Archive for the ‘Japanese history’ Category

We now return to our regularly scheduled set of book/article reviews.

*Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 591–622.

*———. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 53–79.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.

Having spent the better part of seven pages in my previous post summarizing Zhang Feng’s argument,1 with only a sprinkling of Kang and Schottenhammer for comparison, I think I will start afresh in comparing and contrasting Schottenhammer and Kang’s approaches, in these few particular articles under review.

The investiture ceremony for Ryukyuan kings, a crucial part of the China-Ryukyu relationships, as seen in a model on display at Shuri castle.

While Zhang, as discussed in the previous post, offers much valuable critique of Fairbank’s “Chinese World Order” tributary system” model, “Empire and Periphery?,” just one of Angela Schottenhammer’s many broad-ranging and yet thoroughly detailed essays on maritime East Asia, seems to actually put these suggestions into practice. Schottenhammer demonstrates recognition of the so-called “tribute system” schema articulated by John K. Fairbank as pointing to some meaningful and important historical structures, but also as being only a model, describing only one of a complex of institutions in the very complex world of East Asian maritime trade relations. She examines the actual relations that took place between Qing Dynasty China and Japan & the Ryukyu Kingdom, in particular, comparing ideology and reality, and tracing shifts and developments in Qing attitudes and policies. She writes,

We will discuss not only why and in which respect China’s relations with these two countries differed but also if her concepts and visions correlated with reality or were simply ‘Chinese projections’ that drew an idealistic picture of the East Asian world. … Did the Qing rulers simply act on the basis of a traditional vision that saw them in the center of East Asian civilization, or were they able to distinguish between vision and reality, consequently making decisions on the basis of political necessities[?] (142)

Zhang, quoting John Wills, also advocates not taking the tribute system or Sinocentric worldview themselves as a starting point, as this “short-circuits” thinking about, seeing, recognizing, the fuller, more complex, more nuanced range of interactions going on in the region, outside of the tribute system.2 Schottenhammer certainly does seem to epitomize this complex and nuanced approach, though she does begin with a Chinese / Confucian definition of “empire,” as being the idea of tianxia, or “all-under-heaven,” a realm within which all is ordered, peaceful, and harmonious because of emulation of the emperor as the paragon model of virtue (141).

All in all, Schottenhammer provides a nuanced and complex view of the situation in mid-Qing maritime East Asia, covering the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723-35), and Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) Emperors. Balancing both ideology and practical reality, she explains that Qing attitudes and policies shifted over the course of time, from flexibility and toleration at the beginning of the dynasty (1644) through the Kangxi reign, to guarded caution under Yongzheng, to self-assured disinterest under Qianlong. For the first decade or two after 1644, despite the Manchus’ need to establish themselves – and not the Ming pretenders and loyalists – as the legitimate rulers of China, or perhaps because of this desperate need for legitimacy, the Qing were quite flexible in their relations with other courts and polities. They did send out missions almost immediately after the conquest, to seek the establishment of tributary relations with Korea, Ryukyu, and Annam, securing such relations by the early 1650s, but Schottenhammer suggests that at that time,

while foreign countries were requested to emulate a good action and return to allegiance, to submit tribute items (nakuan 納款) and pay the [new] court its respects, … the formal recognition of the ruler of a tributary state, in the form of investiture (cefeng 冊封), does not seem to have been an absolute prerequisite for the tributary trade (144-145).

As an aside, the regular, consistent willingness of Schottenhammer’s publishers to include Chinese characters within the text makes her work not only much more helpful and informative, but also makes it feel more professional, more scholarly. So, insofar as this is a review, two thumbs up for including the original Chinese, Japanese, Korean terms in the paper – not only does it show that Schottenhammer is engaging with the original texts, and the original language (complexities of translation, nuances of meaning), but it also provides the tools for the reader to more directly engage with that, on a higher level. Speaking to that point, Schottenhammer introduces and engages with a number of Chinese terms and the associated concepts, elucidating how relations were understood, or at least how they were described in the rhetoric of the day.

Right: Map of the traditional Chinese conception of the world, with civilization at the center, and barbarism at the edges. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Even a single phrase such as that inscribed on a 1751 world map commissioned by Qianlong can contain great insights, when the characters are given, and the meanings unpacked and discussed a bit. The inscription reads: “After our dynasty had unified the Empire, all non-Chinese peoples (苗夷) in the regions of the universe (區宇) have paid tribute and pronounced their cordial bonds [with us] beyond our [borders]. They approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence (輸誠向化).” (151) The term given for “non-Chinese peoples” here, miao-yi, incorporates two of the traditional Chinese terms for barbarians of the four directions – the miao to the south (today, the term has become a proper noun to refer to a particular ethnic group), and the yi to the east.

The “regions of the universe” (quyu), Schottenhammer explains, covers not just the realm (tianxia) itself, but all the world, conveying a paternalistic, possessive, and universal connotation – no more universalist or paternalistic, though, than European rhetoric of the Enlightenment, rationalism, imperialism, and the “White Man’s Burden,” however. Finally, this concept that “they approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence” (shucheng xianghua) is of particular interest, giving the reader a direct insight into the precise language, and through that the character of the logics, employed in this system. Though we may never truly be able to understand the past quite exactly as it was understood at the time, looking at the actual language gets us a little closer, removing one more intermediate layer of translation.

Returning to the dynastic narrative, Schottenhammer explains that this initial period of flexibility blended into a period under the Kangxi Emperor characterized by toleration. The Tokugawa, by the beginning of the 18th century, were working to make Japan more economically self-sufficient, and in particular to stem the great outflow of silver and copper from Japan to China. The Ming had severed formal relations with Japan in the 16th century, and the Tokugawa never made any effort to enter into formal relations with the Qing; many regarded China as having fallen to the barbarians, and some, such as Hayashi Gahô and Nobuatsu, in their book Ka’i-hentai, even advocated taking military action to drive the Manchus from China (158-160). Though the Qing also did not make efforts to bring Japan in as an official tributary, the Qing Court tolerated Japan’s official stubbornness, and took a number of steps towards the end of the 17th century to not only implicitly allow, but to even encourage the unofficial trade with Japan, which was, after all, essential to China’s precious metal needs (160). Despite the lack of official relations, which many analyses might take to mean there were no governmental interactions at all, the Qing even sent secret agents, or spies, to Japan, during this period (160-161).

Not the most popular attitude in Japan at that time.

Schottenhammer goes into wonderful detail about relations between the Tokugawa and the Ming loyalists based on Taiwan, such as we do not see regularly discussed elsewhere in the scholarship, almost at all. This is what I love most about Schottenhammer’s scholarship – she goes beyond the standard China-Japan-Korea metropole-politically-centered narratives to show the vibrant, colorful, textured complexity of history, bringing in all sorts of other actors that we just don’t hear about enough otherwise. In connection with this Japan-Taiwan relationship, and perhaps other causes, the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign came to be characterized chiefly by an increase in coastal patrols, and other steps taken to secure China’s maritime borders. Schottenhammer emphasizes numerous times that China’s rhetoric of centrality and superiority, and its aloofness, did not necessarily mean that the Court was willfully oblivious of goings-on in the region, including within Japanese politics. They kept an eye on such things, through a variety of means, including secret agents (166), though one imagines that Korean and Ryukyuan officials, and southern Chinese merchants and port officials, probably contributed to the providing of information as well.

Under the Qianlong Emperor, the Qing made efforts to become more independent of Japanese exports, directly working on expanding mining efforts in Yunnan, for example. Qianlong also led several rather successful expeditions to expand Qing territory, and to suppress rebellions and so forth. Qianlong’s reign is thus characterized by a self-assured disinterest in maritime matters, stemming from a reassurance of Qing strength and centrality, and from the belief that it was Japan’s responsibility to seek better relations with China, and not the other way around (170-173). In short, Schottenhammer’s argument throughout this paper is simply that Qing Emperors were not blinded, nor immobilized, by tradition, and were very much capable of addressing “reality” and changing policy, when necessary.

The Ryukyuan throne room at Shuri castle, filled with gifts from Chinese emperors, and designed thoroughly after Ming (& Qing?) models.

Turning to Qing relations with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer walks through a nuanced but relatively standard description of the narrative. She describes Ryukyu as China’s most filial country, and writes that it is beyond a doubt that tributary/investiture relations were economically profitable for the small island country, as China practiced houwang bolai (厚往薄來, “giving much and receiving little”), a part of the broader Emperor-centric ideology, which portrayed the emperor as the benevolent and virtuous giver of gracious bestowals to his loyal tributaries. All trade and interaction outside of the official tributary/ investiture relationship was officially ignored – officially, it did not exist at all – but in truth, there was plenty of illegal and semi-legal trade and interaction between Ryukyu and China, as Schottenhammer explains.

She then goes on to touch upon China’s views on Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma. That Ryukyu was a vassal (or whatever the proper term should be) of Satsuma was an open secret. Under the belief that a no-longer independent Ryukyu, controlled by or incorporated into a Japan that refused to be a tributary, could no longer engage in tributary relations, the Japanese and Ryukyuans both made efforts to hide the relationship; however, these efforts were largely for naught, as Chinese investiture officials, and other sources of information, saw more than enough to reveal to the Qing at least the general outlines of the situation. Still, the Qing tolerated, or overlooked this situation, proving, Schottenhammer argues, that the Qing never had any political-military intentions in the islands – so long as the cultural-ideological relationship continued, they didn’t care. There is the question, however, of why the Ming rushed to the defense of Korea in the 1590s, and not to the defense of Ryukyu less than 20 years later. Was the Ming so weakened by the Korean conflict, and/or by other factors, that they couldn’t? Perhaps it ties into Schottenhammer’s initial argument, that continental borders and maritime frontiers are separate categories of matters. But, that’s a topic for another time.

A Ryukyuan lacquerware dish with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Both in her discussion of Qing relations with Japan, and with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer draws upon ideas and elements of the tribute system, but combines them with practical political, military, and economic concerns, and shows that the Qing were flexible and dynamic in their approaches to this part of the world, deploying their traditional rhetorics and systems, but using them as a tool, or sometimes as a screen, in concert with a rather vibrant and complex set of other modes of interaction. All in all, she seems to embody, or enact, the approaches that Zhang advocates.

David Kang, meanwhile, does not. Despite writing in 2005 and 2010, Kang shows little of the nuance or complexity, little of the post-modern(ist) approach that Schottenhammer does. In fact, he is rather dismissive of the criticism that has been leveled against the tribute system model, and argues quite boldly and straightforwardly, in essence, that the tribute system is clearly evidenced in the documents and that to think otherwise is absurd. Now, admittedly, both of the articles I happened to read by Kang were published in Asian Security journals (that is, the field of International Relations and regional security), and so they are written for a rather different audience – not for historians, but for policy wonks and political scientists who may have very little knowledge of the history, or the historiography. Still, nevertheless, rather than bring his audience up to speed on the latest interpretations and approaches – those of Zhang, Schottenhammer, and the numerous scholars they regularly cite, including Hevia, Wills, and so forth – Kang cites works as old as the 1980s as reflective of historians’ approaches “today.”3

Given that for the most part all that Zhang and others are arguing for is admission of nuance and complexity – and not for throwing the tribute system out entirely – Kang’s reactionary resistance, strict adherence to the traditional narrative, and refusal to accommodate nuance or complexity is shocking, and confusing. In discussing the feudal, decentralized, nature of the Tokugawa state, which many scholars since as early as 1989, if not earlier, have described as more of a confederation of pseudo- or quasi-independent states, Kang again blows right past any nuanced interpretation, ignoring entirely the various scholarship on this subject since then, to simply assert that, for all intents and purposes, the Chinese and Korean courts saw Japan as a single entity throughout the medieval and early modern periods. He writes, “we should not overemphasize the feudal nature of Japanese politics, nor its differences with the other Asian states,” and then, despite an entire section on the significance of the bureaucratic and centralized nature of the Chinese and Korean governments in allowing us to consider them “nation-states” even as early as the 1300s (if not much further back than that), asserts that “all countries were essentially feudal, and Japan was no exception” (Kang 2005: 58).

Does this look like a centralized unified state to you? Come on. (Charger with Japanese map design. 1830s-40s. LACMA.)

While, simply in terms of the “factual” details, much of the content of his historical details and narrative is quite interesting, and valuable, Kang is utterly uncritical of Fairbank’s approach, citing essays from the 1968 volume Chinese World Order as if those arguments are infallibly just as valid as they have always been; to take just one example, he uncritically asserts that “there is no doubt that China had at least a vague concept of state (kuo) by late Chou times (BC 400),” quoting and citing Lien-shang Yang.4 Perhaps it is his disciplinary bias as a specialist in modern/contemporary relations, and in particular in political science & IR rather than history, which leads him to unquestioningly apply generalizing modern definitions – such as the idea that a “nation-state” is sovereign within its borders, and had a concept of itself and its neighbors as 國 (C: kuo, J: kuni or koku; “countries”). However, historians such as Luke Roberts and Mark Ravina have written in some considerable depth questioning and problematizing the meaning of , which in the early modern Japanese usage really can mean “country” (as in Japan, China, or Holland), or geographic “province,” or lordly domain, just as it can equally mean hometown or home region, depending on the context. To simply ignore this shows, I don’t know, either ignorance of the field, or a willful rejection of those arguments.

Kang’s 2005 article starts off strong, boldly calling out the Eurocentrism at the core of “objective,” “universal” IR theory. His chief argument, throughout both this article, and one from 2010, that a hierarchical system could be just as valid, and in fact far more stable and peaceful than a Westphalian system based on maintaining balance of power between states that are considered equally sovereign, is a compelling, interesting, and valuable one. And there is, indeed, much merit to be found in Kang’s discussion; his treatment of the ways in which Chinese cultural or civilizational centrality – and not political power or influence – functioned (605-606) was particularly thought-provoking for me, and his assertions about the importance of considering ritual and rhetoric also do much to support my own positions. As he writes,

Norms and beliefs are not epiphenomal to material power; that is, they are more than a convenient velvet glove over an iron fist. Legitimacy in itself is a form of power, but it derives from the values or norms a state projects, not necessarily from the state’s military might and economic wealth (Kang 2010: 598).

Further, Kang is quite good in his critiques of the “functionalist” and “symbolic” approaches to the tribute system, which describe the system as either a series of arcane and comically unnecessary or excessive rules and procedures – an over-bureaucratization, perhaps – through which trade & relations had to be conducted, or else as a series of meaningless symbolic gestures, irrelevant to the task of examining the “true” political motives and actions underneath. His reactionary stance, though, against those who suggest further nuance or complexity, and who point out that it is, originally, a Western theoretical construct and not a native Chinese concept – a position he misrepresents as “challeng[ing] the tribute system’s very existence” (600) – and refusal to incorporate any such nuance or complexity, continues to be terribly off-putting.

A celebration for the Crown Prince Yi Cheok (later, Emperor Sunjong of Korea), as depicted on a 1874 screen painting. National Palace Museum of Korea. Ritual is not merely empty prancing; it is powerful, and meaningful, as individuals enact their rank and position, constituting the political order through their acts.

Even if we look past this excessive conservatism, and forgive the numerous examples of iffy or outright incorrect dates, a number of the subordinate arguments in the 2010 paper leave me confused, and utterly unconvinced. One of these is the assertion that Japan (along with Korea, Ryukyu, and others in the region) “consciously copied Chinese institutional and discursive practices in part to craft stable relations with China, not to challenge it” (593). While this argument, too, has some merit in so far as those adopting Chinese modes could then play the part of “buying into” the Confucian world order, to display to itself, to China, and to others, how civilized it was, numerous academic articles by other scholars extensively detail how the Tokugawa shogunate in particular, as well as the Ashikaga shogunate, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, worked to construct a Japan-centric regional order, and to do that very thing: to challenge China.5 In the 17th century, following the fall of the Ming, and again in the 19th century in the wake of the Opium War, there were again numerous Japanese scholars, some of them directly influential in government, who pressed for Japan to take action against the Manchus, or at least for the idea of Japanese superiority.6

All of that said, though, skimming over Kang’s two articles again, I realize I may have been too harsh in my initial assessment. I suppose I shall have to revisit this. These articles certainly have their points where they raised red flags for me, but all in all, Kang’s articles are lengthy arguments against the idea that the tribute system & Sinocentrism are mere myths, and against the idea that engaging in tributary relations & Sinocentric rhetoric was merely paying lip service in order to attain “real” “practical” goals. He attacks the idea that Korea (in particular, maybe a lesser extent Japan) only ever wanted to placate China, and asserts that the thorough adoption of Confucian governance and political philosophy, as well as countless other aspects of Chinese elite culture, stands as evidence that neighboring states such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam absolutely did see China as a cultural center, a source of superior civilization. And the tribute/investiture system allowed Koreans, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuans to perform or display their cultured refinement, and membership among the civilized nations of the world. So, in the end, who knows what to think?

(1) Zhang Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.
(2) Zhang, 557, quoting J. E. Wills, “Tribute, Defensiveness, and Dependency : Uses and Limits of Some Basic Ideas About Mid-Qing Dynasty Foreign Relations.” The American Neptune 48, no. 4 (1988): 226.
(3) Kang (2005), 64, citing Ronald Toby, State and Diplomacy, 1991, which is simply a newer edition of Toby, 1984. Admittedly, Wills’ book Illusions & Embassies, cited by Zhang and Schottenhammer, is just as old, and Toby is still largely valid and extremely valuable. His arguments very much inform my own understanding of the topic. But, even so, to say this reflects scholarship “today,” seems problematic, when there are scholars such as Schottenhammer putting out new stuff all the time, and when Toby is, in fact, problematic in some important ways.
(4) Kang (2005), 57, citing Lien-sheng Yang, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order,” in John Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 21.
(5) Arano Yasunori. “The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 02 (2005): 185–216.; Tanaka Takeo, “Japan’s Relations with Overseas Countries,” in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.; Toby, State and Diplomacy, op cit.
(6) According to Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard, 2000).

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Having finished going through reviews of books & articles I read for my exam field in Pacific Islands history, we now finally come around to the China readings. I promise we’ll get to Japan before too much longer.

For now, we begin with a summary / synthesis / response to a pair of articles on the so-called “Chinese World Order” and “tribute system” of traditional East Asian international trade relations.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.
*Zhang, Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.

The East China Sea, where so much of this tribute trade was centered. As seen on a map at Pearl Harbor.

These two articles by Zhang Feng and Angela Schottenhammer are only two, chosen admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, from the body of recent scholarship on the so-called Sinocentric world order and tribute system. However, after reading them, they seem to present a good cross-section representation of the discourse. Further, Zhang and Schottenhammer draw extensively on a handful of other significant recent works on the subject, giving a sense of the key arguments and ideas of James Hevia, John Wills, Peter Perdue, Guo Yinjing (see book chapter), Cheng Wei-chung, Wang Gungwu, and Zheng Yongnian, among others.

Zhang summarizes and critiques the scholarship on the “tribute system” which has developed largely out of the work of John K. Fairbank, and essays published by a handful of other scholars in the landmark 1968 volume Chinese World Order, edited by Fairbank and published by Harvard University Press. Zhang emphasizes that the “tribute system” is first and foremost “a Western invention for descriptive purposes,” an analytical tool that even Fairbank himself thought should be revisited and revised in each generation. He explains that only since the 1980s have scholars begun to critique this model, “exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations.” Yet, even as more recent scholarship of the 2000s and 2010s (including numerous conference proceedings & edited volumes edited by Schottenhammer) has continued to explore the history of pre-modern / early modern East Asian foreign relations, few of these critiques have disproven or significantly revised Fairbank’s model, or offered satisfactory alternative models. Zhang admits he is guilty of the same, and writes that “Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective.” In practice, however, I would counter that Hevia does not actually significantly depart from the tribute system model, but merely builds upon it, elucidating the conceptual and ritual (logistical) workings somewhat more deeply, and offering additional or alternative language for talking about it. His idea that the emperor “initiates” and the foreign envoy “completes” a ritual action, or ritual relationship, for example, while thought-provoking and evocative, does not substantially alter our fundamental notion that the Chinese emperor takes a superior position, requiring ritual submission from envoys from foreign lands if they wish to enter into formal relations. I expect I will cover Hevia’s book in greater detail in a future blog post.

Zhang, too, admits that the tributary/investiture relationship, and the Confucian/cosmological rhetoric and ritual practices associated with it, was “a prominent feature of historical East Asian politics,” but suggests that “overemphasis on it over the years has created biases in conceptual and empirical enquiries.” As we continue, endlessly, to struggle with the legacies of Orientalism, this is something we must take very seriously – to be guilty of perpetuating or reifying the artificial construction of a conceptual “Asia” that differs from reality is essentially the very crime which Said railed against. At its core, Zhang’s argument is simply that which dominates scholars’ outlooks and methodology today more broadly, regardless of chronological or geographic specialty (and quite rightfully so): the world is complicated, and no single model is sufficient to explain everything; it is imperative to acknowledge complexity, nuance, and difference. The tribute system, Sinocentric attitudes, and so forth, are not the beginning and end of East Asian attitudes or practices of foreign relations, but merely one of a number of institutions operating within the region.

Zhang devotes the majority of his article to summarizing Fairbank’s model, and offering critiques. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu, in that 1968 volume, describe the system as “the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy” and “a scheme of things entire … the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political, and therefore ethical, scheme of things.” It was based on an extension of China’s internal hierarchies, with the Son of Heaven at the center, and at the peak of the hierarchy, and all others subordinate to the central, awe-inspiring, person of the emperor, from whom virtue and civilization emanated. “Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgment of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China.” China’s participation in the system was motivated chiefly by prestige, and that of foreign countries chiefly by desire for trade, according to this traditional interpretation. This model connects into Confucian and cosmological notions of the Son of Heaven as the source of all civilization and virtue, and the idea that foreign envoys come to pay homage and tribute in recognition of the Emperor’s virtue, which has extended even so far as their corner of the world. “Non-Chinese rulers participated in the Chinese world order by observing the appropriate forms and ceremonies (禮) in their contact with the Son of Heaven.”

A Chinese investiture ship, and to the left, Chinese investiture envoys being welcomed at Naha harbor, in a scroll owned by the University of Hawaii Library. Investiture was a crucial part of the so-called tribute system.

Zhang describes two alternate views of the system, but ultimately goes on to critique all three. His “Second View” (Fairbank’s model itself being the first) focuses on examining the rules and procedures of the Chinese system, while the “Third View” takes the tribute system and ideas of Sinocentrism as an “institution,” well-established and widely understood and agreed upon throughout the region. Zhang categorizes these things apart, but really they seem all just facets of the same thing, and with other facets, other approaches, possible – including the idea still popular among too many scholars that all ritual is merely symbolic, and can be (or must be) ignored, in order to examine the “real” underlying political motivations.

All of these interpretations, Zhang points out, run the risks of:

  • being terribly Sinocentric, focusing only on Chinese perceptions, attitudes, and constructions, to the detriment of an examination of what other polities thought of the system, and of their participation within it,
  • reifying a view of the system as fixed, as static and unchanging across the centuries, and finally
  • reifying the centrality of the “tribute system” and failing to recognize or incorporate other aspects of foreign relations attitudes, practices and developments. Further, these last two problems also tie into the risk of assuming the preeminence of the rigid structures and ideological beliefs of the system, denying the Chinese rulers agency and rationality, thinking them blinded or restricted by ideology or tradition, and thus overlooking or ignoring the pragmatism and flexibility with which the Court very often was able to act.
  • focusing too much on the forms, on the granting of royal seals and patents, the receiving of tributary goods, the performance of obeisances, and so forth, leaving the reader (or the scholar herself) wondering if the Chinese were capable of thinking, or doing, anything beyond just “going through the motions” of practicing the formalities.
  • ignoring relations that take place outside of the tribute system. Are military conflicts not “relations”? Are official communications between courts (or pretenders) outside of the tribute system – such as Yongle’s commands that the Ashikaga do something about the wakō, the Ashikaga’s response that they have no power to do so, and no responsibility over those independent non-state actors, and Prince Kanenaga’s execution of Ming ambassadors, not count as “relations,” or at least incidents in the history of foreign interactions?
  • taking Sinocentrism and the tribute system as givens, without questioning, problematizing, or investigating their actual meanings and functions. Zhang quotes John Wills as writing: “Sinocentrism might be the wrong place to begin the analysis of Chinese foreign policy, because it short-circuits the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, to all institutions and patterns of action…” Scholars such as Angela Schottenhammer have done much to begin to complicate this picture, giving wonderfully vibrant and nuanced descriptions of the complex and very busy scene of the world of East Asian (and Southeast Asia) maritime trade.

Meanwhile, Adam Bohnet, who I will also talk about in a future blog post, is but one of a number of scholars whose work on Chosŏn Korea helps unpack and illuminate the meanings and functioning of “Sinocentrism.” In an article on “Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages,” Bohnet examines how the Chosŏn Court deployed its loyalty to the Ming to bolster its own legitimacy, and how the court’s views and treatment of the descendants of Ming subjects resident in Korea changed over the course of the 18th century. As David Kang emphasizes, the system was never about Chinese political domination or control over tributary countries, and indeed China did not interfere at all in the domestic policies of Korea or Ryukyu, let alone Japan. Rather, it was always about cultural superiority, and more than that, centrality.

“Confucianism is thus a set of ideas based on ancient Chinese classic philosophical texts about the proper ways by which government and society were to be organized,” and Korean elites “saw their relationship to China as more than a political arrangement; it was a confirmation of their membership in Confucian civilization.”

Thus, following on Kang’s argument, we begin to get a sense that it wasn’t so much “Chinese” culture as an arbitrary choice in a cultural relativist world of equal options that was considered “superior,” so much as a recognition of Confucianism as the most enlightened, civilized, proper, and successful guide to ethics and governance there was. This gives additional force to the idea of the performance of membership in Confucian civilization. A comparison to court fashions in Europe seems apt, though it is not one Kang or Zhang address. While French language, court protocols, fashion, and so forth were for a time employed throughout much of Europe, as French culture was seen to be the peak of cultural refinement, this was at its core merely an aesthetic, cultural, fashion choice – France had no more claim to being “civilized,” let alone the source of civilization, than England or any of the Italian city-states. Chinese culture, however, from calligraphy and painting to music and language, to court costume, ranks, offices, and protocols, were all intimately tied into the ideas of Confucian government, Confucian society, and the arts of the refined Confucian gentleman. Thus, again, the emulation of Chinese, in particular Ming, norms in fashion and the arts was, arguably, perhaps, not merely a culturally arbitrary choice – e.g. to think that this style hat is somehow more culturally superior, more civilized, than that style of hat – but, rather, it is tied into a demonstration of the performance of Confucian civilization, as manifested in its most mature, fully-developed, form in the Ming Dynasty Court.

There’s nothing like the main hall of Shuri castle, seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, for an example of a court demonstrating its membership in high (Ming Confucian) civilization.

Returning to Zhang’s argument, one weakness in his assertions about the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is, ironically, an element of Sinocentrism on his part. One prominent element of his argument for the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is that relations with nomadic peoples (e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus) and peoples & polities to the west (e.g. Uyghurs and Tibet) followed different patterns from the “tribute system,” and that thus there are multiple other institutions at play. From the Chinese Studies or History of China point of view, this is a very valuable and valid point. However, from the maritime East Asia point of view, and in particular for studies of Korean and Ryukyuan history, the nomads and Tibet are irrelevant. Korea and Ryukyu were the two most loyal tributaries to Ming & Qing China, and the two treated the most highly, the most beneficially, by China. The tribute system, or whatever we want to call it, however we want to envision it, along with the notion of Confucian (and Chinese, especially Ming, cultural) centrality, were fundamental to both Sino-Korean and Sino-Ryukyuan relations in this period. Schottenhammer’s essay lends support to this critique of Zhang’s otherwise important arguments, as she opens by saying “analysing Qing China’s relations with her neighbours, a distinction between her continental and maritime border space is evident.” While the Qing were vigilant towards threats from the continental border regions to the north and west, and often treated these regions with military force, “maritime space was viewed differently, but as we want to show, not simply as a distant periphery nor as frontier as it is often claimed.”

Zhang ends by reiterating that 朝貢體系 (cháogòng tǐxì) is a translation of the English “tribute system” – it is a neologism in Chinese, and so however the Chinese may have thought of this at the time, the “tribute system” as a model remains a Western construct. The chief task at hand, Zhang proposes, is to try to understand what lay behind these tributary relations, and to try to get a broader, and more nuanced, complex, picture of the full range of China’s foreign relations.

In summary, he critiques the Sinocentric tribute system model quite roundly, and well-deservedly, it would seem. It is important to keep in mind these critiques, and in the post-modern fashion, to keep in mind nuance and complexity – nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Motivations and means are myriad and multifarious. But Zhang does not dismiss the model entirely, in the end. He merely suggests that it needs to be taken as one element among many, and as less of a starting point than has generally been the case in scholarship up until now. We can keep the model, but we need to work around it, continuing to look for nuance and complexity, other models or institutions working alongside it (or at cross-purposes), and other viewpoints – we need to pay closer attention to the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of other countries, and not just of China.

Schottenhammer may be doing more or less exactly what Zhang advocates. The Sinocentric model is not entirely mistaken, it is not entirely false, and so it cannot be thrown out altogether. In her essay “Empire and Periphery?” Schottenhammer focuses on the changing attitudes of mid-Qing emperors, as circumstances change, and in accordance with practical concerns, concluding that “Chinese ruling elites … were flexible enough to overcome traditional concepts and Sino-centric attitudes if they really considered it necessary.” When China was (or seemed, looked, felt) strong, there was less need to worry about dangers from outside; when China was less firm on its feet, Chinese rulers were not delusional, and absolutely took in real information about the outside world – albeit, information sometimes colored by traditional Sinocentric rhetoric (e.g. when the Tokugawa bakufu had no intentions of invading China, and pirates were few, Qing agents reported to their court that Japan was a small, weak, barbarian island country on the peripheries). Schottenhammer also closely examines motivations by foreign countries.

Perhaps the problem is simply in where one is looking. When Schottenhammer and Zhang allege that the field of scholarship is too focused on a Sinocentric perspective, are they speaking only of scholarship in Chinese Studies? I have no doubt that the field of Chinese History is largely focused on China, and, to be sure, works on the whole region could afford to be less Sinocentric in their analysis. I think Schottenhammer does a decent job of being less Sinocentric in her work. But, if one looks at the Japan Studies scholarship, and Korea Studies scholarship, there is no doubt that the interests, motivations, attitudes of non-Chinese courts *are* being examined and taken into account. Robert Hellyer’s book is just one of many that considers Japanese attitudes on foreign relations deeply; Greg Smits’ offers similarly for Ryukyu, albeit more in the intellectual history vein than economic/diplomatic policy.

So, what is the answer? What is the new framework? Maybe it’s just not time yet (still). Work on this topic has only just begun to really grow in the last decade or so, and so maybe someday, maybe soon, someone will be able to better synthesize the work of Zhang, Hevia, Schottenhammer, Oba Osamu, Smits, Hellyer, James Lewis, and all the rest, to come up with something new from which to work. But in the meantime, I think it’s going to continue to be a multitude of voices, a complex of different bits and pieces, and we just have to work within that…

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The Japan galleries at the British Museum, looking back towards the entrance, and the Kudara Kannon, just barely visible here above the cases.

I visited the British Museum again, recently, for the first time in about eight years. The Japanese gallery hasn’t changed much. But, that’s fine. It’s still a really great exhibit – better, in fact, I would argue (*gasp?*) than the vast majority of rotations the Met has done in recent years.

Here’s the main argument of this post: In the midst of all this controversy over museums and Orientalism, I think the MFA and the Met could really learn something from the British Museum. Yes, yes, the British Museum is the very model of the imperial(ist) colonial museum, Hoovering up the great treasures of the world and so on and so forth. There’s certainly much to be said about that, and plenty of scholars and others have written lots of very valid criticism on that point. But, the museum’s problematic nature in that respect is, for the most part, tangential to what I would like to focus on for the purposes of this blog post, namely that unlike the Met, the MFA, and so many of the other greatest museums in the US, the British Museum is not an “art” museum, but rather a museum of the world’s cultures.

The British Museum’s Japan galleries, in particular, more so even I think than many of the other non-Western galleries, are organized in such a fashion as to tell the history of Japan, through art, rather than limiting itself to the far more narrow narrative of the history of art, in Japan. It begins with the Jomon period, and goes straight up through the present day, touching upon religion, politics, foreign relations, theatre, modernity, propaganda art & Empire, Hiroshima, pop & urban culture, rural culture, and manga. It shows Japan not as a fantasy world of aesthetics, art, and culture, but as a real place, with a complex and sometimes unpleasant political history, religious developments, and so forth, which interacted with the outside world in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes in unequal or adversarial fashion. It shows a Japan that does not culminate in the greatness of the artistic flowering of the Edo period, but one that does that and also continues to develop over time, both before and after that, struggling with various developments, and changing continually over time.

A handpainted handscroll from the Edo period, depicting the lively activity of the Chinese quarter at Nagasaki. Truly stunning in person, in its vibrant colors and meticulous details, it simultaneously speaks to a broader historical/cultural topic.

And the exhibit does all of this while including some truly gorgeous artworks, some real masterpieces that people will come to see, and others that might really draw people in, and inspire in them a greater or deeper interest in Japan. Artworks that are beautiful, and interesting, and worthy of appreciation, even as they also relate to particular political developments. In short, the British Museum exhibit does everything the Met might do, but in a way that is so much broader – and in roughly the same amount of gallery space – covering a great many facets of Japanese history, and not just aesthetics, style, and so forth. The exhibit also includes a much wider range of pieces, thus showing a deeper, more complex vision of Japan, rather than one dominated only by ink landscapes, birds-and-flowers, and literary references. When was the last time the Met showed Japanese paintings or prints of scenes in Korea and Taiwan, or in Ryukyu or the West? Admittedly, the last several rotations of prints at the Met have focused on Yokohama-e and Meiji prints, showing Japan’s modernization in the 1850s-1890s, but, if I recall correctly, the labels are quite minimal, and little effort is made to really describe the broader political and cultural context of modernization efforts.

Looking a bit sparse from this angle, I admit, but, nevertheless, here is one of the British Museum’s many thematic sections, addressing not some artistic trend, but a broader wider cultural historical theme – modernity and urbanization – with beautiful artworks.

And, this historical approach touches upon numerous themes that could be developed out into an entire exhibit, and which I’m glad to see at least touched upon. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco did an entire show on Korean royal ceremonies and parades, which was much more about the performance of the events, and the historical, biographical, cultural, political context, than strictly about appreciating beautiful objects for their beauty. The Asia Society in New York, some years ago, did a show of Maoist propaganda paintings which was, yes, about appreciating their aesthetic qualities, their stylistic relationship to Soviet socialist realism, and so forth, but was also very much about the politics. And yet I have a very hard time imagining the Met, in particular, ever, ever, doing a show extensively about artists’ responses to Hiroshima; or how Japanese artists engaged with and depicted the Empire (Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria); or about Tokugawa relations with Korea, Ryukyu, Holland, and the Ainu… New York’s Japan Society did a great show of Japanese Art Deco, which also showed at the Seattle Art Museum, and was also an art show, but sort of leaned in the direction of talking about flapper fashions, urban culture, cafés, jazz, and all of that in 1920s Tokyo.

As I continue to write this, I feel that maybe I’m being too harsh on the Met, in particular. After all, they have a different mission, and that mission – more closely associated to the idea of “encouraging and developing the study of the fine arts” – is a fine one. Connoisseurship, aesthetic appreciation, including teaching museum visitors that the things produced by non-Western cultures are still beautiful and worthy of appreciation, are all valiant goals.

Gallery labels for a wooden sculpture of an Edo period townsman, showing how the museum discusses the object itself, and art historical concerns, on one panel, and provides broader historical context and meaning on the other. It can be done!

But, I think a lot of the tensions and problems with our major museums, and accusations of Orientalism, as we have seen in recent months especially both with the Chinese fashion show at the Met and the kimono debacle at the MFA, is that the museums, as “art” museums, seem far too intent upon this particular approach of focusing on art appreciation, and too unwilling to turn their attentions to cultural understanding. The MFA Education program was clearly more interested in engaging visitors in appreciation or celebration of Monet than in anything directly having to do with Japan, or the complex lessons of Orientalism, and the Met curators went so far as to explicitly state that they “propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity,” a statement which, within the realms of scholarship, I think has its merits – exploring other sides of things, and so forth, as I explored in my previous blog post. But, still, this should come amidst a history and reputation for producing shows that explicitly tackle Orientalism, head-on. If one does shows about the Asian-American experience, about Chinese history, and about Orientalism, then you can then go ahead and do a show like this, exploring other sides of the issue. But if you haven’t explored the first sides yet…

Whatever else the British Museum may be, it is a museum of fostering cultural understanding, global oneness (in at least certain respects), an appreciation and celebration of the great diversity of cultures on our planet. I’m not sure you can find a hint of Orientalism within the British Museum’s exhibits, precisely because the central focus is not on aesthetic appreciation of [exotic] styles, motifs, sensibilities. In many ways, it reminds me of exhibits at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, the National Museum of Japanese History, and other history museums in Japan – that is to say, the British Museum is doing it just like the Japanese would, which is perhaps a strong indication that you’re not being Eurocentric or Orientalist about it. Despite being “art” museums, right there in the name, and in their mission statements, I think the MFA, Metropolitan, LACMA, Freer/Sackler, and so forth, would do well to consider a shift.

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It has been ages, and the links have really built up. I have just a couple very brief links/topics to share related to women’s history in Japan and China, before devoting the rest of the post to toxic masculinity, and the place of men and men’s issues in feminist discourse. These first two don’t quite fit the theme of the lengthy latter half, but as they’re too brief to put elsewhere, I figured I would just sort of tuck them in here, too.

仮宅の後朝 (Scene in the Yoshiwara) by Utamaro, 1790. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

*First, from Collectors Weekly, one of a number of articles and reviews published this spring in conjunction with the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s exhibit “Seduction: Japan’s Floating World.” Paintings and ukiyo-e prints of the beautiful women (bijin) of the Yoshiwara – Edo’s chief licensed pleasure quarters – have formed the core of Japanese art exhibits in the West since the late 19th century, or so I would imagine. But it is in the last year or two especially that museums have begun (again?) showing shunga – the more sexually graphic/explicit subgenre of ukiyo-e – in a major way. In this respect, Seduction is just the latest iteration, following up on recent shunga shows at the British Museum and Honolulu Museum of the Arts.

To put the focus on the women of the Yoshiwara, and their rather negative and oppressive experiences as prostitutes – essentially, sex slaves – is not entirely new. Cecilia Segawa Seigle acknowledges this serious, dark, aspect of the Yoshiwara in her groundbreaking 1993 book, prior to moving on to focus on the more positive sides of the Yoshiwara as a crucible of cultural flowering and so forth.1 Amy Stanley, in her 2012 book Selling Women, which I’ll be posting a review for at some point, returns to a focus on women’s rights, women as commodities, and so forth.

So, this is not entirely new, but still a fight very much still being fought, to shift the discourse, especially in art museums and art circles otherwise, away from purely talking about the beauty of the works, and about the Yoshiwara as a center of arts and fashion, and instead towards talking about the quite harsh world the Yoshiwara was for these women. As Lisa Hix writes in this Collectors Weekly article, quoting curator Laura W. Allen,

“… The art of the floating worlds ‘ukiyo-e,’ which means ‘floating world pictures,’ usually depicts those two subjects [the Yoshiwara, and the Kabuki theatre].”

But, of course, by and large, this free-floating sensation belonged to men. Allen suggests that we, as viewers, resist indulging in the fantasies of Yoshiwara prostitutes presented in the artworks, and instead, consider the real lives of the women portrayed. …

“Don’t take these paintings at face value,” Allen says. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, yes, it’s a picture of a beautiful woman, wearing beautiful clothing.’ But it’s not a photograph. It’s some artist’s rendition, made to promote this particular world, which was driven by economics. The profiteers urged the production of more paintings, which continued to feed the frenzy for the Yoshiwara.

No matter where the discourse within particular circles – e.g. among scholars, or among Asian-American communities – may go, the broader, more general, more widespread popular discourse changes only at a very slow pace. And it is that public to which museums are, to a certain extent, in certain ways, answerable. It is that public which the museum must speak to, in order to get them in the door, and it is that public which includes donors, trustees, and certain other influential stakeholders as well, regardless of what the curators may wish to do, sometimes…

Seduction has attracted considerable controversy, of a variety quite closely related to that of the protests against the kimono event at the Boston MFA. And, indeed, there is plenty of room for constructive criticism of the Asian Art Museum, and there is this much broader conversation to be had about Orientalism in the museum world. However, for the moment, I would like to just touch upon this point – of how curators and other scholars are beginning to focus more and more on the Yoshiwara as not only a “glittering world” of cultural efflorescence, but also on the very difficult and painful lives these women endured, as well as the women’s agency and/or lack of agency as to their situation, and the nuance and complexity this brings into it. Seduction attempts to bring this more nuanced, complicated, story, this less Orientalist, less exoticizing, less essentializing story to the public, to combat the reification of old stereotypes.

An image originally from the early 20th century magazine Beiyang huabao, reproduced on the blog We Drive East.

On a somewhat related note, turning to China, the practice of footbinding is easily among one of the most prominent, most widely known (albeit misunderstood), stereotypical things about Chinese women. From the time of the Tang Dynasty (7th-9th c.) onwards, Chinese women bound their feet in order to look more elegant; it was a practice which first emerged among dancers, then among elite women, and then spread to the common women by the Song Dynasty (10th-13th c.). By the Qing (17th-19th c.), the practice was so solidly ingrained, even the Manchu government, which successfully forced all men to shave their heads and wear their remaining hair in long queues, could not root out this practice.

And yet, it would seem that all along, Chinese women were also binding their breasts, a practice I, for one, had never heard about before.

The blog We Drive East talks about the history of the practice in some depth, as does a post on the website of the the All-China Women’s Federation. Aihua Zhang has published a journal article on “Women’s Breasts and Beyond A Gendered Analysis of the Appeals for Breast-Unbinding: 1910s-1920s,” and Antonia Finnane’s book Changing Clothes in China: Fashion, History, Nation addresses this as well. The practice seems to have continued as late as the 1920s, when, by 1926-1927 or so, it became a prominent issue, being discussed at length in the Beiyang Pictorial (北洋畫報) and elsewhere; an interesting time for women’s fashion, gender roles, and changing culture the world over.

Now, moving along and turning to a different subject, way back in September, when Emma Watson spoke before the United Nations about feminism, gender equality, and her “He for She” campaign, there were of course a great many responses reflecting a wide range of perspectives. A great many praised her for championing this cause, and for inviting – really, demanding – that men need to get their act together and start being part of the conversation. This, of course, was wonderful to see. And it came at a time, for me, and I think for a great many of us, in the wake of the decidedly misogynistically motivated IV shootings, and the #NotAllMen / #YesAllWomen conversations which followed, when it seemed this was all the more needed. Men need to start realizing just how serious, how real, and how widespread these issues are; it may not be “all men” who are the problem, but it absolutely is (on average, in a meaningful way, just about) all women who are the victims – of cat-calling; of unequal pay and unequal treatment otherwise in their careers; of gendered expectations in myriad aspects of their lives; of laws threatening their bodily autonomy; victims of physical harm, sexual assault, and all too often of being killed simply for being women; victims of countless other ways in which our society, our culture, is deeply founded in male dominance, and female inferiority.

One article from TIME Magazine, written by Cathy Young, and entitled “Sorry, Emma Watson, but HeForShe Is Rotten for Men,” argues, however, that “Until feminism recognizes discrimination against men, the movement for gender equality will be incomplete.” And I would have to say, I agree.

Further, Young writes:

Watson asked, “How can we affect change in the world when only half of it is invited or feel welcome to participate in the conversation?” Truer words were never spoken. Too bad they are belied by the campaign itself, which is called “HeForShe” and asks men to pledge to “take action against all forms of violence and discrimination faced by women and girls” but says nothing about problems affecting men and boys.

The fundamental cause of so many – if not all – of the problems of gender inequality, sexism, and so forth, is the way our society constructs and reinforces particular notions of masculinity, of machismo. This is at the core not only of myriad problems affecting men and boys, but of those from which feminism seeks to free women and girls as well. It is for this reason, and in this way, that men need to be included into the conversation. To fight for women’s protection, and rights, power, voice, and equality, as men standing behind (and not speaking for) women. To fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and all the rest. But, we can only do that by addressing the fundamental issue at the core.

It is not men who are the problem: it is masculinity. We need to stop forcing one another to have to behave a certain way in order to “be a man.” We have to stop judging one another and reinforcing upon one another a need to be strong, to be unemotional, to be sexually aggressive, to be all of these things. And when those things are expunged from what it means to be a man, or when the need to “be a man” is itself expunged from how we live our lives as human beings, as members of society who just so happen to have somewhat different parts but who are otherwise 99% similar, that is key to achieving cultural, social, gender equality. It is because men are constantly pressured to need to prove themselves, to perform up to an imaginary standard, and to compete with one another in manliness, that sexist attitudes are propagated and that sexist acts are eventuated. Kill the patriarchy, kill the machismo, break down the societal constructions of masculinity and not only of femininity, and feminist goals can be achieved. That’s my personal opinion, anyway, as a man. I may not be a woman, and therefore perhaps I should not have the right to speak on feminism – if you feel that way, that’s your prerogative, I suppose. But as a man, I should hope that I should be able to speak to how I feel as a man, my relationship to masculinity, my lived experience which few women would have experience with in the same way.

Dr. Jed Diamond has written several books on the subject, and in a recent blog post, he shares the following experience:

In the book I wrote about going into a feminist book store in San Francisco because I felt that a lot of what I was reading from feminists was going to liberate me. A number of the women seemed fine with my being in the store, but others, including the person in charge seemed hostile. There was a young boy, about nine years old, in the store who was obviously the son of the person in charge. He would walk by me and “accidentally” bump into me. At first I didn’t notice how angry he was. On the third “bump through” he pushed a little hand-written note in my hand. What I read hurt my soul. “We don’t like men in here,” it said. It still pains me to remember that young boy and what he was learning about his own maleness.

Who is this boy going to grow up to be? Is he going to be banned from the shop himself at some point, purely on the basis of being a man, regardless of his character, attitudes, or intentions?


This brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road. I finally saw the film, and immediately came home to draft a post about it. But while I struggled with just what it was I wanted to say, Arthur Chu wrote a piece in the Daily Beast which pretty much says a lot of what I was going to (which is not to say I agree with everything he has to say, or necessarily how he says it, but..). What I have to add, below, is quite brief, but, SPOILERS AHEAD. LOOK AWAY NOW, if you haven’t seen the film.

Right: Much thanks to feministmadmax.tumblr.com for creating more or less precisely the image I was looking for.

I think it would be easy to mistake the conflict in Fury Road as being one in which women need to be rescued from men, and the world also needs to be rescued from men, and rebuilt. Furiosa is bad-ass, as are the Wives, and they work together to rescue themselves from the grips of the sex slaver Immortan Joe and his hyper-masculine, violence-worshipping Warboys. And the Mothers they meet towards the end of the film are also bad-ass in their own way, and help Furiosa and the ladies to take Immortan Joe’s Citadel, and to begin rebuilding the world. Tons of female badassery, lots of female characters with whom to identify. Excellent.

But, just as in real life, I don’t think this is necessarily a conflict in when men are the enemy. Who, after all, destroyed the world? If men are the enemy, then what is that boy in the feminist bookstore supposed to do? He will inevitably grow up to be a man (unless they decide to identify as non-binary or trans*), and then what? No. The enemy is masculinity: certain definitions of masculinity, certain conceptions and standards of masculinity, and of machismo, and all that comes with them. It is not only women who need to be rescued from men, but men and women both, from the world that toxic masculinity has created.


In a blog post entitled Rants of a Feminine Feminist, a graduate student at the University of Calgary eloquently attacks the notion that feminism is only for women’s benefit, or only for women’s participation.

She especially attacks the idea that feminism is the cause of men’s problems – a fight that, sadly, we still need to have, as far too many people remain terribly mistaken as to what feminism is really about. As she writes, “Feminism is not primarily concerned with women’s issues. … It is primarily concerned with the patriarch[y], i.e. the gendered system in place that (among other things) promotes unrealistic expectations and standards for masculinity and femininity.” I hope that some of the MRAs and dudebros get the fucking message.

But what was really powerful for me, what that she writes, further,

There is no such thing as a singular feminism. There are feminisms. … each person interprets feminism in a way that works for them and their unique life experience. … Feminism is not some institutionalized doctrine that has a list of rules to follow in order to be a member of the club. Feminism has no dress code, no required hairstyle, and no standard for one’s sexual frequency or preference. …

Feminism – put simply – is the call for equal social, political, and economical opportunities for all people. All. People. Not “all people except men”, not “all people except those who dress like cats on the weekend”, not “all people except misogynistic assholes.” ALL. PEOPLE. (emphasis in the original.)

I read this and I want to cheer. It’s posts like this that make me feel validated, that make me feel like I am welcome, like I am included, and that feminism does care about my problems. Regular readers will know I don’t post as regularly on gender issues as some others do… I have posted even less frequently in the last year or so on gender issues especially since certain people shunned me out, quite cruelly laughing to themselves, to their friends, to the Internet at large at how absurd it should be that a cis, het, white man should think he should be allowed to say anything within a feminist conversation. Well, this may come as a surprise, but like everything else in the world, there is nuance and complexity to sexuality and gender identity, and just because I was born into a male body, and raised as a man, and am not quite ready to say that I am “questioning” or am definitively “queer” or some other identity, and therefore am assumed to be, and present as, “cishet”, even if I don’t really identify as anything in particular, doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with my gender identity, and with my gendered place in the world. And if you don’t want me as an ally, or whatever the proper word is, then that’s fine. Fuck you too. But, with the validation and support of my friends, and of articles like this one, after a year of agonizing over it, and refraining from commenting on these issues for fear of blowback, I’ve finally come back around, that I’m just not going to let other people dictate that I cannot be a feminist, too – that I cannot have some place in the conversation, even if that place is standing behind my friends, and others, and not in front. Tempted as I am to place a big STFU gif right here, a gift to those people, instead, rather than silencing you as you wished to silence me, how about we both continue to accept one another as having some right to be in the conversation?


Finally, today, you’ve probably seen at least one of the many articles, interviews, and books, which have been floating around recently, asserting that women subordinate themselves, or present themselves as submissive, and need to act more like men – more assertive, more confident, in order to better compete with men in the workplace, in job interviews, in earning respect and promotions and so forth, and in society in general. A number of articles, actually, have come about defending the way that women talk: one in Jezebel says “let’s stop feeling anxious about feeling aware that we’re feeling our feelings. Feel me?”, while one from NY Magazine which I have seen going around a lot writes that “When we use words like so, I guess, like, actually, and I mean, we are sending signals to the listener to help them figure out what’s new, what’s important, or what’s funny. We’re connecting with them.,” and concludes that

“When women talk in ways that are common among women, and are seen as ineffective or underestimated, they’re told it’s their fault for talking that way,” the linguist Deborah Tannen, who’s written several best-selling books about gender and language, told me. “But if they talk in ways that are associated with authority, and are seen as too aggressive, then that, too, is their fault when people react negatively.” Asking women to modify their speech is just another way we are asked to internalize and compensate for sexist bias in the world. We can’t win by eliminating just from our emails and like from our conversations.

A satirical piece called Just Don’t Do It takes it a step further, in a direction I particularly enjoyed.

This week everyone’s been talking about an article in the Economist explaining how men’s use of language undermines their authority. According to the author, a senior manager at Microsoft, men have a bad habit of punctuating everything they say with sentence adverbs like ‘actually’, ‘obviously’, ‘seriously’ and ‘frankly’. This verbal tic makes them sound like pompous bullshitters, so that people switch off and stop listening to what they’re saying. If they want to be successful, this is something men need to address.

The Economist article referenced here doesn’t exist. This is a conversation that we are not, in fact, having, but perhaps we should be.

Here’s a thought – I’m sick of this “lean in” bullshit. How about instead of telling women they need to be more confident and assertive, instead we try to stem the plague of men confidently, assertively, obnoxiously, bullshitting their way through life. I show deference and apologize because it’s polite, and shows humility. It shows honesty about what I don’t know or can’t do, and it shows consideration for others. Rather than advising women, and men both, to be /more/ assertive, how about instead we take some kind of action to push our society towards a friendlier, more deferential, less obnoxiously in-your-face place. How about, instead of perpetuating the constant masculine/patriarchal pissing contests for dominance, we write articles that lambast such ideas of masculinity, such ideas of success, that point to such attitudes and make fun of them as the Neanderthalish, Mad Men bullshit that they are, and assert that here in the 21st century, the time for that rat race, dog-eat-dog, macho self-righteousness is over.

1. And as Segawa Seigle is a major, prominent scholar of women’s history, I don’t think we should see this decision as un-feminist or anything… I think we can trust Segawa Seigle to have known what she was doing, and to have made her decision knowingly.

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Banner at Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima, summer 2014, advertising the campaign to get these sites named World Heritage Sites.

Well, after considerable controversy and opposition, Japan’s proposal for a whole series of sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites has been approved. Congratulations to those municipalities, prefectures, and individual sites, and my condolences on the loss of Nadeshiko Japan in the women’s World Cup soccer match thing. I was rooting for you as soon as I found out you made it into the finals, which was about an hour before the game ended.

Frankly, I think this is one of Japan’s better World Heritage proposals. I think at one point they were trying to get “Warrior City” Kamakura named to the list – sorry, but while Kamakura may be really significant to Japanese history, I’m not sure there’s any call for it to be called “World Heritage.”1 By contrast, these Meiji period sites are perhaps among the greatest candidates in Japan for “World Heritage” significance – they represent the sites at the core of Japan’s modernization, industrialization, and Westernization at the end of the 19th century. Japan was the very first non-Western country to Westernize (for certain definitions of “Western”), and did so at a supremely impressive pace and degree of success.

The controversy, of course, is that Meiji industrialization is directly tied to Meiji imperialism, and to Shôwa militarism and imperialism. Many of the late 19th century sites on the list are exactly the same sites which in the 20th century were major centers of Japan’s war engine, some of them operated in part by forced labor of abducted Koreans. Japan’s wartime history is not something to be celebrated (though, worryingly, I think a lot of people in the Japanese government think otherwise), and least of all Japan’s exploitation of others, e.g. through forced labor. In the end, a compromise was reached, the terms of which were seemingly that Japan got to have its Meiji sites so long as a whole bunch of Korean sites got named World Heritage Sites as well, and so long as the plaques and other information associated with the Japanese historical sites make clear the negative things that happened there. I’m certainly not going to argue that these Korean sites aren’t worthy – Paekche was of great historical significance for Korea and for Japan, and these ancient sites look absolutely stunning in the photos; congrats to them on receiving some extra attention, and extra provisions for their protection. I hope to visit them someday. But, the politics are all too plain. The jostling between countries to have the most World Heritage Sites continues.

The Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima. One of Japan’s first ever industrial factories, and today a museum of Satsuma history.

From what little I know of the controversy, I don’t understand why Japan didn’t simply focus on a smaller number of sites that were more prominently or more exclusively associated with Bakumatsu/Meiji, and not with 20th century developments. The Shimazu villa compound at Iso, for example, was home to the first hydroelectric dam in Japan, the first steamship (built based on Western books, with no Western experts present in person), the first gaslamps, and so forth, and is closely associated with the first modern cotton mill in Japan, the Shûseikan – Japan’s first modern factory, complete with reverberating furnaces, blast furnaces, a smithy, a foundry, and a glass workshop.

But, instead, they decided to include, and to continue to insist upon, controversial sites like the coal mines at Gunkanjima (Hashima Island, Nagasaki), which were run in large part, in the early 20th century, by Korean and Chinese forced labor workers taken from Japan’s colonies / conquered territories, all of them working for Mitsubishi, one of the most major corporations at the time producing war materiel. What kind of politics was involved that this site had to remain on the list and be fought for, rather than just being dropped? Was it just stubbornness against backing down to Korean complaints? Was it pressure from local Nagasaki government? Was it the political influence of Mitsubishi? Whatever the case, it seems clear that politics, once again, comes before any semblance of an effort at objective choice of sites based on the expertise of historians & art historians.

The Iso ijinkan, or Foreign Engineers’ Residence at Iso, in Kagoshima.

Well, whatever. While the news and even the UNESCO webpage itself continue to only give vague and confusing information, are we not surprised that Wikipedia already has its shit together, just one day after the announcement. Ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify otherwise, here are your new Japanese World Heritage Sites:

In Hagi (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace
*The Ebisu-ga-hana Shipyard
*Ôitayama tatara iron smelting works
*Shôkason-juku Academy (run by Yoshida Shôin)
*Hagi castle town (pretty cool; glad they snuck that in there, though it’s clearly more about being a castletown than about the industrialization period)

In Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*Mutsurejima lighthouse
*Maeda Battery (assoc. with the 1863-1864 Shimonoseki War against ships from France, England, US, and Netherlands)

In Kagoshima:
*The Shûseikan and surrounding areas, including:
**Shûseikan Machine Factory (erected 1865, long before anything with forced labor)
**The Iso Ijinkan (Foreign Engineers’ Residence, 1867-1869)
**Gion-no-su Battery (coastal defense batteries used to fight off the British in 1863)
**Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat
**Charcoal Kiln
**Reverberatory Furnace at Iso

In Saga:
*The Mietsu naval facility

In Kamaishi (Iwate prefecture, all the way up north):
*Hashino iron mining and smelting site

In Nagasaki:
*Kosuge ship repair dock
*Hokkei well shaft & Takashima coal mine
*Hashima coal mine (Gunkanjima)
*The former house of Scottish merchant & modernization advisor Thomas Blake Glover, oldest Western-style house in Japan
*Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyard

In Fukuoka Prefecture:
*Miyanohara Pit & Miike Coal Mine (largest coal mine in Japan since early 18th c.)
*Miike coal mine associated port and railway
*Misumi West Port
*Yawata steel works in Kitakyushu
*Onga River pumping station

I’m certainly more eager to visit some of these sites than others. I’m much more into arts & culture side of things – e.g. the Hagi castle town, and Glover’s Western-style house – than the ugly, dirty, steel and concrete industrial sites, e.g. coal mines and such. But, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy visiting the few I have already seen – those in Kagoshima – and am glad to see those sites recognized. Looking forward to future trips to Shimonoseki, Hagi, Nagasaki, and South Korea’s many World Heritage Sites as well.

You can read more about the Kyushu-Yamaguchi sites at their official English website.

1) Though, actually, on second thought, the Daibutsu is super majorly iconic, and many of the Zen temples represent a majorly important historical moment in the spread and development of Zen, and in the role of Zen monks as foreign relations advisors and diplomats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sotoba at Negishi Cemetery in Yokohama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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