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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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Urashima Monogatari Scroll (detail), L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU. An amazingly rich, gorgeously painted object.

I’ve just come back from a workshop at Brigham Young University (in Provo, UT), where they invited grad students and professors to come and check out their library’s stunning collection of Japanese objects.

The objects themselves are quite incredible. They have some 400 items in the collection, which is roughly 390-something more than we have here at UCSB* … While some experts in such things may be able to speak to the rarity and exceptional quality of the items in the BYU collection, and how they compare to those at Harvard, Yale, etc., what was of much more interest to me was simply the objects themselves, the topics they covered, and their incredible beauty. Sure, it’s great to have a high-quality (tokusei-bon 特製本) copy of a Kôetsu-bon of the Noh play Tatsuta – an extremely fine and presumably quite rare example of one of the earliest forms of Japanese movable type printing, from the very beginning of the 17th century – but, for me, it was the lengthy, highly detailed, vividly colored scroll paintings of mining on Sado Island, as well as even more gorgeously painted scrolls of foreign peoples & ships, that struck my eye. How many universities have such wonderful primary resources for studying early modern Japanese mining? Or early modern Japanese attitudes / perceptions / conceptions of foreigners?

EDIT:These are not only aesthetically, stylistically, technically, masterful works, many of them in amazingly good condition, but they are simultaneously excellent historical works. They tell us something not only about the artist, or the cultural milieu, the way the endless rotations of landscapes & birds-and-flowers at so many of our art museums do; these are stunningly beautiful while also serving as a window into the history itself – the history of mining, of ships, of foreign relations. Boy, I so want to secure a museum job some day so I can put together shows of works like these.

Sado Kinzan (Sado Gold Mine) Scroll, detail.

Two things I found especially wonderful and incredible about this collection, outside of the objects themselves. One, Prof. Jack Stoneman and others are using the collection as an opportunity to teach BA and MA students, in a very direct and hands-on manner, how to handle such objects, how to examine them closely and use them as research materials, and how to perform research about them, i.e. gaining first-hand experience at bibliographic research, tracking down provenance, comparing extant examples to determine how rare or how high-quality your copy is…. all skills that are essential for anyone seeking to go into museum, library, or archive work (or, nearly so, I suppose, depending on the position and the institution), and valuable too for a wide variety of other career paths. I’ve interned at several museums, and have an MA in Art History, and I don’t think I have quite the experience, the practice, that these students are gaining. Plus, the professors at BYU are using these primary sources to teach students hentaigana and kuzushiji.

Second, Prof. Stoneman told us something about the history of the collection, and it’s pretty incredible. Most of this collection comes from a man named Harry F. Bruning, who collected a wide variety of things, and sold much of it to a David Magee, who then sold it to the university. As far as we know, Bruning never went to Japan – didn’t even speak Japanese – and so, with my apologies for saying so, I’m not sure that Bruning himself is quite as fascinating a figure as, say, Bigelow, Morse, or Okakura, who traveled and dressed in traditional clothing and more actively engaged with the artistic & cultural worlds of the introduction of Japanese art into the US, and of the introduction of Westerners into Japan…. What’s really fascinating about the Bruning story is the way that Stoneman began to track down information about the collection. While looking through reference books from BYU’s library, such as a 1931 hard copy print catalog of the Art Institute of Chicago’s holdings, he noticed prices and checkmarks and the like penciled into the margins. And he noticed the same marks, in the same handwriting, in a few other books from the BYU library. And then he found, by some wonderful expert searching, a ledger or account book, also in the BYU Special Collections, but not well-cataloged or labeled (simply because no one had really looked at it closely enough before), which it turns out was Bruning’s own ledger, a daily diary of things he bought, sold, or inquired about!! But, this diary doesn’t happen to have any Japanese materials listed in it, and further, while there is reason to believe Bruning compiled a highly organized and detailed list of his own collection before handing it over to Magee, that book, if it still exists, is yet to be found. Is it also in the BYU library somewhere? Is it in the possession, somewhere, of Bruning’s relatives? … In short, it turns out it’s not just the Japanese materials themselves (and a huge wealth of other materials, incl. Western sheet music) which were The Bruning Collection, but actually it would seem a whole ton of reference books, booksellers’ catalogs, etc., which have now become scattered across the library collections, and so it’s sort of a treasure hunt to find Bruning’s handwritten notes in books throughout the library, and to piece this back together.

Ryûkyûjin dôro gakki zu (Ryukyuans Street Music Instruments Scroll)(detail). A handpainted copy of the scrolls I saw at the University of Hawaiʻi Library (Sakamaki-Hawley Collection).

I find the whole thing quite encouraging, because it means that just maybe, depending on the institution and the situation there, I just might be able to find myself – despite not having a PhD in Art History, despite not being Curator or Librarian or Archivist – nevertheless getting to work very closely with a collection, researching it myself and/or working with students to use the materials to teach them, and to help them acquire research skills as well.

All photos my own. All objects, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

*As far as I am aware, within the Art Library’s Special Collections, not counting “Main” Special Collections, or what may be owned by the Art, Design, and Architecture (AD&A) Museum on campus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A few things that have been going on lately in and around Japan.

The airstrip at Futenma Air Base on Okinawa. Photo my own.

US Pacific Command (PACOM) reports that the dismantling of Futenma Air Base on Okinawa might be delayed yet again, until at least 2025, due in large part to Okinawan opposition to the construction of its replacement at Henoko. The Japan Times quotes Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, as telling a congressional hearing on Weds March 3 explicitly:

The project has been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support by the government of Okinawa.”

Tokyo responded that they had never told Washington there would be any such delay.

The Okinawan people have been protesting for decades for Futenma to be dismantled, and for no new bases to be built in its place. But while the US finally agreed in 1996 to move towards dismantling the air base, more than 20 years on, they (we) have dragged their (our) feet, taking Okinawan protests and opposition not as impetus to actually do what the Okinawans demand – accelerating the dismantling, and at the same time not building any other bases – but rather, to delay, and to cite the protests as the reason, as our excuse. The US (and Tokyo) continue to stand firm that this new base will be built, that there is no other way, and that as soon as Henoko is complete, Futenma can be dismantled.

But, meanwhile, the Okinawans have stood firm as well, that there must not be any new bases. That the new base at Henoko is unacceptable, and that “there is no other way” other than actually dismantling bases without constructing new ones. If it’s not evident already, I side with the Okinawans, and on a moral level, I feel it is incumbent upon Washington & Tokyo – not upon Okinawa – to change their ways. But, on a practical level, if Okinawan protests (as well as criticism in newspapers, opposition through political avenues, etc.) have for the last 20+ years only succeeded in having the opposite effect – of delaying rather than accelerating the dismantling of Futenma – one has to wonder what other tactics the Okinawans could or should be using? What could they do differently to impel the decision-makers in Washington and Tokyo to change their policy?

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Tokunoshima, Kagoshima prefecture. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:Opqr, courtesy Creative Commons licensing.

On a related note, the Asahi Shimbun reports that they’ve obtained a classified US government document which may have been used to help block Prime Minister Hatoyama’s efforts to get Futenma moved. Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan in 2009-2010, was probably the most vocal and explicit of all recent prime ministers about committing to getting Futenma moved; he was so committed to it, in fact, that when it failed, it contributed significantly to his getting pushed out of office.

At the time, Hatoyama had been backing a plan to relocate the base, not to Henoko (still on Okinawa Island), but to Tokunoshima, a smaller island to the north. According to the classified document the Asahi claims to have obtained, the US blocked this by citing a policy that “Marine Corps helicopter unit[s] should not be based more than 65 nautical miles, or 120 kilometers, from [their] training grounds.” This seems nonsensical on the very surface of it, because if you relocated the base to Tokushima, and declared Tokushima the training grounds, then it wouldn’t be far from itself at all. Why continue to have Okinawa considered the training grounds once you’ve moved the base X km away to another island? Regardless, what makes this all the more interesting is that US Forces Japan denies that there is any such policy, and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô) “cannot confirm the existence of such a document.” The latter may be simply because it is a classified document. But it still raises an eyebrow for me. Does this document, and the policy it cites, exist or not? Was this policy invented explicitly in order to block Hatoyama – the US Marines manipulating a foreign head of state?

I’ll admit I wasn’t following these events nearly as closely at that time, six years ago, but I was still back then aware of Hatoyama’s support for taking real action to actually get Futenma shut down, and I was in support of it. The idea of moving it to Tokunoshima, however, is complicated. Tokunoshima used to be a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, until it was taken and annexed by Satsuma domain in 1609-1611; unlike the kingdom itself, based on Okinawa, which was allowed to retain some considerable degree of autonomy, Tokunoshima and all the other islands north of Okinawa were fully absorbed into Satsuma territory, and were no longer under the authority of the kingdom. So, when the people of Tokunoshima protest against a base being built there, as they did indeed protest, this too is a Ryukyuan indigenous and anti-colonial protest, sharing considerably in the core character of the Okinawans’ protests. Moving the base from Okinawa to Tokunoshima is like moving a base from Hawaii to Guam – you’re lightening the burden on one colonized indigenous people only to increase the burden on another.

While Tokunoshima does have 1/10th the population density of Okinawa, it’s still undoubtedly sacred land in its own way, as basically all Ryukyuan land is. And, there are arguments to be made that the smaller the island, the smaller the population, while yes you may be placing the burden on a far smaller group of people (and thus benefiting a greater number, whose burden is lightened), the burden on that smaller group is all the heavier. Which logic, or morality, is to win out? The notion that the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the few? Or the notion that the tyranny of the majority is tyranny and is to be avoided/opposed?

If the bases were to be moved to the Japanese mainland, e.g. Kyushu or Honshu, I think there is still an argument to be made for the disruption of sacred and/or historical land. Almost anywhere you put it, you’re going to be building on top of a sacred Shinto space, and/or a historically significant location. Even as rural Japan continues to become woefully depopulated – a major societal concern that’s a whole other topic unto itself – those abandoned villages still have history, going back hundreds of years, and to erase them from the face of the earth to build a military base should be undesirable. But, at least, the indigenous and colonial issue is not present, and that’s something I think the Japanese government needs to learn to recognize and acknowledge – that the Okinawans, and those of islands such as Tokunoshima, are not simply Japanese citizens like any others with all the same obligations to the Nation, but that they are colonized, occupied people, and deserve a little more consideration.

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“Nuclear Power, the Energy of a Bright Future,” a sign in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, within the exclusion zone. Image from the Asahi Shimbun.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Japan, a town in the Fukushima exclusion zone is taking down signs promising “nuclear power, the energy of a bright future.” And the signmaker is not happy. He argues that taking the signs down “could be perceived as an attempt to “cover up” the shameful past,” whereas leaving them up is a reminder of the arrogance and mistakes of the past.

Robert Jacobs, professor at Hiroshima City University, has an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal this month on a closely related topic: “Forgetting Fukushima.”

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Ainu traditional robes on display at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

The Japan Times reports that a new book on Ainu history has won a prestigious award. Prof. Segawa Takurô’s new book “Ainu Gaku Nyûmon” (“Introduction to the Study of the Ainu”) challenges long-held stereotypical views about indigenous peoples, that they were quite politically and culturally isolated in their villages, not engaging with the outside world. To the contrary, Segawa emphasizes that the Ainu – the indigenous people of northern Japan – were historically (going back quite a few centuries) quite actively engaged in (political) contact, trade, and cultural exchange with a considerable number of other cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and numerous various indigenous peoples – across a large geographical area.

For those of us with a certain extent of formal background in Japanese Studies, and especially those of us who have studied indigenous issues in general or Ainu Studies in particular, this is not exactly new. Still, from what little the Japan Times article is saying, Segawa seems to be suggesting an even greater degree of interaction than I’d have thought. And, more importantly, he is introducing this to a popular Japanese audience, and hopefully contributing to an eventual sea change in how people see the Ainu – as possessing a great history, never so isolated, and today as fully modern people, their culture and traditions no more “backward” than Japanese traditions or those of any other culture.

For this book, Segawa won grand prize at the third Ancient History and Culture Awards 古代歴史文化賞, and also received an invitation to speak before the Ainu Association of Hokkaido 北海道アイヌ協会 (the most major Ainu Association there is), alleviating his concerns about how the Ainu community might receive his arguments.


Grey Area (Brown Version) by Fred Wilson, 1993. Not actually a direct replica of the Berlin Nefertiti, but obviously based upon it. Seen at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo my own.

Finally, one more thing that doesn’t have to do specifically or exclusively with Japan. As the New York Times reports,

Two German artists walked into the Neues Museum in central Berlin in October and used a mobile device to secretly scan the 19-inch-tall bust of Queen Nefertiti, a limestone-and-stucco sculpture more than 3,000 years old that is one of Germany’s most visited attractions. … Then last December, in the tradition of Internet activism, they released the data to the world, allowing anyone to download the information for free and create their own copies with 3-D printers.

Now, there’s a whole side to this that has to do with whether or not the Nefertiti was “stolen,” whether it should be returned to Egypt, and so forth. And I’m not going to comment on that today.

But, here’s the thing – regardless of whether the bust legally belongs to Germany, or to Egypt, either way, it really belongs to the world. That’s what museums are for, to conserve and share art and artifacts for the benefit of the whole world. Yes, there is plenty to be said (books and books of Museum Studies commentary) about museums for constructing a sense of national identity, and so forth, and that’s something too. But, no one living made or painted this bust. According to the underlying values and spirit of copyright law (in the US, at least, but I imagine to a large extent internationally as well), copyright expires and things fall into the public domain. How much more so things made thousands of years ago. In short, my point is, the museum may own the object, but do they really – morally, ethically – own the rights to the image? So, if you forbid museum visitors to take photos of one of your most famous and iconic objects, is it really your right to do so? Sure, I guess any institution can make whatever rules they want within their own building, and if you don’t like it you can leave. But is it right? Mike Weinberg discusses the basic details of this in a post on the 3D printing blog Shapeways.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know this is one of my main pet peeves, one of my main sticking points. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it again. Today’s post isn’t a particularly coordinated logical argument, and I’m okay with that. For now, in short, let me just say that, the “stolen artifact” “Egyptian repatriation” issue aside, I think “stealing” into the museum and taking totally non-invasive photos or scans of one of the most iconic pieces in the world, and sharing it with the Internet, is a great victory for art, culture, heritage, world community. These things belong to the world, and the museum is merely its steward – it is your job as a museum to share these things, to make them available to the public, to learn from, to be inspired by. If you are being stingy and protectionist about these things, that’s just wrong. And all the more so in our current internet age – the Nefertiti and its scan being 3D objects makes it a bit different, but when it comes to 2D images, I think we are in desperate need of new laws and understandings, both within our various countries and worldwide, as to whether sharing images online counts as “publishing” (and thus subject to the same stringent permission requirements) and what should be the bounds of the rights of museums, libraries, archives, which own the objects but not the copyrights, to tell us what we can and cannot do with those images (and the rights of such institutions to block us from access to the objects, and/or from taking photos to begin with).

EDIT: Blogsite ArsTechnica is now reporting that the scan was likely not, in fact, covertly done in the gallery but rather is likely an official scan commissioned by the museum and then “stolen” in some fashion by the two German artists – either through direct hacking of the museum’s systems in some fashion, or through having someone at the museum, or the contracted-out scanning company, give them the information.
This certainly changes the character of the situation a shade. I’m not sure whether it actually changes the copyright situation – in the US, the question of whether a highly accurate photographic record of something truly introduces “creativity” and thus qualifies as a new copyright (owned by the photographer) has some degree of legal precedent. I have no idea the case in German or EU law.

But, perhaps what’s most pertinent is conveyed in this quote from the ArsTechnica article, from Cosmo Wenman, an artist who has done his own covert scans of museum objects:

I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

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In the course of my research, I have begun to come across highly detailed references to which time of day events took place. I don’t know yet whether I will end up having anything to say about the ritual, political, or social significance of the fact that such-and-such an event took place at such-and-such a time, but at least on a basic logistical level, just trying to visualize whether people were going up to the castle in the morning or in the evening, how long an audience with the shogun lasted, and so on, so long as my sources are telling me what time it was, I might as well make a note of it, and make an effort to understand what time that was. Over the years, I’ve skimmed over quite a few different explanations or guides to telling time in early modern Japan. Perhaps one of the best online is that posted by the late Anthony Bryant on his website, SengokuDaimyo.com. Even so, I never quite managed to grasp it, until this week.

Above: A Japanese clock from 1678, on display at the British Museum. Not quite as impressive as this other one also at the BM, but I think the face and mechanics are a bit more visible here, because of the size. Photo my own. Apologies for the graininess that emerged as I brightened the photo.

I think a large part of what makes it so difficult to grasp is simply because our own timekeeping culture is something we learn from such a young age, and use so ubiquitously in our lives, it is so deeply ingrained, that it seems almost natural, and so it can be hard to conceive of other systems. Of course, the fact that there were several different ways of telling time in early modern Japan (by numbers that don’t correspond to our 12pm, 1pm, 2pm system, and by zodiac symbols which I have never managed to memorize the order of), and that Japanese “hours” shortened and lengthened with the seasons, doesn’t exactly help.

Thanks to Japanese blogger Chihuahua Luke for this diagram.

The day was divided into six koku (刻 – though often referred to as “hours” 時 or 時分 in the documents), and the night another six koku, for a total of 12 koku corresponding to each of our 24-hour days. You can see on the above diagram, the six “hours” of night on the top half, and the six “hours” of day on the bottom half. Midnight is at the very top, and noon at the bottom, with sunset at the left and sunrise at the right.

So, since there are 12 koku in each day+night cycle, each is roughly equivalent to two hours in our modern 24-hour reckoning. Kind of. The thing is, daylight was always six koku long, and night was another six koku. So, depending on the seasons, as daylight grew longer and shorter, so too did the koku. As this diagram below shows, in winter, there is less daylight each day, so the daytime (昼) koku are shorter, and the nighttime (夜) koku longer. In summer, this is reversed. When mechanical clocks were first introduced to Japan by Europeans in the 16th or 17th century, their mechanisms – designed in Europe to tell regular time, one hour per hour, 24 hours per day, like clockwork (literally) – had to be modified to allow for these shifts in the “hours” (or koku) with the seasons. Basically, the small weights which drove the clockwork (and which you can see under the bell on the image at the top of this post) had to be adjusted every day, or every few days, to accommodate the days growing longer or shorter. If you’re interested in further details on how these clocks worked, wristwatch company Seiko has a nice description on their website.

Another diagram from Chihuahua Luke. Thank you! This one shows how daylight hours shifted across the year. The small 1-24 numbers on top and bottom are our modern hours, while the numbers given in kanji are the bell system I describe below. You can see on top how in summer, with sunrise around 4am and sunset around 7pm, the six daylight hours (from 明け六ツ to 暮れ六ツ) were lengthened. And the reverse in the winter, shown on the bottom.

Still with me? It gets a little more complicated. If you read Edo period documents, or look at Edo period clocks, you won’t see the hours identified in a simple progression from one to six, or one to twelve. Nanatsu-toki 七つ時 or nanatsu-jibun 七つ時分, which we might call “7 koku” is not the seventh one of the day, and it does not come after six. Rather, each koku was assigned to one of the twelve “zodiac” animals, progressing from Hour of the Hare at dawn, to Hour of the Horse at noon, Hour of the Cock at dusk, and Hour of the Rat at midnight. These “animal” names for the hours can be seen in numerous sources, including in Utamaro’s ukiyo-e woodblock print series “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara” – twelve prints depicting courtesans at various hours of their day. The print for the Hour of the Hare shows a courtesan presenting her client with his jacket, as it is dawn and it is time for him to go.

Right: The Toki no Kane (“Bell of Time” or “Bell of the Hours”) in Kawagoe. Photo my own.

The time was also announced in the big cities by networks of belltowers, which rang nine bells at noon or midnight, progressing down to eight, seven, then six bells at dawn or dusk, then five, and four, before jumping back up to nine. I have pasted a copy of a chart of this up on the wall by my desk, and have been consulting it frantically, as I was just a little too overwhelmed with the complexity, was having a really hard time remembering which numbers corresponded to which time of day, and just didn’t think I was going to be able to memorize it. As I made my way through my sources, I took meticulous notes of the corresponding times – for example, where the source says 七ツ時 (7 bells), I wrote “3-5am,” as it says directly on my chart.

But, then my advisor reminded me that it really doesn’t correspond directly to our regular hours; rather, it shifted over the course of the seasons. (EDIT, 3/13: Besides, let us not forget the idiosyncrasies of our own system, which includes setting our clocks forward or back by an hour each spring and autumn.) Oy gevalt. But, complicated as this all is, I had a sort of “aha!” moment today, and realized two things, which spurred me to be writing this post.

First, no one had wristwatches or anything like that at the time, and in an age before railroad timetables, very few things were done strictly according to schedule (i.e. directly on-time). So, really, it’s the rough time relative to dawn or dusk, or relative to noon or midnight, that is perhaps most relevant – and this gives us a stronger sense of the actual look/feel of the day. 七ツ時 (7 bells) is shortly before dawn, so that means it’s dark out. People would have put out paper lanterns to help light the way; these will be extinguished right around dawn. Are people up yet? Are they milling about? Are they just sort of first starting their day, starting to get things ready? The source tells us it was snowing that day… So, I think I may simply change all my references to “3-5am” to instead read something like “shortly before sunrise.” While this is vaguer, it is also less inaccurate, and arguably perhaps more directly indicative of the time of day relative to dawn, dusk, etc.

Second, while I do think I’ll be leaving the chart up for reference, I think once you manage to learn/remember that six bells is always sunrise or sunset, that nine bells is always noon or midnight, and that the bells count down from nine to four, and then jump to nine again, everything else falls into place. Five bells (五つ時) is the early morning or the early evening, four bells (四ツの時分) is late morning or late evening, and then we jump back up to nine bells for the time around noon, or midnight. Eight bells is either early afternoon, or very early morning (i.e. the hours after midnight), seven bells is either late afternoon (approaching dusk) or the hours approaching dawn. And that’s actually about it.

People milling about, possibly getting their day started? Or, perhaps it’s closer to sunset, and closing time? A model of the Echigo-ya, one of Edo’s most major department stores, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Photo my own.

It was quite common for people in early modern Japan to rise during the period of seven bells (七つ時), that is, within the last koku before dawn (the last hour or two before sunrise in our modern conception), to begin to get ready for the day. While on the road, we find that Ryukyuan missions very often departed a town around dawn (thus implying they’d already been awake for a bit, to pack up and prepare for departure), and arrived places by around dusk. Still, there were many occasions when they arrived considerably after dusk, and fure were circulated around the town ordering that homeowners & shopowners put up paper lanterns (chôchin), taking the lanterns down at dawn.

When traveling up to Edo castle for formal audiences, the missions generally got prepared around 8 bells (that is, two koku before dawn) – as, one supposes, there were a lot of preparations to be done – and then departed the mansion for the castle shortly before sunrise, arriving at the castle after daybreak (6 bells). It’s certainly something to think about, that they would have been marching through the streets, in their colorful costumes, banners, palanquins, and everything, and blasting street processional music, at such an early hour – and in the faint light of dawn. One supposes the popular crowds came out more when the missions came back down from the castle later in the day? But, then again, we should not presuppose based on modern-day conceptions of what feels too early in the day according to our own modern lifestyles…

As for how time was actually calculated in order to know when to ring the bells, I’m not actually sure. But, both for individuals and institutions (e.g. castles, temples), there were a number of other ways in which time was counted as well. Perhaps one of the most obvious is to simply look at the sun – I haven’t actually read up on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the most common method out in the countryside. Shuri castle maintained a water clock – water was allowed to drain out of a large tank in a controlled manner, such that the level of water could be used to tell how much time had passed. This was used in combination with a sundial to tell the time, which was then announced to the castle and the city by drums. Though this is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan) example, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it were used in Japan as well. So, various kinds of water clocks and sundials. Candles could also be burnt to tell the time – just keep track of how far down the candle has burned, or how many candles you’ve gone through. In the Yoshiwara, a client’s time with a courtesan was measured based on how many incense sticks had been burned, and he was charged on that basis.

For more on timekeeping in Edo period Japan, check out Dissertation Reviews’ review of Yulia Frumer’s recent PhD dissertation, “Clocks and Time in Edo Japan.” The dissertation itself is sadly embargoed until November 2016. Hopefully Frumer will be getting her work published as a book in the near future; I’ll be looking out for it.

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Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009.

It is all too easy, and all too tempting sometimes to think of the Edo period as a single block, a single period that can be characterized in a single way. Of course there was change over the period, but the World History survey version of this, or very often even the East Asian survey or even Japanese history survey version of this, in my personal experience, has often seen simply one of (a) putting a system into place and then maintaining it, and (b) proto-industrial growth and “progress.” Of course, however, we all know that history is never so simple, and no society is ever so static. In Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides a more complex and detailed description of the changes and developments in Japanese foreign policy over the course of the Edo period, emphasizing the decentralized and at times highly contested nature of policy-making, implementation and enforcement, and the dramatic shifts in attitudes and policies across the period.
Based on Hellyer’s account, we can see a number of watershed moments in the progression of foreign policy, namely the 1630s, 1764, and 1853, marking the bounds of periods decidedly different from one another in character.

Hellyer does not dwell for long on the initial decades of Tokugawa rule, or on the debates or considerations surrounding the decision to impose maritime restrictions in the 1630s, but it would be hard to argue that this is not a significant dividing line, between a period of active engagement with many different trading partners – Portuguese, Spanish, and English, among others coming to Japanese ports, and Japanese operating in Southeast Asian ports, to say the least – and one of much more careful, restricted engagement with the outside world, in which only the Dutch and Chinese trade at Nagasaki, and interactions with Ryukyu and Korea (and via them, China) are handled exclusively by the domainal authorities of Satsuma and Tsushima. From the settling of this mode of engagement in the early decades of the 17th century, through to the 1750s, as Hellyer describes in his first several chapters, Satsuma and Tsushima enjoyed considerable autonomy and agency in their management of trade, as did merchants in Nagasaki and elsewhere in the realm. Both Satsuma and Tsushima were able to leverage their indispensability in these commercial and political relationships to gain considerable privileges or concessions from the shogunate, arguing not only for the importance of the goods they were bringing in, but also for the value of the intelligence – information about political goings-on in the region – obtained via these domainal relationships with Ryukyu and Korea. Here, and throughout the book, Hellyer emphasizes that “Japanese” foreign relations in this period were not directed wholly by a central authority, with a set plan that all domains followed through on; rather, the realm’s interactions with the outside world were constituted by the competing, and sometimes complementary, desires, intentions, attitudes, and actions of several different parties, the shogunate, the lords of Satsuma and Tsushima, and their advisors, chief among them.

Japan and its peripheries, as seen in one of the woodblock-printed maps from Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.

Hellyer also characterizes this first half of the Edo period as a period of desperate attempts on the part of the shogunate to stem the flow of precious metals (especially silver) out of the country, in negotiation or competition with Satsuma’s and Tsushima’s demands for their own continued access to precious metals to export as vital tribute goods for Tsushima to present to Korea, and Ryukyu to China, in exchange for the exotic goods (incl. chiefly Korean ginseng and Chinese silks). Repeated debasements of the coinage executed by the shogunate in attempts to reduce the amount of silver flowing out of the country present considerable difficulties for both Tsushima and Satsuma, but both domains are able, for the time being, to petition or argue successfully for exceptions, or concessions, allowing them to continue their “traditional” patterns of trade relations. This would change in the latter half of the Edo period (from perhaps the 1760s or so onward), as stronger shogunate control over certain aspects of the economy, and increased domestic production of various goods, diminished the shogunate’s reliance on the two domains, and thus their leverage and agency.

Where Miyagi Eishō, among others, have argued for the importance of Arai Hakuseki in engineering, around 1709-1711, a dramatic shift in how the shogunate viewed the purpose or importance of the Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, casting it as a major turning point, Hellyer merely touches upon these issues, dwelling little on the missions and their role in contributing to Tokugawa legitimacy and authority (but that’s okay. We’ve got Toby for that. Hellyer does mention logistical changes put into place by Hakuseki (62-63), but draws his dividing line at 1764 (73). Though I remain unconvinced that anything occurred in precisely that year which should define it as a watershed moment, it is clear from Hellyer’s descriptions that the 1760s-1770s saw a very dramatic shift in shogunate approaches to foreign trade. Beginning at that time, the shogunate moved to implement a more systematic and more directly shogunate-controlled system of funneling revenues and import/export goods, dramatically reducing the agency of Satsuma and Tsushima, and the independence of Nagasaki and Osaka merchants in coordinating exchanges of certain prominent goods and in profiting from those exchanges. This period sees the expansion of the activity of the Nagasaki clearinghouse and the establishment of other clearinghouses and shogunate-authorized guilds (za), directing silver, copper, and marine products through shogunate-controlled, or –authorized, channels, essentially monopolizing the import, export, and domestic trade in those commodities for the benefit of shogunate revenues, rather than private merchant profits. It was around this time as well that the shogunate finally managed to shift the flows of goods away from trade patterns based on the export of silver, to ones where the export of marine goods, including kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone, was at the center; demand for marine products throughout the region – and especially in China – was high enough to allow the Japanese, through their various channels, to not only dramatically decrease the amount of silver they were exporting, but to actually begin importing silver, in exchange for marine goods.

Commodore Perry’s fleet, as depicted in a scroll recently acquired by the British Museum. Image from the Museum’s online collections.

Finally, we come to the 1850s, when Western merchants enter onto the scene in a more major way, though Hellyer does describe earlier encounters. At first, Western merchants seek to insert themselves into the regional trade networks already in place, and for a brief time samurai officials consider using Western ships as intermediaries in the China trade, exchanging marine products for silver, among other goods. However, the focus quickly shifts to more direct engagement with the Western powers, within increasingly Western modes of exchange, and over the course of the 1850s-60s, the traditional systems, especially at Nagasaki, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

Hellyer’s account skims over the diplomatic or political aspects of relations between the various shogunal/domainal samurai authorities on the one hand, and the royal courts of Korea and Ryukyu on the other hand, and treats the Korean and Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the Satsuma presence in Ryukyu, and the Tsushima missions or interactions in Korea, very minimally. However, his narrative illuminates important factors contributing to shifts and changes throughout this period, including changeovers in shogunal advisors or leadership (focusing especially on the differing attitudes and approaches of Arai Hakuseki, Tanuma Okitsugu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu, along with a few others), and shifts in the supply and demand of certain goods. As Japanese silver mines run dry, domestic production of ginseng grows, diminishing somewhat the indispensability of silver exports to Korea; as Japanese copper exports are reduced, the Chinese expand their mining efforts in Yunnan and Vietnam. Matsudaira Sadanobu tries in the 1780-1790s to dramatically reduce foreign interactions, but concedes that the domestic demand for medicinal herbs, roots, and the like was too high to shut things down more fully. And then, just as marine products begin to dominate the export market, the people of the archipelago come, circa 1800, to have a taste for those products, for their own personal local consumption, like never before. This narrative reveals, or highlights, the powerful importance of goods like medicinal herbs and roots, and marine products such as kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone which generally go largely overlooked in favor of “sexier” or “flashier” goods such as gold, silver, silks, and porcelains, a product of our biases as scholars, given our own proclivities and/or cultural background. One thing missing from this narrative, however, even as Hellyer focuses on the attitudes and approaches of different shogunal advisors, is any detailed coverage of changes in attitudes or approaches among the daimyō of Satsuma and Tsushima. Those names already prominent in our historical awareness already due to their involvement in Bakumatsu affairs, such as Shimazu Nariakira and Shimazu Hisamitsu, are chiefly those discussed in any detail, leaving us in the dark as to who the daimyō of the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were, let alone their personalities or policies.

We do, however, learn about a number of significant figures and incidents within Satsuma and Tsushima history, however, which I imagine are scarcely (if at all) covered elsewhere in English. Thus, in addition to the great value and interest of this book for its coverage of economic and foreign relations matters, I also very much enjoyed seeing these domains’ histories “rescued from history” to a certain extent. We learn, for example, about the great efforts at domainal financial reform of Satsuma retainer Zusho Shôzaemon, and the foreign relations efforts of Satsuma retainer Godai Hidetaka, as well as about Tsushima’s foreign relations nightmares dealing with the Russians, and the incredible factionalism and numerous coups within Tsushima leadership in the 1860s. It frustrates me that these events are not more widely discussed, and incorporated into the narrative, and that figures such as Zusho and Godai, along with Sasu Iori and Ôshima Tomonojô, not to mention daimyô such as Sô Yoshiyori and Sô Yoshiakira, continue to languish in such obscurity outside of Hellyer’s account. I hope that my own work can bring to light the stories of more significant figures, not as pawns within broader developments, but as real historical individuals – though, to be honest, I’m not sure my current project actually will. I shall have to hold onto that for the future.

All in all, Hellyer provides a valuable contribution to discussions of Tokugawa foreign policy, both fighting back against survey level misconceptions about static systems of “isolationist” foreign policy dictated from the center, and doing much to inform the more specialist reader as to the complex shifts in domestic production and demand of certain goods, monetary policy, and shifting attitudes or approaches of shogunal elites versus the desires or needs of domainal lords, among other factors which all combined to produce a dynamic, multi-centered, and oft-times contentious economic and political scene in Tokugawa era management of foreign affairs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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