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Archive for the ‘Historiography’ Category

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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I was planning on continuing on with my response posts on Pacific Island history, but writing about “Deep Kyoto Walks” made me want to skip ahead to Eiko Ikegami’s “Bonds of Civility.” Her socio-cultural analysis is really deep and interesting, but in the process Ikegami provides a wonderful image of culturally vibrant early modern Japanese cities, full of active intermixing of culturally engaged social circles. The sort of thing that still goes on, in its own way, in Kyoto (and Tokyo, and elsewhere) today, and I felt so lucky to get a brief glimpse of it, a toe in the water so to speak, during my brief weeks in Kyoto. And this is what Deep Kyoto reminds me of…

For the TL;DR crowd, in summary Ikegami’s book is a fascinating read on:
(1) the role of cultural/artistic social circles in forming a “public sphere” in early modern Japan
(2) discussion of the popularization and commercialization of the arts – no longer just for elites, poetry, ikebana, Noh chanting, etc. were now enjoyed as hobbies by common townsfolk, and were enjoyed in social circles and in paid-for lessons.
(2a) discussion of popular publications on the arts, incl. early modern versions of fashion magazines and teach-yourself guides to music, painting, and poetry.

Throughout much of the thirteen chapters of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Eiko Ikegami examines various aspects or facets of the impact or implications of a single argument: namely, that social circles in Tokugawa Japan organized around artistic or aesthetic activities constituted “publics” or a “public sphere,” contributing to the construction of a shared public consciousness that spanned much of the archipelago and crossed status categories. Ikegami defines civil society as “a domain of private citizens that has a certain degree of autonomy from the state” (19), and argues that while the feudal structure of Tokugawa Japan, including strong shogunate & daimyō controls on political expression, and enforcement of status boundaries, prevented the development of a “civil society” such as might resemble that which first emerged in Europe, aesthetic gatherings such as poetry circles, within which people shed their status identities and engaged with one another through artistic/cultural identities in a relatively egalitarian manner, served this purpose for Tokugawa Japan, providing a space of social/cultural interactions largely autonomous, in certain important ways, from the state’s controls.

This was able to take place because of Tokugawa attitudes and practices regarding the realms of the “private” (私, watakushi). While the samurai authorities were quite wary of political associations, following after the ikki of the Sengoku period, and anticipating the destructive power of shishi groups such as emerged in the Bakumatsu, aesthetic groups such as poetry circles and ikebana clubs fell for the most part under the radar, so to speak, of the authorities. And so it was that some form of “civic associations” or “civil society” was able to take place within these aesthetic circles. If we think of these circles not individually but in aggregate, as prominent in individual’s lives, and as tightly and complexly linked through the interpersonal social networks of all their members, we can begin to see how such seemingly innocuous things as shamisen lessons can, in aggregate, constitute an entire “society” of amateur cultural actors unto itself, within or on the flipside of the “public” society – composed of merchants, artisans, farmers, fishermen, samurai – acknowledged, regulated, and taxed by the authorities.

“Karasuma Street,” a woodblock print by Clifton Karhu, depicting a row of machiya along one of Kyoto’s major streets, which, it is easy to imagine that 100, 200, 300 years ago, as well as today, may have been the site of any number of cultural social gatherings, a private space for the discussion of alternate “public” discourses.

This brings us to Ikegami’s interesting and important discussion of Japanese notions of “public.” Connecting in some interesting ways with Roberts’ twin concepts of uchi (the inside, private realms) and omote (official, outward-facing), Ikegami discusses how the Japanese concept of ōyake or (公, “public”) came, as in English, to conflate the meanings of both (1) open and accessible to all the people, and (2) controlled or owned by the government. The public thus became conflated with the authorities, as seen in terms such as kōgi (公儀, “public order”) and kubō (公方, “the person of the public,” i.e. the shogun as the embodiment of the public order), to which the shogunate appealed, in commanding everyone’s service to public order, and public interest. But, as the samurai authorities in the Tokugawa period left considerable autonomy to private matters (watakushi, related to uchi), these artistic networks were able to enjoy considerable autonomy, and to constitute between them an alternate “public” – a collection of “enclave publics” in Ikegami’s terms – within which the popular people’s attitudes, ideas, could be exchanged, and a “popular voice” could emerge.

These aesthetic social circles were further able to be seen as separated out “private” spaces because of the history of certain arts as being associated with spaces on the margins or outside of normal society, or even with connecting into the otherworldly. The spiritual ritual origins of Noh (for example), and its associations with the otherworldly, with liminal space and the transportation of the audience into a spiritual or dream realm or state, and the identification of performers/entertainers as being outside of the normal status hierarchies, is thus tied into this idea of performing arts as being outside of normal “public” society. Ikegami calls these arts “za arts” both because of an association of these circles with the medieval guilds known as za, and because they were practiced in zashiki meeting rooms. Later on, in the Tokugawa period, the commercial marketplace is added to these artistic spaces, as another major space belonging to the popular “public,” and existing somewhat outside of the discursive control of the authorities (the official/governmental “public” – or ōyake).

Detail from the 17th century “Night Festival of Tsushima Shrine” screen, held at LACMA. This takes place in Nagoya, and I suppose we could assume that most of these figures are preparing for the festival, or are on their way to the festival. But, this might stand in, if you’ll allow, for any number of other fûzokuga (genre paintings), in which we see the chaotic, vibrant, life of a city. Even regardless of the festival, how many of these people coming and going are members of poetry circles or ikebana groups, or are amateur hobbyist students of Noh chanting or kabuki dance?

In art history, as well as in early modern cultural history more broadly, we often touch upon the existence of artistic networks as we discuss the lives and activities of individual “great” artists; we know that the literati artist Ike no Taiga, for example, or the scholar Hiraga Gennai, were actively involved in many such circles and networks, through which they interacted with other artists and scholars. However, through Ikegami’s descriptions, we begin to get a sense of these circles and networks being much more widespread, much more pervasive, than we might have ever imagined otherwise. Not just poetry circles and kabuki fan clubs, but amateur Noh chanting, shamisen lessons, and ikebana groups, among many others, featured prominently, it would seem, in the cultural life of Japan’s major cities. One begins to get an impression of a lively, vibrant cultural scene, in which on any given night dozens (upon dozens?) of rooms spanning many of Kyoto’s city blocks were occupied with cultural activity – and through this cultural activity, socialization and interaction across status boundaries, building personal social networks through which political knowledge and consciousness spread.

Ikegami identifies the commercialization and popularization of the arts in the Edo period – that is, the shift of many arts from being chiefly elite pursuits to being more widely and popularly practiced – as playing a key role in the development of a widespread popular political consciousness, popular political discourse, and a collective notion of (proto-)national identity; this in turn set the stage, she argues, for a stronger, better prepared populace for the modernity which Meiji was to bring. This commercialization and popularization took place through in-person gatherings, meetings, and lessons, but also through a myriad of popular publications we normally do not hear about in either art history or intellectual history discussions of the period, including guides to Noh chanting, shamisen playing, and poetry composition, which made these arts more widely available.

Further, Ikegami argues, popular publications in general, in all of their myriad forms and contents, contributed to linking the disparate parts of the archipelago into a singular, unified cultural consciousness. Whereas Mary Elizabeth Berry, in her Japan in Print, focuses more narrowly on the popular imagination of “Japan” as constituted through encyclopedias, guides to famous places, guides to samurai houses, and the like – a Japan formed of the aggregation of the things described in these books – it is less so in Japan in Print and more so in Bonds of Civility that we see a strong, clear argument for books and prints (any and all books and prints) connecting people into a shared cultural discourse, and into a collective shared identity simply through having read the same books, being familiar with the same authors, artists, cultural referents and cultural practices (8-9).

Right: A woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, c. 1765-1770, in the Freer-Sackler collection. Three girls examine what appears to be a banzuke, a listing of either sumo wrestlers, kabuki actors, or courtesans. Perhaps this lists the upcoming season of kabuki performances or sumo bouts, or lists the “greatest” wrestlers, actors, or courtesans of the year. In any case, these girls share in cultural knowledge of, and fannish interest in, these things, just as we today share in celebrity gossip, scheduled concerts or events we’re excited about, or whathaveyou. And countless other people, across the city and across the realm, are reading this very same banzuke, and are connected to these girls in being familiar with the same cultural goings-on. Whether as “fans” or not, they are still in one sense or another members of a shared community.

Art is all too often dismissed as superficial or extraneous. But, whether for Japan in particular, or with potential applicability for other societies as well, Ikegami makes a powerful argument here for the importance of aesthetics, art, fashion, and popular culture in constituting spaces of popular consciousness and political discourse, contributing in an important way to the emergence in Tokugawa Japan of commoner discursive / cultural / societal prominence. As she points out, the segregation of the kabuki theater and the Yoshiwara to their own walled-off districts, though meant to separate them away from normal public society, resulted in each of these areas – to a certain extent, enclaves protected from direct shogunal interference – becoming pressure cookers or Petri dishes of popular culture. Fandom, publications, popular referents, and perhaps most significantly fashion, emerged out of these areas, functioning as a significant way in which commoners could construct and declare their identities. Fashion inspired by the worlds of Yoshiwara and kabuki quickly became quite influential among elites, reversing for perhaps the very first time the cultural flow (where previously it was elites who developed new cultural expressions, and commoners who adopted them in efforts to elevate their own cultural status); this may seem superfluous, but it is in fact profoundly significant, representing the cultural power of the commoner class, and of popular commercial culture. Even while commoners were still denied explicit voice in political process, we can now see how artistic circles, popular publishing, fashion, and the social rituals of the commoner districts combined to create a real sea change in commoner voice, influence, power, prominence, in certain other key cultural/social respects.

I wrote the above as a response paper, for my advisor, in December 2014, and have not altered it much in adapting it to the blog. I add the following, new, now, in June 2015:

In sum, this book is fascinating both for its overarching argument about “publics,” and for its content, at times, on certain subjects I have never happened to read up on elsewhere – e.g. kimono pattern books and the development of Edo fashion. In addition to this, though, I truly love this book for (a) the way it brings the cities of early modern Japan alive, inspiring images of cultural/social life of a city, constituted in the aggregate of countless poetry circles, shamisen lessons, and so forth. Who knows what goes on in back rooms across Kyoto, Tokyo, Naha, Honolulu, New York, and San Francisco today? Such liveliness, such vibrancy! And I also love this book for (b) the way it argues for the importance, the significance of the arts in social and political history. This is an art history which focuses not on individual works, or artists, or schools, movements, or styles, but goes beyond that to talk about the cultural life of the city more broadly, incorporating countless common dabblers and hobbyists, and paying little attention to the quality or meaning, or even content, of their artistic production. And yet it is still a cultural history, if not strictly speaking an “art history,” which argues boldly and oh-so compellingly for the vital relevance and significance of artistic and cultural activity to the history of the development and activity of social and political “publics” or “public spheres” – which might otherwise be dismissed by most historians as frivolous or peripheral.

Left: The upstairs room at Fukushima Shamisen, a shamisen workshop in the Higashi Chayagai of Kanazawa. Who meets and practices shamisen together here? What do they discuss? How did rooms like this one, and the “space” of the shamisen lesson, or group practice, serve as the site of political discussions outside of what might be said, and overheard, “in public”? How did rooms like this one, and the meetings and activities that took place there, constitute the social and cultural life of the city?

All photos are my own (with the exception of the book cover).

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Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.

I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?

This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.

Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that

It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1

Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.

Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?

A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”

The Ryukyu Islands, on a map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.

Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.

But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.

Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.

For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.

But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.

1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.

2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.

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In this, the next in my series of book reviews / response essays produced while studying for exams, I discuss the Introduction and a few chapters of Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, edited by Robert Borofsky (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2000). The volume is a thick compilation of essays by many of the top Pacific Island historians, from Marshall Sahlins and Greg Dening to Vilsoni Hereniko, Nicholas Thomas, James Clifford, and Epeli Hau’ofa. Many of the essays are reprinted from having been published earlier; I haven’t read through the whole thing, but from what I have read, it could prove a good reader for a university course, as the chief book from which to assign readings (if it weren’t out of print, which it seems to be). The volume covers a range of different topics, with four or five essays on each of the themes of “Making Histories,” “Possessing Others,” “Colonial Entanglements,” and “Postcolonial Politics.” I’ll be discussing a number of these essays in this and future posts, and hope to find the time sometime soon to read more of the volume.

But, to begin, Robert Borofsky’s Introduction is an intense and thorough summary of both the historiography of the Pacific, and of the various issues tied into Orientalism, native & non-native conceptions of the history, and who has the right to speak. This essay is surely going to be one of my touchstones, to go back to, for the arguments and counter-arguments of this most central and crucial issue, and I think if I ever teach a Historiography class, even for historians whose specialties fall far outside of the Pacific, I think I may assign this chapter. In it, Borofsky discusses the constructed nature of modern/contemporary Western academic modes of knowledge, that is, the artificiality and problematic nature of our conceptions or constructions of “objectivity,” in the process touching upon many of the fundamental issues we must engage with as post-modernist, post-colonial, anti-Orientalist scholars. These include the invisible silences created by dominant discourses (especially those in the colonialist/imperialist vein), the unspoken assumptions of our nationalist and otherwise “modern” and Western points of view, and the need for multiple perspectives in order to attempt to get closer to a better understanding of any given history or culture. To cite just one of many compelling quotes from Borofsky’s discussion of these issues:

Bringing different perspectives to bear on our understandings of times past is essential for recognizing the shape of our constructions and strategic silences. Without such differences to confront, we tend to live comfortably within our own complacencies. Without differences we have a rather limited sense of perspective, of ‘objectivity.’ We go galloping about on our rhetoric unappreciative of the silences that speed us along (18).

Further, he addresses the very crucial, fundamental even, complex of issues in Pacific Studies (but also in other post-colonial, non-Western, and/or indigenous contexts) of authenticity, authority, and the “right to speak.” There is a long tradition of Pacific people’s histories being written by outsiders, according to outsiders’ biases, intentions, desires, and values, dismissing native understandings as naïve, superstitious, or in the case of oral traditions, just plainly unreliable and untrue.

Lilikalā Kame’eliehiwa: “Natives have often wished that white people would study their own ancestors… instead of us, whom they generally misunderstand and thus misrepresent.”

Haunani-Kay Trask: “For Hawaiians, anthropologists … are part of the colonizing horde because they seek to take away from us the power to define who and what we are, and how we should behave politically and culturally.”

Borofsky: “What is left unsaid in Trask’s statement is that diverse voices exist within the Hawaiian community, and many take strong exception to her views.”1

Western treatments of the Pacific for a very long time were deeply colored by biases of racism, Orientalism, Social Darwinism, etc. – including ideas of the “noble savage,” of the Pacific as a place where the people live in a perfect paradise, but are naive, uncivilized, and a part of the natural environment. Native notions of their own history, of the sacredness of their land, of the validity of their traditions and societal/political structures, continue to be widely dismissed today. And this dismissal of native intelligence, and of any merits of native societal structures, played a very central role in the destruction of the Hawaiʻian Kingdom, and I would imagine of many other Pacific, African, and other non-Western societies the world over. So, it should come as no surprise that many Pacific Islanders, particularly historians and other scholars in the Western sense, and elders and teachers in traditional modes, feel strongly about being able to tell their own stories, to have their own voices heard, to have their own people (re)gain control of their own histories. Voices, opinions, positions, on this matter run the full spectrum, from the most militant anti-haole positions to the most inclusive, and so there is no one single set of rules to abide by in the field, but rather a complex set of considerations to navigate, often on tiptoe. It is this crowd of contesting voices, and complex of overlapping issues and problems which Borofsky addresses in his introductory essay; I have taken seminars on Orientalism, and on Museum Studies in indigenous/post-colonial Pacific contexts, and have read quite a few essays addressing aspects, or individual perspectives, on this issue. I think Borofsky’s is the most comprehensive I have yet come across.

Arman Tateos Manookian, Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Essays by Peter Hempenstall and Vilsoni Hereniko in the first section of the book (“Frames of Reference: Making Histories”) provide personal indigenous perspectives on some of these issues, and specific examples of how these issues, and different approaches, might play out in our analysis or discussion of historical events. Hempenstall writes of the 1908-1909 mau e pule protest movement in Sāmoa, led by orator chief Lauaki Namulau’ulu Mamoe, and how this event can be read and re-read in different ways, to construct or deconstruct various different perspectives on or impressions of the event, later developments, and Samoan national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Through the example of interpretations of this event, he emphasizes the idea that history is “messy,” that it is always more complex and more nuanced than any one account, or one perspective, can relate, and also that there is a “messy,” complex relationship between agency and victimhood – historical figures are (almost?) never wholly free agents, nor wholly helpless victims, but (almost?) always some combination of the two.

Hereniko speaks of the many various ways that indigenous values and traditional knowledge are conveyed, taught, or instilled, and of the problems of the dominance of Western modes of interrogation, which prioritize the written word as evidence, and as indicative of “truth.” Among his examples are songs, poems, dances, myths or fairy tales, conventional knowledge about natural phenomena, gossip about genealogies and local history, and the very names of people, places, and things, which he describes as serving as footnotes, points of evidence, supporting the veracity of oral traditions. Indeed, one of the arguments emerging from Borofsky’s “Introduction”, this essay by Hereniko, and others I have seen, is that Native histories should not have to conform to Western modes of appropriate scholarly form – the insistence on such conformity, after all, being in meaningful ways a continuation of the “colonizing” of indigenous knowledge to begin with: the insistence that Native modes of knowledge are inferior or invalid, and the Western dominance of “truth.” In a post-modern, post-colonial, global world, why should Westerners and their modes of knowledge have a monopoly on what is appropriate in academia?

Hereniko: “By focusing on external reality [i.e. verifiable “facts”], historians marginalized emotional truth.” According to a Fijian elder: “People [outside researchers] do not understand the unseen, which is the reality of our lives; they do not realize its power. They look only at the seen, which is illusion.” (85)

As Hereniko argues, certain modes of writing are privileged in Western scholarship, which excludes or looks down upon certain styles of emotional, personal, or poetic forms of writing. I have long had difficulty with this sort of notion: obnoxiously jargon-heavy and impenetrably theoretical works aside, the purpose of scholarship is to convey information clearly, to create works which summarize wealths of knowledge for the reader, and provide expert interpretation, to help spare the reader from having to engage with such wealths of primary sources themselves. Such is the value of secondary sources: of course there is an understanding that all writers have their biases, and that all interpretations have the potential to be flawed, but we need to be able to take scholars at their word, at least to some extent, in order for their works to be useful in any way. What practical scholarly use is scholarship written in the form of poetry or the like, which is not direct and clear language, but which instead requires interpretation just as if it were a primary source? How does it benefit the field to add to the hopelessly vast array of obscure, evocative rather than descriptive, primary sources, rather than to the (ideally) clear and explanatory corpus of secondary sources? And, yet, the fact that Remembrance includes a number of such poetic works does do valuable work in lending an air of credibility, of insiderness or at least acceptedness, to the volume.

From Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, 2014, p.21.

The other side of this issue, which I continue to mentally chew on, so to speak, is that there are many (white and/or Western) scholars who seek to explore artistic and creative ways of “performing” scholarly practice, in much the same way as modernist/contemporary artists engage in artistic practice. If we can accept this within the realms of Western scholarship, and indeed perhaps even celebrate it as cutting-edge, innovative, and avant-garde, then why not artistic, creative modes of scholarship which draw upon or seek to emulate or express non-dominant cultural modes of expression and ways of thinking? As we begin to open the gate, if only a crack, to scholarship presented in new and different forms, through theatre or performance, through documentary films or digital visualizations, or simply through atypical ways of organizing text and images in one’s writing, it seems it would be arbitrary, and indeed discriminatory, to not also accept atypical forms of scholarship which come out of a cultural tradition rather than an avant-garde movement.

Borofsky’s “Introduction” and these two essays challenge the assumptions of the Western reader on numerous fronts, forcing us to question our attitudes and approaches, throwing us out of our comfortable equilibrium, and requiring us to either seek a new stable interpretive position, or to articulate a defense for previously unquestioned assumptions. In thinking about these issues, I think I have come to some new insights and understandings, but I nevertheless feel I remain in a very unstable place, coming out of these readings without any definitive solution or resolution for these difficulties, neither on a practical level (how to move forward, how to perform my research, writing, and teaching on such subjects), nor on an emotional or intellectual level (how to think and feel about my positions, my identity in relation to Pacific people & culture, how to think and feel about my research, writing, and teaching). I fear that such a resolution might never be found.

I wrote the above a year ago or so. I still feel rather unstable about it all, but I am reassured by the fact that, at least, I am fortunate in that for me the Pacific is primarily a teaching field, not a research field. So I can teach courses in which I assign Native scholars, and draw upon their arguments for my lectures, my role being largely one of simply allowing their voices to speak; this, in contrast to being a scholar actively working in Pacific history, where I would need to contribute my own novel interpretations of Pacific history, coming up against both traditional interpretations and those of Native scholars, and having to defend myself. As is, this is enough of an issue in Japanese and Okinawan Studies, and a valuable set of concerns to keep in mind. But, in the end, having had to come up with some answer to this problem for my exams defense, tentatively, my answer is simply this: Borofsky makes valuable and valid points, that a multitude of voices, including Outsider voices, are important, if not essential, to getting a fuller understanding of any history; but at the same time, I cannot be, will not be, the haole who obnoxiously or obstinately inserts myself against Native scholars – I will do my best to not ever be a “whitesplainer,” just as I strive to not be a mansplainer. I suppose actual situations may be different, and we may have to simply cross that bridge when we come to it, but tentatively, for now at least, I absolutely defer to Native scholars, and would not dare to insist that I have a “right to speak.”

————
(1) Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, “Review,” Pacific Studies 17 (2), 1994, 112.; Haunani-Kay Trask, “Natives and Anthropologists: The Colonial Struggle,” Contemporary Pacific, Spring 1991, 162.; Borofsky, 17.

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

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

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

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

Here are some other voices:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the Pali Lookout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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