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Tickets for VR Noh Ghost in the Shell went on sale a few months ago, and I can only assume they were snatched up quickly. My sincere thanks to Diego Pellecchia for alerting me to the existence of this production. Not knowing what the situation with the pandemic was going to be, and hoping with crossed fingers that things might be easing up by now, I thought I should take the opportunity while it lasted, to get tickets while I could. Besides, I figured that if the situation became/remained bad enough, they’d simply reschedule or cancel the performance anyway, so I wasn’t really in danger of losing my money.

As it turns out, even despite whatever the ongoing situation is, the Setagaya Public Theatre decided to go ahead with it, so I went out to Sangenjaya, masked up. Had my temperature taken at the entrance, used the hand sanitizer, and found my seat. There were empty seats in between every two audience members, and while I certainly don’t know the air exchange rate of the A/C system, fingers crossed let’s hope they were doing their due diligence to make sure the full amount of air in the room was being replaced at least X times per hour. We were also strongly discouraged from talking, even before the performance began, so really the only people projecting loud voices (and therefore risking spewing droplets in a significant way into the room) were the actors, and they were all wearing Noh masks, for whatever that might happen to be worth.

But, let’s get on to the show. Let’s see. Where to even begin. I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 anime film, in many years, though I’ve seen it multiple times in the past. I’ve never read the manga, I’ve only seen a few episodes of any of the series, and I certainly haven’t seen the live-action version that was so controversial a few years back. I don’t really recall the plot that well, but I definitely remember the themes and the general feel and aesthetic of the anime film.

One section of the utaibon for this performance.

As soon as I sat down, while we were waiting for the performance to start, I took the time to read through the utaibon (or daihon, the script of the play). I’m grateful they provided this – since the spoken (chanted) lines in Noh are chanted very slowly and stylistically, and since they are in a (somewhat) classical form of the language, trying to understand what’s being said (and therefore what’s going on) in any given scene is not nearly as easy as when watching, say, a more modern theatre production, or TV or movies in regular spoken modern Japanese. So, reading this through gave me an idea, ahead of time, of what was supposed to be happening in each scene. It’s also just a really cool touch that they included this, making the latter half of the program look almost just like an utaibon you would have for any more fully traditional Noh play; it’s quite common in my limited experience, I think, for those in the audience to bring their own utaibon with them and sort of read along as they watch Noh.

Even having read it, I can’t say that I actually understood the full plot of the play, or actually what happened in this or that part… but, overall, I think my impression is that Major Kusanagi – the main character of the original anime film – has disappeared from the physical world, and her (former) partner Batô has gone looking for her in “the sea of information” – the digital realm. While I do wish that I had understood the plot a bit more thoroughly, at the same time I think it’s less important than the performance / aesthetic, and the themes involved.

Initially, I had thought it a real curiosity, an oddity, that they would choose to do a Ghost in the Shell Noh, of all things. Combining something so highly technological, with not only themes of artificial intelligence and cybernetics and so forth but with high-tech digitalized aesthetics, with the wholly traditional world of Noh. But, actually, it works quite well. Aesthetically or stylistically, it’s an interesting juxtaposition; and if you can do a Noh about Hiroshima or about Elvis, and if you can do a Kabuki about zombies or One Piece or Star Wars, then you can do anything; it’s just a matter of getting it right; doing it well.

Promotional image for the play, showing Kusanagi Motoko (bottom left), her partner Batô, and the Puppet Master in white.

More importantly, thematically, once you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. One large subsection of Noh, the sorts of plays that I personally always think of first and tend to personally think of as being the emblematic “typical” types of Noh plays, are those known as mugen Noh 夢幻能、combining the characters yume 夢 (a dream) and maboroshi 幻 (a phantom vision, an illusion) into a term – mugen 夢幻 – which Jisho.org translates as “dreams; fantasy; visions,” with closely related terms meaning “transient; ephemeral; fleeting; evanescent” and “dreamlike; phantasmagorical.” In a play such as Atsumori, one example of a play of this type, a traveling monk1 reaches a particular site, in this case a beach but in other plays very often a grove or clearing in a forest, and encounters a ghost, or spirit, of a deceased warrior; the warrior, Atsumori, then relates through word and dance his story – the emotional events and karmic turmoils that keep his spirit tethered to this plane, unable to move on just yet. Mugen Noh plays exist in, or create, a liminal space between dream and reality, or between the physical world and the spiritual world. Like the monk who encounters a spirit, and can’t really be sure if that encounter is (was) real, or some kind of illusion, or a dream, just like him, we too – as audience members viewing the Noh performance – can sometimes, if we are lucky, find ourselves in a similar state: seeing the wooden pillars and painted-on pine tree of the Noh stage, and the physical conceit of actors in costumes, but seeing through or past these to wonder if what we ourselves are witnessing is not a stage but a forest clearing, and if it is not a play performed by human actors but some sort of dream, or some sort of glimpse into the world of spirits.

A tradition Hôshô school Noh performance of the play Atsumori.

In this way, the themes or atmosphere of mugen Noh actually fit Ghost in the Shell quite well, I think. Batô – a sort of cybercrimes police detective or special agent – here is played by the waki actor, taking on a role equivalent to that of the monk. Saying that he has not seen “neither form nor shadow” of Motoko for a long time (「素子は何処。姿も影もつかめぬ。」), he ventures not along roads and waterways, to beaches or forests, but into “the sea of information,” a virtual or digital realm that might as well be akin to the spirit realm, in search of the “spirit,” or in this case the disembodied digital consciousness – the “ghost” – of his former partner, Kusanagi Motoko.

The play begins in darkness; I kept waiting for the lights to come up and they never did. Only spotlights, a digital projection screen, and a few other small sources of light allowed us to peer through the darkness to glimpse the action. Noh chanting, flute, and drums opened the performance, and for a good portion of the ensuing 60 minutes or so, the music would remain wholly within the realm of traditional Noh utai (chanting) and hayashi (instrumental ensemble). Batô entered, in fully traditional-style Noh robes, albeit with the mask at least (if not the costume?) specially made to resemble the manga/anime character. There are no wooden pillars, no pine tree painted on the backdrop. This is not a traditional Noh stage, but rather a black box stage as is typical in so many modern theatres. A projection screen plays a variety of different images over the course of the play, but mostly images resembling leaves or flower petals swirling in the wind – or air bubbles or debris in the sea – suggesting though not overtly resembling something like the digital flows of the Matrix.

The use of controlled lighting techniques here is of course not something available to Noh performers hundreds of years ago, who performed simply by daylight or by torchlight, with no ability to control the lighting directly from a switchboard or the like; and which is therefore not a feature of traditional Noh today. Nevertheless, this creates a somewhat similar atmospheric effect to takigi Noh (torchlight Noh), which I imagine must enhance the sense of mugen so much more strongly. I really hope to get to see takigi Noh someday soon.

Motoko, played by a shite actor as Atsumori or other comparable figures would be, appears. Not “enters,” as in walks onstage, but actually appears out of the darkness, appearing first in a somewhat ghostly form and then quickly solidifying, appearing from where I was sitting just as real, just as three-dimensional, as if it were a real actor right there, in that spot, on stage. (But if it is a real actor, then how did they fade in that way?) This is where the “VR” aspect of “VR Noh” starts to come into play. Very cool.

She chants and dances her story, resembling very much in costume and stylistic aspects otherwise, and in her central location on the stage in contrast to Batô who remains near the front stage left corner for much of the play, the central shite figure of so many Noh plays, such as the warrior Atsumori in Atsumori or the heavenly maiden in Hagoromo. In doing so, she speaks of … well, I’m not exactly sure, but of questioning her identity and her reality. In one line, she speaks of her body having been only a hollow puppet, and of her soul having become distanced from the fences of the realm of people, melting in the sea of information.

「素子が掴みしは虚ろな人形の手。素子はいづくにや。人の世の柵を離れ。魂魄は。電脳の海に。溶けゆきしなり。」

Then she splits into two – one shite figure in white robes, young woman mask, and black hair down to her jawline suddenly becoming two, looking nearly identical, and standing next to one another, one looking more ghostly, more transparent than the other, but other than that both looking as though they are truly there on stage – not projected onto a flat screen, but present within three-dimensional space. And the chanting continues, as they speak to one another and to no one at all, questioning “if I am Motoko then who is she,” and so forth.

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Who (what) am I?”
「わらわは草薙素子。汝は何者なるや。」

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Is coming face to face [with one another] here coincidence, or inevitable?
「わらわは草薙素子。ここで相見えしは偶然か必然か。」

The effects they created with these so-called “VR” techniques were really impressive. I wish my friend Evelyn could have been there to see this play with me – I wish I could hear her insights as to the staging techniques and effects. From what little I could tell, I still don’t even know if it was simply very cleverly placed mirrors or if it was actually something far more technologically advanced involving holographic projectors or something; I’ve never been to a Hatsune Miku concert, so I’m not sure exactly what those are like, and Perfume won an award a few years ago for their use of a system that tracked screens and the performers’ bodies to project images onto them perfectly even as they moved around the stage.

But, whatever exactly the techniques were that were used in this “VR Noh”, the result, we managed by the end of the play to see, was that actors standing just slightly off-stage (and out of view) were somehow made to appear as though they were onstage, right in the center, rear. As the Motoko figure didn’t move much for her first X minutes onstage, and given the way she appeared as if out of nowhere and then faded ghost-like out of view, I at first suspected this was prerecorded video, projected onto the screen. But as I said before, it didn’t look flat. And when, later in the play, one of the figures actually stepped forwards, much closer to the center of the stage, a good 3-5 feet (or more? I’m terrible at numbers) separated from the screen, I gasped. This was obviously either an actual actor actually standing on stage, or, some technique other than simply being a prerecorded video played back on a screen. The fact that it was actual actors actually performing in real time – even if the images we saw were somehow reflected or projected and not directly the actual person themselves in the flesh – I think makes it a whole different thing from anything even partially pre-recorded. A very interesting experience created out of this effect. I would eagerly look forward to seeing more plays using similar technology.

I must admit, I somewhat lost the trail of the meaning of the plot after this. Batô sees Motoko, finds her, but then she disappears again. Whether they reconnect afterwards, whether she is lost to him forever, where exactly the plot goes from there, I’m rather unclear to be honest.

But regardless, what I most took away from this whole experience was (1) just being engaged, engrossed, by the aesthetic and thematic experience, impressed by how successfully it blended traditional Noh aesthetics and hyper-futuristic, cyber-digital anime content. In addition to the swirling forms on the projection screen not only moving and swirling but actually changing over the course of the play, from leaves or flowers to bubbles to something more explicitly digital, and back again, somewhere towards the middle of the play we also got the Noh drums being used in a decidedly non-traditional way to evoke a sort of robotic or heavy cybernetic sort of atmosphere as Motoko spoke, and then briefly a vocal musical piece utterly unlike anything you’d have in traditional Noh but closely resembling that from the opening of the anime film.

But also, and perhaps more so, (2) the mental or emotional experience of thinking about ghosts and spirits, reality and unreality. How are the themes of Ghost in the Shell – digital consciousness vs. natural consciousness, what separates real memories from digitally artificial ones, and therefore reality from unreality – all that different from the decidedly non-digital world of spirits / ghosts in traditional mugen Noh? One thing I thought particularly interesting, that came up during the after-talk, was when one of the actors (I believe it was Sakaguchi Takanobu 坂口貴信, the shite actor who played Motoko) said that while we’re all used to traditional stories being reinvented and re-presented in modern forms (e.g. Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm fairy tales reimagined into Disney movies), this is in some ways the opposite – a relatively new story, adapted into a much older, more traditional art form that’s actually less accessible for a modern audience. But then he also said that, as conservative as Noh is as an art form, is has continued for more than 500 years and has, certainly, evolved and changed in that time. Perhaps a few hundreds years from now, something like this VR Noh Ghost in the Shell will be seen as traditional and canonical. A very interesting thought.

(And, further, when we think about the fact that the Ghost in the Shell anime film is itself already 25 years old this year, and just how widely and deeply it has made an impact, it really is in some way, arguably, perhaps, not that different from the way that Noh plays of the medieval period retold and re-presented “traditional” and well-known stories of that time, from the Tales of the Heike, Tales of Ise, and so forth.)

That’s all I’ve got to say for now. But they suggested that they are planning to continue developing the technology, and the story, and plan to later have some sort of “version up” new iterations of the play. So, hopefully we’ll get another chance to see this, and to think about it further.

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1. In the play Atsumori, and in several other plays featuring the warrior Atsumori, the monk is in fact Renshô, aka Kumagai Naozane, the warrior who killed Atsumori in battle and who then became a monk in order to atone for his guilt and so forth. I wasn’t sure how to fit this into the body text above, but didn’t want to leave it unmentioned entirely.

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The past two weeks (July 27 to Aug 7) I had the pleasure of attending an online summer programme in Japanese Studies organized by the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture (SISJAC). I initially wasn’t sure if I should sign up to participate, because it was going to be really intense, demanding much of my time for about two weeks, and I wasn’t very clear on the content of the programme or whether it was aimed at someone like myself – a postdoc – or at others earlier in their studies. But, after a truly delightful experience visiting the University of East Anglia (in Norwich, England) this past Fall and meeting or re-connecting with quite a few of the Institute’s wonderful staff, I knew I could trust them and knew that I would very much like to visit them again and to otherwise cultivate a stronger or closer relationship with these wonderful people.

I was not disappointed.

Particularly as a historian – as someone who has bounced back and forth between fields/disciplines and who ultimately did a PhD in History with sadly little mentorship/guidance/coursework in the Arts for the last seven eight years or so – I found this workshop especially refreshing. It can sometimes feel like the field of Art History is overly concerned with personal expression and individual philosophies or politics on the part of the artist; with technical, compositional, and formal qualities of an artwork; with matters of reception; with overly abstract conceptual Theory; and with connoisseurial approaches in which I certainly envy the expertise but cannot effectively participate.

But there is this other side to the study of Arts and Culture, explored in so many of the talks and readings we have explored these two weeks, that has to do with issues of heritage and tradition, the construction of notions of “traditional” “authentic” “heritage,” the passing down of traditions and their simultaneous ever-changing vitality; how countries and cultures shape notions of their own culture or heritage, how they display or convey that to others, and how others receive or perceive that. To be reminded of these other approaches, to be once again immersed in them through the Ishibashi Lecture series and other materials we were asked to watch/read, and to once again engage in discussions along these lines with a crowd of people interested in these lines of thinking, was just so inspiring and refreshing.

On the first day of the programme, in addition to some other discussions, we watched two talks given by Morgan Pitelka and Robert Hellyer on the history of tea. Not retreading the same old territory that I feared a general overarching “Japanese Culture” summer program might, we started off immediately already addressing new and exciting and interesting ideas, and topics that we normally just don’t discuss in general mainstream surveys of Japanese Culture.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pitelka’s critiques of the traditional, canonical narratives of tea history that over-emphasize, romanticize, and lionize particular heroes – e.g. Murata Shukō and Sen no Rikyū – and his argument that the reinforcement of this set of myths in fact erases the more complex histories of tea gatherings / tea culture in the 16th-17th centuries, including especially the involvement of warlords. Just like in his book on the subject (Spectacular Accumulation), and in his new current project on Ichijōdani, Pitelka demonstrates so beautifully how History (or Art History) can tell stories that link visual/material culture and new insights about broader political/economic contexts in ways that are engaging, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Ways that challenge the standard canonical understandings without destroying what makes these topics attractive to begin with – to the contrary, making them even more interesting, I think. The study of Art History does not have to be one that focuses overmuch on the aesthetics or style of individual art objects, absent broader considerations of the lively cultural “worlds” within which they were created or appreciated, and the study of History need not be limited to that which focuses predominantly on political/economic considerations devoid of culture.

Hellyer’s discussion of the evolution of tea culture in the West, and in particular in the US, is similarly a story we rarely if ever learn anything about, and an approach that I again find, well, I have no other word for it but refreshing. Tying in American perceptions of tea (and of Japan) both at that time and now, he demonstrates that economic or commercial histories do not need to be told through an unending sequence of mind-numbingly boring charts, graphs, monetary figures, economic theories, and political ramifications, but rather that the story of the rise and fall of (and shifts in) particular goods within particular markets can be told in such a way that it brings in the actual cultural life of the times: a cultural history of how tea was consumed in the US in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the types of tea that were drunk, how they were prepared and enjoyed (e.g. with milk and sugar; with or without Prussian blue for coloring; hot or iced), the shift from green to black tea and the concordant shift from the dominance of Japanese teas to British (Indian and Ceylon) teas. Rather than engaging with the topic through abstract graphs, charts, numbers, and theories, we are presented with lively colorful images of Americans preparing and consuming tea around a dinner table or picnic table; images of the way it’s advertised in newspapers and the way it’s packaged and arranged on shelves at the store; images of Americans visiting Japanese and British pavilions at World’s Fairs and engaging in conversation with Japanese and British tea representatives trying to convince them to buy a different tea or to enjoy it in a different way. We think about how we drink tea ourselves – what it looks like, smells like, tastes like; what the advertising and packaging is like today; what our own attitudes are towards green vs. black tea; we learn a history of our own society, our own culture, and not only a more abstract history of nations and corporations.

Later in the program, Dr. Robert Simpkins shared with us something about his research, exploring the music scene around Kōenji, a burgeoning hip neighborhood just a few train stations west of Shinjuku (in Tokyo).

Simpkins’ discussion of the music scene at Kōenji reminded me of so many inspiring and intriguing discussions I have had with anthropologists in recent years. Both as a historian, and if I were to perform ethnographic research, I know myself, I would choose a *topic* that interested me, whether it be a particular slice of the music scene in Tokyo, or political protest culture, or artisanal craft production culture, or whatever it may be, and I would want to explore that topic, in itself. But anthropologists like Simpkins manage to do that and to at the same time relate such incredibly meaningful insights about how this scene – in this case, the Kōenji music scene – is just one case example of much broader personal, emotional, psychological, and social matters such as intimacy and interpersonal relationships, things that are ultimately just so human.

We do learn, through Simpkins’ work, about a specific thing that we can immerse ourselves in and learn something about – something we can experience vicariously through reading or hearing about it, and in so doing, expand our personal cultural world, our personal knowledge of the incredible diversity and vibrancy of our incredible human world. We learn through him about a culture and a scene that takes place in particular physical (and geographic) spaces, that look and feel and sound a certain way. In short, he’s helping us to imagine and to understand the look and feel, the experience, of a particular cultural phenomenon in a particular time and place – not solely through sociological or anthropological theoretical concepts, nor through financial graphs or political forces, but through sight and sound and space; the actual lived experience of what these spaces look and feel like, as particular to early 21st century Kōenji, Tokyo, as compared to the “cultural” or “experiential” spaces of comparable music scenes in New York, London, Johannesburg, Beirut, or anywhere else. And I think that alone is so valuable: there are so many lessons to be learned from understanding something about how the music scene functions or operates similarly or differently in each of these places.

But we also learn from Simpkins something about human relationships, how particular experiences of (post?)modernity and urban life can make us feel emotionally, psychologically, socially isolated, and how seeking out a place like the livehouse (music bar) scene in Kōenji can be a way to forge interpersonal human connections that make up for that, or that satisfy and fulfill us in new and different ways.

In another set of talks from the Ishibashi Lecture series, Toshio Watanabe and Wybe Kuitert both speak of Japanese gardens outside of Japan – how Japanese, Japanese diaspora, and non-Japanese understand, interpret, experience, envision, and create “Japanese gardens.” What does the “Japanese garden” mean to them? What does “Zen” mean to them? What are the purposes, intentions, meanings, behind the creation of such spaces?

In chapters we read from the exhibit catalog Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan, Dr. Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere talks about the establishment of categories of Cultural Properties or Cultural Heritage in 20th century Japan. Who gets to show at which national exhibitions, and under what labels or categories. Who gets honored as a Living National Treasure or a bearer of Important Cultural Properties, and who does not, and what that means. Which arts or crafts get national recognition and which do not, which get assistance to get maintained, protected, passed down … and how these arts, or crafts, are understood both in Japan and overseas. How transmission of a tradition functioned in the Edo period and similarly or differently today.

A porcelain dish entitled 「黎明」(“Dawn”), 1992, by Tokuda Yasokichi III 三代目徳田八十吉, which graces the cover of the book Crafting Beauty and which is regularly on display at the British Museum. Photo my own, taken at the British Museum, Aug 2015.

All of these many various themes, which may be addressed in the field of Public History – I regret not getting more thoroughly involved with those people – but which I remain surprised and disappointed are so marginalized in the field / discipline of History more broadly.

In theory, History should be a massive umbrella-style catch-all, and in some respects it is. But – whether this is unique to UCSB I cannot say – I definitely get the feeling that some themes and approaches are far more mainstream, far more supported, within History than others. I feel very lucky to have had a PhD committee who were supportive of whatever directions I tried to take things in, but even so, it takes a workshop like this to remind me of just what I was missing. To have these kinds of discussions about culture and heritage, politics of display, issues of tradition, be at the very center of conversation, as they so often are when speaking to people in a wide range of fields – Art History, Museum Studies, Theatre History, Ethnomusicology – and as they are frustratingly not when speaking to most of my fellow Historians, is really refreshing. Wakes me up, re-energizes me. Excites me to start exploring these themes again, and to know there are people out there – indeed, entire departments and institutes – that “get it,” that see things through this sort of lens and don’t put these sorts of approaches or perspectives to the margins.

Now I just have to figure out how to reintegrate such approaches into myself and into my work. How to make myself be the kind of cultural historian who I wish to be.

….

Postscript: The above is only a sampling of the topics we discussed in this programme; we also had thoroughly inspiring and engaging conversations with Drs. Ryoko Matsuba and Ellis Tinios about how online databases are making new kinds of research possible; with Dr. Joy Hendry about her 45+ years of visiting the same tiny Kyushu village and watching as a village and the individual families within it grow and change; with Simon Kaner about archaeology and cultural heritage; and so many others which just didn’t quite fit the themes or points I was making above.

These included some thoroughly enjoyable readings, which I thought I’d share here.
(1) Selections from Ezra Vogel’s apparently rather classic and best-selling Japan as Number One, written in 1979 and providing a thoroughly visual and tangible sense of Japan’s postwar economic growth, some of the key reasons and structures for its incredible success at that time, and perhaps still most prescient for today, Americans’ refusal to believe that they could or should have anything to learn from Japan, or from any non-Western country or culture for that matter, when it comes to big-scale things like how to run an economy (or how to fight a pandemic).

(2) A brilliant little short story by David Mitchell (of BBC fame) entitled “Variations on a Theme by Mister Donut.” A Rashomon-style short story, telling the same series of events from a number of different perspectives, all taking place inside a Mister Donut. If you’d told me this was an English translation of a work by a Japanese author, I’d fully believe you. Does the fact that it’s set in Japan and seems to accurately, correctly, evoke the atmosphere of contemporary Japanese urban life make it “Japanese literature”? I’d generally say no, but nevertheless we had a good discussion about the blurred boundaries of such categories. Suggested/assigned by the brilliant Dr. Nick Bradley, whose book The Cat and the City, also set in Tokyo, has just come out.

(3) A short story by Kyoko Yoshida entitled “The Eastern Studies Institute.” Not even really a narrative, but a description of a bizarre research institute that reminded me, if anything, of the anime “Tatami Galaxy” (四畳半神話大系) for some reason. I really don’t read fiction, short stories, creative fiction, anything like that almost ever; what little time I made for reading is either for random news articles, op-eds, blog posts and the like that come up on social media, or actual History books, on which I am perpetually way way way behind on where I wish I were.

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“Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs,” an event my friends and I had been planning since last year, finally came to fruition this past February, and I flew back to Santa Barbara very briefly (from Okinawa, where I had been pursuing my dissertation research for a six month stay) to take part. Not quite a symposium or conference, but also not simply an art exhibition, “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” combined an exhibit of new works by MFA student Yumiko Glover with a series of talks by Yumiko, EALCS PhD student Carl Gabrielson, EALCS Professor Sabine Frühstück, Art History PhD student A. Colin Raymond, and myself, plus video interviews of all of us, conducted and edited by YouTuber / LGBT-activist Naoya Matsushima.

Now that the website is complete, I thought it about time to finally post on the blog about this.

The event was originally conceived as something of an “experiment” in graduate-student-initiated and cross-department / interdisciplinary events, which might stand as an example in incremental moves towards (1) greater interdisciplinary collaboration within the academy, (2) greater variety in the style and character of academic events, and (3) more student-initiated events on campus. Of course, few events I’ve ever participated in have ever been nearly as radical, or impactful, as we might imagine or expect or hope for them to be, and all of them, once they are over, are simply over, but I’m still rather proud of, and happy with, what we accomplished.

Yumiko Glover, “Tomoko vs. Mr. A” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 77″ sq. Photo my own. (Sadly, I can’t seem to find any of my photos from that week, so I’m using photos from another art show.)

Yumiko’s artwork continues to get my gears turning – not only beautiful, and masterfully executed, but also wonderfully thought-provoking, containing or suggesting references in numerous different directions, to themes of contemporary Japanese social and political issues, but also anime/manga and youth fashion aesthetics, bubble-gum-bright pop colors, hyperreality and technofuturism – they are highly contemporary works, in modern media and techniques, featuring contemporary or even futuristic subjects (schoolgirls, metropolitan skylines, subways, cellphones, the digital world) but also while subtly referencing or even re-imagining / re-creating (mitate-e) classic images from Japanese art history, such as woodblock prints by Harunobu and Utamaro.

The exhibit opened on Sunday Feb 26, and on the Tuesday, three of us (Yumiko, Colin, and myself) gave brief presentations in Prof. Helen Taschian’s ART 1A: Intro to Visual Literacy class, in addition to all five of us giving talks in a more formal panel event the following day at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre. I could certainly appreciate how these talks at Prof. Taschian’s class might be seen as tangential, or incidental, to the overall project – and there have certainly been plenty of times that I, as a mere attendee to a “main event” panel discussion have not felt that the classroom visits and other activities I didn’t see constituted part of the main event – but, this time around, as a direct participant in this classroom visit, I really did feel it to be a part of the overall event, the overall experience. This has really given me a new appreciation for how it feels to be a visiting speaker, not just for one “main event” but for other things done in conjunction, and a new appreciation for appreciating the fullness of such events. Even with the talks being just tweaked slightly different versions from what we presented the following day at the formal panel discussion, the classroom visit felt quite different. A different audience, with different background and interests and perspectives. The Visual Literacy class itself provided a different context within which – building on their basic foundational knowledge of art & aesthetics acquired over just the past seven weeks of the academic quarter – we were introducing them to Yumiko’s work, to a brief sampling of Okinawan art today (my presentation), and to some issues and problems in thinking about contemporary art, through examples from contemporary Japanese art (Colin’s presentation). It felt really cool to be including a bit of Japanese, Okinawan, and Japanese/American art (or however Yumiko may identify/categorize her own art practice) into their Visual Literacy class. I don’t know how global (how US/Eurocentric or not) Prof. Taschian’s course is to begin with, but I definitely get a kick out of exposing students to non-Western examples as major examples of how we think about art, etc. American or European art – or particular standard canonical examples of non-Western art – need not be the default go-to examples. We are global citizens of a global world. Let us act like it. And talking about some of the biggest artists in Tokyo, and in Okinawa (or we might just as well have said Tahiti, Hawaii, or countless other marginalized, peripheralized places), plus works by someone like Yumiko Glover, using these and not more standard examples from a canon of Western (or non-Western) modern art, is a key element of doing that. Prof. Taschian’s class also did a walkthrough of the exhibit on the Thursday, along with a formal “critique” of Yumiko’s work by professors and grad students from the Studio Art program, and while I wasn’t able to be there for this part, this too is to my mind very much a part of the overall event, making “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” overall a fairly complex, extensive, event, and one I’m all the more satisfied with and proud of having been a part of.

Still, the exhibit itself (and gallery opening reception), and the panel discussion at the MCC, were the real centerpieces of the week. I am so glad to have gotten to do this in the MCC theatre. If we had gotten a classroom, that would have been fine, but doing it in the MCC made the whole thing just feel one level “higher” – classier, nicer, more properly put-together, in a sense. Yumiko talked about her artworks, how they were inspired in large part by her own identity and experiences, growing up in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture (about 63 miles from Hiroshima City), and being Japanese, seeing how Japanese popular culture, media, everyday life, and national-level politics have developed over the last several decades. Yumiko’s works are not only about hyperreality and a colorful, pop-aesthetic Tokyo-urban landscape of everyday life infused with youthful energy, referencing or built upon a backdrop history of Japanese art tradition, but the most recent batches are also increasingly engaged in political commentary, against the renewed militarism and nationalism of the Abe administration and its supporters.

Sabine Frühstück and Carl Gabrielson then talked about that recent trend of rising militarism, particularly in terms of the imag(in)ed role or place of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces within Japanese life or Japanese society, the step-by-step shift of the JSDF from total non-involvement in warzones in the 1990s to increased engagement first in postwar minesweeping efforts in the Persian Gulf overseas construction efforts in Cambodia, and then later in an active warzone (although still not with combat troops – only medics, engineers, etc. etc.) in Iraq in the early 2000s, to now, since 2015, a formal reinterpretation of the Constitution newly adopted into law, which would allow Japan to deploy full-on combat troops not only in defense of Japan (or reaction to attacks against Japanese people or property) but also in response to attacks on allies.

Carl talked in particular about the way the JSDF is marketed to the Japanese public, as protectors of an idealized clean, honest, peaceful, prosperous Japanese everyday life – a very common trope throughout Japanese media – and as protectors who do so without any explicit or overt discussion or display of violence. JSDF ads include very little, if any, depiction of weaponry or action, at all, focusing very much instead on a more quiet, soft perhaps, dignified image of people – largely unseen, unheard, in everyday Japanese life, operating somewhere at a physical remove, a distance – who work to protect Japanese life from turmoil and threats. Even the threats themselves are not only not named, they are left entirely undefined: these ads don’t so much stir up “fear” (e.g. fear of Islamic extremist terrorism) as they do, arguably, perhaps, merely emphasize the goodness of what needs to be protected.

I next shared a glimpse, a sampling, of what I’d seen of Okinawan art in the preceding six months or so. I would say my main intention was twofold: (1) to just simply share something of my experience; even those who’ve spent more time in Tokyo, who know the Tokyo and national art scene better than I do haven’t been feet-on-the-ground seeing all this stuff in Okinawa right now, in 2016-17 as it happens. And (2) to try to contribute just a bit to combatting the continued US/Eurocentrism of our understanding and vision of the art world. This is the 21st century. We are global citizens, Let’s fucking act like it. Okinawa is a part of the world, no less so than California or New York or Texas, no less so than England or France or Japan or China. No matter how small, no matter how seemingly peripheral in one way or another, it is a part of our world, a jigsaw puzzle piece that is essential to a more complete vision of the whole.

Finally, Colin talked about how we understand art and aesthetic categories. In the aftermath of minimalism and modernism reaching (arguably) their limits, the movements having been played out to their fullest possible extent, now what? In our frenetic postmodern moment, when absolutely anything can be art, what now is (and is not) “Art”? Also, as we become increasingly interconnected into the global, just because we have access to seeing more art from around the world doesn’t mean we actually understand it in cultural and political context. It may actually be easier than ever before to think we do – seeing artworks from all around the world on the internet, and at a first glance thinking we “get” it, based on preconceptions about Japan. But, in truth, as Colin explained, there is historical, cultural, and political knowledge that is essential to understanding more validly, more deeply, more truly, what an artwork is referencing or pointing to.

Matthew Limb did an excellent job as moderator, guiding us through some important themes and questions at the end of the panel.

These were accompanied by the brilliant inclusion of a series of video interviews organized by Naoya Matsushima, projected onto the wall of the gallery. While five of us gave talks in UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre in a formal panel event on the Wednesday, that’s ephemeral – even more ephemeral than a one-week gallery show – and these videos, summarizing the main themes of our talks in a (hopefully) even more accessible manner than the talks themselves, brought those talks, those topics, more directly into conversation with the artworks.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with these folks, and to have such an event under my belt, keeping me connected into fields of Art and Art History, and to get to contribute to having just a bit more Japan-related events on campus, introducing our audiences to these various aspects of Japanese & Okinawan art and politics. I look forward to hopefully many more fruitful collaborations in future.

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Last week was an absolute whirlwind. And as much as I tried to get this blog post down as immediately as I could after the festival was over, now, nearly a week later, the whole thing is mostly a blur – but still an extremely positive experience that I am sure will stay with me for a long time to come. I am so lucky that the 6th Worldwide Uchinanchu Taikai, which happens only once every five years, happened to come around while I am here studying in Okinawa. Some 6000 people of Okinawan descent (=Uchinanchu) came from all around the world for a massive reunion party unlike any I have ever seen. The week included so many events it made my head spin – music and dance performances, talks & lectures, eisa, sumo, food booths, cultural lessons/workshops, all across the island (and on some of the other islands too) – but I think for most people the main thing was simply coming here with family and friends, and meeting up with other family and friends, visiting the ancestral homeland to explore or deepen one’s connections to one’s roots, but also to just go out and have a great vacation, with food and drink and partying..

A one-sheet extra edition, compiled and printed super fast, and handed out at the end of Wednesday’s participants’ parade, before the parade was even over!

For my part, both because I’m living here (and was therefore not quite in full-on mental vacation mode) and because I didn’t really have all that many people to hang out with, I’m not sure I had quite the full experience. But, still, I attended so many events, and had a really great time hanging out with the people I did know.

As of a few months ago, my friend Shari with the Hawaiʻi contingent thought it might be difficult for tiny Hawaiʻi to beat the 1100 or so registered attendees from the huge country of Brazil, but in the end, Hawaiʻi sent over 1800 people to the Taikai – and big thanks to Shari for helping me to be one of them. Groups from Peru and Argentina were big, too, and numerous groups from all different parts across the mainland US, of course. Germany, the UK, France, Australia. China, Taiwan, Korea, and Okinawan associations from different parts of mainland Japan, as well, of course. I think one of the surprising ones for me was New Caledonia – it makes sense, I suppose, that there’d be a lot of Okinawans there, just like in Hawaiʻi and Guam, but, still, it was a huge contingent. All of these Uchinanchu from all around the world coming together, not only were there some 6000 additional people visiting the island for the last week, but it was a majorly prominent big event, with newspapers putting out special editions reporting on the Festival, and a great many shops hanging signs and so forth. Everyone knew it was going on. It made for a really nice atmosphere – I didn’t end up talking to too many people who I just ran into on the street, but, having so many people here who you know are in a similar situation to yourself (well, not quite to myself, but I sort of adopted the identity of an Uchinanchu returning for the Festival) really creates such a wonderful open, friendly, sort of feeling.

Gov. Onaga of Okinawa, with the flags of some of the many countries & regions represented, welcoming everyone back home. I wish I had taken more photos of just generally seeing people on the street, or photos of small parties with friends. Drat.

And I think that was one of the main things that really struck me about the whole thing. It’s corny, but it’s real, that all of these people from all around the world, have come together in friendship – and more than that, really, as family – to celebrate their identity as Uchinanchu. Of course, with any such group so large, you’re going to have people acting like strangers – like the strangers they are – to a large extent; but, at the same time, while I generally try to avoid making generalizations about a whole people, I really do feel that the Okinawans are the most welcoming and inclusive people I know. Meeting fellow Uchinanchu, they share in that like they’re family. And with someone like myself, who is not Okinawan (and never can be), Okinawans here in Okinawa have been friendly as could be, and diaspora Okinawans have been just so welcoming, so accepting, inviting me into their group to go out for drinks, or whatever… Months ago, when I was first hearing about the Taikai, Shari was on Hawaiʻi Public Radio telling people about the Taikai, and about registering through the Hawaiʻi United Okinawa Association (HUOA). I sent her a message saying, basically, I’m not Okinawan, and I haven’t lived in Hawaiʻi in quite a few years, but should I register through HUOA? Is there a way to register just as a loner? And I am so glad to have registered with HUOA. Somehow, I didn’t get that same feeling this weekend as I did a few months ago in LA of feeling like I was back in Hawaiʻi, but still, it’s really something to feel a part of a community, a part of a group – to feel some connection to Hawaiian community, to Hawaiʻi as a cultural space. And I really can’t wait to go spend time in Hawaiʻi again, to maintain those connections.

My point is, attending the opening ceremonies at Onoyama Park Cellular Stadium, seeing thousands of Okinawans celebrating together, showing their pride in their individual cities or countries, but also in being Okinawan, and seeing Gov. Onaga and the prefecture of Okinawa more broadly welcoming them home in this way, it’s just so touching. Reminds me of the Olympics, in a sense, just that cheesy but nevertheless genuine heartwarming feeling of people coming together, in friendship, from all around the world, which puts tears in your eyes. Even before the official opening ceremonies on Thursday, on the day before, there was a participants’ parade in which everyone, in their respective national or regional contingents, marched down Kokusai-dôri (the main street of Naha). As Hawaiʻi was one of the first groups to walk, I got to finish walking the parade, and then turn around and become a spectator to watch all the other groups pass by – and seeing Okinawans from Texas, from Guam, from Bolivia.. even from Zambia, was just incredible. Most people had matching shirts, really “representing” their various countries or regions, and they waved flags, blasted music, performed dances. And, both at the parade and all through the week, local Okinawans would stop people, and hold their hand, and say “welcome home” (o-kaeri-nasai), often with tears in their eyes. I’m getting a little bit teary just writing about it.

Some of my friends have better photos than this; some experienced it rather directly. I, too, was greeted similarly on a number of occasions. It’s a really incredible feeling, for strangers, just anyone, people you meet on the street, to treat you like family, to welcome you home like this.

There were times during the week that I felt I wished we could all have what the Okinawans have. I mean, it comes from pain, from suffering, and I certainly do not wish that upon anyone, that anyone should have to go through what the Okinawans have. Their independent kingdom, so culturally rich and vibrant, was unilaterally abolished and annexed, and the islands’ economy allowed to flounder and collapse, leading a great many to emigrate to Hawaiʻi, the US, South America, and elsewhere right around 1900. This was followed in 1945 by Japan allowing Okinawa to become a battlefield, for a last stand for Imperial Japan, a battle which ended in the deaths of roughly 1/4 of Okinawa’s civilian population, and the utter destruction of much of the island. And indeed, that suffering or oppression is ongoing, as roughly 1/5th of Okinawa’s land continues to be occupied by US military bases today, with both Tokyo and Washington agreeing to essentially use the entire island as a strategic military position, rather than truly seeing it as an equal part of Japan, with equal rights to not have to put up with all the many repercussions of that.

But, my feeling is that through all of this, the Okinawan people have such an appreciation for one another, and for their diasporic relatives, addressing one another not as strangers who happen to have some commonality or similarity, but addressing one another as long-lost distant family. They speak of the Okinawan diaspora as being true Uchinanchu just as much, and as doing great things for Okinawa, or in the name of the Okinawan people. They speak of being linked by one heart, one soul, of being inseparably tied to this place as the homeland. We heard stories from members of the older generation, who speak of having lived overseas (in diaspora) for fifty or sixty years, but that when they dream of home, it is Okinawa they dream of. We heard from members of the younger generation, who have come here to Okinawa as exchange students in order to explore their roots. We heard from Gov. Onaga and other top people in Okinawa, who welcomed these thousands of Okinawans home, speaking of how proud Okinawa is of all of them out there in the world. Speaking of the special spirit, the strength, the power, of Uchinanchu. And at both the opening and closing ceremonies, we saw some of the real all-stars of Okinawan pop/rock/whatever music performing, not as distant, untouchable, impersonal celebrities who might happen to share some common ethnic designation, but rather, as people excited and emotional to be involved in such an event, welcoming all these people home. I wish we all could have such a strong feeling of identity, of togetherness, of ties to the land, of appreciation for our ancestors, of love for our culture, and without anyone else seeing our pride and our togetherness as a dangerous or ugly form of nationalism, or as illegitimate or inappropriate in whatever way. Maybe it’s just my perspective based on who *I* am, my own ethnic/cultural background, my own family’s history, but to me, this all feels “pure” in a way. A pure and wholly positive feeling, and display, of pride of identity, without any of the negative connotations that prevent us from demonstrating our pride in the same way in being American, Japanese, German, Jewish, or any number of other identities. I wish I could wave the Hawaiian flag and feel it was my own. I wish I could wave the Israeli flag and have people see it in that same light – as a long-oppressed minority, an indigenous people, regaining our homeland after centuries of occupation.

Ukwanshin Kabudan, performing in their own short play about the history and experiences of Okinawan immigrants to Hawaiʻi. The group is now working with an NPO called Okinawa Hands-On to produce a documentary on the importance of maintaining the Okinawan language. If you might be interested in contributing to this effort, and to the production of more plays like the one from which this photo was taken, see the Okinawa Hands-On website.

Hanging out with diaspora Okinawans, and studying Okinawan history and culture, has really helped me think about and understand and appreciate my own background as well. It’s all too easy to study history or culture (arts) as objects to be studied – as bodies of knowledge to simply read about, learn about, know, and then share. Names, dates, events, facts. And I do love that stuff. And I do think it’s important. But the ways in which we live our very real lives, the ways in which every individual person, every individual family, has their story, their experiences, their particular relationships with their identity; the way we struggle, as individuals, as families, as local communities, and as a people as a whole (e.g. the Okinawan people), to know the past and to keep those lessons with us, to have appreciation for our ancestors without whom we wouldn’t be here today, to hold onto some notion of our heritage while still living the more immediate, if mundane, priorities of everyday modern life… has really gotten me to think about my own Jewish identity, my relationship with my grandparents and their story, their identity, the heritage that I have inherited, what sort of life I want to live and what lessons I should want to pass down to my own children. How do we embody our ethnic or cultural identities and make that truly a part of who we are? How do we honor who our ancestors would have wanted us to be? How do we maintain traditions, and not lose them, while at the same time not preserving them in a sterile unchanging way like in a glass jar? And how do we maintain them while also dealing with the demands of regular, everyday, modern life?

Some people I would love to get to know, and who I suspect would actually be quite friendly and down-to-earth. Unlike the air or impression that I think is not uncommon within New York or Tokyo of unapproachability. You know, it’s funny, for a post all about making friends and feelings of friendship and family, I still can’t believe (still as in as I continue to write this, from however many paragraphs earlier) that I took no photos at all of new or old friends, or of hanging out with people this whole week. That’s what the whole damn thing was about (partially)!

Another thing that comes up when hanging out with Hawaiʻi folks is the sense I get that in Hawaiʻi, and in Okinawa, it’s not so much about knowing your way around the city/island, knowing cool places, in an impersonal way, nor is it about “who you know” (personal networks) in a high-powered, self-important way, but rather that it’s very much about just being friendly and making friends, and that’s something I have really grown to love and enjoy. I know my way around New York and Tokyo to a certain extent – I have my favorite restaurants, etc.; I know certain short-cuts or certain back ways or whatever. And I’d long aspired to develop that more for those two cities, and for everywhere I went. But, being knowledgeable in that sort of way can be rather impersonal – knowing the best restaurants in the city, being up on the latest trends, doesn’t mean you actually know anyone, or that they know you. And, like at that party I happened to be invited to that one time at the apartment of a curator for the Guggenheim, New York can feel like it’s all about moving in important circles. Who you know, as in who you can name drop, who you can get favors from. But in Hawaiʻi, and I think maybe in Okinawa too, it’s not about that stuff. It’s about being real, genuine friends with people who just happen to be guesthouse operators, restaurant owners, magazine editors, archivists… It’s maybe a little hard to put into words, I guess, what the difference is that I sense. But it’s about the easy, friendly, accessibility of making friends with people in all sorts of circles. Introductions go a long way here, and people are friendly and open and welcoming. They aren’t necessarily looking for what they can get out of you, or looking skeptically at this stranger wondering why should we really be friends. And I think that’s something I struggle with within myself – wanting to be on good, friendly, terms with more or less everyone in my life, but at the same time I have a hard time really accepting that someone else sees me as a friend until we’ve hung out many times and I feel a genuine sense of closeness. Anyway, I’m getting a little too personal, or self-psychoanalyzing or something. The point is, I’ve been here for all of six weeks, and by virtue of friends’ introductions, I already have connections, if not outright friendships, with quite a few grad students and professors, plus a guesthouse owner or manager, the editor of a major local magazine, an archivist… and in Hawaiʻi, through one means or another, I think I have friends or at least acquaintances, connections of some sort, with at least a few bars and restaurants, with multiple people at the Honolulu Museum of Arts, many on campus of course, but also with HUOA, the Japanese Cultural Center, the synagogue, and so on and so forth, after only three years of living there, by virtue of friendliness, aloha spirit, introductions, and the fact that it’s all in all a relatively small place. By contrast, I’ve lived in New York more or less my whole life (when I wasn’t in London or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or Okinawa or California), and while I am fortunate to have a few friends in a few “high” places here and there, for the most part, I already feel more “connected” here in Okinawa, and in Hawaiʻi, than I ever have (and perhaps ever will) in New York – and not only in the professional networking “what can I get out of you” sort of way, but even in the sense of having social circles I feel I can rely upon to invite me out.

Here’s part of where the difference comes in: in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa, I never felt like I was walking with an elite crowd. I never felt like we were calling up a place to make a reservation and saying “do you know who I am?” “Oh, yes, of course, anything for you, Mr. so-and-so.” No. It was more like calling up and saying “Hey, [insert name]! How’s it going? Thanks again for such-and-such the other night. It was a really fun time. Listen, I have some friends coming into town. You think you have space?” “Oh, yeah, of course! It’s always great to see you! I can’t wait to meet your friends!” After the Taikai was over, just a few days ago, I went over to the guesthouse where one of my friends had been staying, to inquire about making a reservation myself. And, not only did the manager/owner immediately say,

“Travis! Yes, she told me you’d be coming. Great to meet you!”

and then talk to me excitedly about how wonderful that mutual friend is, a nice, fun, generous, warm, person, but then even in the middle of showing me around the guesthouse, she saw someone walking past on the street (a friend? a regular guest?) and called out to him “Oh! Takeo! I didn’t know you were back!” And then interrupted our little “tour” to go chat with him. I just love the idea of this kind of not-so-strictly-professional, friendly, attitude. Like I might also become not only a regular guest, but actually a friend, and might even get introduced to other friends, and, I dunno, just, feel happy and welcomed and feel a part of a real network of actual friends here, more so than just being an experienced, knowledgeable, cosmopolitan, visitor.

This weekend was incredible. So much fun, so exciting, but also emotional at times, very moving. It’s also given me a lot to think about; it’s refreshed my feeling of membership in a Hawaiʻi community, for which I could not be more grateful; and it’s helped me make some new friends and contacts here in Okinawa, which is sure to be fruitful going forward.

The above is all just one version of one attempt at organizing my thoughts and feelings on all of this… I still barely know how I think about all of this. My identity, my relationship to all of these things, remain a work in progress. I may at some point come back and write more about the Taikai, specifically about some of the many events I attended over the course of the Festival, which I barely touched upon at all in this post. But, feeling already so far behind (posting this so many days after the Taikai ended), I’m not sure I will get around to it. In the meantime, for those interested, please do feel free to check out my documentation of my experience of the Taikai, on Flickr, Tumblr, and YouTube.

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Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).

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Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…

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“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:

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Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

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It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

FILM:
First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

PERFORMING ARTS:
The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.

GALLERY:

Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

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The Tumblr blog When You Work at a Museum posts wonderful, hilarious gifs every day. Having worked at a museum, and being someone who hopes to work at one again, I love these light-hearted pokes at museum life.

A recent post kind of irked me, though. It is titled “The public program has been over for 30 minutes, but the entire audience is still hanging around for some reason.

I’ve worked at museums, and worked events, and I very much sympathize with and understand the desire to be done when you’re done, and to be able to close up and not be forced to linger on. Museum staffers work full days, 9-to-5, if not more, in addition to then staying late to prepare for, set up, and run these events. And for those in certain departments – e.g. Film, Performing Arts – they do this day after day, and of course they’re tired.

But, at the same time, whether as staff or as a visitor, I find that very often I want to talk to others about the experience, to maybe meet others who share my interests, and to otherwise participate as a member of a community. Going to an event and leaving immediately afterwards without talking to anyone is not a way to be or become a member of a community, or a “scene” (e.g. “the NY contemporary art scene,”). Now, I know that museums often cannot afford to provide food & drink (and the labor of setting it up & taking it down) for a reception after every single event, but, all I’m saying is that those events where I got to meet new people, reconnect with familiar faces, share my reactions or thoughts, share in my interests with others, maybe get to ask the staff/curator/performers questions. There’s nothing like a museum event to make you feel like you’re “in,” like you’re a part of something. And there’s nothing like getting kicked out of a museum event with no opportunity whatsoever to talk to anyone about it, to make you feel like you’re an absolute nobody, like you are not, and never will be, a member of any kind of inner circle with that institution.

Tumblr user librarykris responded “From my opinion as an audience member, the measure of how good something is is how long I want to hold on to the experience and stay in the space.” To which the OP responded with some comments I’ll address a bit below. But, there’s more to it than that. I think there is another side of this – it’s not just about wanting to savor the experience, or to have the experience itself last longer. It’s also about wanting to talk to others about it, sometimes especially wanting to talk to the staff, the speaker, the performers. It’s not just about engaging with the art, or the ideas, the presentation, but it is also about engaging with a community, feeling one is a member of the Museum of [insert name here] community, an active, engaged, included member of some circle, some group, some community. It’s about feeling that one is engaging with, or be(com)ing a part of, the art world.

An art opening at the Y Center Gallery in Honolulu, May 2010.

The OP then also says “The above attitude is especially annoying when inconsiderate jabronis think that a museum is the same place as a bar, club, cafe, etc.” How is a museum /not/ a place for such things? Have you never been to an exhibit opening? A museum is precisely the place for such things. Think about the stereotypical art gallery opening. Think about the conversations you have at such an event. Think about how it feels to engage in such an event, to be enjoying art and mingling with others who also love art, to feel like you’re part of a community, an art community, part of the art world in whatever way.

People who love Edo period painting, or contemporary Chinese art, or whatever it may be, all together in a room together all at one time, drinking wine and eating cheese and crackers and talking to one another about the art? People who know me, who remember me, who actually want to talk to me about these topics? I want in. /That/ is the museum experience I’m looking for. The lecture/performance/screening is just the first half – I want to get to know these people; I want to hear what they have to say, their insights and impressions, their recommendations of other shows and artists and events. Think of all the people you’ve met as a museum professional, the wonderful interactions you’ve had, the intense conversations about art or theatre or travel or cultural politics, the recommendations and suggestions and introductions you get from your coworkers on a regular basis. Even just as an intern, I have gotten to see artworks up close, to meet big-name artists, to talk with curators, collectors, and others and have great, stimulating conversations – this is what we get to do behind the scenes at the museum, or in the halls of academia, but there are tons of others – collectors, fans, museumgoers – who want that experience too. And if we show them a lecture, or a show, and then just kick them out, we are only providing half of that.

So, yes, I know better than most just how long hours you work. I know you’re tired, and I know you have to do it all over again the next day (or the next week). And I do very much sympathize. But, running an event and getting to relax afterwards and enjoy the reception, talk to people, be a member of those circles, is the best part of the job (that is, so long as the high-roller donors aren’t obnoxious pricks). Unless, that is, you prefer paperwork and coordinating logistics for a fun event over the fun event itself?

Look, I know what kinds of conversations go on behind closed doors, and we do all need to let off a little steam sometimes. But, please don’t go ranting in public (on the Internet) about your patrons being inconsiderate ignoramuses. We are not just randoms. We are not merely patrons or visitors, filling seats. We are not the anonymous masses, to be simply ushered in and then ushered out. We are artists, students, scholars, collectors, aspiring museum professionals, or just avid museumgoers & lovers of culture – in short, many of us are precisely the same kind of people that you, as a museum professional, as a lover of culture yourself, should want to mingle with, relax with, chat with. You might be surprised at who you’ll meet, the connections you’ll make, the conversations you’ll have. After all, isn’t that what a museum is all about? A space for people to come together and be part of something special, to feel welcome in a space where we can share in our love of art & culture.

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I’m looking forward to visiting the Metropolitan Museum within the next few days, chiefly to see their exhibit Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom, which promises to be a precious rare opportunity to see Korean National Treasures. But there’s always so much going on at the Met, and right now they also have a small exhibit on obelisks, in conjunction with the upcoming conservation of the so-called Cleopatra’s Needle, which stands just outside the museum in Central Park. Allison Meier of Hyperallergic.com posted this fascinating review today (complete with lots of pictures):

When Cleopatra’s Needle was commissioned by Pharaoh Thumose III around 1450 BCE for the Heliopolis sun temple, the island that would be Manhattan was mostly woodlands. Yet through an unlikely journey the 69-foot, 220-ton length of red granite would arrive in 1880 in New York City and become one of the icons of Central Park. Now the obelisk is needing a little care after centuries of movement and decay, and in anticipation of the Central Park Conservancy’s Spring 2014 conservation project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition on the obelisk, which rests just outside its walls.

Cleopatra’s Needle actually isn’t just an exhibition on that one ancient artifact, but a small exploration of obelisks as a whole, from their symbolism of the sun in ancient Egypt, to monuments of power for Rome, to connections to the past in the Renaissance, to their proliferation through Victorian cemeteries and Egyptomania. The exhibition is only two small galleries, but it still gives a rather thorough overview of the major points of obelisk lore. …

Read more at Hyperallergic.

Photo my own, taken Dec 19, 2013.

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Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador of the United States to Japan, traveled to the Imperial Palace this past Tuesday to formally present her credentials to the Emperor.

What I find incredibly interesting is the manner in which she traveled to the palace. In a horse-drawn carriage that looks like it could be straight out of the Meiji period, complete with horsemen and footmen in gloriously anachronistic dress. Is this typical? Is this standard? Have all US ambassadors, or all ambassadors from any country, to Japan, traveled to offer their credentials in this same manner?

It’s an Imperial carriage, as indicated by the gold chrysanthemum crest on the sides; Kennedy, like Ulysses S. Grant more than 130 years ago, is being received and welcomed like royalty. So, that’s certainly interesting, and I’m sure there’s something to be said for Japanese attitudes towards JFK and the Kennedy family. I’d love to see that something said, explained out, by someone more thoroughly familiar with the subject. Maybe comparisons to Grant’s visit in 1879, or descriptions of the history & tradition of the ceremony surrounding previous ambassadors’ presentations of their credentials. Instead, I am somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to see that, of the admittedly few news articles I have read on the event, none make even the vaguest attempt to address the history of this practice, or its symbolism or significance. What political/diplomatic symbolic message is Japan sending to its citizens, to the world, to Ms. Kennedy, by having her ride in this sort of carriage? What does it mean, what does it signify, indicate, or represent, that this is done in this style, in this manner, rather than any other form? What message does it send that this ritual is draped so extensive in the aesthetics and forms not of any other period, but specifically of the Meiji (or perhaps Taishô) period?

I love ritual and performance, tradition and culture, and I love that they’re not doing this in an utterly post-war late 20th century sort of way. Black Towncar, everyone in suits, whatever. Boring. And, I absolutely understand why they wouldn’t have Ms. Kennedy ride in, for example, a more traditional Japanese palanquin. Not only does that send totally the wrong message about Japan’s modernity, but, there is no way that a palanquin ride is comfortable. Not to mention that any kind of palanquin, sedan chair, or rickshaw would be just asking for accusations of Orientalism on Ms. Kennedy’s part, and rightfully so, as it would so easily resemble and be compared to images of Western women (and men) riding around 19th century Japan, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, etc., in such conveyances. Thankfully, those involved seem to recognize the discursive dangers inherent in such an option and have avoided them.

Image from the Daily Mail. (c) AFP / Getty Images.

However, Meiji was a period when Japan was doing its best to emulate the Western powers, in a wide variety of ways, in order to prove itself modern, including the adoption of European diplomatic/political protocols and elite/aristocratic material culture. “Look at us, we’ve got horse-drawn carriages! And floofy hats! And these cool waistcoats! Look at us, being modern! Just like you!” Except that today, these protocols appear a full 100 years out of date. Or at least they do to an American eye; I guess I can’t really speak to what a Brit might think, given the period style of much of the ritual & ceremony that goes on over there. Are we still not past that feeling of a need to prove ourselves “modern”?

Furthermore, by recalling Meiji, this recalls a period which, for all its many positive and laudable attributes, was also a period characterized by political structures and culture which directly laid the groundwork for the ultra-nationalist, imperialist, militarist, and expansionist politics & culture of the 1930s-1945.

Of course, such associations are only one possible interpretation. I am merely playing around with some of the possible connections that might be drawn. … I have no doubt that all in all this was simply meant in order to add an additional layer of pomp and circumstance, of aristocratic tradition, and, for all the potential suggestions of absurdity, or of negative connotations, there are some wonderful resonances with, again, for example, the visit of Gen. Grant, drawing a wonderful link to the past, and recalling a time when the material culture of politics & diplomacy was considerably less blah.

Image from NBC News. (c) Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AFP – Getty Images

I eagerly look forward to a more scholarly in-depth analysis, perhaps from an art historian. Japan Focus?

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