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Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category

The exterior of the Mingeikan, in the Komaba neighborhood of Meguro. A short walk from the University of Tokyo, Komaba campus, and two train stops from Shibuya. Photo my own.

April 25, 2017

The Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) is an interesting place. It’s a terrible shame they don’t allow you to take photos, because the atmosphere is just wonderful. It’s a 1930s house, all in dark wood and just a very “rustic” Mingei appropriate sort of feel. Indigo-dyed textiles hang on the walls, and rough ceramic jugs sit in the corners here and there. Very little about the museum looks post-modern – the display cases are in dark wood, like handmade artifacts of cabinetry in themselves. The gallery labels are all handwritten. Few of the objects are really all that compelling by themselves, at least to me, but in contrast to many museums, where the idea is to contemplate or appreciate each individual object in a void, here the value is found in the total experience – seeing these objects all arranged together, as part of the total Mingei aesthetic of the overall space, along with the building itself.

I was sad to not see any Okinawa objects on display right now, but they do have rooms set aside for African pieces, and for Korea. The rest is all Japanese. There’s also something wonderful about how nearly all of the objects they have on display are worn, damaged. I don’t think you have to come into it with a particular eye for that aesthetic to be taken in by it, to quickly come to think about these objects as aesthetic, as beautiful, as capable of being appreciated, despite not being gorgeous, stunning, shining like-new works. Even though they are old, and worn, and damaged, still, (or perhaps all the more so) we can appreciate their aesthetic. Their colors, their textures. How they were made.

And while the museum is mostly ceramics, lacquerwares, textiles, I was pleasantly surprised to see some very neat artifacts – like an Edo period clock – and some paintings and woodblock books.

From the Mingeikan’s official website. If they won’t let me take my own photos, I’ll just have to use theirs.

I don’t want to get into a whole discussion of the pros and cons of Mingei thought here, but let’s suffice it to say that I think it’s a really interesting building, and an interesting art/aesthetic movement. Yes, Mingei is (was) closely tied in with a colonialist and patronizing rhetoric of “modern” Japan as more modern, more advanced, better, than the “twee” “quaint” Ryukyu, Korea, Ainu, and Taiwan. That Mingei appreciates these arts is intimately tied into a sort of patronizing “we’ll protect you, and protect your art and culture for you, because we appreciate it [better] and because we can protect it better than you can.” Not to mention the vast complexes of Oriental Orientalism, the ways in which Ryukyu and Korea were not actually appreciated on their own, but rather appreciated as signs of how Japan used to be, and as elements of what now was included within the Japanese Empire. The quaint, rustic, aesthetic and culture that modern Japan had lost.

But, you know, for all of that, while we certainly can’t ignore it, can’t forget about it or put it aside, at the same time, is there not value in appreciation of the rustic in and of itself? Yanagi and friends went against the currents of their time, and of our time, to say that these things, worn, old, damaged, many of them made quite roughly or crudely to begin with (as judged by certain metrics or value systems), were worthy of appreciation too. That “art” should not be limited to the more explicitly “beautiful,” and that we should be wary and careful of what we lose in the rush to modernity. Is that not worthy of praise, or appreciation, in itself?

There’s also an interesting question to ponder as to whether we should see the Mingeikan, as a whole, as an artifact of a past age, or whether we should see it as very much a part of what Japan remains today. I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Certainly, on the surface, it feels like it still very much fits in. Doesn’t look all that out of place amidst this suburban neighborhood… To me, the house doesn’t feel like stepping back into the 1930s, like many historic houses might be intended to do; rather, it feels like stepping into another side of, another part of, what Japan still very much is, today.

Reminds me of a talk I went to recently with the artist Yamamoto Tarô. Many of his paintings juxtapose traditional/historical motifs, styles, elements – sometimes entire historical compositions – with elements of the contemporary. Such as a copy of Ogata Kôrin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms,” but with a Coca-Cola can pouring into the river, creating that same swirling aesthetic as Kôrin painted centuries ago. Or a Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”) painting of kimono hanging on a rack, but with the kimono replaced by an Aloha shirt and Hawaiian-style quilt. He told us he had the idea while sitting within the grounds of a centuries-old Buddhist temple, eating a Big Mac. I had always thought of his paintings as whimsical parodies. And I think he does intend some degree of humor. But, listening to Yamamoto talk, I realized his deeper point – that while the Big Mac does feel weird, does feel like a juxtaposition against the grounds of that medieval temple, in another way it’s actually really quite normal. The temple is a part of contemporary Japan, a part of contemporary life in that neighborhood, just as much as anything else. Contemporary life in Japan is not made up solely of the things invented or created or designed in the last century; tradition and history are very much here, and real, and really a part of it.

So, that brings us back to the Mingeikan. Many historical houses intentionally preserve the appearance of the past, in order to transport you there. There’s certainly a lot to be said about that, too, and how these historical houses are nevertheless inevitably also a part of real, contemporary life, contemporary cityscapes. There can never be a more complete separation – either it exists within the contemporary, or it simply doesn’t exist at all. But, still, to the extent that many historic houses, castles, and so forth very much explicitly intend to be a pocket of the past, separated from the present, I’m not sure the Mingeikan is trying to do that, which is quite interesting to me. Both in Yanagi’s own time, and today, I think Mingei is trying to say, appreciate tradition, appreciate the rustic, keep it in your modern life, don’t rush to become too totally modern too quickly.

At a former samurai home in Sakura, Chiba. (Photo my own.)

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In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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Futenma Shrine 普天満宮, standing at the main hall, looking back towards the torii and temizuya at the entrance.

9/21/16

Today was fantastic. Cooler, less oppressively hot & humid, than the last few days – or maybe it just felt more comfortable because I finally had the intelligence to go out in shorts, and my brand-new athletic-style sweat-wicking-away Ryûdai t-shirt.

At some point, I really should just hunker down and spend more of my days indoors, on campus, making actual progress on reading and research. But, for today, just one more day of exploring couldn’t hurt, right?

I walked into Ginowan, just across the freeway from here, and then caught a bus way up to the other end of the Futenma Marines base, going all the way up there solely to check out the Futenma Shrine, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, of which I have now visited six. Of course, I forgot to check out the associated temple, Jingû-ji, which is right next door. So I’ll have to go back.

The shrine itself is pretty nice – I’m assuming it’s been rebuilt or renovated quite recently, as everything looked quite clean and bright. There’s something just really striking and beautiful about such fresh wood, and those orange terracotta roof tiles. Just being amidst that space – sharing so many of the features of a mainland Japanese Shinto shrine, but blatantly distinctively Okinawan in style and aesthetic – is just a wonderful feeling. And it’s just a very photogenic space, I think, overall. I took photos from quite a number of viewpoints, each looking just excellent (we’ll see how they actually came out – my digital photos often tend to be lighter or darker or grainier or flatter or.. something.. than how I thought they looked at the time).

The cave at Futenma Shrine. Photo courtesy of Chinese Wikipedia. We were instructed not to take photos inside the sacred space, and so I respectfully refrained.

But Futenma Shrine is also special in another way – the sacred space it’s associated with is a cave. I wasn’t sure if they only offer tours at certain times, or if maybe it’s only open to those who are serious worshippers – if the latter were the case, I would certainly understand. I found a sign that seemed to indicate there was some kind of application process. But, I figured, no harm in asking – so I asked at the window where one buys protective charms (o-mamori) and the like, and the shrine priestess stationed there quickly and kindly gave me a very brief form to fill out (name, address, number of people in your group) and then escorted me and one other woman into the cave. I felt a little awkward, to be sure, as this other woman was clearly there as a true devotee, and I hope she didn’t feel I was invading her people’s sacred space, or being disrespectful simply by being myself – a tourist, an outsider. I was sure to bow down and close my eyes and take a moment to meditate, to give my respects to the deity.

I’m sorry that we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the cave, though I totally understand why that should be restricted in such a sacred space. The cave was quite small – or at least the part easily publicly accessible – and the ceiling only extended so far, opening up to the sky beyond a certain point. But it was really something. I don’t even know how to describe it. Just stalactites and stalagmites, a naturally mysterious, intriguing, serene, spiritual space, with a small shrine building nestled into the center of it, marking and enhancing the spiritual feeling of the space. I love seeking out these sites just for the architecture, for the history, for the aesthetic & cultural experience of being there, but every now and then it really does genuinely feel spiritually moving or powerful as well. I’m very glad I bothered to ask about visiting the cave, and I would encourage you to take a look as well should you ever be in the area.

Wooden bodies for building sanshin. More than any sanshin shop I’ve seen before, this guy really sells all the parts you need to make your own – something that I should think takes an incredible amount of skill and experience.

As it happened, just across the street from the shrine stands the Sanshin no Matsuda store, a fairly large and pretty cool shop where they carry everything from complete instruments and books of music to basically everything you could possibly need to repair an instrument – not just bridges and picks and tuning pegs and strings, but even down to the wooden bodies and frightening lengths of real python skin (imported from Thailand). I went in to check it out, knowing I likely wouldn’t buy anything – thankfully my instrument is in good working order, so I just don’t really have a need for strings or picks or anything right now, and I already have plenty of books of music. But the guy was nice enough to show me the shop a little – showing me how he uses serious machines to cut the rough shape of the sanshin out of a block of wood, but then carves the finer details, the subtle curves, by hand. Beautiful. Amazing. Someday, when I do need such things, maybe I’ll head back up to Futenma, and buy from him. (If you’re interested in seeing more photos of the process of making or repairing sanshin, check out Joseph Kamiya’s Tumblr. He’s in the process of studying that craft.)

The view from Futenma Shrine, back across the street. Sanshin no Matsuda on the left, and King Tacos on the right. This is pretty much what most of Ginowan looks like, in my experience thus far.

As per the plan, having taken the bus way up to Futenma, I was now going to take a leisurely walk back down – in comfortable weather, and with plenty of daylight left, it should take only an hour or so to get back to campus, which all things considered really isn’t that bad. Of course, in the end, it took far longer than that, but it was relaxed, and easy. I found a nice teishoku place for lunch – offering set meals (teishoku) of noodles and soup, or stir-fry (chanpuru) and rice and soup, and so forth. I went with the fu chanpuru, fu being basically a form of seitan (wheat gluten), baked to have a consistency sort of like chicken, sort of like bread… anyway, it’s good.

I also found a cool zakka shop, selling all kinds of random stuff from panda coffee mugs to wacky cookbooks, to wallets, keychains, bumper stickers, manga… I didn’t end up buying anything, but I loved seeing a fun, kooky store like that amongst the countless motorbike & car repair shops. I get it, that we’re not in the big city and everyone relies on bikes & cars, but, seriously, how can the economy support this many such shops? How many vehicles does each person own!?

Anyway, after much walking, I found myself back in the area of Ginowan I knew and remembered from my adventures two years ago – my first time in Ginowan, one of my first times outside of Naha, when I took the highway bus and the whole thing just felt like such an ordeal, traipsing out to this outer city… Now that I’m living just across the freeway from Ginowan, the whole thing feels quite different.

So friendly and welcoming…

Walking further and further down, passing by the fences of Futenma Air Base, I found it surprisingly quiet. No protest signs of any kind hanging on the fence, no protesters staked out outside the base. Maybe they’re all up in Henoko or Takae? I probably follow this stuff more closely than most, but even so, not closely enough to really know the precise ins and outs of why there would or wouldn’t be protests on a given day… Also saw (and heard! omg, so loud!) some military helicopters flying overhead, but that was about it. So quiet I neglected to even get any photos of the base, at all.

Eventually, I found my way to the Ginowan BookOff, and then to Books Jinon, what to the best of my knowledge is surely one of the best Okinawa specialty bookstores there is. I cannot count the times that I have searched for a book on kosho.or.jp (an excellent site for searching used bookstores across Japan, and ordering books from them online) and it came up that Books Jinon was the place that had a copy. On my previous trips to Okinawa, I was always based in Naha, and Ginowan just seemed so far away, so inconvenient. But, I now know that at least some parts of Ginowan are in extremely reasonable walking distance from Ryûdai campus, and also that there are regular public buses (e.g. the 98, between Ryûdai and Naha) which stop only a block or so away from the bookstore. Plus, they take orders online, so as long as you have a Japanese address to ship to, there’s little need to traipse out there.

I came in with a particular list of books I was looking for, and am quite happy with my haul for the day. Had to resist buying up so much more stuff – I’ve gotten to the point that I think I have a much more realistic gut feeling about knowing, understanding, how little I’ll ever get around to actually reading, and so that makes it a ton easier to resist buying all the things. But, there is still certainly a part of me that is tempted to buy and read just about anything about Okinawa, and Books Jinon has such a selection, oh my god. Conference proceedings volumes I’ve only ever seen after ordering them from multiple different institutions from Inter-Library Loan (ILL). Boxes and boxes of magazines and other sorts of obscure serials. Shelves upon shelves of thick volumes of local village, town, and city histories (for example, Nishihara Town History 西原町史, or Naha City History 那覇市史), of Complete Works of such-and-such prominent scholar (e.g. Ifa Fuyu zenshû or Nakahara Zenchû zenshû), and of published transcriptions of premodern documents, such as the Ryûkyû-koku shi-ryaku 琉球国志略 or Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑. Not to mention great numbers of museum exhibit catalogs, many of them rather slim volumes from rather small provincial museums. And what makes the whole thing all the more exciting and impressive is that, at least in my very limited experience (combined with what my far more experienced advisor has said), real brick-and-mortar specialty bookstores like these are growing scarce in Japan, as many shift to online-only, or disappear entirely. I was only in Kagoshima for a few days (two years ago), so I may be totally mistaken, but from what I found on Google, and what I found in person, there is maybe one local history / local culture specialty bookstore in Kagoshima City, and it’s really not all that great. Books Jinon stands out all the more so as a result.

The haul for the day.

Finally, I left the bookstore with my small but happy haul, and poked my head into a nearby florist to ask where I might find the nearest bus stop. Pardon me if I’m spoiled or whatever, too much of a city boy, but compared to trains, I really find buses to be a pain in the ass. A train station is easy to find, for the most part. And once you’re inside, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out which side you need to be on; or, if it isn’t, at least there are generally only two options. Red Line this way, or Red Line that way. Or, if you know you need to be on the Blue Line, then it’s the Blue Line. But buses – the bus stop could be anywhere in the general vicinity of the specified intersection or landmark, and for Okinawa at least, the bus stops and bus routes don’t come up on Google Maps. So you stand at the intersection, and look around, and wonder, does the bus stop on this side of the street, or around the corner? Does it stop right here by the intersection, or halfway down the block in that direction? Or the other direction? And then when you finally find the bus stop, you have to be sure that it’s not only going in the right direction, but that it’s also the right bus line. A train station might have only one or two or three lines (or, admittedly, quite a lot more if you’re in Shinjuku or something, but that’s a different story), but even a relatively quiet, isolated, place like Maehara Crossing in Ginowan, Okinawa, has one stop for the 25 and 56 to Toyosaki, a different stop for the 24, 27, 52, 61, or 110 going north or southwest, another stop somewhere else slightly down the road in some other direction to find the 97 and 98 back to the University of the Ryukyus (where I was trying to go)… and then when you finally find the right bus stop for the bus line you want, you inevitably realize you’re on the wrong side of the street. Hopefully you realize this before you see your bus, on the opposite side of the street, go past.

Anyway, I still kind of can’t believe it, but I asked inside this random little florist shop, and the customer buying flowers at the time said, “oh, how about I just give you a ride? It’s not that far.” Oh my god. So kind!! Of course, I hesitated at first – oh, no, no, that’s quite alright. Thanks so much, but I don’t want you to go out of your way… But, in the end, she was so kind, and drove me the short distance back to campus – we had a very nice conversation, and then she just dropped me off right at the entrance to campus. A fantastic way to end the day.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos my own.

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Prior to flying to Okinawa to begin my research year in earnest, I had a few days in Tokyo, mainly organized around the need to go in to Japan Foundation headquarters in Yotsuya for a one-hour orientation meeting, to get situated with paperwork and so forth. But these few days were also a good opportunity to see the city a little bit, catch up with some friends, meet (however briefly) a whole bunch of other grad students currently doing their research years as well – many of whom are staying in Tokyo, but many others of whom, like myself, left within the next day or two for Okinawa, Fukuoka, or Sendai.

And, while in Tokyo, of course I squeezed in a bit of history wandering. I don’t know how the blog posts will go from here for the remainder of this year. I would really love to keep up with writing about every place I visit, every thing I do, to engage with these things not only in the moment but also by writing about them afterward, and thus thinking about them a bit more, and also feeling I’ve produced something that I’ve shared – feeling that I’m contributing in some small way to informing or entertaining others, the Internet; that I’m doing public history, maybe, in some small and amateurish way, if that’s not too grandiose a thing to say about my ramblings on this little blog. But, then, of course, on the other side, as much as I would like to do that, blogging is time-consuming, and I just don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up, while also devoting appropriate levels of attention to my research, which is what I’m really here for, and what I’m getting paid to focus on. So, we’ll see. In the meantime, though…

The entrance to the PARCO Museum, done up for its first ever exhibit, “STRIP!”

I arrived in Tokyo on Monday night, Sept 12. On Tuesday, I skimmed briefly through the first ever exhibit of the newly opened PARCO Museum, an art space located on the 7th floor of the PARCO department store in Ikebukuro. Their opening exhibit is of drawings by mangaka Anno Moyoco, who I know best from her Yoshiwara-themed series Sakuran, which was turned into a live-action movie in 2006, starring Tsuchiya Anna and with rocking music by Shiina Ringo. There is so much going on in Tokyo at any given time – it’s awfully tempting to immerse myself in that art world, to become (again) someone well familiar with the latest goings-on, who has been to the latest exhibits, and who has real thoughts on exhibit design, aesthetics and artistic choices of the artists themselves, and so on and so forth. But, boy, that is a whole other ‘me’ yet; I would need three of me, three clones, just to be all the different people I want to be – the Historian / grad student / researcher; the art historian, museumgoer, art world member; the history nerd visiting and blogging about obscure historical sites; the culture nerd attending and blogging about and getting involved in festivals and performances… Still, I’m excited to return to Tokyo in a few months and get involved in all that again.

I’m not sure I have too much to say about the Anno Moyoco exhibit. I’ve grown so detached and distant from the worlds of anime, manga, and pop culture otherwise in recent years… The exhibit design was pretty cool, with walls and curtains and other elements evocative of the worlds or aesthetics of each of Anno’s different manga. While I understand the arguments for letting art speak for itself, I think that immersive exhibits are a worthwhile, impactful, experience unto themselves, and artworks in their own rights. And this one did a great job of that.

Screw Hattori Hanzô. Who cares? Totally over-hyped weeaboo bait. This here is a memorial monument (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, son of the great Tokugawa Ieyasu; poor Nobuyasu gets no attention, no recognition at all, and why? Just because he died decades before he might have ever gotten the chance to succeed his father as shogun? Feh.

Poking around Yotsuya prior to my meeting at Japan Foundation, I found my way to the small local temple of Sainen-ji 西念寺, where I grabbed some photos of the grave of Hattori Hanzô (“ninja” retainer to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who is probably a pretty cool figure, but who has been blown far out of all proportion by sammyrai geeks), and of a memorial stone (kuyôtô) for Tokugawa Nobuyasu, a son of Ieyasu’s who gets majorly short shrift and is treated as merely a footnote – if that – in the vast majority of scholarship on Tokugawa Ieyasu or the shogunate. Granted, he died some twenty years before the founding of the shogunate, but, still, he’s still a person, a figure, who had at least some significance. Doesn’t really deserve to be relegated to the dustbin of history just because he didn’t survive to be more explicitly influential.

For anyone looking to visit these sites yourself, Hattori’s grave and Nobuyasu’s memorial stone are just around to the side of the main hall. As you enter the temple’s main plaza, just walk straight and a bit to the left. I was wandering around in the cemetery itself, trying to look around for them, and got chastised. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last – I do my utmost, of course, to be as respectful as possible towards the fact that it’s an actual cemetery, and I hope that people (Japanese mourners, temple staff) see that; the vast majority of the time, in my experience, people associated with the temple understand and appreciate that people like myself are interested in these historical spots, and they are almost always plenty willing to guide you to the right place. But, yeah, it’s a balancing act. Some temples have signs pointing you in the right direction; some don’t, and so you just try to be as respectful as possible while trying to find what it is you came there for.

I then took a very brief run through the Fire Department Museum, a surprisingly large (seven floors of exhibits?) museum, with free admission, that stands adjacent to the Yotsuya Fire Department. Didn’t really have time to engage properly, but just ran through taking photos of the displays on Edo period firefighting; I’ll come back to these at some point in the future and read the labels I photographed, and learn a tiny bit more about how Edo (Tokyo) functioned at that time. I really love museums like this, because they just have so much stuff, and they just put it all out so nonchalantly. Can you imagine ever seeing more than one or two or three Edo period firefighting-related objects on display at the same time at the Metropolitan Museum, or LACMA? Can you imagine actually learning anything of real volume, real extent and consequence, about early modern Japanese firefighting, at the Freer-Sackler or the Museum of Fine Arts? I know that for the average general American museumgoer this is all terribly obscure. But it’s not so exceptionally obscure, is it, really? You don’t have to be a super crazy deep “history of firefighting” nerd to be interested in this stuff – all you have to be is someone who’s heard of it and wants to learn more; someone with an interest in Japan, or in premodern societies more generally, curious about how fires were fought – for example – prior to the advent of modern techniques and technologies. All you need is to take it that one next step – from having ukiyo-e woodblock prints of firefighters because that’s “art”, and perhaps a fireman’s robe, because that’s “textile art,” and taking the next step to include a historical fire-fighting tool – even just one – so that museumgoers can learn something not just about the art and the artist and the aesthetics, but also about the subject matter itself. What was life like in Edo? How did the city work?

Following my Japan Foundation orientation, around 4pm, I then met up with some friends for happy hour (and what for me was a very late lunch, which is actually about the time I normally eat lunch) in Harajuku, followed by some brief clothes shopping adventures. I don’t know if I was just tired, or because I’ve just finished packing up my entire life back in California and thus am particularly keenly aware of how much shit I already own, or because for a change I know I’ll actually be back here for a many-months-long stay and so there’s no need to go crazy right now today, but somehow the whole Harajuku thing just wasn’t grabbing me that night. In a few months, after I’ve gotten a better sense of what clothes I do and don’t have, what styles I’m yearning for, and so forth, I’ll come back and I’ll buy all the things.

Wednesday saw more general random history wandering. I was meeting up with a friend in the Akasaka/Nagatachô neighborhood, so while I waited to get together with her, I found my way to the ruins of the Akasaka-mitsuke, the approach to the Akasaka Gate of Edo castle. Marky Star has a wonderfully thorough explanation about mitsuke and so forth here, so I won’t bother to rehash that. Still, it was neat to see some stonework surrounding a small former section of the castle moat, along with its associated bridge (Benkei-bashi) – to get some sense of what had once been there, much more so than if it were just a few stones and a marker saying “you can’t see anything at all, but just imagine…”

Adjacent to this is a massive, shiny, very new-looking residential+shopping complex, which we are told stands on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion. Here too, while there is less explicitly to be seen of anything surviving from that time (such as a gatehouse, for example), I was happy to see as many plaques and markers as I did, explaining even just a little bit the history of what once stood there. For a moment, I got mixed up and thought this was maybe the Kishû Tokugawa Akasaka mansion which in the Meiji period became the temporary imperial palace for a time, but later in the day we visited the far more famous Akasaka Palace, and I was reminded that that was built atop the former site of the Akasaka mansion I was thinking of – and so the one more immediately adjacent to Akasaka-mitsuke was a separate mansion.

Incidentally, directly across the street from the Akasaka-mitsuke ruins I could see (across the street, in the distance, behind serious gates) the official residences of the heads of the two Houses of the Japanese Diet (i.e. the two houses of parliament). Had I taken the time, I could have easily sought out the Diet Building, the Prime Minister’s residence, the headquarters of the Liberal Democratic Party, and so forth, all of which are clustered right around that neighborhood.

Instead, I poked around in a slightly different direction, walking left instead of right, or something to that effect, and happened upon a building associated with the Korean royal family, who in Japan’s Imperial period were incorporated into the Japanese European-style peerage/aristocracy, or kazoku. Not something I think the Japanese government or whoever are necessarily trying to hide, per se – that the last members of the Korean royal family were present and resident in Tokyo in the 1900s to 1940s – but just a corner of the international history that just doesn’t pop up so much on the Japan side (of course, this is quite prominent in Korean history); empire is one thing, but what happened to the royal family, as individuals, where they lived in Tokyo, and so forth, gets brushed aside in the face of the much more boldly and starkly obvious issues of Empire and imperialism and colonialism – political history and all of that. Still, I think it fascinating, the place of Koreans, Ryukyuans, Chinese, within Japanese culture and history.

What’s today known as the Classic House at Akasaka Prince, standing on one portion of the former site of that Kishû Tokugawa Kojimachi mansion, seems to be the restoration of a residence constructed in 1930 for the last Crown Prince of the Korean Kingdom; this 1930 building seems to have replaced one built in 1884 for Prince Kitashirakawa by Josiah Conder – arguably the most significant architect of the Meiji period, or at least the most widely featured in introductory Japanese Art History survey textbooks.

So, that was pretty cool. Meeting up with my friend, we then poked around Hie Shrine for just a bit – they were having a gagaku concert and some kind of festival procession the next day in conjunction with Mid-Autumn Festival and also the 300th anniversary of the accession of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, all of which sounds quite exciting but I won’t be able to attend.

We then made our way to the Akasaka Palace – the more famous one, built in 1909 on the former grounds of the Kishû Tokugawa mansion which had been appropriated and modified to serve as a temporary imperial palace from 1873 to 1889. Whereas I imagine the 1870s-90s palace to have been largely unchanged from its architectural style, layout, construction, character as an Edo period daimyô residence – wooden construction, tatami mat flooring, shôji and fusuma screens for walls, ceramic tile roofing, and all the rest – the Akasaka Palace built in 1909, the one we know today, is a glory of Meiji architecture, in a Neo-Baroque style inspired by palaces of Germany, Austria, and France. Originally constructed as a residence for the Crown Prince, it has since the 1960s (if not much earlier? I’m not sure) been used to provide lodgings for top-level visiting foreign dignitaries, such as heads of state. Sadly, we failed to consult any public opening schedule or public tours application process ahead of time, and so were only able to see the palace from a distance, from outside the impressive gates. Kind of like visiting the White House. But that’s fine.

So, that’s it for Tokyo for now. Just a few scattered adventures, and now, off to Okinawa. I expect I’ll be doing a lot of exploring and adventuring in Okinawa – historical sites, traditional arts performances, museum exhibits – so, watch this space. Then, in the spring, I’ll be back in Tokyo, and the more mainstream Japanese adventures will continue.

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Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, UC Press, 1996.

Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.

Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.

This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.

Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.

A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space within the Imperial Palace.

As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.

Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.

Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.

On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.

All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)

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Studying for exams was a great opportunity to finally read dozens of books I’d been wanting/meaning to read, and many I had not known of, and was glad to be introduced to. As I made my way through them, I produced 2-3 page reviews, or summaries, for each. I was a bit too overwhelmed with the studying process (and all my other responsibilities) to share any of those, but I was certainly excited to get around to doing so. After all, that’s what we do here, on academic & history/culture blogs, isn’t it? We share about different aspects of history that we’ve just read about, share about interesting books, interpretations, and arguments. A friend shared many of his summaries on Facebook, and I found it quite interesting and useful, actually, since this allowed me to get the basic gist of a whole bunch of different books, in a short, condensed version. Expand my knowledge of the field, and of the content, without having to go read the entire books. So, inspired by his example, I thought I’d do the same. Over the course of the summer, then, I’ll be sharing my reviews of books and articles on Pacific and Hawaiian history, Ming and Qing Chinese history, early modern maritime East Asia, and early modern & modern Japan. I hope you find them interesting; and, please don’t take any of these as the final word on these books – for some, I may focus on just one aspect or another; for some, I must admit, I did not manage to make my way through the entire book, but merely attempted to get the gist. For some, too, I may have had a particular impression upon reading it at that time, and I may not take the time/bother to dramatically overhaul what I previously wrote, thus giving just one impression, one interpretation or reaction, to the book, which might stand (for example) as quite different from how the book looks in comparison with something else I read later.

Without further ado, let us turn to one of my favorite recent books,
The Arts of Kingship, by Stacy Kamehiro (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2009):

‘Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Looking at the architectural style and interior layout & design of ‘Iolani Palace, the adoption by Hawaiʻian monarchs of Western modes of dress and court ritual, and of Christianity, it would be easy to think that Hawaiʻi had either given in to colonial pressures, or had self-colonized, in a sense, as Meiji Japan did, in an attempt to resist Western domination. Indeed, as The Arts of Kingship reveals, the design of ‘Iolani Palace and of King Kalākaua’s 1883 coronation & other court rituals and practices, and the erection of national monuments such as the Kamehameha Statue and national institutions such as the Hawaiian National Museum, were aimed at proving Hawaiʻi’s modernity, and asserting its sovereignty, seeking respect from the Western powers, that Hawaiʻi should be accepted as a more-or-less equal member of the nations of the world.

However, as Stacy Kamehiro explains, these projects also served an important role in legitimating Kalākaua’s rule in the eyes of his Native Hawaiian subjects. He was elected to the throne by the Hawaiian legislature, over Queen Emma, a more direct relative to the Kamehameha line which had ruled the unified kingdom of Hawaiʻi from the time of its unification by Kamehameha I around 1800, until the time of Lunalilo (r. 1873-1874), whose short reign immediately preceded Kalākaua’s. Not being particularly closely related to the Kamehameha line, Kalākaua had to work to promote discourses of his legitimacy in order to secure the loyalty of his subjects, many of whom rose in revolt immediately following the announcement of his election in 1874. To that end, Kalākaua argued for his legitimacy by way of his genealogy, his mana, and his rightful possession of sacred royal artifacts; Kamehiro describes in detail the ways in which ‘Iolani Palace, the coronation ritual and regalia, the Kamehameha Statue, and the Hawaiian National Museum, served to advance these narratives.

Right: The Kamehameha Statue commissioned by King Kalākaua, now standing outside Ali‘iolani Hale. Photo my own.

In the process of her discussion, a number of important and interesting themes emerge. One is the complexity of identities and associations among the people of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Certain characterizations of the history cast it in stark categories of Native Hawaiians versus haole (white) businessmen and missionaries, a narrative in which the overthrow is a crime committed by all haoles, with all Native Hawaiians as victims. However, in Kamehiro’s account, we see many haoles who are strongly loyal to the kingdom, supportive of the revival or continuation of Hawaiian “traditions,” and of the strength, independence, and sovereignty of the monarchy, as well as many Native Hawaiians opposed to Kalākaua’s rule, and indeed many who viewed many Hawaiian traditions as pagan, heathen, or uncivilized. It becomes clear that we must consider a greater diversity of intentions and identities among the citizenry of Hawaiʻi – while it is likely that even the most loyal of royalist haoles (such as William Murray Gibson) held to some Orientalist or racist perspectives to some extent, we cannot say that they were unanimously responsible for, or in support of, the overthrow; in fact, some were quite staunchly against it. As emerges in Kamehiro’s narrative, haoles such as John Young played key roles in Hawaiian government from the very beginning, as Young played a key role in helping Kamehameha defeat his rivals and unite the islands, as well as in advising the king in various other matters.

One of the most prominent arguments throughout the book is an argument against the false binary of traditional vs. modern, and for a notion of tradition as always evolving, and as being incorporated into an alternate, distinctively Hawaiian, modernity. Both at that time, and today, many look at non-Western arts and traditions as having existed in some purely traditional form, and at any modern(ized) or Western-influenced arts or practices as being less authentic, and less Hawaiian (or less Japanese, as the case may be). That Kamehiro’s 2009 book is one of the first, or at least one of the most major, scholarly attempts to discuss these hybrid, neo-traditional, distinctively Hawaiian-modern forms, can surely be attributed in large part to such attitudes. In Japanese Studies as well, we can clearly see that for the most part, scholars both in Japan and in the West focused far more heavily on “authentically” “traditional” Japanese arts, all but ignoring, for example, Nihonga (neo-traditional painting), yōga (Japanese oil painting), and the like until only the last few decades.

In Kalākaua’s time, too, many Native Hawaiians and haole alike saw Hawaiʻi as losing its traditions, as losing its culture; in some very important respects, this was absolutely true, and it was for that reason that Kalākaua did much to promote hula, traditional or “ancient” (read: precontact) Hawaiian modes of knowledge, and the like. But, as Kamehiro points out, Hawaiian culture was at the same time evolving, developing, into something no less authentically Hawaiian even as it became something decidedly more modern. The Kamehameha Statue, in bronze, designed and cast by a Bostonian sculptor in Florence, depicted a Hawaiian monarch bearing fully traditional symbols of Hawaiian monarchical power and legitimacy, even as it also incorporated the pose and stylistic form of ancient Roman statues of emperors. The Hawaiian National Museum, similarly, displayed objects symbolic of (or manifestations of) Kalākaua’s rightful royal power and lineage, a sort of modern version of the ways these objects might have been displayed in more “traditional” contexts, serving a decidedly Hawaiian discursive purpose even as the national museum itself, as a concept, and in various aspects of its form and activity (collections, display, open to the public for public moral education, etc.), was a Western invention (with the British Museum & Louvre, among others, as the most prominent examples, evolving out of and alongside the exhibitionary complexes of the World’s Fairs, etc.). And, ‘Iolani Palace, though constructed in brick and concrete, wired up for telephone and electric lighting, and furnished throughout in the Western style, as Kamehiro explains, also incorporated numerous elements of distinctively Hawaiian iconographies, including representations around the main entrance referencing “traditional” symbols of kapu.

A guerilla public art piece, on Hotel Street in Honolulu Chinatown, Feb 2010. Photo my own.

The parallels to Meiji Japan are striking, and I think The Arts of Kingship could serve a very useful role in a comparative discussion, or comparative consideration, of non-Western polities seeking to assert their sovereignty and modernity in that historical moment (or other ones). I have yet to read anything too much in depth as to the origins of the National Museums in Japan (in Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto), their layout, philosophies of display, and architectural styles, but it is easy to imagine parallels between the Hawaiian National Museum and these Japanese museums; between ‘Iolani Palace and the Akasaka Palace (along with various other examples of Meiji period architecture, incl. e.g. railroad stations); between the Kamehameha Statue and various examples of bronze memorial or monumental statuary erected in Meiji Japan; and between Kalākaua’s coronation and the associated regalia on the one hand, and the various Western-influenced costumes, court practices, and modes of display (e.g. photographs) of the Meiji Emperor. How might these compare, too, with Westernizing/modernizing and nationalizing efforts by imperial or royal courts in China, Korea, Siam, Samoa, or Tahiti around this same time? Kamehiro’s work not only fills a glaring lacuna in scholarship on Hawaiian (art) history up until now, but also inspires pursuit of similar projects of investigation and analysis for other cultures/polities.

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A model of the unaa (central plaza) at Shuri castle, showing the officials of the Ryukyuan court scholar-aristocracy lined up, facing east, for their New Year’s audience with the king, who faces west out of the second story of the Seiden (Main Hall). Photo my own.

Reading lots about Ming & Qing court ritual, the construction of kingship & emperorship, the significance of particular directions, and so forth, and I got to thinking… actually, I’ve been thinking for a while, why is Shuri Castle arranged facing west?

Any introductory course of East Asian art & architecture, and indeed most survey courses in History of East Asia, will touch upon the organization of the Chinese Imperial Palace. It is situated according to strict geomantic notions, relating to the significance of the cardinal directions, and in some important respects, as a model or microcosm of the cosmic order itself. In Beijing, as in Chang’an, the whole palace, and particularly the audience hall, is arranged on a north-south axis, with the Emperor sitting in the north, facing south. Officials gather to his south, lining up on the east and west sides of the hall, or of the courtyard, lined up with the highest-ranking officials to the north, closer to the emperor, and the lowest-ranking ones at the southern end of the line, furthest from His Majesty. When they kneel and prostrate, they do so to the north. This is all probably even more complex than I know, but at least one of the notions that may be connected into this is one mentioned in the Analects, attributed to Confucius himself, that the Emperor is like the North Star, sitting at the northernmost point of the cosmos, facing south towards all the other stars, and remaining still while all the other stars move about the North Star as central axis. Thus, both North and Center are the most elite directions in court ritual.

The rooftops of the various buildings in the Forbidden City, Beijing, all aligned to a north-south axis. Image from Translate.com.

This is emulated in the Honmaru Palace of Edo castle, the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate. While the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tàihédiàn), the main audience hall at Beijing, is organized lengthwise, longer from east to west, the main audience hall at the shogun’s palace, the Ôhiroma, is much longer from north to south. Still, in Edo, in emulation of Chinese norms, the shogun sits at the northern end of the hall, his officials lined up along the eastern and western walls, from highest (north) to lowest (south) in rank (among those in the hall, of course – most of those of middling and low rank can’t even enter the hall), and the figure(s) being received in audience sit towards the south end. When all bowed and prostrated, they do so to the north, towards the shogun.

The main audience hall at Nijô Castle in Kyoto, of similar design to that no longer extant at Edo castle, which would have also been oriented along a north-south axis. Photo from Marked Post.

So, why is Shuri castle, royal palace of a kingdom strongly modeled on the Ming Confucian mode, and with the palace’s architecture and layout in many other respects an emulation of the Forbidden City in miniature, oriented to the west, and not to the south?

It has been suggested(Though I am an idiot and did not note down the citation…) that the palace may have been arranged in this manner so as to face China, and thus to show the kingdom’s deference and admiration for the greatness of Ming civilization. However, within the traditional Chinese architectural schema, the emperor sits at north and looks ”down” upon his people, his realm, to his south. Thus, this arrangement would seem to have the King of Ryûkyû sitting in the east and looking ”down” upon not only his people, but also ”down” towards China, which is clearly not the intention. On the other hand, east is traditionally a more elite direction than west within the Chinese Imperial Palace, so situating the king in the east, facing west, makes some sense. I wonder what can be said for the fact that, by facing west, the king is, yes, looking upon his people insofar as he is facing the courtyard filled with officials, and beyond it, Kumemura and Naha, but, actually most of the people and land of his realm would be behind him, and to the left and right (north, and south). Maybe that’s irrelevant. No symbol can do everything.

The Seiden of Shuri castle, as it looks today, with the photographer (myself) facing south, and the Seiden facing west.

I wonder if perhaps this is connected to the distinctly Ryukyuan notions of the king as Tedako (太陽の子, son of the Sun), in contrast to the Chinese Emperor, who is the Son of Heaven (天子), but not necessarily associated with the Sun. The Japanese Emperor is also fashioned as descended from the Sun Goddess, but while he still sits in the north and faces south in the Chinese manner, that doesn’t mean the Ryukyuan king has to do the same. Yingkit Chan, in his brilliant 2010 MA thesis, in fact emphasizes that while Ryukyu is generally seen as having been heavily Sinicized, in truth, the Ryukyu court showed considerable agency in incorporating its adoption of Chinese elements into a court culture which remained distinctly Ryukyuan in many important ways. This would certainly seem to be one of them. In Ryukyu, unlike in China or Japan, there is also an association of the east with Nirai Kanai, the mythical home of the gods across the sea.

I have by no means “read up” on this issue – just read whatever I happen to have already been reading this week anyway, and sort of writing “stream of thought.” Who knows, maybe I’ll come across something in my further readings which actually explains it. In the meantime, what do you think? Any ideas? Have you maybe come across anything explaining the reasoning behind this?

Both Shuri photos my own, taken 18 Sept 2014.

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