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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the Tweet which brought it to my attention:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few points I wanted to question, though:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The main tower keep of Himeji Castle.

In between my visits to Okinawa, Kyushu, and Tokyo this past summer, before landing in Kyoto for the final week, I took the opportunity to make use of my JR Pass to visit a few other places, including Himeji Castle, Ise, a Tokaido post-station known as Futagawa-juku, and … So, before I get to finally talking about Kyoto (and then finally moving on from my summer 2018 Japan trip), this blog post is going to be a little scattered.

7/22 HIMEJI

Himeji is of course one of the largest, most famous, castles in Japan, and one of only a few to actually date from the Edo period and not be largely/entirely 20th century reconstructions. But, as it’s a short ways west of Kobe, and not located within a major city, I had never gotten around to visiting it before.

It’s certainly a cool thing to get to see, and with great history. The Sakai family lords of Himeji were interesting folks, including some very prominent and influential figures within the Tokugawa shogunate government, as well as figures like Sakai Hôitsu, son of one of the lords of Himeji, who never gained any political prominence or power but is surely among the greatest painters of the Edo period. I also very recently learned that several of the Sakai lords were real pioneers in patronizing Ming (Chinese) music in Japan. And, as I learned upon visiting the castle, Princess Sen (or Senhime), a daughter of Tokugawa Hidetada and wife of Toyotomi Hideyori, once lived there. Stories about her thus dominated much of the labels and descriptions within the castle.

Inside the main keep at Himeji castle.

I only wrote a very few thoughts/reactions about the castle at the time. But, one thing that struck me was the way they did it up as a history of the castle vs. as a history of the domain more broadly. It’s funny… When visiting for example Fukuyama Castle (near Hiroshima), as well as Hiroshima castle, both of those pretty much just use the castle as a space to tell a much broader history of the domain, and of the successive lords of that domain. In both Fukuyama and Hiroshima castles, which were just chock full of artifacts, paintings, documents, displayed as museum exhibits, I felt it was a shame that we couldn’t really get a sense of it as a castle. I wished they’d done it up more like a historical house recreation.

And yet, at Himeji, the first half of what I visited, the tenshu (main keep) has no objects on display at all, and is almost exclusively about appreciating and experiencing the space itself, the architecture, and the way the space was used at the time (primarily for storing weapons, and as a guard tower, from which warriors could defend the castle, or something like that). It’s only in the second half of the site (a different, nearby building) that you learn about Senhime, and her life there. But even then, I was wishing there were more teaching us about the Sakai family, from Sakai Tadahiro to Tadazumi to… whomever. But I guess you can’t have it both ways.

Of course, this castle also is mostly just empty rooms, and not anything approaching a recreation of what it would have actually looked like in use. So, there’s room for going in that direction as well. I would still love to see any of these historic castles done up a little bit more to really show not just the rooms, but the furniture, etc.

The Great Audience Hall (Ôhiroma) at Nijô castle in Kyoto.

Nijô castle in Kyoto does that to a certain extent. The Ôhiroma, or Great Audience Hall, at Nijô has mannequins arranged to show you how lords would have gathered before the shogun, and that I really appreciate. Really does just so much to show you how these rooms were used, rather than giving you an empty room and asking you to imagine. But even at Nijô, most of the other rooms are still left empty.

7/22 ISE

「大林寺の方へ飛んでいたわいな。」

The small temple of Dairin-ji, in the Furuichi neighborhood of Ise. And, just to one side of the main temple building, the graves of Magofuku Itsuki and his lover Okon, the inspiration for the Kabuki characters Fukuoka Mitsugi and Okon.

On my way from Himeji to Nagoya, I stopped in Ise. As you do. Actually, for anyone reading this and planning your own trips, note that actually Ise is rather out of the way. You can take the Shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Himeji to Nagoya; Ise is not strictly-speaking along the way. Only local trains and not bullet trains go there.

As I wrote in a series of blog posts quite a few years ago, Ise was historically not only the site of one of the most important Shinto shrines in Japan, but as a pilgrimage destination it also developed in the Edo period a very notable neighborhood of inns, theaters, brothels, etc. There is very little left to see today of the Ise Furuichi (“old market”) neighborhood, but even so I was very much curious to see it, as Ise Ondo Koi no Netaba, the kabuki play I took part in during my time in Hawaii, was set there. So, I visited the Buddhist temple Dairin-ji, mentioned very briefly but never seen in the play, where Manjirô escapes to briefly, so as to not be seen by… I forget, who, actually. And, perhaps more importantly, the real individuals who served as the basis / inspiration for the main characters of the play are buried there. It was kind of funny trying to find the temple. I’m not sure exactly what I expected. Well, I expected that the temple grounds might be even just a little bit larger than they turned out to be, and in particular, I expected that there would be some kind of traditional wooden gate. I don’t know why, but somehow I had in my mind an image of the big wooden gate to Dairin-ji, and that that would be where I might take a photo. As it turns out, there is no gate. Not even a modern one. Just a single main temple building (and a few smaller more modern ones attached to it), immediately facing (or, depending on how you look at it, situated within) a small parking lot, and then to the side of that, an extremely small graveyard, no more than 10 or 15 gravestones. And, a stone marker indicating the name of the temple. That was it. I’m glad I went, glad I saw it, but there was really nothing at all to see other than to take a couple of photos and move on.


Sadly, I arrived too late in the day to see the Ise Furuichi local history museum. So, I do wonder what that might be like. For all I know, it might surprise me. Might be quite nice and newly-maintained, like the ones at Futagawa and Tomonoura. Maybe all that I expected to find at the temple might be satisfied at the museum. But, yeah, sadly, I didn’t get to see that. Fortunately, however, just as I was despairing at having come all that way just to see so little, I came upon a small stone marker (right) indicating the former site of the Abura-ya, the brothel where nearly the entire play takes place. Actually, it’s funny – I opened up Google Maps to search for it, to search for where it might be, and then noticed it was actually right there right in front of me. Haha. Wow. Not that this was much either – it truly is simply nothing but a stone marker. But, even so, as something I’d hoped to see for years, I was glad to not leave without spotting it.

Of course, I didn’t leave Ise without visiting the shrine. But, to be honest, and I’m sorry if any of my Religious Studies friends take offense or something, but after having visited Meiji Shrine, Atsuta Shrine, and some other such places that also involve very long walks through wooded paths before you finally actually get to the sacred center, I kind of felt like I’d seen and done that before. And since, of course, at Ise you’re forced to remain at a certain distance from that sacred center, and can’t go in further past a certain point, well, that was about it. Even the closest point you can go, the one place where there really is something (anything) worth taking a photo of, is the one place where you’re not allowed to do so, and they have a pretty serious-looking security guy from the Imperial Household Agency (or something? I forget) watching to make sure you don’t take photos. So, *shrug* that was that. If I’d had more time, I might have enjoyed the touristy shopping street just outside the shrine, get a little more of a feeling of having actually experienced something by coming all the way out there, but, oh well. I’m sure I’ll be back, eventually. Maybe in 2033 when they rebuild the shrine over again, haha.

7/23 NAGOYA

From Ise, I then made my way to Nagoya. I’d been to Nagoya before, and had seen all the really major sites – Nagoya castle, Atsuta Jingûso this time, while I had just a day or so, I made sure to poke out to some more minor, but interesting, sites related to the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo.

Since Atsuta Shrine was a major destination, it was also a stop on the Tôkaidô. Just a few blocks away from the shrine, though there’s nearly nothing to see of it today, is a small parking lot and a stone marker marking where the Red Honjin, the main elite lodgings at this Miya-juku (lit. “shrine post-station”) once stood. The honjin can be seen in an 1832 illustrated book known as Meiyô kenbun zue, which I’ve quite enjoyed using for my research.

Above right: A gravestone at Zuisen-ji in Nagoya, for Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu, musician who died on the 1832 embassy. The inscription reads 「中山富山親雲上梁文弼久米村儒家以楽師于後江戸来至没於尾張国鳴海駅回葬馬時午三十八」(roughly, “Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu of Chûzan [i.e. Ryûkyû], master musician and Confucian scholar of Kumemura, later traveled to Edo and died at Narumi station in Owari province [i.e. Nagoya] … [and then a part I don’t quite understand; he died at age] 38.).

Also quite nearby is Shichiri-no-watashi, the former site of a boat dock where people used to arrive and depart for the crossing across Ise Bay to Kuwana. A Ryukyuan mission was nearly lost in a storm on this crossing in 1671, and so from then on (with one exception), they took an overland route.

Finally, I also visited the really small and slightly out-of-the-way temples of Kaikoku-ji and Zuisen-ji, where Tokashiki peechin Shinfu Ma Gen’ei (a member of the 1748 mission) and Tomiyama peechin Ryô Bunhitsu (a master musician on the 1832 Ryukyuan mission to Edo), respectively, are buried after dying of illness on the journey. Sadly, this was not entirely uncommon; the almost complete separation of Japanese and Ryukyuan populations, combined with the Ryukyuan lack of experience with cold weather, were likely key contributing factors, and a number of members of embassies to Edo caught Ryûkyû no kaze (the Ryukyuan cold, or Ryukyuan flu) and died. Many Japanese fell ill, however, too, whenever Ryukyuan embassies passed through their towns, so Ryûkyû no kaze went the other way as well.

A guardtower at Shichiri-no-watashi, at what is today known as Miya-no-watashi Park 宮の渡し公園. I wish I might have visited the corresponding site at Kuwana on the other side of Ise Bay, but there was no time.

7/24 FUTAGAWA-JUKU

The entrance of the main honjin at Futagawa-juku, as seen from inside the building, looking out towards the street.

I then sped to Tokyo to meet up with some professors, and a day or so later took the Shinkansen out to Toyohashi City, Aichi prefecture (which was a fair bit farther from Tokyo than I’d thought), to visit the honjin museum at Futagawa-juku. Futagawa was one of 53 official “stations” along the Tôkaidô, the chief highway connecting Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. When daimyô (samurai lords), Ryukyuan or Korean embassies, imperial envoys, or certain others passed through such post-stations, they were often provided lodgings at a honjin – a special inn set aside for such elites, that was usually larger, nicer, better than the other inns, and that often included certain special amenities for precisely that purpose, such as a small area with a raised floor, so that the lord could literally sit above his retainers when he met with them. These honjin often served as lodgings for only a portion of the time, and often doubled as the home and/or main “office” so to speak of the town headman. Getting to the point, the honjin at Futagawa is one of only a very few that are still intact, and that are maintained as a museum.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from such a small local history museum, but I was certainly not disappointed. Quite to the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed. All along the main stretch in Futagawa, along the old Tōkaidō, nearly every house and shop has the same blue Futagawa-juku noren (curtain) hanging outside. Makes me curious, if people really feel a strong connection and pride in the history or whether it has more to do with community, or how exactly they (and we) might characterize it.

The honjin itself is huge. I guess I’m not surprised, it totally makes sense that for an inn worthy of a daimyo, and one that can house 30-40 of his followers, it would be such a size. And of course not all honjin were this big; they varied, and we can look that up. But to see it first-hand, experience the number of rooms, is something. A much different experience from simply reading about their size or capacity, or looking at illustrations or diagrams. And the Museum itself, housed in a neighboring building, was surprisingly large, too, with two floors of exhibits. Awesome of them to allow photos too.

The beginning of the second floor exhibits at the Futagawa-juku Museum, showing travelers on the Tôkaidô.

Plus, the curator, Wada Minoru, was so kind. He not only came out and helped show me exactly which publications listed the relevant documents, but he even was willing to go and get them and let me see them immediately. If he had said you have to make an appointment, I would have totally understood. But he was willing to take the time to let me look at them immediately. Amazing. Of course, who knows how useful they’ll be especially since I really don’t have the time to actually read them. But… Maybe just by having them in my HD, I’ll gain something by osmosis or something, haha.

I know I’ll never work for such a small local history museum; unless I end up doing some kind of research on the museum itself, I don’t see how (why) I would ever find myself actually spending more than a couple of days there. Which is sort of a shame, really – considering that they actually seem to have a pretty great operation at the Futagawa-juku Honjin Museum. The exhibits are very nice, they publish a lot of good catalogs … The local museum at Tomonoura is perhaps similar, but even so their exhibits were still not as extensive as those at Futagawa.

I feel like it would be really great to get to know some of these museums, and their surrounding communities, a bit better. Someday. Somehow. At the very least, I do want to go back to Futagawa someday, if only to visit the small local history museum at the Arai sekisho (checkpoint) a couple train stops away, and Hamamatsu (Okitsu) and Sunpu (Shizuoka), where there are a few more Ryukyu-related sites to be seen.

For now, though, this past summer, I simply went back to Tokyo, finished up my business there, and then headed to Kyoto for the remainder of my summer sojourn.

All photos my own.

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The famous iconic lighthouse of Tomo.

The next day, we made the two-hour or so drive to Tomonoura, another one of these Inland Sea port towns. Tomo is one of the more famous ones, around the country, whether simply as a tourist destination, or for its role as the inspiration for Ponyo Ponyo. Apparently, a number of live-action films have also been filmed there, including Logan and Gintama, using the town’s traditional architecture for backdrop.

Our first stop within Tomo was Komatsu-dera, a small Buddhist temple where a member of the 1790 Ryukyuan mission, Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, was buried.

Right: The stone marking the former gravesite of Yoseyama peechin Shô Dôkyô, at Komatsu-dera.

Traveling to Edo as a musician at the young age of 22, he fell ill aboard ship, and died on 1790/10/13. He was, sadly, one of a few tens of Ryukyuans to die over the course of the missions. Later missions made a point to visit the graves of such individuals, to pay their respects. The body has since been removed to Okinawa, but a stone marker still stands at the temple today marking the former site of his grave. Further, a wooden plaque still hangs inside the temple’s main hall, inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather. It was really something to see these things, these artifacts, which I had been reading about for so long.

Plaque (hengaku) inscribed by Yoseyama’s grandfather Fukuyama Chôki, reading 「容顔如見」 (roughly, “his face appears before me”), and still hanging inside the main hall at Komatsu-dera.

Sadly, the family who used to live on-site and manage the temple no longer do. Whether the temple has no caretakers at all, or what, I am not sure, but it seems a terrible shame. I imagine that a great many temples all across the country are sadly in similar circumstances. On the plus side, this meant we could let ourselves in, and take photos of the plaque, without anyone saying no (and without fear of anyone overhearing us being there, and watching, or coming out to tell us to leave or anything). But, I just fear for the continued wellbeing of places like these – the temple itself as a historical site, the wooden plaque as an artifact…

View out over the town and harbor, from the former site of Tomo castle. Now, the site of the Tomonoura History Museum.

Walking through the small streets of Tomo, many of them lined with traditional-style buildings, cute shops, and so forth, we trekked up a hill in the center of town to the former site of Tomo castle. Through the Edo period, this did not function as a true castle – there was no daimyo here – but it did house the residence and offices of the Tomo Magistrate (Tomo bugyô), an official appointed by the daimyo of Fukuyama to oversee the town, and especially matters of trade and travel, who was coming in and out of the port. Today, there is basically nothing at all left of the castle, but the local history museum stands on the site.

I was annoyed to once again find myself in a local museum that doesn’t allow you to take photos. And they don’t publish a catalog either of the permanent exhibits – so the only option is to painstakingly write down everything on the labels, and commit to memory the images of what the museum looks like, how it’s arranged, what the individual objects look like… I hate it. But, still, it was cool to get to visit, to learn something about the history of the town. My friend got into a really lengthy conversation with the curators, and was lucky to have them offer to give her a copy of one of their exhibit catalogs – an especially rare book that can’t be found in any used book stores, and which I’ve been sorely looking for myself. Oh well. Maybe next time, I’ll go by myself, and they’ll be impressed over again by how knowledgeable and interested this random foreigner is, and they’ll give me a copy of the book.

I feel like most of the documents they hold at the Tomo museum I have already seen in reproduction or transcription, so there’s not necessarily too much need to try to set up a real appointment to see the originals. But still it might have been nice. Maybe next time. I did get some good notes from the gallery labels – learned just a few more points to fill in a few more small holes in my work.

One of many beautiful traditional-style shopfronts in the streets of Tomo, with a sign reading “Homeishu.”

We then headed back down into town. Tomonoura, like Mitarai, has lots of quaint, small walkable streets of traditional machiya-style shopfronts, perhaps even moreso than Mitarai, and it’s just nice to walk around. We found one shop selling tai-miso – that is, miso paste made from sea bream (fish) instead of from soybeans or whatever. Weird. But a very traditional way of running the shop, with a sort of showroom in the main front space, and no shelves to just walk among. Customers walk in and sit on benches, while the staff person sits on a raised tatami-lined section of the floor. A very few samples are placed out on display, and in order to buy anything, you engage with the shopkeeper, who offers you tea and samples of the miso, and you really talk to her and try out the goods, before deciding what you want. Some of the equipment they were using – such as the rotary landline telephone – were also quite old, like stepping back into the Shôwa period, if not quite into the Edo. And, incredibly, she said she left her husband and children back in (I forget where, Tokyo? Osaka?) to come down here to Tomo to work. Presumably she visits every weekend, or something like that. What a job, what a career, to choose to focus on like that!

The interior of the above shop.

Tomo is also famous for its homeishu (lit. “protecting life wine”) – a liquor brewed with tons of spices, that’s supposedly supposed to be good for your health. Reminds me of how Coca-Cola and certain other soft drinks were marketed at first. Homeishu goes back hundreds of years, and the Dutch, Ryukyuans, Koreans, as well as various daimyo put in orders to be able to take bottles with them when they passed through Tomo. The Nakamura family, who used to be one of the most famous, most prominent purveyors of homeishu, are no longer in business. But I bought some homeishu from another shop – here’s hoping it’s “authentic”, whatever that means, with some real connection to historical recipes, and not just some tourist garbage.

Many of the key historical sites in Tomo are clustered around the harbor, where the land sort of comes to a point, or a spit, with an iconic, famous, large stone lantern at the end. It was really something to see this after reading about it, and seeing it in pictures, so many times. Mitarai and Kamagari have this too.

One of the main streets of Tomo, with the Ôta family house on the left, and Chôsôtei on the right.

My main number one destination in mind was the old Nakamura family house, now known as the Ôta family house. A nationally-designated Important Cultural Property, the house, along with the Chôsôtei building across the street, served as the honjin or chaya, one of the main elite lodgings for the port town, in the Edo period. I don’t know precisely what we would have seen had we gone inside, how revelatory it would have been – likely not all that much – but, this is where the Ryukyuans would have stayed when they stayed in Tomo. Depending on how it’s done up, how the displays are done, we might have gotten to see a real sense of what their accommodations looked like, and how they were arranged, which could be quite nice for my dissertation. Sadly, however, they’re closed on Tuesdays. (grrrr) We of course should have looked into that earlier, and prepared properly for it, but, still, I was *super* bummed. If not for the typhoon, our schedule might have played out differently, and we might have ended up in Tomo a different day. Of course, if it were a Monday, the Ôta house would have been open, and the history museum closed. And, apparently, for some reason, the Chôsôtei is never open to the public. So, whatever. I’ll just have to go back another time, and prepare more properly that time – scheduling out which days they’re open, and also emailing or calling ahead to see about the possibility of getting special access to the other building, or to documents, or something.

Incidentally, I’m not sure if it’s the exact same Ôta family house, but somewhere right in this area, is where seven Kyoto court nobles came and stayed for some time in Tomo, in 1863, after being expelled from Kyoto for plotting against the Shogunate (and the Court). Other buildings very nearby right around Tomo’s port area are associated with the ever-present Sakamoto Ryôma, who accidentally crashed his ship, the Iroha-maru, into a Kishû Tokugawa vessel, in the waters off Tomo in 1867, and who then stayed in Tomo for a time while negotiating for reparations. Or something. I have little patience for Ryôma – so over-lionized, so over-discussed, as if he’s some incredible legendary hero. He’s a historical figure like any other, who said and did and was involved in some really important or interesting things – but as an individual, as a figure, I just don’t subscribe to that form of history fandom.

The view out from the Taichôrô at Fukuzen-ji, a view that one Korean envoy called the most beautiful view in all of Japan.

Making our way around the harbor to another part of town, we visited the Buddhist temple Fukuzen-ji, famous for its Taichôrô (“Tower Facing the Tides”), a guestroom explicitly constructed as such, to welcome and host elite figures such as Korean envoys. Here, we saw a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, which one Korean envoy back in 1711 described as the most beautiful scenery in all of Japan. And we also got to see some displays about the Korean missions – mostly news clippings, photocopies from textbooks, print-outs of copies from museum catalogs, that sort of thing, along with some genuine artifacts from the temple. I suppose the Korean envoys were housed right in that room – I could see that being the case. Large tatami room, just throw down some futon, bring in some small lacquer tables or whatever… not sure what I’d expect an elite guestroom to look like, to be honest. But that was about it – I might have liked to see a bit more about exactly how they were housed, but, no such luck.

Still, it was some comfort, after not being able to get into the Ôta family house, to at least be able to see this space, and all the displays there.

Tomo was the last of the port towns we visited. I had considered trying to visit others to the west (e.g. Tsuwaji and Kaminoseki), or to the east (Onomichi, Murotsu, Kobe, Osaka), but it just didn’t happen this time. Still, the adventure wasn’t over quite yet. In my next post, the last in this series, I’ll talk a little about Fukuyama castle, and my last day in Hiroshima.

All photos my own.

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The port of Mitarai, as seen in a c. 1904 photograph, on display at the Wakaebisu-ya in Mitarai.

After a bit of a drive from Shimo-Kamagari, past sea shores and mountains of lemon & mikan, we arrived in the old port town of Mitarai. Even more so than Kamagari, Mitarai is fitted out as a tourist town – with a welcome center, tourist walking maps posted here and there, traditional-style inns, and so forth.

Walking through narrow streets of traditional homes, we made our way to the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji. Surrounded by high stone walls, it seems like a fairly major site, but once you get inside, there’s actually not much there. Looks abandoned, even. But, hanging over one small secondary worship hall we found what we were looking for – a wooden plaque, reading simply the name of the temple, Manshû-ji, but written in the handwriting of a Ryukyuan ambassador, Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi, from 1806. The Japanese poet Kurita Chodô, who arranged for the plaque to be made, is buried at Manshûji, but we weren’t able to go looking for his grave – the graveyard areas of the temple were blocked off-limits, and very little was well-maintained at all (high grasses, no path).

A wooden plaque hanging at the Buddhist temple Manshû-ji, copying the calligraphy of Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrat Tôma peechin Ryô Kôchi.

The small hall at Manshû-ji over which the plaque hangs. I thought it kind of incredible that the plaque is still kept there, in this place of honor, rather than having made its way to some storehouse or museum. While I worry about the conservation issues, it’s also wonderful to see it in context, in its “correct” historical place.

We then took a set of steps down back into town, into what I suppose is the main touristy/historical stretch. A renovated 100-year-old building converted into a hip youth hostel, a former inn for Ryukyuans and others associated with the Shimazu now operating as an art gallery, and so forth. The Shiomachi (“Waiting for Tides”) Visitors’ Center doubles as a café, specializing in shave ice, and similarly has this sort of young, youth hip travelers’ sort of vibe.

One of the old buildings in the area, the Waka-ebisu-ya, was once an Edo period brothel. Many of these ports presumably had their share of “courtesans,” or “women of pleasure,” to cater to the various elites + merchants who came through, but we saw no mention or evidence of this in the other towns. By contrast, Mitarai is somewhat famous for having that history, and indeed Amy Stanley devotes a chapter to Mitarai in her excellent book on Edo period prostitution, Selling Women. I find it a little hard to believe, but according to some things I read, it seems like as much as 1/5 of the town’s population at times were courtesans. The building is maintained today seemingly as just an open space, presumably used by the community for various community events and activities – I noticed several mikoshi (portable shrines, for use in local festivals) and other such things stored atop a small stage, or in the backstage area. The space is otherwise just open and bare, albeit with a number of photographs and framed copies of documents or the like hung on the walls, explaining the history of the brothel and of the town.

I’m glad Prof. Stanley suggested taking only one day to visit Mitarai – there’s not that much to see. But it’s definitely a cute, fun town. A nice place for a day trip, just to walk along the streets sided with traditional architecture…

The Shiomachi-kan Visitors’ Center / Shave Ice Cafe.

That night, we went into Hiroshima City proper, for the Lantern Floating Ceremony, the last of the major memorial events of the day. I’m not even sure what to say about this. It was quite a change of mood, and mode, to go from thinking about early modern port towns, and inns and merchants and traditional architecture, to this site of modern, international, war remembrance. I don’t know how many thousands and thousands and thousands of people were gathered in the Hiroshima Peace Park that night. We waited on a line that snaked around and around and around, far longer than we’d imagined possible, to wait for our turn to lay our paper lanterns in the river, sending messages of peace and of memory, to speak to the spirits of the dead.

A small group of Okinawan high school students were there, interviewing people – Japanese and foreigners alike – as to their thoughts and feelings about “peace,” and teaching them about the Battle of Okinawa. This was my second time in Hiroshima – my second time being there on Aug 6 – and my first time experiencing or taking part in any of the memorial events. I am glad, as a Japan specialist, and as an American, and just as a human being, to take part, to witness it, and to be able to say that I’ve done so.

A 1/10th size scale model of the battleship Yamato, at the Yamato Museum in Kure.

The next day, a typhoon hit (though it was actually not nearly as bad as expected), and so we stayed close to “home,” and spent the day in Kure City proper. In the Edo period, Kure was just a grouping of small villages – obviously, every place has its history, I won’t say those villages have no history, but, insofar as looking around for any notable historical sites or anything, as far as that sort of thing goes, Kure’s history begins, basically, in the Meiji period, the late 19th century, when it became a major center for the Imperial Japanese Navy.

We visited the Yamato Museuma museum dedicated to the naval history of Kure, and especially to the story of the Battleship Yamato, one of the heaviest battleships ever built, which was built here, in Kure. The berths where it was built are visible just outside the museum.

I’ve never been that much of a military buff, and I don’t know quite that much about military history… the museum was an interesting combination of military buff sort of history, and a sad story about the lives lost when the Yamato was sunk – and the impacts upon families, and the city, back home. I didn’t read things closely enough to be able to really comment on precisely how the museum addresses the issues of militarism and imperialism; there’s certainly an interesting conversation to be had about how we memorialize those killed in battle – who did die, and who did have families, and who were the core of the community of this city – who deserve, arguably, to be remembered sympathetically, but then again, who died in service to imperialism and ultra-nationalism and so forth. I’m not expert at such things, but a friend who is, says this is one of the best museums in that respect – sometime I’ll have to maybe ask him for more detail on what he means there.

A sailor’s notes, recording his thoughts regarding the Yamato’s Okinawa mission.

What I thought most interesting in the museum was a section discussing the Yamato’s dispatch out to its final mission. As Allied troops began to shell the island of Okinawa, and to make landings, the Yamato was sent to contribute to fending the Allies off – and the plan was going to involve an extensive use of kamikaze tactics, both in planes and in “human torpedoes.” The Yamato, ultimately, was sunk on its way to Okinawa, never arriving and never taking part in that battle. But what would be really interesting would be to read through the letters and diaries of people aboard the Yamato, talking about their thoughts as they head to Okinawa. How do they talk about going there to “defend Okinawa” or “defend the Okinawan people”? It would certainly be interesting as texture for the broader narrative within Okinawan history that the Japanese government and Imperial Japanese military “sacrificed” Okinawa to protect the mainland, and didn’t actually care about protecting the Okinawan people – trying to convince them to sacrifice themselves nobly and gloriously in the name of the Emperor, rather than making proper efforts to save anyone’s lives…

The Naval Shipyards at Kure. I believe that much of what we’re seeing here is civilian/commercial use today, but the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces uses a considerable portion of land and harbor just to the right of that.

After the Yamato Museum, we went up to a hill overlooking the harbor, and could see all the naval construction & repair facilities, and a bit of the Maritime Self-Defense Forces base… A lot of the prewar brick architecture – warehouses, and the main command headquarters – still survive today. Definitely lends to the flavor of the city, given that in so many Japanese cities the prewar buildings generally don’t survive.

I’m definitely glad for the opportunity to visit Kure, a city I can’t imagine I would ever have visited otherwise, and to see this other corner of Japanese history. A city so centered around the navy, and with so many prewar red brick buildings surviving, reflecting the feel and atmosphere of that particular period…

Red brick warehouses in Kure.

All photos my own.

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The view from the Kanchôrô (“Tide Viewing Tower”) in Kamagari.

After much delay, I finally in my second-to-last week in Japan took a bus down to Hiroshima and visited some of the small Inland Sea port towns that envoys from the Ryukyu Kingdom passed through on their way to and from Edo (the seat of the Tokugawa shogun).

This was my second time in Hiroshima, having visited very briefly once way back in 2003. At that time, I spent just one day seeing all the most major sights – the Peace Park, the Peace Memorial Museum, the castle – and another day on Miyajima. This time, I would skip Hiroshima City almost entirely, and spend several days in Kure City, and in some small island port towns today administered as part of Kure and Fukuyama cities.

It was really something to get out and visit these towns after reading about them, and thinking about visiting, for so long. It was really something just to get out of Tokyo – I hadn’t realized it, but actually the entire year, while I did get around Okinawa a fair bit, actually I hadn’t gone anywhere at all the entire year outside of Okinawa and Tokyo (and just a very little bit of Yokohama and Chiba, which don’t really count). This whole notion of having “a whole year” and that I might visit Kyoto and Osaka, and Kagoshima and Fukuoka, and Sendai, and Toyohashi, none of that came to pass. But I did at least make it out to Hiroshima.

When embassies from the Korean court arrived at Kamagari, they were received quite warmly, with red carpets laid down along the harbor’s main walking paths, allowing the Koreans to travel all the way to their lodgings without setting foot on the dirt roads. Model on display at the Gochisô Ichibankan museum.

In the Edo period (1600-1868), diplomatic missions from the Ryukyu Kingdom, passing through the Inland Sea on their way to Edo, stopped at Inland Sea port towns such as Tsuwaji, Kamagari, Mitarai, Tomonoura, and Onomochi, as did missions from Korea and the Dutch East India Company, and other traveling elites – such as Imperial envoys and provincial lords (daimyo). These towns are super small and provincial today, subsisting as far as I can imagine on just tourism, fishing, and I guess some very small-scale workshop/factory sort of operations. Back in the Edo period, too, these weren’t very large towns. But they were significant, notable, and in a number of these towns, historic buildings or entire historic sections, have been maintained or restored.

It’s always wonderful to get out and see another part of Japan. I really wish I had done more of this. See a different side of things. Driving around Hiroshima prefecture, we saw roadside highway rest stops – something you don’t see if you’re always just flying or taking the train – and what sort of local goods and products they have. Hiroshima Carp (baseball) merchandise. Setouchi lemon flavored everything. Andersen – a Danish-themed, Hiroshima-based, bakery chain. Not to mention the souvenirs (omiyage). Momiji manju (little red bean cakes in the shape of maple leaves) are a major Hiroshima thing, apparently.

The gangi stone steps at Kamagari.

But, returning to the port towns. I arrived on August 6, the second time I’ve gone to Hiroshima and it accidentally turned out to be the anniversary of the bombing. We had planned to spend the day in Hiroshima City, therefore, and see some of the memorial/anniversary events. But, as there was a typhoon expected the following day, we instead headed out straight-ahead, to Shimo-Kamagari.

Strangely, Kamagari didn’t come up as much in my reading as much as some of the other towns – in fact, it wasn’t on my radar at all. But I am so glad we went. At what I suppose we could call the center of town, a set of stone steps (gangi 雁木) extend up out of the water – this, in place of wooden docks. And immediately across the street, the former honjin (special inn for visiting elites), today operating as a small art museum. A man was standing in the parking lot, working on a brightly-colored traditional-looking wooden rowboat, and when we asked him about the boat, it turned out he’s a volunteer tour guide in the town, and he kindly took of his time to really show us around. As he explained, the town would prepare for welcoming Korean missions by erecting temporary wooden piers extending out over the water, and red carpets would be laid down all along the main walking paths, so that when the Koreans came, they could walk on these red carpets – never touching the dirt – all the way from the boats to the lodgings. The gentleman, whose name was Funada-san, then took us down a short walking path running past the honjin, and then a left and a right, and up a short set of stairs, to where the ue-no-chaya, or “upper teahouse,” used to stand. Along with the honjin and the “lower teahouse”, this was one of the chief lodgings for Korean, Ryukyuan, and other visiting elites. Today, a stone marker stands on the spot, saying simply “former site of the lodgings for the Korean missions,” as if Ryukyuans and others never stayed there? He then also showed us a nearby Buddhist temple, and Shinto shrine.

I could have read this in a book – that the Koreans were welcomed in such a fashion. And maybe the book might have even had maps or diagrams. But actually seeing it in person, and being shown around, was really another level. This was the only time during the week that we really got such a tour, but still it was really great to have my friend there to initiate conversation with people, ask things, and get such a response – I wonder whether I would have asked, or not, and what sort of response I might have gotten; whether he would have given me a tour had I been alone.

One of the main museum buildings at the Shôtôen, which used to serve as lodgings for foreign embassies.

The two of us then made our way to the Shôtôen and Gochisô Ichibankan (Shôtô Gardens and Reception Number One Hall), another set of reception halls, located just a short ways down the shore, which are today maintained as museums. Sadly, we ran out of time and didn’t get to see the whole thing, but we saw the most important part: the museum of the Korean embassies. The rest of the buildings were mostly pottery displays and so forth. One whole building of lanterns, supposedly, though I didn’t get to see that. But, on the second floor, which we did get to see, the Kanchôrô, or “Tide-Watching Tower,” a small space for just sitting and enjoying the view – a gorgeous view of the Inland Sea, as the tides flow in and out, and of one of the other islands just across the way.

The Korean embassies museum was small, but pretty good. They spend a disproportionate amount of space and attention on the food served to the embassies, and nearly no time on the aspects of “reception” I’d be more interested in: banners, curtains, processions, further details about these red carpets and so forth; not to mention the comparative information on how the Ryukyuan missions were received by contrast. But, so it goes. Sadly, they didn’t allow photos inside the museum, so I could only do what little I could do to read some of the labels and jot down some notes. But, it’s a nice museum. A few procession scrolls on display, including one really interesting one of Korean boats passing through the Inland Sea – an interesting slightly sketchy sort of painting style, perhaps a local or amateur painter, quite skilled but not professional, sketching rather than truly fully illustrating out the procession in a finished-looking way. And there was a model of the reception, with the honjin and the red carpets and little dolls of the Korean envoys marching into the town, as well as a larger model of their ship.

Opening section of a 1748 handscroll painting depicting the Korean missions as they sailed through the Inland Sea. Collection of the Gochisô Ichibankan, in Kamagari.

It was starting to rain, and it was already getting a little late in the day, so we hopped back in the car and headed to Mitarai, another notable port town two or three islands over. More on that in the next blog post.

All photos my own.

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I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”

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