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Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

I’m quite a few weeks late on this, obviously. And, frankly, I’m not sure that I have that much to say. But I just wanted to share a collection of videos I found, mainly from TikTok, highlighting different indigenous individuals and peoples represented at the 2021 (oops, I mean 2020) Tokyo Olympics, especially since many – whatever their relationship with and feelings towards their country may be – are obliged to represent that country, flying its flag, receiving medals to that country’s national anthem, rather than more overtly representing their own people.

So, first, a video from Connor, a Native American (Lumbee) TikToker from Lenapehoking (Lenape lands), talking about the Ainu, one of the indigenous peoples of the land now controlled by Japan, who were originally planned to have a bit more representation in the 2020 Olympics, but got less airtime in the postponed 2021 version of the Opening & Closing Ceremonies:

Uchinanchu (Okinawan) artist Dane Nakama expands on the above video to talk about the other major indigenous people of what is today controlled by Japan – namely, the Ryukyuan peoples:

Connor also posted a number of other videos during the Games, including this one about Carissa Moore, a Native Hawaiian surfer who won a gold medal in surfing, the first time surfing was included in the Olympics. I saw a bit of controversy on social media during the Games, about the whitewashing or appropriation or colonization of surfing… I’m glad a Wahine Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian woman) won gold, dominating the sport pioneered by her ancestors, a “sport” that’s not just a sport but has deep cultural and spiritual meaning.

It is a shame that she was not (as far as I’m aware) permitted to display the Hawaiian flag in any way, let alone of course to be awarded her gold medal under the Hawaiian flag or Hawaiian national anthem rather than those of the United States, which continues to illegally occupy the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Connor also talks about Pita Taufatofua, the tae kwon do competitor from Tonga who was also that country’s flagbearer in the 2016, 2018, and 2020 games, attracting much attention for his bared, oiled, muscular upper body. As Connor explains in this video, in 2016 Taufatofua was told he couldn’t wear his traditional taʻovala wrap-skirt, but he did it anyway; I love the way Connor talks about this, talking about how Native communities and individuals are often encouraged to hide their culture, and how inspiring and powerful it is to see people proudly display their culture in this way.

@connorbeardox

I think I’m going to do some content highlighting Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #olympicspirit #tokyoolympics #tonga #indigenous #firstnations

♬ Sunset – Chillthemusic

Connor also highlighted Patty Mills, an Australian Aborigine / Torres Strait Islander who was the first Native person to be flagbearer for Australia at the Olympics. He also plays in the NBA, on the San Antonio Spurs. I know next to nothing about basketball fandom – I wonder how well-known it is among NBA fans that he’s Australian Aborigine. Here’s your regular reminder that not all Black people are descended from slaves, or from otherwise relatively recent immigrants from Africa. Aboriginal folks from Australia, Torres Straits Islanders, Melanesians from places like Fiji and New Caledonia share many of the features we typical associate with Africans or African-Americans. Diversity means not only recognizing Black Lives, but the incredible diversity within, and beyond, Black Lives.

@connorbeardox

got some more content coming soon about Indigenous ppl at the #olympics 🥰 #tokyoolympics #olympicspirit #aboriginal #indigenous #firstnations #fyp

♬ Triangle – Clutch

The Australian women’s football (soccer) team also honored and recognized Aboriginal peoples by posing with an Aboriginal flag and linking arms in a show of solidarity. I won’t pretend to know the history beyond the most minimal surface level, but Australia has a pretty heinous history of racist and colonialist policies, persecution, and so forth, in addition to the broader fact of the country as a White settler colony; and many of these racist attitudes and policies, sadly, remain in place today, as they do to one extent or another in many other parts of the world (e.g. the US, Canada).

Thanks to my friend Dr. Yuan-Yu Kuan, I also learned of a few heartwarming moments of representation by athletes from Taiwanese aboriginal backgrounds.

In this brief clip, boxer Chen Nien-chin, from the Pangcah/Amis people, shouts “I am a child of Pangcah” at the cameras in his native language. As Kuan points out, one of the few times a Taiwanese aboriginal language has likely ever been spoken (or, more to the point, broadcast on camera) during any Olympics Games.

His shout, “O Wawa no Pangcah” (“I am a child of Pangcah,” or 我是邦查(阿美族)之子!in Chinese) comes around 1m35s in this video:

Finally, the Bulareyaung Dance Company recorded and posted this video of them watching the Olympics awards ceremonies from home in Taiwan. Amis weightlifter Kuo Hsing-chun took gold. Taiwan is, of course, barred from even representing itself at the Olympcis as a full proper country, with its proper national flag and national anthem, to begin with, because the government of the People’s Republic of China are all dicks and refuse to acknowledge Taiwanese autonomy and sovereignty even now, more than 70 years later. So, rather than celebrating the fake “Chinese Taipei Olympics team” flag and anthem that’s officially shown/played at the awards ceremony, this Dance Company sings over it a traditional Amis song. I don’t know the language or the song, or to be honest do I know that much about the people, but as someone with a special place in my heart for Hawaiian and Okinawan music, and for indigenous cultures more broadly, it really warms my heart and puts a smile on my face to hear it.

I’m sure these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to indigenous representation at the Olympics. But these are the stories I saw.

These Olympics were, of course, more controversial than most. Here in Tokyo, a great many people were staunchly opposed to, and critical of, the city / the country going forward with holding the Olympics despite the raging Covid pandemic, and the government’s incompetence in getting the vaccines rolled-out more widely more quickly. Of course, many people are opposed to or critical of the Olympics anyway, for a variety of other very valid reasons. And I don’t challenge or deny those people’s valid opposition and criticism.

But I can’t deny that I’m a sucker for displays of international coming-together, of cultural pride, of global diversity. This is something I feel we don’t see enough of, and something we need more of in this world. People coming together, regardless of country, race, ethnicity, religion, interacting together across these divides, building or showing friendships, learning about and celebrating one another even if only for a moment, and just showing and celebrating the incredible diversity of our world. A diversity that goes beyond nation, that extends to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities as well.

I apologize to leave on a negative note, but especially with me composing this post on Sept 6, the anniversary of the Munich massacre, I think it relevant and important to note that these 2021 Olympics were the first time that the terrorist violence that took place at the 1972 Olympics – in which 11 Israelis and one German police officer were killed – were formally commemorated in such a central, public, manner.

There are still far too many groups and governments in the world today who deny the peoplehood of other people, who deny their identities, their history, their indigeneity to their ancestral homelands, and who seek to deny them their rights to freedom, equality, safety & wellbeing, and self-determination as a people. Many peoples continue to fight courageously and persistently to gain, regain, or retain those rights. But there remain far too many who are powerfully determined to block them, oppress and persecute them, to claim their land as their own, and even to massacre them. I hope that someday we can see peace.

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Thoughts on Life in Tokyo

Takeshita-dôri in Harajuku. Back to a manageable, pleasant level of crowds. This is more like what it was when I came to Tokyo the first time in 2003; in recent years, it’s gotten so packed-solid crowded with tourists that it’s become an area to avoid. But during Covid, ironically,
it can be enjoyed again.

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept up with this blog in any way. So, starting to catch up a little. Here’s a post I wrote way back in October, but it’s basically still true today.

I’ve been in Tokyo for more than a year now. Almost a year and a half. I can’t believe it. The longest stretch I’ve ever spent outside the US.

Of course, this is like my eighth time or something being in Tokyo, so it’s not the same as almost any other city…

But what does the city feel like after being here for so long? In some respects it feels too ordinary, like I’ve gotten used to it and it’s lost a sense of adventure to some (albeit only partial) extent. But at the same time, I do still very much feel like someone still finding their feet. Like someone who’s still visiting, or who hasn’t necessarily gained a deeper, stronger familiarity with the city than a year ago. Granted, I think a lot of this has to do with the Covid situation. Here in Tokyo, we’ve never had a real serious lockdown, and we still don’t now. Even during those weeks/months when I was more seriously trying to avoid public transportation and to avoid sit-down restaurants, etc., even at those times I still went for walks, experienced the city in a sense. I wonder how my familiarity with the city, my feeling of living here, might be different if this pandemic never happened, and if I might have spent more of this past year and a half more actively hanging out with friends, going out to restaurants and museums and so forth in a more lively fashion; then again, we’re researchers and full-time workers, and so forth, and even in non-Covid times it probably would have been a lot of just day-in day-out regular workdays.

In any case, with the pandemic or without, on some level I suppose I have gotten more familiar with, more used to the city, but that said, it feels more ordinary, not less. I might have expected that gaining the cultural capital of being so familiar with Tokyo would feel cool, amazing, empowering, but instead it just feels ordinary. 

The imperial palace moat at Ichigaya. An area deeply nostalgic for me from my very first time in Japan.
I never tire of seeing the trains running right along the water.

Sure, I can go visit anywhere in the city and find my way around no problem, but I could do that before. And I’m not too unfamiliar with various archives, etc., even having some sense, some image in my mind of what’s nearby in each neighborhood. I can walk around in certain neighborhoods – certainly not the whole city! but certain areas – and just sort of know what’s around the next corner, or where to find a bathroom nearby or whether there’s a good café I know nearby. 

And I don’t think my language skills have gotten all that much better in the one year I’ve been here. I’ll blame it on the pandemic, that I’ve been spending so much time isolated away. And I do plan on taking sanshin classes and/or Uchināguchi classes once we can, and I very much hope that that might be a good angle for improving my Japanese by meeting and interacting with Japanese classmates. But in the meantime, I dunno, it’s just a weird feeling to think about being here for a full year, and what my relationship with the city has become.

Akamon, the famous red gate of University of Tokyo’s main campus.

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Thanks to Risako Sakai for sharing this article from yesterday’s Okinawa Times (17 Jan 2021) on Twitter:

There has been some progress in recent years in having universities and other institutions in Japan gradually begin to repatriate human remains (bones, etc.) in anthropology research collections back to Ainu communities; the Ainu situation still has its problems, with many universities having extremely poor records, poor management of the collections, and being very passive, half-hearted, and slow (if not outright resistant) to conduct proper investigations into the provenance of their collections or to begin the repatriation process at all; prior to Covid turning out world around, I witnessed protests outside the gates to University of Tokyo on exactly this point. Further, while some number of items have been returned to individual Ainu groups in Ainu Moshir (Ainu homelands, Japanese: Hokkaido), many have now been returned to the new National Ainu Museum Upopoy (opened in July 2020). Also known as 民族共生象徴空間 (roughly transated, “Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space”), a name which makes me roll my eyes and want to throw up, Upopoy has come under considerable criticism for being very much a national project, run by the state as part of some effort to pretend to show the state cares about the Ainu people, while not actually giving them the power to tell their own story, not sufficiently asking for or properly responding to Ainu people’s requests or desires for what they want from the national government (and from the museum), and so forth. It is my understanding, and please correct me if I am wrong, that the national government and/or the Museum is (mis)representing the Museum as in some sense belonging to the Ainu people, and that therefore remains placed in the collective memorial structure 慰霊施設 are considered “repatriated.” This is in contrast to, for example, the National Museum of the American Indian (part of the Smithsonian Institution) in Washington, DC, which I’m sure has its problems and its criticisms as well, but which is at least run through extensive involvement of Native American staff, curators, input from Native American Nations who actually agree to and/or recognize objects in the museum as counting as being “repatriated”, and so forth.

But, to get to the point, whatever progress is gradually being made with Ainu remains, the Ryukyuan peoples are still not officially recognized as indigenous peoples by the Japanese state, and efforts to get universities to repatriate remains stolen from Ryukyuan gravesites are seeing more foot-dragging, more obstacles and difficulties, and little progress. I’m a little embarrassed to admit, even as I read bits and pieces here and there about the Ainu case, I didn’t really think about Ryukyuan remains that might also exist in such university collections, that were also excavated (tomb-robbed); I especially didn’t think that there would be remains explicitly identified as relatives of the royal family, robbed from known and named tombs, still in university collections today.

In any case, here is my rough translation of the Okinawa Times article above:

Repatriation of Ryukyuan Remains Not Progressing ー Japan Failing to Keep Up with World Trends


The use or return of human remains taken from gravesites in Okinawa and Hokkaido for anthropological research purposes is becoming a problem. In a lawsuit calling for the return of [the remains of] Ryukyu royal family descendants held by Kyoto University, the university has not made sufficiently clear the conservation status or details of how/when they were collected [i.e. provenance] of these remains. Lack of transparency and … [?] of the management [of these objects] is emblematic of the state of Japan amidst global trends towards continuing returns to indigenous peoples.

Anthropological Research Kyoto University Collects

In the field of Anthropology, which spread from Western Europe, research also continues to progress in Japan, and in the 19-20th centuries, human remains were collected all over the country. Whereas excavation of shellmounds predominated in the mainland, in Okinawa and Hokkaido, which were de facto colonized by the Japanese government, there was also grave robbing of gravesites which were the sites of reverence and worship.

The remains which are under contention in the Kyoto District Court were collected in 1929 by Kyoto Imperial University Assistant Professor Kanaseki Takeo from the Mumujana gravesite in Nakijin village [in the northern part of Okinawa Island]. The university, based on writings by Kanaseki indicating he had the approval of the Okinawa prefectural government and police at that time, emphasizes that “the proper paperwork/procedures were followed, so it was not a crime.”

However, a survey performed by Doshisha University professor Itagaki Ryūta suggests there is a strong possibility that most of the remains were collected on Amami Ōshima and Okinawa in 1933, by lecturer Miyake Muneyoshi, at the direction of Kyoto Imperial University professor Kiyono Kenji. The numbers assigned to his Ryukyuan remains match those of 25 out of the 26 items under dispute. Kyoto University has explained that “Miyake and Kanaseki had a close friendly relationship, so it can be thought that Miyake, too, would have gone through the proper procedures in the same fashion,” but they have not found detailed records of the collection of these items.

The plaintiff, Ryūkoku University professor Matsushima Yasukatsu, is indignant that “there is no registration ledger for these remains, so even Kyoto University cannot clearly say who collected them. This is evidence that their management is sloppy and that they have not sincerely investigated the details.”
In recent years, through the advancement of DNA analysis techniques, the information that can be gleaned from bone has expanded, and research into the origins of the Japanese people is flourishing again. The Anthropological Society of Nippon in 2019 submitted a written request expressing the principle that “ancient human remains are cultural properties belonging to the people of the nation which have academic value. They must be conserved and made available for research.”

The Anthropological Society of Nippon, Japanese Archaeological Association, and others that same year, regarding the Ainu people who are recognized by the state as an indigenous people, also formulated a proposal (or draft) of guiding ethical principles demanding that human remains for which there is a possibility that they were looted without agreement [from the Ainu people] not be used for research. Prof. Matsushima argues “it’s a double standard; it’s discrimination against Ryukyuans.”

Overseas, a movement for conducting thorough investigations and returning remains to indigenous or formerly colonized peoples is growing. Kyoto University’s collection also includes remains collected in Taiwan and Korea, but their conservation status is unclear. Prof. Itagaki pointed out that “compared to overseas it is a remarkably passive stance. Kyoto University must be transparent, immediately conduct investigations, and discuss the methods for repatriating the remains, etc., in earnest.”


(inset box, left) Repatriation Problem
In the late 19th century, scholarship measuring the size and shapes of skulls in order to learn the state of development [process, advancement] or superiority or inferiority of different races spread, and the remains of people from various ethnic groups were collected. In a Ministry of Education survey, twelve universities in 2018 held more than 1500 items of Ainu human remains. Trials have resulted in objects being repatriated to Ainu groups in the regions they were taken from, or being placed in a memorial structure at the Ethnic Groups Coexistence Symbolic Space (Upopoy). Surveys of the conservation status or [possibility of] repatriation for remains collected in Okinawa, Amami Ōshima, etc. are not progressing.

Glad to have learned about this. My thanks again to Sakai-san for re-tweeting about this. I have yet to read anything else about it, so I won’t go on and on speculating or commenting further, but will just leave this here for now.

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Tickets for VR Noh Ghost in the Shell went on sale a few months ago, and I can only assume they were snatched up quickly. My sincere thanks to Diego Pellecchia for alerting me to the existence of this production. Not knowing what the situation with the pandemic was going to be, and hoping with crossed fingers that things might be easing up by now, I thought I should take the opportunity while it lasted, to get tickets while I could. Besides, I figured that if the situation became/remained bad enough, they’d simply reschedule or cancel the performance anyway, so I wasn’t really in danger of losing my money.

As it turns out, even despite whatever the ongoing situation is, the Setagaya Public Theatre decided to go ahead with it, so I went out to Sangenjaya, masked up. Had my temperature taken at the entrance, used the hand sanitizer, and found my seat. There were empty seats in between every two audience members, and while I certainly don’t know the air exchange rate of the A/C system, fingers crossed let’s hope they were doing their due diligence to make sure the full amount of air in the room was being replaced at least X times per hour. We were also strongly discouraged from talking, even before the performance began, so really the only people projecting loud voices (and therefore risking spewing droplets in a significant way into the room) were the actors, and they were all wearing Noh masks, for whatever that might happen to be worth.

But, let’s get on to the show. Let’s see. Where to even begin. I haven’t seen Ghost in the Shell, the 1995 anime film, in many years, though I’ve seen it multiple times in the past. I’ve never read the manga, I’ve only seen a few episodes of any of the series, and I certainly haven’t seen the live-action version that was so controversial a few years back. I don’t really recall the plot that well, but I definitely remember the themes and the general feel and aesthetic of the anime film.

One section of the utaibon for this performance.

As soon as I sat down, while we were waiting for the performance to start, I took the time to read through the utaibon (or daihon, the script of the play). I’m grateful they provided this – since the spoken (chanted) lines in Noh are chanted very slowly and stylistically, and since they are in a (somewhat) classical form of the language, trying to understand what’s being said (and therefore what’s going on) in any given scene is not nearly as easy as when watching, say, a more modern theatre production, or TV or movies in regular spoken modern Japanese. So, reading this through gave me an idea, ahead of time, of what was supposed to be happening in each scene. It’s also just a really cool touch that they included this, making the latter half of the program look almost just like an utaibon you would have for any more fully traditional Noh play; it’s quite common in my limited experience, I think, for those in the audience to bring their own utaibon with them and sort of read along as they watch Noh.

Even having read it, I can’t say that I actually understood the full plot of the play, or actually what happened in this or that part… but, overall, I think my impression is that Major Kusanagi – the main character of the original anime film – has disappeared from the physical world, and her (former) partner Batô has gone looking for her in “the sea of information” – the digital realm. While I do wish that I had understood the plot a bit more thoroughly, at the same time I think it’s less important than the performance / aesthetic, and the themes involved.

Initially, I had thought it a real curiosity, an oddity, that they would choose to do a Ghost in the Shell Noh, of all things. Combining something so highly technological, with not only themes of artificial intelligence and cybernetics and so forth but with high-tech digitalized aesthetics, with the wholly traditional world of Noh. But, actually, it works quite well. Aesthetically or stylistically, it’s an interesting juxtaposition; and if you can do a Noh about Hiroshima or about Elvis, and if you can do a Kabuki about zombies or One Piece or Star Wars, then you can do anything; it’s just a matter of getting it right; doing it well.

Promotional image for the play, showing Kusanagi Motoko (bottom left), her partner Batô, and the Puppet Master in white.

More importantly, thematically, once you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. One large subsection of Noh, the sorts of plays that I personally always think of first and tend to personally think of as being the emblematic “typical” types of Noh plays, are those known as mugen Noh 夢幻能、combining the characters yume 夢 (a dream) and maboroshi 幻 (a phantom vision, an illusion) into a term – mugen 夢幻 – which Jisho.org translates as “dreams; fantasy; visions,” with closely related terms meaning “transient; ephemeral; fleeting; evanescent” and “dreamlike; phantasmagorical.” In a play such as Atsumori, one example of a play of this type, a traveling monk1 reaches a particular site, in this case a beach but in other plays very often a grove or clearing in a forest, and encounters a ghost, or spirit, of a deceased warrior; the warrior, Atsumori, then relates through word and dance his story – the emotional events and karmic turmoils that keep his spirit tethered to this plane, unable to move on just yet. Mugen Noh plays exist in, or create, a liminal space between dream and reality, or between the physical world and the spiritual world. Like the monk who encounters a spirit, and can’t really be sure if that encounter is (was) real, or some kind of illusion, or a dream, just like him, we too – as audience members viewing the Noh performance – can sometimes, if we are lucky, find ourselves in a similar state: seeing the wooden pillars and painted-on pine tree of the Noh stage, and the physical conceit of actors in costumes, but seeing through or past these to wonder if what we ourselves are witnessing is not a stage but a forest clearing, and if it is not a play performed by human actors but some sort of dream, or some sort of glimpse into the world of spirits.

A tradition Hôshô school Noh performance of the play Atsumori.

In this way, the themes or atmosphere of mugen Noh actually fit Ghost in the Shell quite well, I think. Batô – a sort of cybercrimes police detective or special agent – here is played by the waki actor, taking on a role equivalent to that of the monk. Saying that he has not seen “neither form nor shadow” of Motoko for a long time (「素子は何処。姿も影もつかめぬ。」), he ventures not along roads and waterways, to beaches or forests, but into “the sea of information,” a virtual or digital realm that might as well be akin to the spirit realm, in search of the “spirit,” or in this case the disembodied digital consciousness – the “ghost” – of his former partner, Kusanagi Motoko.

The play begins in darkness; I kept waiting for the lights to come up and they never did. Only spotlights, a digital projection screen, and a few other small sources of light allowed us to peer through the darkness to glimpse the action. Noh chanting, flute, and drums opened the performance, and for a good portion of the ensuing 60 minutes or so, the music would remain wholly within the realm of traditional Noh utai (chanting) and hayashi (instrumental ensemble). Batô entered, in fully traditional-style Noh robes, albeit with the mask at least (if not the costume?) specially made to resemble the manga/anime character. There are no wooden pillars, no pine tree painted on the backdrop. This is not a traditional Noh stage, but rather a black box stage as is typical in so many modern theatres. A projection screen plays a variety of different images over the course of the play, but mostly images resembling leaves or flower petals swirling in the wind – or air bubbles or debris in the sea – suggesting though not overtly resembling something like the digital flows of the Matrix.

The use of controlled lighting techniques here is of course not something available to Noh performers hundreds of years ago, who performed simply by daylight or by torchlight, with no ability to control the lighting directly from a switchboard or the like; and which is therefore not a feature of traditional Noh today. Nevertheless, this creates a somewhat similar atmospheric effect to takigi Noh (torchlight Noh), which I imagine must enhance the sense of mugen so much more strongly. I really hope to get to see takigi Noh someday soon.

Motoko, played by a shite actor as Atsumori or other comparable figures would be, appears. Not “enters,” as in walks onstage, but actually appears out of the darkness, appearing first in a somewhat ghostly form and then quickly solidifying, appearing from where I was sitting just as real, just as three-dimensional, as if it were a real actor right there, in that spot, on stage. (But if it is a real actor, then how did they fade in that way?) This is where the “VR” aspect of “VR Noh” starts to come into play. Very cool.

She chants and dances her story, resembling very much in costume and stylistic aspects otherwise, and in her central location on the stage in contrast to Batô who remains near the front stage left corner for much of the play, the central shite figure of so many Noh plays, such as the warrior Atsumori in Atsumori or the heavenly maiden in Hagoromo. In doing so, she speaks of … well, I’m not exactly sure, but of questioning her identity and her reality. In one line, she speaks of her body having been only a hollow puppet, and of her soul having become distanced from the fences of the realm of people, melting in the sea of information.

「素子が掴みしは虚ろな人形の手。素子はいづくにや。人の世の柵を離れ。魂魄は。電脳の海に。溶けゆきしなり。」

Then she splits into two – one shite figure in white robes, young woman mask, and black hair down to her jawline suddenly becoming two, looking nearly identical, and standing next to one another, one looking more ghostly, more transparent than the other, but other than that both looking as though they are truly there on stage – not projected onto a flat screen, but present within three-dimensional space. And the chanting continues, as they speak to one another and to no one at all, questioning “if I am Motoko then who is she,” and so forth.

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Who (what) am I?”
「わらわは草薙素子。汝は何者なるや。」

“The girl is Kusanagi Motoko. Is coming face to face [with one another] here coincidence, or inevitable?
「わらわは草薙素子。ここで相見えしは偶然か必然か。」

The effects they created with these so-called “VR” techniques were really impressive. I wish my friend Evelyn could have been there to see this play with me – I wish I could hear her insights as to the staging techniques and effects. From what little I could tell, I still don’t even know if it was simply very cleverly placed mirrors or if it was actually something far more technologically advanced involving holographic projectors or something; I’ve never been to a Hatsune Miku concert, so I’m not sure exactly what those are like, and Perfume won an award a few years ago for their use of a system that tracked screens and the performers’ bodies to project images onto them perfectly even as they moved around the stage.

But, whatever exactly the techniques were that were used in this “VR Noh”, the result, we managed by the end of the play to see, was that actors standing just slightly off-stage (and out of view) were somehow made to appear as though they were onstage, right in the center, rear. As the Motoko figure didn’t move much for her first X minutes onstage, and given the way she appeared as if out of nowhere and then faded ghost-like out of view, I at first suspected this was prerecorded video, projected onto the screen. But as I said before, it didn’t look flat. And when, later in the play, one of the figures actually stepped forwards, much closer to the center of the stage, a good 3-5 feet (or more? I’m terrible at numbers) separated from the screen, I gasped. This was obviously either an actual actor actually standing on stage, or, some technique other than simply being a prerecorded video played back on a screen. The fact that it was actual actors actually performing in real time – even if the images we saw were somehow reflected or projected and not directly the actual person themselves in the flesh – I think makes it a whole different thing from anything even partially pre-recorded. A very interesting experience created out of this effect. I would eagerly look forward to seeing more plays using similar technology.

I must admit, I somewhat lost the trail of the meaning of the plot after this. Batô sees Motoko, finds her, but then she disappears again. Whether they reconnect afterwards, whether she is lost to him forever, where exactly the plot goes from there, I’m rather unclear to be honest.

But regardless, what I most took away from this whole experience was (1) just being engaged, engrossed, by the aesthetic and thematic experience, impressed by how successfully it blended traditional Noh aesthetics and hyper-futuristic, cyber-digital anime content. In addition to the swirling forms on the projection screen not only moving and swirling but actually changing over the course of the play, from leaves or flowers to bubbles to something more explicitly digital, and back again, somewhere towards the middle of the play we also got the Noh drums being used in a decidedly non-traditional way to evoke a sort of robotic or heavy cybernetic sort of atmosphere as Motoko spoke, and then briefly a vocal musical piece utterly unlike anything you’d have in traditional Noh but closely resembling that from the opening of the anime film.

But also, and perhaps more so, (2) the mental or emotional experience of thinking about ghosts and spirits, reality and unreality. How are the themes of Ghost in the Shell – digital consciousness vs. natural consciousness, what separates real memories from digitally artificial ones, and therefore reality from unreality – all that different from the decidedly non-digital world of spirits / ghosts in traditional mugen Noh? One thing I thought particularly interesting, that came up during the after-talk, was when one of the actors (I believe it was Sakaguchi Takanobu 坂口貴信, the shite actor who played Motoko) said that while we’re all used to traditional stories being reinvented and re-presented in modern forms (e.g. Hans Christian Andersen or Brothers Grimm fairy tales reimagined into Disney movies), this is in some ways the opposite – a relatively new story, adapted into a much older, more traditional art form that’s actually less accessible for a modern audience. But then he also said that, as conservative as Noh is as an art form, is has continued for more than 500 years and has, certainly, evolved and changed in that time. Perhaps a few hundreds years from now, something like this VR Noh Ghost in the Shell will be seen as traditional and canonical. A very interesting thought.

(And, further, when we think about the fact that the Ghost in the Shell anime film is itself already 25 years old this year, and just how widely and deeply it has made an impact, it really is in some way, arguably, perhaps, not that different from the way that Noh plays of the medieval period retold and re-presented “traditional” and well-known stories of that time, from the Tales of the Heike, Tales of Ise, and so forth.)

That’s all I’ve got to say for now. But they suggested that they are planning to continue developing the technology, and the story, and plan to later have some sort of “version up” new iterations of the play. So, hopefully we’ll get another chance to see this, and to think about it further.

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1. In the play Atsumori, and in several other plays featuring the warrior Atsumori, the monk is in fact Renshô, aka Kumagai Naozane, the warrior who killed Atsumori in battle and who then became a monk in order to atone for his guilt and so forth. I wasn’t sure how to fit this into the body text above, but didn’t want to leave it unmentioned entirely.

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

I was not disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: Watching and listening to the Kamogawa flow along. There’s just something wonderful about the Kamo, bringing this relaxing, refreshing energy to the city.

Time has flowed so strangely these past X months since the pandemic began. It’s hard to believe that it’s been roughly seven weeks already since the state of emergency was officially lifted here in Tokyo on May 25. I have been fortunate throughout this time to have my health, and to remain employed and safely comfortable otherwise in my cozy Tokyo apartment. And I have been exceptionally fortunate that none of my family back home in the US have fallen ill, and almost unbelievably, even out of my hundreds of Facebook friends, only a handful so far as I know have fallen ill with this. So, I begin this blog post by acknowledging, of course, that my “journey through Covid” or my experience of “living with Covid” is a very different one from those who are suffering from the disease, or even those living in high hot spots, dealing with the stupidity of our fellow Americans. I am so sorry to you all, and I hope so sincerely and so deeply that, somehow, things turn around for the better soon.

Glancing back again at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s official Covid Information Updates site, the state of emergency was lifted after the number of new coronavirus cases (new positive test results) per day had remained around or below 15 new cases per day for about 10 days. Things were really starting to look like they were under control, and might remain so. My university gradually, cautiously, began lowering its own internal threat level and gradually, cautiously, reopening campus in stages. From Level 4 down to 3, then 2, then 1, and now level 0.5. Even at level 0.5, there are numerous policies and safeguards in place, and the number of people actually present on campus at any given time is a tiny fraction of what would be normally.

Chart of official numbers of new Covid-19 cases discovered each day by the Tokyo Metropolitan government, April to July 2020. Rising again from a low of 10-15 new cases per day in late May to nearly 300 on July 17 and 18. Apologies the screencap is a little wonky. Click through for more data.

Now, I don’t know if this was selfish or irresponsible or what, but I considered the situation and decided that if the numbers continue to remain low, and the campus continues to open up more fully, before long I’ll be back in a situation where I’ll be expected to be in the office fairly regularly, X days a week, so therefore, so long as I’m still officially working from home but the state of emergency is lifted, the numbers are low, now might be the best time to squeeze in a little travel. I was cautious about it, waited until I had some sense that hotels would be willing to have me. I looked at which museums were open, and took that as an indication of how safe people thought it was, to what degree things might be somewhat back to normal in a given city or region, and to what degree the trip might even be worthwhile – no point in going if half the museums, archives, etc I want to visit might be closed. And so, even as numbers began to trickle back up, I decided to go on a little trip.

In Kyoto, the numbers have been super low for quite some time. One day while I was there, there were four new cases that day. And I get the impression numbers have been in that range all week, and maybe even for weeks before that. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be bringing it from Tokyo, and of course I don’t want to be responsible for a new outbreak / cluster. I don’t want to get into a whole lengthy thing about how I could have (should have) possibly calculated the risk – based on what numbers? what data? – and made a more fully, truly, rational, responsible decision. I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m just a guy. And I was most certainly not the only person traveling at that time.

Social distancing, Kyoto-style. Stay far enough apart that your umbrellas won’t touch. A sign I saw posted in Fushimi.

A lot of people in Kyoto were wearing masks, and most stores and other establishments had some kind of precautions set up. Plastic sheets hanging over the counters, to block customers and staff breathing directly on each other. Windows open and fans running. Far more places in Kyoto than in my experience in Tokyo explicitly asked me to use hand sanitizer or alcohol when coming into their establishment, and far more of them tested my temperature.

But, then, at the same time, a greater proportion of people in Kyoto than in Tokyo were not wearing masks, a greater proportion of restaurants were open for indoor seating, and a greater proportion of people were taking them up on that. Narrow as the sidewalks can be in Tokyo – outdoor sidewalk seating is not nearly as common a thing in Tokyo as in, for example, New York, though that’s changing this summer precisely because of this pandemic – there’s even less space in Kyoto to put out tables & chairs outside of a bar or restaurant.

My first day or two in Kyoto I was definitely feeling off-balance – to take a train for a few hours and suddenly be in a world where the pandemic, or at least the general widespread response to it, is at such a different stage. What do I do? Do I apply my Tokyo-based routines and standards and tell myself I won’t eat indoors anywhere? Or do I adapt to what everyone around me seems to think is probably safe enough? (Not that they – customers or managers alike – are experts either…) And then, when walking around in some slightly more out-of-the-way places, in small towns and hiking up stairs or hills at shrines and temples, when there’s just totally no one else around me and I’m frankly having trouble breathing through the mask because of my exertion and because of the humidity, it’s alright to take off my mask, right? There’s absolutely no one around me who would breathe in my droplets, my exhalation particles. … But then once you start doing that, you get to a place where, well, if I’m not wearing the mask outside because it’s just too hot, and sometimes I’m not wearing the mask outside simply because I’m eating or drinking something and thus granting myself an exemption to wearing the mask for those X minutes, but then I’m also not wearing my mask when I’m eating indoors because how could you wear a mask and eat, even though there are still other people in the restaurant with you, who may or may not be six feet away… Well, then when do you wear the mask, and doesn’t it start to feel a little … what’s the word? Arbitrary? Hypocritical? I was surprised to sometimes see waitstaff not even wearing masks. On the one hand, this made me feel better that they might be feeling scared to come to work, feeling they didn’t even want to be there; I put off thinking about traveling for quite a few weeks, maybe even months, because I didn’t want to feel like I was contributing to any such situation, where staff didn’t want to be there, or didn’t want to interact with me. But, now, the situation was reversed! I did what I could to wear my mask so long as I was interacted with these waitstaff at all, so long as I didn’t actively have food or drink in front of me, but they didn’t seem inclined to take similar precautions, getting quite close up to me, close to my face, as they served the food or as they asked me “is everything alright?” And, frankly, it made me a little nervous.

The almost completely empty streets of the city center in Shimizu, Shizuoka. Of course I’ll wear a mask so long as it’s comfortable; I think if I remember correctly, I did wear my mask while walking around on this street, just by default. But if there’s no one else around….?

I met up with some friends, too. Wasn’t sure if anyone would be willing to meet up, or if it was wrong of me to even ask. But I told them all, if they thought it was not right, if they thought it was not being careful enough, I wouldn’t hold it against them or anything. That’s perfectly reasonable, and maybe I’m the one who’s being unreasonable. It’s okay. Just say so. … But, people were willing to meet anyway. So, I met with one professor (for the first time, someone I didn’t know) and we sat a good ten feet apart or something, inside his office, masks off, with the windows open and the fan on. I met up with a second professor, who I do know, who I figured I might as well just knock on his door so long as I’m in the building. We talked out in the hallway, masks on.

I met up with a couple of friends for dinner (masks off, obviously) on the roof of their building, with the thought process that even if we were sitting less than six feet apart, at least we’re outdoors. I met up with another friend and spent the whole day with him, wearing masks as we walked through the streets and museums and so forth, but taking them off when we went into restaurants and cafes together.

Oh, and of course, there’s also the question of trains. For I don’t know how many weeks, here in Tokyo, I avoided the trains completely. Walked everywhere. Was afraid of the subways and other trains – and the stations – being a bit too closed in, even with the train windows open (does that really do anything?). But one night in Tokyo (many weeks before this trip), as I began on what would be a 45-60 min walk home from wherever it is I was at that time, the skies started to give me the feeling like it might open up and just start pouring at any moment. So I took the train. It was midday, some random hour on a random day. Not rush hour. And I was only on the train for about 10-15 mins. There was almost no one else on the train. Now, of course, if I had caught Covid, and if there were any way to know that it was because of that train ride and not because of anywhere else I’d been, then of course a 10-15 min train ride just to avoid getting wet would not be worth the risk. But… *shrug*. How are you supposed to make that calculation? How are you supposed to know what risks to avoid, and at what point to allow yourself to let your guard down and just stop making things extra difficult for yourself for what may (or may not!?) actually be an unreasonable level of caution? In the end, now, these many weeks later, it was fine. I never developed symptoms, not after that short subway ride, and not after any other particular outing. But since then, and especially since the state of emergency was lifted, I started taking the trains a little more frequently. Still staying home the great majority of the time (outside of this trip to Kyoto), and still walking most places. Avoiding rush hour. Avoiding buses. (Are buses more or less risky than trains? I have no idea.) It’s a bizarre thing this pandemic – it’s not only invisible, it’s completely imperceptible. There is no color, no odor, no way of knowing at all whether you’re entering a dangerous (infected) space, or whether you’ve been through one, or whether you’ve caught it. So, it’s tempting to say “well, I rode the train once, and I was fine,” but of course you don’t know if you’re fine until 14+ days after that, when you start to have symptoms. Or maybe you don’t have symptoms. So, I suppose that logically that uncertainty means we should all be staying in our homes still, isolating as strictly as ever, still. For months and months on end. But, what can I say? I saw plenty of other people riding the trains; I tried to take others’ behavior as indicative of what might be a “normal” or reasonable level of caution. I always wear my mask on trains, or indeed when out in public in general (with small exceptions, as I mentioned above), and I try my best to stay a good distance away from anyone else, as best as I can within a narrow subway car.

And then came time to actually make my trip to Kyoto. I got up early in the morning, so that I might make it to Kyoto before noon and still have a good amount of the remainder of the day to do stuff in the city. But almost as soon as I stepped out my door, I could sense it was like rush hour. Maybe only half as busy as a fully normal (pre-covid) Tokyo rush hour, but even so. In all my weeks of cautiously starting to ride the trains again, this was certainly the most busy. And then once I got on the Shinkansen, it was the same. Yes, I know that the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route is the busiest in the country. But, really? This many people are on their way to Kyoto or Osaka right now? Amidst a pandemic? And on *this* train, and not on the train X minutes earlier or the one X minutes later? It was far from packed, but it was most certainly not empty. Even so, I thought this might be safer than flying. Is it? I don’t know.

Even before I left for Kyoto, the numbers in Tokyo were rising again. From 10-15 a day for however many days straight, it was back up in the 50s, then the 100s, then the 120s-150s. Governor Koike suggested that people not leave the prefecture. Oops, I was already gone. And then the numbers exceeded 200! … But, what does this really mean? We come right back to where we’ve always been: Tokyo is testing in such a limited fashion, that it’s hard to know what this really indicates. And, whatever the numbers are, they kept saying that they were in identifiable clusters. That one day that there were four cases in Kyoto, they were all delivery men from the same KuroNeko (Japanese equivalent of UPS or DHL) office. And in Tokyo, at least half the cases each day were traced to the nightlife districts, to bars and nightclubs. And then I saw something saying that whatever the numbers of new cases each day, there were fewer than 10 people in all of Japan in the ICU right now due to Covid, and that there had been no deaths (identified as) due to Covid for days and days, perhaps weeks. So, what are we to make of this? Of course, it doesn’t mean I’m going to stop wearing a mask, stop being cautious, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m going to start having big parties in giant unmasked crowds. But, at least so long as I was in Kyoto and Osaka, maybe it was okay to ease up a little, not be unduly strict with myself. If you can’t find any restaurants with outdoor seating, and everyone else is eating indoors, maybe it’s okay? …. But now that I’ve come back to Tokyo, I’ve resettled back into a routine of not going anywhere except to the grocery store.. and always with a mask, and always washing my hands when I get home… Is this excessive? I don’t know. Is it hypocritical, given that I was looser about such things while I was in Kyoto? I don’t know.

Should I feel okay about going out and eating indoors more now, because I’ve seen how things are okay in Kyoto and Osaka and Shizuoka? Or should I make an active decision to be stricter about it now that I’m back in Tokyo, because Tokyo’s the one place where numbers are high and still rising? Or should I not worry about it too much because even with the numbers still rising (and about half the new cases are now from outside of identified nightlife clusters), there are so few people seriously ill and so few people dying that maybe it’s overall more under control than we think? And because I’m not taking rush hour trains, not going to the office, etc.?

I don’t know.

But the whole point of this post isn’t to put my own irresponsibility out on display in public, or necessarily to stage a critique of the absence of good news information, but rather to just touch upon or contemplate how our experiences going through this are so dependent on our own internal thought processes.

In some respects, the situation hasn’t really changed at all for months. In other respects, it has – changes in numbers, changes in state of emergency policy. But internally, personally, we’re each making these decisions, do we feel safer going outside, or not? What are the ups and downs, the curve-trend-lines on that?

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A view of Sensuijima, Bentenjima, and the Inland Sea, from the Taichôrô in Tomonoura, Hiroshima pref. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

This week, amidst worldwide protests and peace marches in support of “Black Lives Matter” and against police brutality, the conversation about statues – esp. Confederate monuments, Columbus, and slavetraders – has come to the fore yet again. The US Marines and Navy are now moving to ban displays of the Confederate flag from public spaces and workplaces; a number of statues of Columbus have been toppled or beheaded across the US, while people call for others to be removed; BLM protestors tossed a statue of a slave trader in the British city of Bristol into the harbor; and there have been calls to take down statues of Captain Cook both in the UK and Australia. A statue of King Leopold II, who ruled the Congo in an almost unspeakably brutal and exploitative fashion, was taken down in Antwerp. And that’s only the beginning; I expect we’ll see a lot more before this is over.

What I happened to come across today in my own fiddling around with photos from a few years ago isn’t nearly on that level. But it does pertain to how we think about monuments and historical landmarks, and the oft-overlooked questions of when, why, and by whom was a monument first erected, or a historical site formally designated.

The head of the 1711 Korean embassy to Edo, as seen in one section of a replica on display at the Taichôrô of a 1711 handscroll painting depicting the embassy parading through the streets of Edo in that year. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

The Taichôrô 対潮楼 is a guesthouse at the Buddhist temple Fukuzen-ji in Tomonoura, a small port-town in the Seto Inland Sea in what is today Fukuyama City, Hiroshima prefecture. On numerous occasions in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Taichôrô served as lodgings for the heads of Korean embassies making their way to Edo (Tokyo) for formal meetings with the Shogun, as well as on the embassies’ journeys back home to Korea. Several members of such embassies wrote that the view of the Inland Sea from the Taichôrô was the greatest, or most beautiful, scenic view in all of the East 「日東第一形勝」 (i.e. in Japan, being east of Korea).

The Japanese national government designated the temple and the Taichôrô a “historical landmark” (史跡, ”shiseki”) in 1994. And in 2017, UNESCO inscribed the peaceful diplomatic relations and lively cultural exchange represented by the Korean embassies to Edo into the “UNESCO Memory of the World Register.”

But here’s what struck me as interesting: the Hiroshima prefectural government designated the site a “historical landmark of the Korean embassies” (Chôsen tsûshinshi no shiseki) in 1940, at a time when Korea was fully incorporated into the Japanese Empire. A gallery label on display at the Taichôrô (which I visited in 2017), which I suspect is clipped out of a high school history textbook or perhaps a museum catalog or the like, says flat-out that Korea was “colonized” by Japan at that time, and that it was “a miserable time of ethnic discrimination” (当時の朝鮮半島は日本の植民地にあって、民族差別のあった不幸な時代です。), but goes on to say that even amidst this, scholars with heart suggested it be designated, and brought the hidden history of the Korean embassies to light (こうした中でも心ある学者たちが推薦して、県の史跡となり、かくされた朝鮮通信使の歴史を明かす出発になりました).

The Korean embassies to Edo are today celebrated as a symbol of peaceful relations and lively cultural exchange, and the Fukuzen-ji temple, local Tomonoura government, etc. play an active role today in coordinating reenactment events, Korea-Japanese friendship meetings, and so forth, using the 17th-18th century events as a tool for trying to repair, or improve, Korean-Japanese relations today. So, between this and just the more general absence of discourse within Japan of more fully, more thoroughly, coming to terms with that entire period of Empire and militarism and so forth, it’s unsurprising to me that they would represent it in this way: despite the dark times, scholars with heart recommended this – as if those scholars in 1940 had the same ideas about the Korean embassies that people are promoting today. It’s most certainly possible – we have to remember that in almost any time and place in history, there were people who resisted, who thought otherwise.

But what if that wasn’t the case? What if the scholars who recommended the establishment of “historical landmarks of the Korean embassies” were promoting a narrative about how Korea had sent embassies for centuries to pay respects and pay tribute to the greatness of the Tokugawa shoguns (that’s certainly how the shogunate represented it at the time)? That is, within a narrative justifying Japanese superiority and Korean deference to Japan, and justifying Japanese colonization and control of Korea now, in 1940?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that both a middle school or high-school textbook, and a tourist site, would seek to shove this under the rug, to hide it, and to try to play up a more positive version of the history. But as someone who’s been trained in postcolonial theory, and in Japanese modern history… look, I don’t know anything about the history of this – I don’t know who exactly these scholars were; I haven’t read their recommendations, or the language of the declaration of the designation at that time; all I’m going off of is this one text displayed at the Taichôrô when I visited in 2017. And I admit I’m an outsider; there’s a hell of a lot I don’t know. But from what little I do know of Japanese Empire, they used just about any historical straw they could grasp at as justification for Korea, Ryukyu, and other areas being historically subordinate to, or in some sense justifiably “belonging to” Japan. So I really wouldn’t be surprised if the language at the time, in 1940, was much more about the Korean embassies as supplicatory embassies, paying tribute in recognition of the superiority and centrality of Japanese greatness and authority, than it was anything that might align with the peaceful, diplomatic, reconciliation sort of view being promoted today.

So, while I recognize and admit the awkwardness of posting this right now – it may be a bit far off from the most prominent issues of the day, namely concerning Columbus, King Leopold, slave traders, Confederate generals, not to mention the ongoing protests against police brutality all across the country and around the world – it is something I happened to come across today, and I think there’s at least some tiny nugget of connection, of relevance. Whenever we see any historical landmark designation, statue, or monument, we must think about who erected it, when, and why. What is the message directly attached to the monument trying to promote, and what is it hiding? What history is not being told?

Fukuzen-ji temple, within which the Taichôrô is housed. Photo my own, 8 Aug 2017.

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I’ve actually grown quite used to this staying-at-home life these past, well, let’s call it two months. I don’t know what it is exactly about this apartment, but I feel I’ve sort of lucked out, somehow it’s been a very comfortable place to be spending so much time in these last X weeks. Not too small or too dark or too anything… and not too far from the supermarket, convenience store, etc. either. I’m glad I didn’t have to do stay-at-home in my previous apartment (dorm room). It would have been fine, no doubt. Of course. But somehow I do think I’ve been much happier here.

And I’m of course not the only one.

I do feel weird saying so, of course, since it was just today that the New York Times published a list of one thousand names of those killed in the US by the coronavirus – it fills the entire front page of the newspaper, and it’s still only 1% of the dead. Looking through visualizations of it, one name at a time, each with a short one-sentence obituary, is numbing. Among 100,000 people you’ll find those of every age, every race and ethnicity, every walk of life. People who made great discoveries and accomplishments, people who did incredible things for their friends and family. People who relished in their hobbies and interests. People who were taken from us far far too soon, and people who might have had a good few more years if not for this. And so many of them, of course, forced to suffer their last X days or weeks without direct contact with their loved ones. … The crisis in the United States, and in many parts of the world, is far from over. And yet, I’m one of the lucky ones. For now. For now, thus far, thankfully, I have not fallen ill and neither have any of my family members, nor, incredibly, have I lost any friends. Astonishingly lucky, if “luck” is even the right word.

So, what can I say? It’s a weird place to be in, and I don’t mean to sound too privileged or out of touch… I’m just being honest about my situation. Thankfully, I’m far from the only one who has survived through this whole crisis unscathed (thus far), and whose experience (thus far) has been simply one of adjusting to a new normal, working from home rather than going to the office, and so forth. I’ve been cooking real meals a lot more; nothing too fancy, but even so, a little bit, here and there. Made some pasta sauce from scratch; I think it was too much bother, actually, in the end.

The Kandagawa, near Edogawabashi.

And now, Japan has just lifted the State of Emergency. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but as of right now at least I haven’t heard anything at all about any museums, libraries, archives, or campuses reopening. To be honest, as much as I have been looking forward to visiting museums, archives, and libraries again, and to doing some traveling, I am not really looking forward to having to start commuting again, 9-to-5, to the office. In a sense, I feel like I’m only just now really starting to hit my stride – or, let’s call it a second wind, or third – in terms of getting used to the routine of being home. I wonder how long I’ve got before the office opens up again. I guess we’ll find out.

In the meantime, I’ve been avoiding public transportation entirely for I don’t know how long; at least six weeks or so, maybe closer to eight. And I’ve been walking places. Thought about getting a bicycle; this would have been the time for it, while there are fewer people on the road, but there’s nowhere at my apartment building to park a bike. So, anyway, I’ve been doing a lot of walking.

It’s been an interesting experience. 

Some random street corner somewhere in Bunkyô-ku.

Tokyo is, certainly, a city full of exciting things to see and do and experience, when they’re open. Hop on the subway and venture out to museums, bars, art galleries, theater, all sorts of different sites and institutions. But walking, Tokyo is nothing like, for example, Kyoto. Kyoto you can walk around and just enjoy the experience of the architectural environment of Kyoto. The architecture, the machinami as they say in Japanese – I wish we had a good word for it in English, but it means something like the “street scene.” Like a skyline, but from down on the ground – the visual experience of the street as a whole, from one block to the next or across whatever distance, longer or shorter. Here in Shinjuku/Bunkyo/Chiyoda-ku, the machinami is very much the same as you walk. Sure, it depends on what neighborhoods you’re in exactly, but for the most part, branching out from where I am living now, I found just more and more of the same busy main streets, and quiet but architecturally disunited, aesthetically chaotic, residential neighborhoods, all of it very modern, with bits of more traditional architecture here and there… Chaotic and all mixed up, but largely a mix of the same things, or mixed up in the same way. Lots and lots of grey concrete. And where there is a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine, it’s usually set back a ways from the road, so it doesn’t really enter much into the feel of the neighborhood – doesn’t break up the endless rows of concrete & glass storefronts.

Back in the pre-corona days, there were a number of times when I walked from Omotesando or Harajuku through whatever in-between neighborhoods, to Shibuya, and from Shibuya through Shinsen to Komaba, and then maybe even on past there to Shimo-Kita, and it was interesting and kind of fun to see how the neighborhoods changed as you walked, from some of the busiest areas in the city to quiet residential neighborhoods, from the quirky youth energy of Harajuku to the upscale vibe of Omotesando, but I haven’t found that sort of experience walking around these neighborhoods…

Backstreets in a residential neighborhood in Setagaya-ku.

Another thing I noticed initially on these walks is that with my mask on I couldn’t smell the incidental smells so easily, or at all. One of the pleasant parts of going for a walk, one of the things that made me want to, is just all the incidental springtime smells you smell – flowers, food, incense. So, that felt like a terrible loss – missing out on the entire Spring, even more so than we already are. Fortunately, now that I’ve been wearing a different mask, I can smell it better.

You can capture sights and sounds to a certain extent on photo and video, but smells are one of those things you absolutely can’t. And there are so many smells here in Japan that I can’t even identify, can’t even necessarily say I miss when I’m back in the States, but when I’m here and I smell them, all sorts of memories come flooding back of previous times spent in Japan. The faintest of scents carried on the breeze alongside the warmth of the spring sun. That steamy smell in the air as you walk past a ramen place. Food smells, of course. But also, and I feel weird to say it, but clean smells, too; not that I’m yearning for the smell of industrial chemicals, but rather that whatever they use to clean places here makes me think of shops and restaurants and campus buildings over the course of my many trips in Japan. Temple incense, of course. But also countless smells I couldn’t name at all, but just which remind me of spring, and of fun and enjoyment and adventure of past times.

At Iidabashi Station. Feels weird watching trains go by. I haven’t ridden a train in weeks.

This is my fourth time living in Japan for any serious length of time. It’s interesting, and weird, and kind of disappointing, to realize how ordinary it feels in a certain sense. My first trip to Japan, I lived here in Tokyo for four months as a study abroad student. As I’ve probably talked about too many times before on this blog, it was my first time overseas on my own, my first time living anywhere on my own that was more than 4 hours drive from home (let alone overseas); it was a brand new city, a brand new country, and I was young and just so excited by everything. And, especially in light of the fact that I didn’t think I would necessarily ever come back. I thought this was like my one big adventure, and that after that I would just go back home to New York and be a New Yorker the rest of my life (something which a part of me is still very attached to, but that’s a matter for a whole other post).

The second time, it was a whole five years later; after five long years of thinking I might never go back to Japan again, boom, I was living the dream, living in Yokohama for nearly a full year. Again, definitely felt like an adventure. While I was spending the vast majority of my time in class or at home doing homework (or I suppose in various cafes? I don’t really recall), and even when I wasn’t, I was largely in Yokohama and not right in the heart of things in Tokyo (or Kyoto or Osaka or Naha), even so, I learned and gained so much during that year and had an incredible good time. It was my first time living in Japan for more than just four months, my first time on my own as a college graduate, as someone a bit more mature and independent, as someone with far better Japanese language ability than when I was in college. I was *living* in Japan, not just having some crazy study abroad adventure. … And then, I came back for three or four or six weeks at a time for quite a few summers. Six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (I can’t believe it was so long ago!) definitely gave me a feel for the city, felt like I was “living” there and not just visiting. I feel like I know that city better than most I’ve visited for less time (makes sense). I would *love* to live there again. But I’m not quite counting it.

Third time, was in 2016-2017 (I want to say “recently” but I guess it’s not quite that recent anymore…), when I was here on fellowship for dissertation research. Spent six months in Okinawa and five in Tokyo, blogged about it a lot. In part because Okinawa was so new – my first time spending more than a week there, my first time getting to really live there and experience it more deeply/broadly – this third time, too, was quite the adventure. In all of these trips, I felt like I was gradually becoming more and more a Japan Scholar, or Japan Hand, or Okinawa hand, or whatever the hell term you want to use. I’m not actually a big fan of the “China hand” “Japan hand” term, but in any case, it’s direct experience of having lived here, and traveled around Japan, experience of meeting people and making connections and experiencing all different sides of life here, that is so crucial to being … well, I hesitate to use the word “expert,” but, it’s crucial to feeling valid and justified in saying you’ve had those experiences. You know your way around.

This fourth time, I was excited to open a new chapter, to live and *work* in Japan for the first time. To be here on something other than a student or cultural activities or tourist visa; to actually live and work here. I’m not sure that I have any intentions of staying for the truly long-term, but at least it doesn’t feel temporary the way a 10- or 11-month program does. I don’t have any institution to go back to in the States right now. I’m for the first time in years and years not currently affiliated with or enrolled in any school in the US. I am University of Tokyo staff. A weird thing to consider. For the first week or so of this stay, it was really exciting. Look at me, I’m University of Tokyo staff. I’m one of those people now, who lives and works in Japan. Look at me, I’m going to go to conferences and it’s going to say University of Tokyo on my name badge and on my business cards.

Some beautiful but small and so far as I know historically non-significant random temple somewhere in the area.

But, being here, I really don’t feel like I’ve necessarily become all that much more … what’s the word? Local knowledge? Cultural capital? I don’t feel like I necessarily know Tokyo any better than I did before, like I’m becoming more expert. Maybe it’s still too early to say. I think the work environment has a lot to do with it – I spend far far far more time just going to the office and going home and going back to the office than I do networking; I haven’t gone to all that many conferences or lectures or workshops or anything, nor have I gone to very many meet-ups, stand-up comedy nights, or anything like that where I might meet people and get to know a scene outside of academia. I’m sorry to say it, but I find myself still very attached to the expat community; and I actually really like it that way. I love meeting other visiting scholars, expats, whatever word you want to use. And while I absolutely don’t want to live in some segregated expat bubble – I’m certainly not going to only English-speaking restaurants or Western-style cuisine places or something like that; I’m not trying to live an American or European life in Tokyo – I’m trying to live a Tokyo life and to enjoy and appreciate Tokyo alongside other people who appreciate it similarly to how I do, and with whom I can speak comfortably and stress-free in English. It’d be nice to have Japanese friends. It’d be wonderful. Especially if they might be true friends, to really meet up with and hang out with, and not have that awkwardness of being professional colleagues/coworkers rather than friends; it would certainly do wonders for my conversational Japanese. I feel like in Okinawa it’d be a lot easier. In part because there are fewer expats around, haha. But, when I was at Ryûdai, there was a small close community of ten or so Okinawan History grad students, and I sat in on their seminars and so forth, and every now and then they invited me along to welcome parties and going away parties, to end of year parties and karaoke nights and so forth. I wasn’t fully, truly, a member of their grad student cohort – I was only a visitor – but even so, living on a campus in a small town, if and when people are going to go out, well, they certainly didn’t have to invite me along but it was very kind of them to include me in the party as it were. And I think if I were to live there longer, one way or another, on campus or off, I would get to know people. Naha is just that small of a city, and that friendly and open of a place, I think; I mean, it’s complicated, because on the one hand, maybe as a tourist they’re just being friendly because they’re friendly to all tourists, but then again on the other hand maybe because there are so many tourists some people might appreciate me a bit more because I’m more serious, not in Okinawa for just a fleeting funtimes vacation. … Anyway, once this whole coronavirus thing is over with, maybe hopefully I can find a sanshin teacher here in Tokyo, and then maybe (fingers crossed) I might be able to actually make friends with people through that. I think having something in common, having a cultural group through which you meet people, is probably a good way to do it.

Meanwhile, I’m also not sure my conversational Japanese is getting any better. At all. … I didn’t mean for this post to be one about complaining, or being down on myself. Rather, I was thinking more along the lines of just isn’t it interesting how ordinary my life in Tokyo feels right now, rather than it being the kind of adventure that my previous times were. Isn’t it interesting how it feels so ordinary compared to what my excitement was in the first week or two. I think that not really being all that integrated into any kind of life on campus, but just keeping my head down and doing my work has contributed to this a lot. I also think that once things open back up again, and we’re able to travel again, and to have workshops and conferences and all the rest, that will help a lot. Being able to use this time while I’m here to meet people, to make connections and become situated as a member of a local network, and also being able to use this time to travel and get to see more of Japan, will help a lot. I think. We’ll see. We’ll get there.

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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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