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君の名は

Kimi no na ha is the biggest movie in Japan right now. It’s one of the top five highest-grossing Japanese films of all time, and I believe is well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing anime film ever, though it hasn’t approached Spirited Away’s 30+ billion yen take just yet. Not that box office is really an accurate measure, given that ticket prices have increased, and also that the film is still being shown in theatres now, some six months after its release, giving it plenty of time to accumulate greater returns. Also, that box office gross (revenues) is a whole separate thing from the actual artistic or cinematographic quality of a film. But, in any case, the point is, everyone is talking about it. So, of course I had to see it.

SPOILER WARNING – not talking about specific plot spoilers yet, but if you want to be clear of even hearing my general impressions (good, great, amazing), so as to not have pre-figured expectations going into it, stop here.

Also, a notice that this post is written somewhat in a stream of thought fashion. It comes mostly from what I jotted down in my notebook right after seeing the movie, and I haven’t reworked it too overmuch. So, it’s a bit repetitive, and perhaps a bit scattered. This isn’t a review, or a critique, or an analysis – just a few thoughts, a few reactions.

I don’t watch anime very much anymore, and so when I do, I am almost always stunned by the beauty of the art. Anime can be so much cleaner, brighter, more vividly colorful than real life. So beautiful, with its perfectly blue skies and perfectly white clouds, perfectly clean complexions and clothes and building facades and everything… Not to mention the way they do lighting in many anime – looking at the trailer, the way the sun rays strike things, the way lights glow in the night… So, even if for that alone – and also based on the trailer – I went into this expecting something truly amazing. And yet, interestingly, weirdly, for most of the duration of the film, I wasn’t so taken. Which isn’t to say the art isn’t gorgeous, or that the story isn’t original and compelling, enough. Because they are. I just wasn’t wowed and amazed, for whatever reason.

And yet. And yet, I left the theatre shaking. I can’t even say what exactly I was thinking about at that moment. It wasn’t even about thought – what the movie made me consider, made me think about – so much as it was about emotion. I was moved. What is it about this movie that had such an impact on me? It’s like one of those times when you’re sad and you don’t even know why.

I do, generally, tend to get rather taken in by movies, by their mood, and their world. I don’t know if I am more sensitive in this respect than others, or if I’m just normal – an average person succumbing to the highly engineered emotional manipulations of the entertainment industry. Of course, I’d prefer to think the former, that I’m somehow more attuned to art, to the creative. After all, this is what drew me to History and Art History to begin with – as we walk through life, every day, art and design are there in everything we do, and they have an impact, immersing us in a world of aesthetics. Every day, the world we inhabit feels like this kind of place or that kind of place, and all the more so historical periods we read about, or the worlds we experience through books and movies. Each has a particular mood or aesthetic, a particular feel or atmosphere.

And anime perhaps all the more so. In Kimi no Na ha and so many other anime, we get a fantasy version of modern-day Tokyo, and of elsewhere (in this case, Gifu). A world so much like our own, and yet aesthetically different. Cleaner, brighter, with more optimism, even if it is based in very mundane problems – even if the characters still have to go to class, and take exams, and deal with interpersonal tensions. Even with these problems, we feel as though there is something truly good, clean, bright, pure, to protect. That there is hope. That there is something wonderfully positive and good in the everyday lives, the everyday world that already exists. And thus, when the characters have to deal with far greater, non-mundane, life-threatening or even world-threatening problems, they encounter them within this space of being the protagonist, of there being real love, real friendship, real drama. Real goodness to protect, and real evil to defeat. Something I am finding it harder and harder to believe in, as I continue to get older, more world-weary, more cynical. And in these anime, it is because of that goodness, that brightness, that losses, deaths, destruction are felt all the more strongly, perhaps. Or, perhaps, then again, there is also an aspect of that even when things are lost or destroyed, it happens in a way that is somehow so much cleaner, more aesthetic, than if it were reality. And so the emotion, the sadness, though potentially powerful, is also purer, cleaner, in a way. …

This comes, too, from the fact that Kimi no Na ha, like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and like so many other anime series & films, centers on high school students as the main characters. It gives this impression of a very sunny, clean, bright, optimistic sort of life, and then as a viewer I feel this sort of dual reaction, a fine line between taking that directly as a very positive and happy thing, and being gladdened and uplifted by it, but then at the same time, feeling a sense of sadness, just a tinge of knowing of the deep pain of the potential loss of that youth, that innocence. Sadness at having lost my own youth; that if there ever were such happy days for me (I’m not sure there were – reality is always more dreary than nostalgia or idealism), they’re past. Whether this sadness at the inevitable loss of such beauty and happiness is precisely the mono no aware we’re always talking about when talking about Japanese art from a thousand years earlier, I don’t know. And whether that’s something inherent in the work – whether Makoto Shinkai or anyone else involved intentionally sculpted and included this aspect of mono no aware – or whether it’s something in me, something I’m bringing to it, because of my age and experiences and perspective on life, on youth, etc., I’m not sure. My sadness at knowing that my own life does not, or can not, live up to the brightness, the sunniness, the glorious wonderful experiences of what we see in the movies… Which isn’t to say that these characters don’t have their problems, because they very clearly do. Indeed, very serious, major, difficult, emotional, stressful problems beyond anything I have ever dealt with. But, still, somehow, even despite these incredible, stressful, difficulties and dangers, I cannot help but envy these characters something. Their youth; their optimism; their centrality in truly being the protagonists of the story, perhaps, even if they themselves don’t know it; their living in a world so beautiful and so full of hope and promise, where everything is so clean and bright and pretty, where even destruction and loss is aesthetic in a way it just isn’t (or isn’t always, not necessarily) here. I envy them something, and so maybe that’s part of why this film had me so fucked up that I was on the verge of crying into my fried rice, as I grabbed dinner in the mall before heading home for the night.

I was very much moved by this film, interestingly, oddly, even as I simultaneously on a more cerebral (rather than emotional) level was somehow not too impressed as I was watching it. Looking back on it, I’m still struggling to decide whether I feel the plot was brilliant or totally formulaic, whether the art itself was stunningly original, or just more of the same. Maybe I just don’t watch enough anime to know the difference.

But another thing I would like to touch upon is the way gender is represented in this film.

CAUTION: MORE SPOILERS AHEAD. REAL PLOT SPOILERS THIS TIME.

Others may feel differently, and I’d be curious to read how some of my friends more actively directly engaged in the feminist / gender studies blogosphere “read” this film. But, to my eye, it felt like the movie really didn’t harp on issues of gender(ed) difference nearly as much as it might have; not nearly as much as many Hollywood teen comedy “Freaky Friday” style films do. I don’t know whether to say this is explicitly definitively a “feminist” or “progressive” film in this respect, or Makoto Shinkai an explicitly feminist or progressive director/writer, but it was certainly refreshing for me.

No one gives Taki (the guy) shit for being too girlish when it’s really Mizuha (the girl) in his body, and Mizuha isn’t portrayed as being overly macho or crude or anything when it’s Taki in her body. Taki himself, as a character, regardless of whether he’s himself or when he’s in Mizuha’s body, doesn’t manspread, doesn’t boast and bluster, doesn’t do most of the things we might associate with an obnoxiously macho/masculine type. Or maybe that’s just my American perspective – maybe he’s not so radical, but is just closer towards typical for Japanese norms. But, still, the movie doesn’t spend any time at all on the awkwardness of either character in figuring out how to properly wear one another’s clothes, for example. Maybe it would have been too crude for a movie to even begin to have Mizuha (as Taki) trying to figure out what to do about a boner, or to have Taki (as Mizuha) trying to figure out how to handle a period, but even still, we don’t even see them struggling to figure out how to tie a necktie, how to wear a skirt or a bra. This shows a maturity and quality level, I think, of the film overall, a higher bar than the crude comedy, but it also suggests a sort of attitude of non-judgement of what men or women should be expected to know or not know, or to be able to do or not, that we as an audience should be cool with the idea that Taki (as Mizuha) knows how to do hair and makeup, and that no one should fun of Mizuha (as Taki) for knowing how to sew and patch up clothing. To a great extent, I think it might be argued, the film really focuses on these two as different people, and not as different genders – perhaps even on these two as rather similar people, as not only connected but perhaps as in some way the same person, the same soul – not quite that, but that gender doesn’t matter so much as simply being people.

I also quite like that the two don’t end up dating, or in love – or at least, that it’s left open and ambiguous and isn’t stated explicitly. Again, I’m not going to argue that this is explicitly a more feminist or more progressive way of doing things. I’m increasingly not a fan of the idea that there is any one single way to be “better”, the one single correct way to make a properly progressive or feminist work. But I do like that this film goes against the tried and tired trope of that when two people have a “destined” “connection,” that it is necessarily a romantic connection. Really, when you think about it, it’s kind of sad and horrible that it should feel so radical for two people to have such a strong connection and have it not be a romantic one. Not everything in life is about love and romance. Can’t we be destined to meet someone who just becomes a friend, a partner in adventures and travails, without it necessarily being romantic? So long as people are dreaming up imagined romantic relationships between any and all fictional characters – Sherlock and Watson, Xavier and Magneto, the giant squid in the lake and Hogwarts castle itself, whatever – here’s my “head canon”: Taki and Mizuha go on to continue to lead their own separate lives, meeting up maybe once a month, or maybe more or less frequent than that, call it friendship, or call it something more akin to a sibling relationship, call it some special kind of friendship, whatever you want to, but… just looking out for one another, interested in how one another are doing, protecting and helping one another, talking about that strange bond they seem to still share, and how each of them is strangely so much like the other in some ways, yet totally different in other ways… just talking in coffee shops, just meeting up from time to time. Talking about what they can remember of those past shared experiences, and of what happened in her hometown, and how people are recovering. Maybe taking Taki out to Gifu to show him around, and talking about what memories it stirs in him. I have a number of friends who I only see in person once every few years, but who I still feel I just “click” with so well, people I feel I have such a connection with; people I’m so excited to talk to and to spend time with, but who don’t need to be my partner in anything physical, nor my one and only above all others, nor my partner in everyday cohabitation. Just my friend, a friend with whom I have a particular history and connection, a friend whose adventures in art, career, and travel I’m particularly interested in following… or a friend with whom I love traveling but don’t catch up with or see otherwise all that much. Why should every relationship have to be a romantic one?

Returning just briefly to the matter of how the film shows Tokyo in a bright, optimistic, exciting sort of way, I think this is just what I needed at that moment, personally, emotionally. Because this makes me all the more excited to be moving to Tokyo in March, and in so doing creates an opportunity, a space, for me to have spent the following several weeks rediscovering what makes being in Okinawa right now so exciting (and I did indeed spend that time rediscovering that, and enjoying time in Okinawa). It would have sucked to have the movie get me all excited about Tokyo, and then not have anything much doing here, to just be quiet, and to sit and sulk, or something. But, instead, timing worked out quite wonderfully that just as I was getting all excited about Tokyo (as a result of watching this film), my girlfriend came to visit from the States, and we spent an incredible two weeks together, exploring Naha and also driving up to Nago for a couple of days… Okinawa really is fun, and complex, and digging deeper into this with her was wonderful. Of course, the flip side is also true – I’m glad the movie got me excited about Tokyo, because it would have sucked to be too comfortable and happy here, and to not have that excitement for the next step. Anyway, that’s on a more personal note, relating to my own particular current situation.

Still thinking about maybe trying to go see this a second time. Then again, I still haven’t seen Rogue One.

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Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002).

The Human Tradition in Modern Japan offers a refreshingly and intriguingly different perspective on the history of early modern and modern Japan. Through biographies of figures representative of perspectives, groups, or types largely absent from the standard historical narratives, the volume contributes to a more nuanced, complex, and diversified understanding of Japan’s history. By describing how conditions and developments of the Edo, Meiji, and later periods impacted, for example, court ladies, samurai women, Okinawans, and middle-ranking officials in a provincial domain, these biographies further challenge the ability of those standard narratives to present themselves as representing the “whole” story.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya, a daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, based on the princess’ diary, is of particular value in (at least) two ways. One, it indicates something of the activities and lives of members of the imperial court during a time when the court, and court aristocracy, had very little direct impact on political affairs, and are thus very often almost entirely absent from summarizing narratives. Our standard narrative of the Edo period, e.g. if one were to summarize the entire period in a lecture or two or three, might mention the court only so far as to say that, unlike in earlier periods, the court had effectively no power in the Edo period, and largely simply carried on in the cultural and ritual pursuits they had pursued previously. When asked about the role of the emperor during the Edo period, I myself often comment that the emperor did not leave Kyoto, and hardly left the palace, for a considerable span in the 17th-19th centuries. Only in a discussion of the period more centered on Kyoto, and on cultural activities (e.g. poetry circles), among a limited set of other aspects, might one expect to see the court aristocrats achieve any prominence in the narrative. Yet, just what did court nobles, and the imperial family, do during this time? Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya reveals, not in vague broadstrokes, but in evocative vivid details, the familial and cultural activities, and trials and tribulations of court politics of an imperial princess’ life. We learn that leading members of the five sekke families could expect to pass through certain high court positions (e.g. Kanpaku, Udaijin, Sadaijin), and that these rotated between the families in a standard enough fashion that one would feel directly slighted when passed over for such a promotion. We also learn that members of the court were entrusted, or at least saw themselves as having been entrusted, with maintaining and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors, an active responsibility importantly different in character from the passive continuation of these traditions we might have assumed – that is, the idea that the courtiers simply continued these traditions because that is what they did.

A second great contribution of Segawa Seigle’s essay is in bringing to the forefront the personal, emotional aspect of individuals’ lives, something all too often overlooked in history, often because of the inability to glean it from the documents, and thus easily forgotten. It is one thing to speak of court ladies, for example, as a group or as a type, offering generalizing descriptions of aspects of their lifestyles, their place in society, and so forth. Even in biographies, we often focus in on a chronology of key moments in their lives, noting the dates at which they married, had children, moved cities, or took up different ranks or positions, perhaps stopping at times to give more detailed treatment to certain political events. We see this in both Roberts’ biography of Mori Yoshiki, in which several pages are devoted to discussion of a particular murder, and in Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, where various personal political conflicts are described in some detail; and that is of course of great value as well, illuminating interesting and important aspects, respectively, of the functioning of systems of justice under the Tokugawa, and key social-political developments in Okinawa’s Meiji period history. But, it is quite another to do what Segawa Seigle does here, relating to the reader, by virtue of the fortune of having Shinano-miya’s personal diary, her thoughts and emotions, bringing to life the emotional humanity of the individual, and by extension inspiring, or challenging, us to think about the individual humanity of all historical figures. This is a major theme, too, of Anne Allison’s recent book, Precarious Japan, in which she emphasizes that economically and socially precarious positions – e.g. lacking in job security; financial savings or retirement funds; or familial, corporate, or governmental safety nets for social welfare – have not only economic and social impacts, but profound impacts emotionally and otherwise upon one’s sense of identity, of self-worth, and so forth, and that these need to be recognized as of profound significance.

Walthall does this to an extent as well in her essay for the volume, on Nishimiya Hide, a lady-in-waiting to the wife of a prominent daimyō, who after the Meiji Restoration struggles to get by. Nishimiya’s story also serves as suggestive of what many others likely faced in the early Meiji period, a period of incredible social, political, economic, and cultural upheaval. While we may have some conception, in broad strokes, of which types of people were “winners” and “losers” as the results of these changes, there are many who fall through the cracks. Nishimiya’s biography, in fact, makes one curious to read about others’ experiences at this time. In her biography, we see someone who, after passing an interview and being hired by a high-ranking daimyō family, enjoyed a rather stable and comfortable life, but who lost very nearly everything when the bakuhan system was dismantled. One can easily imagine that there were many of similar station who fared better, many worse, and many similarly; like Dusinberre’s treatment of the town of Kaminoseki, Nishimiya may not be “typical” or “representative,” but she is certainly suggestive or evocative of other cases. One is inspired to wonder about other cases, other stories from this period. We know of certain merchants, and certain daimyō who did quite well, and that in broad strokes there were many farmers who did not. What happened to other daimyō, other merchants? What happened to someone of similar rank and position to Mori Yoshiki? Nishimiya tried her hand for a time at applying her experience in refined arts and elite housekeeping to open a geisha house; in her case this does not last, but one cannot help but wonder about other cases where it might have succeeded. How many individuals from samurai or court noble families succeeded in transferring their abilities in the traditional arts (and/or in aspects of traditional lifestyle, such as Nishimiya’s experience in serving her lady) into successful employment or commercial pursuits in the modern period? At the very least, despite her geisha house not lasting very long, Nishimiya’s willingness to go that route, and to have her son become a leatherworker, is a dramatic indication of shifts in attitudes, as one allows oneself to (or is forced to) put aside “traditional” attitudes about “low” things that one of such elite birth could not imagine being involved in.

Jahana Noboru (left) and Narahara Shigeru (right), as portrayed in Ishikawa Mao’s photo installation “Dai-Ryûkyû shashin emaki” (2014).

Gregory Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, in addition to simply bringing Okinawa into the story of modern Japan, also serves as a good example of a point made by Anne Walthall in her introduction to the volume. Human lives and careers happen in fits and starts, and we should not allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into thinking that any person’s life takes place in a smooth, linear fashion, with all major occurrences prefiguring later key accomplishments. Jahana is remembered today as a hero, a champion of peasants’ rights and a defender of Okinawan interests against the predations of both government officials & corporate interests from mainland Japan, and of the former Ryukyuan aristocracy. Yet, as Smits points out, citing the work of other scholars, several years prior to Jahana’s famous stand-off against Narahara Shigeru in 1897-1898, and against the aristocratic interests of the Kōdōkai c. 1900, Jahana in 1894 was perhaps rather dismissive of peasants’ attitudes and demands, and resentful of their questioning his expertise, as someone trained at the top agricultural college in the country.

Biographies such as these contribute to our understanding of Japanese history in a number of profound and significant ways, providing diversity and challenging the national-level version of narratives of historical developments, and in doing so problematizing generalizing notions of “the Japanese people,” as well as inviting us to consider the personal and emotional, human, aspect of historical experience, and providing us with valuable details on specific cases and situations – even beyond these unquestionably important broader, historiographical aspects, these biographies also teach us much about the material and logistical culture of the court, of samurai life, and so forth, and about the names, dates, and events of Mito and Tosa domains, the Imperial court, the city of Tokyo, and of Meiji period Okinawa.

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Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012).

Amy Stanley’s Selling Women provides a much-needed counterpoint to discussions of Edo period prostitution which focus on the pleasure quarters primarily, or solely, as a romantic(ized) site of cultural dynamism – a font of popular arts, fashion, and attitudes. Indeed, the significance of the pleasure districts upon painting, prints, publishing, music, dance, theater, fashion, and literature cannot be understated. Places like the Yoshiwara were in fact profoundly influential upon Edo period popular culture, and upon much of what has since come to be regarded as “traditional” Japanese culture, as described by Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her book on the Yoshiwara, Eiko Ikegami in Bonds of Civility, and in countless other works on ukiyo-e and Edo period popular culture. However, the suffering and exploitation of the women in these districts, the functioning of prostitution across the archipelago, and attitudes towards prostitution have very much been under-discussed in English-language scholarship.

Stanley’s Selling Women represents a powerful step in rectifying this. Though prostitutes were officially seen as marginal people in the official status hierarchies of the day, along with other types of entertainers, Selling Women clearly shows they were hardly marginal at all in the economy, local culture, and everyday society of many villages, towns, and cities throughout the archipelago. Moving beyond the Yoshiwara, Stanley discusses and contrasts prostitution in a variety of different spaces of early modern Japan, including the big cities of Edo and Nagasaki, a small mining town in Tōhoku, the ports of Niigata and of the Inland Sea, and post-stations along the Nakasendō, each at a different time within the period.

In the process, we also see something of how women, in general, were regarded in society at the time, as wives, as daughters, and sometimes as property, and how they were treated, economically and legally, as a result. By illuminating the logics underpinning women’s (and especially prostitutes’) circumstances in Edo period Japan, showing how fundamental assumptions and attitudes particular to that historical period contributed to a distinctive set of repercussions, Stanley makes a valuable contribution to a more global, more diverse, conception of women’s history, and to scholarly discourses on sex, women’s role in society, and so forth as well.

Right: An image of Nagasaki yûjo entertaining Chinese clients in Nagasaki, from the ”Nagasaki meishô zue”, c. 1820.

As Stanley explains, prostitutes in early modern Japan had the most advantage in defense against exploitation or ill treatment, ironically, when representing themselves as passive victims, and when having someone else speak for them. This was perhaps most powerful in Nagasaki, where girls of the Maruyama and Yoriai districts, who chiefly served European and Chinese clients in the foreign districts of the city, maintained close ties with their families and local communities. Parents or guardians could speak on a girl’s behalf, presenting her as a dutiful and filial daughter, working and suffering in order to help provide for her family. That prostitution contributed positively to moral order or the social fabric, or was at least a necessary evil, is a recurrent theme throughout the places and times Stanley discusses in the chapters of Selling Women. Among other arguments, brothel owners, local officials, and others argued that prostitution provided an outlet for men’s sexual urges (thus protecting village daughters from men acting on those urges), and also that it was essential in many cases (especially in port towns and post-stations) for the prosperity of the town, as it brought travelers and traders who would otherwise bring their trade and custom to other towns instead, thus dooming the town to economic decline or collapse. The ability to provide for one’s family by engaging in prostitution, especially if it means rescuing one’s parents from poverty, was also often seen as a virtuous and self-sacrificing act on the part of the girl. As such, protecting prostitution – and thus protecting the economic prosperity of the town, and the wellbeing of the prostitutes’ parents – is often framed as “compassionate” or “benevolent governance” on the part of officials, a key element of Tokugawa Neo-Confucian attitudes about government. Stanley shows, however, that at other times and places in the archipelago, however, especially later in the Edo period, commercialism grew more influential, and many brothel owners, as well as local officials, began to appeal less to the idea that prostitution served a valuable moral or social function, and more to the simple commercialist idea that businessmen had a right to a certain degree of freedom in how they pursued business. Producers supplied purchasable sex because consumers demanded it, these men asserted, and all was done fairly and properly according to contracts and agreed-upon (if unspoken) rules of the business.

An important and interesting distinction raised by Stanley throughout the book, highlighting differences from modern/Western discourses on sex, is that in early modern Japan, prostitution was not stigmatized for the same sorts of reasons that it has historically been (and still is) in our own society. Japanese did not see sex itself, female sexuality, or promiscuity, as inherent evils. That a woman was unchaste, or even promiscuous, was not seen to make her “dirty” or otherwise undesirable, let alone sinful. What was seen as dangerous, distasteful, and problematic, on the other hand, was women acting independently, for their own personal monetary benefit. This was seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal social order, to Confucian relationships, and thus to community and society itself. The stigma against prostitution thus came primarily not from any association of sex itself as being stigmatizing, but rather from a Neo-Confucian morality which both opposed greed, and supported a patriarchal conception of women’s passive relationship to the men in her life (father, husband, employer) as rightful and appropriate. When women were seen not as self-sacrificing dutiful daughters, but as profit-seeking independent women who sought to entice young men away from their work, their families, and their wallets, this, Stanley argues, was the key source of stigma and attitudes against prostitution.

Meiji period hand-colored photo of courtesans on display in the Yoshiwara.

Another significant trend seen in Selling Women is the commodification of women. Whereas in some times and places, such as Nagasaki in the mid-Edo period, prostitutes were treated much like full subjects and members of the community, with, Stanley asserts, prostitution being seen as little different from any other job, in others, such as the early 17th century northern Japanese mining town of Innai, or the highly commercialized networks of trading women from brothel to brothel across the mid-19th century Inland Sea, women were essentially objects, owned by their families or by brothel masters, to be bought, sold, loaned out, or moved about as men wished. The commodification, or objectification, of women is key to women’s exploitation and ill treatment both historically and today, and so in addressing this issue, Selling Women becomes an eye-opening introduction too, in some respects, to some of the most key issues in women’s history and feminist studies more broadly, bringing the reader insights into how these issues play out beyond their own place and time (the 21st century Western world / US), informing about early modern Japan while at the same time containing great relevance beyond simply that which pertains to the early modern Japanese case.

That Stanley addresses multiple different places, and types of places, across the archipelago and across the Edo period, makes her study far more valuable and meaningful than it might have been otherwise. The Yoshiwara cannot stand as representative of prostitution throughout the realm, but neither could a case study of a post-station, mining town, or port town alone appropriately represent the archipelago-wide situation and thus remedy that problem. In this sense, Selling Women could serve as a model, or as inspiration, for other works, which might similarly bring a more regionally diverse approach to any of a myriad of other topics. Certainly in my own work I intend to examine how the Ryukyuan missions processed through the streets, and were received, not only in Edo, and not only in Tōkaidō post-stations, but in Kagoshima and Inland Sea port towns as well. In doing so, Stanley provides a much more illuminating and informative treatment of how prostitution manifested itself, across the realm, than perhaps any other previous work.

However, her approach also creates some difficulties, in that by spanning both space and time, the book compares apples and oranges, and fails to provide a clear indication of which differences manifest across time, and which across space. In Chapter Four, village headmen and the like in villages surrounding Kantō area post-stations are shown to have seen prostitution in the post-stations as a distraction pulling young men away from the farms, as a waste of money, and as a threat to social order and to village culture otherwise. Meanwhile, Chapter Five illustrates that urban/commercial town officials in port towns in the Inland Sea encouraged the opposite, seeing prostitution as essential to the prosperity of the port. It is laudable that Stanley shows both townsmen and villager perspectives, silencing the voices of neither. However, her case studies leave unclear the ways in which Inland Sea port officials’ attitudes aligned (or not) with those of the post-station officials the Kantō villagers were opposing, and likewise, how much the people of fishing villages in the Inland Sea might have been comparable in their views and desires to those of the Kantō farming villages. Similarly, Chapter One describes the all-but-complete commodification of women in the mining town of Innai, in northern Japan, in the early decades of the Edo period, before the reach of Tokugawa legal & administrative authority had quite extended into such an area. Yet it is left fairly unclear whether the same took place at that time throughout the archipelago, or only in the north, or perhaps even only in some towns and villages of the north and not others. As women are presented as more commodified again towards the very end of the Edo period, in the Inland Sea ports of Chapter Five, here too we are left wondering whether this is something distinctive of the Inland Sea cross-temporally, or distinctive of more archipelago-wide developments by the 1850s-1860s.

A view of the Inland Sea port town of Mitarai.

The question of the representativeness of each of Stanley’s cases, and the extent to which they can stand to inform us as to circumstances in other port towns or post stations, recalls an issue we have wrestled with throughout this reading list, perhaps most eloquently addressed by Martin Dusinberre in defense of his discussion of Kaminoseki. No case can be truly representative. Reality is more complicated than that, variation is everywhere, and no study could truly even begin to approach representative comprehensiveness without doing an even more thorough examination of a far greater number of cases. None of the places described by Stanley in this book can truly stand as indicative that all other post-stations, or all other mining towns, were just the same. Indeed, she even notes that, for example, some domains (such as Hiroshima) largely looked the other way and tolerated prostitution in their ports, while others (such as Takamatsu) were far stricter on prohibiting it outside of entertainment districts such as those associated with shrines and temples. Yet, while Mitarai might not be able to stand for Murotsu, nor the Kantō area post-stations of the Nakasendō for those of the Tōkai region along the Tōkaidō, some general trends and recurrent themes are evident.

Prostitution in Japan is argued to have grown chiefly in the big cities in the 17th century, before expanding out to provincial villages and towns in a significant way only beginning in the mid-18th century. While Stanley’s often conflicting examples remind us to always acknowledge the great degree of variation which existed, still there are enough similarities between the cases to allow us to generalize about what likely took place, if not in any one particular locale untouched by Stanley, then still about what “likely” “often” happened in “many” cases. Officials often prioritized economic prosperity over protecting the social order, claiming this to be compassionate & benevolent governance and to be a defense of the economic well-being of the people, even as they ignored the suffering of a sub-section of those people: their female subjects sold into, essentially, sex slavery. Indentured servitude was represented as dutiful and self-sacrificing, and not as an affront to women’s personhood and autonomy, and assertion of that autonomy on the part of the woman was seen as socially destructive, and as deriving from selfishness and greed. As a prostitute, she was meant to be an outlet for others’ desires, not to possess or act upon her own, and since female passivity was seen as a virtue, a woman could not assert her own agency without compromising her own moral position. Though one of Stanley’s key purposes in this book is to counter the romantic vision of the Yoshiwara put out by much other scholarship, and thus she does emphasize the difficulties and suffering of women forced into prostitution, she also notes beneficial or progressive aspects of cultural developments. She notes, for example, that even in the case of Inland Sea ports in the 1860s, where girls were legally bound to their contracts, and to the unspoken “rules of the teahouses,” and where a brothel manager could transfer a girl to another establishment as far as several provinces away without much room for moral appeal by her parents, and indeed even in most prostitutes’ circumstances throughout the archipelago and across the period, even in these cases they still were treated as something more than purely property with monetary value. By contrast, in the mining town of Innai, a man frequently could not petition for debt forgiveness unless he had sold his wife and daughter along with all of his other possessions.

Thus, we are presented with both a handful of focused and informative case studies, and considerable overarching general understandings. Selling Women goes far beyond what (almost?) anyone else has previously done, examining prostitution and attitudes towards women across numerous different places and circumstances across the early modern Japanese archipelago, and while noting trends across time. Her study shows how many of the same issues which plague women in other times and places throughout world history played out in Edo period Japan, both similarly, and in distinctive ways particular to this case.

Public domain and Creative Commons images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.

仮宅の後朝 (Scene in the Yoshiwara) by Utamaro, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.

To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.

So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,

“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…

Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.

An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.

On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.

And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.

The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.

Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.

One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.

Further, Young writes:

Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.

It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.

Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:

In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.

Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?

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This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.

Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.

I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.

But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.

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In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.

She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.

But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,

There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …

Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)

I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?

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Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that

“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.

A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.

Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.

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1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.

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I will be going to New York for a couple weeks a little later in the summer, so expect more exhibit reviews at that time. But in the meantime, let us return to our discussions of Pacific Island history. Today, reviews / responses to a few different essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts (Robert Borofsky, ed.), which I introduced a couple weeks ago.

James Belich, “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest”
Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, “Theorizing Māori Women’s Lives”
Greg Dening, “Possessing Tahiti”

These three essays from Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, by Greg Dening, James Belich, and Patricia Grimshaw & Helen Morton, all deal in one way or another with the mythologizing of history in Westerners’ accounts, and the difficulties or dangers of attempting to understand historical events based on those accounts. Often, Westerners’ accounts are the only written sources we have on a certain topic or event, highly detailed and written in a style which purports to be objective. However, as these three essays discuss, these accounts are heavily colored by racial, national(ist), and other ideologies or attitudes of the day, and by considerable misunderstandings or misinterpretations of islander attitudes, intentions, or actions. Oral histories, among other forms, can help us attempt to reconstruct events or encounters from the native point of view, but these have their limitations as well.

Right: Hone Heke cuts down the flagstaff on Flagstaff Hill at Kororāreka, in 1845. Public domain image from a 1908 book, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In “The New Zealand Wars and the Myth of Conquest,” James Belich describes how Victorian British attitudes about race and empire contributed to skewed understandings of the British wars with the Māori, both at that time (1845-1872), and down through the 20th century to today, in popular conceptions of the history. In particular, as he explains, the British narrative takes British victory as inevitable, downplaying or ignoring British defeats or setbacks, and emphasizing or exaggerating the extent of British victories. He points out that this was systematic, that is to say, thorough, in its impact throughout British understandings of these wars, but also that it was not deliberate or conspiratorial (261). Rather, this skewing of the narrative comes as a result of attitudes of the time. “Savages” were believed to lack higher mental faculties, and thus it was unthinkable, in the most literal sense of that word, to attribute British defeats or setbacks to tactical skill or strategic intelligence on the part of the Māori. As a result, various explanations or excuses were employed to justify Māori victories. One such technique was to exaggerate or simply over-estimate the numbers of Māori, following a logic that if the British were defeated, it must have been because they were outnumbered. In other words, they judged the number of opponents based on the outcome, rather than by any more objective count; when bodies were counted after a battle, it was often assumed that some additional number had been carried away from the battlefield, lost in a lake, or were otherwise uncountable (262).

Māori were also represented as part of the natural landscape, just one prominent element of a natural environment inhospitable to Europeans and which had to be tamed, alongside the flora, fauna, topology, and climate. Their strength was often attributed to animalistic or otherwise natural advantages; British accounts acknowledge Māori courage, but speak of the islanders as burrowing like rabbits, or possessing the ability to survive multiple gunshots to the head. Where islanders’ use of structural fortifications or thoughtful tactics could not be ignored, it was attributed to their borrowing or learning from European models, since it was believed that natives could not possibly think of such things on their own. Finally, in some cases, the British accounts simply scapegoat their own commanders, attributing British defeats or setbacks to incompetence on the part of the British commanders, rather than admit aptitude on the part of the Māori. It is unclear precisely what sources Belich draws upon in attempting to construct a more balanced or “objective” account of these events, including for example seeking more “accurate” numbers for the size of Māori forces, counteracting the exaggerations in the British accounts. Nevertheless, however, the idea that, in Belich’s words, “whatever their historical success, historiographically the British won the wars hands down,” helps us to understand at least one way in which the phenomenon of the dominance of “colonial(ist) knowledge” manifests itself.

Left: A Maori carving of Taranga giving birth to the god Maui. The carving a gift to the East-West Center from the head of a Maori delegation to Washington DC. Photo my own.

Patricia Grimshaw and Helen Morton, meanwhile, discuss Westerners’ accounts of Māori women’s lives and position in society in the early period of contact. Like Belich’s discussion of the depiction of native peoples as “savages,” a part of the natural environment (or natural history) of the place, and incapable of higher mental capacities, Grimshaw and Morton similarly present us with a familiar picture of Western impressions of non-Western women: in short, that they are oppressed by their native culture, that this oppression is a key sign of the oppressive and uncivilized character of that native culture, that women in Christian societies are freer and less oppressed, and that it is the Westerners’ aim, or obligation, to “rescue” these native women by bringing them “freedom” and “civilization.” Westerners’ accounts describe Māori women as quite outspoken and active in local affairs, including engagement in war councils and discussions and decisionmaking otherwise of the local community; women also accompanied men to meals and even on war expeditions. It seems it would be difficult, judging from this, at least from a 21st century feminist point of view, to argue that Māori women were particularly oppressed; yet, Westerners’ accounts emphasize their hard labor in the fields and otherwise (as if lower-class British women did not do heavy work), and in particular represent Māori women’s sexual promiscuity prior to marriage, and their supposed rapid loss of beauty and other youthful qualities following marriage as elements of a “degraded state,” and as signs of their oppression (282, passim). Grimshaw and Morton point out that this concern with women’s rapid aging and their “masculine” appearance and behavior does not reflect a genuine concern for women’s wellbeing as social or emotional individuals, however, so much as it does a preoccupation of many of the male writers with women’s sexuality. Women’s appearance is discussed as a measure of their sexual attractiveness to the white male observers, and is not truly a discussion of women’s health for their own sakes.

“The Natives of Otaheite [Tahiti] Attacking Captain Wallis the First Discoverer of That Island”. Date, artist, unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Greg Dening’s essay on “Possessing Tahiti” was of particular interest for me, as he describes the colorful and exciting events surrounding the first encounter between British sailors and the people of Tahiti, with particular attention paid to ritual performance & symbolic meaning, and to the question of Tahitians’ understandings or interpretations of these events. As the performance of political ritual is a central theme of my own research on Ryukyuan missions dispatched to Edo, Dening’s discussion of the symbolic meanings for both parties of particular actions and objects is of particular interest. As he describes, in addition to numerous other actions which took place during this encounter, the British planted a flag, as a performance of a ritual of claiming sovereignty, which the Tahitians then took and incorporated into their chief’s maro ura, a feathered girdle representing his own sovereignty or authority, and thus appropriating the British symbol for their own. In a sense, then, on some metaphorical or ritual level, both British and Tahitians had enacted the “possessing” of one another. I quite enjoy these sorts of interpretations of history, emphasizing symbolic discourses, as it adds layers of meanings, and brings events, acts, or cultural ways of being beyond the mundane, countering the view that political and economic concerns are the core of all that is “real,” and that much else is mere superstition. It is for these reasons that the scholarship of Timon Screech is also especially compelling, as he paints a picture of an Edo period Japan loaded with the kinds of added layers of meaning that make that time and place seem so much more romantic, colorful, and aesthetically or culturally infused than descriptions focusing on economic hardship, societal inequalities, and the more mundane details of economic logistics and political structures, would make it seem. Yet, at the same time, such “magical realist” interpretations can be a bit hard to swallow, at times.

I have already discussed the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over whether the Hawaiians (mis)understood Captain Cook himself to be the god Lono. Dening’s discussion of a similar phenomenon in the encounter between the Native Tahitians and the crew of the HMS Dolphin is thus also of interest, as I attempt to gain an understanding, or appreciation, of Native Tahitians’ “metaphoric” view of such events. When the HMS Dolphin sailed into Matavai Bay, they were met by thousands of islanders in hundreds of canoes, who threw plantain branches into the water, danced provocatively, offered small gifts of food, and made sacrifices of pigs, before beginning to hurl pebbles at the British ship; imagining this to be an attack – that is, an attempt by the islanders to defend themselves or their island against the newcomers – the British responded with gunfire. Dening contends that this was not, in the Tahitians’ view, such a defensive action, but rather a ritual of welcoming, certainly coordinated and dramatized, and possibly invented for that rather novel occasion. Further, he suggests that the man identified by British accounts as possibly being some kind of “king of the island” was likely not a political or military leader at all, but rather an arioi, a special sort of priest of the god ‘Oro. Dening suggests, therefore, that all of this was seen by the Tahitians not as a defensive battle against a human “other,” but rather as an act performed for/against a god. He writes that “the arrival of the Dolphin was the occasion of another ‘Oro incarnation or materialization and all the Tahitian associations of sovereignty and sacrifice, of colony and coming from ‘beyond the sky,’ of alliance and title, were at work” (120).

Queen Oberea welcoming Captain Samuel Wallis. Engraving, 1827, as reproduced in Le Costume Ancien et Moderne ou Histoire by Giulio Ferrario. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Dening does not say it outright, but I believe he is implying that the Native Tahitians perceived these events as both metaphorical and literal, at once. Dening does not explain out fully how this might have functioned, but I wonder if perhaps the Native Tahitians, while not seeing the ship or the crew as being the god, still saw the event as sacred, as being imbued with or accompanied by the god. It seems to me that the standard Western interpretation draws a dichotomy between either the ship or its crew literally being the god on the one hand, or the entire event being purely a profane (mundane) and non-godly event on the other hand; it is this latter scenario, and our literal, secular, view of things that leads into discourses of natives being naïve, foolish, and superstitious. How ridiculous that they should have thought Captain Wallis to have been a god! But, perhaps these two are not the only possibilities. Maybe the islanders recognized these Strangers for what they were – human beings from a foreign culture, hungry, thirsty, and violent, with all the very “real” political and economic implications that come along with human profane/secular encounters, while at the same time recognizing their coming as marking a special event, and in its specialness being accompanied by the god. If so, then the rituals performed before the Dolphin would not have been aimed at the ship itself, or its crew, but at acknowledging the sacredness of the occasion. This could, potentially, tie into the notion of the flag as a memento of the event, and as containing the mana either of the ship & its crew, or of the event, this unprecedented encounter and exchange with such Strangers (even without the Strangers themselves being divine).

Another popular misconception surrounding these types of encounters is the idea that the god’s coming was prophesied, and that the ship’s coming is mistaken for fulfilling that prophecy. Dening points out that no such prophecy is needed, and that indeed the sacred path of approach into the bay taken by the ship need not be considered sacred beforehand; rather, the event can be recognized as special, as sacred, in the moment, and mythologized as it occurs, lending new meanings and new sacredness to certain places (such as this path into the bay). The event and associated objects, actions, and places can also be mythologized afterwards, in the process of retelling it.

To sum up, all three of these articles point to the considerable ways in which our understandings of Pacific history, and the historiography upon we rely for those understandings, are deeply flawed, corrupted by Western biases. And all three suggest some ways forward, to begin to ameliorate the damage, reverse the discourse, and rectify the errors, by incorporating the Native point of view, or by at least attempting to account for and adjust for the fundamentally inherent biases of both the Western primary and secondary sources. Through these essays we learn much about the New Zealand Wars, Maori women, and the first British-Tahitian contacts, as well as the very significant issues in how these topics are understood, and how these types of topics, more broadly speaking – military history, women’s history, and first contacts & mythical understandings – might be approached.

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My blog post from last year, “K-Pop and an Alternate Masculinity” is one of my most-viewed. I guess it’s a really popular topic, not just because of K-Pop, but hopefully too because of interest in alternate masculinities and gender issues.

Left: Lee Taemin from the boy group Shinee, in last December’s Vogue Girl.

At least one commenter on that post was kind to take the time to explain that there’s another side to this – that despite the fashion and such within these music videos, and despite whatever we might be able to say about alternate masculinities (the beautiful, soft, boy who’s physically intimate with his friends, even while being cis-het, yet at least at the same time being quite different from the standard macho bro, or other “mainstream” versions of ideal masculinity as constructed within Western culture/society), this is not an indication of any level of acceptance of any gender identities or sexual orientations beyond cis-het in South Korea.

Meg Ten Eyck, in an article last week in Posture Mag entitled “Is KPop as Queer as it Appears to be?: Androgynous Fashion, Fan Service, and Boy Love in Korean Pop Culture,” explains out a bit more starkly, and in more detail, South Korean attitudes about LGBTQ and gender identities. And what she portrays is rather discouraging, even disturbing, saddening. Even those people who do identify as LGBTQ (how did Eyck find them?) don’t do so too publicly, and apparently coming out even to your parents is so taboo, so not thought of, that some of the people interviewed even laughed at the idea. Eyck writes:

Siwon Choi engages in graphic boy love fan service, including stroking and kissing his male band members while shirtless on stage and making out with fellow band members. Essentially Choi, and other artists are claiming that their androgynous style and boy love fan service is acceptable because it’s driving sales of their albums and merchandise. However, if someone proclaims their identity as a queer person and engages in the same behaviors, the majority of Koreans would not support them.

This certainly complicates the issue, and I’m not entirely sure what to say. Can we really not, as a society (as any society, American, Korean, or otherwise), have a more pleasant balance, accepting alternate gender identities and sexualities in a fuller spectrum? In the United States, LGBTQ rights, equality, continue to make progress, and to find growing acceptance (though of course some very serious problems still continue as well), even as the kind of things we see in K-pop remain almost entirely absent, and suppressed, excluded, from mainstream pop culture; and meanwhile, in Korea we see guys on TV, in music videos, in posters, etc., with all kinds of soft, sweet, baby faces, wearing makeup and jewelery and fashion and dyed pink hair, caressing even kissing one another – but any actual, real, admission of queer identity is all but unheard of, and all but unaccepted. Here’s hoping that both of our societies can get it together and see some expansion of acceptance in the coming years.

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Two excellent posts came across my dash in the last week, breaking through the dominant discourses of the things we take as normal in our everyday lives, and boldly forcing us to realize just how artificial, how inappropriate and even disturbing those norms are.

*First, the subject of how women are described in obituaries & in other news reports. Numerous blog posts, forum discussions, and even full monographs have pointed out that all too often, obituaries and other descriptions of women in the news media describe an individual by her identity as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a homemaker, describing her cooking, her hospitality, her feminine hobbies, and the like, or even devoting more space to describing the career and societal contributions of her husband or father, rather than her own. By contrast, a man’s obituary generally emphasizes his career, his political activity, or contributions to knowledge. And yet, we read these obituaries, biographies, and the like, and a great many of us, I would wager, never really gave it a second thought.

Misandrist Obituaries by Kathleen Cooper pokes fun at the whole thing, but with a very serious underlying message, displaying boldly, by example, what no description about the problem could ever do as sharply.

Clementine Churchill’s husband, Winston, son of the famous American socialite Jennie Jerome, has died at 91. Sir Winston was an accomplished amateur painter and famous for his tea-cakes.

Rosalind Franklin’s lab partner, James Watson, has passed away at 98. For many years a scientist, his true calling was home cooking and he was said to make a wonderful macaroni and cheese casserole.

Incidentally, though not of direct relevance to this blog post, did you know that Marie Curie’s papers are still radioactive today, 100 years later? I had no idea.

Seeing these twisted obituaries, does it not become so much more obvious the bias inherent in how we characterize and describe women in media and in history? It’s one thing to simply say “women should be described as individuals in their own right, and acknowledged for their own individual careers and contributions, and not described or known chiefly for who their husband or father was,” but, to see it played out in this way is, I think, wonderfully stark, clear, and effective.

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*Second, scantily-clad babes in video games. If you’ve never understood why people might find Lara Croft, or the beach babes of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, disturbing, or, if you think you kind of get it intellectually, but just don’t get that gut reaction against it, maybe this image by DeviantArt artist Ulysses0302, or the expanded series of images of “Larry Croft” seen here on Tumblr will help you:

This goes back to my post almost exactly two years ago on “Gratuitous Sexiness in Comics.” The Hawkeye Initiative has become very popular for its satirization of the absurd poses women are drawn in in comics. It does this showing the male hero Hawkeye in those poses and therefore showing how ridiculous these poses are. Well, I apologize to rag on the Hawkeye Initiative again, but you’re putting a man in women’s poses to show how ridiculous those poses are for women? Seems a bit too roundabout and diluted. Having a male looking or acting feminine is enough of an absurdity to begin with (within sexist normative gender discourses), that it doesn’t really properly highlight the absurdity of the females’ poses for females, but only highlights how absurd they are for males. Of course it looks ridiculous for a man to be in a female pose – he’s not a woman, after all!

Which is why I think that something like “Larry Croft,” which breaks out of the “male fantasy” mode entirely, and shows what a video game character might look like if games were truly, thoroughly, created from the approach of a straight female sexual fantasy, or, a gay male fantasy, is so much more effective. Women who read comics and play video games are engaging with media created (often) within a discourse of male fantasies. And I, like most men, on the surface of the thing, didn’t really appreciate why these images should be so disturbing or disgusting to so many women. Sure, they’re sexualized, but, whatever, right? Wrong. These images of an imagined alternate universe Tomb Raider, starring Larry Croft, show us boldly, directly, explicitly, what hypersexualization looks like when it’s on the other foot, and for me at least, it’s rather effective at eliciting that gut response, and helping me realize even more fully than before, just how artificial, unnecessary, excessive, and disgusting hypersexualization is in so much of our popular media.


Finally, there’s this lengthy post from the Feminist Current, entitled “Feminists are Not Responsible for Educating Men.

I have tried many times to respond to this, writing and then deleting many drafts, and I really don’t know what to say. This is very much something I’m still struggling with, struggling to figure out what to think, how to believe about it, and I’m sure that no matter what I say, I’ll get some angry feedback. Still, here’s an attempt to say just a little about one side, one aspect, of this very delicate issue.

When you learn something, when you discover or realize something, does it become your obligation to tell everyone else about it? Certainly not. If I sit in my room, and spend the day not explaining to someone else about Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and imperialism, let’s say, that’s not a moral failing on my part. And, likewise, if a feminist spends his or her day doing anything other than devoting all his or her time to explaining feminism to others, that’s not a moral failing on their part. That’s not a failure of that person to live up to their obligations or responsibilities.

But, if I go around yelling at people for their arrogance in daring to not know about the plight of the Okinawan people, or about the illegal takeover of Hawaii, is that right? Is that appropriate behavior on my part? “Hey, I just read this article, and learned about a terrible wrong in the world. How dare you to have not read it already?”

So, are we each of us obliged to seek for ourselves to educate ourselves about various issues (including feminism), that is to say, are we obliged to not sit passively in our ignorance, expecting others to educate us? Absolutely. But, one of the most fundamental concepts in feminism, or indeed in (anti-)Orientalism, Eurocentrism, racism, post-colonialism, whathaveyou, is the power of discourse to normalize socially-constructed and artificially imposed ideas – the power of discourse to make us think that all sorts of things in our society are normal, are natural, are automatically just the way it is, and the power of discourse to hide from us that these are assumptions which can be or should be questioned. Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, any of these people will tell you, it’s not so easy to simply pull the scales down from off your own eyes, to pull the wool from before your own eyes. You need to question assumptions. But before that, you need to learn that you need to question your assumptions – and this is not something that is taught in our high schools, in our public education system. It is something that, I think, I hope, maybe, is starting to become more widespread in required courses in undergrad, but it is something that I, personally, was never really exposed to at all until graduate school, and so angry as I may be that the vast majority of people on the street know nothing about questioning their ethnocentric attitudes, I don’t exactly blame them.

So, my very sincere thanks to Kathleen Cooper at The Toast, to the blogger behind Video Games Made Me Gay on Tumblr, and Ulysses0302 at DeviantArt, for these great resources boldly breaking the mold and helping viewers/readers realize the artificiality and the assumptions inherent in what we might otherwise take for normal.

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