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Shlepped myself out to Chiba last month, to the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku) to see their new temporary special exhibit, Umi no teikoku: Ryukyu 海の帝国:琉球 , which focuses on “medieval” Ryukyu from the perspective of Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama. These are the island groups to the north and south of Okinawa Island, each with their own distinctive histories and culture, that were forcibly brought under the sway of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15-16th centuries, where notions of being “colonized” by Okinawa can still today be heard, in contrast to notions of unity or solidarity as fellow Ryukyuans.

This is fantastic. It’s rare enough to see whole special exhibits dedicated to Ryukyuan history, and as wonderful and special as it would have been to do a Shuri-centered or Okinawa-centered exhibit (both in general, and in the wake of the fire at Shuri gusuku in 2019), it’s really something to see them do a show based on perspectives from outside of Okinawa Island. I have to wonder, when was the last time that any of the most major museums in the greater Tokyo area did a show focusing specifically on these “outer” parts of the Ryukyus? And, not only that, but as I’ve mentioned on this blog before, there a several current trends in Ryukyu Studies for reassessment of the Ryukyu Kingdom as an “empire,” reassessment of just how unified even Okinawa Island really was prior to the 15th or 16th century, and an increased focus on these outer islands and the differing perspective they can offer. So, as I’m sure the curators are well aware and did quite intentionally, this exhibit comes at an extremely timely time, in terms of its relation to current trends in scholarship. I know for myself, having enjoyed the privilege of visiting Okinawa quite a number of times but largely remaining centered in Naha, and outside of my trip to Amami last year, having never been to any of the other islands, I learned so much from visiting Amami, and sorely want to visit some of the Miyakos and Yaeyamas. Beautiful, fascinating, culturally rich places, and places which will surely provide new perspectives, new insights, on Okinawa.

Just walking into the gallery was a pleasure. I’m not sure whether I feel I should compare it to the feeling of seeing the Royal Hawaiian Featherwork exhibit at LACMA back in 2016, when the gallery was filled with special guests from Hawaiʻi, and it just felt like I was back in the Honolulu Museum or something; amidst a community. But there was maybe an inkling of a similar feeling that day last month, as I stepped into a space that made me feel as though I were transported to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Amami Museum. Made me feel like I was in a wholly different cultural space, learning about the local histories of a place far from Tokyo or Chiba, and seeing artifacts and topics discussed that would be exactly what’s expected from a (beautifully newly redone) local history museum, yet transported, transposed, to this national museum and made available, visible, to people in the metropole.

Furusutubaru ruins フルスト原遺跡 on Ishigaki Island.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.

After a brief section of maps showing Japanese and European awareness of Ryukyu in the region, the very next section introduced us to the history of medieval settlements in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands. Now, I suppose I should take a moment to mention, I’m using “medieval” here only as a standard translation or equivalent for the Japanese term chūsei 中世, used to refer to the period between (in Japan) roughly 1185 to 1600. As it happens, there’s a discussion on the Premodern Japanese Studies (PMJS) mailing list right now about these periodizations and what we should call them and questions of just what was “medieval” about this period – of course, applying Japanese periods to islands with minimal Japanese contact yet at this point is even more iffy. But, for simplicity, I’m sticking with it. The exhibit uses the word 中世, as does the 2019 book Ryūkyū no chūsei 琉球の中世, which represents some of the newest scholarship on the subject, so I’ll just stick with it too.

In any case, apparently many of the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands feature the remains of chūsei-era settlements encircled with stone walls (石垣を積み上げた集落) in forms unlike anything seen on Okinawa Island. Archaeological excavations at these sites have uncovered large amounts of Chinese pottery, porcelains, and coins, and something about the relative absence of these same styles of porcelains from other islands or from mainland Japan at the same time strongly suggests to scholars that there must have been some kind of direct trade/interchange between the islands and mainland China at this time – i.e. these porcelains and pottery were not coming in via trade with Japan. The Japanese describes these materials as 白磁 and 青磁, literally “white porcelain” and “blue porcelain,” and to be frank I was a bit confused because these were most certainly not the “blue and white porcelain” we are most familiar with seeing – white porcelain decorated with bold cobalt blue designs. Now that I’m home and writing this up, I googled and found that 白磁 refers to a plainer white porcelain (without cobalt blue designs) and 青磁 to celadon, which is like a lightbulb moment – makes a lot of sense, since when we read about medieval Ryukyu or Japan in English, we hear a lot about celadons. In any case, shards and scraps of such porcelains were overwhelmingly the most numerous artifacts in the exhibit. The exhibit notes that it’s unclear exactly what the islanders traded in exchange for these Chinese goods, but Korean castaway accounts record indigo dyeing in the Yaeyamas, and it’s believed that textiles, lumber, and grain are likely candidates.

These settlements mostly seem to have appeared around the 13-14th centuries, enjoyed their peak in the 14-15th centuries, and declined and disappeared in the 16th. I didn’t read every word of every label, and I’m not taking the time to check again in the catalog (which I bought for a surprisingly reasonable 1300 yen), but I’m pretty sure the exhibit didn’t talk explicitly at all about the ethnic (for lack of a better word) origins or character of these people.

In his 2019 book Maritime Ryukyu, Gregory Smits argues (based on the work of Okinawan and Japanese scholars too) that most of the big-name figures in medieval Ryukyu history, including in Miyako and Yaeyama, were likely not “indigenous” islanders in the sense of being some completely different ethnic group from the Japanese, but rather were likely wakō sea lords, likely of Japanese descent, who had come into the islands and established themselves there only a generation or two or three earlier. Overall, he suggests that “the Ryukyuan people,” such as they are understood today, are descended primarily from a number of successive waves of migrations into the islands from Japan in the 11th-15th centuries, completely displacing or absorbing the non-Japonic (Austronesian? Filipino?) indigenous peoples who may have been there previously. Scholars such as Mark Hudson, similarly, suggest that while up until a certain point the islands were inhabited by Austronesian or perhaps pre-Austronesian peoples2 with stark cultural differences from the Japonic peoples of the northern and central Ryukyus, isolated to a certain extent by the Kerama Gap – a large span of ocean between Okinawa and Miyako in which there are no islands – the indigenous languages spoken on all the southern islands in early modern and modern times are all related to one another and to Japanese – they are not Austronesian languages.

Given the implications for popular and scholarly understandings of just who the peoples of these southern islands are today, and who they were centuries ago – indigenous Ryukyuans? indigenous peoples distinct from the Okinawans who invaded them? descendants of Japanese migrants? – I was a bit disappointed, and frankly confused, that unless I missed it, I don’t think the exhibit actually talked about who it was that occupied these 13th-16th century (pre-Ryukyu Kingdom) settlements at all. Still, it was fascinating to learn about these, and to learn the names of specific ones; many of these stone-walled ruins later became sacred sites, which islanders respect as associated with their distant ancestors, performing ceremonies or ritual acts of respect or honor, apparently in ways (traditions) unrelated to Okinawan religion. Very interesting. And now that I know the names of these sites (incl. Furusutobaru on Ishigaki, Komi harbor on Iriomote, and Mishuku & Mashuku mura on Hateruma), I can add them to my list of places to hopefully visit someday.

Model of Yoron gusuku. Property of Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Image from this Asahi shinbun article, because god forbid Rekihaku should make any effort to grant visitors permission to take photos of things in Rekihaku’s own collection, or to secure permission from other museums for visitors to take photos of what’s not even a precious historical artifact but only a model.

The exhibit continued by then jumping from the Miyakos and Yaeyamas in the south to the Amami Islands to the north of Okinawa. We got to see a nice model/diorama of Yoron gusuku, which I had not known about. And which I now wish I’d snuck a photo of, since the image in the catalog is terrible. Not that I would have had a chance to see this gusuku on my 45 min layover or whatever it was on Yoron last year, but, well, one more place to know about to try to visit in future. The northernmost of the large-scale Okinawan-style gusuku fortresses (i.e. akin to Zakimi, Nakagusuku, Katsuren, and Nakijin on Okinawa Island), Yoron gusuku apparently still has some significant remaining ruins of stone walls, occupying two or three levels stepping up along the side of a cliff, in the southwestern portion of Yoron Island, facing Okinawa (the next island to the south). According to the exhibit, legend says it was built by Okinawan-based rulers (i.e. the kingdom of either Hokuzan or Chūzan) in the 15th-16th centuries, but archaeological evidence suggests it was built earlier. This is just my amateur opinion, but if a fortress is facing towards Okinawa, seems to me more likely it was built as a watchtower and defense against the Okinawans than being built by them, no? In any case, perhaps this is just one more example of (1) Okinawa-centered narratives, and (2) speaking more globally, narratives which presuppose that the most dominant culture in a region must have built X, because surely the local indigenous people couldn’t have done so. … Of course, that said, it’s also quite possible that “local indigenous people” had less to do with this than, again, sea lords (brigands/smugglers) of some sort.

Moving on, the exhibit talks briefly about the early history of Kikaigashima (Kikai Island), saying that the ki in the name of the island was originally written with the characters 貴 (ki, precious, valuable) or 喜 (ki, rejoice, take pleasure in), because of its association with the shimmering, precious, turbo (turban) shells (J: yakо̄gai 夜光貝) which were a highly-prized and widely traded luxury good in the region in ancient times. Kikai and the surrounding islands were apparently regarded even in ancient times by the Dazaifu (the branch headquarters in Kyushu of the imperial government in Kansai) as being in some way part of the territory of the Yamato state (i.e. “Japan”) – as it’s phrased in the gallery labels, 「南九州の領主、内の世界とし自分たちの所領として確保」. Still, that said, the earliest record of an island by the name of Kikaijima is an entry from the Nihon kiryaku 日本紀略 corresponding to the year 998, in which Dazaifu orders the capture of “nanban” 南蛮 – southern barbarians – from Kikai. Based on a document from the previous year called Shōyūki 小右記, scholars apparently understand that “Nanban” here refers to Amami Islanders (even though the same term is much more familiar to most of us in Japanese Studies as a term referring in the 16-17th centuries to Europeans).

By the late 12th century, Kikai became a place for the Heian court or the Kamakura shogunate to exile people. It then became common to replace the “esteemed” 貴 or 喜 in the name of the island with the character 鬼 (ki, demon), making it Kikaigashima 鬼界ヶ島 – the Demon World Island. There were a number of prominent historical figures exiled there over time – one of the most famous being the monk Shunkan, who got in trouble for plotting against Taira no Kiyomori (top samurai puppetmaster of the imperial court at the time) in the 1177 Shishigatani Incident, and whose grave can still be found on Kikai today. I sorely regret not visiting when I had the chance a year ago, when I was on Amami; if I’d planned my time better, or had just one more day, I could have taken a little boat over to Kikai, poked around the sites, and come back all in one day. I think. Maybe.

1306 shobunjо̄ associated with Chikama Tokiie. Reproduction owned by National Museum of Japanese History. Image taken from somewhere on the internet because, again, god forbid the museum should allow photos of an object in their own collection, which isn’t even an original artifact but is merely a reproduction.

In any case, the exhibit then jumped ahead a few centuries to show a series of documents indicating the progression of which of the northernmost Ryukyu Islands were regarded as included within Japanese – really, Satsuma province – spheres of authority or conceptions of outright territory, and how this changed over time.

The first is a shobunjо̄ 処分状 – a document dividing up [territory] – associated with Chikama Tokiie 千竃時家, a gokenin (houseman?) for the Kamakura shogunate, c. 1306. Originally from Owari province (Nagoya), he was appointed jitôdai (steward?) of Kawanabe district in Satsuma province (basically, somewhere in the western fork of that southernmost part of Kyushu, south of Kagoshima castle-town). This was really interesting to see, for two reasons. Firstly, according to the interpretative information on the gallery labels (I couldn’t read through the document on my own), the document somehow shows an awareness or acknowledgement at the time that Kawanabe district or Satsuma province collected revenues and resources (収益と資産) from the islands of Kikai, О̄shima, Erabu, Tokunoshima, Yakushima, and “the seven islands” (a reference to the Tokaras), but did not control / administer (支配) those islands. So, that’s really interesting. I’d have to read up more – I’m only learning a lot of this for the first time – but it would definitely be interesting to learn a little more extensively just how territory or the bounds or extent of “Japan” was imagined or regarded at this time. The second piece of this that was really interesting was that the document then divides up those revenues or resources among the members of Tokiie’s family – *including his wife and daughters*. I suppose I did know on some level that elite women had quite a bit more social rights and privileges in earlier periods, e.g. pertaining to inheriting headship of a family, owning land, calling for their own divorce. But, again, this is way outside my field and period of specialty, so… it’s interesting to see how women may have been included in this, with seemingly some sort of rights to actually be granted, or to claim, a share of the family’s revenues or inheritance or whatever it may be. If anyone reading this knows gender politics in medieval Japan better, please do let me know your thoughts or knowledge on this.

The next was a document from 1227, associated with Fujiwara Yoritsune, which documents the transfer (譲与) to Shimazu Tadahisa (d. 1227) of the position of jito (steward) overseeing the twelve islands (the five Kuchi islands 口五島 and the seven islands 七島).1 A document from 1363 in which Shimazu Sadahisa describes the territory he is granting to his heir Morohisa acknowledges the “twelve islands plus the five islands” (which islands? beats me) as being attached to 付随 Kawanabe district. So, basically, we’re seeing Shimazu claims to territory – or to rights to revenue, or something – gradually increasing. From these documents alone, of course, it seems arbitrary and one-sided, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s true; but we don’t have the in-between information, or, at least I didn’t happen to notice such information in the gallery labels.

The exhibit devoted quite a bit more space than I would have expected to developments on Okinawa Island. I suppose that this is likely due to either my misinterpreting the theme – it’s “empire of the sea: medieval [Ryukyu] as seen from Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama,” i.e. an exhibit focusing on the “empire” and not solely on those “outer” island groups. Or it could also be in part because of a lack of artifacts, documents, or content to share if they had focused more exclusively on those islands; also, given how infrequently the museum does special exhibits on Ryukyu, perhaps they also felt they just had stuff they wanted to share.

The Engaku-ji bell as pictured in the exhibition catalogue. Because, again, no photos allowed in the gallery for god knows what reason.

One particularly striking item, which I was surprised to learn about, was a bell from Engaku-ji 円覚寺 – the Zen Buddhist temple located just below Shuri gusuku – which includes in its inscription the phrase Shо̄ Shin teiо̄ 尚真帝王, using the character 「帝」for “emperor.” What. Wow. While I’m beginning to be convinced that Ryukyu functioned like an empire in certain ways, in terms of the way the center extended its power over the peripheries, etc., I had always fallen back on the argument that Ryukyu very explicitly had a “king” 国王 whose legitimacy was invested in him by the Emperor 皇帝 in Beijing, thus making him a “king” of a “kingdom,” and not an “emperor” of an “empire.” But, if Shо̄ Shin is explicitly calling himself teiо̄ 帝王, then that complicates things a bit. Hmm. Food for thought.

The exhibit continued in the back corner of the first gallery, where we were treated to a brief overview of early developments on Okinawa Island itself. Migrations from Kyushu and elsewhere around the 11th century spurred the introduction or expansion of agriculture and a shift away from more exclusively hunter-gatherer / fishing lifestyles; in connection with this, many settlements began to move inland from the coast, i.e. towards agricultural land and not only grouped up on the coast where fishing and other maritime activities could be the sole / primary source of survival. This was when we began to see post-construction homes and storehouses, it seems.

Then, in the 14th century or so, gusuku. Though most gusuku today are known most famously or most iconically for their winding stone walls, it makes sense that the earliest gusuku (like early medieval fortresses in Japan) began with wooden fences and the like, before stone walls became a prominent feature in later decades/centuries. The exhibit devotes a little space to highlighting the Mekarubaru settlement as an example of one site from this time. Dating to roughly the 12th-13th century, digs at Mekarubaru have uncovered great amounts of Chinese pottery and porcelain, an indication of the interconnectedness of even these slightly less-central settlements into region-wide trade networks. Sadly, the site of Mekarubaru (near Ameku, in what is today northern Naha City) was largely destroyed during the establishment of US military bases on the island in the late 1940s or later. Sadly, a very common story in Okinawa and around the world. (Interesting to see how when one Googles “US military babylon,” the first three results are an article from the UK-based Guardian entitled “Babylon wrecked by war: US-led forces leave a trail of destruction and contamination in architectural site of world importance,” and two from US-based news agencies, with much softer, hedgier, headlines: “U.S. troops accused of damaging Babylon’s ancient wonder” and “U.S. admits military damaged Babylon ruins.”)

Model / diorama of Naha harbor. To the right we see the two fortresses of Mii gusuku 三重城 and Yarazamui gusuku 屋良座森城, which guarded the entrance to the harbor. On the left, Umungusuku 御物城 hanging out in the middle of the water – this was iirc a relatively general storehouse, while the one near the bottom left corner of this image is Iо̄gusuku 硫黄城, the sulfur storehouse.

Finally, the last section of the exhibit focused on how goods (tribute or taxes) from the various islands were brought into Naha harbor, and where they were stored. There were a couple of gorgeous models of the harbor, with each fortress and warehouse labeled, which I sorely wish I had snuck photos of, since I didn’t realize they weren’t going to be depicted well in the catalog, and since I have never seen these on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum (which owns them). I am not really properly expert at the urban history of Naha, but I’ve spent enough time in the city – including walking around to as many historical sites as I can – that I have a pretty good sense of the basic geography. As a result, as someone who does have some sense of the geography, I found it particularly interesting and meaningful to see on these models and on maps/diagrams just where each of these different sites had been located. The Iо̄ gusuku 硫黄城 warehouse for sulfur (iо̄ 硫黄) from Iо̄torishima, which I’d already known vaguely of, was in the area of the city known as Watanji 渡地, and what I didn’t know is that another warehouse was quite nearby – known as the Miyako-gusuku 宮古城, it held goods shipped in from the Miyakos.

Finally finally, we saw a few of the original handwritten notebooks of Ifa Fuyū 伊波普猷, “father of Okinawan Studies.” Like those of Kamakura Yoshitarо̄, these are just beautiful. I wonder if I could get a chance to see them in person; they’re held at the Hо̄sei University Okinawan Studies Center, here in Tokyo, which is certainly easily accessible. But, I always get nervous requesting to see items that I don’t actually have a serious research reason to see… and especially things like these. I mean, it’s funny – they’re 20th century items; a lot younger/newer than most of the original historical documents I handle. Newer, in fact, than most of the hand-copied manuscript copies that are just sitting on the shelves at my own Institute. But, even though, they’re fragile and precious… One thing I do think I’ll be able to get access to, though, is a set of illustrations or paintings which are held by my own Institute and which I had no idea about, depicting shrines, temples, and various other locations in Naha.

I’m not sure I have anything to say to wrap this up… It was fantastic to see an exhibit focusing on Amami, Miyako, and Yaeyama, and to learn more about these “outer” islands of the archipelago. The Ryukyus are marginal enough in Japanese history (and all the more so in world history) – to get to learn about these fascinating different islands, deepening my understanding and appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within Ryukyuan or Japanese or East Asian history, was just great. It’s a shame the exhibit wasn’t larger, and didn’t allow photos. To be honest, it felt like sort of a start, a gesture in the direction of that there might be a fuller exhibit at some point… but it is most definitely a start.

The exhibit is still open until May 9. National Museum of Japanese History 国立歴史民俗博物館, a short walk from Keisei Sakura station [1 hr from Ueno; 20 mins from Narita Airport, by local train], in Chiba.

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1 The seven islands here again refers to the Tokara Islands. The five Kuchi islands, I’m assuming includes Kuchinoshima and Kuchinoerabushima, but which other three I’m not sure.

2 The idea that the peoples of Sakishima prior to Japonic migrations were Austronesian means they were descendants of people who came into the Yaeyamas and Miyakos from Taiwan; it means they would have been ethnically or culturally related to the indigenous groups of Taiwan today, and a bit more distantly but nevertheless related to Micronesians and Polynesians who settled the Pacific. “Pre-Austronesians” here means they may have been descended from peoples pushed out of Taiwan when those Austronesian (today “indigenous” or “aboriginal”) groups gained dominance.

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It’s easy to think of things in black and white, and to paint things with a broad brush of imperialism, colonialism, racism, militarism (take your pick). But dig just a tiny bit under the surface, and you’ll find that reality is rarely that simple. Is the solution really so obvious, simple to achieve, and definitively the right thing to do? Is it truly the case that the only obstacles to that solution are bad people, villains? Or are the obstacles at least partially logistical, practical, and due to the complexity of the situation? Are there really only two sides?

Sometimes it takes far more courage than it should have to, to simply be willing and able to say that things are more complicated than a simple full-throated defense of one side (and an equally full-throated condemnation of the other) would have you believe. And it is precisely that courageous stance that Akemi Johnson takes in her book Night in the American Village (The New Press, 2019). As she writes:

I was tired of hearing these crude dichotomies, wielded for political use. The pure, innocent victim and the slut who asked for it. The faultless activist and the rabid protestor. The demonic American soldier and his savior counterpart. They’re all caricatures, and if we’re using them to understand the larger political, sociohistorical situation – the U.S. military in Okinawa, and by extension the U.S.-Japan security alliance and America’s system of overseas basing – we’re not getting anywhere. Dichotomies like these disempower and silence the real people involved with the bases, the full cast of characters who often inhabit ambiguous spaces. (13-14)

I had the pleasure of meeting Akemi in 2017, while I was in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and she, I presume, finishing up work for this book. I waited eagerly for the book, and as soon as it came out, I dove right in; Johnson’s narrative style makes it, for sure, a page-turner, though due entirely to my own distractions and faults, my hopes and intentions of devoting myself to it and finishing it quickly did not pan out. Still, better late than never to draft and post a few thoughts, I figure.

A road construction sign along the highway in Nago. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Over the course of years of fieldwork, Johnson spoke with, and lived among, Okinawan women with a wide range of relationships with the US military bases, and she relates their stories in a way that brings to life the complex, nuanced, realities of life in Okinawa. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, in most cases given by a pseudonym, using their experience as a window into, or jumping-off point for, discussing a different aspect or different side of life in Okinawa. The women range from military wives, on-base workers, and young Okinawan “amejo” girls at clubs + bars disparaged for seeking relationships with American men to devoted anti-base protesters; from exotic dancers, English teachers, and foreign workers to multiracial students. Relating all of these stories through a focus on women brings, of course, a feminist perspective to the entire subject, and we do see discussion of issues of sexual assault, the intersections between military culture and toxic masculinity, interracial & international marriages, sex work, and other issues one might expect in a “feminist” or “gendered” approach. But centering women also serves to de-Other them, implicitly showing that by virtue of women being people (imagine that) all issues, by virtue of being issues that involve and affect people, are thus issues that involve and affect women. Johnson masterfully weaves these themes together in a way that makes the entire book read not like a Women’s Studies / Feminist book that happens to be about Okinawa, but rather an Okinawa book – a book about politics and society – that happens to relate its stories and arguments through a focus on some people (women) much more so than others (men), naturalizing and centering women’s experiences and concerns as human experiences and concerns.

The book is thoroughly researched and extensively footnoted (well, endnotes, but “footnoted” sounds better), but at the same time reads engagingly, at times narratively, less like much academic writing (including my own) and more like, well, exactly the sort of non-fiction “trade” book that it is. Sections of artfully phrased, compelling writing about the situation in a grand scope are interspersed with ones relating elements of the life of an individual woman living on Okinawa.

For foreign host communities, American bases provide jobs but also eat up land and spew American soldiers, American families, and American culture; they fill the air with jets, the roads with tanks, and the ground with toxic waste. The United States is the only country in the world to have this worldwide network of bases, and yet they remain largely outside the American consciousness. Americans unconnected to the military don’t often think of them. (6)

Arisa had grown up to marry one of the men behind the fence. She was in her early thirties now, a beautiful woman with bright eyes and freckles. Her husband Brian had retired from the military and worked as an on-base contractor, granting the family SOFA status and access to the base. That day, she was headed with their one-year-old son to an international festival, where Brian was performing with his dojo. The festival was off base on Gate 2 Street, but Arisa was using the base as a shortcut. Driving around it would have taken much longer. (91)

Night in the American Village provides us with the kind of personal, emotional, human sense of the situation that is so often missing from academic writing and thus so refreshing to find in literature and art. But Johnson does not skimp on hard-hitting, important, and interesting facts. I learned more about the US Occupation of Okinawa, and the facts and figures of the situation today, than I think I ever have elsewhere. Though the themes and information are scattered throughout the book, making it difficult to think of assigning students (or friends, or relatives) any one chapter, the volume as a whole is probably the best introduction to the complexities and realities of race, nation, economy, and the US base situation in Okinawa today that I have read.

A restaurant/bar directly across the street from the fences of Camp Foster Marine Corps base. Photo my own, Nov 2016.

One theme I found particularly compelling, which pops up here and there throughout the book but particularly in Chapter Eight (“Miyo”), is that of biracial or multiracial (or, as is commonly said in Japanese, “hafu“) identity, the place of multiracial people within Okinawa, and the character of Okinawa (not unlike Hawaiʻi) as a place where cultural & ethnic identities mix enough that Johnson (someone of mixed Japanese/white background) should write that she felt more comfortable in Okinawa than in mainland Japan. I found particularly compelling the way that Johnson illustrates the complexity here as well – tensions and issues of “race,” “ethnicity,” or “identity” are not so simply a matter of Black and White, American and Okinawan, Okinawan and Japanese, “half” and “full.” It’s also the multiracial folks who speak English and those who don’t; those who by virtue of their family members’ jobs have access to base (and the experience of that very different cultural space) and those who don’t; the influences of mainland/mainstream American and Japanese discourses upon multiracial kids’ ideas about what sort of appearances or features are beautiful, or normal, or desirable; American and Japanese notions of Blackness; and so on and so forth. The complexities of the pros and cons to special schools for mixed-race kids that provide a conducive environment among other kids with whom they share the experience of being mixed-race (and mixed culture, and so forth), shielding them from the bullying or harassment they might suffer in mainstream public schools, plus the opportunity to have American-style, partial American content, and/or English-language instruction, but then also the question of whether separating students out in this way makes it more difficult both for them and for their mainstream public school counterparts (who are mostly of “full” for lack of a better word Okinawan or Japanese ethnic background) to engage with one another and get along once the mixed-race students are forced into mainstream public high schools, and of course after they graduate and go out into society as adults.

Johnson’s line that “to me, Miyo [a young woman of mixed Okinawan/African-American background] belonged here, to this whole island” (180) stood out particularly strongly for me. I am not mixed-race myself, but after living in Hawaiʻi and Okinawa for some time, I think I have some sense of what she is talking about. She goes on to talk about how being of mixed-race on Okinawa isn’t entirely different from being Okinawan more generally, insofar as all Okinawans – those of mixed-race and those not – all struggle with being seen as Japanese enough, and with the various ways in which their “Japanese but not Japanese [enough]” status or identity manifests itself. While the conversation around mixed-race people so often centers on belonging to multiple communities, and/or feelings of insufficient belonging or insufficient “fitting in” with any of those communities, and while that is of course very much true for mixed-race people on Okinawa as well, I think it also rings very true that being mixed-race is so typical in Okinawa (as it is in Hawaiʻi) that it results in an identity that in some ways perhaps helps one feel like they belong fully to that place, perhaps even more fully than someone of solely Okinawan or, especially, Japanese background. When mixed-race, or (Japanese but not Japanese) Okinawan, people are the majority, then being mixed-race doesn’t make you stand out, different, an outcast, only partially or imperfectly belonging – your mixed identity is fully matching with the mixed identity of the society you live in. Indeed, while white privilege certainly rears its head in Okinawa as it does almost everywhere in the world, at the same time, Johnson writes that in Okinawa, many White kids feel it’s the half-Okinawan kids who are the cool ones, for their ability to feel comfortable and fit in both on- and off-base, and their ability to navigate both worlds. One hafu woman said that she used to wear brown contacts to hide her blue eyes, so she could look more Okinawan (182). There is a privilege to being Okinawan, as well; and we can see a similar phenomenon in Hawaiʻi, too, where the White (haole) majority may on average be more wealthy, more well-placed and influential in local politics and business, and “privileged” otherwise in many of the typical meanings of the word, but where they will at the same time always be outsiders amongst the Asian/Pacific Islander (most of whom are mixed-race) majority.

Barbed wire blocking access to Umungusuku, the historical site of the kingdom’s chief storehouse. Base fences block many Okinawans from accessing their ancestral graves, the former sites of their ancestral villages and the associated sacred spaces, and indeed land their family once owned or still does. Photo my own, Aug 9, 2013.

The imperialist and colonialist treatment of Okinawa, and the negative impacts of the ongoing US military presence there, are real, and the impacts are profound, serious, severe. From the wide-ranging assimilation efforts following the unilateral annexation of the islands by the Empire of Japan in 1879; to the willful neglect of Okinawa’s economic development in the decades following; to Tokyo allowing, or even encouraging, extensive death and destruction to be visited upon Okinawa and its people in 1945 in the hopes that in sacrificing Okinawa in this manner, mainland Japan, the “real” “Japan,” might be spared the same; to 27 years of US occupation; to nearly 50 years now since the end of the Occupation, years filled with plane crashes, sexual assaults, murders, environmental damage, noise pollution, and in 2020, the spread of Covid-19 by American servicemembers into an Okinawan civilian population that had had zero known positive test cases for weeks on end. And on top of all of this, the utter falsehoods which too many in the military believe, and teach to one another, about anti-base protesters being shills paid by the Chinese Communist Party; or that they’re allied with mainland Japanese right-wing ultra-nationalists; the kinds of lies that, through denying the validity and seriousness of the protest, makes it even more difficult to ever reach a solution. All of these problems are real, and profoundly seriously impactful, and I am now and expect I will always remain deeply sympathetic towards the Okinawan people in their fight for justice and equality, for cultural revival and pride, and for reconciling with an extremely difficult past and attempting to build a brighter future.

But that alone is not the end of the story. When I visited Okinawa for the first time, way back in 2008, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of anti-American sentiment. I had certainly experienced plenty of it at SOAS, which is a story for another time, and I had never yet been to Hawaiʻi; had no experience yet with navigating that somewhat similar situation. Anxious about being associated with any sort of stereotype of the bad American, whenever people asked me outright where I come from, or if I’m American, I answered that “I am American, but I’m opposed to the bases.” To my surprise, though, people very often responded with something along the lines of, “oh, it’s not that simple. You can’t just be ‘opposed to the bases.’ They cause a lot of problems, yes, but a lot of us work on base. We rely on the bases for jobs, and for the economy. You can’t just say ‘get rid of the bases.’ And, besides, after so many decades, we’re a little Americanized. It’s part of what Okinawa is today. So, it’s more complicated than that.” Now, granted, there are all kinds of factors – this was said to me most often by older men, so perhaps it’s not perfectly reflective of what most Okinawans, old and young, men and women, would all have to say.

Driving past the gates to, I’m guessing, Camp Schwab, near Henoko Bay. I’ve never been inside any of the bases on the island. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

It’s exactly that complexity, that nuance, that diversity of opinions, experiences, and perspectives, that Akemi Johnson so adeptly and engagingly brings to life in Night in the American Village – far more masterfully than I can in my summary of it. Johnson devotes multiple chapters to the perspectives of, and issues pertaining to, activists. The book begins and nearly ends (but for a few pages) with discussion of the horrific rape and murder of a young Okinawan woman by a former Marine in 2016, just months before I arrived in Okinawa for my dissertation research, and explores at length the dangers of the US bases, the damage and problems they continue to cause, and the uphill battle to convince Tokyo and Washington to finally give up on building a new, way-over-budget and devastatingly environmentally destructive base in Henoko Bay.

But then she also presents stories and perspectives of women who find working or socializing with Americans a way of escaping gender inequalities or patriarchal or sexist attitudes in “regular” Okinawan or Japanese society, or simply as a practical choice for a good-paying, stable job with flexible vacation time and so forth. American women who never really asked to be involved in any of this, but have simply been deployed – or have followed along with a spouse who was deployed – to somewhere new and different, where they don’t speak the language and where they’re just trying to get by best as they can; I’m not sure if Johnson provides the numbers, but I get the impression that a very considerable portion of the US servicemembers in Okinawa have never lived outside the US before. Many may not have ever left their home state before. She presents a complicated story in which there is, to be sure, much to the idea that the fundamental culture of the military “breeds violence both at work and at home,” that military culture breeds toxic masculinity and thus domestic and sexual violence, and that the military presence is just, overall, across the board, dangerous and damaging; but, then, at the same time, marking the bases as “pollution” means that everyone associated with them is also polluted, stigmatizing everyone who works on base or has relationships on base, which both prevents them from feeling welcome in the protest movement, hardening people’s attitudes and exacerbating social/political divisions, and creates further problems among friends, families, and so forth. I very much felt when I was living in Hawaiʻi, and I can easily imagine in Okinawa too, that local community can be very tight-knit, or interconnected. Everyone knows one another. Everyone, even if they are strongly anti-base in their political attitudes, knows people who work on base or who are married to someone who does.

We are introduced too to women like the artist Ishikawa Mao who are strongly proud of being Okinawan and opposed to the bases (one of her art books is entitled 「フェンスにFuck You!」or “Fences, Fuck You!”) but who found themselves in working and socializing with Black men, and Black Panthers in particular, forming a bond with these men over their shared racial/ethnic struggles (155). And women who fight for women’s rights and women’s issues (e.g. protesting against sexual violence) as their contribution to the anti-base fight, but who are then criticized for focusing “too narrowly on women’s issues,” something many activists wrongly see as “non-political,” or the wrong kind of fight (139). Women who have set up English-language conversation groups or other activities in an effort to build bridges: not ignoring or denying the problems of the bases but trying to address them and seek solutions in a different way. And women who are simply apolitical regarding the bases because, at least as some older activists see it, they just don’t know any better; they grew up around the bases as an everyday element of what was normal, were raised by general Japanese popular attitudes to think of activism or protest as radical, extremist, and were educated in a public school curriculum set on the national (Japanese) level, with little instruction on Okinawan history.

And in the process, with these women’s experiences and perspectives as the jumping-off point, we learn so much that I had never known before about the history of the bases and of protest in Japan; the history of the bar/club/entertainment districts (and the associated world of sex work) in Okinawa; issues and complexities related to what happens when base land is “returned” to Okinawan control (most often, it’s made into strip malls and the like); complexities of Japanese attitudes and laws surrounding race, gender, sex, and sexual violence; people’s conceptions and misconceptions about media bias, the true intentions (and identities) of protesters; and a variety of other topics.

While, as I’ve said above, I remain deeply sympathetic to the suffering and struggles of the Okinawan people, to the anti-base movement, anti-colonial discourses, and efforts to raise awareness of – and reduce instances of – sexual violence, at the same time we come to appreciate that nothing is black and white. There is both good and bad on-base, and off-base; good and bad within activism and protest; good and bad within sex work. Taking people as individuals, few fully match any stereotype; we are complex beings, multi-faceted. Perhaps we should not take everyone to be wholly guilty or innocent solely based on which side of the fence they stand on. I think that reading this at this time, given what’s going on in our world right now (and most especially back home in the United States, something which of course bleeds over onto the military bases, and out of them, as well as bleeding over into civilian life here in Tokyo and throughout the world in other ways), the lesson is perhaps all the more important. If we want to solve any problem in the world – if we want to heal divisions, bring people together, find compromises and solutions – we have to first understand the true complexities and nuances of the reality of the situation, and not the strawman version painted by rhetoric within one echo chamber or another. I think this goes for problems in our own country and communities, but I think that, despite not being particularly overtly a book about (anti-)Orientalism or indigenous perspectives or the like, Night in the American Village is also a powerful read for helping us to appreciate the profound importance of not going into another community’s situation, another culture’s problems, and thinking you already know the right side to be on, or the right way to understand the entirety of the situation. “I’m an American but I’m opposed to the bases” doesn’t cut it.

The “American Village” of the book’s title. A shopping center in Chatan, just outside Camp Lester and south of the massive Kadena Air Base, that doesn’t resemble a theme park nor any sort of reproduction of American townscapes like I might have expected, but is truly just a place to shop during the day, and get drunk at night. Even if it wasn’t way too far from Naha or University of the Ryukyus for my convenience, I still wouldn’t want to spend much time there; I generally try to avoid the military folks as much as possible. Photo my own, Dec 2016.

Night in the American Village is going immediately into any syllabus (reading list) for courses I might hopefully get to teach in future on Okinawan or Japanese Studies. Maybe even for World History, if I can squeeze it in. The one difficulty, though, is that if I were to assign Night in the American Village to students, it would be difficult to select which chapter to assign. Johnson weaves such a wonderfully intricate, complex, nuanced – and yet every easy-to-read, engaging, page-turning – picture of life in Okinawa today, it is difficult to pick out any one chapter to represent the whole. I may decide to have students all read different chapters, and then present on them so as to give one another an impression of the content, without having to burden non-native English speakers with reading an entire book.

I think it is so important for students – and, indeed, for all Americans (and Japanese) – to learn about Okinawa, to learn about this place that is so rich and vibrant and fascinating, and that also continues to struggle under burdens placed there by both Washington and Tokyo and yet which so few Americans (or Japanese) know almost anything about. I think it is so important for people to learn about the effects of imperialism and militarism, what it looks like on the ground, how it affects people’s lives, their culture, their peoplehood and sense of identity, and the path of their collective history. But beyond anything specific to Okinawa alone, I think it is also so important for people to understand and appreciate complexity and nuance, and this is something I think this book shows, teaches, in such a compelling and brilliant way.

I hope that many people interested in issues of militarism and its effects on civilian communities; colonialism and post-colonialism; women’s rights; history of protest; and so forth, far beyond those with a particular interest in or connection to Japan or Okinawa, will come to read this book. It sorely belongs on more undergrad + graduate reading lists, and on more “recommended reads” displays in local and big-box bookstores.

Futenma airbase, and a section of the city of Ginowan, the Okinawan, Japanese, American, and other civilians who live just outside its gates. Photo my own, Aug 5, 2013.

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

I was not disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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Labels for boxes of Japanese tea for export, c. 1860s-1950s.

While in Shizuoka last month, I decided to check out the Verkehr Shimizu Port Terminal Museum, a really small local history / maritime history museum in the Shimizu area of Shizuoka City. I don’t remember how I first learned of it, but I was intrigued by their permanent exhibits of large models of different traditional Japanese ships. Not that I have ever been one to really understand anything of the fine details – this or that style of rigging, this or that style of rudder – but, nevertheless, there’s just something cool, appealing, about big sailing ships, and trying to learn just a little bit about what different types there were.

As it turns out, it’s a very nice little museum. The ship models were great; there’s also another gallery on the history of the development of the port itself, plus a tiny, slightly hidden Canning Museum in the back. Apparently Shimizu is (or was, historically) a major center of canning in Japan, and the source of much of the canned tuna, canned mandarin oranges, etc. that I ate even as a kid in the US, long before I ever had any inkling that I’d ever study Japan or travel here.

Models of various types of 16th-19th century Japanese ships.

But, as I learned, Shizuoka is also a major center of tea production, and lucky me, they had a beautiful temporary exhibit up at the time about the woodblock-printed labels used on crates of exported tea in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

Entitled “Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates” or「蘭字 Ranji 輸出用茶箱絵の世界」, the exhibit of course did not allow for photos to be taken, because god forbid. But it was nevertheless wonderful to get to see these objects in person, get a sense of their materiality, and their diversity. We don’t normally think about such materials, such ephemera; I would imagine that even those historians who work on the history of the tea trade, especially within contexts of the history of capitalism, history of empire, don’t take the bother to look at these items from an art historical point of view either. And yet, they’re actually quite beautiful.

From what little I gleaned from glancing through the gallery labels (I didn’t have the energy to actually read them word for word; normally I would have taken photos and read them later), these represent a next step in woodblock printing, which I think I’ve either never heard of at all or if so only very briefly. Hiroshige II (d. 1869), a son-in-law of the Hiroshige famous for his c. 1830s landscape prints, was apparently also known as ”Chabako Hiroshige” 茶箱広重 (“tea crate Hiroshige”), and produced images of flowers or other designs for tea boxes.

Images of birds and flowers for tea boxes (chabako-e 茶箱絵) were also produced by artists such as Utagawa Yoshitora. These early tea box images were printed on a relatively thick paper as was typical for ukiyo-e. Later in the Meiji period, a thin ganpi paper came to be more typical. While earlier boxes were made of wood, with the images or labels stuck right on them, in Meiji the boxes came to be wrapped in a reed/straw material called anpera アンペラ.

Though I suppose it makes sense once you think about it – woodblock printing was the dominant printing technology in Japan at the time – it’s interesting and somewhat surprising to realize there was such a straightforward connection between this tradition that we today consider “art” (or even “fine art” or “high art”) and the very commercial matter of labels for export crates. Then again, on the other hand, we must remember that ukiyo-e woodblock prints were, for the most part, a commercial endeavor to begin with – very much a popular art.

Standard woodblock printing techniques were used for making the images to show on these export teas, and then Western-style typeset – “Dutch letters” 蘭字 – was used for the English or French words. What I found particularly striking is the second of the two galleries, as large as the first, but dedicated solely to designs for export teas to North Africa. When we think of “export art,” or export trade at all really in Japanese history, we’re typically thinking of Japan and Europe or Japan and the US. In other words, Japan and “us.” I don’t know what to say exactly about how that functions from the Japanese point of view – something about Eurocentrism and Occidentalist aspirations, I’m sure.

Labels for Japanese tea exported to French-speaking North Africa.

But, now, in addition to the designs marketed to the English-speaking world, we have all these designs aimed at a French + Arabic world. Japanese prints on Japanese tea, with sometimes very Japanese designs (eg a geisha), and other times Arab / North African scenes of mosques, camels, and so forth. Text in French and Arabic. I’m not really sure what to say except that it was a surprise, and quite striking. It’s romantic,* if that’s the right word, inspiring all sorts of thoughts and images of a stereotypical imagined North Africa… I have to wonder how this functioned in North Africa itself; was this a matter of appealing to the (white) French colonial community, and somehow making the tea feel more authentically part of the experience of being in North Africa? It’s interesting to see that on many of these labels, if not all of them, references to Japan or to any sort of Japanese motifs are largely or completely absent. If these designs were designed with the (Black/Arab/native) African consumer in mind, then the question of the design choices becomes a little less obvious. Is there an effort to make the tea seem like a normal part of local goods, not off-puttingly exotic/foreign? Perhaps. To a Moroccan or Algerian or Tunisian eye, do these images appear Orientalist, or just normal, typical of the motifs that are prominent/prevalent in their own culture? The fact that many of these labels are labeled not only in French but also in Arabic would seem to suggest to me that it’s not being marketed solely to a French (white) audience. But, then again, I’m in no way an expert on North Africa, the Middle East, French Empire, so I could be totally wrong.

Meanwhile, we read in the gallery labels that someone from the Japan Black Tea Corporation 日本紅茶株式会社, based in Shizuoka, brought back from Morocco some kind of guidebook for producing “Dutch” lettering (described in the gallery labels as 蘭字制作の指示書). Offset Ranji type 平板印刷=オフセット印刷の蘭字 was then used until 1960. It was stuck onto 貼る either Manila hemp マニラ麻 or veneer ベニヤ板. So, the connections with North Africa weren’t just one way – this wasn’t merely one of many places that tea was exported to. The connections were a bit stronger, and more complex.

As we learn from a fascinating lecture given by Japan historian Dr. Robert Hellyer (below) at the Kyushu National Museum in 2017 as part of the Ishibashi Lecture series, in the late 19th century up into the 1900s-1910s, as much as 80% of the tea grown for sale in Japan was exported to North America, and something like 90% of the tea consumed in the US was imported from Japan. So the ties were extremely strong. Hellyer suggests that such a high proportion of high-quality sencha was exported that the vast majority of Japanese people at the time had to content themselves with a lower-quality bancha tea. Of course, not everyone in the US could afford the top-quality sencha either, and so Prussian blue – the artificial pigment used to make the blue in Hokusai’s “Great Wave” and so many other ukiyo-e prints – was added to help make poor-quality tea look greener. How about that.

What’s really interesting, and I think would be surprising for most US viewers, is that according to Hellyer (and I’ve heard this before, perhaps from Prof. Erika Rappaport), it was green tea and not black tea that really dominated in the 19th century United States. Yes, Japanese at tea pavilions at the World’s Fairs tried (largely unsuccessfully in the end) to convince Americans to stop putting milk and sugar in their green tea, but nevertheless, it was Japanese green tea that they were drinking. This, up until around 1920, when the British finally won out, tipping the scales of general American opinion and preference in favor of black tea grown in India or Ceylon.

As a result of such shifts, at some point in the early-to-mid 20th century, the main destination for shipping Japanese tea shifted from North America to North Africa and the Middle East.

It was kind of on a lark that I went out to this small museum in Shimizu, but I am so glad that I did. In addition to the ship models, this Ranji exhibit was fascinating, and the woodblock-printed labels themselves gorgeous. I wonder if any major art museums – the Met, the MFA, the Asian Art Museum in SF, LACMA – have bothered to collect any of these tea labels, or would ever think of doing so, or of hosting a temporary exhibition. I think American audiences would find it rather captivating.

Ranji: The World of Images on Export Tea Crates is open until Sept 6, at the Verkehr Museum, 2-8-11 Minato-machi, Shimizu-ku, Shizuoka City.

*Romantic: 2. of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality.
“a romantic attitude to the past”.
**The East India Company tea dumped into Boston Harbor in 1773 was black tea, though.

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Seventy-five years ago today, on May 1, 1945, Jewish prisoners being marched through the snow by Nazi soldiers, out of the Dachau concentration camp and to their deaths, encountered members of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion, part of the famous all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were liberated by them.

Photo of liberated concentration camp prisoners by Sus Ito, a member of the 522nd. (Sus Ito Collection, Japanese American National Museum)

I cannot be 100% sure – after all, there were so many sub-camps, and different US military groups liberating different areas at the same time – but I believe my grandfather may have been among those liberated at that time by these Japanese-American (Nisei) heroes.

A record, I presume from some branch of the US military, indicating that my grandfather, Abraham Seifman, was “liberated during the march of death 1.5.1945.”

Lisa K. Menton, a scholar with the Hawaii Holocaust Project, an oral history archive of interviews with some of these Nisei soldiers, writes that “Understandably, the men cannot remember the exact place or date when some of them first began to see people, wearing what many of them describe as blue-and-white pajamas, straggling along the wooded roads of southern Germany. Most of them distinctly remember, however, that there was snow on the ground, even though it was late spring, and they indelibly remember the dead and the dying.”1

She quotes Barton Nagata, a radio operator for the unit’s commanding officer, as recalling:

I think it was around Schaftlach, in southern Germany below Munich when I became aware of these people in this little village wearing this striped uniform. Well, looks like pajamas to me. I kept wondering, “Who are these people?” Then I found out these were concentration camp inmates. So, well, at that time, you know, it just didn’t strike us how much these people had suffered. But as I saw more of them the next day along the road, I see them dead or dying, I began to realize how much these people had suffered.1

My thanks to Joey Kamiya for posting the following video on YouTube, featuring interviews with some of the soldiers and survivors:

Shortly after receiving these documents and realizing – because of the date – the possible connections with the 442nd/522nd, I happened to mention my “discovery” to an Okinawan-American fellow from Hawaiʻi who I met one night at the Okinawa America Association in Los Angeles, who told me that his uncle was in the 522nd and was there, or somewhere in that area, somewhere in that same snowstorm, that same liberation effort, that day. I don’t know that I would have ever expected to find such close connections between this community and my own family history. I don’t think my grandparents could have ever imagined that their grandson would someday visit Japan, Okinawa, and Hawaiʻi, would end up becoming a scholar of Japanese and Okinawan history and culture of all things, would end up meeting the relatives of some of those involved in the liberation in this way.

I am so grateful to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum & the International Tracing Service for providing me with this and many other documents pertaining to my family. For years and years I had no idea about this service, and neither my father nor anyone else in the family, so far as I knew, suspected that we would ever find any records at all about our family from that time. But then, in the process of repairs and recovery after Hurricane Sandy (which struck NY in 2012), we found a shoebox, which I guess had been way in the back of a closet or basement somewhere, full of old family photos. This spurred me to start investigating. And so I found the International Tracing Service, an incredible resource. You simply enter as much information as you can about the person you’re looking for – name, birthdate, locations if known before, during, and after the Holocaust – and “museum staff will search the records of the ITS Digital Archive free of charge for survivors, their families, and families of victims.” Then they send you digital files; far more than I’d expected could be found so easily. “The Museum honors as Survivors any persons, Jewish or non-Jewish, who were displaced, persecuted, or discriminated against due to the racial, religious, ethnic, social, and political policies of the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945.”

I’m still in only very early stages of investigating all of this further; I’ve only made a few tentative efforts to find any further materials, and haven’t gotten around yet to asking anyone for translations either. I know I certainly have a lot of reading to do – World War II, the Holocaust, and Japanese-American history are not among my professional specialties, and there are dozens upon dozens, probably hundreds and hundreds, of books out there where I could learn further context for the places and moments my grandparents experienced. I hope someday to take the time to look into all of this more deeply, hopefully if I’m lucky to find a lot more, and to pull it all together more. But, on this initial step, my deep gratitude to Lily Anne Welty Tamai who generously shared from her research and expertise on photographer Sus Ito and the 522nd, and to Anne Yonemura and others who shared from their family stories and pointed out further books, articles, and archives to consult, when I initially posted the above document on Facebook last year.

The 442nd / 522nd were incredible people. So much has been said about this group, the most decorated unit in US military history – the group with the motto “Go For Broke,” who in October 1944 rescued the “Lost Battalion” surrounded by German forces in the Vosges Mountains in France – that I am not sure what to add.

You can read more about Sus Ito on the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) website. A member of the 522nd, he was (fortunately for us, for history and posterity) permitted to skirt the rules against carrying a camera, and brought home numerous photos of what he saw and did during the war. I wish I had gone to see this exhibit myself in 2015 when it was up at JANM. I was living in California at the time; I certainly could have gone. A terrible missed opportunity. Here is a video associated with the exhibit (for which, again, I expect we have Dr. Tamai to credit and thank):

Watching this video and seeing this one photo of Ito’s mother and sister in the Rohwer Internment Camp in Arkansas, I could not help but think of my grandparents, and two of their sons, my uncles, just babies at that time, who only a few years later were in Displaced Persons (DP) camps halfway around the world in Germany – camps which were, to some extent at least, run by the very same US government, the very same US military.

Photo by Susumu Ito of his mother and sister in the Rohwer internment camp, Arkansas. Early 1940s, presumably. Japanese American National Museum, 94.306.

My grandparents, Abraham and Zisel (Sophie) Seifman, and their eldest son, my uncle Chaim (David), in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, late 1940s.

The brave young men of the 442nd/522nd, even as their own families were being held in camps, treated as enemy aliens by their own government, went and fought for that government, for that country, putting their lives on the line, and in the process helped to liberate a continent, and to rescue countless lives. My grandparents met, married, and had two children in the DP camps after the war; camps built on former German airfields by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). They spent roughly six years in those camps, before coming to New York in 1951. Zeyde (that’s Yiddish for grandpa) came to own and run a luncheonette-style diner/sandwich shop, and then a newspaper stand, in Brooklyn; I imagine it as similar to what we today call bodegas, though perhaps I’m wrong and his shop wasn’t quite like that.

My father tells me that his parents, my Bubbe and Zeyde, never spoke much at all about their experiences before coming to the US, and I never got to know them, as they both passed away when I was a child. I would like to believe that they might have developed some kind of relationship with Japanese-Americans who came into my Zeyde’s shop, even maybe just one person, though I suppose that that fateful day in May 1945 was but one moment in a long line of unbelievable experiences, and that the demographics and ethnic politics of Brooklyn at the time, despite being literally one of the most diverse places in the world, may not have lended towards such encounters. I don’t know.

But I’m still thinking about it. As these events were happening at Dachau, at the same time, halfway around the world, US warships were battering Japanese defensive positions on the island of Okinawa, and US soldiers, having made their first landing on the island a month earlier, were gradually closing in on the military headquarters at Shuri. Fighting for Okinawa would not end until June 22. Some 240,000 people lost their lives, including according to some estimates as many as 150,000 Okinawan civilians. Japanese- and Okinawan-American soldiers saved lives there, too. But the island, sacrificed by Imperial Japan in an effort to protect “mainland” Japan, was devastated, and in some meaningful ways might be said to still be recovering.

My awe, appreciation, and sympathy for what Japanese-Americans and Okinawans each suffered through during this time, and for how each group has survived, rebuilding new lives, with a spirit and strength and pride, only grows deeper, stronger, the more I learn.

——
1. Linda K. Menton, “Research Report: Nisei Soldiers at Dachau, Spring 1945,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies vol 8, no 2 (Fall 1994), 262-263.

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Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

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I was intrigued recently to see a blog post (from 2017) indicating that it’s actually quite common in Korean news (and other Korean contexts?) to refer to the current “emperor” of Japan [and also historically? I’m not sure] not as “emperor” (天皇, 천황, K: cheonhwang), but by terms such as “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang). Interesting, right?

To begin, we must note that the association of these East Asian terms with the English “emperor” and “king” is a construction, and a somewhat arbitrary one. Neither term really “means” “emperor” or “king” directly, but rather they have very particular meanings within the long history of East Asian history, suggesting connotations of that figure’s relationship to Heaven (the ultimate source of sovereignty and legitimacy), to the land and the people, and to rulers of other lands within the region. We must also note that the use of “Japan king” (日王) in Korean vs. the term “emperor” (天皇) in Japanese is not merely a simple linguistic difference, an accident of how word usage differs from one language to another, like how Chinese uses 一天 (lit. “one heaven”), to mean “one day” while Japanese uses 一日 (lit. “one sun”). This “emperor” 天皇 vs. “king” 王 terminology difference is not like that.

Here’s the blog post: The reason why Koreans Call the Emperor of Japan as “King of Japan”

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

As the author of this blog post explains, English-language translations of these Korean news sources typically render such terms as “emperor,” as is the typical and standard way of referring to that individual in English. This is why most of us went on unaware of the Korean terminology for so long. This of course makes a certain sense in a journalism context – just quickly and easily making it directly clear to English-speaking readers who it is we’re talking about (the emperor), without getting caught up in matters of translation. After all, isn’t that in a certain sense what translation is all about? Conveying information, making information in one language accessible and easily understood in another; it’s not the journalist’s job to get hung up in linguistic complexities. In fact, to a certain extent, it is precisely the translator’s job to make the translation seem as natural as possible, hiding any awkward or unusual linguistic differences, and indeed hiding the fact that the passage even originated in another language to begin with.

But, of course, for those of us with just a slightly deeper interest in how Korean government, news media, etc. sees / views / understands Japan, the language is actually rather important (or, at the very least, interesting).

Why does this matter? Well, if you’ll permit me to ramble on about the historical usage of such terms for a moment….

Model, lost in the Oct 2019 fire at Shuri castle, of the investiture ceremony in which envoys of the Qing Emperor officially ‘invested’ the king of Ryukyu with the title and position of “king.” Photo my own.

In my own work on the Ryukyu Kingdom 琉球王国, and its relationships with the Ming and Qing “emperors” 皇帝, and with the shoguns of Japan, issues of terminology can sometimes come rather to the forefront, and can be rather interesting and important. In the traditional East Asian system of court-to-court (or “international”) relations, the “emperors” 皇帝 of China* granted recognition and sovereignty (investiture 冊封) to foreign rulers who were thus dubbed “kings” 国王. These “kings” included the kings of Ryukyu, Korea (Joseon), and Vietnam, among others. It was within this context that the Tokugawa shoguns sometimes requested that foreign rulers address them as “King of Japan” 日本国王, in order to emphasize the shogun’s legitimacy, significance, and roughly equal status to the Korean or Ryukyuan King with whom they were exchanging communications; and in this same context that those same shoguns at other times insisted on being called “Taikun” 大君 (sometimes translated as “Great Prince”) in order to extricate themselves from any implication that their power or legitimacy derived from recognition by China. At the same time, for over 75 years, from 1636 until 1712, the successive heads of the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Satsuma (Kagoshima) domain, called the Ryukyuan ruler not “king” 国王, but kokushi 国司 (sometimes translated as “provincial governor”), a title which thus denied the ruler’s independent sovereignty and his ties to China, and instead emphasized his subordination to the Shimazu and the idea that his legitimacy derived from an appointment by the Shimazu.

Throughout this entire period, of course, in addition to the shogun and regional lords such as the Shimazu, Japan also had its own “emperor” 天皇, a term with a lengthy and complex history of its own. This is important, because by calling the emperor “king,” the Korean media is in fact promoting a historical confusion – the idea that either the emperor was historically the same person as the shogun, i.e. the “king of Japan,” or was somehow equivalent in status to the shogun, or that either the shogun or the emperor don’t matter at all – that only one or the other were ever “king,” or that both were the same person. All blatant falsehoods, misrepresentations. We understand, of course, that the Korean media today isn’t trying to infringe upon those sorts of “domestic” matters of relative statuses within Japan, but rather to suggest that the Japanese “emperor” isn’t any more special, or superior, to the Korean kings – or, indeed, the kings of any other country. That’s the key comparison they’re pointing towards. And, in a certain sense, that’s fair enough. After all, did any emperor prior to the Meiji Emperor (that is, prior to the advent in Japan of modern imperialism/colonialism, the Japanese takeover of Hokkaido, Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, and later on additional territories) truly control an “empire”? Was he truly in any meaningful sense more powerful or more important within his own country, by comparison, than the kings of England, France, Siam, or Hawaiʻi? Admittedly not. But, even so, let us return to the history:

The 1873 declaration of Ryûkyû’s demotion from an independent kingdom to a Japanese “domain” (藩), as represented in Ishikawa Mao’s 石川真生 “Great Ryukyu Photo Scroll” 大琉球写真絵巻, 2014. Photo of the artwork my own.

When an embassy from the “king” 国王 of Ryukyu visited Tokyo in 1873 to pay respects to the Meiji Emperor 明治天皇 following the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate + of the associated system of lords, the envoys were instructed that their ruler was now to be no longer regarded as a 国王 (king of a country, of a kingdom), but rather as a 藩王 (domain king?), a title no one else ever held before, or since. Just a few years later, that “domain king” was deposed entirely – he was stripped of his domain 藩 / former kingdom which was now designated a prefecture 県 of Japan, and was forced to relocate to Tokyo, taking the title Marquis 侯爵. “Meanwhile,” so to speak, roughly 20 years later, over in Korea, desperate to assert power, legitimacy, and sovereignty, to earn the respect of his neighbors, and to attempt to maintain his country’s independence, the King of Joseon (i.e. Korea) 朝鮮国王 declared himself no longer a “king” but now an “emperor” 帝. He was ultimately not successful: Korea was absorbed by the Empire of Japan only about 13 years later; but for that brief time, an “empire” – the Great Korean Empire 大韓帝国 (K: Daehan Jeguk) – ruled by an “emperor” 帝 was the dominant polity in Korea.

Korean Empire officials in Western-style military dress, in front of a traditional-style building with modern fixtures, 1909. Photo from gallery labels, National Palace Museum of Korea. Photo of the gallery label my own.

In recent years, some scholars of Okinawan history have begun to suggest that we call Ryukyu not a “kingdom,” but an “empire,” pointing out the ways in which the royal court at Shuri, that is to say the kingdom or polity centered on Okinawa Island, expanded its influence into the other islands of the Ryukyu archipelago, imposing its rule over the Amamis, Miyakos, and Yaeyamas by force, creating an “empire.” Of course, there is some merit to such suggestions, as they help throw into relief the fact that there was not a singular Ryukyuan identity, that residents of these various other islands considered themselves invaded, conquered, or otherwise subordinated or subjugated by Shuri; and, indeed, there was an unequal hierarchical relationship imposed upon them by forcible invasion, and they were obligated to pay heavy taxes or tribute, in a “tributary” relationship not entirely unlike other center-periphery / superior-inferior / lord-vassal relationships elsewhere in the region and elsewhere in the world. Including Ryukyu within our more global conversations about how empires function, how to characterize them, etc., has some merit. But, can we have an empire without an emperor? And if the ruler at Shuri is to be called an “emperor,” then what does that make his relationship with the rulers of China, Korea, and Japan? The problem is even more stark when we talk about it in Japanese; some scholars have discussed this revisionist interpretation by introducing a newly-invented term, “Ryukyu Empire” 琉球帝国. But can we have a 帝国 with no 帝? When not only scholarly conventions but also the whole of the corpus of historical documents refer to the Ryukyuan rulers as 王 or 国王 and not 帝, and their country as 国 or 王国 and never ever as 帝国?

Terms such as 王, 帝, and 天皇 have extremely long histories and complex meanings in the history of East Asian political culture, and it is important to remember that translating them to “king” and “emperor” in English is an arbitrary convention and not directly indicative of their actual meanings in context. Indeed, some scholars have argued fairly extensively that the term “emperor” is problematic, for reasons beginning with

(1) its gendered character when Japan had several female 天皇 (emperors) who are called 天皇 just the same as their male counterparts, as distinct from 后妃・皇妃・皇后 or other terms for “empresses” who are not the reigning sovereign but are instead the wife/consort to the 天皇, and

(2) because of the problematic or complex associations of the word “emperor” with its Latin origins in “imperator,” and its modern associations with “empire” and “imperialism.” Such scholars have made rather compelling arguments for calling the 天皇 the “sovereign,” “Heavenly Sovereign,” or simply tennô instead, but no matter how compelling the argument may be, the term “emperor” is extremely well-established and widely used, not only in scholarship and journalism, but by the Imperial Household Agency of Japan, the Government of Japan, etc. as well.

Hundreds or thousands of officials kowtowing to the Son of Heaven, the Qing Emperor, in a scene from the film The Last Emperor, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum’s “China through the Looking Glass” exhibition, 2015. Photo my own.

So, given all this background, I hope you can see why I really appreciated this information, and explanation. Which, now that we’re on paragraph 10 (?), is really actually the key point of this post: simply to bring this rather interesting fact to your attention, and to link to this other fellow’s blog post about it.

I hope that, in a roundabout way, though I perhaps haven’t really addressed it directly, you might have some slightly deeper appreciation now for why it’s such an important matter that we use these terms carefully, and consider how they are being used in various contexts (such as Korean news media) and why.

While the idea of “empire” may be useful as a lens or characterization for how we understand Ryukyu’s (that is, Shuri’s) relationship with the various islands under its control, this becomes a problem when we consider the status of the “king” of Ryukyu relative to the “kings” of Korea and Japan, and the “emperors” of Ming and Qing.

And while the term “emperor” may be complicated and problematic in problematically associating the historical, premodern, Japanese “emperors” with “empire” – i.e. with expansionism, militarism, or control over a large ’empire’ incorporating multiple lands or peoples – and I certainly do chafe at associations of premodern modes of rule with modern ideologies of “imperialism” and “colonialism” and their associated (exceptionally distinctively modern, albeit with some very interesting counter-examples) modes of rule, at the same time, there is so much complexity and significance to the ways that the terms 国王 (“king”), 皇帝 (“emperor”), and 天皇 (“emperor”) were used in premodern and early modern East Asia, and their relationships with one another, including the very intentional use at times in Japan of the term 天皇 (and not any alternative) to assert the Japanese sovereign’s equal (non-inferior, non-subordinate) status with the Ming or Qing sovereign, and the very marked and intentional change of status by the Korean King Gojong to styling himself Emperor Gojong. Of course, a lot of this could be solved by calling the 天皇 “sovereign” or by some other term, and similarly calling the Ming/Qing ruler 皇帝 “sovereign” as well (or, as I’m quite fond, Son of Heaven 天子). But, since “emperor” is just so widely-used and well-established, I kind of think we’re stuck with it.

Reenactment of a Joseon royal procession, inside Seoul Incheon Airport. Photo my own.

Now, I’d like to return to the original blog post, and just point out a few thoughts and (constructive, positive) critiques.

A few points I wanted to question, though:

1) Let’s take a moment to note that whenever Chinese, Korean, and other sources referred to a “king of Japan,” they always used the term 日本国王 – 日本 meaning “Japan”, 国 being a “land” or “country,” and 王 being a ruler or “king,” and thus the entire phrase in full meaning something like “king of the land of Japan.” By contrast, this term “Japan king” (日王, 일왕, K: il wang) which we are told is often used in Korean media today, uses only two characters, and does not to my knowledge ever show up in historical documents. I know next to nothing about Korean language, Korean conventions, but from the perspective of someone who reads Japanese, this term 日王 strikes me as a term with a decidedly modern “color” or character to it, a newspaper’s abbreviation of convenience and/or modern political jargon.

2) Some have argued that the Ming or Qing investiture of someone as a guówáng 国王 is really more about designating them as an officially recognized diplomatic + trading partner, and that it doesn’t necessarily actually indicate anything about them being a “king” in the sense of having actual political control over any meaningful amount of land, i.e. a “kingdom.” They might, or they might not; some of the earliest “kings” of Okinawa might not have actually controlled very much territory at all, but only a good port, a fleet, some trade routes, and so forth. (for more on this, see Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press, 2019.)

3) I’m no expert on Korean history, but I am pretty well-read on scholarship about the so-called “Sinocentric world order,” “tribute system,” or 中華思想 (roughly, “Chinese civilization ideology”), and there were a few things in this blog post which puzzled me.

The blog post identifies Sojunghwa 小中華 as having to do with the traditional (“tributary”) superior-inferior hierarchical relationship between China and Korea, but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Based on Jeong-mi Lee’s article “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization” (International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010)), I was under the impression that Sojunghwa 小中華 refers to the idea that once China “fell” to the “barbarian” Qing (Manchus) in the 1640s [and all the more so after the 1680s], Korea was left as the chief remnant of Great Ming Confucian civilization, the last shining star of proper, upright, civilization, i.e. a small 小 version of central civilization 中華 (“central flowering,” or “the center of flowery [civilization/culture]”). Even while continuing to pay ritual lip service (and actual material tribute) to the Qing, the Joseon court increasingly cultivated itself as a Confucian royal court, and one which revered and honored the Ming emperors, decrying the “barbarism” of the Qing and the supposed decline of civilization within Chinese lands, and taking on the responsibility of performing ritual sacrifices and ancestral ceremonies for the Ming emperors no longer being performed in China. Vis-a-vis Japan, as well, Korea certainly saw itself throughout this period as the more upright, more civilized, more cultured, kingdom.

「泥絵 琉球使節江戸城西の丸登城図」, ”doro-e” painting of the 1850 Ryukyuan embassy entering Edo castle, to pay respects and bring gifts to members of the Tokugawa family. Edo-Tokyo Museum.

3) This blog post plays fast and loose with ideas of being a “vassal state” or “puppet state,” even saying at the very end that Korea was historically, and that North Korea is today, “part of China.” But of course this isn’t actually true in any meaningful sense. Ironic that someone calling attention to the importance of terminology – that is, specifically, the usage of the term “king” instead of “emperor”, and the significance of this difference in usage – should be so careless in how he describes the character of the historical relationships between these countries.

There is much evidence to support the idea that the kings of Ryukyu were “vassals” of the Shimazu and Tokugawa houses, and that Ryukyu can therefore be described as a “vassal state.” The fine points are perhaps a bit too numerous and complex to list out here, but though documents of the time often only use vague terms such as 付属 or 属する (i.e. that Ryukyu “belongs to” the Shimazu house or to Satsuma domain), I hope you will trust me and allow it to suffice to say that in some very meaningful ways, the kings of Ryukyu operated similarly to samurai houses which were vassals of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, giving gifts of swords and horses (which Korea and other foreign entities did not), and engaging in formal ceremonial interactions (audience rituals) with the Shimazu lords and Tokugawa shoguns which were quite similar to those in which samurai vassals interacted with their lords, ceremonies which bear little resemblance to those of China-Korea interactions.

If we are careful in how we apply terms such as “vassal,” understanding with some care how exactly lord-vassal relationships worked in “feudal” Japan (and in many parts of Europe), it immediately becomes clear that the Ming and Qing emperors didn’t have “vassals,” because they didn’t operate on a warrior hierarchy or a “feudal” system of loyalties/fealty between warrior houses the way Tokugawa Japan did.** The Ming and Qing emperors had tributaries, countries which paid them tribute, and they maintained a regional order in which, yes, the kings of Korea and Ryukyu were invested by the Chinese emperor, deriving their legitimacy and sovereignty from him, but, neither these kings themselves nor their lands were in any way directly under the political control of Beijing. Neither Ryukyu nor Korea were ever “part of” China, nor were they directly politically controlled by China in any meaningful way, nor were they false governments merely put into place by China for pretend, as the term “puppet state” suggests.

So, to be clear, Korea and Ryukyu were tributary states, fully independent and sovereign kingdoms (vis-a-vis China, at least), which paid respects to the Ming/Qing emperor as the supposed center and source of all civilization, the axis between Heaven and Earth, but not as their direct de facto lord or ruler.

In connection with this, we must acknowledge that Korea was always independent of China, and so it didn’t “gain independence” in the 1880s-1890s nor was it “given” independence by Japanese involvement. Korea was always independent from China, it just became independent of the so-called Sinocentric “world order,” the Sinocentric or Confucian ideological system of relations between courts.

—–
*Some recent scholarship has suggested that rather than thinking of “China” as a single entity throughout history, we might instead think of the Han, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing Empires as distinct polities, polities which truly fell, ceased to exist, and were replaced by new and different entities. This seems particularly compelling in the case of the Qing Empire, which some argue we should understand as a larger entity of which China was only a part – and i.e. that while Taiwan, Tibet, and East Turkestan were part of the larger Qing Empire, they were never part of “China.” … For this reason, I’ve taken to trying to talk about “the Ming and Qing Empires” rather than “China” where possible, but when we’re talking about the entire span of the last 2000 or so years, it’s easier sometimes to just say “China.”

**Or, if the Qing Emperors did have vassals, it was strictly within the Manchu family lineages, and/or the system of military “banners“, i.e. houses or families with particular hereditary or military relationships of honor or obligation to the Qing Emperor not as “emperor” 皇帝 but as Khan or Khagan. Or something like that. Manchu society, politics, and the banner system are not my specialty.

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As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

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Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

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Ge Zhaoguang, Michael Gibbs Hill (trans.), What is China?: Territory, Ethnicity, Culture, & History (Belknap Press, 2018)

Interrogating the nation-state is a core element of the postmodernist scholarship moment that we’re in. Not only as a specialist in Okinawan Studies but simply as a Japanese Studies scholar more broadly, and indeed as a Historian, period, I have been encouraged almost throughout my entire graduate student career to consider questions along the lines of “what is [and isn’t] Japan?” “who is [and isn’t] Japanese?” This comes up in terms of empire (are Okinawans “Japanese”?). But it also comes up in terms of ancient history (how far back in time should we say that “Japan” as a political entity, or “Japanese culture” or “the Japanese people” extends as a valid thing to talk about?). Gregory Smits’ book Maritime Ryukyu, which I wrote about recently, addresses similar issues for “Okinawa” or “Ryukyu.”

As a Japan/Okinawa specialist who ostensibly should have some considerable degree of expertise in “East Asia” a whole, and thus in China in particular, as well, I found Ge Zhaoguang’s What is China? (as translated by Michael Gibbs Hill and published in English in 2018) fascinating, and think I will make the book (or at least its Introduction, and perhaps another chapter or two) assigned reading in whatever “Intro to East Asian Studies” seminar I may teach in the near future. Indeed, I think it would be a good reading for any introductory “Historiography” seminar as well – get some of those US/Europe historians to think about another part of the world for a change, and not only in a colonialist/postcolonialist context.

For a great many parts of the world, there is perhaps less of a question of when the nation-states or national identities we know today emerged. In many parts of the world, the current nation-states and identities were preceded by a sequence of different empires rising and falling, coming and going. The Mongols, the Ottomans, and in many parts of the world the Europeans – the British, French, and Spanish Empires – this and that empire came and went, sweeping across vast swaths of land, incorporating peoples, drawing borders, suppressing and altering and redrawing cultures. I do not know how historians of those parts of the world talk about these things, but I would imagine it fairly accurate to say that prior to a certain point in history, we can’t really talk about Syrian and Jordanian identity, or the Tanzanian vs. Kenyan peoples, or of Argentinian vs. Chilean politics. Those borders, those categories, didn’t exist. And yet, we do talk about “China” (and the Chinese people, and Chinese culture) as going back millennia.

So, what exactly is meant by “China,” and what is not?

The historians of the so-called “New Qing History” posit the very intriguing idea that rather than thinking of China as having always been a singular and independent “Chinese” entity (albeit with changing rulers and borders over the course of history), there are some valid and valuable insights that can be gained from considering “China” as having been just one part of the much larger Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) empires. In other words, that it wasn’t “China” (under Manchu rulers) that conquered Taiwan, East Turkestan (Xinjiang), Tibet, and Inner Mongolia in the 17th-19th centuries, but that it was the Qing Empire which did this, and “China” was only one region within that empire, alongside all the rest. I find this idea extremely compelling; but at the same time, I appreciate Ge’s approach on this and many other points to introduce some complexity, nuance, moderation, noting that this approach to the Mongol and Qing empires runs the risk, however, of going too far in the opposite direction, giving too little attention & too little credit to the role of Han culture in these empires (17).

Even so, this question of whether the Republic of China is the direct political successor entity of the Qing Empire in all of the latter’s territories, of course, has profound implications for today’s politics, especially as a number of these regions became independent after the fall of the Qing Empire and were only later (re-)conquered or (re-)incorporated by the Republic of China or the People’s Republic of China. As I read this book, I could not help but continually think about the protests in Hong Kong, the ongoing colonization of Tibet, Beijing’s endless bullying of Taiwan and ongoing decades-long refusal to allow most of the rest of the world to recognize Taiwan as a separate country, and of course the genocidal horrors being visited upon Muslims in Xinjiang and elsewhere today.

Raised and educated in China, and writing in Chinese as a professor at a prominent Chinese university, Ge does not address these issues directly – or, at least, does not address them as explicitly as a Western scholar might. He presents us with a view from the inside – a view which instead of simply being plainly critical and hostile, instead engages with nuance and complexity, trying to reconcile difficulties in his own nation’s national narrative and national identity, and perhaps ever so gently suggesting criticism of the CCP’s top-down narratives and attitudes, along with gentle suggestions for the possibility of change.

The CCP’s colonialist and otherwise oppressive and suppressive policies, after all, stem from or are intertwined with specific notions of national identity, national history, and national culture which are created and imposed upon the people. It is because of particularly rigid, intolerant, notions of cultural homogeneity, political loyalty, and what does and does not count as “Chineseness” that Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hui, and so many others are being so cruelly forced to shed their native languages, native customs, native religion, in favor of a Communist national culture that anyone would admit has next to nothing to do with (historical) Han or Ming culture or identity. After all, that’s what the 1911 Revolution, and then the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-70s was all about, wasn’t it? Shedding the old culture of imperial China, to build a new nation based on a new modern foundation? And so, Ge also engages with questions of what does and does not constitute “Chinese culture,” and critiques the across-the-board imposition of “national education.”

History informs politics, and politics informs how we interpret or understand the history, which then reinforces just what the politics wants it to. What is China? is an interesting book in that I can see it being both a history book for historians, and for political scientists. A book that can work quite well in a Intro to Historiography seminar or other deep academic setting, but which at times seems much more directed at (or pertinent to) policy wonks and the like.

A diagram of the emperor-centered worldview Ge calls the “All-Under-Heaven” worldview. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ge divides his discussion of these issues into six chapters, of which I believe the first four (Worldviews, Borders, Ethnicity, History) really form the core.

One thread which runs through the book is a narrative of how views of China’s place in the world developed and changed over time, from a notion of China as the center and source of all civilization, which became more complicated but nevertheless retained power through the end of the 19th century, to a notion of China as but one nation among many, which Ge identifies as gaining some currency as early as c. 1000 CE, but which of course Beijing had no choice but to reckon with all the more so, all the more strongly, from the mid-19th century onwards. The former notion, which Ge associates strongly with the term “All-Under-Heaven” (Tianxia 天下), was the dominant worldview from the time of unification under the Qin (221-206 BCE) and Han dynasties (206 BCE – 220 CE), if not earlier. Under the Qin and Han, the various political, economic, and social systems, as well as the various languages and cultures, of the central regions of China proper (centered on the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys) were to some extent united; traditional rhetoric emphasizes the unification and standardization of the calendar, weights and measures, rites and music, writing, and the width of axles on carts, across the Empire.

Up through the Tang dynasty (618-907), China was the only major power in the region. While it interacted with “frontier” or “barbarian” peoples such as the Tuoba, Sogdians, Xianbei, etc. [and with Korea and Japan], and while the Tang Dynasty in particular invited in and incorporated much from other ethnicities and cultures (including Buddhism from Central Asia!), there was no concept of “foreign countries” that had anything approaching equality with China as the one and only civilized state/empire in the region [and, hence, in the world] (4).

The notion of the emperor as the singular highest authority, and the singular highest source of civilization, to whom all people (both within the empire and without) should look to as a model of civilized culture and virtue, was central to both domestic and foreign policy; both the regional lords within the empire and the rulers of foreign lands/peoples were expected to pay tribute to the emperor, and to recognize him as their cultural/civilizational if not political superior.

It was in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), Ge convincingly argues, that “China” had to contend with other states, and with a multistate, international environment (4). While other scholars have identified the Song as “early modern” for certain reasons having to do with urbanization, technology, and so forth, Ge emphasizes the shifts that took place during this time in notions of a Chinese “nation” or “people” (minzu 民族) and “state” (guojia 国家). Faced with the neighboring Khitan state of Liao and the Tangut state of Xi Xia, the rulers of which the Song called “emperor” (huangdi 皇帝), warred against, and paid tribute to, the Song could hardly maintain the notion of being themselves the one and only center of all civilization (105-106). At the same time, neighboring states/cultures such as Korea and Japan which had viewed the Tang very much as a model of “high” civilization on which to base their own political structures, political philosophy, writing, Buddhism, art and architecture, literature, official histories, and so on and so forth, by the Song had turned away from such unidirectional admiration and cultural borrowing towards forging their own new directions, their own distinctive Korean/Japanese cultures. (Of course, this argument ignores the extent to which Ryukyu and Korea later aspired so strongly towards the Ming as a civilizational model, but I don’t think that really detracts from the validity of this point as it pertains to the significance of the Tang/Song transition.)

The All-Under-Heaven worldview remained strong through the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, and indeed the tribute/investiture pattern of relations with foreign courts reached its height, its maturity, in those periods. But, at the same time, the late Ming saw the introduction from the West of an early version of the modern international worldview – a world of “myriad states” (wanguo 万国) in which China is but one. Ge talks about world maps, and the encounter with (or against) European attitudes which by no means recognized China as the center. Borders are of strong relevance here as well. Not only in China but throughout East Asia (as well as elsewhere in the world), traditional worldviews placed little importance on strongly delineated national borders. Rather, there was a political & cultural center, identified in China as Hua-Xia (華夏) among other terms, surrounded by concentric circles each of which was less cultured, less civilized, than the last.

We might point to the Opium Wars of the 1840s and 1860s as marking the beginning of the Qing Empire being forced to contend even more fully with the international political reality of a world order organized according to this “myriad sovereign states” conception (i.e. what’s often called the Westphalian system) rather than one of All-Under-Heaven. And, of course, with the overthrow of the Empire and the advent of the Republic of China in 1911, followed by the Communist takeover of China in 1949, China as a modern nation-state in a world among many others became even more dominant.

12th c BCE Shang dynasty tiger bone oracle bone. Royal Ontario Museum.

A second thread concerns history. When does “China” become “China”?

Chinese history is typically presented in such a way that the Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties are all different periods of history within the history of a single entity called “China.” Even when those empires are broken up (e.g. in the Warring States period, the Six Dynasties period, etc.) or conquered from the outside (e.g. the Yuan and Qing), the standard narrative views all of this as still being “China.” And it views “Chinese culture” or “the Chinese people” as going back all the way to the very beginnings of civilization. I am not myself super familiar with just where we ought to draw the line between legend and history when it comes to questions of whether the Xia and Shang dynasties ever really existed, but, as with questions of whether the Jômon and Yayoi peoples were “Japanese” in any meaningful way, here too we must ask the question of just how far back “Chinese civilization” or Chineseness should be taken.

Viewed through the perspective of a critical lens towards nationalism and towards the modern state imposing its national narratives upon history, one could take a radical, revisionist, and indeed quite intriguing approach and say that there is something to be gained from considering each of these empires (the Qin, the Han, etc.) as a separate state, without continuity. After all, if Europeanists are going to draw some line at some point in history and say that “before X year there may have been Gaul, Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, etc etc but there was no ‘England’ or ‘France’ and certainly no ‘Italy’ or ‘Germany,'” then why should we pretend that “China” goes back literally thousands of years? There is certainly plenty of evidence that (to a certain extent, in certain important ways) 17th-19th century Koreans and Japanese considered the Ming and Qing Empires to be different countries, considered “China” to have been fallen and conquered, and considered the Qing to no longer be the same country they had previously admired or interacted with. A similar set of developments can be seen, too, in Japan, in how the Tokugawa shogunate had to re-establish relations with Korea (and others) anew after establishing itself as a new regime in the 1600s, and how the imperial government which replaced the Tokugawa and established itself in 1868 likewise had to formally (re-)negotiate relations with all different countries around the world, whether the treaties signed with the shogunate would or would not still be held as valid, etc. To give just one more example, we see this again in the 1970s, when the United Nations, United States, and a great many other entities/countries formally changed their official recognition of the Communist government rather than the Nationalist (KMT) government as being the one and only recognized legitimate government of “China.”

Ming and Qing peoples depicted among the different peoples of the world in a c. 1800 Bankoku jinbutsu zu scroll, Brigham Young University Harold Lee Library Special Collections.

When it comes to many other parts of the world, we hold some skepticism, criticism, or critique as to whether a given modern nation-state should or should not legitimately, validly, be able to claim succession from a given regime of the past (is Turkish national pride in everything Ottoman appropriate or misplaced? Is it India or Nepal that gets to claim the Buddha? Are modern Arab Muslim Egyptians really the heirs to Pharoanic Egypt, etc.). And as historians/scholars we voice some challenge to the idea that the Safavids, Mamluks, Mughals, and so forth map easily onto who should be proud to be Turkish, Persian, or Indian. So why should we be uncritical towards similar claims when it comes to China?

But, Ge makes a compelling argument for not leaping too quickly to be too radical on this point. He emphasizes the stable continuity of not only politics but also culture and cultural identity within the core regions of “China proper.” He writes that the central core of China proper had a unified politics, commonly recognized territory, and commonly unified culture and nationality since very early on; that “the cultural tradition based on Han culture … extended across time in this region, forming into a clear and distinct cultural identity and cultural mainstream” even as it took in considerable foreign influences (19), and that

“regardless of how dynasties were established, they all believed that they were ‘China’ or the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and argued for the legitimacy of the dynasty in terms of the traditional Chinese world of ideas” (19).

I think there’s some considerable validity to this. While the notion of political discontinuity is important – and all the more important if the CCP wants to strategically claim only what it wishes from history while rejecting the rest (decrying the Four Olds, decrying “feudalism,” decrying superstition, decrying just about everything about Imperial China, but still claiming thousands of years of Chinese civilization and greatness?) – Ge says we should not confuse the political for the cultural. Just because China may not have been politically continuous, that is, just because there’s an argument to be made that different dynasties be seen as actually different empires, different states or countries, different political entities altogether, that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t “a continuous identity as “China,” and a cultural and political unity (albeit within dynamic borders) of places dominated by Han culture, within which the writing is the same” or that there isn’t a recognizable and significant historical narrative throughline as the History of “China” or the Chinese people or nation, however one wishes to term it, down through the dynastic and territorial shifts (27).

Ge identifies five key aspects to “Chinese culture,” which can be recognized as continuously prominent throughout history, and as distinctively Chinese:

(1) A writing system based on Chinese characters (hanzi).
(2) A complex of certain beliefs and arrangements regarding the individual, the family, and society, and their relationships with one another.
(3) The balance and combination between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, with all three having considerable influence and no other religion (e.g. Christianity) ever coming to dominate over them.
(4) Beliefs regarding Yin & Yang, the Five Elements, and so forth, and various practices stemming from these.
(5) Notions of All-Under-Heaven and China’s place in the world (97-98).

I’m not sure this quite settles the argument, either as it pertains to how we understand “China” or “Chinese history” as continuously existing through dynastic changes, or as it pertains to just how far back we can go and reasonably still call it “Chinese” culture rather than the culture of some pre- proto- people who were not yet “Chinese.” But I think Ge introduces many of the key issues and aspects of this problem, and some good complexity and perspective.

The progression of Chinese territory over history. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

A third thread concerns peoples and cultures. Who is included in being “Chinese”? Does Chinese culture, Chinese history, Chinese identity consist only of Han culture, Han history, Han identity imposed on others? Are Uyghurs, Hui, Tibetans, Mongolians, Manchus also “Chinese”? Are their cultures also part of a rich and multicultural Chineseness, or are these things to be demeaned, marginalized, suppressed, erased, in favor of assimilation into (Han/Communist) “Chinese” culture & identity?

This gets not only to the very important and very political issues of today, in terms of the place of minorities and their cultures within China, a set of issues that chiefly concerns the Qing dynasty and the modern period which followed, but also a set of more historical issues: namely, whose history, or which histories, are included in the umbrella of “Chinese history” or “Chinese dynasties”?

Let me take a moment to touch upon the latter one first. As I mentioned in my post on the Royal Ontario Museum, I was intrigued and pleasantly surprised to see the museum devoting some attention to the Khitan Liao dynasty. I do not know what is standard within Chinese Studies today (esp. in the US and elsewhere in the West), but I am intrigued by the idea of choosing to take the Khitan Liao state, the Tangut Xixia state, the Jurchen Jin state, and so forth as “Chinese dynasties” or as part of “Chinese history.” What are the stakes here? What are the implications? I am certainly glad to have learned about Liao sculpture and architecture in my Chinese art history classes and to see them, from time to time, in art museums. The Liao and Xixia are known for their wooden statues of the bodhisattva Guanyin (J: Kannon), which are often among the most striking examples on display in many Western museums, and the Timber Pagoda built by the Khitans in 1055 remains the tallest and oldest wooden pagoda in China today. Including these states in courses and textbooks on Chinese history means including them at all and not erasing them from history, because as we must admit, if they weren’t covered under the rubric of “Chinese history,” when or where would we ever cover them? Extremely few schools offer courses on Central Asian History, and even those that do focus, I am sure, on other cultures.

But, the idea that not only the Han Chinese (and the Mongols and Manchus who conquered them) but also the Tanguts, Khitans, and Jurchens who conquered parts of Chinese territory, shared borders with Chinese empires such as the Song, and adopted some aspects of Chinese imperial culture should count as “Chinese” dynasties is interesting to me. What do we mean when we call them “Chinese”? What are the implications and ramifications for how we understand these dynasties/states, and for how we understand “China” or “Chineseness”? How does including these “foreign” dynasties in our imagined category of “China” change what “China” or “Chinese culture” means?

But let us return to the more presently politically pressing issue. Ge lays out in some detail the varying different attitudes and perspectives of prominent figures in the late Qing / early Republic (i.e. c. 1880s-1910s) regarding which peoples (and cultures, and territories) should and should not be included within “China.” As Ge describes, Zhang Taiyan, aka Zhang Binglin, advocated a Republic of China which would stand apart from the Four Barbarians, meaning he saw no need for the Republic to include Manchuria, Tibet, Mongolia, or Muslim- majority areas (67). Liang Qichao took a different tack, however, suggesting that the Han Chinese were not truly from a single pure origin anyway, but were descended from a mixture of different groups (back in pre-Qin ancient times), that nations across history are constantly changing and merging into one another, and that the Manchus, Mongols, Miao, Hui, and so forth should be included within China, and within Chinese history (68).

I found Ge’s chapter on Ethnicity quite informative and interesting as to the historiography of that time regarding Chinese ethnic origins, etc. We must remember, this was happening right around the same time as the peak of nationalist ideologies and nationalist movements around the world, and the peak of a certain form of late 19th-early 20th century anthropological discourses regarding race, ancient origins, ethnicity, and so forth. We see Chinese scholarship being powerfully influenced by these ideologies, worldviews, and (global) scientific/scholarly trends, as well as by the politics of the time, and by Japanese scholarship which supported Japanese imperialist claims to Qing border regions etc., inspiring Chinese scholars therefore to feel a need to refute those arguments, to research Manchu, Mongol, Miao, and Tibetan history, and to assert stronger or closer ties to China. As Ge quotes Gu Jiegang as writing,

in times of peace, there is no harm in scholars practicing “scholarship for the sake of scholarship,” but in times when “the country is in decline and fear reigns,” then they can only “pursue scholarship for practical ends” (75-76).

On a more practical political level, Ge indicates, no one who took the reins of power after the Revolution was willing to risk being blamed for allowing the country to be broken up or have territories cut away. The abdication edict of the last Qing emperor called for continuing “to preserve the complete territory of the Five Nations of Manchus, Hans, Mongols, Hui and Tibetans,” and Sun Yat-Sen declared that he accepted the program of Five Nations under One Republic, and assumed responsibility for unifying Chinese territory, combining the lands of Han, Manchu, Mongolians, Hui, and Tibetans into one country (69).

Ge today writes that

“because the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China inherited the Qing’s national groups and domains, any discussion of “China’s” territory, peoples, or identity must take into account the history of the Qing dynasty” (65).

All of this is I think of incredible importance today, and perhaps especially today on Oct 1, 2019 as I write this (though I know I won’t finish and publish it until later), the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Throughout China, as well as in Hong Kong, Tibet, and most violently and egregiously in East Turkestan (Xinjiang), we are seeing the Chinese government violently enforce the idea that there is only one correct way to be Chinese; only one correct set of Chinese cultural beliefs, practices, and customs; and that engaging in any other cultural identity or practices is disloyal, un-patriotic, un-Chinese. Even as they continue to spit their propaganda about how wonderfully multi-ethnic China is, with its 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, they simultaneously exercise genocidal assimilation policies. During the Beijing Olympics, I watched videos like “Beijing Welcomes You,” and of course even back then I felt complex and weird feelings about it, but now it feels like watching a Riefenstahl film, or something out of 1984. Just pure propaganda, making it look like things are perfect and good and happy and safe, while meanwhile over one million people are in concentration camps in the northwest; mosques, churches, and centuries-old Buddhist monastery complexes are being demolished; and the police have turned Hong Kong into a warzone.

So, which is it? Is China a multi-ethnic country, a multi-ethnic people, in which the Five Nations (or the 56 ethnic groups) all play a role? Or is China a Han Chinese + Communist/Maoist country, in which there is only one correct culture to which all must submit?

Towards the end of the book, Ge turns to talking directly about “national learning” (guo xue 国学), that is, the national(ist) curriculum taught and promoted in China today. He writes, “Does the plural nature of Chinese culture allow for the inclusion of Manchu, Mongolian, Hui/Uighur, Tibetan, and Miao culture? … In the face of a plural culture, national learning opts for a singular one.” What exactly is this national learning? Some, Ge tells us, say it should focus on the Five Classics, while others say it should focus on the national past. Some, however, advocate a “greater national learning” (da guo xue) that would include the many national groups (111).

These were the three chief threads which intrigued me, and which I focused on throughout the book. Though, as excellent as I found this book overall, I was also frustrated at times that Ge’s interests, Ge’s points, often seemed to trail off in different directions from what I expected or desired. But, then, I suppose, he’s coming from a very different perspective, and the issues that are most glaringly important and interesting to me are not the same as for him.

We must remember that Ge is writing from within China, within Chinese politics, within Chinese discourses. And so, while there was a lot in this book which confused me – including, for example, his often way-overgeneralizing statements about how European or Western civilizations are (in contrast to China) – I just reminded myself to take it as an opportunity to learn something about how Chinese historiography, Chinese education, Chinese news or politics typically (perhaps) sees the world, how they (perhaps) typically talk about such things.

In any case, let me bring this back around. While Ge does not address nearly as directly as I might have expected (or hoped) issues of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan, the (il)legitimacy of PRC claims to those territories, or the powerful need for stronger recognition and support for minority rights and freedoms (and, hell, rights and freedoms for everyone) in China, I think his discussions of what is (and is not) Chinese history, Chinese culture, Chinese territory, how we think about those questions, is really quite valuable. I absolutely intend to assign this book, or significant parts of it, in my hypothetical future East Asina Studies seminars, and, again, I think his broader discussions of how we approach history, national(ist) history, East vs. West, and so forth, should be valuable reading for any broader general Historiography course as well. (And, I should hope that “China hands” or China policy wonks, whatever they call themselves, are reading this as well. Please, policy/politics people, you can’t understand the present without engaging at least a little bit with history!!)

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