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Rock, 2010.

I recently had the pleasure of going to the Seattle Asian Art Museum, along with LM of Odorunara.com, and seeing an exhibition of Chiho Aoshima’s work. I can’t remember where I learned of Aoshima previously, but she’s definitely one of the bigger-name contemporary artists out of Japan today, and it was great to get to see this exhibit of her work, including three rooms of digital prints, sketchbook pages, and a large video installation entitled Takaamanohara (the High Plains of Heaven).

In many of the works I took photos of, the land itself is anthromoporphized, contemplating itself, contemplating the beauty of nature. We are perhaps witnessing regrowth, and perhaps witnessing a contemplation on the fate or future of natural beauty amidst continued urbanization and industrialization. In other works, skyscrapers are portrayed with happy cartoon faces, and we are made to feel for them when the city is inundated by a tsunami in the video piece. So I don’t think Aoshima is speaking against urbanization, but perhaps questioning how we can protect our way of life, our society, our country – both its urban environments (modern, advanced, society) and natural beauty – against natural and other disasters.

I find an interesting dichotomy in many of these pieces, as they do deal with death and destruction, with volcanoes and tsunami, but they deal with them in such a lively, colorful, cartoon fashion that it seems like no actual harm, injury, or even death is possible. Anthropomorphized airplanes play under blue skies and tell us to “RELAX!” (in big English letters). A naked figure plays atop a volcano and farts clouds into the wind in a piece entitled “Onara-chan igyô wo nasu” (roughly, “Lil’ Farty effects a great enterprise”). In a digital print at the beginning of the show, a girl admires a tree, with doves and rainbows in the background behind her, and it is not a tree, but two different cityscapes, urban skylines, which are reflected in her eyes. In another digital print, happy cartoon-faced skyscrapers hang out, as a phoenix flies past.

I suppose the theme becomes obvious – it is hard to fight it when we see such things as the contemplation of nature, and visions of cities reflected in that; when we see a cityscape honored by the presence of a phoenix – the ultimate symbol of rebirth, at least in Western mythologies – flying by.

And yet, there is plenty of death and destruction here, too. A long digital print which extends nearly from wall-to-wall of the first gallery features blood-red rain and an utterly desolated middle portion of the scene, with the vast majority of the figures in the image holding hands and dancing among the clouds, presumably the spirits of the dead. In the center, a scraggly greyish structure which one might have taken to be a warped post-apocalyptic skyscraper turns out to be a pile of gravestones, atop the large head of a cartoon figure. The immediate surroundings are littered with human skeletons and dead trees. In a small painting later in the show, we see a tree holding a bucket & cleaning a gravestone, and in another, an anthropomorphized gravestone dancing with two trees.

In the video piece, Takaamanohara, a set of cartoon-faced skyscrapers play happily on the far left, while across a small body of water, on the far right, a far greener scene plays out, also happily, with birds and rainbows and so forth. Then things get dark. A volcano at the far right, also cartoon-faced, innocent and cute, blows its top, pouring out lava and spewing dark clouds into the sky. The whole video turns from whites and blues and greens to blacks and reds. A tsunami siren sounds, and waves inundate the immobile skyscrapers, who cry out in anguish. Some go up in flames, and some topple. But then some are rebuilt, and the world eventually returns to blue skies, lush greenery, and birds and rainbows.



A piece entitled “Sensô nante yaritakunaindayo ~hontô” (“Don’t Wanna Wage War… Honestly”) seems at first an outlier, but in a sense it fits in with the theme, too, as Aoshima points towards a desire for a peaceful, beautiful, future, for Japan and for the world. While her anime style, use of Japanese language, and other elements very much point her out as a Japanese artist, Aoshima also includes a number of works that point to a more international outlook. In one, we see a girl busking with a guitar, under a sign which says Union Square clearly in English, and she sings, in Spanish, “Dicen que soy muy borracho” (“They say I am very drunk”). Is she commenting on 3/11 and particularly Japanese concerns, or is she speaking to broader concerns, for all mankind, the world over?

Given the title, “Rebirth of the World,” and the content, including tsunami in the video installation, it would be very easy to jump to the conclusion that Aoshima is yet another artist talking about, thinking about, reflecting on, 3/11 and life in a post-3/11 Japan. This has most certainly been the dominant theme in the last few years in commentary on contemporary art, and contemporary culture more broadly, and I do understand that for those who were in Japan at the time, and those more closely in touch with contemporary culture (e.g. anthropologists), this is a huge thing. But, is that necessarily what’s going on here?

Many of these pieces were made in 2010 or earlier. They take on new meanings for us now, in the wake of those terrible events. The earth-girl gazing at an islet in Rock might be taken to be crying, for Matsushima, or for any and every coastal site ravaged by the tsunami on that terrible day. But this piece was made in 2010, and the bits of blue just under her eyes might just be the seawater in which her face and arms are resting. What might Aoshima have meant by the work at that time, before the disasters?

I struggle with this installation for bizarre reasons. It’s not that I don’t know what’s going on. The theme is so obvious: Rebirth of the World. And yet, because it is so obvious, it makes me wonder what else is going on, what other themes, what deeper messages. And I cannot seem to quite find them. I’m not saying Aoshima’s work is shallow; or even if it is, that that’s a problem. These are beautiful and powerful pieces. I’m just not really sure what more to say, or think, about them…

It is a beautiful installation, though; they have repainted the walls to make it a decidedly, distinctly, Aoshima space, and a number of works are on display that, we are told, have never been shown before. If you have the chance, go check it out.

All photos my own. Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World is on display at the Seattle Asian Art Museum at Volunteer Park until October 4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 14th century graves of Shimazu Ujihisa (center), his daughter (left), and wife (right), at the Shimazu clan cemetery at Fukushô-ji, in Kagoshima.

Almost done with exams. So close I can smell it.

If you’ve been to Japan (or even if you haven’t), you’ve probably seen stone grave markers like this one. If you’re a nerd like me, you might have wondered something about them. What does the shape symbolize? How long ago did the Japanese start using them? How has the shape, or other aspects of their use, change over time? Despite the ubiquity of these grave markers – you can find them in just about every cemetery in Japan – and their distinctive aesthetic / sculptural form, in my experience, textbooks and classes on Japanese art and architecture typically skip over grave practices entirely. I have never yet been to China or Korea, but I am told that Japanese grave markers and burial practices otherwise are rather distinct from those on the continent… so you would think it would be something worth talking about.

One of the few things I did hear about these five-stage gorintô structures previously was that they are meant to represent the five elements. But, I’d always been confused as to which set of elements these were supposed to represent; if the five Chinese elements are wood, metal, fire, earth, and water, then how/why would this Japanese form feature such associations with earth, water, fire, wind, and void? Turns out the latter are the Indian five elements, adopted more directly into Japan from Sanskritic/Buddhist origins than the natively Chinese (Confucian? Taoist?) wǔ xíng. The form is also used as a tool for meditation, the five stages representing five portions of the human body, or of Dainichi (the Universal Buddha), associated with the elements. The folded legs are earth; the hara (abdomen/stomach) is water; the chest fire; the head air; and above that, void.

Fortunately, Prof. Hank Glassman of Haverford College gave a fascinating talk on the subject recently. As he explained, as recently as the Heian period, visiting graves was not a widespread custom, and graves generally were not even marked. Eiga monogatari, from the early 12th century, is among the earliest literary works describing a visit to a grave, yet here it is still limited to the top echelons of the elites, and the grave remains unmarked. A member of the Fujiwara clan seeks to visit his father’s grave, to tell of his promotions in title/post to his father, but worries he won’t be able to find the unmarked grave, which is also overgrown with weeds, since the custom of maintaining or cleaning graves was also not widespread yet; Glassman suggests the practice of maintaining, marking, and visiting graves may have become more standard in Japan along with the introduction of the Neo-Confucian teachings of Zhu Xi, which would have emphasized filial piety – obligations to one’s parents, and ancestors.

Sotoba at Negishi Cemetery in Yokohama.

The first stone gorintô grave markers are believed to have been based on wooden ones, a few of which survive, albeit only from later centuries. Even before that, however, the first gorintô were far smaller. They were reliquaries, as is the original essential idea of the stupa form. Some of the earliest such gorintô reliquaries date to the 1190s, and have been found in rock crystal or bronze, placed inside Buddhist statuary, as receptacles for holding relics of the Buddha, arhats, or other significant Buddhist figures. This form was then adopted onto carved flat wooden planks, carved only into the topmost sections of the plank; this evolved by the 12th century into the fully three-dimensional wooden form, and then the stone one, but still survives too in the wooden planks (sotoba) seen all the time at Japanese cemeteries today. These, we learned, are typically replaced at a given grave every day for the first week after burial, and then annually after that; Glassman spoke of the beauty and impressiveness of the monks’ skills at inscribing calligraphy, in both Chinese and Siddham, on these planks by brush.

A small gorintô atop the grave of Murasaki Shikibu in Kyoto (presumably a later addition, though I don’t know how much later).

It was only in the late 12th century that the custom of stone grave markers is thought to have been first imported from the continent, though adapted to a distinctly Japanese form (shape) of marker, already in use in wood. Even then, the practice was initially rather limited to the aristocracy, and to the most prominent of religious figures. The first gorintô grave markers are believed to have been carved and erected in Japan by a group of Chinese stonemasons invited from the continent to aid in the rebuilding of Tôdai-ji, which was destroyed in the Genpei War of the 1180s. Once the Tôdai-ji project was completed, for some reason these stonemasons remained in Japan rather than return home to China; this may have been because the journey was too difficult in some way, or too dangerous, though probably not because of expense, given that the Tôdai-ji project itself was extraordinarily expensive, including the shipping of many tons of stone from Suzhou to Nara, so surely the shogunate (or whomever) could afford to fund the return trip.

Let’s step back a moment. The Great Buddha Hall at Tôdai-ji, then and now the largest wooden building in the world1, and housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world at that time, if not today, was destroyed by warriors of the Taira clan in the 1181 Siege of Nara. Even before the end of the war in 1185, efforts to rebuild the great temple were begun. Hônen (1133-1212), founder of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, was asked to head up the project and apparently turned it down. One of Hônen’s direct disciples, Shunjôbô Chôgen (1121-1206), then took up the project, coordinating both the fundraising and the construction. It was Chôgen, who had previously spent time in China, who organized to have a group of stonemasons come from Ningbo, then known as Mingzhou, to help with the project. Glassman says we do not know just how Chôgen knew, or found, these stonemasons, but he conjectures that they may have been associated with temples Chôgen stayed/studied at in China.

Based on inscriptions on some of these stone markers, and other objects, we know that one of these Chinese stonemasons was named Yī Xíngmò (伊行末, I Gyômatsu or I Yukisue in Japanese), and that his son Yī Xíngjí (伊行吉, J: I Gyôkichi, or I Yukiyoshi) was active in Japan in the late 12th or early 13th century as well. Yī Xíngmò would have been fairly young at that time, and is believed to have been only a junior member of the team, perhaps even an apprentice, when he accompanied some number of master stonemasons to Japan in the 1180s; however, it is his name which comes down to us today, by virtue of inscriptions such as those on certain stone carvings at Hannya-ji in Nara, by his son Yī Xíngjí.

After arriving in Japan, the stonemasons determined that Japanese stone was too soft, and despite the incredible expense, Chôgen apparently managed to afford to have tons of stone imported from China. This comes as a particular surprise given the stories surrounding the fundraising efforts for the rebuilding of the temple. Monks traveled the provinces collecting donations, and in fact, a very famous and popular kabuki play, based on an earlier Noh play, features Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his companion Benkei pretending to be just such donations-collecting monks, traveling the provinces, as part of Yoshitsune’s efforts to escape from his brother’s men. Still, in any case, the stone was boated in, and two stone lions believed to have been made at that time by those Chinese stonemasons still survive today at Tôdai-ji. A group of four stone statues of the Deva Kings they are said to have produced at the same time do not survive, however. The stone lions are quite ornately decorated, with carved-on wreaths and sashes; in China, ornamentation on stone lions was restricted to Imperial tombs, but in Japan, such attitudes and policies were not in place, and further this was one of the greatest – and originally strongly Imperial-associated – Buddhist temples in the realm.

The graves of Katsu Kaishû and his wife, at Senzoku-ike Park in Tokyo.

Once the Tôdai-ji project was complete, it is believed that some of these stonemasons may have found work at Mt. Kôya, where some of the first gorintô stone grave markers would have been produced. Glassman says Mt. Kôya might represent the largest graveyard in the world; I have never been, but would love to visit. The earliest gorintô marked the graves of eminent monks, and of members of co-fraternities, not only in the Kyoto/Nara region and at Mt. Kôya, but rather broadly across the archipelago; the oldest extant stone gorintô inscribed with dates are located in such disparate regions as Hiraizumi, in the far north, and in Ôita prefecture, in Kyushu; both of these date to 1269.

Yi’s descendants went on to become well-established, with at least two major branches of gravestone-carving styles developing. The main branch of descendants and disciples, still called the “Yi school,” or I-ha (伊派) in Japanese, was based largely in Nara and Kyushu in the early medieval period, while another branch, the Ôkura-ha (大蔵派), became prominent in the Kantô (around Kamakura, and what would later become Edo, and then Tokyo).

All photos my own.
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1. Or, at least, the largest wooden building constructed prior to the 1990s or so. According to Wikipedia, a baseball stadium in Akita, built in 1998, is larger. Boo.

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(1) The fourth anniversary of the 3/11 Triple Disaster has now come and gone. Ima, Futari no Michi (roughly, “Today, Two People’s Roads”) is an anime short, just over five minutes, released a month or so ago, in conjunction with the anniversary. It employs Tôhoku voice actors, and tells the story of two young people who have come back home to Tôhoku to try to help with the recovery. It is available streaming for free via NicoNico only until mid-April; you can find it at Anime News Network. The link provides an explanation of the plot/content in English, but I’m afraid the video itself is not subtitled.

Meanwhile, in other Japanese history:

(2) The Japan Times reports on new research which shows that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was in London, not California. While the standard story has it that the first Japanese Buddhist mission in the West was established in 1899 in California, work by Brian Bocking of the University of Cork, working with two other historians of Japan, has revealed the story of Charles Pfoundes, who educated thousands of people in Japanese Buddhism in his London home, beginning in 1889, a full decade before the California mission was established.

The main gate at the Yushima Seidô, center of Confucian learning in Tokugawa era Japan.

(3) Dissertation Reviews has a nice, thorough review of a dissertation on the Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Tokugawa Japan, by Doyoung Park. Park completed this dissertation at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) under Ronald Toby; I was particularly interested to come across this review having read an article by Park recently describing the attitudes of Korean envoys to Tokugawa Japan, regarding the Japanese scholars they met with, and the quality of Confucian scholarship in Tokugawa Japan.

Korean-Japanese relations today, and impressions of one another, are heavily colored by the brutal events of the first half of the 20th century, and understandably so. Yet, it should come as no surprise that relations were quite different prior to that. While Toby and others have written on Tokugawa efforts to make the Korean missions to Edo convey an impression of Tokugawa power and legitimacy, by representing the Koreans as having come to pay tribute to the Tokugawa shoguns, according to Park, the Korean envoys saw these missions as opportunities to show off their superior culture to the backwards Japanese. Even meeting with Hayashi Razan, one of the most famous and celebrated of all Japanese (Neo-)Confucian scholars today, Korean envoys wrote that “Razan seemed to have some trivial knowledge of Chinese history and culture, but his writing was crude and he did not seem to understand the real meaning of the scholarship,” and further, that “the writing ability of the sons of Razan is quite terrible. I do not understand how these poor scholars are able to work for the government” (Park, 12). I find this rather fascinating, and valuable, given that all I had read up until them about the Korean missions was from the Japanese Studies point of view; we in Japanese Studies, of course, think of figures like Razan as truly great scholars – genius-level talents, even, perhaps – so it’s great to get an alternative perspective, and to get a better sense of how Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Ryukyuan elites understood their position within the region, and perceived one another, at that time. The full article, “A New Perspective on the Korean Embassy (Chosen Tsushinshi): The View from the Intellectuals in Tokugawa Japan,” is freely available here.

As for the dissertation review, intellectual history has never been one of my strong points, but as my research begins to take me further into consideration of the classical Sinocentric world view, especially as understood and appropriated by the Japanese, and scholars’ understandings and usage of political ritual in that time, I have found myself of necessity reading more conceptual & intellectual history material – specifically on Neo-Confucianism – and actually finding some of it quite interesting. Park’s analysis of the rise of Neo-Confucianism in Japan, particularly surrounding Fujiwara Seika in the very last years of the 16th century, and the very first years of the 17th (at the beginning of the Tokugawa period), brings in some interesting ideas about Japanese, at least initially, not seeing themselves, or presenting themselves, as “Neo-Confucian scholars,” but rather as simply scholars advocating or considering Neo-Confucian ideas. The interaction between Neo-Confucianism and Zen, and the role of Seika’s interactions with Korean envoys in spurring the introduction and spread of Neo-Confucianism into Japan, are also quite interesting. If you’re interested in further detail, I invite you to check out the review; I will certainly be keeping my eyes out for Park’s republication of the dissertation as a monograph.

(4) Finally today, we have a blog post from Rekishi Nihon about Jokanji, the “Throw-Away” Temple of the Yoshiwara Prostitutes.

I explored the Yoshiwara area a little a few years ago. There’s very little to see there today – unless you know what you’re looking for, and I didn’t. The former site of the Yoshiwara’s Great Gate (Ômon) survives as the name of an intersection. A “backwards-looking willow” (mikaeri yanagi), a famous sight associated with the trip to the Yoshiwara, has been replanted and maintained there, but that’s about it. There are some traditional-style buildings off to one side, but I have no idea if they bear any historical connection to the Yoshiwara… The embankment (Nihon-no-tsutsumi 日本堤) which led to the gate similarly survives as a place-name, but throughout the area, at least of what I saw of it, there is absolutely nothing to be seen that’s recognizable about the geography/topography, and few if any historical buildings other than Buddhist temples. You can see this at the end of the Jokanji article, as the author shows a street from Hiroshige’s prints, as it looks today – a perfectly ordinary, undistinctive-looking Japanese street.

But, now that I’ve read about Jokanji, it’s one more place to take a look at the next time I’m in Tokyo. Some 25,000 women from the Yoshiwara were unceremoniously dumped after their deaths at the gates of the Jokanji, also known as “Nage Komi Dera,” (投込寺,) the “Throw-in Temple,” where they are thus now interred. While the Yoshiwara is celebrated as a vibrant center of the flourishing of popular culture – fashion, art, literature, dance, music – it very much had a darker side, as a center, by its very nature, of sex slavery, something that very much needs to be acknowledged as well. While the Yoshiwara looks glorious in ukiyo-e woodblock prints and literature, it was surely an extremely sad, difficult, and lowly life of exploitation for the women who lived and worked there. Amy Stanley’s Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan (2012) does a great job of bringing out these issues… I look forward to reading more along those lines, in order to get a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what went on there, beneath the flash and glitz; and I look forward to visiting Tokyo again, and checking out some of these sites.

All photos my own.

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Somehow I didn’t hear about this until just now, and didn’t catch it when I watched Kôhaku myself, but apparently the Southern All-Stars’ performance of their song “Peace and Hi-Lite” at the annual New Year’s Kôhaku Uta Gassen event (broadcast on NHK, and watched by about 35-42% of Japanese households) earned the ire of many right-wingers.

This is the same band which wrote & performs “Heiwa no Ryûka” (“Ryukyuan song of Peace”) about which I’ve blogged over on my tumblr. It’s a pretty boldly political song, asking “who decided that this land is at peace?,” and then going on to speak of Okinawa under the American “umbrella,” of the way Okinawa’s people were abandoned, or forsaken, and how the wounds of the past have still not yet been allowed to heal (or, that Okinawa and its people have not yet been allowed to recover)… I wish they might have sung this at Kôhaku, especially right now as protesters against the military base they are building continue to be harassed and arrested at Henoko. But, I don’t think we can reasonably expect that such a thing would happen at a show like Kôhaku, which is so much about coming together as a country, to remember the previous year and look towards a positive future… such a political song would never play at an equivalently mainstream patriotic event in the US, either, would it?

Of course, the Japanese relationship with political satire (and the resulting relative lack of it in Japan e.g. as compared to the Daily Show, The Onion, and countless other satire venues in the US), goes far beyond that.

In any case, in the Southern All-Stars’ first Kôhaku appearance in 31 years, leader Kuwata Keisuke started by appearing with a stick-on Hitler mustache. Some have said it was more meant to reference a comedian, Cha Kato, and I hope it wasn’t meant as a direct intimation of comparison of Japanese Prime Minister Abe to Hitler, as that really is going too far, or is just misplaced, when it comes to just about anyone alive today. But, still, I think anything that draws attention to the fact that Abe’s policy positions & rhetoric smell of the authoritarianism and damaging ultra-nationalism of the 1930s, are more than deserved. Tell it like it is. Japan is seeing more protests today than our stereotypical imagining of the oh-so compliant (that’s not the word I’m looking for; what is it?) Japanese would ever have it – and for damn good reason. Get people mobilized, get people talking. Abe and his people need to go.

I won’t rehash any further the details of the event and right-wing reactions to it. You can read more about it at Global Voices Online, Japan Times, and the Asahi Shimbun (all in English).

What I will do, though, since no one else is doing it, is provide a translation of the lyrics. First, of “Peace and Hi-Lite,” the song they performed at Kôhaku this year:

I happened to look at the news today
The neighbors are angry
Even now no matter what dialogues we have
The various contentions don’t change

Textbooks run out of time
Before reading modern history
Even though that’s what we want to know most
Why does it turn out like this?

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Until the flowers of peace bloom in the future … Blue [Melancholy/Depression]
Is it a pipe dream? Is it a fairytale?
To wish for one another’s happiness, etc.

Wouldn’t it be good to come together and help one another
check our history?
Raising a heavy fist
Won’t open hearts

A world ruled by an emperor without any clothes
Waging disputes
By convenient explanations ([claiming] a just cause) is … Insane
We should have learned by experience [being disgusted by] the 20th century, right?
This is just the flaring up of old sputtering embers

There are various considerations, though
Understand one another’s good points!

Let’s plant the seedlings of hope
Let’s raise love above ground
Being born into this beautiful world (hometown)
A sad past and foolish actions too
Why do people forget these things?

Don’t hesitate to love.

And, the lyrics to Heiwa no Ryûka (video above), an even more explicitly, directly, political song, about the Battle of Okinawa, and the continuing US military presence there today:

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
Even as people’s tears have not dried

Under America’s umbrella
We saw a dream
At the end of the war in which the people were forsaken

The blue moon is crying.
There are things which cannot be forgotten.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people whose wounds have not healed
In order to it pass down

Who decided
That this land is at peace?
As atonement for one’s filthy self

Why do you refuse
To live like people?
You soldiers gathered next door.

The blue moon is crying.
There is a past which is not yet over.

Let’s plant & grow love, for this island
For the people who don’t forget the song
Until the day when someday the flower blooms

Thanks to J-Lyric.net for the Japanese lyrics. Translations are my own; my apologies for any mistakes or awkwardness in the translation.

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Tenmyouya Hisashi’s “Rhyme.” Detail. I am sad to see that more of my photos from this exhibit did not come out better. This, sadly, is the best shot I got of the piece – and with the tiny screen on the camera, I guess I thought it was better than this.

Okay. I said I wasn’t sure if I would come back to write more about this exhibit, but, Odorunara’s fascinating insights on the Mr. show at the Seattle Art Museum right now inspired me to suddenly find myself thinking about this exhibit again, and put me into “writing mode,” to write out my thoughts on the second half of this exhibit, at Japan Society in NY only until Jan 11.

Tenmyouya Hisashi, like Yamaguchi Akira, Ikeda Manabu, and Yamamoto Tarô, is easily among the most prominent neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga, artists active today, each of them doing work that strongly draws upon the Japanese art history tradition in one way or another. Yet, while the mainstream of Nihonga art focuses on continuing a tradition of painting bijinga (pictures of beautiful women), ink landscapes, and other such works with the dominant aesthetic being one of subtle quiet beauty, Tenmyouya instead takes a rather different perspective on the Japanese artistic tradition. Think about contemporary 21st century imaginings and stereotypes of “traditional” “Japanese” art: Buddhist iconography and samurai war scenes don’t generally enter into it. Yet, these are the chief things Tenmyouya references. If you know something about Japanese art history, you know that he is drawing heavily upon styles and subjects of the Azuchi-Momoyama period, including Nanban-e (pictures of Europeans), kabukimono (street toughs with outré fashions), and the flashy, showy, bold aesthetic of basara, which emphasizes wealth, bold colors, lots of use of gold, and has been described as “the family of beauty that stands on the opposite end of the spectrum from wabi sabi and zen.”1

Tenmyouya’s “Baku.”

Thinking about it, considering his choice of referents, and his militant or violent alterations to those themes, I feel one possible way to read Tenmyouya’s works might be that he is seeking to tell an alternate narrative of Japanese (art) history, and identity. Pointing to serene Zen rock gardens, intellectual literati ink landscapes, and the boisterous & colorful but ultimately harmless atmosphere of ukiyo-e (or, the quiet, refined, restrained elegance, for that matter, of the geisha, courtesan arts, etc. depicted in the ukiyo-e), one typical and dominant narrative of Japanese art history and aesthetics is one of cultured, refined, intellectual pursuits, and of relatively peaceful aesthetics. After all, peasant uprisings aside, the Tokugawa period may be one of the longest and most peaceful periods of peace any part of the world has ever seen. But then Tenmyouya’s work – his Fudô Myôô holding a bayonetted rifle with a Rising Sun flag; his rock garden bathed in blood and covered in skulls; the war scene hung on the wall; and many of his other works outside this exhibit as well – reminds us of the role war and violence played in Japanese history, and in art, and asserts perhaps that the militarism of the 1930s-40s (and the decades leading up to that) is not an aberration to simply be forgotten about, but rather something more intrinsic to Japanese history and identity, that the Japanese as a people, as a nation, need to come to terms with.

Fudô is hardly a common subject among the mainstream of neo-traditional (Nihonga) painters – throughout the 20th century, those working in the most traditional/conservative mode have often stuck to pictures of beautiful women in kimono, to ink landscapes, and so forth. Yet, one the earliest, and most famous Nihonga works, when Nihonga was first born in the 1880s, was a painting of Fudô Myôô by Kanô Hôgai. And, further, it was painted with the idea in mind that this represented (one part of) truly Japanese national essence and tradition. Admittedly, Ernest Fenollosa’s personal obsession with Buddhist art, and his personal ideas about what does and does not represent Japanese national identity, skews this somewhat, as he’s just one individual perspective, and a foreigner to boot. But, even so, it shows that at that time, at the end of 250 years of peace, the strong and frightening figure of Fudô, demonic in appearance, wielding a sword and lariat, and surrounded by flame, could be seen as an essential part of Japanese tradition and national character. By showing Fudô and Kannon armed with modern weaponry, Tenmyouya reminds his Japanese audience, perhaps, that Japan has /always/ been a militarist country, that it was ruled by samurai – by a warrior government, essentially a military dictatorship, in modern terms – and that Buddhism, and Buddhist figures such as Fudô, and Kannon (bodhisattva of compassion), have long been used in support of violent people and violent acts.

His two screens show a rather violent battle, but with no blood, and with a rather clean aesthetic to it overall. Violence in Japanese arts has grown quite aestheticized over the years, as seen perhaps most evidently in kendô, iaidô, and other martial arts, which today are so much more about forms, about meditative or spiritual aspects, distancing these arts from their actual violent origins and meanings. In short, violence gets aestheticized in Japanese art, and in Japanese memory of its own history, but, could this piece, along with the blood red rock garden, be saying that we need to remember just how violent and bloody Japanese history really was?

That said, I also think it is all too easy, and all too tempting, to ascribe anti-war sentiments and intentions onto any Japanese artist. While I would very much hesitate to suggest that Tenmyouya might be rightwing, nationalist, militarist, is it not possible that a Japanese artist is doing something that’s meant to address themes other than the country’s militarist past? Maybe he simply enjoys the rough, bold, aesthetics of Basara, and the “cool,” “awesome,” tough, characters of the samurai, gods like Fudô, and so forth? Plenty of people think samurai are cool without being militarists. Yamaguchi Akira does a lot with warriors on horseback, often riding horses which are actually half-motorcycle, very similar content in a way to Tenmyouya’s kabukimono/bôsôzoku stuff, yet, I don’t think anyone would ever even begin to think that Yamaguchi is militarist… Maybe Tenmyouya has some other intentions with his work. Life is complex. The world is complex. To assume that all Japanese art is about their relationship to the war is, actually, essentializing. American art includes works about just about everything (and many works about nothing at all) – why can’t Japanese art be just as diverse?

I guess I really should say something, too, about Tenmyouya’s piece “Rhyme,” and the questions it evokes as to media. “Rhyme” consists of two works which are mirror-images of one another. One is painted in acrylics, and the other is a digital reproduction, mirror-flipped and printed using a high-end artist’s inkjet printer. The iconography and subject matter is clearly Japanese. The use of gold leaf is very much Japanese. The horizontal format, evoking a folding screen (byôbu) is evocative of traditional Japanese art. But, Nihonga originally a hundred years ago was defined, essentially, by its use of traditional media (e.g. ink and mineral pigments on silk or paper, etc.), regardless of the subject matter, or style of depiction. Takeuchi Seihô did some gorgeous depictions of the Grand Canal in Venice, in a rather realistic (read: European) style, in inks on paper. Now, we have artists like Tenmyouya, Yamaguchi, and Yamamoto making works that reference and evoke and draw upon traditional Japanese art just about as closely as you can while still being outside of those traditions, and they’re doing so in modern/Western, or let’s just say non-traditional, media. Is it still Nihonga, or neo-Nihonga, or Nipponga? Especially if we use one of the latter terms, absolutely yes. But, is there something more to be said here, to argue for or against how to conceptually categorize these artists, and the trend or (sub-)genre they seem to represent? … Nothing that really comes to mind at the moment, beyond that I think it’s wonderful. Beautiful, powerful, and intriguing. Holes are beginning to be poked through the concrete, and traditional, or rather neo-traditional, Japanese culture, is beginning to sprout and grow up through those holes. Artists are turning away from feeling they need to prove themselves, and their country, as “modern,” and are turning back towards exploring, expressing, investigating, inventing, being Japanese.

1) Patricia Graham, Japanese Design, Tuttle Publishing (2014), 37-39.

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I don’t know if I will come back to write more about the teamlab & Tenmyouya Hisashi sections of the exhibition “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society. But, I did have some thoughts about how the exhibit overall was organized.

Above: “United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World” by teamlab (2013), as installed at Japan Society in the “Garden of Unearthly Delights” exhibit. Below: Itô Jakuchû’s “Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants” (18th c.), on display at LACMA.

As I made my way through the exhibit, I knew I felt there was something missing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now, as I write this, and think about it, I’ve realized what it was that was throwing me off: the exhibit represents these artists as individual geniuses, as individual artistes if you will, looking at their personal inspirations and ideas, rather than presenting it in any way as representative of current/contemporary trends in Japanese art. Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But it is a choice, and a difference. Part of what fascinates me about neo-Nihonga, and about much else that’s going on in Japanese art right now, is what it represents in terms of ideas about art, about Japanese identity, and so forth, and how it fits into a broader narrative of Japanese art history. To talk about individual artists with individual ideas and inspiration is one thing – these men are certainly extremely impressive and intriguing, their works inspired and beautiful – but, with the implication that they stand alone as individual geniuses separated from their contemporaries, or to put it another way, absent the implication that they are in any way representative of broader trends in style, attitude, or themes, for me, it feels like there is something lacking.

Tenmyouya Hisashi’s installation at Japan Society, including a rock garden meant to reference, or evoke, that at Ryôan-ji.

What I love the most about Tenmyôya’s “neo-Nihonga” is how it fits into a narrative, a tradition, recalling and reviving subjects, themes, stylistic elements of the Edo period and of pre-war & post-war Nihonga, representing not something divorced from tradition, something purely unique to Tenmyôya, or purely unique to contemporary art, lacking in precedent, but rather, representing the next step in the development of those forms (perhaps, arguably), as we pass into the 21st century. Taken together with Yamaguchi Akira, Yamamoto Tarô, and others, there is something to be said for the ways in which some/many 21st century Japanese artists are turning away from the acultural/pan-global stylistic & thematic trends of Modern art (see the work of Gutai, Mono-ha, and Hi Red Center, which look like they could have been made by anyone, by an American or a European, marking Japan as part of a global modernist art movement, divorced from and indeed explicitly rejecting the art of the past), and are instead turning back to producing art that is distinctively Japanese, that references and draws upon Japanese art history, and that says something about Japanese cultural identity today. Ikeda Manabu is not exactly neo-Nihonga like Tenmyôya is; he’s not really drawing upon traditional themes or styles. But, his work is still very distinctively Japanese, featuring Japanese elements such as torii gates, but also displaying an interest in the dense energy of metropolitan urbanity, and in brilliant nature (lush greenery, beautiful blue water) emerging out of, or coexisting alongside of, industrial ruin. His works feature crashed planes and rusting ocean liners surrounded by green and blue, by birds and people, countless dense details of a world that in some ways reminds me of the jumbled-up aesthetic of Howl’s Moving Castle, perhaps. In today’s post-3/11 world, Ikeda’s works take on new meanings, as even works done before 2011 come to exude feelings of the power of nature, the danger of thinking you can control or overtake it with industrial modernity, the ruin, indeed, of industrial modernity – the idea that we have moved, or that we need to move, past that, into a new, postmodern way of living that is either more in tune with nature, or that at least puts that particular 20th century mode of steel-and-concrete modernity behind us. His work Foretoken, along with his great wave, fit into a theme or narrative of what Japanese artists are doing, what they are thinking, post-3/11, as reflective too of what Japanese people are thinking and feeling post-3/11, that I find quite evocative, intriguing, and meaningful. This fits into a broader imagination of Japan, and of this moment in the narrative of Japanese art history, better than trying to understand Ikeda as an individual set-apart.

Yamamoto Tarô, “K-Pine tree Old man screen” (1999). Image from Imura Art.

I think it’s wonderful that we have such great diversity in the arts today, that people like Ikeda and Tenmyôya are not simply operating within a school style, as (e.g) Kanô Tan’yû and Eitoku were. They’re each doing very distinctive, unique work, and as such we have a greater diversity of Japanese art than ever before in history. And it’s wonderful that we are able to speak with them, interview them, and find out about their personal individual thoughts, ideas, philosophies, something we can’t really get from the majority of historical artists. And, there’s nothing objectively wrong, inferior, or lesser, about approaching these artists as individuals. It’s a very standard way for contemporary/modern art experts, gallery owners, curators, to talk about these things. And it is perhaps reflective of the gallery director Miwako Tezuka’s identity as such an expert in the contemporary, rather than in the historical. There is absolutely something to get out of this approach, and for all I know, it may be a very intentional political position on her part, to represent them in this way. As Tezuka is Japanese herself, she may well wish to not display quote-unquote “Japan,” but rather to bring these artists as individuals into a similar place as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, whoever else, who are generally seen as individuals and not so much as simply representative examples of broader trends in American or English art. There is great validity in that argument, too. But, for me, I much prefer the idea of fitting these artists into broader narratives of Japanese modern, modernist, and then post-modern(ist) art, and into broader themes of Japanese identity, Japanese relationship to history & tradition, Japanese reactions to modernity & modernism, and Japanese feelings or attitudes post-3/11.

All photos & videos my own, except the Yamamoto Tarô image from Imura Arts. “Garden of Unearthly Delights” is open at Japan Society until Jan 11.

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