo, for example, being worshipped on Amami but in sites featuring Shinto shrine architecture rather than more closely resembling the kinds of spaces you’d find at Okinawan utaki.

Above: A shrine on Amami Ôshima dedicated to the Ryukyuan creation deity Amamikyo/Amamiku 奄美姑(阿麻弥姑), with torii gate and haiden worship hall showing a combination of Japanese and distinctive architectural features.
Below: An utaki sacred space at Ameku Shrine 天久宮 in Naha, Okinawa, which admittedly also has a torii and haiden (not shown), but which really centers on this sacred tree or sacred grove, marked by simpler stone markers.

Traveling from mainland Japan to Okinawa or vice versa I think there’s a certain degree of culture shock. But in Amami, I think what I sensed was less a striking mix of two disparate things (Ryukyu and Japan) and much more so a place that lies along a spectrum. I wonder if perhaps it’s fair – accurate – to draw a contrast between Okinawa, which of course, received considerable influence from China, Japan, and elsewhere over the course of its history but which was at the same time very much its own place, receiving a sudden, powerful influx of imposed Japanese culture beginning in the Meiji period, versus Amami, which has since ancient times possessed a culture that exists in the space where the two (Ryukyu and Japan) fade into one another. Okinawan songs might have two sets of lyrics – a more traditional set of lyrics, in the Okinawan language, passed down through the generations by oral tradition and custom, and another in the Japanese language, invented by a record company or radio company in the 20th century and deliberately introduced for commercial purposes which has since gained widespread familiarity; by contrast, I don’t know much about Amami music, but from what little I do know, it’s played on an Okinawan sanshin, but in a scale shared with certain mainland Japanese traditions, and sung in a language which lies in-between Okinawan and Japanese. Traveling from Japan to Okinawa, you go from a place where “today” is kyô to a place where (if people are speaking in Okinawan, rather than in Japanese) “today” is chû. Two distant points along a spectrum. But on Amami, if people are speaking “shimaguchi” (island language), it’s kyû. Just a little different from standard Japanese, and I can easily imagine certain parts of Kyushu or Shikoku having similar vowel shifts… but you can also see how it’s in a sense halfway towards the Okinawan pronunciation. Kyô–>Kyû–>Chû.

Three different varieties of Miki. Thanks to the owner of the Amami-an bookstore for introducing me to this interesting and, frankly, delicious, drink.

Food, of course, is another thing to consider. And I honestly wasn’t sure what to think. Amami food is certainly different from Okinawan food, albeit with some similarities. And there are some things that are definitely distinctive, if not entirely unique, to Amami, starting with Miki ミキ, a drink made from rice, sugar, sweet potato, and water, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, and which I could imagine discovering as some regional specialty somewhere in “mainland” Japan but which is certainly not mainstream standard. I’ve never seen anything like it in Tokyo or Kyoto, except for maybe amazake which is I guess a bit similar but is not sold in bottles or cartons right alongside the juices and sodas.

And there’s keihan – what Okinawa soba is to Okinawa, the one most iconic, most standard, if it’s an Okinawan restaurant they’re sure to have this, dish, keihan is to Amami, it would seem. Chicken soup with rice. And some other, more distinctly Japanese toppings (picked ginger, shredded nori, thin slices of omelette, etc.). Very tasty. … Another thing I was told about and saw on menus but never got around to trying was the goya (bitter melon), which on Okinawa is often cooked in a style of stir-fry called chanpuru, but which on Amami is apparently served cooked in miso; and, I don’t know if this is typical or indicative, but on Amami I saw it described on menus as nigauri 苦瓜 – literally, bitter melon, a melon that is bitter – rather than using the Ryukyuan(?) term gôya ゴーヤー. … But what I didn’t realize until just now, a couple of days after getting back, is that I don’t think I ever saw any soba or udon or sushi on the island. I’m not even sure if I saw ramen. There was that one shop I sat down in that had omuraisu (omelette rice), a standard mainland Japanese dish invented/introduced in the late 19th or early 20th century… but when I was experiencing that culture shock at the shopping mall in Naha, it was in large part because I had walked into a restaurant where nearly every aspect of the decor and menu was identical to what you might find in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Udon, soba, sushi, wholly entirely standard stuff. Whereas on Amami, the entire feel was of it being a variation on Japanese culture – something that you could absolutely imagine exists within the regional variation within Japan, not needing to be seen as outside of it – and yet with hints or touches that, if you can recognize them, are decidedly Ryukyuan.

I guess that’s it for now. I’ve kind of run out of steam…

Below: video I took at a concert of Amami folk music performed here in Tokyo a few months ago. Amami folk music has a ton in common with mainland Japanese folk music, and uses a Japanese musical scale – not the Okinawan one – so the overall sound is quite distinct from that of traditional music anywhere in Okinawa prefecture, even though the instrument they play is little different from the Okinawan sanshin. Visiting a live-music shimauta (lit. “island songs”) bar was one of the primary things I was excited to do on Amami, but in the end, the only shimauta bar I knew of (Kazumi – recommended by multiple people, probably one of the top ones on the island) was totally packed one night, and unexpectedly closed the next. Oh well, maybe next time.

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I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization” (International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

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*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

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As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

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Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

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Early in the morning on Thursday Oct 31, 2019, exactly 27 years to the day after its postwar restoration was complete, seven of the central buildings of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku) the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, burned down in what seems to have been a tragic, tragic accident.

The front page of the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, Nov 1, 2019.

I awoke that morning to this shocking news. Whether I saw it first on Twitter or on Facebook, I don’t recall. I had actually been in Naha just a week or so earlier, but hadn’t made it to the castle on this visit. Video of the castle in flames was showing amongst other news briefs on the video screens on the Tokyo Metro subway as I made my way into work, and by the time I got into the office, there was an email very kindly forwarded to me by a friend, from Singapore-based Channel News Asia looking for someone to speak briefly, live on-air, via Skype. We had already begun to see reactions in the English-language news, social media, and elsewhere – of which I, I will admit, was guilty as well at first – dismissing the fire as being not that important, since the buildings destroyed were all 1990s-2000s reconstructions and not authentically historical buildings. As I later learned, contributors on Wikipedia similarly came to a swift conclusion not to include the fire in the “In the News” section of Wikipedia’s front page because, as one user wrote, “If this was about the original buildings being destroyed, it’d be newsworthy,” later adding “Thanks for the correction, let’s make it a strong oppose then. I’ve got clothes older than the buildings destroyed. This is completely misleading and not in the slightest newsworthy.” Having since read much, not only in scholarship and newspapers, but also on friends’ social media accounts, about how much the castle meant to them, I was saddened and infuriated.

I still feel conflicted about having accepted the invitation to speak on-camera, rather than doing the “recognize your privilege” thing and deferring to Okinawan or Okinawan-American friends – I hate that anyone should think that I would be eager to use such a tragic event as an opportunity for self-promotion. But I did think that most Okinawans or Okinawan-Americans I might pass it along to were likely plenty busy with commenting or responding in other ways – and many did end up being interviewed by the media, or having an opportunity to respond publicly in other ways, and I hope I can feel okay with the idea that I wasn’t really stealing anyone’s spotlight but simply adding an additional, supporting, voice, repeating and amplifying the voices I had heard, to do what little I could to try to help correct some misunderstandings and, simply, to bring Okinawa, its people, and their history and culture, to the world’s attention if only for a moment.

Jon Itomura, executive director of Hawaii United Okinawa Association, being interviewed by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Company (琉球放送, RBC):

Since then, I have been keeping up with the news as much as I can, and with individual friends’ and colleagues’ social media posts, as well as discussing the fire and the significance of Shuri with friends both here in Tokyo and overseas. That very night, after the fire, I immediately started reading two books which had long been near the very top of my “to read” pile: Tze May Loo’s Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation Into Modern Japan, 1879–2000, and a chapter on Shuri castle and “Ryukyu Restoration” in Gerald Figal’s book Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa. Thanks to another kind recommendation, I was able to share some of what I had learned, about Okinawans’ own feelings about the significance of the 1992 restoration, the existence of the castle since then, and the tragedy of its loss, in a piece for a UK-based art world magazine, Apollo. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Simon Kaner for passing this opportunity along to me, and to Apollo for seeking to publish something on this beautiful and powerful place that has such a special space in so many people’s hearts.

The main hall (Seiden 正殿, or Momourasoe udun 百浦添御殿) at Shuri castle, in a photo I took in Sept 2014.

There is still so much more that I have to say, and that so many others have been saying. It’s been more than two weeks since the fire now, and a part of me felt that I really ought to post something here on the blog almost immediately. Some of my loyal readers, if I indeed have any (I don’t presume I do), may have noticed the conspicuous absence of any comment on the event until now. But I delayed because I felt there was still so much to read, and to think about, and to synthesize. And I think there will still be more posts yet to come. But I wanted, now, finally, today, to start to share some introductory thoughts. Over the coming days and weeks, if I end up keeping to it, I may end up posting more.

For those interested in contributing to the reconstruction efforts:
*One way to do so, particularly for those in the US, is through a GoFundMe organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
*Those who pay taxes in Japan can redirect their furusato zeikin to the reconstruction effort: https://www.furusato-tax.jp/gcf/717.
*And the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper is maintaining a list of other ways to donate: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/entry-1019118.html

Those who have visited the castle may wish to share photos with a lab at the University of Tokyo which is working to combine crowdsourced photographs into a 3D virtual digital model, or recreation, of the castle. See this link: https://www.our-shurijo.org/index_en.html

Another organization is working on creating an archive of people’s thoughts and experiences regarding the castle – not just rebuilding the castle, and continuing to try to safeguard the roughly 1100 out of 1500 physical historical cultural treasures which survived the fire, but to build and maintain an archive of memories. Watch this space: https://miraifund.org/kikin/shurijo/

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