Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Gradually getting there. After a year of doing this, I’m finally almost done posting these book reviews from my comprehensive exams. Feels like a whole other world – exams feel so far behind me; a month from now, I’ll be in Japan, for the next big step in this PhD process. Well, well. Looks like this was the last of the reviews. I didn’t realize that. Okay. Well, here we are, my last review from the exam process. Look forward to a return to some other sorts of posts, coming up soon.

In the meantime, Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992)

Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World provides an outline of a wide range of major aspects and themes in the role of Chinese people in Tokugawa Japan, perceptions of China, Chinese cultural influences, and the like, nestled into overarching narratives of changes and developments in Japanese relationships with China during this period, both as a concept and as a real political and economic entity. He devotes particular attention to the Chinese community at Nagasaki, providing a considerable degree of detail as to the logistics and economics of trade activity, as well as intellectual and cultural interactions in Nagasaki, and the role of the fūsetsugaki, imported books, and visiting Chinese scholars and monks as sources of information and intelligence on goings-on in the outside world, complemented by intelligence obtained from the Dutch, Korea, and Ryukyu. Jansen also touches upon numerous other topics, including the introduction of Ōbaku Zen, interactions with Ming loyalists & their cause, and perceptions of China following the fall of the Ming among scholars, political elites, and the general populace. In the last thirty pages or so of this short 120-page volume, Jansen describes the turn in perceptions of & attitudes towards China, as over the course of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experiences considerable difficulties, and in the eyes of many Japanese, severe decline.

The volume serves as a fine introduction to these many themes or aspects, and to the overall arc of interactions with, and perceptions of, China. In a sense, it reads more like a textbook than a scholarly argument piece, summarizing the topic of “China in Tokugawa Japan” overall, and providing descriptions, rarely more than a page or two long, of a variety of individual topics, such as the biographies of Li Hongzhang and the monk Yinyuan Longqi, as a textbook would, less as examples of evidence to further an argument than as descriptions of items within a topical umbrella.

That said, there are significant chronological and thematic arcs presented. Jansen describes a number of related but differing understandings or imaginations among Tokugawa period scholars of a conceptual China, ranging from those who viewed China not as a real place existing coevally in time, but as a land of Sages, tranquility, and the ultimate manifestations of high culture and civilization, to the subtly but importantly different position of those for whom China served as a sort of straw man, an Other against which Japan could be described in contrast. While many Confucian scholars idealized China, many kokugaku scholars, some of them still looking to Confucianism or other aspects of Chinese civilization as an ideal, presented varying notions of why or how Japan superseded China as the civilizational center. Meanwhile, much of the popular discourse conflated China with the foreign more generally, making little distinction between various Others (e.g. Koreans, Ryukyuans, or Dutch). This topic is of particular relevance to my own project, as I attempt to gain some understanding of how Ryukyu was perceived, understood, or imagined at this time; while Keiko Suzuki has argued similarly in her article “The Making of Tôjin” of an undifferentiating perception of the foreign, the true story seems considerably more complex, given that there were numerous widely available popular publications describing or depicting Ryukyuan subjects as specifically Ryukyuan. In any case, I am eager to delve into this subject further, and while Jansen’s discussion of it is most welcome, and valuable in its way, it is also far too brief and cursory for my purposes. The same is true of his discussion of perceptions of Japan (or Korea or Ryukyu) as representing the place where the great high culture and civilization of (Ming) China survives, since it has been corrupted or destroyed in China’s fall to barbarian (Manchu) invaders. This, in particular, is a topic which I think to be of great interest, and potentially of great relevance to my project, and yet Jansen’s brief discussion of it remains, perhaps, the most extensive such discussion I have come across; he does not, in his citations, point the way to any more extensive treatments of the subject.

China in the Tokugawa World represents a great start, a great survey of the subject. The overall thematic and chronological arcs, of differing ways in which China was perceived, and how this changed over time, help provide a fundamental sense of the thing, informing and deepening one’s understanding of the character of the Tokugawa period as a whole. Jansen’s detailed description of the workings of trade and other activity at Nagasaki is also sufficiently lengthy and detailed to constitute a source one can turn to for citeable details. On other topics, however, Jansen’s volume serves as only a starting point, requiring one to look elsewhere for a more thorough or extensive description of kangaku or kokugaku, popular depictions of China, the influence of Ōbaku Zen, or any one of a number of other topics.

The Chinatown (tôjin yashiki) of early modern Nagasaki, as seen in a handscroll painting (detail) on display at the British Museum. Photo my own.

Read Full Post »

Following up on my post about Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship, I think it only makes sense to pair that up with a discussion of Luke Roberts’ book Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain. The two books came out right around the same time, and are quite complementary, both significant, influential, books in promoting the argument for seeing the daimyo domains of Tokugawa Japan as semi- or quasi-independent “states” – a critique of earlier scholarly views of Tokugawa Japan as highly centralized and strictly, even oppressively, ruled. The view promoted by Ravina and Roberts has now become the standard view among historians.

Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain focuses on the emergence of the idea of kokueki (国益, “prosperity of the country”) in Tosa domain in the early 18th century. This is a notion which bears some strong similarities to mercantilist thought, envisioning the prosperity of the country as separate from the prosperity of the lord or of his household, and advocating a variety of economic thought in place of a Confucian focus on morality, virtue, and diligent labor.

Advocates for kokueki thought supported a variety of different strains of economic thought, with some supporting the bullionist notion of amassed wealth as the measure of economic prosperity, and therefore advocating strong restrictions on the outflow of precious metals or certain other forms of wealth from the domain, while others argued quite the opposite, suggesting that it’s the volume of trade which brings prosperity, and that the domain should not be afraid to export valuable goods, as it will only allow for the greater import of other valuable goods, enhancing the overall volume of trade. Meanwhile, many samurai officials, at least initially, employed the term kokueki to refer in a more conservative manner to the prosperity of the lord’s household, perhaps with the notion that the lord’s household equals the domain; drawing upon neo-Confucian notions of duty to one’s lord and of proper observance of one’s station, they asserted plans for increased prosperity which did not concern themselves with supply & demand or import & export, so much as the idea that everyone should behave more morally, more virtuously, meaning to be more diligent and more hard-working in their respective professions. Perhaps most interesting about these conflicting economic philosophies is that while the more mercantilistic approaches resemble European mercantilistic thought & policy, none of these approaches match up with what modern economic theory today would consider to be the most correct or valid. To be sure, some are startlingly innovative and progressive for their times, for their historical context, in contrast to the Neo-Confucian approaches. And, as Roberts details, these ideas of everyone working together for the prosperity of the country – the country as a distinct abstract entity disaggregated from the lord or his household, or from the shogun or the shogunate – play a prominent role in the reconceptualization of economic nationalism in the Meiji period. But the various economic philosophies that competed and negotiated in 18th century Tosa cannot be simply placed on a linear line of progress.

An Arita ware dish showing the provinces of Japan. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Photo my own.

Two other threads underlying Roberts’ narratives and arguments about kokueki are also extremely valuable. One is Roberts’ argument that despite documents by samurai officials which represent most (if not all) policy initiatives and ideas as coming from the lord, or from amongst samurai officials and prominent scholar advisors, suggestions submitted by commoners to the domain’s petition box reveal that not only did commoners articulate these kokueki ideas before the samurai picked them up, but further, commoner/merchant ideas had direct impact on domain policy. The vast majority of the book discusses examples from only one domain, and only one aspect of policy approaches, but it strongly suggests the need for a reconsideration of our assumption that commoners, throughout the archipelago, played little or no role in suggesting or determining policy.

Further, Roberts’ account also contains powerful arguments for the validity and importance of regional and local histories. It is my understanding that at the time this was written, the field was only just beginning to more fully open up to the ideas of domainal autonomy, and to seeing Tokugawa Japan as less centralized, less authoritarian, and more like a decentralized confederation of relatively autonomous states, albeit under shogunal authority. Roberts’ Introduction includes a valuable discussion of the varying meanings and usages of the term kuni (“country,” “state,” “province”), and invites us to seriously rethink our imaginations of the political landscape of early modern Japan, which was structured according to a very different set of notions of political geography from our modern sense of the nation-state. Whereas much of the most prominent or most influential scholarship on Edo period politics up until that point had focused on the shogunate, and the shifts and changes in its policies, with the assumption of a relatively direct and strong impact upon the domains, here we see Tosa not simply being controlled by bakufu policy, but rather negotiating positions within that political environment, in order to seek what is best for the lord & his household, and later on, for “the country” of Tosa as a “whole.” Some examples of this are seen not only in decisions about economic policy, in terms of bans or monopolies on exports, and the like, but also in the daimyô’s exercising of agency, and displaying of interests differing from those of pure feudal loyalty, in claims to be ill, asking for delays in performing his various duties owed to the shogunate.

That Tosa presents a rather different case from, for example, Satsuma, makes it a valuable counter-example, alongside various other studies, including the work of Robert Hellyer. Tosa is large, but relatively poor, with relatively little good agricultural land. Unlike the Shimazu, who ruled Satsuma since the beginnings of the Kamakura period, the Yamauchi were not traditional leaders of Tosa and had to come in and assert their rule following Sekigahara. And yet, unlike many domains, Tosa recovered from severe debt, becoming economically strong enough by the Bakumatsu period to play the prominent role that it did. That the petition box system was apparently quite widespread, and yet little discussed in the more mainstream discussions of Edo period Japanese political systems and class structures, also makes this a particularly valuable contribution.

As with Land and Lordship, I would love to see a more thorough narrative description of Tosa history – not to mention the history of any/every other province of Japan – but, in the meantime, we’re learning very valuable things about how to think about the “state” in early modern Japan; political centralization or decentralization; and so forth.

Read Full Post »

I found something kind of neat today. Continuing my investigations into the Ryukyuan tribute missions to China, I started reading a short article by Maehira Fusaaki 真栄平房昭, entitled Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken1, and discovered a mention of George Lord Macartney coming across Ryukyuan ambassadors on their way to Beijing.

Right: Image of Lord George Macartney. Quite the fashionable looker. Source unknown. Public domain image courtesy Wikipedia.

For those unfamiliar, George Lord Macartney was the head of the first official British mission to China, in 1793. This has become a particularly famous event in Chinese history, a meeting in which British and Chinese notions of diplomacy, and cultures of court ritual, clashed and resulted in misunderstandings and a general failure to achieve good relations. This was also the occasion of the Qianlong Emperor’s famous saying, that China had all the things it could want in the world, and that China had no need of such nonsense trinkets as some petty small country such as Britain might have to offer.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of Ryukyu became a tributary to the Ming Court in 1372, and continued to send tributary missions to Beijing quite regularly from that time, all the way up until the 1870s. For much of the 17th-19th centuries, Ryukyu was sending missions to Beijing once every two years, as Korea did as well. The Ryukyuans and Koreans presented gifts of local goods (i.e. Ryukyuan or Korean products) as tribute, as a show of their king’s gratitude and deference to the Emperor of China, and in return the Emperor bestowed lavish gifts upon them, as a show of his grace and generosity. Unlike what Lord Macartney had in mind, there were no policy discussions involved in these meetings. Rather, they were ritual performances, enactments, of the maintenance or reaffirmation of the relationship between the two countries. The Emperor of China invested the kings of Korea and Ryukyu in their thrones, officially recognizing them as King, and serving as the source of their legitimacy, and in return those kings dispatched tribute missions.

Given how frequent these tribute missions were, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the Ryukyuans would have crossed paths with Macartney. Still, it was a neat find. Coming across this mention in Maehira’s article, who quotes it in Japanese translation, I decided to go try to find the original English. Unsurprisingly, Macartney’s diary, An Embassy to China: Being the journal kept by Lord Macartney during his embassy to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung 1793-1794, has been reprinted in modern publication, and can be easily found in a 1963 volume edited by J.L. Cranmer-Byng. Turning to November 18, 1793, when Macartney & the Ryukyuans crossed paths on the Grand Canal just south of Hangzhou, on pp182-183, it reads:

Monday, November 18. The river spreads here a good deal, and is very shallow. The banks rich, pleasant and generally level, but we see the mountains at a distance before us, and approach them very fast. I suppose we shall be amongst them to-morrow.

This evening Wang brought two genteel young men with him on board my yacht, and presented them to me as the ambassadors from the King of the Liuchiu islands, now on their way to Pekin. Regularly once in two years this prince sends such ambassadors to Amoy, in the province of Fukien (no other port being open to these strangers), from whence they proceed by this route to carry their master’s homage and tribute to the Emperor. They speak Chinese well, but have a proper language of their own, whether approaching to the Japanese or Korea I could not well comprehend. They told me that no European vessel had ever touched their islands, but if they should come they would be well received. There is no prohibition against foreign intercourse; they have a fine harbor capable of admitting the largest vessels not far from their capital, which is considerable in extent and population. They raise a coarse kind of tea, but far inferior to the Chinese, and have many mines of copper and iron. No gold or silver mines have as yet been discovered among them, which may in some measure account for these islands being so little known.

The dress which these ambassadors wore I particularly remarked. It is a very fine sort of shawl made in their own country, dyed of a beautiful brown colour and lined with a squirrel skin, or petit-gros. They wore turbans very neatly folded round their heads; one was of yellow silk and the other of purple. They had neither linen nor cotton in any part of their dress that I could perceive. The fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese. They were well-looking, tolerably fair complexioned, well-bred, conversable, and communicative. From the geographical position of these islands they should naturally belong either to the Chinese or the Japanese. They have chosen the protection of the former, and when their Sovereign dies his successor receives a sort of investiture or confirmation from Pekin. It would seem that the Japanese give themselves no sort of concern about their neighbours. Concentrated and contented in their own Empire, they seldom make excursions beyond their own coasts, and are equally averse that their coasts should be visited by others. If circumstances permit, I think it may be worth while to explore these Liuchiu islands. The climate is temperate, rather cold in winter, but not very hot in summer.

As Maehira explains, “Wang” refers to Wang Wenxiong 王文雄, a Tongzhou military official. Macartney says Ryukyuans are limited to Amoy (Xiamen), when in fact it was the port of Fuzhou, but otherwise gets the basic notion of tribute missions once every two years correct. He is also right that the Ryukyuans have their own language and culture, close to that of Japanese, but distinct; and I would not be surprised if these ambassadors were well-educated in both Chinese language and Chinese customs, though at the same time, we must always be wary that when a foreigner, even a Japanese, says things like “the fashion of their habit was nearly Chinese,” they could be speaking from Orientalist stereotypes and fantasies, and not from accurate judgement. In any case, I am not sure whether any European ships had ever been to Ryukyu yet, but of course they were not truly open to foreign intercourse. I am also not sure of any iron or copper mines; seems unlikely, given the extremely flat terrain and coral limestone makeup of the islands.

I don’t know quite enough about the Ryukyuan garments to say what sort of “squirrel skin” or other lining they might have been using, but given that it’s November, and the mission is spending New Year’s in Beijing, I should hope that these Ryukyuans – coming from a rather warm climate – would have some kind of lining in their clothes to keep them warm in the North China winter. The “turbans” Macartney refers to are hachimaki – court caps indicative of the two men’s rank. The Lead Envoy, in a purple cap, held the title ueekata 親方, and must have been of the First or Second Rank, while the Deputy Envoy, holding the title of peechin 親雲上, would have been somewhere in the Third to Seventh ranks. It is interesting to see Macartney relate the notion of Japan’s isolation from the world, and his understanding that Ryukyu has “chosen” China, and has no relation with Japan – even with the Qing Court being aware of the connections between Japan and Ryukyu, I guess they were still able to fool some people. Finally, there is Macartney’s note about Ryukyu’s climate being temperate. I suppose that all depends, and is relative, depending on just how “cold” someone considers “cold” to be. I’ll be in Okinawa in winter for the first time this coming year; I guess I’ll find out what it’s like.

Right: A lithograph depicting Sōrikan Shō Kōkun, also known as Prince Yonashiro Chōki 総理官・尚宏勲こと、与那城王子朝紀, the chief Ryukyuan official who met with Commodore Perry in 1853. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Though Macartney doesn’t give their names, it is easy to deduce that the two Ryukyuans he met were the two heads of that year’s tribute mission, Lead Envoy Misato ueekata Mô Kokutô 美里親方毛国棟 and Vice Envoy Kanemoto peechin Mô Teichû 兼本親雲上毛廷柱. I don’t know much about Mô Kokutô yet, except that he would return to Beijing in 1801 as the head of a special mission, dispatched in gratitude for the investiture of Ryukyu’s King Shô On 尚温王. Mô Teichû, meanwhile, is a somewhat more familiar figure for me – not that he’s the most influential, significant figure in Ryukyuan history, not by a longshot. But, still. This was not Mô Teichû’s first rodeo – he had previously served as gieisei 儀衛生 (head of street musicians) on the 1790 mission to Edo, during which time he produced a number of notable works of calligraphy which remain in private Japanese collections (e.g. at Buddhist temples) today. Maehira gives his title as Gusukuda peechin 城田親雲上, though I’ve always seen him referred to as Kanemoto peechin. Perhaps he was promoted in between 1790 and 1793. If one were so inclined, one could check the Mô family genealogies, which if we’re lucky might be reproduced within the volumes of the Naha shishi (那覇市史, “City History of Naha”).

I love this sort of thing. It doesn’t add anything to my dissertation, I don’t think, as I’m really looking to better understand the Ryukyu tribute missions to Beijing themselves, and elements of formal ritual and performance in the execution of those missions. So, in that respect, maybe it was a little bit of a waste of time for me to pursue it today. And, while I suppose this does reveal something about British conceptions & misconceptions about Ryukyu at that time, in the grander scheme of things, I don’t think we actually learn that much from this passage. This likely won’t make it into my dissertation, and if I were writing a study of the Macartney mission, I don’t think it would make it into that paper either.

But! I do think it’s interesting, and fun, and of value to know that these people crossed paths in this way. Adds just one more instance, one more example, to a broader notion of the incredible complexity and vibrancy of historic interactions – a vision of the world of centuries past as vibrantly, busily, actively full of people crisscrossing back and forth, a world of interaction and interconnection… Macartney is of course a rather significant figure himself, and the Ryukyuans he ran into aren’t exactly nobodies either. Adds just a little more to our knowledge of the biographies of Mô Kokutô and Mô Teichû, and while I admittedly don’t really plan to be writing full-on biographies at any point, I do feel passionate about recovering the memory, the story, of figures like these – far too many historians treat historical figures (as individuals) as merely pawns, or footnotes, in their pursuit of some broader interpretive argument. But these were real people who populated the stories we are telling; history should be about stories, about people, about recovering and retelling the narratives of their lives and of the events they were caught up in; it should not be only about the broader interpretive analyses.

Even if we have no record of any particularly extensive or impactful exchange between Macartney and these two, even so, there is something interesting and meaningful about knowing that there was at least one occasion when Ryukyuan ambassadors to China crossed paths with a European embassy, and that that embassy was none other than the famous 1793 mission of George Lord Macartney; and further that the British mission encountered not only Chinese people and sights and culture during their trip, but Ryukyuans as well. And as a result, that Ryukyuans and Brits both had at least some notion of one another, at this early stage. I don’t know if it’s a result of my many years poking around as an editor on Wikipedia, but I’ve long had a real interest in the chance interconnections between people, places, events – as much as I do enjoy reading history scholarship that brings up new understandings, new interpretations, new insights, I enjoy in a different way reading works that introduce me to new people, places, events, or to new interconnections between them, or information about them, expanding my concrete knowledge of History, bit by bit. The kinds of works where I can feel that having read them, I’ve not only been exposed to one author’s opinion or interpretation, some hopefully possibly potentially thought-provoking ideas, but the kinds of works where I’ve really learned something I didn’t know before, however small or obscure.


1. Maehira Fusaaki, Ryûkyû shisetsu no ikoku taiken 琉球使節の異国体験 (“The Ryukyu Envoys’ Experiences of Foreign Countries”), Kokusai kôryû 国際交流 59 (1992), 60-67.)

Read Full Post »

It has been way too long since I have posted, I know. I’ve been teaching my own course for the first time – a course on “Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns,” organized largely as I wished, with the topics being covered (and not covered), and in what way, and with which readings, being largely, almost entirely, up to me. Writing lectures and all of that has been terribly time-consuming. So, that’s where I’ve been. Maybe at some point I’ll do a write-up of thoughts on how the course went, why I organized it the way I did, etc.

In the meantime, we still have just a few more book reviews to get through before I start a whole new adventure in the Fall. So, here we are. I wrote briefly about Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship many years ago. But, having re-read it formally for my comprehensive exams, and simply being a somewhat different person than I was eight years ago, here’s a new take:

—-

Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship introduces a number of important reconsiderations of the character of the daimyō domain, and of its rule. In conjunction with Luke Roberts’ Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain published the previous year, it invites us to think of the domains as relatively autonomous “states,” rather than as subdivisions within a more unitary and centrally ruled Tokugawa state, as had been the dominant interpretation, at least in English-language scholarship, up until that time. While both books are heavily concerned with the economics of the domain, however, Ravina’s focuses less on the imagination of the domain as an economic geographical or political unit, and more on the logics of rule and authority.

One important concept throughout the book is the idea that daimyō (and, indeed, many other levels of authority, from the shogun down to a daimyō’s own retainers) claimed authority and legitimacy in a variety of different ways, through differing and overlapping discourses. In Ravina’s overviews of the histories of the political economies of Hirosaki, Tokushima, and Yonezawa domains, the interactions between patrimonial, suzerain, and feudal forms of legitimacy or authority, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting, are evident. As he explains, drawing upon the work of Kasaya Kazuhiko, patrimonial authority refers to the relative inviolability of a household’s investiture (stipends, lands, and the like) and other aspects of that which a head of household inherits and passes on to his heirs; the retainer’s ie, or household, spanning generations, was seen to be separate from, and perhaps expansive beyond in some respects, the feudal or suzerain authority of the lord. This would seem to bear strong connections to the notions of “personal” or “private” household political spaces as discussed by Roberts in Performing the Great Peace. Feudal authority is that constituted by the rights and obligations a lord and vassal have toward one another as a result of their personal bond.

Finally, suzerain authority, Ravina explains, relates to the legitimating philosophies of the Sengoku daimyō, who claimed legitimacy in their authority over the land as a result of their pacifying the land (ando) and ruling virtuously, with mercy and compassion, through reference to Chinese classics which speak to the heavenly mandate and related concepts. One way in which these differing modes of authority interacted is seen in retainers sometime being able to resist daimyō policies by claiming that a given policy would damage or infringe upon their patrimony, and arguing furthermore that in doing so, the policy was not in line with the lord’s feudal obligations to treat his vassals “benevolently.” However, retainer resistance to daimyō policies aimed at the betterment of the entire domain could also be seen as a violation on the part of the retainer of his feudal obligations towards the lord, and towards the domain, or the “state” (kokka).

Model of a daimyō mansion in Edo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

The conceptions or definitions of the “state” in early modern Japan, and of the term kokka as used at that time, are a second overarching concept which runs through the book. The quote with which Ravina opens the book, from an epistle by Uesugi Harunori, reveals a discourse, in Yonezawa at least (though it is easy to imagine that similar discourses circulated elsewhere, too), that distinguishes the “state” as an entity unto itself, which extends beyond the lord and his household. Separate from the wealth or well-being of the lord’s household, the state is according to Harunori something under the care of the lord, not to be “administered selfishly,” but rather something that has its own well-being to concern oneself with, and something which, being inherited from one’s forefathers and passed on to one’s heirs, should be cared for properly. As he writes, the state and the people do not exist for the sake of the lord, but rather the other way around. Ravina is careful to point out that any kind of seeds of nationalism in the sense of the modern nation-state that we might find here would be found here because we imagined them into the situation ourselves; but, nevertheless, in contrast to the traditional image of a unified Japan ruled autocratically by the shogun, with the daimyō powerfully subject to the shogunate’s dictates, we get a strong sense of some kind of conception of the “state” as a unit relatively autonomous from the shogunate’s control, and one which different daimyō might administer differently according to their personal philosophies or predilections. To say so merely scratches the surface of Ravina’s argument, however, which goes into greater depth as to conceiving of the “state” as linked to the daimyō’s household without being synonymous with it.

This is particularly interesting as it seems to counter, or at least complicate, the notion – fascinating for its radicalness – that emerges from Roberts’ Performing the Great Peace, that we might set aside entirely any notion of the “state” as an entity unto itself, and try to think of the daimyō domain as being totally synonymous with the household. As something that, yes, is patrimonial and so belongs to his ie, his lineage, his legacy, more than it does the daimyō personally, as an individual – something he must maintain and conserve, in order to honor both his ancestors and his descendants, and not simply something for him to do with as he will. But, as something which still is the private domain (私領) of that daimyō, protected from the prying eyes and invasive arms of the “public” (公) government, i.e. the shogunate, just as the private matters of any family/household affairs would be. One wonders whether Uesugi Harunori was alone in expressing such a notion, or whether such ideas were widespread. How did other daimyō feel about the domain as a “state,” not quite synonymous with the household, to which the daimyō owed devotion as well, overlappingly but not synonymously with his devotion to his patrimony (lineage, ie, household ‘name’ or reputation, etc.)?

Shimazu Hisamitsu, regent for the last lord of Satsuma domain, looking out over Tanshōen (former Shimazu clan garden in Kagoshima).

Through translation and synthesis of the ideas of Mizubayashi Takeshi and Kasaya Kazuhiko, among others, and considered comparison to scholarship on, for example, the states-within-a-state of the Holy Roman Empire, Ravina also argues that we should not regard this Japanese case as being exceptionally unusual, or entirely distinctively non-Western. While noting important differences in the nuances between Japanese terminology & conceptions and those used to discuss the Prussian states, or the English counties, he suggests similarities, and argues that the shift in Japan from the Tokugawa era system of multiple overlapping forms of authority, and of states within states, to a unified, centralized, modern, nation-state, was brought on not so much by the introduction of Western culture so much as the onset of modernity, something which swept Europe and brought dramatic changes there as well.

Further, perhaps one of the most important of Ravina’s contributions in this book is an argument that the complexity and ambiguity resulting from these multiple overlapping forms of legitimacy or authority was an essential part of the political order of Tokugawa period Japan, not something to be clarified or simplified in our attempts to categorize or define the political structures and philosophies of the period. Neither the role of the daimyō, the character of the state, nor the logic of the relationship between lords and retainers, were simply one thing or another thing, with some other interpretation as a façade; they were all of these things at once. The daimyō domain was both a state unto itself, an inviolate part of the lord’s patrimony, and at the same time a fief granted to him by the shogun, in the name of the emperor. The domain was at the same time both synonymous with the lord’s household in certain respects, and quite distinct in other respects.

Ravina’s choice to focus on Hirosaki, Tokushima, and Yonezawa domains to help illustrate these points is an interesting one. These are all large domains, two of them officially of kunimochi status, all three located far from the Kinai or Kantō regions, and all of them (at least by the end of the Edo period) over 100,000 koku in status. Where previous work by the likes of Marius Jansen, Albert Craig, John W. Hall, James McClain and Robert Sakai focused on Tosa, Chōshū, Okayama, Kaga, and Satsuma domains respectively, some of the largest of the domains, and including those with particular influence in events of the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods, Land and Lordship is one of the first to discuss other domains, contributing to a somewhat fuller and more nuanced understanding of the diversity of the nature or character of domains within the Tokugawa era archipelago. And yet, while Hirosaki certainly stands out from the kunimochi domains in certain important ways, we still are not presented with an examination of the cases of smaller domains, and/or domains closer in to the Kinai or Kantō regions. Ravina’s arguments regarding daimyō autonomy and the conception of the “state” in kunimochi domains (and Hirosaki) are extremely valuable contributions to the field, building upon the work of those who have written about other kunimochi domains in the past, but we are still left with understandings that pertain only to a particular portion of the domains (albeit, the largest, most populous, and most wealthy/powerful ones).

All photos (except book cover) my own.

Read Full Post »

I thought I would just sort of read through Morgan Pitelka’s new book, Spectacular Accumulation (U Hawaii Press, 2016) on the side. There was spring break, and then flights to and from BYU, and to and from Seattle, plus hotel stays in each of those places. Sure I can finish this thin book – in English – in just a few weeks of here-and-there, on planes and so forth. Nope. Who did I think I was kidding?

But, in any case, I have now finally finished it – in between lots of other stuff, which is a large part of why it took so long. For anyone reading this as a review, in order to see whether or not to pick it up, please don’t think it’s a slow or tiresome read. It’s certainly not. I just got busy, is all. I’m really glad I took time out and read it.

Discussing the political power and importance of gift-giving, collecting, and social rituals (such as tea ceremony), Pitelka makes a most valuable contribution to a growing discourse on the political significance of architecture, and of art. Drawing connections between Sengoku daimyô practices of hostage-taking, gift-giving, tea ceremony, falconry, and the “spectacular accumulation” of famous or otherwise precious objects (incl. tea implements and swords), Pitelka argues for the political significance of all of these things, writing

“I do not see practices such as tea, art display, gift giving, and falconry as symbolic arts that point in the direction of real politics – rather, I understand these forms of sociability as the political process by which the warrior society was made. Rulers placed limits on the cultural and social practices that other warriors could engage in, and thus empowered selected retainers through gifts and the extension of special cultural privileges. These acts created a kind of consensus regarding the distribution of power among those with different positions within the developing political structure. … We should take seriously the role played by cultural practices and social rituals in the establishment and maintenance of early modernity in Japan. … Cultural practice and social rituals such as … gift giving as tools for the reification of hierarchy and the replication of social distinction.” (14)

While Pitelka is certainly not the first to raise such issues, I still could not help to cheer (Yes! This!) as I read these lines. While Spectacular Accumulation did not, in the end, answer some of the more particular questions I was hoping it would, for my particular research needs – such as, describing in any detail the rituals of how precisely someone swore their fealty, or renewed their oaths of fealty, to a lord; or what special meanings a gift of a sword, or a horse, specifically, might convey as compared to any other kind of gift – still, the book provides some inspirational notions, and concrete historical description, for the intersection of art, social ritual, and politics.

And! Pitelka has also maintained a beautiful website/blog in conjunction with the book – go check out http://spectacularaccumulation.com/ for even more on Tokugawa Ieyasu, blog posts on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death, and, god, just tons of information and beautiful images.

A display of Chinese ceramics at the British Museum. Not quite what the shoguns would have had on display, I imagine, but perhaps in a related realm. Photo my own.

In the Introduction, right from the get-go, Pitelka introduces a number of intriguing and inspirational concepts, pointing too to other scholarship on gift-giving, collecting, and social ritual as political. He explains quite early on the titular concept of “spectacular accumulation.” Pointing to a Simon Schama essay on Dutch still-life paintings, he explains that spectacular accumulation is “the practice of hoarding symbolically significant things and aggressively displaying them for cultural and political gain,” (6) and then goes on to discuss the collection and display of Chinese paintings & ceramics by the Ashikaga shoguns, and the amassing of many of these same objects, along with swords and other treasures, by Sengoku daimyô. The fact that in 1615-1616 Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered a significant number of men to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to search through the ruins of Osaka castle for ceramics, swords, and other things which could be recovered from Hideyoshi’s collection, and added to his own, shows just how powerful and important this was at the time. Pitelka does later provide one of the most thorough descriptions of the Siege of Osaka I have ever read (because I am not a military historian or samurai fanboy and don’t generally seek out such content), but also talks about how Ieyasu’s ability to recover Hideyoshi’s collection – including many objects which previously belonged to Nobunaga, and to the Ashikaga – as an important part of building up his own image of power and legitimacy.

In Chapter One, Pitelka discusses the Ashikaga practices of collection and display, and its interconnection with tea ceremony – the objects used in the tea ceremony are treasures of the host’s collection, and their “display” through their use is a central part of the social event – as well as conceptual links between these and other samurai practices of cultivating an image of power/legitimacy. For a samurai lord to possess certain objects (or people, in the case of the Sengoku practice of hostage-taking), and to give them out as gifts to allies or retainers, were key elements in marking his power, and in establishing or maintaining hierarchies. Pitelka links these two by writing that

The most powerful members of warrior society, warlords (daimyo), exchanged entities over which they had some hegemony – a famous tea bowl in one instance, a vassal’s son or daughter in another instance – as part of a political calculation. Such acts of exchange created value for both the exchanged objects and people and transferred some of this value to the actors conducting the exchange. Even when the value was not commoditized or monetized, as in the case of gift exchanges of tea utensils or hostage exchanges of family members, a system of social and cultural hierarchy was inscribed through the act of exchange and accumulation (18),

and that these exchanges, of gifts and of hostages, “helped to define the grammar of politics” (18).

This connects in closely with what I am trying to do in my own project – to discuss costume, music, movement in space, and other culturally performative elements of Ryukyuan embassies to Edo as having had real political meaning, and real political impacts. Further, beyond that, to argue that these are not peripheral to some other, more fully real, set of political acts, but that these “cultural” or “performance” elements were, themselves, the core of the political interaction & event, that they were fundamental to the meaning-making.

However, perhaps because of the era he is focusing on – before the end of Sengoku, when Unification is still in-process – or perhaps because of his focus on the social/political conceptual argument he is making, much of Pitelka’s discussion of gift-giving speaks only in vague generalities about the role of gift-giving in forging personal/social relationships, where I might have been hoping for something more concrete, e.g. explanation of precisely which gifts symbolized entering into the gift-receiver’s service, as a vassal. Was it the case that when someone presented a daimyô with a sword, it was a symbol of their fealty, and that they would only do so in that particular circumstance, and that whenever they did not present the daimyô with a sword, they were not at that time swearing or renewing oaths of fealty?

The 13th century blade Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukezane, given by Katô Kiyomasa as a gift to Tokugawa Ieyasu, and today held at Nikkô Tôshôgû. National Treasure.

In Chapter Two, Pitelka continues along similar lines, describing the collecting practices of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, writing that they saw the “spectacular accumulation” of tea implements, swords, and the like “not as a static investment to be hoarded or protected from the ravages of time, but as an instrument in the politics and social maneuverings of unification” (44, emphasis my own), and discussing the ways they continued, and emulated, the collecting practices of the Ashikaga.

He also defends his focus on the cultural/collecting/tea practices of these warlords, writing that earlier scholarship often

“create[s] excessive delineation between an idealized ‘spiritual world’ of tea and the politics of a society at war, presuming that the tea practice of commoners like Imai Sōkyū and Sen no Rikyū, who were less directly involved in the wars of unification, somehow trumped the tea practice of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and others” (45).

This clearly ties into a much larger argument, a jab at academic attitudes more generally, which seek to divorce not only art from politics, but also the study of each apart from one another. Jumping ahead for a moment to the Epilogue, Pitelka builds upon this argument further, noting that “on the whole exhibitions of Japanese art inside and outside of Japan continue to fetishize the quality and originality of works as art over their social, political, and cultural contexts, or their meaning as historical sources” (174). Regular readers of my blog will know that this remains one of my chief sticking points, one of my pet peeves. I eagerly look forward to the day that we can see the Metropolitan, or other major art museums in this country, organize a Japanese art exhibit that thoroughly explores a historical development, event, or period, whether it be Kabuki theater, the bombing of Hiroshima, the urban development of Kyoto over the centuries, or Japan’s pre-modern maritime trade interactions, through beautiful art objects. These things are beautiful, yes. They are intricately and expertly-made, yes. They are inspiring, yes. But they are also historically significant and informative. I want to see tea caddies exhibited with a gallery label that explains how they were used politically by samurai warlords. I want to see paintings of Dejima, of Ryukyuan street processions, of gold mines, or agricultural techniques, or paintings of kofun burial mounds, coupled with labels that tell us not only about the painter, and the style, and the making of the thing, but that tell us about what is being depicted, and what this means for Japanese history.

Sankin kôtai procession of the Nagoya daimyô, as seen in a handscroll painting by Odagiri Shunkô (detail). My photo of a replica at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, of an original housed at the Tokugawa Art Museum.

Chapter Three expands yet again on this idea of gift-giving and ritual performance as political maneuvers with real political significance and impact. Pitelka moves us forward in time, past Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, focusing now on the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun (and the years immediately preceding and following), but the themes remain closely similar. While this chapter, like all the rest, is wonderfully informative on details we might never discover elsewhere, one thing I particularly took away from this chapter was the notion of the Sengoku & Tokugawa feudal orders as being particularly concerned with the movement of objects, and of bodies. Here, Pitelka reiterates an argument that hostages are not entirely unlike collections, or gifts, and that keeping one, or giving it away, is a gesture of power, of authority, and in the case of giving it away, of the forging or strengthening of personal bonds. When one gives one’s son as a hostage to one’s lord, one is showing one’s loyalty. And, when the lord eventually returns the hostage, he is showing his graciousness and generosity, a gesture of his faith in the retainer’s loyalty. Political marriages functioned quite similarly, in what I imagine are fairly obvious ways, tying one family to another. Sankin kōtai, or alternate attendance, should also be seen as being of a type, Pitelka reminds us – it is not only about each daimyō being forced to keep his family “hostage” to the shogun in Edo, but also about the daimyō himself being, essentially, hostage to his obligations to travel back and forth, and to expend a great deal of time and money doing so. It is a show of shogunal power that the shogun is able to command (control) the daimyō’s movement and physical location in this way, and a show of the daimyō’s loyalty that he obliges.

One more thing that comes up in this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, that I find particularly valuable is Pitelka’s reminders that nothing in history is guaranteed or predetermined. With these so-called “Three Unifiers” in particular, we have a tendency to think they were somehow destined to fail, fail, and succeed, respectively – and that the success and stability of the Tokugawa order, once established in 1603, was here to stay. This seems sort of a given as we look at it retrospectively. But, this was by no means guaranteed at the time. As of 1600, Ieyasu had merely claimed authority through martial victory – he was not shogun yet. And as of 1603, though he was shogun, there were still notable opponents to his rule – namely, especially, Toyotomi Hideyori and his numerous followers. But for a roll of the dice, history could have gone quite differently – Ieyasu might have lasted no longer than Nobunaga or Hideyoshi. What exactly might have happened instead I won’t venture to guess – there are likely some over at the Samurai-Archives Forums who would know far better than me just how feasible it was that Hideyori might have ever become hegemon, or whether the whole archipelago might have broken down into all-out war all over again, or whether this or that other outcome was at all likely. We should remember, too, that all the way up until the 1630s, there were still considerable foreign (read: Christian) influences within the realm, with a mission to Rome being dispatched even as late as the 1620s. Who knows what might have happened differently had the Christian daimyō acted differently, forming a faction against the Tokugawa, or simply breaking away as a separate “state.” Even though in the actual course of events they did not do so, it is still for this reason (among others) that I think it keen to put quotes around “Japan” as a “nation” or “country” during this era, and to speak of the Tokugawa state(s), even if there are those who cry “feh” at academia’s constant pluralizing of things like feminisms, globalizations, and so forth.

For some reason I can’t get the gif to work, so here’s a still from a brilliant animated gif by Segawa Atsuki 瀬川三十七.

Pitelka discusses falconry in Chapter Four, and as interesting as this is, I decided to skip it, in the interest of time. This was the one chapter that – on the surface, at least – seemed particularly less relevant to my own research interests, and so I moved on to Chapter Five, where Pitelka discusses the rituals of war. First, he disavows the reader of the notion that war is “a dramatic encounter between heroic individuals” (118). The lionization, mythological warrior narratives out of the way, he then turns to the subject of battlefield ritual, arguing that it’s not all about just pure violence (and strategy and tactics and so on), but that “struggles over political authority were as likely to occur in the realm of ritual practices as in martial conflicts” and that rituals such as formalities in letter-writing, and the seating order at meetings among lords & retainers (as in the image above), were intimately interconnected into “the hierarchy that defined warrior status distinctions and that allowed warrior bands to function both as units that waged war and as organizations that engaged in governance” (118). Further, not only that, but the idea that it was these rituals which “activated” that hierarchy, allowing people to feel/sense/know their place, and to perform or enact that hierarchical position or role appropriately, bringing the hierarchy as a whole into existence, and into force. This chapter, incidentally, also touches upon the practice of counting heads, as a means of marking battlefield accomplishment.

The Yômeimon at Nikkô Tôshôgû. Photo my own.

Chapter Six then focuses on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s deification, as Tôshô Daigongen, the Avatar that Illumines the East. This was a very interesting and informative chapter as to the details of this process, complicating what in a more general survey might be simply brushed over. We learn that Ieyasu was not immediately interred and deified at Nikkô, which remains the chief (or at least the most famous) Tôshô Shrine, but rather that he was at first interred and enshrined at Sunpu – which had been his chief base of operations for a time both before and after Sekigahara – and that it was only as a result of some in-fighting between the Buddhist monks Tenkai and Bonshun that the original Tôshôgû at Kunôzan (in Sunpu) declined in prominence and was replaced by Nikkô.

Sign outside the Tokyo National Museum for the “Great Tokugawa Exhibition” (Dai Tokugawa ten), Nov 2007. Photo my own.

Finally, in his Epilogue, Pitelka addresses the way Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa clan & shogunate, and many of the famous objects (chiefly tea implements and swords) discussed in the book, tend to be exhibited in museums. As a museum studies guy, I found this particularly intriguing. Museum politics is something that can be really touchy – because you don’t want to endanger future relationships, with institutions where you might want to do research, or from whom you might want to borrow objects, as well as for any number of other reasons related to professional networks, trying to avoid factionalism or backbiting, etc etc. But, not only is politics terribly intriguing in a backdoor “inside story” gossip sort of way, but it is also terribly important, actually, for pushing the field to do better.

Two points in particular emerge from Pitelka’s critique: one, that as I mention above, all too often we see objects displayed only as art objects, for their aesthetic qualities, with insufficient attention paid to their value or importance as tools for understanding broader historical contexts. And, two, that because of the particular politics of which institutions control which objects, and the because of the role of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkachô) in loans and exhibits of certain types of objects (esp. Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures), certain “mythohistory” narratives get emphasized or perpetuated, while critical, revisionist, or simply different (other) narratives get sidelined, or suppressed. The Nation has strong political motives to have its history represented in particular ways, reinforcing the greatness of Japan’s past, the great beauty of its culture, and so forth, for any number of purposes relating to tourism, foreign investment, diplomacy, general international prestige – and government – not only in Japan, but perhaps nearly everywhere in the world – is more interested in those things than in nuanced, complex, historical truth simply for the sake of truth.

Tokugawa clan crest at Zôjôji, Tokyo. Photo my own.

To conclude (this review), I *loved* Spectacular Accumulation, I really did. I learned a ton, I got lots of good inspiration on how to think about ritual, and I also really enjoyed Pitelka’s modeling of how to write a work that incorporates material culture so closely, so deeply.

But, if you’ll permit me to go on a tangential rant for just a moment – and this is by no means a criticism of Pitelka, but rather a thought about the field more broadly – it continues to really frustrate me that we can have so many books in Japanese that just lay out thorough, detailed, explanations of a topic, and yet this just doesn’t seem like it can be done (or, at least, it isn’t done) in English-language scholarship. I have at least four books on my shelf right now, all of them in Japanese, that explain in categorized detail the various kinds of rituals of Tokugawa period samurai interactions. One section on New Year’s rituals, and one on other annual ceremonies. One on births and one on marriages and one on deaths. One chapter on shogunal journeys, and one on sankin kôtai. And somewhere, in one of these books, I found that gifts of mackerel, in particular, more so than any other fish, were a traditional gift for New Year’s, because… well, I forget what the reason was, but it’s in there. And that while vassals would regularly present their lord with a horse on certain occasions, on certain others they presented an amount of silver as badai 馬代 – literally, “in place of a horse.” Yet, where does one see such information in English-language books? It might show up, if you’re lucky, in the course of describing some more thematic or conceptual argument, but almost never in a systematic discussion of, for example, in this case, a listing out of the various gifts typically given, and the occasion or the meaning. We constantly give specialists in other fields (e.g. scholars of European History, or World History) trouble, we criticize them, for not knowing Japan better, and for their uninformed statements about how things worked in pre-modern or early modern Japan. And there is, to be sure, a whole lot of nuanced complexity, and a great deal of validity, to that. But, I wonder, maybe if we started actually writing more informative works (and not only analytical, interpretive, ones), if that might be a big help towards having better-informed colleagues.

Anyway, returning from that digression, I loved both Pitelka’s approach in bringing material culture and cultural practice into the conversation on daimyô relations, and his good informative detail on the histories of individual tea implements, individual swords, and individual people and events, such as one might not find elsewhere. The next time I should be so fortunate to see the tea caddy Hatsuhana or the sword Ebina Kokaiji on display – maybe if they do another Shogun Age Exhibition or Dai-Tokugawa-ten – or the next time I read something about Sekigahara or the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony – I’ll have so much more context. I’ll be able to draw the connections in my mind, and get so much more out of the experience.

And, when I return to my own research & writing efforts, I’ll have so much more to draw upon in terms of thinking about, and articulating, just how material culture and cultural practices connected into political outcomes. I do hope that I can rightfully include in my Introduction something quite similar to Pitelka’s statement that

“This book avoids the artificial distinction between cultural history and political history, between narratives of beautiful things and … a history of politics. The famed cultural efflorescence of these years was not subsidiary to the landscape of political conflict … but constitutive of it.” (p6)

Read Full Post »

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, which recently showed at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, opened May 22 at LACMA, and I was so glad to not only see the show, but also to attend a talk by the curator, Christina Hellmich, and to just generally be there opening day. Though I didn’t get to see any of the opening ceremonies (some, or all, were held in private), and didn’t actually end up talking to very many people, it was a real pleasure to see this exhibit alongside members of the Hawaiian community. Many people in the gallery wore aloha shirts, muumuus, and/or lauhala hats, bringing that feeling of local community, which I always felt when visiting the Honolulu Museum, here to Los Angeles.

The exhibit itself was marvelous. I was excited to see it anyway, even not knowing much about it, simply because it’s Hawaiian art, but I don’t think I knew what to expect in the show. Just from the phrase “Hawaiian Featherwork,” and thinking of textile arts shows, I guess I expected smaller works, and more modern/contemporary fashion accessories, like feather earrings or something. But, no. They were serious when they said “Royal Hawaiian Featherwork,” and we got to see numerous capes and cloaks of the royalty (aliʻi), including pieces associated with such prominent figures as Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kamehameha I, Kamehameha III, Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, Kapiʻolani, and Kalākaua, Kekuaokalani from the collections of the Bishop Museum, Honolulu Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum. I was extremely pleasantly surprised that they were willing to let these pieces travel – though, as the curator told us in her talk, the featherwork cloaks and the like are far more durable than you might think, and so as long as they’re packed carefully and properly and so forth, really they’re quite okay to travel.

A feather helmet (mahiole) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu. Royal cloaks (ʻahu ʻula) in the background.

Being there on opening day, it was a wonderful feeling to walk through the gallery amidst a crowd of Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, to appreciate this significant event and to engage with these powerful objects alongside them. It made me feel like I was “home” in Honolulu again, and at the Honolulu Museum of Art – I have never felt such a sense of community at any museum as I have at the HMA.

It is not often that a major mainland museum devotes this much space to Hawaiian history or culture, and shares those stories with the wider public, and so being there as members of the Hawaiian community engaged with these powerful artifacts, and thinking about how special an experience this might have been for them, was thus a special experience for me as well, secondhand. When we Westerners look at pieces from another culture, hopefully we are inspired, hopefully we learn something, but mostly it’s just another day at the museum – for these people, and I hope I’m not romanticizing overmuch or god forbid orientalizing, or putting too much onto it, but I really felt I could sense (or, at least, imagine) that there’s a real engagement as they connect to their own history and culture, to their own identity. There were also a number of people there who, from their dress, I am guessing belong to other Native Nations, and I overheard as Bishop Museum staffer & Hawaiian traditional arts practitioner Kamalu du Preez was approached by a Hopi woman, who presented her with a few small packets of seeds; I have been reading about, and watching videos of, meetings between the Hōkūleʻa crew and the Native peoples who have welcomed them at each of the places they have visited, and so there was a wonderful sense of interaction and fellowship here, too, between representatives of Native peoples. I’m still sad I’m going to miss the Hōkūleʻa’s visit to my hometown of New York, in the first week of June.

A cape (center) associated with King Kamehameha III, and two other cloaks from the Bishop Museum.

As much as I enjoyed the energy of walking through the exhibit alongside all these Hawaiians and Hawaiian locals, I regret that I was not bold enough to try to talk to anyone, to ask just who exactly they were. After all, if I had been more bold, to try to talk to people, I wonder who I might have met! I wouldn’t be surprised if many were Bishop Museum staff, prominent traditional practitioners, or bigwigs of Hawaiian high society, or of the local LA Hawaiian community – I think I overheard someone say they were a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha – and, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were actually quite kind and friendly. But, alas, this was not a reception or mingling event – it was a regular museum gallery space, and you don’t go up to anyone and everyone in a museum gallery and try to engage them in conversation, do you? Right? If only I’d been closer with someone there already, they might have introduced me around a little bit… but, then, that’s why you have to introduce yourself, develop connections, to begin with.

I did get to meet, and speak very briefly, though, with Kamalu du Preez, Ethnology Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, who was excitedly getting her picture taken in front of the kāhili (feather standards) she had constructed for the exhibit. My sincere mahalo to her for being so accessible, and friendly, and for taking the time, just for a minute or two, to tell us more about the kāhili – the original exhibit design had them at the entrance to the gallery, framing the title, but due to concerns about light damaging them, they were replaced with wall graphics, as you can see above. The kāhili du Preez made were brought into the gallery, where they stand framing a series of photographs of the aliʻi, just as they would have stood to each side of the actual aliʻi or mōʻī (king or queen) during the time of the Kingdom.

Turning to the objects themselves, thanks to http://wehewehe.com/, we can come to understand a bit more deeply the terminology. Many of the key pieces on display are ʻahu ʻula – feather cloaks each made of hundreds of thousands of feathers, and worn only by the aliʻi (nobility, or royalty). As we learn from the Wehewehe dictionary, ʻahu refers to a garment worn over the shoulders, either a short “cape” or the much longer “cloak” in English parlance, while ʻula refers to red color, and to royal sacredness. Thus, these capes and cloaks, both, even when dominated by yellow, are called “red” or “royal capes”: ʻahu ʻula. ʻŌiwi TV has a series of videos for teaching oneself the basics of Hawaiian language (ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi) – hopefully maybe some day soon I’ll start making my way through those.

The crowd there to see the exhibit created a particular energy in the gallery, that I think made for a wonderfully different experience than if I had visited at any other time.

The capes and cloaks are stunningly beautiful, all the more so because their color shows little sign of having faded – they remain bright and bold – and, LACMA being an art museum, we are certainly there to appreciate the incredible traditional craft techniques, expertise, and unfathomable hours of work it took to produce each of these. But, they are incredible, too, for their historical significance and power. From a Western or modern point of view, we do often speak of artworks as having an “aura” as a result of their canonical status, or historical importance. And as the curator, Christina Hellmich, said in her talk that day, they are touchpoints for history. One could walk through this exhibit and tell much of the history of the Kingdom by pointing to objects associated with each of the kings and queens. But these pieces possess a great mana, too, an aura within traditional Hawaiian belief as well, as they still brim with the mana of the aliʻi who once wore them. It was traditionally considered kapu (taboo) for a commoner to touch anything associated with the aliʻi, not only simply because it was considered disrespectful, or simply not done, but beyond that, because it was believed that the spiritual energy of that person – their mana – was too much for a commoner to handle, and that it would severely injure or even kill them. Today, such kapu are not so strictly observed, but the objects are still considered to be quite powerful, and are still treated with much respect, including ritual. Not only are there various public celebrations, like there were for the opening of this exhibit, and as there were for welcoming Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s ʻahu ʻula and mahiole back to Hawaii a few months ago, but there are also more private rituals performed by those actually handling the objects, as they (I believe, please correct me if I’m wrong) call upon the gods and ancestors for permission to touch, handle, and move the objects.

A feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu and obtained by the Bishop Museum in 1968, from the Earl of Elgin.

Doing a little internet research for this blog post, I found an amazing post from the blog nupepa, translating a clip from a 1908 Hawaiian-language newspaper which tells of the Bishop Museum reacquiring from Tsarist Russia at that time an ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, which had been given to Captain Cook and which had, seemingly by accident, been left by Cook’s men in Russia, way back in 1779-1780. The cloak and helmet were apparently found quickly by Russians, and brought back to St. Petersburg, where they had been preserved all this time. These do not appear to be the Kalaniʻōpuʻu artifacts included in the exhibit at LACMA, which have accession numbers indicating a 1968 date – and as the gallery labels tell us, it was in that year that these were purchased by the Bishop Museum from Lord Bruce of Kinnaird (Earl of Elgin). Neither are these 1908 objects the ones currently on long-term loan to the Bishop from Te Papa. It’s kind of incredible that so many pieces from so long ago – prior to the unification of the kingdom – still survive. Not just one, but at least three sets of ʻahu ʻula and mahiole associated with Kalaniʻōpuʻu, have apparently been maintained in either British, Russian, New Zealander, or Hawaiian hands.

And this, given that Hellmich tells us only about three hundred such Hawaiian featherwork garments are known to be surviving in the world. It’s a small number, but at the same time a large one, considering that in this one exhibit at LACMA alone we have numerous ʻahu ʻula belonging to Hawaiian mōʻī, while only one Ryukyuan royal crown is known to survive, in all the world. This is thanks, I suppose, to a combination of factors, including the fact that Hawaiʻi, for all its troubles, was at least spared the shelling and bombing and devastation of land war visited upon Okinawa; the fact that these objects, however Orientalized and exoticized, were valued and thus carefully preserved in British, Russian, and American collections; and the fact that within Hawaiian culture, too, these things were considered powerful symbols of kingly legitimacy and power, and were passed down from one king to another. Stacy Kamehiro writes, in her book The Arts of Kingship, about King Kalākaua’s possession of numerous key objects belonging to the Kamehameha line. And, indeed, the Sacred Sash of Liloa (Kāʻei Kapu o Liloa) worn by Kamehameha I in his famous statue was possessed, too, by Kalākaua, and survives in the Bishop Museum collection today.

We also learned about the birds used to make this fabulous cloaks. Three of the most significant were the mamo, the ʻoʻo, and the ʻiʻiwi. The mamo and ʻoʻo, used for their black and yellow feathers, are today extinct, though the red ʻiʻiwi can still be found in Hawaiʻi today, and are merely designated as “Vulnerable.” To make a full-length cloak like many of those in this exhibit required the feathers of literally hundreds of thousands of birds, and since the mamo and ʻoʻo were black birds with only a few yellow feathers each, one can begin to imagine how rare, valuable, and precious these yellow feathers were – and thus how a yellow cloak, even a smaller cape, could serve as a great show of wealth and power. Brilliant as the red is – and, make no mistake, the red was considered a royal color too – it was the yellow, really, which made so much more of an impression. This being the case, an all-yellow ʻahu ʻula associated with Kamehameha I and still held by the Bishop Museum today, despite being less visually interesting than the red and yellow ones, must have provided an exceptionally powerful display of wealth and kingly authority.

Moa – a type of native Hawaiian duck far cuter and far less imposing than the large ratites which once lived in Aotearoa – were also used for featherwork, and are also extinct. Green feathers, used mainly in lei and not in cloaks, came from the ʻōʻū, which is today believed to be critically endangered, if not already extinct.

The mamo, as depicted by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1900.

Given that several of these bird species are today extinct, and that it did require so many birds to make a single cape, a number of people in the audience raised the perhaps obvious questions about how exactly the feathers were gathered, and how (why) precisely the birds went extinct. I have certainly in the past, too, heard various rumors about precisely how or why this happened – one that came up among the audience questions was the notion that even if you leave the mamo safe and alive after plucking only its yellow feathers, it won’t look recognizable anymore to the females, and that thus the feather collection has a profound negative impact on breeding, and thus on the mamo population overall. Who knows if this was the case, though. While no people ever truly lives in perfect harmony with nature, and while all human presence has some environmental impacts, Hellmich reminded us, too, that on a very practical level, since it’s clear that these cloaks continued to be made for at least a hundred years (that is, over the course of the time of the unified Kingdom), if not for many centuries before that, clearly people must have had techniques to ensure they were not depleting the bird population too severely. If the feather gathering process had been as devastating as some of these rumors suggest, the bird-catchers and cloak-weavers would have been out of a job in only a few years, or decades, and the existence of these artifacts clearly shows they were not. Further, I thought it interesting that, as Hellmich pointed out, people so often seem so concerned about the environmental impact of indigenous art – and yet, when it comes to Western art, we don’t ask those questions. What about the human & environmental costs of all many various materials collected and used for European visual and material culture?

Further, while all of these audience members were asking questions about the environmental conservation angle, I may have been the only one who asked a question about the significance of these objects to Hawaiians today, and about the museum’s involvement in allowing for the appropriate (pono) ritual protocols to be observed regarding the transport and display of these objects.

Tammeamea (Kamehameha I) by Louis Choris, 1816. Pen and ink, ink wash, and watercolor on paper. Honolulu Museum of Art.

A couple of final points. One, that Hawaiian featherwork, though generally quite obscure in the overall treatment of global art history, in fact had its impacts & influences beyond Polynesia. The 1824 visit of King Kamehameha II to England, where he wore at least one of his royal feather cloaks, inspired a boom in English fashion emulating this style of featherwork – one example of such a piece, a British featherwork cape or jacket, is on display in the exhibit. Second, that in Louis Choris’ famous watercolor painting of Kamehameha I in a red vest, he is still wearing the royal red & yellow, even in Western clothing; I never noticed this color significance before, but now that it has been pointed out to me, I think it a very interesting sign of the ways in which Hawaiians – like others, around the world – adapted to modernity while retaining their cultural identity and traditions. Tradition, culture, and identity are not irrevocably tied to the past, nor are they incompatible with modernity; we know this so well for ourselves, even for various minority cultures, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, for some reason we have a lot of difficulty with this concept. Choris’ painting shows that Kamehameha had no difficulty with that at all.

Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) until August 7, 2016.

All photos are my own.

Read Full Post »

While at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to see RDK Herman’s exhibit “E Mau ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation,” I also got to see the museum’s long-term exhibit “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations.” Treaties – or their absence – are a major feature in the histories we tell of the interactions between China, Japan, Hawaii, and other non-Western nations on the one hand, and Western powers on the other. The Treaties with the US, France, and the Netherlands which showed the Ryukyu Kingdom was recognized as a sovereign member of the international family of nations prior to its unilateral abolition and annexation by Imperial Japan. The Unequal Treaties imposed upon China by the British, and shortly afterward by the other major Western powers. The similar treaties signed with the Western powers by Japan, and the use by Japan of similar treaties to bring Korea out of its special tributary relationship with China and into independent sovereignty in a “modern” sense, so that Korea might be a “free” and “independent” diplomatic and trading partner with Japan. And the absence of a treaty of annexation, the absence of any treaty at all by which the Hawaiian Kingdom agreed to give up its sovereignty or its land to the United States, is arguably one of the most prominent elements in most tellings of the history of Hawaiʻi.

Of course, it would be a true victory of/for cultural relativism if we were to convince ourselves that all societies are truly worthy of our respect regardless of their political character or configuration. But, that remains a difficult thing to achieve, as we all (myself included, of course) are burdened by various biases based on the values and attitudes of our upbringing and the culture in which we are immersed, and so on. And thus, I think something like this is a valuable intermediate step. In the end, notions of the “nation” and indeed of “treaties” and the objectivity or universality of European/Western cultural practices of diplomacy & law, need to be questioned, and I think this exhibit does a rather good job of beginning to break that down – it shows that Western notions of these things were not necessarily better, or more logical, or more advanced, but were simply different, and that the Native Nations had every reason to think their own way was equally valid, or even more valid and true than the Western way. But, even as we try to question this and break this down, to get the average museum visitor to question and relativize things, at the same time, we need to cater to their biases to a certain extent, I think, to argue that, even within this biased Western notion of “nations” – even within this notion that one must be a real Nation to be worthy of certain kinds of respect – these Native Nations do constitute Nations, or should.

Native peoples are more than just another ethnic or cultural minority. They are more than simply another group whose particular needs, attitudes, and interests need to be incorporated into the US American societal, political, and legal landscape cares about or attends to. Native peoples are qualitatively something different from merely a descent group. While Asian-Americans and African-Americans are, by one means or another, diasporic groups, distanced from their ancestral Nations, Native peoples are not, and they constitute those Nations still, down to this day. Or, even if we might apply the term “diaspora,” it is like the Jewish diaspora, exiled from their homeland and scattered, but still a nation in exile, with rightful claims to past nationhood, and to a future return to sovereignty.

Native Nations are groups with which the US – and other members of the family of nations, e.g. Britain, France, Mexico, and Spain – signed Treaties, meaningful (if not necessarily actually binding) under international law. They are groups whose National governance and political identity was (and is) recognized to at least some extent, and who possess(ed) lands. They truly do (or at least did, once) fulfill most if not all of the fundamental features, or qualities, that characterize a sovereign nation according to our general conceptions of that notion – something than cannot be said of other ethnic groups.

And so, while there is most absolutely value in trying to garner support and respect for Native Americans through the typical avenues of identity politics, respect for minority cultures, attacking racism, and so on and so forth, I think that it is through discussion of the history of Treaties that their Nationhood, and not merely their Peoplehood, comes to the fore, highlighting or emphasizing all the more so their rights and claims, and the unjustness of the injustices that have been committed against them. Racism is something to be assaulted, to be combatted, to be dismantled, most certainly. But racism is also intangible and debatable in ways in which (inter)national rights and so forth are not – if we recognize Native Americans as merely a minority, then questions of what does and does not constitute racism against them, or of in what ways and to what extent their culture should be respected, versus an idea that they ought to behave like any other US American, are more debatable- but, by contrast, if we recognize Native peoples as independent, sovereign nations, whose independence and sovereignty has been unlawfully or wrongfully violated, and whose rights to practice their own systems of law, cultural practices, etc within their own sovereign communities have also been violated, I think this makes it more stark, and less debatable.

Turning now to the actual content, and approach, of the exhibit, from the very beginning, and throughout the exhibit, the displays place the Native perspective first, presenting it in a fashion that shows its logic, its reasonableness. It’s amazing how powerful and meaningful such a small, subtle, move can be. In doing so, this exhibit avoids entirely the stereotype of Native ways as superstitious, or illogical, cutting right through all that rhetoric and instead showing the museum visitor (1) how different cultures can simply have very different ways of understanding something, or of performing certain processes, without either one being inherently better, or more logical, and also (2) that Western notions, and ways of doing things, were honestly quite superstitious and illogical themselves. I was reminded of Greg Dening’s article “Possessing Tahiti,” in which, after the English come to Tahiti and claim the island by planting a flag, the French then claim it by burying a plank of wood, and a bottle with the French ship’s crew’s names on papers inside; the Spanish then come and plant a giant cross. Is any of this fundamentally more logical or reasonable, or inherently less superstitious, than the Native practices?

This approach was applied to explain competing cultural notions regarding land & land ownership, law, and the use of language in securing promises or agreements, as well as to show Native & Euro-American perspectives on each of the different treaty negotiations featured. I wish the exhibit had gone a little farther, to explain the Native perceptions, or practices, in each of these realms a little further, since the all-too-brief labels often left the visitor having to fill in the gaps themselves – and most visitors would not possess the knowledge to be able to do so. For example, why and how was it that many Native peoples found oral agreements more meaningful, and more binding, than written ones? How does oral tradition, and the transmission of oral agreements, function in their political culture? For another example, my father said he found the description of Native & Western leadership structures to be too vague, leaving him rather unclear as to just how Native Nations were governed, or politically organized. One thing that was quite interesting, and compelling, however, in this section of the exhibit was the competing, or incompatible, practices, between Western notions that a written and signed agreement (such as a Treaty) was secured for all time, versus the common Native notion that “treaty” relationships had to be constantly renewed, through the performance of actual interpersonal friendship. In other words, just as friendships between individuals shift and change, and are only maintained through actual ongoing friendly interactions, relationships between peoples, too, could not simply be determined in a single moment, and set down on paper for all time, but just the same had to be constantly engaged in, in an ongoing fashion. This same label also reminded us that European notions of treaty law, and international law, were only in their infancy at this time (in the 18th century, when the first treaties between Native Nations and British colonists were being worked out) – it is not as if European/American systems of international relations were already well-worked-out and mature.

“Audience Given by the Trustees of Georgia to a Delegation of Creek Indians,” by William Verelst, 1730s. Reproduced in the exhibit; photo my own.

I also appreciated the nuanced and at least somewhat sympathetic view the exhibit presented on the Westerners, showing that attitudes do change, that relations were once on a more equal basis and could be again. That maybe, just maybe, a lot of the suffering, dispossession, death, and so forth came about for reasons other than just pure, unadulterated, racism and greed, but that rather they came about, at least in part, due to misunderstandings, difficulties in reconciling very different cultures; ignorance and naivete; conflicting needs of two peoples; and so forth, alongside, yes, at times, horrifically racist, even genocidal, attitudes. And, also, that even amidst such racism, arrogance, and aggression, there were also prominent US figures who were far more sympathetic.

Now, don’t get me wrong, if you’ve read my other blog posts, I hope you’ll know that I am as sympathetic as could be with the Indigenous cause. But, I appreciate the allowance of some suggestion, some hint, that even someone like Andrew Jackson may not have fully understood the implications of what he was doing – that the journey itself would be exceptionally difficult, bringing great suffering and numerous deaths; that dividing a people from their land meant disconnecting them from their history, their ancestors’ burials, their folkways; from the plants and mountains and rivers they knew, and how devastating that would be to their culture – and that he may have, at least to some extent, at least at this early stage, have had some greater respect for the Native Americans, and a desire to actually live in peace with them, albeit by removing them to other lands, so that their original lands could be settled by Whites. Cultural relativism is of vital importance as we seek to understand and respect others’ histories and cultures – and I think it of the utmost value that we should work to see Native cultures, histories, and Nations as equally valid, as equally worthy of our respect, as equally deserving of sovereignty and freedom and wellbeing. But cultural relativism has to cut both ways – just as we seek to understand and be sympathetic towards other cultures, we must not forget to also seek to understand and be sympathetic towards our own.

In any case, I was glad to learn a bit more, a bit deeper, about this history. And the exhibit did an amazingly good job of giving equal coverage to many corners of the country. Haudenosaunee Nations (New York/Quebec area) were covered in several sections, Pacific Northwest in another, California in another, the Southwest in another; and the Muscogee (Creek) and the Lakota/Sioux, the Cheyenne, and so on and so forth.

As we learned, unsurprisingly, there was a wide range, a diversity of experiences and interactions and results, as different Nations came up against the colonists or the US government, at different times. Some Treaties are actually still being honored, at least in part; other Nations got no Treaties, and many others’ experiences were in between. Some actually won negotiations, and even gained land or stronger assurances of independence, even if these didn’t last in the end. Others were utterly dispossessed, ruined, with the US using treaty law as a weapon, as a tool for dispossession, rather than as a means of respectful and mutually beneficial agreement. Still, of course, there are great similarities and connections across all these Native experiences – to have it spelled out explicitly, in a gallery label, that no Native Nation, not a single one, retained its land & sovereignty as the end result of contact with the US, is a pretty powerful thing to realize.

And, we learned that the Cherokee Trail of Tears was by far not the only story, or experience, of Removal. Not by a long shot. Some Natives felt this basically meant they could keep only their land, or their sovereignty, not both. Some, for a time, tried to stay. They simply said, “these are our lands, period. That is it. We are not talking to you any more,” and they simply stayed put, for as long as they could manage to resist. Others moved to new lands, but found this brought drastic changes in lifestyle. People lost their folkways – knowledge of those specific lands, of the weather, of the plants, were in many cases no longer valid in the new lands. Further, the actual process of walking to the new lands was exceptionally grueling, and for all too many, deadly. The exhibit leaves it somewhat open as to whether this was “genocide”. Was the utter and complete destruction of these peoples the intent? Or was the incredible extent of death, suffering, and cultural loss an unexpected effect, due to White naivete? I think this nuance, this complexity, is important.

Yet, still, regardless, the outcome was devastating – words fail me, to express how profoundly tragic and injust, we realize this was. Imagine the situation reversed, where some other people has taken over all of Europe, and everyone there is reduced to being regarded as simply “Native Europeans” – the distinctions between English, French, German, and Italian largely ignored, overlooked, and all just considered to be differences between cultural/ethnic minorities, and not Countries, Nations, Kingdoms, that once were sovereign and independent states of their own – and, further, equals, with the potential to have remained equals, as sovereign nations on the world stage. This is what has been lost – self-determination, freedom, sovereignty, land, equality, prosperity. The potential to have been free and prosperous people, sovereign in their own lands, and treated as equal members of the family of nations. The Western/modern concepts of the nation-state, territory, and sovereignty may be Western concepts – not universal, not inherently more right or more logical or more reasonable or more natural – but, even while there is incredible value in breaking down the false universality of such notions, and seeking to respect Native notions of nationhood, of sovereignty, etc., I think there is also value in emphasizing the ways in which Native Nations are still Nations, no different from any other Nation, and worthy of just the same respect.

This lesson of their equality, of their Nationhood, of the validity of their culture and their peoplehood, and this lesson of the horrific losses they have suffered, is a lesson that *must* be learned, shared, by US residents/citizens, and by people around the world, to appreciate the profound extent of the loss, of the destruction, and how it came about. To realize and respect what has been lost, what might have been, and to not only work to ensure that such things do not happen again, but also to seek to make restitution. I am so glad to see the NMAI up and running, and well-attended. The next step is to get this stuff into our textbooks, and to quit the whitewashing of our history.

All photos my own.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,912 other followers