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Eugene Savage (1883-1978, American), A God Appears, 1940, oils on canvas. Seen at Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Adding to the heated debate between Sahlins and Obeyesekere are a number of interpretations and responses to that debate, to which I have now added my own.

For the most part, I think I come down in between Sahlins and Obeyesekere; as I said in my previous post, I quite like Dening’s interpretation of the encounter between the HMS Dolphin and the people of Tahiti, and am much more inclined towards imagining a Hawaiian rationality within a distinctive (non-Western) worldview, and structuring of knowledge, of their own. Sahlins is far too strict within his structures, asserting that since the symbols line up, that must be the explanation, straightforwardly and definitively. He leaves no room for interpretive nuance, and suggests the Hawaiians believed, perfectly, Cook to be the god Lono. Obeyesekere, to the contrary, argues against any distinctive Hawaiian sensibility, and attributes Western Enlightenment rationality to all peoples. But, where Western rationality draws a hard line and dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or the rational and the superstitious, I think the Polynesian peoples can offer us an example of how to incorporate the two, an example of how to think differently, yet not irrationally. I think there is a possibility for the Hawaiians having seen Captain Cook as possessing of great mana, and thus as being semi-divine, and having seen the momentous event as imbued in some way either with the spirit of Lono, or with the mood of the Makahiki, because of its timing, all while at the same time, simultaneously without it being a contradiction, recognizing Cook as a living, breathing, mortal human being from another land, with plain, practical, intentions and desires.

Crash Course World History does a nice job on the subject. John Green does not merely repeat the standard story – as Sahlins does, and as I might have expected from a basic intro survey YouTube series sort of approach – but explains both Sahlins’ and Obeyesekere’s arguments, and the difficulties with both, ending with a few questions as to the far broader, more profound implications.

Here are some other voices:

*Scott MacLeod of the World University and School offers a brief but in-depth defense of Obeyesekere’s position, asserting a universal human rationality, and attacking cultural relativism. To be sure, there are elements of Sahlins’ narrative where the Hawaiians seem decidedly trapped by their guiding cultural structures, behaving purely according to obligation to act out the myth, rather than freely and pragmatically. Where Sahlins writes that “The killing of Captain Cook was … the Makahiki in an historical form,” and that “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,” MacLeod summarizes Obeyesekere as arguing that the Hawaiians may have deified Cook after his death, retroactively inventing the myth, for practical, pragmatic, political purposes related to the assertion of legitimacy of one political faction over another.

*Clifford Geertz offered his own thoughts on the debate, in a 1995 article in the New York Review of Books, which I am still trying to get my hands on, since my university apparently can’t be bothered to subscribe to online access.

*Anthropologist Chris Kavanagh gives a lengthy summary and analysis of the debate on his blog, God Knows What…. In two parts: The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse, Part 1, and Part 2.

With apologies for getting a bit silly, I think the Drunk History segment on Captain Cook is one of my favorites ever. Keep an eye (ear?) out for my favorite line. Can you guess which it is?

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Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

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Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.

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I’ve been interested for quite some time now in the canon, how it is formed, how it evolves and changes, and its impacts upon our world. I think it comes, in large part, from studying Japan, and Okinawa (and, increasingly in the last few months, Hawaii and the Pacific), and developing a sort of anti-Eurocentric perspective, or even agenda – and thus learning to question the Western canon, and the supposedly universal value assessments upon which it is based. There is a widespread popular belief, I think, that the most famous works, the most well-known works, have achieved that status because they deserve it – because they are genuinely, inherently, of superior quality in some way. And that may well be true for many of these pieces, in one way or another. An art historian expert in the Western canon could likely explain in quite some detail just what it is about Michelangelo’s David, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers that make them just so worth elevating. But what the art historian recognizes that I think the average person on the street never questions, is that these works came to be appreciated in this way, for these reasons, at a particular time. Just because something is a classic today does not mean it was always a classic – someone made that decision, that distinction, at a given time, and pushed it forward, pushing it into the canon through exhibition display, critical publication, emulation of style, referencing, or by other means.

In his new book The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, Michael Emmerich argues that this is what happened with the Tale of Genji. People today, both in Japan and around the world, count the Genji among the greatest works of Japanese literature, and at least insofar as it is oft-claimed as the world’s very first novel (and written by a woman, no less!), has gained a place in the canons of world literature, being often touched upon, if however briefly, in survey courses and survey textbooks of world history, global art history, and world literature. It would be easy to believe that the Genji has always held this status, at least within Japan; I have no doubt that a great many people do believe so. And, the great numbers of paintings, poems, and other visual and literary artworks throughout Japanese history that make reference to the Genji would seem to support this. Emmerich, however, argues that the Genji – though perhaps relatively well-known among elites – was not popularly well-known or well-read among the masses until as late as the early 19th century. Where scholars have been for years and years describing the Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji (“A Fraudulent Murasaki’s Bumpkin Genji”), an illustrated book published in 1829-1842, as a “parody” of the Genji, making humorous references to the Genji and presenting amusing twists on the interpretation of characters and events in the original text, Emmerich suggests that in fact, for the majority of readers, this was not a twist on a well-known classic, but something brand-new, introducing them to an ancient story of which they were previous unaware – in short, Emmerich claims it was the Inaka Genji, and its popularity, that led to the “original” Tale of Genji attaining the canonical position it holds today.

This, of course, is a radical enough claim already, questioning and asserting a new understanding of the most canonical classical text in the Japanese literary canon. But what I find particularly fascinating are the various concepts he introduces in the process of addressing this subject.

An early 17th century painting of a scene from the “Ivy” (Yadorigi) chapter of the Genji. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

He points out the way we all come to experience, understand, relate to, engage with a given literary or theatrical work differently, because our experiences are mediated by – among other things – different versions, translations, or performances of the work. It’s not mentioned explicitly in the interview, but I am pretty sure that no original manuscripts of the Genji survive today – that means that everyone who has read the Genji in any form in the last few hundred years (or, perhaps, even going back as far as seven, eight, or even nine hundred years ago) has only ever read, at best, a later re-copying. Far more likely, they read some kind of translation or adaptation. Even putting aside manga, anime, TV, and movie forms of the story, which we would all immediately recognize as not being the real thing, relative to those, in comparison to those, we tend to think of whatever translation of it we’ve read – by Royall Tyler, or Arthur Waley, or whomever – as having truly read the Genji. Or, if you’re Japanese (or a reader of Japanese literature), maybe you’ve read it in translation into modern Japanese – Emmerich gets into this, as to how this too is a translation – or maybe you’ve even read it in a modern movable-type transcription of the original phrasing. I’ve actually read one chapter – “Yugao” – in the original grammar. Probably the toughest thing I’ve ever read.

The Genji, as represented on the back of the 2000 yen bill.

But, not only are we experiencing the work through different forms, we’re experiencing it in relation to, in connection to, in reflection of, numerous other impressions we have of the work, based on other media, and on things we’ve heard or read or learned about it. The Genji was everywhere in premodern Japanese art – paintings, poetry, woodblock prints – and today, at least, people learn about it in school, and one can practically guarantee that just about every Japanese knows at least something of the story. Now, I don’t know how much the average Japanese person on the street might be familiar with any of this at all, but speaking for myself, as someone who has never really studied literature at all, I know the Genji through paintings, and through woodblock prints, and through “historical” sites I’ve come across in Kyoto, and this most definitely has impacted my impressions of the Genji. So, in a sense, the work is alive, dynamic, existing in countless variant forms, and ever-evolving; if there can be said to be a true, genuine, original version of the Genji, it is not the only one, and all these others are, in their own way, no less real, for these, and not the original, are the many Genjis that readers (and non-readers) know.

It’s for that reason that Emmerich writes, “The global community of Genji’s readership, and of its non-readership, is ultimately linked – translingually, transnationally, transhistorically – by something its members do not hold in common: Genji.” All of these people – people who have read or are otherwise familiar with the Genji – are by the very definition of the category linked by their association with the Genji; but, each is familiar with a different Genji.

A mural in the underground shopping arcade at Kyoto City Hall subway station.

As for the rest, I invite you to read the Interview with Michael Emmerich on Critical Margins, and Emmerich’s actual book, The Tale of Genji: Translation, Canonization, and World Literature, which itself already has begun to exist in multiple forms – the book itself, as it exists on the page, versus the book as it exists in the minds of those who have some (pre)conception of it based on this blog post, or on the interview linked to.

All photos my own.

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Last week, following a lively discussion in one of my seminars about how media outlets all too often overlook historians as consultants, op-ed writers, or sources for better historical context – or, to put it the other way around, that historians and our perspectives are not seen enough in the media – I found a friend had shared on Facebook a fantastic recent Asahi Shimbun interview with Prof. Carol Gluck (Columbia U). In it, she offers not only very interesting assessments of ongoing issues in Japan today, but also a few juicy quotes pointing precisely to this issue – the problems that result when journalists do not consult historians, or do not themselves take a sufficiently historical perspective in their work.

Since these quotes are just so good, I’ll let them speak for themselves, and try to avoid offering too much commentary myself.

To begin, in response to a question about the “recent” rightward swing in Japanese politics:

News about Japan in the global media often appears in extreme terms. During the economic surge of the 1980s Japan was going to take over the world. During the recession of the 1990s, Japan was finished. After that for a while Japan disappeared from the front pages. As a historian I know that history doesn’t work this way. It doesn’t careen from extreme to extreme. History is not a sprinter, either.

I am no expert on contemporary politics, and so I am essentially in the dark on this issue, relying on the media to provide me relatively accurate and informed information on the subject – I remain unclear as to whether this rightward swing is in fact recent, and if so how recent, and just how, in what ways, and for how long things have been building up toward it. Is it recent, or is it only recently on the radar of the journalism crowd?

Next, in response to a question about “breaking away from the postwar regime”:

People have been talking about breaking away from the sengo taisei (“postwar structure”) for decades. It is a fact that no other country involved in World War II still talks today about being in, or breaking away from, the “postwar.” Most countries stopped being “postwar” sometime during the 1950s, so this suggests something particular to the stability of Japan’s postwar. One reason for this is the role of the United States, which froze Japanese memory of the war and the origins of the postwar Japanese system in an immediately postwar shape in 1945-47. Many Japanese found this shape comfortable, accepting the emperor is a symbol and Japan as a peaceful, democratic country.

I’m not sure so much on the details of this – surely there have been changes over the years that have left things changed, not “frozen” in a 1945-1947 shape; beginning with the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, the 1952 end of the Occupation, the institution of the so-called 1955 System, the 1972 return of Okinawa, the Nixon Shocks, the incredible rise, the bubble burst, the so-called Lost Decades… but, nevertheless, I think the fundamental point is valid and important. Namely, take a historical view. Understand the past context. Of course we shouldn’t suggest that structural forces determine everything – people do make choices, and things do change, and so recent developments are relevant. But the most recent of developments are not all that’s relevant – it’s a failure, or a refusal, to understand the particularities of Japan’s situation that leads to all too many major US news outlets speaking of Japanese politics as wacky, irrational, bizarre. I certainly think there are lots of things they could and should do differently, but I recognize that if one were to study it further, as political reporters professionally should, things would not seem so bizarre.

I think that’s all I want to say on that. But, if you’re interested, please do check out the fuller excerpted interview at Asahi Shimbun Asia & Japan Watch.

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Back in January, I finally got around to watching the film Princess Kaʻiulani. It really got me thinking, as I expected it would, and I wrote most of what follows as I watched, pausing for stretches to write. … I think my thoughts have changed somewhat since writing this originally, but it represents therefore my continual process of consideration, exploration, and hopefully growth or progress.

I find it so difficult, since returning to the mainland, to feel like I am sufficiently sympathetic, sufficiently, I don’t know what the word is… politically aligned, I suppose. When I lived in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel like I was on the right side, to feel like I was engaging with these issues every day, and learning from them, and growing. As someone doing Okinawan Studies in Hawaiʻi, it was so easy to feel that I could count myself as an anti-colonialist, anti-Orientalist ally, or whatever the right term may be. I felt I could consider myself fairly well-informed/enlightened, and on the right side of thinking about these things, even if not actively activist. One can certainly be a feminist without being a particularly actively activist – a descriptor of your positions, not of your activity – but is there an equivalent word for being anti-Orientalist, pro-indigenous, and such?

Today, of course, I still feel terribly sympathetic, and I feel I want to be more so. I want to believe that I can truly count myself as thinking, knowing, believing correctly on these issues. But ever since returning to the mainland, I find it much more difficult to do so.

I watch a movie like this one, and of course I’m terribly sympathetic for Hawaiʻi’s plight, and wholly opposed to the actions of the Americans. But I cannot help but worry if my sympathy is too superficial, too weak. And to worry if I am, in fact, still a colonialist/imperialist at heart, an Orientalist, or, worse. I want so much to change, or to feel that I have changed, and while I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt that I had. But I fear that I am, simply by being removed from it, sliding backwards. Even as I edit this post right now, rewriting what I wrote a few months ago, I feel much more hesitant to call myself a “champion” or “advocate” for anything… after all, who the hell am I, and what do I know? I lived in Hawaiʻi for only three years, and though surrounded by certain issues and discourses and whatever everyday, actually took very few real courses or seminars explicitly discussing Hawaiian history or indigenous issues.

I hear the drums and the chants in the film, and see the hula dances, and smile; I feel a jolt of happiness in my heart. But is this the happiness of an Orientalist, who loves it simply for being exotic? As much as I might wish otherwise, it is not, it cannot be, the happiness of a Hawaiian local, much less that of a Native Hawaiian, who can rightfully claim some sense of belonging, growing up within that culture. On the plus side, though, I’ve certainly come to have a negative gut reaction, too, when seeing performances that are Orientalist and potentially offensive… so, that’s something. And, though I hesitate to feel too proud of myself or anything, since it was just last week, but after reading Adrienne Kaeppler’s survey of Polynesian & Micronesian art last week, I do feel that I’ve gained a better understanding and a new appreciation for certain core elements of Pacific cultural attitudes – e.g. about the sacredness of objects. I’ve been terribly busy this quarter, but hopefully I’ll get around to posting thoughts about that book more fully in a separate post sometime soon.

When I was in Hawaiʻi, I felt okay about claiming some association; I may be a haole, and I may not have grown up there, but by virtue of living in Hawaiʻi, and being so warmly accepted by so many people and communities there, it felt only natural to feel some rightfulness in considering myself a member of a community… for months after I left, I felt like I still belonged. I felt like I still had a community, that I had changed and learned and grown in Hawaiʻi, and that I could rightfully consider myself associated with the islands. But, as the months have gone by, I find myself questioning more and more what right do I have to say anything, what right to consider myself a supporter, or an activist, or whatever the word should be. What right do I have to call myself a supporter when I feel so inadequate both intellectually, and emotionally, in understanding these issues, in feeling that passion, and most importantly, so inadequate in articulating the core, fundamental notions of indigenous rights and post-colonial activism? I follow quite a few feminist blogs, for example, which are so brilliantly written… and I don’t feel that I can speak so eloquently, so appropriately, to Hawaiian issues. I fear that in any attempt to say anything, I will say something wrong, or not say enough. I will leave out some crucial aspect, or I will not go far enough in expressing my support. Even just using words like “support” here, I feel like it’s too weak. There surely is a stronger word, but it doesn’t come to mind.

On an intellectual level, I tell myself that Hawaiʻi, just like Ryūkyū or Japan or Korea, just like England or France, was a noble, rightful, proper kingdom unto itself, with its own history and traditions and should not be in any way regarded as lesser. So, I’ve got that. But, I see people all around me, who come from all over the world, calling one another “brother” and “sister” and sharing a connection, some kind of “fellow non-whites” connection, that I simply do not truly feel in my heart, much as I wish I did.

Statue of King Kamehameha I (r. 1782-1819) in front of Aliʻiōlani Hale, across the street from the ʻIolani Palace.

I can go forward, taking courses and reading books, and hopefully someday teaching my own courses and writing my own books, speaking of the nobility of the Ryukyuan and Hawaiian peoples, and decrying the wrongs done to them; I can teach my students that the US is, and was, an imperialist power, and that our government has indeed inflicted great injustices around the world. But, as of right now, at least, there is still a piece missing. If I hang a postcard of a Hawaiian flag upside down on my wall, I feel like a poser, or like I have no proper right to consider myself an ally, a supporter, on these issues. I feel like it’s too easy, like I’m not doing enough, like someone else is going to turn around and tell me I have no right, because I don’t appreciate well enough, or feel strongly enough… And, it’s certainly true that I have marched in no protests, written no diatribes, shouted no slogans.

I feel I wish I had people around me who could validate my attention to these issues, to tell me I do have the right to speak as a supporter of Hawaiian rights. Because it is far too easy, as a white American man from the mainland, as a student and an academic, to feel like I am simply giving lip-service, like I’m simply siding with the radical, liberal side as fashion or something, and not out of genuine feeling. Is that who I am? Sometimes I worry it is. It certainly is terribly easy to feel that one appears that way. … But, even to have a group to affirm that they see me as genuine, is that not itself self-serving, and selfish, and all too easy? And is that not flirting dangerously with problems of authenticity and the cliché of “I’m not racist – I have black friends”?

I’m not sure I’ve ever faced something like this in my life. I sometimes feel I cannot rightfully consider myself a supporter unless I go all the way. Truly all the way. To really immerse myself in cultural community, and to become truly active in political discussions and protests… To put aside all else and truly devote myself to activism in support of these issues – or elsewise, shut up and go home. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered or engaged with issues that have such strong feelings of ownership as Hawaiian issues (or Pacific Islander issues more broadly). I never needed anyone from Japan to confirm for me that how I felt about, or spoke about, Japan was “right,” or if I did, I got past that long ago, but with Hawaiian (and to a lesser extent, Okinawan) matters, there is such a strong pushback against anything perceived to be offensive, and so – quite understandably, with good reason – it makes it very difficult to ever feel I’ve adopted enough, incorporated enough, of the proper pro-Hawaiian, pro-indigenous, attitudes and understandings. Not that I mean to place the blame on others; I do not mean to say “they” make it difficult. It just is what it is, and I find it so hard to navigate. I hope that in reading more about Hawaiʻi, and in taking seminars on indigenous issues, I might come to feel more secure in my understandings, in my positions, and in feeling a right to speak. But can a few books and a few courses be enough? I certainly feel I have learned and grown and changed a lot from the few courses I have taken in Hawaiʻi, and from the few things I have read. But, perhaps it is a fuller immersion that is required. But when, and how, will I ever get the chance to live in Hawaiʻi again for any extended period? And even if I do, will it all fade and weaken once I leave the islands again, as it has this past year and a half?

Right: Honolulu, seen from the air.
I watch this film, Kaʻiulani, and I want to feel that I understand better, that I feel deeper, than the average filmgoer because of my connection to Hawaiʻi. But do I? Do I really? Can I claim that? I know the names, and the very basic outlines of the history, better than your average filmgoer for whom these events, and the names Kaʻiulani, Kalakaua, etc., are completely new and unfamiliar. And I recognize ʻIolani Palace and Queen Emma’s Palace, and know something, too, of their histories, where the average filmgoer might see these spaces as generic, not understanding the great accuracy with which the film portrays these places (were they filmed on location? Or was it reproduced?). But, so what? Is that enough?

Do I truly have any real connection to Hawaii, that’s more than just something petty, temporary, and tenuous? Is it okay, or is it inappropriate, to claim that? How, and when, if ever, can I feel confident enough to make these claims? And if I cannot, then what?

And, of course, all of these worries simply carry over into my pursuits in Okinawan Studies… I feel far fewer barriers in making these claims in Okinawa – I’ve certainly spoken with enough people in Hawaiʻi, both Okinawan & Okinawan-American students, as well as professors, and members of the local community, plus professors in Okinawa, and so I am able to feel much more comfortable and secure in allowing myself to claim some association with Okinawa, and to speak about Ryūkyū. But, the discourse of “authenticity” is powerful, and the doubts it inspires are powerful, and I simply do not know how to overcome them… though some have tried to reassure me that, at the very least, the fact that I’m thinking about these things, and worrying about them, rather than just striding in un-self-consciously, is an important start.

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Some great blog posts today to reshare with you.

*Hyperallergic has a great post today on What Happens When Museums Return Antiquities?.

In summary, numerous museums in the US and around the world have now returned artifacts to origin countries, including Italy, Greece, Turkey, Afghanistan, Australia and Mexico. Many other demands are still ongoing. Through this blog post I learned that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston just purchased a number of beautiful bronzes in 2012 from a private collector, which Nigeria is now claiming were looted from the Benin Kingdom in 1897. The Benin Bronzes are easily among the most famous instances of the looting of antiquities in conjunction with colonial(ist) violence, but the focus has largely been on the British Museum. Well, whether the MFA does end up returning the bronzes or not, I do hope I manage to make it to Boston to see them first – some of them are really quite incredible examples of the art of these people, the Edo of Benin/Nigeria.

Above: One of the Benin bronzes, at the Metropolitan Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Hyperallergic’s post provides a nicely balanced treatment of the issue, noting that in many cases, when objects have been returned, they have not had any dramatically negative impact on the displays – in fact, in many cases, it has brought some great positives. Many objects returned to origin countries were in storage to begin with, and in many other cases, these objects leaving the galleries have created opportunities for other objects already in the collection to be seen. Most museums have no more than 10% of their collections on display at any given time (and that’s a high estimate), and so there’s no danger of empty cases. Plus, the goodwill created by returning objects has allowed museums to forge new relationships with the origin countries, creating greater opportunities for special loans and traveling exhibitions.

Of course, there is also the other side of the debate, and the debate does still continue. As James Cuno of the Getty Trust, and Philippe de Montebello, former director of the Metropolitan, have argued, calls for repatriation are less about rightfulness, culture, or history, and more about contemporary domestic politics within the origin countries, and political ploys to drum up nationalism. They have also pointed out the arbitrariness of the question of how far back in history we go – if the Ottomans brought artifacts from Lebanon to Turkey during the time when all of that was part of the Ottoman Empire, before there was ever an independent state of Lebanon, does that count as looting? And is there any moral obligation to return the objects?

The whole thing is complicated by the fact that, under US law, if a buyer purchases stolen goods in good faith, not knowing they’re stolen, he does gain legal title to the objects (imagine if someone came to your house and told you that your couch, your TV, your iPhone, whatever, were stolen, and so you’re under a moral obligation to return them; and you’re thus screwed out of hundreds of dollars); meanwhile, the law in most European countries states that when something is stolen, the original owner retains legal ownership, and no goodfaith sale can change that.

As you know if you’ve read some of my previous posts, I still remain very much on the fence on this one. There are very compelling reasons on all sides, both in terms of morality or rightfulness, and also in terms of practical repercussions. Thanks to Hyperallergic for another wonderful post.

A brilliant artwork I saw at the Asian Contemporary Art Fair (ACAF) in NY in 2008. Sadly, I do not know the artist. If anyone knows, do let me know, so I can credit it properly, please.

*On a somewhat related note, another Hyperallergic post discusses a new proposed law in New York State which would protect art historians & authenticators from being sued if they incorrectly assess an artwork. As a closely related article on the Art Newspaper explains, scholars have increasingly been hesitant to say anything at all about an artwork, effectively being silenced by the looming potentiality of a lawsuit. So, this is interesting.

An interactive panel at the Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian, helping translate and interpret classical Chinese.

*Finally today, Lindsay Nelson of “Adventures in Gradland” offers her thoughts on academic writing responding to recent discussions in the New York Times and New Yorker about the style and accessibility of academic writing.

My thoughts on the subject, in brief, are simply this: some writers, especially some of the biggest-name writers – I’m looking at you, Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieau – are unnecessarily difficult to read. They do not explain themselves well, they do not say clearly and directly what they mean to say. They obfuscate. And even once their main idea is explained to you, it’s impossible to go back and find a choice quotable citable spot where they actually say it. BUT, most academics do not write like that. Yes, granted, there are jargon words we use, like discourse and performativity, but if you ask me, these are by no means employed in order to obfuscate, but rather in order to be clear and specific in what we mean to say. Regular everyday words can have a multitude of meanings – what do we mean by “performance” or “ritual”? In everyday language, we use those to mean all kinds of things, and we each have very different understandings of what they mean. But by employing jargon words, we’re able to much more specifically point to specific ideas, specific meanings. And, in truth, I believe that more people need to be more educated in the basics of feminist/gender theory, (post)colonialist discourse, (anti-)Orientalism, and certain other concepts. If we all were given a more solid basic foundation in these things in college, the majority of us would find academic writing a lot more accessible.

Anyway, I certainly appreciate where these critiques are coming from. But, let’s look the other way – we do still have the New York Times, among other publications, and most especially the Economist, which are still quite properly informative, dense with information, which don’t talk down to their readers. But so many magazines are becoming more and more a form of entertainment. Yes, the Internet age has brought a great many very informative, very well-written, and very properly intellectual blogs, such as Hyperallergic, and I do not mean to dismiss those. But, the big-name newspapers and magazines, like TIME, need to go back to playing a role in our society of really properly informing our citizenry. They need to stop trying to be more entertaining, more accessible, and need to go back to expecting, or demanding, that readers be okay with *gasp* being educated.

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