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I’d been thinking I wouldn’t post anything about the coronavirus epidemic, since I’m no expert at all, and since, well, I just have other things to do. But I suppose it would be good to record for posterity, so to speak, how I was feeling, how things were going, at this particular time. I do often go back through old posts myself, to remind myself when something happened, or how I was thinking about it at a certain time. Plus, I felt I should post something about it before I start posting more posts about various other topics – I’m thinking that this self-isolation provides a good opportunity to go revisit old drafts from months or even years ago that never got published, which means my next few posts might be on really scattered, different topics. Before I do that, I thought I should post something about the current situation.

(Note: Please don’t take any of the information I’m presenting here as accurate. This is not a news report, or advice from an expert in the field. This is my personal recollections of what I think I’ve seen and heard, and how I’m feeling, and how I’m doing. It’s not about getting it right. For *information*, go check out some real proper news sources and the like.)

It’s March 24 right now. I’m not even sure exactly how long it’s been since we first started hearing about cases in China, and then cases in Japan. It’s been a weird experience. Most museums are closed, most theatre performances and other events are cancelled. Many schools are closed. Travel restrictions are tight. South Korea has implemented widespread testing and lots of other good procedures, and everyone seems to be hailing them for doing it right. China, where the outbreak began and was initially the worst, seems to be seeing a very significant decline in the severity of the situation. Meanwhile, Israel has blocked off nearly all travel in or out of the country, and Italy and Ireland (and now, if I have it right, Spain and France as well, as well as parts of the US) have gone on even fuller lockdown, with mandatory quarantine procedures in place for, if I’m understanding correctly, *everyone* in Italy, all stores closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and from what we’re hearing the medical facilities are just completely overwhelmed – more sick people in need of emergency treatment than there is emergency equipment (and even just space, i.e. hospital beds themselves) to go around. The situation sounds absolutely horrendous. Iran seems to be digging mass graves.

The Trump administration’s response has started to come around, maybe, a bit, but is still rightfully being roundly criticized from all sides (well, most sides – not from the “Dear Leader can do no wrong” camp among the Republican Party and Fox News, but their horrific misinformation campaign is a whole other story); but things are getting worse in New York, and elsewhere. I read recently that New York had something like 5% of all confirmed cases in the entire world, and overall a higher “attack” rate (i.e. confirmed cases as a percentage of total population, as opposed to confirmed cases as a percentage of those tested, though I think that number’s also high in NY). I’m worried about my family.

Anyone who’s doing full-on hanami parties right now is being terribly irresponsible. But if I should happen upon a nice tree on my way to the supermarket, my only one little outing from the apartment the entire day, with a mask on, that’s okay, right?

But here in Japan, or at least in Tokyo, it’s hard to know what to think, what to believe. I spent at least a week, maybe two, being just terribly anxious, nervous, stressed out about the whole situation until I finally decided to cancel my trip to Boston and New York to attend the annual AAS conference. As it turned out, the conference got canceled anyway. But worrying about it was driving me mad. On the one hand, everyone keeps saying very scary things about how horrible this disease is, how it’s far more contagious than SARS or Ebola and far more deadly than your typical flu – between these two factors combined, making for a serious genuine pandemic threat.

I remember thinking three years ago, that as dangerous as Trump is, at least we don’t have a massive crisis such as a pandemic for him to fuck up. … Well, now, here we are.

And as for the Japanese government response as well, the US and Japan stand out at the bottom of the list among major developed-world countries in testing the fewest people. I’ve heard countless anecdotes about people both in Japan and the US who are being denied testing for the coronavirus on account of they don’t match precisely the right criteria, e.g. they don’t have severe enough symptoms or they haven’t been to China recently… These are people who are afraid they might infect others, and yet many are being told to just go home. I, also, was told by the US Embassy’s Crisis Hotline themselves that so long as I didn’t have symptoms I was safe to fly – no consideration at all given to whether I might be asymptomatic but contagious. (Granted, this was around March 6 or so, before things got more serious, but even so, I think it was serious enough already at the time that the nonchalant attitude of the fellow on the phone was just confusing to me: is this a concern, or not? The CDC, the Embassy, at that time, were still at a very “light” stage of things, saying “if you’re sick, then maybe quarantine, but if you’re not, no problem,” or something to that effect. Frankly, even all these weeks later, my office is largely saying the same; they haven’t suggested everyone work from home, they haven’t closed down the campus. In any case, the point is, especially at that earlier time, I felt like I was getting really mixed messages, and not clear information, and I found it very stressful.)

Many people are saying that the Abe administration, like Trump, has its eye mainly on preventing panic, protecting the economy, and protecting that the Olympics might still go forward – rather than actually doing what’s right, or what’s needed, for the safety of the people. (Now, finally, on Mar 22-24 or so, the government has started to shift from that, saying they may need to postpone the Olympics; I expect this will become even more solid within the next few days.) A lot of people don’t trust the government right now; and after Fukushima, why should they? I did see one article explaining that, actually, the Japanese government is operating in a reasonable and rational way, testing enough people to get a strong sense of the outbreak as a whole, not on the individual/medical level but on a society-wide epidemiological level, so that they can manage the spread. I’m not sure I buy it, but it was interesting to get a real explanation at least.

A snapshot from the live feed camera over Shibuya Crossing, right now, tonight Mar 24. Not nearly as busy as I expect it typically would be on a Tuesday evening, but still plenty of people out and about, not actively making sure to stay X meters away from one another; many of them not wearing masks, in part because so many stores are completely sold out of them.

But even as we keep hearing all this scary stuff, and even as so many events have been canceled, institutions closed, people encouraged to work from home or to adopt shifted working hours (so as to avoid such crowds at rush hour), even so, life goes on here in Tokyo largely unaffected. I’m curious (and terrified) to see how this might change in coming days and weeks, but for now, even as so much of the world is in lockdown to one extent or another, here, restaurants and shops are open, and a lot of people are still out and about, albeit fewer than the massive crowds we’re normally used to. To a certain extent, I’m glad. First of all, because for the first couple of weeks of March, I was right in the middle of moving apartments, and if stores closed, utilities companies or shipping/delivery companies stopped operating, or if more so than that we actually went into some kind of citywide lockdown situation, I would have gotten stuck either in a new apartment with no bed, no appliances, no internet, no hot water, or in my old apartment which I might have needed to vacate by March 16 (who knows exactly what exceptions might have been made… especially if they need the room so someone else can move in and themselves not be screwed by the situation). So, I’m glad I was able to go around and do my shopping for furniture, and to have appliances delivered, and to have the electric company answer the phones (especially since f***ing TEPCO has decided to not have any in-person customer service centers anymore, and that’s long before coronavirus).

Secondly, I was for a time glad things are still more or less running like normal, because in the early stages of this, or even in a situation like Italy’s where the hospitals are totally overrun and the whole medical system is breaking down, even there I would venture that the externally-imposed closings, quarantines, etc. and not the epidemic itself exacerbate the difficulty for most people multiple multiple times over. Between people who can’t work, people whose small businesses (or not so small businesses) are going to be terribly strained or even go under, and so forth. But, that said, of course, we now understand that it’s **essential**, absolutely essential, to lock things down as much as possible. We need to practice social distancing, on a society-wide level, and probably more than just “social distancing,” we need to isolate ourselves, self-quarantine, as much as possible, if we all, as a city, as a country, are going to slow down the spread of this disease enough that we can manage to keep it at bay enough that the medical system won’t get overburdened. Flatten the curve, as people have been saying – so that instead of an insane number of cases all at once, maybe there might be more cases that don’t happen until later, until after there’s been more time for preparation, the development of treatments, etc., and until after X number of people with the virus have recovered [or died, I’m sorry to say] and thus opened up hospital beds, ventilators, etc.

But what’s scary is the false sense of security. As some have started to say in the last few weeks, with a situation like this, it very often can feel perfectly fine right up until it’s not. Italy in particular, but Iran and other places as well, saw such rapid changes of circumstances over a matter of just days. Going right from having a nationwide number of cases in the 2- or 3-digits to 4-digits in a matter of days. Going from cautionary measures to full lockdown. New York, too. The days bleed together, time feels like it’s flowing at such a very different rate than usual, but I think if I remember right it was only a few days ago that New York was just not quite there yet. And now they’ve got 5% of the cases in the world, 5x the attack rate of most other places, and a city-wide “stay at home” order or whatever exactly they’re calling it in New York.

Japan seems to be way behind the curve, in terms of many workplaces still saying “stay home if you’re sick,” and just wash your hands and be careful, rather than “we’re closing down. No one come in to work” or the like. I gather that a great many workplaces – or mine, at least – haven’t budged from that level for weeks. But does that mean it’s because things are actually okay here? Are we going to get put on lockdown tomorrow or the next day or the next day? I’ve been asking myself that question for at least a week and a half. It’s impossible to know.

The 7-11 near my new apartment, with plenty of canned mackerel and Monster energy drinks right up front by the door, because obviously that’s what people need to be stocking up on the most.

It’s a strange feeling, to be amidst such an incredibly uncertain, stress-inducing, emotional time, and yet at the same time find it actually pretty relaxing. I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to compare, but when my mother passed away, it was in mid or late April, I don’t actually remember the date at all, but while it was in some respects the darkest, saddest day in my entire life, it was a sunny, breezy, happy day. The last few days before I heard that she’d gotten worse, before I knew that end was near, happened to be days of sunny warm weather, flowers blooming, birds singing.

When I read about the current pandemic situation online, or put my thoughts to worrying about it, I am in fact terribly worried, terribly scared, about how long this global societal shutdown might last, and the economic consequences. If “this is my life now” for so many of us, for how long might that remain the case? To say it might be a few weeks or a few months, well, that feels manageable. It’s only temporary, and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.Though even if it does last just a few weeks, or a few months, who knows how that might actually feel on a day-by-day basis. The days certainly seem to be flowing much more slowly lately. The faster events change, the easier it is to feel like “I can’t believe it was only X days ago that this or that event happened.” Here it is, March 24, and so much has happened, I can’t believe it’s been only X days since we first heard of Italy going into lockdown, only X days before that that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the presidential race, only X days before that that we first heard about the first cases coming out of China. … And now we’re seeing reports that according to some studies, some extrapolation models, we may need to stay in lockdown for up to 18 months (!?!), until such time as the vaccine can be mass-produced and administered to everyone in society, if we want to avoid millions of deaths. And, of course, that comes with tons of complications, whether the virus will mutate and the vaccine won’t be as effective.. All kinds of things. And in the meantime, whether it’s a (relatively mild) several-week or several-month slow down, or something like an 18 month lockdown, the economy is going to suffer hugely. How can we even think about the broader societal, economic, impact of so many small businesses going out of business, so many individuals losing their jobs (and then their homes, going bankrupt, etc., whatever may happen)? On a national level, on a national/global history level, this isn’t some blip. This has the potential to radically alter the balance of power, the quality of life, the status of conditions in many countries all around the world. As a historian and as a world traveler, I can’t help but think about that.

But as a person, of course, I’m also terribly worried and scared for my family, and more broadly for my friends and colleagues. My family has been lucky. From 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to countless storms I don’t remember the names of, we’ve never lost a family member in any such disaster, and we’ve never lost our house. But my father and most of my aunts+uncles are over 65; my brother is young, and has no particular dramatic health conditions; but even so, contrary to earlier reports from China, Korea, and elsewhere, I’m now hearing that some significant percentage of young people who’ve gotten sick, 20-30% in some places, as high as 50% in some places, have developed truly severe or critical (whatever the precise technical term may be) cases.

If I should lose my father or my brother in this, I don’t know what I would do. It would be world-changing for me. I can’t even think about it. It would be so devastating.

And beyond that, I am fortunate to have so many friends and colleagues all around the world. Hearing that *any* of them have gotten sick and died from this – or even “just” lost their job, lost their house, whatever it may be – is a horrific thought. I just hope and hope and hope that we’ll all be okay, that we’ll all make it out okay at the end.

Not much to look at, I suppose, but, fwiw, on the left, some very simple french toast I made, with real genuine Canadian maple syrup which was a gift from a friend. On the right, my workspace, my world for the next X weeks.

But, even with all of that in mind, I can’t help but find this “self-isolation,” for the time being at least, to be rather relaxing and productive. Even while I am continuing to press forward on the work I’m supposed to be doing for work, devoting more or less the normal amount of time that I would to it (something like 20-30 hrs/wk), it’s wonderful to not commute, it’s wonderful to not feel that pressure of being in the office. I’m extremely fortunate to have a work situation where my supervisors aren’t present to physically see whether I’m ever in the office or not (they work in a different building), my coworkers aren’t interested in policing me or anything, and even on paper, officially, my schedule is pretty flexible: get the work done for our project, but also nip off and do what you need to as often as you need to, to continue making progress on your own research. That’s also part of the job, part of the professional obligations/expectations. I count myself exceptionally grateful to have landed such a position. But even despite the flexibility of that position, there’s still something about working a 9-to-5, going into the office, trying to devote yourself to a single project for 8 hours a day, that’s just tiring and draining… Being home, I find myself much more productive. And, we’ll see how I feel in a few more days, cabin fever and so forth, but for now at least, telling myself to stay home and to not go out to cafes or anything – forcing myself to stay home – has meant I’m not wasting time on my off-days traveling to some other neighborhood, walking around looking for a cafe to work at, getting antsy after just a couple hours, walking around looking for a different cafe to work at… or going to museums or anything else. So, while I’m definitely sad that so many institutions are closed and am missing that, the art, the theatre, the research trips, the little trips to explore different cafes/restaurants, being home means I’m actually getting a lot more done – whether that means actual work, or if it means blogging, connecting with friends, whatever it may be, I’m getting things done that I haven’t otherwise. And it’s a very nice feeling.

I know that’s an absurd note to end on. But this entire post is just tentative. Just some thoughts, somewhat stream of thought. Not truly fully considered, and it’s not meant to be. Just some thoughts, for now. We’ll see how things develop.

In the meantime, I am thinking about my friends and family all around the world. I hope you are all safe and healthy. I hope that you all remain so. This crisis is unbelievable. Larger and crazier and deadlier than most things we’ve actively, directly, had to experience and deal with in our lives. For most of us, anyway. Of course, there are those who are refugees from warzones, and who knows how many other different stories. But I think about my friends who are doctors and healthcare professionals otherwise, living an incredibly different life from the rest of us right now, devoting all of their time and energy, even more so than usual, to trying to save as many lives as possible amidst nearly impossible conditions. And I think of all the people I’ve met, however tangentially, in my life and in my travels, who for one reason or another, in one way or another, don’t have the luxury to just stay home. People without job security, people without health insurance. I’m worried about my home country, and about Japan, and about our world. But at the same time, I’m also at home, sleeping and eating and watching Netflix, and making more progress on my work than I have in months. I think the most any of us can do is to just do what we can, make do as best as we can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amami: Yamato or Ryukyu?

I count myself just so incredibly fortunate that I get to travel the way I do. After a brief trip back to Okinawa yet again, which I may write about in a separate soon forthcoming post, I managed to take a few days and visit the island of Amami Ôshima, a beautiful and fascinating place which despite being the 7th largest island in Japan (i.e. still pretty sizable) is I would venture to say far off the radar of most tourists and travelers, Japanese or otherwise.

First of all, before I say anything else, I guess I should simply say that it’s beautiful. The greenery, the sea, the sky, it’s beautiful. I’m not sure what I expected – I guess that since I was leaving Okinawa prefecture, that I’d be going back into winter. And, in a certain sense, that’s true. The entire region, from southern Kyushu down through Okinawa, saw a bizarre few days of genuinely summery weather for pretty much the whole time I was in Okinawa (75F / 24C in Naha on Sat Jan 25!), and then several days of very strong and cold winds, and on & off rain, while I was in Amami. So, not necessarily indicative of a difference between the two places so much as changing weather patterns across the week. But, in any case, who am I kidding? It was beautiful when I visited Hiroshima back in 2018 too. Regardless of whether you’re in “the islands” or the “mainland,” there’s still plenty opportunity for beauty.

Tiny lanes with stone walls, in a section of Tatsugô Town near where Saigô Takamori’s old house has been reconstructed. One of many little village communities on the island; reminds me of Ôgimi, way-out-there inaka village in the northern part of Okinawa Island.

So, I guess before I delve into the history or the culture, I should say something about just the general feel of the island, in terms of how rural or urban it is. I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But now that I’ve visited, looking back over the last few years I’m realizing that my sense from X years ago that actually I’d only ever seen the big urban centers, the major touristy cities, in Japan and had never actually really seen other parts, let alone truly “countryside” parts – that is no longer true. Amami is definitely inaka – the countryside, or however you might want to translate that. I mean, it’s a big island, over 700 sq km (roughly 275 sq mi?), but with only about 73,000 people, and while I sorely regret not visiting any of the shimanchu marts, which is just adorable, there are only five or six big chain convenience store locations (all FamilyMarts, no 7-11 or Lawson) on the entire island, for whatever sense that may give.

In terms of the general feel of how it looks and feels driving around here, what the roads and the view along the sides of the road look like, and so forth, I’m not sure I thought about it in this way at the time, but sitting in the hotel room and looking back upon today, I think it was very much like driving around the more rural parts of Okinawa. Long stretches of little more than lush greenery and wide open sky and the occasional (or much more than just occasional) view of the ocean; and in town, not sure how to describe it, but a level of urban/rural that reminds me very much of, for example, Ginowan. Much more of a working, industrial city than a touristy one. Even with the beautiful view of the water from my hotel room, it felt like grey, concrete, industrial. Not the sort of semi-tropical “island vacation” feel you get in many parts of Okinawa or Hawaiʻi. And as soon as you leave the most central urban part of urban Naze, you get into long drags with intermittent large box stores with large parking lots, though I suppose it reminds me of many mainland Japanese cities as well – driving around Hiroshima or Kure, for example, but not Tokyo.

Above: a warehouse in central Naze. Below: Tecchan, a great little keihan restaurant on the side of the highway.

Amami is located roughly halfway between Okinawa (to the south) and Kyushu – i.e. “mainland” Japan – to the north. A part of the broader Ryukyuan/south Kyushu cultural zone in ancient times, and in fact a major center of trade and activity in the 10th-11th centuries or so before Okinawa Island ever was, Amami was forcibly incorporated into the orbit of the Okinawa-centered Ryukyu Kingdom in the mid-16th century, and then conquered and annexed just a few decades later by the Shimazu family, samurai lords of Kagoshima. Unlike Okinawa and the other islands to the south which remained under the control of the largely independent Ryukyu Kingdom (though the king was counted as a vassal of the Shimazu, and owed various obligations to them), Amami and the surrounding islands came under more direct Satsuma control, and thus for several hundred years longer than Okinawa and the southern Ryukyus had at least somewhat more direct and extensive Japanese influence. Jumping ahead to the end of the post-WWII Occupation in 1952, the US military thought for a fancy moment that they just might get to keep all of the Ryukyus indefinitely, as one giant military colony, a whole series of “unsinkable aircraft carriers.” But while they managed to continue the Occupation in Okinawa for another 20 years, Amami was “reverted” to Japanese authority in 1953. So, building upon a fundamental base of indigenous/ancient Ryukyuan culture – which can still be seen in the language, the local deities, folk music and folk festivals, etc. – Amami has a far longer history of being (in one way or another) under the control of, or incorporated into, some form of “Japanese” polity, nation, cultural sphere.

As a result of this geography and history, the one main thing I’d think anyone should expect when coming to a place like Amami is a preconception or expectation of curiosity of just how “Ryukyuan” vs. “Japanese” it’s going to be. And I found my experience of this to be, well, interesting. When I visited Japanese restaurants in Okinawa, I was struck, really struck, by how “Japanese” they felt. Like it really was a foreign culture; the Japanese restaurant at Naha Main Place felt to me no less foreign to Okinawa than being in a Chinese or Indian restaurant, and I consciously felt, or imagined, an added layer of colonial imposition. Being in that restaurant it was just so easy to imagine up some image of Japan having come in and inserted Japaneseness, including Japanese restaurants, into everyday Okinawan life. … And of course I’m in a different position myself right now, having been in Okinawa for only the last few days, and Tokyo for months before that, as compared to the time I went to that Japanese restaurant in the mall in Naha after having lived in Okinawa for months, eating a lot of Okinawan food and having not been to a soba/udon/washoku place for a long time. ….

But still all of that said, getting to the point, I was surprised to find I didn’t feel that shock value on Amami. I did feel there were clearly many things around that were decidedly Ryukyuan, intermixed with many features that make me feel like it’s just another region of Japan – like it’s not a different culture entirely, but just one possible variation, just like I might expect to find in traveling around various parts of “mainland” Kyushu or Shikoku and seeing what the local culture might happen to be like there. From certain local food specialities like keihan, to individual local products like the “shima ramune” (ramune soda made with juice from local citrus), to t-shirts and tote bags labeled with Amami themed images, I feel like it’s just the Amami equivalent of exactly the same kind of “local” stuff I’ve seen in the Inland Sea, for example. But it’s interesting, that at least in this very few interactions or experiences so far, it hasn’t struck me as decidedly Ryukyuan or decidedly Japanese, or as intriguingly mixed. It just is what it is. To be sure, if you wrote out a list of cultural features, you could say which things can be put in a Ryukyuan column, and which in a Japanese column, and you could craft out an imagined understanding of Amami that is, indeed, a matter of multiple different cultural layers placed upon one another. The Ryukyuan deity Amamikyo, for example, being worshipped on Amami but in sites featuring Shinto shrine architecture rather than more closely resembling the kinds of spaces you’d find at Okinawan utaki.

Above: A shrine on Amami Ôshima dedicated to the Ryukyuan creation deity Amamikyo/Amamiku 奄美姑(阿麻弥姑), with torii gate and haiden worship hall showing a combination of Japanese and distinctive architectural features.
Below: An utaki sacred space at Ameku Shrine 天久宮 in Naha, Okinawa, which admittedly also has a torii and haiden (not shown), but which really centers on this sacred tree or sacred grove, marked by simpler stone markers.

Traveling from mainland Japan to Okinawa or vice versa I think there’s a certain degree of culture shock. But in Amami, I think what I sensed was less a striking mix of two disparate things (Ryukyu and Japan) and much more so a place that lies along a spectrum. I wonder if perhaps it’s fair – accurate – to draw a contrast between Okinawa, which of course, received considerable influence from China, Japan, and elsewhere over the course of its history but which was at the same time very much its own place, receiving a sudden, powerful influx of imposed Japanese culture beginning in the Meiji period, versus Amami, which has since ancient times possessed a culture that exists in the space where the two (Ryukyu and Japan) fade into one another. Okinawan songs might have two sets of lyrics – a more traditional set of lyrics, in the Okinawan language, passed down through the generations by oral tradition and custom, and another in the Japanese language, invented by a record company or radio company in the 20th century and deliberately introduced for commercial purposes which has since gained widespread familiarity; by contrast, I don’t know much about Amami music, but from what little I do know, it’s played on an Okinawan sanshin, but in a scale shared with certain mainland Japanese traditions, and sung in a language which lies in-between Okinawan and Japanese. Traveling from Japan to Okinawa, you go from a place where “today” is kyô to a place where (if people are speaking in Okinawan, rather than in Japanese) “today” is chû. Two distant points along a spectrum. But on Amami, if people are speaking “shimaguchi” (island language), it’s kyû. Just a little different from standard Japanese, and I can easily imagine certain parts of Kyushu or Shikoku having similar vowel shifts… but you can also see how it’s in a sense halfway towards the Okinawan pronunciation. Kyô–>Kyû–>Chû.

Three different varieties of Miki. Thanks to the owner of the Amami-an bookstore for introducing me to this interesting and, frankly, delicious, drink.

Food, of course, is another thing to consider. And I honestly wasn’t sure what to think. Amami food is certainly different from Okinawan food, albeit with some similarities. And there are some things that are definitely distinctive, if not entirely unique, to Amami, starting with Miki ミキ, a drink made from rice, sugar, sweet potato, and water, that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Okinawa, and which I could imagine discovering as some regional specialty somewhere in “mainland” Japan but which is certainly not mainstream standard. I’ve never seen anything like it in Tokyo or Kyoto, except for maybe amazake which is I guess a bit similar but is not sold in bottles or cartons right alongside the juices and sodas.

And there’s keihan – what Okinawa soba is to Okinawa, the one most iconic, most standard, if it’s an Okinawan restaurant they’re sure to have this, dish, keihan is to Amami, it would seem. Chicken soup with rice. And some other, more distinctly Japanese toppings (picked ginger, shredded nori, thin slices of omelette, etc.). Very tasty. … Another thing I was told about and saw on menus but never got around to trying was the goya (bitter melon), which on Okinawa is often cooked in a style of stir-fry called chanpuru, but which on Amami is apparently served cooked in miso; and, I don’t know if this is typical or indicative, but on Amami I saw it described on menus as nigauri 苦瓜 – literally, bitter melon, a melon that is bitter – rather than using the Ryukyuan(?) term gôya ゴーヤー. … But what I didn’t realize until just now, a couple of days after getting back, is that I don’t think I ever saw any soba or udon or sushi on the island. I’m not even sure if I saw ramen. There was that one shop I sat down in that had omuraisu (omelette rice), a standard mainland Japanese dish invented/introduced in the late 19th or early 20th century… but when I was experiencing that culture shock at the shopping mall in Naha, it was in large part because I had walked into a restaurant where nearly every aspect of the decor and menu was identical to what you might find in Tokyo, Kyoto, or Nagoya. Udon, soba, sushi, wholly entirely standard stuff. Whereas on Amami, the entire feel was of it being a variation on Japanese culture – something that you could absolutely imagine exists within the regional variation within Japan, not needing to be seen as outside of it – and yet with hints or touches that, if you can recognize them, are decidedly Ryukyuan.

I guess that’s it for now. I’ve kind of run out of steam…

Below: video I took at a concert of Amami folk music performed here in Tokyo a few months ago. Amami folk music has a ton in common with mainland Japanese folk music, and uses a Japanese musical scale – not the Okinawan one – so the overall sound is quite distinct from that of traditional music anywhere in Okinawa prefecture, even though the instrument they play is little different from the Okinawan sanshin. Visiting a live-music shimauta (lit. “island songs”) bar was one of the primary things I was excited to do on Amami, but in the end, the only shimauta bar I knew of (Kazumi – recommended by multiple people, probably one of the top ones on the island) was totally packed one night, and unexpectedly closed the next. Oh well, maybe next time.

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

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

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

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few points I wanted to question, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first time I saw Lost in Translation, it was for me 100% about the city of Tokyo, and about my own nostalgia and love and longing for that city. I had had a whirlwind 4 months there as a study abroad student, my first time so far from home on my own, my first time in Japan, exploring and experiencing Tokyo in the way that I imagine many 20-year-olds do, running around in groups of five to fifteen, experiencing and enjoying everything. Tokyo that city of such energy and excitement, and it was just such an incredible time, one of the absolutely best times of my life thus far. And when Lost in Translation came out later that year, I didn’t know at that time whether I would ever be in Japan again.

So, for me at that time, Lost in Translation was all about re-living that experience, in a sense, taking in the lights and sounds and fun and enjoyment, and about identifying in a sense with these two characters for whom Tokyo is also very new and very strange… For me the movie was all highs and lows, fun and engaging, but also sad because it reminded me of something very exciting and also very engaging that I might never experience in the same way again – or, might not experience at all.

After all, the first time I went to Japan I never expected that I would ever go back. It was a crazy one-time adventure, something far beyond the bounds of anything I’d ever done, and indeed beyond the bounds of where either of my parents had ever traveled, or thought to. I went to college a mere four hours away from home (insisted on going out-of-state, because I did want to get away a little, but still went to Boston, a much “safer” choice in terms of big culture shock or whatever; didn’t even consider California or anywhere nearly that far away) … and I just always assumed that with the exception of this one crazy time in Japan, I’d come back home to the East Coast, and get a job in New York, and be “home” in New York the whole rest of my life.

The lights of Akihabara, from my first time in Japan, way back in 2003.

But I’m getting off-track. I have seen Lost in Translation several times since then, and I don’t really remember how I felt about it the third or fourth time. But now it’s been a long time since the last time, and, well, it’s interesting how incredibly different the film feels this time around.

I’m glad I never did end up watching it with my (now ex-)girlfriend. I had wanted to watch it with her because I wanted to share my love for Tokyo, share with her what the film meant to me in that way. But she’s very much the type to engage deeply with the characters’ emotions and motivations, their dramatic arcs and the overall emotional or interpersonal themes of a film, and watching it now, again, I can see those things so much more starkly than I ever did the first or second time I saw the film.

What exactly is this relationship? I had completely forgotten that Bob and Charlotte kiss at the end – a seemingly romantic kiss, not like the kiss on the cheek in the elevator a few scenes earlier. And watching it this time around, I got a much clearer sense of these two people, their relationship developing. Both of them, and the viewer, wondering how far it will go, or where it is going, or whether the both of them are losing interest in their own relationships. The scene where Bob is in the bath and on the phone with his wife, and she says something like “well, if you like it so much there, maybe you should just stay” – I had previously read that through the lens of how much I loved Japan, and basically just that she was being difficult or obnoxious or whatever because she didn’t “get” it. And similarly, I guess, the scene where Charlotte is at a shrine in Kyoto and she sees a Shinto wedding – I had taken that to be just one more element of how she is experiencing and appreciating Japan, and how the filmmakers are sharing with us that beauty, that peace, that experience. Watching it again, now, I realize the connection, where just a scene or two earlier, Bob and Charlotte had been talking about how marriage is difficult. And both of them are in such difficult places at this point in the film (well, throughout the whole film) in terms of how they feel about their partners, their relationships. And so she sees this newly married couple, and I suppose there’s supposed to be something unspoken there, about wishing and hoping that they’ll do better, that they’ll actually be happy … or something about how we all have difficulties, but it’s worth it, and it will be the same for them.

There are also these moments where Bob and Charlotte realize they don’t actually know each other that well – they surprise one another at the choices they make. Like when Bob sleeps with the red-headed singer from the bar.

I see even more clearly and strongly now how it’s not necessarily really a movie about Japan, or about Tokyo, but rather about people, and relationships, and it’s really a story that could be set almost anywhere in the world. Though Tokyo does present a particularly good location in terms of being very foreign, very different, and yet at the same time very comfortable and navigable.

That said, though, whether Japan or not, it *is* also a movie about a particular style or mode of experience. Most of the movie takes place inside the same hotel – at the bar, at the pool, inside their guestrooms. Hotel life can be extremely comfortable, luxurious even. That’s kind of the point. And they’re definitely staying at a really nice hotel. But it can also be sort of sterile and isolating. It’s one way of experiencing a place, and it’s certainly a valid experience, but it’s a very different one from experiencing the city in other ways. Yes, Bob and Charlotte do get out and meet people and go to some clubs, and so forth, and I suppose we can maybe assume that they get out and see and do a lot more, in between the scenes, that we never see. But then again, maybe they don’t. We’re supposed to believe that the entire film takes place over the course of just one week or so, and I haven’t counted how many days and nights we actually see them experiencing, but… I dunno, I think we maybe do get the sense that they really have spent most of their time in the hotel, that both of them are in a sort of frame of mind that they wouldn’t even know where to go, what to see, if they did get out. I don’t know if either or both of them are “depressed,” per se, but they’re definitely lost, and they’re definitely spending a lot of time in their rooms (or in the pool, or the bath, or the bar) just thinking and being alone…. So, they’re experiencing a very particular experience of the city. When they do go out, it’s a lot like my first time in Japan, I suppose, in terms of going out to bars and cafes and karaoke and just having a good time… Very different from my experience on later trips, where I speak the language and know my way around, and …

Bob in the hospital, waiting for Charlotte to get her x-rays done, holding a giant fuzzy owl he bought for her. Image from IMDb.

But, anyway, getting back to the relationship, it’s an interesting one. It’s kind of wonderful to see people having that kind of relationship, and it’s really kind of romantic in a way – I mean, in the sense of a fantasy, an ideal, that one is envious of, even if we put aside the ways in which it’s a romantic relationship in the sense of romance. Even putting aside the romance aspect, if we pretend it’s a slightly different movie from what it is, if we pretend that they stay (just) friends throughout the whole thing, keeping in mind after all the big age difference and that they’re both married and that the romantic relationship between them is therefore really kind of dangerous/cringey at times (I can’t count the times that I was thinking, yikes, Bob, be careful make sure you don’t accidentally cross a line. She’s 22, Bob! Not to mention the fact that Scarlett Johansson was under 18 when this was filmed…) … but pretending they were to stay just friends throughout the film, what a friendship that is. To take her to the hospital, in a foreign country, in a foreign language, and to do it while playing around in that way (with the wheelchair and so forth); ribbing on one another and messing around, and somehow knowing (I guess not knowing, but just because it’s scripted that it works out) that the other one won’t be offended… What a beautiful wonderful friendship. I’m not sure that I feel like I have any friends like that anymore, who I’m that close to. Everyone I know, I still feel a certain distance, a certain anxiety and awkwardness about whether they really want to be my friend, about how much is too much to ask of them or to expect from them. And the older I get, the more of my friends are married – they have someone else to go home to, someone else to spend so much time with, and so no one is looking to spend that kind of intensive friendship time with me.

I think I had friendships like that when I was younger – certainly when I was in Japan for the first time, I think there are friends who I could call up and arrange with to just hang out, to just go out all the time. Thank god none of us ever had to go to the hospital, but I think we would have gone with one another – being in a foreign country, and needing that kind of help and solidarity makes a big difference: sure, I’ll go with you, and we’ll figure things out together. Whether it’s the hospital, or getting a bank account, or getting a cellphone, we did it together, so we could be there for one another, help one another figure it out, etc.

Bob touching Charlotte’s foot while they lie in bed together. Image from IMDb.

To be honest, I’m not even sure what I think of the film anymore in the end. The fact that they kiss at the very end actually gives me problems, I think. Because if they didn’t, then it would mean that this was a film about how other kinds of relationships are possible. That when staying in a foreign city for only a few weeks, and even when committed to other people, you can still form friendships of a particular type, that’s exciting and fun and at the same time really close and deep and meaningful, even if only in that place, even if only for that time. I know plenty of friends who I’ve had an amazing time with traveling, and either not really kept in touch with at all otherwise, or just had a different friendship, a different experience with otherwise. And whether Bob and Charlotte ever see one another again after parting ways in Tokyo is left completely open; I could of course imagine it going either way, either that they never see one another again but they just have this one incredible experience in their memories, or that Bob whispers in her ear something like “hey, if you’re ever in town, let me know, and let’s hang out, let’s get together again.” Which, I guess we’re supposed to think they both live in LA, but that would work better if they didn’t, and then we could imagine that maybe X years down the road, or once every few years from then on, they get together and just hang out again. But that really only kind of works if they’re friends – the kiss at the end means they basically have to either break it off with their spouses and try to get together, or break it off with one another and either never see one another again or really try to set some kind of boundaries to force this romantic relationship to be only a friendship…. It complicates things terribly.

Bob catches up to Charlotte on his way to the airport, after saying goodbye at the hotel. Image from IMDb.

I don’t know. I really kind of hate that they put that in there at the end. And it makes me think of Kimi no na wa also – where it’s not spelled out explicitly, it’s not shown on screen explicitly, that they get together in the end romantically, and I wanted to imagine that they might just form a friendship, a special friendship, where they get together once every few weeks or months and share that special bond they don’t have with anyone else, those memories, those experiences, but why should it have to happen romantically? Why can’t they each end up with different people, and be happy for one another, and still be friends? There are most certainly women in my life who I would like to thing I have a special, close, friendship with, even though they’re married to other people. But, regardless, even when they were dating (or even married) to other people, we still had lunches and coffees and drinks and had what I thought was a special time, a special close friendship.

It’s funny, now that I know the city so well, and really live in it, a film like Lost in Translation comes across as covering so little of the city. Such a foreigner’s, visitor’s, superficial experience of the city. And, actually, unless I missed it, I’m not sure we even saw Takeshita-dori in the film at all. They spend most of their time in the hotel, and when they do go out they take taxis, and yes they go to some clubs, and even to some friends’ apartments, but for the most part they’re not really getting out into the city, not nearly as much as my friends and I did in that first 4-month study abroad experience, and most certainly not anything like what I’ve experienced since. … Of course, they’re only there for a week, in a hotel, so what are you supposed to expect? It’s much more like… where have I been recently? Like my time in Jakarta, is probably a very comparable case, where I don’t speak the language and I don’t even know what’s to see, where to go, even once I do get out and go into the city… And so I ended up spending most of my time at the conference hotel, and at the shopping mall, and otherwise just walking up and down one main street….

In a Crash Course: Film Criticism video, Michael Aranda references a film scholar/critic as interpreting the entire film as a critique of capitalism. Both main characters seem overwhelmed and alienated by the excess of the city. An interesting interpretation, and well-argued, with some good evidence: both spouses (the wife back home in the US with her constant talk of carpet squares and remodeling, and the photographer husband – along with Anna Faris’ character – in their eager pursuit of the racing, exciting, but ultimately empty world of celebrity and so forth) represent excess, and petty, empty, capitalistic desires. The process or experience of filming the Suntory whiskey ad (“For relaxing times, make it Suntory times“) feels empty, nonsensical, meaningless. And when Bob & Charlotte do go out into the city, it’s loud and flashy, cacophonous. Their own relationship emerges more in absence, and in quiet.

Okay, sure. A compelling, well-argued argument. But I just never got that. I watch this film, and through these two protagonists I see myself, desperate to engage with all that the city has to offer, wanting to get the most out of it and enjoy what everyone else seems to be enjoying, but never knowing how to get there. How to find the right bars, how to find the right people and places to create those experiences. And so, when Bob & Charlotte go out with friends and end up listening to great music – great music that Bob says he’ll try to find and buy, and which his wife just doesn’t get – or when they go out to karaoke, or when Charlotte goes out to temples & shrines in Kyoto, they do find things to engage in and engage with and enjoy. It’s sitting in the hotel that’s alienating – gazing out at a city they don’t know how to engage with.

Aranda’s second key point, taken from a different film scholar, has to do with the way Japan is used for comedy, and in stereotypical ways. Yes, for sure, there are elements that are very stereotypical. But I think it represents honestly and genuinely an American’s, or a Westerner’s, first experiences of Tokyo. This is what you’re going to see, this is what is going to stand out at you. This is what you’re going to expect to see, and then see, because those are the stereotypes. Okay, sure, the “massage artist”/escort who someone sent to Bob’s room, who asks him to “lip her stockings,” was totally unnecessary and meaningless, and perhaps one of the most cringe-worthy moments in the film. But this idea presented in this video of focusing on the quiet, deep, meaningful things like temples, shrines, and ikebana, and then showing how most Japanese (e.g. in the pachinko parlor, or the game arcade) seem to have forsaken or forgotten those things, as if the film is trying to tell us that the Japanese people are hypocrites about their own culture – I think that’s maybe reading too much into it. I watched this and I thought, simply, this is an accurate representation of Tokyo, and especially it’s an accurate representation of one’s first experiences. Tokyo has both. It contains multitudes, to use a cliché. That doesn’t mean that one thing is more vapid than another; I watch this, and I see Charlotte enjoying herself, being amused and entertained by seeing in person the lights and sounds of a Tokyo game arcade, as well as also enjoying and appreciating the quiet beauty of a temple or shrine. Bob and Charlotte go to karaoke. They walk (or take taxis) through the lights and sounds of Shibuya’s famous scramble crossing. They go out with friends and enjoy some classic Japanese rock. They’re enjoying and experiencing Tokyo. This is Tokyo. This is how it is. Some of it is playing into stereotypes; some of it is gratuitous. But most of it I think is just representing what many people’s first experience of Tokyo actually is like.

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Wakayama

The main tower keep of Wakayama castle, reconstructed since the war.

Wakayama wasn’t exactly top of my list. Sure, if I were to go, I figured, they’d probably have some really good exhibits about each of the Kishû lords (close relatives of the main shogunal lineage, incl. some particularly historically significant figures), and some nice historically significant sites or plaques I wouldn’t have known about or expected…

In the end I actually didn’t see very much of that. But I am still very glad that I went.

Copies of the Gunsho Chiyô, printed in Wakayama. In a different context, maybe I’d think this was super cool to get to see. But they provide no context for it, no inspiring exhibit design, just objects in cases with minimal explanation …

Wakayama castle, to begin with, is gorgeous. From the outside, at least. Very photogenic. Sadly, the inside is much like a number of other castles I have visited (Hiroshima and Fukuyama come to mind); displays of weapons, armor, calligraphy, paintings, and other items representative of the both civil (cultured) and martial history of the castle and of its lords, but without much context and without much exhibit design to it. There were some cool objects, to be sure, including matchlock firearms, calligraphy and paintings by the lords themselves, but if you don’t know much about the history of the castle, history of the town, history of the Kishû Tokugawa house, you won’t get it here.

After seeing the Wakayama Prefectural Museum a few days later, the contrast was even more stark. Though surprisingly small – consisting of basically just two rooms – the permanent exhibition at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum was extremely well-done, I thought. Upon walking in, it immediately reminded me of the Kagoshima Prefectural Museum (Reimeikan) and Fukuoka City Museum. Lots of gallery text and displays, reproductions of images, maps, and diagrams, and of course an excellent selection of interesting and historically significant objects. But the Wakayama Museum takes it further: they also have wonderful little models, at least one for each era I think, showing what a village, a Buddhist temple, or some other architectural assemblage would have looked like in each period. Each is beautifully done, and is set with a large reproduction image behind it that provides a very photogenic background. In the section of the exhibit on religion, they have models of how certain rituals were performed. And the museum also displays quite a few hands-on objects, so you can touch and feel plastic reproductions of things from Jômon/Yayoi pottery to how a multi-piece Buddha sculpture is assembled, to roof tiles, to Noh masks. To be frank, I didn’t get much out of handling these plastic objects – you don’t get a real sense of the weight or texture of the actual wood, clay, or metal objects – but even so it was very cool to see them there, an extra feature beyond what most museums have.

Model of an Edo period local official’s residence (for an Ôshôya 大庄屋, appointed by the domain to oversee several, or several tens, of villages.

It was a little disappointing, or maybe I should just say surprising, to see the early modern section be so short. Where other prefectural and city history museums might highlight each and every successive Edo period lord of the domain, the Wakayama Museum just sort of blew through the Edo period in just as short a time as it did each other period of history – again, remember, the entire exhibit is only two rooms. I was disappointed to not have that chance to photograph displays about each lord and thus learn a little bit more about each lord, but at the same time, I think I was actually impressed and saw this as a positive thing, that perhaps (intentionally or otherwise) the Wakayama Museum is in a way rebelling against the undue lionization, valorization, of these figures.

The main gate at Kishû Tôshôgû.

It was only a very short trip, and we didn’t bother to see very much of Wakayama City itself, but from what we did see, and what I gather from Google Maps, travel pamphlets, and so forth, Wakayama sadly seems to be a rather sad city (from a tourist / traveler point of view). Similar to what little I saw of Himeji, and starkly unlike what I’ve experienced of Kagoshima, Kanazawa, and Kamakura (for example), not to mention Naha and Kyoto, Wakayama doesn’t really seem to have much energy to it, as an interesting or exciting urban environment. I’m sorry to be this blunt about it, but softer words aren’t coming to mind at the moment. I can walk around Kagoshima or Kamakura and get the feeling of being in a particular, unique city, and feel I’m experiencing a particular cultural, historical, aura unique to that place. Wakayama, from what little we saw of its department stores, hotels, chain restaurants, and just block after block of concrete, steel, and glass, just doesn’t seem to have that energy. And it makes me sad for what so many other Japanese cities might be like. Is this what Takamatsu or Nagano or Hirosaki or Ichinomiya are like?

But, putting that aside, one thing that has little to do with modern development (or more recent contemporary phenomena of rural depopulation, etc.) is that simply because of how they were established in the premodern or early modern periods, a great many of the key sites of historical/cultural interest in Wakayama are well outside of the city. In Kagoshima, Fukuoka/Hakata, Kamakura, and quite a few other cities I have visited, of course there are plenty more sites of interest out in the suburbs and countryside, but the cities themselves are packed with notable sites. In Wakayama, by contrast, the Kishû Tokugawa clan established their Tôshôgû Shrine (a shrine dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa house, Ieyasu, and to his son Yorinobu, founder of the Kishû branch) some distance outside of the city. And they buried their lords at a temple even further from the city. This is a choice, and it’s interesting. I wonder if there’s something to be uncovered or examined here – which daimyo houses were more city-oriented, building more of these sorts of sites within their chief castle-town, and which were not, and why? What does this have to do with the lords themselves (personal preference, politics, or other reasons), and what does it have to do with geography?

At Kishû Kôzan-ji.

We rented a car, basically just to get out and see the area a little bit, without any real destinations in mind… In the end, we saw the Kishû Tôshôgû, and also by sheer chance chose to stop at Kôzan-ji (not the big famous Kyoto Kôzan-ji, but another temple by the same name), which turned out to be very much well-worth it. The Wakayama Tanabe Kôzan-ji, though not necessarily of any great historical significance itself, is a beautiful space, with multiple buildings in different styles (and colors!) offering a beautiful peaceful energy and aesthetic, and some great views and shots. Plus, the grounds of the temple were also (much more recently) the site of significant archaeological discoveries, of both a Jômon era community (5000-8000 years ago) and of Kofun era tombs (roughly 300-650 CE). One of the Jômon era pots discovered there, we later saw at the Wakayama Prefectural Museum.

Additional Wakayama sites of interest, such as the Dôjô-ji temple famous in Noh, the tiny out-of-the-way train station where Tama the cat is stationmaster, and the shores at Kushimoto where an Ottoman vessel was (famously?) shipwrecked in 1890, all happen to be further out as well. Perhaps I’ll return to Wakayama some day and get to see these.

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Moving to Tokyo

The Akamon (“red gate”) entrance to the University of Tokyo Hongô campus.

Well, talk about being way behind. It’s been more than two months, now, since I left Los Angeles, and more than one since I started my new job in Tokyo.

Things are going really well. I cannot say how truly I feel I lucked out with this position, how fortunate I am. Being back in Japan is exactly the place I needed to be to regain a sense of calm, happiness, and balance after everything that has happened in the last few months (years). 

As wonderful as it would have been to secure a proper tenure track position somewhere in the States, or a postdoc or whatever it may have been, and as happy as I could have been in any of those situations, I think that many of them would have involved “hitting the ground running,” the same levels of work and stress and endless busy-ness as in the final stages of the dissertation (if not more so, what with class prep and everything). For any potential employers reading this, yes, I do think I would have done well, and strived and worked diligently, and been happy and successful in meeting such challenges, and I certainly look forward to hopefully getting such a position in the future, getting to teach students and engage with them and all the rest. It would be such a privilege and a pleasure to have my own students, to teach courses, to see them excited, interested, inspired; to see them ask intriguing and insightful questions; to see them grow and learn and improve.

But for now, Tokyo is right where I need to be, to find my center and find myself again. 

A JR Sobu Line train passing by near Ichigaya Station.

I’m now a postdoctoral “Project Researcher” 特任研究員 at the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute 東京大学史料編纂所 working as part of a team on a project creating an international hub for the Ishin Shiryō 維新史料, a collection of some 30,000 documents pertaining to events of Japanese (“national” political) history c. 1840-1870. I am not sure when any of the products of this work will become available to the public, as we are only in extremely early stages right now, but we are working on a glossary of terms relevant to the collection, and English translations of short summaries of the key events of each document. Whenever it does go live, X years from now, you’ll be able to search in English (or romaji) and see at an easy glance what documents are relevant to your search terms.

And, you’ll be able to browse through a list of the key events of the Bakumatsu period (*key events centered on the shogunate, the imperial court, and certain categories of domestic and foreign affairs, that is) and just get a sense of how events unfolded, day by day, overlapping and interspersing with other contemporary matters. For me, this has been one of the most interesting parts – whether in a general survey History of Japan or History of East Asia course, or in more in-depth studies e.g. reading for a graduate field in Edo period foreign relations as I did, we get a certain sense of a certain narrative of the most key events as they developed. But such narratives of foreign ships arriving; figures like Abe Masahiro, Shimazu Nariakira, and Tokugawa Nariaki reacting in certain ways; the shogunate and the daimyô putting certain policies into place; and so forth, these narratives skip from month to month, or even year to year as they try to simplify and condense down the story to only the most “significant,” i.e. directly historically impactful, moments. But then you delve into a study like Mitani Hiroshi’s Escape from Impasse or Marco Tinello’s work, and you see just how complicated these events were, day by day, element by element. And you see it in the Ishin Shiryô Kôyô 維新史料綱要 I’m helping translate as well.

And I’m continuing to plug forward on my own research as well. I am profoundly thankful that working on my own research is also included in the position and is considered part of my job – I don’t need to be working on the Project all the time. So, I’ve already started making appointments with museums and archives to see more Ryukyu embassy procession scrolls, buying books, and scanning tons of articles and book chapters to read later.

Seen at an Okinawa soba place in Shibuya.

Ever since I finished the dissertation, it’s been such an incredible weight off my shoulders. There’s no longer a pressure to produce something complete and polished by a set date, and now I can just go back to gathering more and building up and building around my knowledge of the subject, seeing what develops, seeing what comes together. 

And doing so in a city I just love. As hectic as it is, and as crowded as the trains can be, I actually find Tokyo very relaxing, and exciting. It’s an escape from the stresses of life in the US, and a place where, yes, I’m working diligently for more or less 40+ hours a week, but in between I’m also exploring new cafes and sandwich shops, meeting up with new and old friends, going to film festivals and theatre productions, visiting historical sites, attending symposia and workshops, visiting museums and archives, meeting new people and building my professional network, and so on and so forth. Both for informing my research directly, and for more broadly inspiring and informing me, deepening my connections and experience in Japanese culture/society, strengthening my connections in meeting and knowing people, and so forth, I am just so grateful for this opportunity, and will keep doing my best to make the most of it.

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