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Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are my own.

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I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”

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Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006.

Time for another book review from my exams. I thought we were at an end, which would have been sad, but there are still a few more to go.

In Escape from Impasse (David Noble, trans.), Mitani Hiroshi details attitudes and events relating to Japanese relations with Western powers, from the time of Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s and the Russian incursions of the 1800s, through the signing of treaties with five Western powers in 1858.

Among his arguments is that the concept of sakoku, of a “traditional” “ancestral” policy of keeping the country closed against formal diplomatic or trade relations with other nations (with only strictly limited exceptions), originates in the 1790s-1800s, and marks a significant change or shift from earlier attitudes about foreign relations. In support of this, in addition to descriptions of Shizuki Tadao’s Sakokuron and other writings, he notes a number of shifts in wording or terminology in official documents. First, he points to the fact that the original so-called sakokurei (鎖国令, “Closed Country Edicts”) of the 1630s only specified the expulsion of specific peoples (the Spanish and the Portuguese), rather than expressing a more all-encompassing policy of seclusion or isolation from intercourse with all foreign powers; it was only in the 19th century, in Mitani’s estimation, that the shogunate explicitly pursued such a policy stance. He also points to the identification of China, Holland, Ryukyu, and Korea as the only countries with which Japan engaged in intercourse (tsūshin tsūshō 通信通商) – to the exclusion of all others – as being first articulated only in the 19th century. At that time, for the first time, China and Holland were formally named (in a letter to Russia) as the only countries with which the shogunate had only trade relations (tsūhō) and Korea and Ryukyu as being the only countries with which Japan had diplomatic relations (tsūshin).

An 1832 woodblock print depicting the street procession of a Ryukyuan mission to Japan. These diplomatic/tribute missions received in audience by the shogun in Edo were a key element of tsūshin relations. University of Hawaiʻi Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. Photo my own.

I find this argument less than entirely convincing, however, relying as it does on shifts in wording, rather than on fundamental shifts in policy stances. Attitudes and interpretations of policies can change over time, and Mitani certainly provides compelling and extremely detailed evidence that this took place, but if there were major policy changes enacted in the 1790s, 1810s, or 1820s, to fundamentally alter the core of the so-called “sakoku” policies put into place in the 1630s, these are not evident in Mitani’s narrative. Further, despite his emphasis on changing ideas of “sakoku” in the 1790s-1850s, Mitani makes no mention of the concept of kaikin 海禁, or maritime restrictions, and the associated arguments by Arano Yasunori, Nagazumi Yoko, and others, who assert that the concept of sakoku, essentially coined by Shizuki Tadao in 1801 as a translation of a foreign (mis)understanding of Japanese foreign policy positions, and seen in only a handful of uses prior to that time, is an inappropriate framework for understanding a policy position that was neither one of isolation nor seclusion, but rather one of seeking to exercise strong control over the archipelago’s engagement with the world beyond. While there are certainly other points on which Mitani offers decidedly intriguing and compelling alternatives to standard scholarly interpretations, for him to neglect discussion of this matter seems a glaring omission.

The major strength of Mitani’s volume is its incredible degree of detail as to every single step in the process of encounters and negotiations between the Japanese and the Westerners, particularly in the densely complex and contentious period of the 1850s. There is so much more to this – so much more – than any simple narrative of Commodore Perry coming and “opening” up the country and boom bam that’s it. No. There were French and English and Dutch and Russians, and the Japanese negotiating with each of them under slightly different conditions, as the situation shifted and changed with each new development.

A Korean mission makes its way through the streets of Edo, in a painting by Hanegawa Tôei. Image from blog ペンギンの足跡II.

Yet, despite Mitani’s astonishingly detailed attention to these episodes of encounters and negotiations, and of policy debates both within the shogunate and among “private” intellectuals of the time, he neglects to address how Japanese officials and intellectuals of the time conceived of diplomatic relations, in contrast to Western understandings. At times, Mitani seems to take the ideological, political, or practical/logical reasons for Japanese positions as given, as understood, without explaining more deeply or extensively the reasoning behind them. For example, why was it that the Japanese wished to avoid formal diplomatic relations with Western powers at the outset (in the 1800s-1850s, when Western ships started coming with greater and greater frequency), and what, more precisely, did “formal diplomatic relations” mean, or entail, in their minds? Hellyer, Roberts, Ravina, and Toby each in different ways provide for their reader some understanding of how people of that time conceived of their nation, and how they conceived of the nature of commercial intercourse and its potential benefits and drawbacks. James Hevia, in Cherishing Men from Afar, places particular emphasis on the great disparities between how a British envoy and the Qing Chinese court in the 1790s conceived of diplomatic relations, including what constitutes diplomatic intercourse, how it is undertaken, and for what purposes. He explains, to cite just one example, why the British concept of the establishment of a permanent consulate in Beijing was so foreign to the Qing, and in doing so suggests that the reader should reconsider the notion that either the British or Qing ways of thinking, and of performing diplomatic interactions, are rational or natural; both are arbitrary, and reflective of different conceptions of the nature of the “nation,” and of international relations.

In Escape from Impasse, we see scraps of treatment of these matters here and there throughout the book, in discussions of the attitudes of a number of different officials and commentators, but there seems to be no coordinated discussion of Japanese conceptions, attitudes, and intentions such as would help the reader form a broader and more solid conception of what the Japanese thought diplomatic relations entailed, how it should be performed, and why. When Mitani mentions how shogunal officials resisted having the shogun sign the treaty with Commodore Perry, because that would mean this treaty constituted formal diplomatic relations, something the shogunate wished very much to avoid, I found myself skimming backwards, scrambling to find any broader or deeper discussion of just what did and did not constitute diplomatic relations in the Japanese view, and just why it was that they were seeking to avoid formal relations, beyond merely the idea of adhering to precedent, and to supposedly “traditional” “ancestral” laws.

Still, Mitani’s work is profoundly informative, and there are a number of ways in which Escape from Impasse contributes significantly to the scholarly discourse on Japan’s engagement with the West in the first half of the 19th century. His point that the Russian incursions of the early years of the 1800s marked a significant moment, awakening fears of Western expansion and military force, is something echoed too by Hellyer and others. As Mitani explains, there was considerable disagreement as to how to respond to these events, with some seeing them as passing crises, not something to be concerned with after the fact, and others deeply concerned, their sense of crisis spurring many government officials to action, or at least to discussion and debate; if this does not mark the very beginnings of pushes for the expansion of coastal defenses, discussions of the expansionist (or not) intentions of the Western powers, the need for more solid claims to the northern territories, etc., it certainly marks the beginning of these topics being discussed, and acted upon, in a more extensive, serious, and prominent way.

Detail of monument to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Newport RI. Photo my own.

Mitani’s exceptionally detailed narrative also provides a more nuanced view of this process of Japan’s “opening” to the world, revealing elements which, in their absence, cause rougher summarizing overviews to misrepresent the process. As he explains, Commodore Perry did not, in fact, press for the opening of trade relations in 1853-1854, but rather the focus of his mission was on opening ports for the repair, coaling, and supplying otherwise of American ships; along similar lines, we are told that Perry asked for the stationing of an American consul in Shimoda not as part of a push for the opening of true diplomatic relations, but rather primarily in order to oversee the behavior and treatment of American sailors operating in these newly opened ports. This is an important contrast with the understanding of Perry we learned in high school, or which the average person on the street might relate. Mitani also discusses a number of differences between American, Russian, Dutch, British, and French desires, intentions, and interactions with the Japanese, and between interactions and events over time; to name just one example, we see how the Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 came about almost by accident, as a result of misunderstandings, and not as part of a coordinated effort by the British to “open” Japan for full diplomatic and commercial relations. Further, Mitani notes stark differences among the Western nations in their economic desires, with the British seeing Japan as a market for their industrially manufactured goods, while the Americans were more interested in access to Japanese export goods. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the same way throughout the West, and we should take Britain’s experience of it to be an exception, rather than the rule, so too we are led to a clearer understanding of the diversity and differences in the attitudes & desires of the various Western powers vis-à-vis Japan, and in the precise contents of the treaties and relationships which resulted.

Another of Mitani’s arguments, going against what he identifies as the standard interpretation, concerns identification of the key moment when the balance shifted from aims of maintaining or returning to sakoku policies being dominant among the top shogunate officials, restricting as much as possible formal intercourse with foreign powers, to the pursuit of finding ways for Japan to embrace fuller open engagement with the world while preserving its own “national polity” and protecting its interests, economic and otherwise, becoming dominant. Mitani identifies the Dutch treaty with the Japanese in 1856 as marking this shift (262). In fact, of course, there can be no one single moment, as these are ideas which had been discussed in one form or another for quite some time, and which had gained currency due to a combination of factors. Still, it is interesting to see him explicitly point out his argument against interactions with Townsend Harris as being the key stimulus (264).

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of this book, overall, is that it reminds us to not think of either Perry’s time in Japan in 1853-1854, or the Treaty signed with Harris in 1858, as hard and fast dividing lines in historical periodization, as if political thought, or the political atmosphere of the time, was something sharply divided and entirely separate from that of the rest of the Edo period. Mitani’s narrative shows us how Perry arrived in a Japan very much dominated by ideas and political structures of a continuity with the past, and that even after he left, it was only in fits and starts, piece by piece, as the result of a series of events and other influences, that different ideas and political paths began to gain dominance and prominence. The Bakumatsu period cannot be seen as a wholly separate thing from the rest of the Edo period, and neither the Western powers nor the Japanese response should be seen as monolithic.

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Recently (okay, not so recently, a few months ago), Nate Ledbetter and Chris West, my fellow podcasters on the Samurai-Archives Podcast (where I am frequently the third person talking) did a two-part discussion (for which I was not present) about the tensions and difficulties surrounding the pursuit of Military History today within the fields of Japanese Studies, and History.

Frankly, I have little to add, but I did think it was a rather interesting, and important, conversation, so I wanted to re-share the two podcasts here.

EP118 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 1click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

EP119 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 2click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

Blogger T. Greer then responded, expanding upon Nate & Chris’ conversation on his blog (The Scholar’s Stage), in a post entitled East Asian Military History: A Few Historiographical Notes.

It is certainly an interesting phenomenon, that military history should be so discouraged, so marginalized, within our field. To be sure, social and cultural histories, including post-modernist and post-colonialist perspectives, histories of race & ethnicity, and gender studies, have grown more central and more dominant in recent decades, as the political and economic histories which were so standard in past generations have become decidedly less so. And, to a large extent, I think this is a good thing. We are engaging with myriad new and different perspectives that were never addressed before, challenging standard understandings, and exploring new aspects and new avenues which the old approaches – which excessively privileged political and economic narratives, particularly of institutions and great men – discouraged, marginalized, or ignored entirely. We’re seeing women’s perspectives, indigenous and non-Western perspectives, culturally-informed and interdisciplinary analyses, and so on and so forth. I am certainly glad that I get to do what I do, looking at Japanese and Okinawan perspectives (with a minimum of attention paid to European actors or European Theory), and doing capital-H History while looking at music, dance, costume, and art, as well as ritual/ceremony and identity performance, without being told I have to focus more on the politics or economics of the situation. I do think it a shame, though, as I have ranted about in previous posts, that detailed or narrative history, in general, is so discouraged, and theoretical or conceptual analysis so privileged. There is so much out there to know, to uncover and extract from the archive, and to simply put together and put out there – here’s something we didn’t know before, and now we do. Why should I always have to be forced to answer “so what?” and to have it connect into some broader conceptual argument?

The Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu held by the Gifu City History Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, I’m getting off-track. What’s interesting here is that among the innumerable aspects of history one could study, the myriad topics, military history seems the only one that’s as marginalized as it is. Maybe I’m just overlooking something, but I truly cannot think of a (sub-)field that’s discouraged and marginalized like Military History is. Sure, some things are crazy popular right now – Memory, Identity, and Empire, for example – and some things perhaps less popular. But I know people doing histories of science and medicine, deeply Marxist histories (yes, still), religious history, women’s history, urban histories of space and place, studies of travel and tourism, studies of radio and music in statecraft, studies of fashion and of sewing machines, studies of local wine festivals, and of horse racing. Some people absolutely are studying individual leaders’ policies, if not their biographies per se, and some are deep in economic history. Morgan Pitelka has just put out a new book on Tokugawa Ieyasu, focusing on material culture approaches, and in particular on Ieyasu as a collector of tea implements.

And yet, even among all these incredibly varied topics and approaches, one thing is still missing: military history. And, for example, in the case of Tokugawa Ieyasu, even someone such as myself, deeply interested in the material culture side, can see there is something ridiculous about the absence of works closely examining Ieyasu as a strategic & tactical commander. Nate and T. Greer suggest that the culture surrounding the Vietnam War – particularly on college campuses – brought a significant shift away from military history. It was no longer seen as appropriate, or acceptable, I guess, politically, within the discipline to be studying war. I myself really don’t know anything about this, though I can certainly vouch for the unspoken pressures to adhere to liberal/progressive ideological values, even as we speak about open-mindedness, critical thinking, and embracing diverse perspectives and ideas. Yet, regardless of politics, regardless of left/right, liberal/conservative, Nate makes an extremely important point, in that just because someone studies military history doesn’t mean they agree with war, or violence. So many of us study a great many things we don’t agree with, from slavery to imperialism to fascism. So, that’s really no explanation. In truth, the discipline of History (and academia more broadly) should be accepting and incorporative of the study of any and all aspects of history. If book history and the history of sewing machines are important and valid objects of study (and I believe they are – I’m not making fun), if the histories of chocolate, sugar, and coffee, of conceptions of race & gender, of theatre and painting, are all taken as valid – if the study of manga and K-pop and video games is taken as valid – then why not military history? It really seems a crazy oversight.

Statue of Ii Naomasa at Hikone Station. Photo my own.

And, as T. Greer points out, as in so many things with East Asian history (and, indeed, with non-Western history more broadly), the trends have leapt past too quickly, passing over all too many subjects. I would not be surprised if you told me that the major battles of European and American history – from Salamis to Agincourt, to Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima – have been analyzed and over-analyzed to the point of excess. And, from the Western point of view at least, things like the Boer War and the Maori Wars may have received considerable attention as well. So maybe it really is time for Military History, as a sub-discipline, to move on, in certain respects, and for History as a discipline to move on from tactical & strategic analyses, at least for certain topics. I do think that the new social-cultural directions military history has been going are fascinating, and important, including discussions of war photography, gender performance, the social & cultural impact upon civilians on the home front and on the battlefront. But, when it comes to non-Western battles, we can’t move on so fast! Firstly, there are plenty of battles to be re-examined from the non-Western point of view. I touched briefly, in a post last year, upon a fascinating essay by James Belich on how British historiography has severely distorted understandings about the wars against the Maori, in New Zealand. The British refusal to admit intelligence on the part of the Maori, or a lack of technical, technological, or strategic superiority on their own part, severely skewed the historiography on the whole thing.

But, secondly, and coming back once again from digression, while Crecy and Midway, Marathon and Antietam, may have been analyzed to death already, there are countless East Asian conflicts which haven’t been (not to mention conflicts in even less-studied parts of the world). The many campaigns and battles of Japan’s Sengoku period, the Taiping Rebellion, and the battles of the Qing conquest, are only three of the many, many, conflicts which desperately need greater attention. There’s seriously nothing I can add, except to repeat and support what Nate has said, which is (1) that much of what’s already out there about these battles is wrong, from a strategic and/or tactical point of view, and (2) that it’s patently absurd to study the political, economic, social, and cultural history of a particular time and place while just skipping right over the details of the warfare. For me too, it’s not at all my specialty, and I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be doing tactical or strategic analysis in order to really write a military history of anything, but I am definitely interested to learn more about, well, any and all of this, but in particular about the Okinawan conquest of the Ryukyus in the 1500s, the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa in 1609, and the 1874 Imperial Japanese Army expedition to Taiwan… but if military history continues to be as sidelined as it is, we’re only going to continue to be in the dark – repeating the same stuff we already know about the political implications, but still not better understanding just what kinds of weapons and tactics, what kind of military organization, these groups had. How exactly /did/ these fights go? You’d never skip over a political debate, to only talk about its outcomes, so why would you skip over a military campaign?

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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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I finish my series on Chinese history books (finally) not with a summary of a single book, but with an overview of a trend, or movement, in the field.

Things move amazingly slowly in scholarship, and what still seems quite new can often turn out to be as much as twenty or even thirty years old. I think this is due in large part to a combination of a few factors:

(1) Scholarship takes a long time to do, and a long time to publish. I heard at one point that it takes roughly ten years to research, write, and get published a scholarly monograph, and given how long my dissertation is taking already, how long my younger professors are working on getting their first books published, and how few books some of my more senior professors have published, I believe it.

(2) Scholarship takes an amazingly long time to trickle down into high school & college textbooks, and since no teacher is read up on the latest scholarship on all things, they are bound to teach you older understandings.

(3) Relatedly, our own knowledge is based on classes and readings often quite out of date, and so what is actually old can often seem quite new. To put it another way, there are so many books out there that I haven’t read yet, so no matter how old the book may be, when I read it, it may seem quite new to me. Further, even as a member of the youngest current generation of scholars – those who haven’t even finished grad school yet – even so, my foundational knowledge of Japan comes from college classes from over ten years ago, taught by professors whose knowledge of the subject comes, foundationally, from decades earlier. Not to mention my fundamental understandings of American and European history, learned in high school and earlier, way back in the distant 20th century.

Qing imperial portraits on display at the Sackler Gallery of Art, at the Smithsonian Institution, in summer 2011.

So, when I say that “The New Qing History” is still, in some very real, meaningful senses, still “New,” I’m not being ironic or facetious. For decades and decades, ever since the origins of the modern scholarly field of Chinese Studies in the West, the dominant narrative was a China-centered one. Buying into China’s own (Confucian-informed) rhetoric about itself as the center and source of all civilization, scholars writing in English built their accounts of Chinese history around notions of Sinicization as the key process through which non-Chinese dynasties – such as the Mongol Yuan, Jurchen Jin, Khitan Liao, and Manchu Qing – attained stability and power. All of these dynasties, so the story goes, gained power and stability only because they adopted Chinese modes of governance, Confucian political culture, and other aspects of Chinese “civilization,” and collapsed in large part because of the infiltration of elements of their original “barbarian” or steppe nomad culture. The Qing are no different. I am not an expert on this, and do not know the historiography fully thoroughly, but basically, my understanding is that the traditional narrative has it that the Qing’s rise in the 1640s to 1790s, and its peak of greatness under the Qianlong Emperor in the 1790s, was due chiefly to the Manchus’ adoption of Chinese Confucian “civilization,” and that it was Qianlong’s efforts to re-introduce, revive, emphasize, or retain Manchu culture which sowed the seeds for China’s decline – the century of embarrassment which began with China’s defeat by the “barbarian” British in the 1840s, and went straight on through the various embarrassments of the Taiping & Boxer Rebellions (in which the British and French sacked & looted), defeat by the “barbarian” Japanese in 1895, and invasion, colonization, etc. in the 1930s-40s.

A scene from “The Last Emperor,” shown in “China Through the Looking Glass” at the Metropolitan Museum.

It was only in the 1990s, perhaps influenced by trends in post-colonial scholarship, that this story was fundamentally revised. The so-called “New Qing History” emerged at that time, calling attention like never before to the ways in which the Qing, in particular, was not so much a Chinese dynasty, but rather a Manchu one. The new story, advanced in particular I believe by Pamela Crossley and Evelyn Rawski, is that China was but one part of the Manchu Empire – that Tibet, Taiwan, Manchuria, and Xinjiang (East Turkestan) were never part of “China,” but rather were part of the Manchu Qing Empire, alongside China – much as China was only ever one part of the massive Mongol Empire, rather than us thinking of anything of the western half of the Mongol Empire as having been part of “China.” This is pretty revolutionary. Personally, I found it just a little mind-blowing. In accordance with the vein of postcolonial studies and cultural relativism percolating throughout the Humanities, one of the other major themes of the New Qing History, advanced by Crossley and others, is the radical idea (*gasp*) that Manchu culture is valid, meaningful, effective, powerful – not something to be dismissed or disparaged, and not something which necessarily inherently brings corruption or decline.

But, also, that Manchu identity is something invented around the year 1600; that “the Manchus” as a people didn’t exist until then. Now, I don’t know what the standard story was in scholarship up until then; surely we knew from the documents and so forth that there were no Manchus prior to that time, only Jurchens. But, even so, Crossley’s A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology (U California Press, 1999) forms the core of a constellation of new works in the 1990s-2000s which place real focus on issues of Late Imperial conceptions of identity, ethnicity, and so forth, and on the relationship between these and official (Imperial/court) ideology and policy. In A Translucent Mirror, Crossley details the evolution of Manchu identity, and of Han Chinese identity along with it, over the course of the 17th to early 20th centuries. There are some interesting and important elements I’m going to skip over, regarding specific policy attitudes of particular reigns towards intentionally shaping (officially redefining) identity categories, but, in a nutshell: Manchu identity began originally as an identity of affiliation, not of lineage, descent, or phenotype (physical appearance). Those Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, and even a few Koreans, who gathered under Nurhachi’s banners in the very early stages came to be known as “Manchus,” while those Chinese and Koreans who lived north of the Great Wall and came under Nurhachi’s authority a bit later came to be known as the “martial Chinese” (Hàn jūn 漢軍). As the Qing Dynasty was formed (shortly before taking Beijing), they established a number of “banners,” categorizing society into Manchu Banners, Mongol Banners, Martial Chinese Banners, and everyone else. Each of these banners contained within them people we might today – whether by descent, lineage, or genetics, or by ancestral homeland, cultural practices, or certain other metrics – consider to have been Jurchens, Mongols, Chinese, Korean, or even of other backgrounds. To be sure, these banners were very much divided apart from the rest of society. They lived in their own separate walled-in sections of the cities, and worked to maintain particular brands of nomad & martial culture. In a sense, they remind me of the samurai of the Tokugawa period, working to perform the martial warrior identity despite being essentially domesticated bureaucrats; and the samurai, too, lived for the most part in walled compounds separated from the commoners. Yet, while the Qing does have the additional element of Manchu/Mongol vs. Chinese multiethnic origins, unlike the samurai vs. commoners in Japan who were all, after all, Japanese, still, at this stage, these banners remained largely identities of affiliation, not of “race” or “ethnicity.” This is particularly true of the Martial Chinese; though most were from the north, and most of the non-bannered everyone else were from the south, and thus had very different customs, lineage, ancestral homelands, and even language, and that’s definitely something to consider, still, today, we consider both groups to have been “ethnically” “Chinese,” regardless of whether they were in the banners or not. Being in the banners was a matter of status, societal role, societal categories, not something strictly divided between Chinese and non-Chinese.

But, skip forward a couple hundred years – like I said, go check out the book, or reviews or summaries of it for the more nuanced, complex story – and these identities have become so entrenched that they really do get transformed into ethnic identities. As ethnic nationalism rises in China towards the end of the 19th century, and especially in the first years of the 20th, the bannermen come to be seen as colonizers, occupiers, barbarians, and most of all, as non-Chinese. The Han Chinese identity, which I suppose existed in one form or another before that, was now solidified into a “Chinese people,” or a “Chinese nation,” who were the good, rightful, moral, upright, indigenous (though I don’t think they would have used that last term) people of China, whose country had been stolen and ruined – run into the ground – by these barbarian nomads, and who demanded their country back. Suddenly, it was all about race and ethnicity, and suddenly those descended from the banners, regardless of Chinese phenotype (racial appearance) or genotype (genetics), regardless of whether they were in fact from China proper (and not Manchuria) going back centuries and centuries, or whether their ancestors were loyal subjects of the Ming, or whathaveyou. Bannermen – even Martial Chinese – became “Manchus.” Adam Bohnet’s work, which I’ve already discussed a few posts back, continues along a similar thread to Crossley’s, examining how the Korean court (in Bohnet’s case) officially defined and redefined identity categories for its own political purposes, as the successive Qing reigns did as well.

Right: The Qianlong Emperor on horseback, painted by Giuseppe Castiglione. Collection of the Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Michael Chang’s 2007 book, A Court on Horseback, can also be considered to fall within the vein of The New Qing History, though it comes nearly twenty years after Crossley’s. A massive tome, I will gladly admit I did not read it all. But, its core argument shows very much the New Qing History approach. Chang’s volume examines a series of “inspection tours” of the southern provinces performed by the Qianlong Emperor in the 1750s-1780s, which were previously considered through the lens of Chinese (Sinicized) Confucian civil government; in other words, these were seen as being examples of the Qing adopting Chinese modes of surveying and governing the provinces. However, Chang argues quite the contrary, that these were martial displays of a Manchu/Qing ruler to his conquered subjects. These were, he argues, essentially military campaigns, performed within a Manchu steppe nomad cultural complex, in order to “inspire adherence and subordination through demonstration of military might.”1 This might be compared to the way that sankin kôtai missions performed by Japanese daimyô can be considered military parades, or martial affairs otherwise, even though in both the Japanese and Qing cases there is no actual combat taking place – the land is already conquered and pacified. Chang describes his approach explicitly as ““Altaic” or “Qing-centered” Qing history” (9), and argues – drawing upon Crossley, or extending her argument – that Qing rule was centered largely on reinforcing and ensuring rule by the Manchu people (ethnicity) and the Aisin Gioro lineage (dynasty) in particular, something Chang terms as “ethno-dynastic” rule (8). He writes,

Ethnicity, then, matters to the study of late imperial China, but only in an ideological sense – that is, as a particular set of meanings, generated and mobilized in order to construct some belief in group affinity … the basis for establishing and sustaining relations of patrimonial domination (17).

and articulates the Qing state as one organized, fundamentally, on a patrimonial basis, in which the empire is conceived of metaphorically as a massively extended family, with the Emperor as Father. All loyalty is to fathers / lords / masters, and not to a semi-independent civil apparatus which transcends the dynastic household, i.e. to an abstract notion of the State or the Government (12-14). While Chang does not employ the term “feudalism,” or draw direct parallels to the Japanese case, this does certainly seem to describe the Tokugawa state, to my mind, and in any case it presents an informatively stark contrast to the Ming Dynasty, in which Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance clearly shows the state – the rule of law, the systems of governance, the Confucian ideals – had more power than even the Emperor himself. Not the case in the Qing, at least ideally (ideologically), according to Chang.

Officials prostrating towards the Emperor, at the Forbidden City, in the film “The Last Emperor.”

Joanna Waley-Cohen summarizes the whole “New Qing History” movement in a 2004 article in the Radical History Review.

One additional argument she discusses is the idea of a shift in the Qing period away from the Sinocentric idea of Confucian civilization as the only civilization, to a multi-faceted, multicultural one in which the Qing rulers took on different identities & ideologies of rule for each of several different constituencies. The Qianlong Emperor was not only the Confucian source of civilization & axis between heaven and earth; he was also simultaneously the Manchu Great Khan, the Tibetan Buddhist cakravartin (“wheel-turning king”), and even claimed to be a reincarnation of the bodhisattva Manjusri.

More than all the rest, I’d recommend reading this, which summarizes the movement, or trend, as a whole, listing and describing eight scholarly monographs from the New Qing History field. I quite enjoyed learning so much more about China, in the course of reading for these exams, and especially reading about this intriguing new perspective on Chinese history.

This brings our survey of books on Chinese history to an end. Next up, the long-awaited summaries of books on Japanese history.

——
(1) Joanna Waley-Cohen. “The New Qing History.” Radical History Review 88, no. 1 (2004), 201.

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James Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, Duke
University Press (1995).

James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar is quite valuable not only as a wonderfully thorough and detailed account of the 1793 Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, but also for the arguments and frameworks it provides us for understanding political/diplomatic ritual and ceremony, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of the Sinocentric world order.

Among many others, one of the key threads running through the text focuses on court ritual, that is, formalized performances – words, actions, dress and appearance otherwise – as manifested in the interactions between Lord Macartney’s British embassy and the officials of the Qing court. As Hevia explains, a dominant view in the West both in 1793 and today, borne out of the Enlightenment tradition, identifies ritual as associated with the archaic, and the non-modern. The classic, dominant narrative of the Macartney embassy describes the Qing Court as blinded and hampered by “an insistence … on maintaining appearances or bending reality to fit appearances,” and identifies the emphasis on ritual as indicating “an absence of fully conscious rationality, a confusion of categories, and limited understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.” Hevia argues, and explains, however, that ritual must not be seen as mere theatre, nor as opposed to “real” political activity; rather, we must recognize the ways in which “ritual activities are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations.”

Hevia also discusses the conceptual, ritual, functionings of Imperial “guest ritual” (賓禮, binli), and the so-called Sinocentric world order. Expanding upon the understandings conveyed in Fairbank’s Chinese World Order and other writings, Hevia explains that the exchange between the Emperor and tribute embassies can be understood as a process of initiating and completing, with the extension (da) of Imperial virtue (德, de) to encompass distant realms, and the response of that realm to send ambassadors and tribute, and to show sincere desire to join the Chinese world order (向化之誠, xiang hua zhi cheng), as the two crucial elements of the exchange required to enact, or maintain, the cosmic order. We come to understand more fully, now, how this ritual connects, too, to the process of investiture, the incorporation of imperial vassals and foreign rulers into the system as empowering them to replicate the same ritual relationships back home, with their own vassals. What was understood in previous scholarship as a concept enacted only within the Imperial Court, and within the minds of the Emperor and officials of the Court, now seems much more discursively real and powerful, as it is replicated across a network of hierarchical relations, manifesting throughout the Chinese Empire and its broader Sinocentric world. The tribute/investiture system, and its underlying logics, may have been a Chinese invention, but it was adopted and adapted throughout the region, and had considerable significance, perhaps comparable in some senses to the so-called Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states – a European invention which has now been adopted and adapted throughout the world.

Hevia’s inclusion of numerous specific Chinese terms relevant to the ritual conceptions, and provision of usable English equivalents, is additionally valuable for my efforts to be able to articulate these concepts in my own work. One of the most difficult aspects of my project researching Ryukyuan embassies has been the conceptualization, and articulation, of aspects of these concepts, and being able to understand 謝恩 (C: xiè ēn; J: shaon) as “expressing gratitude for imperial grace,” while still a bit vague and slippery, is a helpful step towards understanding, and thus being able to myself describe, just what it is that embassies are said to be expressing thanks for. That being said, however, one must be careful trusting Hevia (or any scholar, unfortunately) too blindly – Joseph Esherick published a review entitled “Cherishing Sources from Afar” in which he roundly tears Hevia apart for, allegedly, supposedly, mis-translating terms and misinterpreting documents. Who to trust? I don’t know. Much of Hevia’s writing is quite compelling – but if Esherick is right, and it’s based on mistaken interpretations, then we have a problem. But, if Esherick is the one who is mistaken, then perhaps we don’t. Beats me.

For Macartney, and in the dominant Western understanding since that time, ritual performance was merely representational; within the Chinese paradigm, however, ritual performance was itself constitutive – the ritual is not just a show of respect, but is indeed the construction and maintenance itself of power relationships, and of the domestic and international order otherwise. For the British, performing ceremony poorly or not at all was disrespectful, but for the Chinese, performing it incorrectly or not at all was destructive of the natural order itself.

The various aspects of the Chinese emperor-centric cosmological worldview, and its manifestations in foreign (“tributary”) relations, as well as the role of ritual and performance as not merely discursive, but constitutive, are two concepts which are central to my research on the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo. Certainly, both Ryukyu and Tokugawa Japan were deeply enmeshed in Confucian and Sinocentric discourses, with the Tokugawa shogunate appropriating those discourses to construct a sort of Japan-centric, or shogun-centric mode of constructing and performing hierarchical relationships (including the reception of foreign envoys from Ryukyu and Korea, in emulation of the Chinese Emperor’s reception of foreign envoys ); but, more examination and consideration will be necessary, I think, not only to more fully grasp these two concepts to begin with, but also to consider how they might be applied to the case of Ryukyu/Tokugawa relations, and how to articulate their functionings in that context.

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