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Archive for the ‘Kyushu’ Category

Visiting Kagoshima Again

Sakurajima, as seen from the highway bus on the way from the airport into the city.

Nov 10, 2021

It’s been a long time since I’ve left the Kantô (the area around Tokyo/Chiba/Saitama), and I decided that with the Reimeikan Kagoshima Prefectural Museum holding a special exhibit on the Amami Islands, and the main gate of Kagoshima castle having been recently restored (in 2019), these are fine excuses to visit Kagoshima again.

This was my third time there, and so it’s certainly a place with which I have some familiarity; I’ve walked the main stretch between Kagoshima Chūō 鹿児島中央駅 (the most main, central, train station in the city, immediately surrounded by multiple shopping centers) and Tenmonkan 天文館 (the chief, central, shopping arcade sort of neighborhood) numerous times, ridden the shiden 市電 streetcars numerous times and have a fair sense of the station names and the route… I won’t say that Kagoshima feels like home in the way that Tokyo or Naha do, but, definitely a bit of familiarity.

Shiden streetcar near Tenmonkan.

But on this visit I found myself thinking in particular about what it might be like to live there and whether I would like living there. Certainly, I can imagine the value of being there for a longer period, six months to a year or whatever it may be, to get to delve more deeply into local collections (Kagoshima Prefectural Library, Kagoshima University Library, etc.)… The opportunity to use Kagoshima City as a base from which to visit all sorts of other cities and towns (and islands!) that sometimes feel a bit too overwhelming, too complicated, to think about traveling to when it’s as part of a broader X days Kagoshima trip.

To put it more concretely, I was visiting Kagoshima for just three days this time, and I decided that trying to organize for myself which days I’ll spend in Kagoshima City, vs. how long it takes to get to Sendai or Hioki or Ibusuki, and how much it costs to get to those cities (almost nothing) vs. how much time and money it takes to get to even just Tanegashima (16400 yen, or about $145 US roundtrip), and how it just somehow feels like too much to fly from Tokyo to Kagoshima and then also coordinate and pay for additional flights to Amami or Kikai or Yoron or Okinoerabu… it makes my head spin. But if I lived in Kagoshima, I could do one of these day trips on one weekend, and another on another weekend, space it out, focus on doing just one of them at a time…

The newly rebuilt castle gate, now the largest castle gate in Japan.

Anyway. The museum was great, the new castle gate looks amazing. I had a fine time visiting Miyama (Naeshirogawa) for my one little day trip excursion. But for some reason, this particular trip, I was surprised at how sort of unexciting the city as a whole felt. I am sorry to say so; I do feel bad for it. … I do think that if I were to live there, I could potentially very much enjoy a more local, resident, sort of mode of engaging with the city. Discover cool cafes, figure out my favorite restaurants, get connected to what’s happening in the city – concerts, theatre, etc. I think it could be a pretty cool city to get to know. And especially because I do have such an interest in the local history, I can imagine it could potentially be quite interesting (1) seeing multiple exhibits and events over the course of the year, at the City Art Museum and elsewhere, getting a deeper, more textured impression of the city’s history and culture rather than just the one-time dipping in helicopter approach, and (2) getting a better feel, for real, on the ground, of the vibe of the city itself, as a place I’ve actually lived.

But that said, again, I feel sorry to say it, but somehow the city just didn’t feel that exciting to me this time. Maybe just because it’s my third trip and it doesn’t feel so new. I loved the view of Sakurajima out my window, and one of these days I will have to make the trek out to actually visit the island, if only to see the old torii buried in rock from lava flows a hundred years ago. I love the streetcars and always will. What they do for the visual feel of the city, the feel of the streets, is just wonderful. And I do feel this strange attraction, or compulsion, towards Kagoshima Chūō, but when it actually comes down to it, actually walking around in the shopping centers at Kagoshima Chūō, or the shōtengai shopping arcade streets of Tenmonkan, I am sorry to say I actually got bored pretty quickly. Most of the shops at Kagoshima Chūō are the same sorts of shops you’d find at any large shopping center in Tokyo, or in other major cities, and I just didn’t feel compelled to want to, or need to, do any shopping for exactly the same brands, the same stores, the same sorts of things I could find back home. Of course, vintage and secondhand is much more random and mixed and who knows what I would have found if I’d taken the time to look a bit harder in some of those stores, but even so, meh. And Tenmonkan, which on my first trip felt so exciting and new, a whole neighborhood of intertwining avenues of covered market shopping streets evoking the history of a whole century of shops and fashions coming and going, people shopping and otherwise living, bustling, through these very same streets from the 1920s to the 1950s-60s to the 80s-90s to today, as things change around them bit by bit, changing with the times… But while Tenmonkan is home to a number of very new cafes in that particularly 2000s-2010s style we might associate with gentrification or avocado toast or whatever, most of it is just so ordinary. Maybe I’ve been living in Tokyo for too long – that Japan as a whole has lost its sparkle. Because I see a Maruzen bookstore, or a Mos Burger fast food joint, or the rows and rows of no-name mom & pop clothing shops, and none of it feels special or exciting or interesting anymore.

At Chinjukan, one of the chief historical pottery centers in Miyama (Naeshirogawa). The lineage of Chinjukan pottery masters trace their ancestry back to Koreans who came to Japan following Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea in the 1590s.

Kagoshima Chūō feels to me like the Hachiko of Kagoshima. I could be wrong; I have no idea what the young people actually feel about that. But it has a certain kind of energy to it. It feels like a place that’s just cool and fun to be at. The main stairs leading up into the station have one area to the side with seats built into the steps, where people are fully allowed to, actually encouraged to, sit and hang out. And right next to that is a little open plaza, a hiroba 広場, with fake (I’m pretty sure) grass, some benches, a couple of food trucks, where I am sure they have periodic fairs or the like, different pop-up events all the time. There’s two or three large shopping centers directly attached to the station, with bakeries and cafes and restaurants, a large electronics store in the back, a movie theater, a large ferris wheel on the roof … somehow or other it just feels like the place to be. And, on Halloween night, I did indeed see lots of young people in their Halloween costumes – most of them just dressed as sexy maids, but I guess more to the cute side than the over-the-top racy risqué type we might see in the States – seemingly, as far as I could tell, just walking around hanging out in the mall with their friends. I walked around too, for a little bit, but, again, somehow that energy just wasn’t there – to be excited at what shops I might find, or anything like that. It was all very much the same kinds of shops I could find anywhere else. Which is fine. Should be fine. But… if I lived here, would I get bored super quick? Would it start to feel super provincial super quick? Or would I grow to love the city, to enjoy its different ins and outs? Certainly Naha is much smaller than Tokyo, too, and more provincial in a sense in terms of its relatively few major shopping centers, its relatively few major excitement districts. For a particular brand of enjoyment, there’s pretty much just Kokusai-dori, and that’s it. And yet Kokusai-dori, Heiwa-dori, and the sort of broader area immediately around that makes me feel like I really could get so much out of living there. Becoming a regular at various places, getting to know shop owners, getting to know old shops and new shops…. And, weird as it may be, during my six months at Ryudai, I really did grow to love the Naha Main Place shopping mall in a certain way. It feels like home, like “my” mall in a certain sense. Kagoshima doesn’t.

The AMU Plaza Kagoshima shopping center attached to Kagoshima Chūō Station.

But, more importantly, thinking about Kagoshima as a city brought me to thinking more broadly about two themes:

(1) The ways in which contemporary urban design – I’ll have to look again at what Prof Alan Lew exactly calls this – creates spaces that you really do want to be in, to spend time in. Spaces that are enjoyable to be in. But then, they are ultimately spaces that are deeply commercial. So, just like with Kagoshima Chūō, where it feels welcoming and fun and somehow appealing and exciting, with the open plaza and the ferris wheel and just… it’s a bit hard to put into words just why it feels like a fun place to be but it really does, except that then you get there and there’s pretty much nothing to do but shopping. And just like that, Miyashita Park in Shibuya is much the same. They’ve built this whole complex with light, airy, welcoming sort of energy, lots of outdoor benches to just sit and relax, attractive architecture that makes just walking around feel enjoyable… And on the roof, a rooftop park with grass, a beach volleyball court, and other facilities for just hanging out and relaxing and enjoying as if it were a public park. But then, outside of that public park aspect, it is all just shopping, and most of it fairly upscale shopping. So, you’re excited to get there and check it out, and there very genuinely is something attractive, appealing, about it as a new center for wanting to be, wanting to hang out. But then you either buy things or you do nothing. …

This sort of urban planning feels on the one hand a wonderful, very positive thing, as it is actively creating spaces where people might actually want to be – beautiful, airy, green, not like the pure functionalism of certain past decades, and not privileging cars or certain other considerations over walkable, bikeable, spaces with trees and benches and grass and so forth… But then it also has this rather insidious side, of realizing that in many cases it’s not really about trying to create a pleasant space for people as a good thing in and of itself, as something that designers are doing for the city, for the people, in order to improve quality of life as an end in and of itself, but rather that people are designing and building these spaces to get you to want to come and spend money. And I hate it.

(2) The other thing that this trip to Kagoshima got me thinking about is Kagoshima as a sort of touchpoint for thinking about monuments, national and local history narratives. What should we be proud of? What should we take pride in? Which figures should get statues, and why?

I have to thank Thomas Monaghan for spurring these thoughts, because he pointed out that Zusho Shozaemon, a samurai official in service to Kagoshima domain who is very much memorialized all over the city and beyond – I’ve visited his grave, but there are also multiple statues of him around the city, numerous depictions of him or documents or items related to him on display in the museum, historical markers erected at the site of his former house – he’s celebrated as a hero for Kagoshima in large part because of his economic reforms which rescued the domain’s finances, rescuing them from incredible debt and bringing revenues back in again and so forth. And I suppose also celebrated for his loyalty or whatever the right word is, in that at the end of his career, he commit suicide in recognition of and apology for his administrative failures. I’m blanking on the words right now, but there’s something very noble in Japanese culture for someone who takes responsibility in such a way, literally to the point of killing himself as absolution.

And yet, one of the very key elements to Zusho’s scheme for reviving the domain’s finances rested on the colonialist exploitation of the Amami Islands. Little different from plantation schemes halfway around the world which Zusho himself may or may not have known about, he forced the people of the Amamis to grow only sugar, and to grow as much of it as possible, and to sell it all to the domain at artificially low pre-set rates… they were forbidden, I believe, from carrying any coin and could buy food and other necessities largely (solely?) only from official domain merchants, purchased in sugar cane at artificially high, set, prices. And so forth. I don’t know all the ins and outs of it, but suffice to say, the more you read about Amami history, the more Zusho seems less like any kind of hero and more like a Cecil Rhodes or King Leopold type. Not quite as horrifically cruel as Leopold – few are – and not involving any outright slavery, like the American slave trade. But even so. Zusho begins to resemble precisely the kind of figure whose statues, arguably, perhaps, deserve to be torn right down.

Which begins the ball rolling. Who are all these other statues of? Largely, “heroes” of the Meiji Restoration or the Meiji state. And, alright, I do think there’s plenty to be proud of in contributing to the building of a modern nation-state, implementing “modern” forms of banking, industry, public education, and so on and so forth. I’m not placing blanket value judgements on modernity as good and premodernity as bad, or the Meiji state as “enlightened” and pulling Japan out of a “benighted” “dark ages”, or the Meiji state as fundamentally good, let alone democratic, or the Tokugawa shogunate as horrifically cruel, despotic. I’m not trying to support or reproduce those narratives, not at all, but just to say that on the surface, there are things to be seen as good things, things to celebrate, without having to get too deeply into it. A disproportionate number of the most prominent figures of that time – Founding Fathers, if we might want to use that term – were from Kagoshima. People who oversaw the implementation of modern forms of government, public education, etc., people who oversaw the construction of nationwide train lines, the electrification of at least some parts of the country, a modern postal service, all this sort of thing. So, good, celebrate them.

But how many of these same men were militarists and imperialists (both in the meaning of supporting Empire, i.e. imperial expansion into other lands, in the meaning of what we would see today as frighteningly rightwing nationalistic devotion to the Emperor)… and in what ways does lionizing them directly intertwine with nationalistic celebration of Imperial Japan – papering over the negative aspects while celebrating the very same people who oversaw not just the positive nation-building stuff but also the imperialist, authoritarian, colonialist, racist, patriarchal, stuff too?

At some point, one wonders if we should support the idea of tearing it all down. Or to put it another way, one wonders if we should be markedly critical of all of it – to see pretty much all of Kagoshima’s local pride as deeply flawed, tainted, and suggest in our armchair sort of way that it’s all bad, it should all be torn down.

And replaced with what? What should Kagoshima people be proud of? I personally think the newly restored gate is incredible. It’s beautiful, it’s impressive, and I see no problem at all with feeling pride of being from a city where you might see such a cool building every day as you walk to work or whathaveyou. Just so long as we don’t think too deeply about samurai lords lording over other people, the authoritarian aspects of the very nature of samurai rule. The ways in which the lords of Kagoshima invaded, subjugated, and then exploited both the Amamis and the Ryukyu Kingdom… and the fact that they became (or, more accurately, remained) lords of Kagoshima chiefly through bloody, vicious, brutal, warfare. Literally killing their enemies by the thousands, in brutal bloody battles, and claiming (or, really, retaining) lordship through sheer force of arms, and through commanding the loyalty of others. Which is, of course, the story behind nearly every monarchy in the world, so whether that makes it a good thing or not, excusable or not, I don’t know.

But, what to replace it with? Some would say heroes of the labor movement or something like that. But as much as I do support labor movements, and agree with the value of unions and stuff, (1) it’s dreadfully mundane. These very 20th century, ordinary everyman kind of figures. Mundane as hell. Honestly, I’d much rather have statues of cool samurai lords and national founding fathers than of some 1960s union leader in a suit and tie and briefcase, or with a construction helmet and jeans and boots. (2) We’re not Communists. Some of you may be, and you do you, but statues of farmers and factory workers is not my vibe. Tearing down all romantic heroes, all national or local cultural flavor to replace it with “the people”…. I just don’t know…

If we were to replace all the nationalistic and problematic stuff – all the samurai stuff, and the Meiji imperialist stuff – with some new, more progressive, focus for what Kagoshima should take pride in, then what might we suggest that this still distinctive of Kagoshima, that is still something to be proud of, that doesn’t feel ordinary, and doesn’t feel provincial?

To be sure, Kagoshima has plenty to be proud of in terms of music and art. I don’t know specifically which prominent jazz or enka or rock musicians came from Kagoshima, but I’m sure there could be something there. And Kagoshima certainly has its own history of both traditional Kanô school painting, and of Kagoshima people being among the first, or among the most prominent, to adopt and introduce European oil painting and modern art in other ways into Japan in the late 19th century…. so that’s something. But I still don’t think we need a giant statue of Kuroda Seiki in the central city plaza…

Anyway. Just a few rambling thoughts. Back in Tokyo now, and back to work.

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After Kagoshima, I activated my Japan Rail Pass, and took the (relatively) newly opened Kyushu Shinkansen up to Fukuoka. The main purpose of stopping over in Fukuoka was to see a procession scroll held by the Fukuoka City Museum. I do wish that I had planned a bit better, gone over to visit Kyushu University, checked out their library, maybe met up with a friend/colleague or two. But, everything was just so up in the air. I focused on getting permission and arranging an appointment to see this one scroll, and then just figured I would take the opportunity to see the rest of the City Museum, the Kyushu National Museum, and whatever else I might happen upon.

The only other time I’d been to Fukuoka (visiting a friend for a weekend in 2008), I made the mistake of trying to visit the Kyushu National Museum on a Monday. I had forgotten that National Museums (and a lot of other places) are closed on Mondays. And I had heard such amazing things about this then very newly opened national museum, which supposedly had such new and innovative approaches to the way its displays were organized. So, I was glad to get to finally go and check it out.

The Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the Kyushu National Museum turned out to be quite the disappointment. Firstly, because unlike the Tokyo National Museum they don’t allow photography, meaning I couldn’t capture anything of the really incredible artifacts on display, which can’t be seen anywhere else.

These included a 1591 letter from Nguyen Hoang to the “Ruler of Japan” (i.e. Toyotomi Hideyoshi), which I actually blogged about a short while back. The earliest extant communication between Vietnamese and Japanese rulers, ten years older than what was until very recently believed to have marked the earliest such exchange, this letter was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2018. I researched and wrote about late 16th – early 17th century Japan-SE Asia relations in my first MA thesis, and for more than ten years now have been excited to eventually get to see some of these letters. But now that I finally have, I wasn’t permitted to take photos for my personal enjoyment, or to post here. I guess the best I can hope for is either that Kyûhaku will eventually change their policies, or that the object will eventually go on exhibit somewhere else, that does allow photographs.

A series of seals from Korea were also of great interest. Coming from the collection of the Sô clan, samurai lords of Tsushima, these seals have a rather special historical pedigree. By which I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of Korean seals out there created for all different purposes and which made their way around the world for all kinds of reasons. But these are some of the very seals which the Sô clan lords were given directly by the Korean court to use as authorization to trade. These are not simply examples of something sort of similar, these are the very objects I have read so much about, in discussions of Tsushima’s special position in the history of Japan-Korea trade relationships. The Korean court granted seals or tallies to certain groups and individuals, which they could then use to identify themselves as authorized merchants. The Ming court gave tallies to various samurai warlords for similar purposes, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shoguns later gave “red seal letters” (shuinjo) to authorized merchants in a similar fashion. In fact, the 1601 letter which I mentioned above, exchanged between Nguyen Hoang and Tokugawa Ieyasu, discusses just such trade concerns and red seal authorization papers. Of course, any such system is going to lead to the creation of forgeries – fake authorization documents (or seals). Such forgeries appear prominently in discussions of Korea-Tsushima interactions, and so to see them on display as well was fantastic. No photos, though. Boo.

One more I’ll mention is a scroll painting by Sesshû, one of the most celebrated Japanese ink painters of all time, depicting “peoples of various countries” 国々人物図巻 and including beautiful and detailed depictions of Qing/Chinese individuals of a great many ranks or social positions, from King to monk to peasant.

Entrance to the “Cultural Exchange” permanent exhibits gallery at the Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the organization and design of the exhibition overall was quite the disappointment as well. I had heard wonderful things, that it was going to be so innovative. But unfortunately it feels little different from any “international contacts” and “cultural exchange” section of any other museum, just expanded somewhat.

The exhibits are organized only very roughly into any semblance of chronological order or by geographical or cultural logic. There is not much of a coordinated narrative, but rather just a splash of many different examples of exchanged. A few items related to red seal ships and Vietnam, a few related to the Sô/Tsushima and Korea, a model of a Chinese temple in Nagasaki. But no discussion of Korean or Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, or of Dejima or the Nagasaki Chinatown. At least not in as clear and explicit a way as in the British Museum, for example. And no sense of the overall history of interactions between Japan and any one other culture or country. Things aren’t really placed in a context. We get some Ryukyuan ceramics but no discussion of the embassies. Some items related to interactions with Vietnam, but no models or paintings of the red seal trading ships that constituted one of the central forms of interactions in the 16th-17th centuries, and no discussion of Ayutthaya or anywhere else in SE Asia at that particular time.

Overall, the entire thing is very scattered, very bara bara as they say in Japanese. Outside of large numbers 1,2,3,4, on the walls, there’s no real structure guiding you through the galleries – it’s all open plan and you’re left to wander around in no particular order, and thus within no particular structure of narrative order or context.

As cool as it is to have so many SE Asian artifacts on display, it doesn’t feel so revolutionary so much as it just feels like the Asia galleries of the Tokyo National Museum.

In some sections, objects from all over Asia are displayed together, with no context or framing device at all. In one room, they have a Gandhara Buddha, a Buddha head from Afghanistan, Goryeo & Sui Buddhas from Tsushima (very cool examples of very early cultural interaction), and a large bronze Bishamonten that’s apparently the only surviving bronze of its kind by the Ashiya 芦屋 foundry. But no labels saying “Buddhism appears differently around the world,” or “each culture’s Buddhist sculpture was influenced by others, including from as far away as Afghanistan.”. Nor anything about the history of Chinese and Korean Buddhist sculptures entering Japan.

I can see why they didn’t have a catalog of their regular exhibit, but only catalogs of “treasures of the collection”: because there is no real logic, no real narrative.

Portraits of the Kuroda lords and other artworks, at the Fukuoka City Museum.

By contrast, the Fukuoka City Museum was excellent. They allowed photos throughout most of the exhibits, if I’m remembering correctly, had lots of fantastic stuff on display, and followed a clear and structured chronological narrative.

Easily one of the most famous objects in the Fukuoka City Museum collection is a golden seal from the year 57 CE. The oldest object with writing on it ever found in Japan, it was a formal royal seal granted by the Emperor of the Han Dynasty to the ruler of a small kingdom called Na, based at that time somewhere in the general vicinity of what is today the city of Fukuoka. Who knows what happened to the seal for 1700 years, but sometime in the 1700s, a farmer found it (!?!?) on a tiny little island just off in the bay, near the castle-town of Fukuoka. In the museum today, the tiny seal, only about one or two inches square, is dramatically displayed in its own small room. Immediately afterwards are displays including 18th-19th century manuscripts writing about this discovery.

From there, the museum goes on to tell a thorough but not too overly-detailed narrative of the history of the area, in a very well-organized and engaging way, with lots of wonderful objects on display and good thematic divisions, gallery labels, etc.

They allowed photos of much of the exhibits but not everything, and for whatever reason I never really wrote down any notes while I was there. So I have nothing too deep to say, except that it seems a very well-done museum. I really love local history museums like this one, where they have a really grand worthwhile story to tell – the history of one of Japan’s greatest and most intercultural port cities throughout the pre-modern period, the home of a most ancient kingdom, and later of various palaces and castles of great historical significance, including becoming home in the 17th-19th century of the Kuroda clan, one of the great samurai families, who left behind tons of great treasures. We don’t learn nearly enough about any of this in, say, the National Museum of Japanese History or the Tokyo National Museum, let alone in our survey histories (or even our much more in-depth seminars or the like), and so it’s wonderful that here it is, a museum telling this story.

The Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, was another exciting stop. I had never actually heard of this museum before, but as it turned out it was just down the street from the place I was staying at.*

Once I learned that there was an “Asian Art Museum” specializing in modern art from across Asia, I got excited that it might be some Nihonga, Yôga, Guohua, and the equivalents across the region. Maybe it’s just purely because I had an MA advisor who specializes in such things, but I’ve really grown quite interested in that period towards the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when Japan, China, and I presume Okinawa, Korea, and elsewhere as well, began engaging with “modernity” in art, wrestling with whether to make their own traditional modes of art “modern” in some way, either making them into “national arts” or “national traditions,” or ditching them in favor of Western styles and modes of art (which were seen at the time as obviously more “modern”) and adopting that as the new national art. And all at right around the same time as much of Europe was in fact leaving behind such expert masterful realism in favor of various modes of “modernism”, beginning with Impressionism.

In any case, there was not to be found any such discussion or display of issues of modernity or modernism at this museum. Here, “modern” really means “contemporary,” as in contemporary art of the last decade or two or three, meaning a very different set of types or styles of artwork than Nihonga or Yôga. Which isn’t a problem – it was still very cool.

Still from Yamashiro Chikako’s video piece, “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” (2009).

In fact, to my surprise, the very first work in the gallery was by an Okinawan artist. Yamashiro Chikako (b. 1976) is an Okinawan video artist. In her 2009 piece 「あなたの声私の喉を通った」(“Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat”) – I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find the video online – a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa tells of his experience, and his voice is heard even as we watch Yamashiro’s face, mouthing (seemingly speaking) the words. Complete with her tears and facial expressions. At one point, she stops talking and just cries, losing her composure at the thought of these horrors, as the voice continues describing them.

I really appreciated the way that Yamashiro’s work was displayed. I had been in Okinawa just a few days earlier, and I really felt – really got the feeling – that this is pretty much just how it would have been shown in Okinawa too. Catalogs for key recent exhibits of Okinawan contemporary art, including Okinawa Prismed and Okinawa Bunka no Kiseki, were placed for visitors to read, alongside catalogs specifically about Okinawan women artists. Yamashiro’s work was displayed very straightforwardly, without exoticization, I felt.

And the Asian Art Museum allowed photos! Very surprising for a modern art museum, and especially for one in Japan. Truly, a most welcome thing.

Modern art from across Asia is shown, not country by country, but by periods and themes. I was a bit disappointed to not see more Nihonga and Yoga, but the great range of stuff from across Asia is pretty great in a different way.

Still lots to see in Fukuoka, though. I’ve got to go back sometime.


*Incidentally, a nice place worth staying at. Sadly, I didn’t remember to get photos of this place, or to take good notes either. But from what I can remember it was extremely clean – that white, bright, new aesthetic that I just don’t understand why the business hotels with all their brown don’t aim for. I had a small room all to myself – bunk beds, if I remember correctly, but I guess you can book the room rather than only booking by the bed. Small but perfectly clean, good showers/bathrooms down the hall. The whole place had a slightly funny nautical theme, like you’re staying in a modified spaceship or cruise ship or something. I dunno. But in any case, they also had a nice sunny common room on the top floor. I’m not super into socializing with other hostel-stayers; I’m a bit too old for that partying backpackers sort of vibe. Or maybe I’m not too old and it was just never my thing to begin with. But, free wifi, plenty of tables, a nice big kitchen up there. And just a good, bright, clean, aesthetic. Not gloomy or claustrophobic like the business hotels. Plus, WeBase Hakata is pretty conveniently located – only a couple blocks from the subway, the Asian Art Museum, and a major theatre venue.

All photos my own.

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Just someone’s bike parked at the Kagoshima University Dept of Agriculture

Continuing my way-behind recounting of my summer adventures:

One of the really wonderful things about being back in Japan is the feeling of infinite possibilities. Especially when I’m in Okinawa, I feel like if I had ten lifetimes, I could research and write about such an incredible variety of topics. Really explore a diversity of aspects of Okinawan history and culture. Not to mention trying out countless cafes and restaurants, going to shows, getting to know performers/scholars/activists, etc.

Back in Naha for the first time after living (nearby) there for six months, and I just kept thinking, I love this town. Part of it, I think, is just the self-reinforcement of how familiar it’s become. The more you get to know a place, the closer you get to it emotionally, just from familiarity. But I think a lot of it also just has to do with the city itself. I love the feel, the culture, the food. Of course sometimes it’s brutally hot out but even then, much like in Hawaiʻi, the sun just makes everything so beautiful. The colors pop, the sky is so blue and those buildings and whatever that are white are so white, and when there’s a breeze, or even when there isn’t, it just feels so open and airy. Maybe that’s just the difference of coming to Naha from Tokyo and NY – anywhere is going to feel open and airy compared to the “canyons” of Manhattan.

The view of Kokusai-dôri in Naha from my guesthouse, AbestCube Naha.

Coming back to “mainland” Japan from Okinawa, I always feel the cultural difference pretty strongly. It’s not a difference like one would get culture shock, like going from the US to Japan or the US to England or something like that. But, just that Japanese food and Japanese traditional architecture and certain other things like that are, basically, foreign in Okinawa, or at least they’re a minority cultural presence. When you go to a “Japanese restaurant” in Okinawa, it stands out, it feels like you’ve entered a different space, much like for example a Japanese restaurant in the US. You’ve stepped out of Okinawan cultural space into Japanese space, where the food is different, the aesthetics are different…. And, one does get a sense or a feeling that this is the culture that conquered and annexed and sought to assimilate Okinawa. I don’t mean that in an overly political, fist-shaking, crying for revolution, kind of way; I don’t mean it in an anti-Japanese kind of way; but just that I do get a little bit of a sense of that. And it is tied into a certain ignorance – which, again, I don’t mean in an overly political way, but just that it’s interesting to go from somewhere where the tension between Okinawanness and Japaneseness is ever-present, to somewhere where there is (more or less) only Japaneseness, and thus no tension – whether in Tokyo or in Kagoshima, Okinawa is just not at all on the forefront of the vast majority of people’s attention, just as Hawaii or Guam or Okinawa for that matter are not at the forefront of people’s attention or awareness in LA or DC or NY.

Okinawa University of the Arts as seen from Shuri castle.

In any case, on a separate subject, for my first few nights in Kagoshima I was staying in a real proper hotel for the first time on this trip, and was seriously wondering why. I got it for quite cheap, if I remember correctly, so that’s good. But, honestly, I stayed with my dad in a motel on the side of the highway in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey, and the place was nicer than this. I guess I should have expected it – I’ve stayed in enough Japanese hotels in my life. But it’s just funny, it’s weird, you know? Here I am, moving from what’s ostensibly a lower-class of establishment, hostels and cabin hotels, youth backpackers’ sorts of places which are kind of, in a certain sense, on the margins of the hotel industry (insofar as they are not the big chains which dominate the industry). And yet, both the &AND HOSTEL AKIHABARA that I stayed in for a few nights at the beginning of my trip, and the Abest Cube Kokusai-dori place where I stayed in Naha, had a much brighter, cleaner, nicer, newer aesthetic, and, really, in a certain sense, better facilities. I mean, having your own private bathroom should of course count as a plus over having a shared bathroom down the hall. But, actually, I just really don’t like these tiny in-suite box bathrooms. The hotel room itself is so small that you’re literally sleeping just two or three feet away from the bathroom door, just two or three feet away from the toilet, albeit with a wall in between. And it’s just gross. Plus, these box bathrooms always feel cramped, and quite often you have to switch over the water from the sink to the shower – I don’t know why that bothers me, but it does. It feels cheap, low quality, to me.

And while the room, and the hotel overall, certainly look clean enough and don’t have an overtly run-down sort of feeling like so many hostels do, still, in comparison to the very bright, clean, white sort of aesthetic of the nicer, newer, hostels, I don’t understand why it seems so standard in mainstream hotels for everything to be brown / tan / cream. Not that I think it’s genuinely less clean, but it feels less clean. It feels darker, smaller, more closed-in. It lacks that sunny, airy, open feeling that you get at places like Abest Cube and &AND HOSTEL. Why do they do that?

Halls at Abest Cube Naha.

Sure, they’ve got some funny stuff, like how you can’t control your AC individually, and how they don’t want you talking on the phone in your room (because I guess the walls are too thin, and the noise carries?). But outside of those two things, I have absolutely no complaints at all about Abest Cube Kokusai-dori. Everything looks perfectly clean and sleek like it’s brand new. Not just recently cleaned, but honestly like-new perfect. There isn’t even the tiniest hint of the place being rundown or “discount” or lesser-than. It’s no glitzy five-star hotel, but who needs that honestly? The bathrooms and showers are perfectly clean. The water pressure and temperature in the showers is excellent. The beds are nothing super amazing (memory foam or anything) but they’re big, and more than comfortable enough. The common rooms are nice, and offer a nice view overlooking Kokusai-dori. The breakfast is small and basic, but it’s freshly made and it’s included. A slice of toast, half a hard boiled egg, a little salad, a little fruit, and a little soup.

And I can hardly imagine a more convenient location. It was cool staying in the guesthouse in Tsuboya, and it would be cool to stay *in* Heiwa Dori as well, really immersed in a neighborhood like that. But this is really the next best thing. A couple minutes walk to the monorail, a few minutes in the opposite direction to the entrance to Heiwa Dori. Sure, Kokusai-dori is crazy touristy, in some respects it’s like staying in Times Square. But even so, it puts you right in the center of everything. And I managed to get a room – a private room, not a capsule or a dorm bed – for less than $30/night.

*This* is the right way to do lodgings. I wish I could stay at Abest Cube all the time everywhere I go.

Right: Heiwa-dôri, a maze of a shopping arcade in central Naha.

“Ryûkyûjin ôrai suji nigiwai no zu,” c. 1850, Uetsuki Gyôkei, detail. Section of a handscroll depicting the hubbub in the streets of Edo just after a Ryukyuan embassy procession passed through. Small, low-quality photo found online somewhere – no thanks to Kagoshima University Library, who refuse to make such images available at all.

Turning to my time in Kagoshima, my sincere thanks to Hori-san at the Kagoshima University Library for allowing me to see two beautiful and one-of-a-kind paintings, even though the library’s website seems to suggest that as a basic policy they don’t generally show anyone the originals. No thanks to his institution’s policies, meanwhile, which do not allow researchers to take photographs, even with an application /permission form, and which insist we should satisfy ourselves with the rather poor, low quality digital images of which, even those, can only be viewed at the library and cannot be downloaded or otherwise copied to take home. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to do research like this.

No thanks, too, to the Kagoshima Prefectural Library, which on multiple occasions has shown the most obnoxiously strict interpretations of copyright law I have ever seen. Even when other institutions explicitly say you can copy one whole article out of a journal so long as you’re not copying the whole journal, only at Kagoshima Prefectural Library would they consider an article one whole and expect that anyone should be okay with only copying parts of the whole. Seriously?

Above: Model of Kagoshima castle main gate, which apparently they’re planning to rebuild by 2020.
Below: A shiden electric streetcar passing through the Tenmonkan neighborhood of Kagoshima.

All that said, though, Kagoshima is a city I could see living in. I don’t know anything about which institutions might ever hire me, but I guess thinking more along the lines of a several-month fellowship or something, I just like that it’s such a good size city. Tenmonkan is a great vibrant but cozy shôtengai neighborhood, and more or less everything else in the city is in either short walking distance or there are the shiden streetcars, which I love.

There’s something about the Tenmonkan area that just makes me feel like it’s the classic model shôtengai. After a night or two in that crappy business hotel, I found a wonderful AirBnB right in the middle of the shôtengai. I was nothing too special, not fancy at all, but for less than $35/night I got to have an entire apartment to myself – small kitchen, private bath/shower, A/C, wifi, and (oddly) three beds in the one large bedroom. I don’t know when I personally will find myself looking to stay in Kagoshima with 2+ close friends as a whole traveling group, but if Take’s apartment is available, it would be an excellent place. And the shôtengai itself is nice, too. Not particularly touristy, not particularly hipstery/gentrified, but also not too run-down or out-of-date. Just, I dunno, normal. A good, decent, assortment of shops. I imagine that if I lived there more long-term, it could be a decent place to go shopping, to find favorite stores or bars or cafés… Not as exciting as Naha’s Heiwa-dôri, but, a nice taste of the “regular” (non-touristy) Japanese shopping street experience.

Outer walls of Kagoshima castle.

All photos my own, except where noted otherwise.

model

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In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

In his discussion of fishing villages in Chikuzen province, Kalland provides an almost dizzying degree of detail about Tokugawa era fishing techniques and equipment, what kinds of fish were caught, and how they were used or prepared, and also about the complexities of economic logistics, tax structures, and regulations pertaining to fishing in Chikuzen. This book is surely a profoundly valuable resource for anyone studying Tokugawa period fishing villages, fishing, and the like, for the incredible level of detail he provides on a wide variety of aspects of fishing life. And, as such, it really fleshes out our picture of Tokugawa Japan, covering a very significant yet often overlooked sector, beyond the cities, beyond the samurai & townsmen, beyond even the agricultural peasantry.

However, for my particular project, since the Ryukyuan missions merely passed through these villages, I think Dusinberre’s brief Edo period chapter may be more directly applicable than Kalland’s entire book; in that brief chapter, Dusinberre mentions more about Korean missions, where they stayed while in Kaminoseki, how many houses they took up, and other key aspects of the logistics and burden of reception of these embassies than Kalland does in his entire book, mentioning next to nothing about inns, the harbor/port reception of any kind of official visitors, or the urban side of fishing villages otherwise. Kalland’s book is immensely valuable for one thing – for those interested in fishing villages – but I wish there existed an equally detailed, extensive, book on commercial port villages, more directly connected into networks of trade and travel.

That said, the one chapter on corvée labor (kako) could prove rather useful for my project, as Tokugawa systems of corvée – how people were called up, what types of tasks they contributed to – remain among the lacunae of my knowledge. Here, Kalland reveals that among the chief types of labor villagers in coastal villages were obliged to provide was, simply, the contribution of their boats and their labor for the transportation of officials and their associated cargoes. Though Kalland only speaks specifically of Fukuoka domain, it is easy to imagine, or extrapolate, that similar systems probably prevailed in other domains throughout much of the realm. Suddenly, we get a much clearer idea of how sankin kōtai missions, and Korean and Ryukyuan embassies, as well as any number of other official travels, were conducted: through considerable official appropriation of villagers’ boats and bodies. The numbers Kalland provides are a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around; that the reception of the 1748 Korean mission cost Chikuzen villages somewhere in the range of 120,000 man-hours worth of time/effort certainly makes an impression, suggesting the incredible magnitude of the corvée burden, but it does not give such a graspable, understandable, impression of the impact upon an individual fisherman, or upon a village. Still, combined with the figures and information given by Dusinberre as to how many houses in Kaminoseki and neighboring villages were taken up by Korean missions, we are able to begin to get some sense of the scale of the imposition.

Okinawan fishing boats on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Probably somewhat different from what they would have used in Chikuzen, but this is the closest thing I happen to have among my own photos.

Kalland’s focus on Chikuzen province (or Fukuoka han), however, presents some challenges. As demonstrated by numerous scholars, Mark Ravina in particular, Tokugawa period domains functioned in some important ways like (semi-)independent countries, and varied dramatically in their policies and political, economic, and societal structures and functionings. Thus, it is difficult to know how much of what Kalland shares here can actually be taken to be indicative of economic structures, etc., in any other province. Where the likes of Roberts, Sakai, McClain, and Dusinberre, writing on Tosa, Satsuma, Kanazawa, and Kaminoseki respectively, are to one extent or another clear about how their respective cases are indicative examples or atypical exceptions, Kalland’s engagement with this issue is lacking. He is neither sufficiently explicit about how or why Fukuoka might be an exceptionally distinctive case (as Satsuma would be in a variety of prominent respects), nor explicitly argues that his findings should be taken as applicable to the rest of the archipelago, leaving the question open and vague. As he describes, in many Chikuzen villages, fishermen did not actually own their own equipment, but used equipment owned by an amimoto, an entrepreneur who basically did the investment into the equipment and kept a good share of the return; or fishermen entered into net cooperatives, sharing the costs of the equipment. Did these amimoto and net cooperatives function similarly in other provinces? Did they even exist? Even without going into detail about other provinces, Kalland might have at least discussed whether anything he detailed was or was not typical for the archipelago as a whole. Was the domainal administration of Fukuoka more or less regulatory than in other provinces? Were tax rates particularly high, or particularly low? Were amimoto or net cooperatives particularly powerful or numerous, more so than in other provinces? And if so, why? What about Fukuoka’s location, or about the wealth/prestige of the Kuroda, made economic, social, and political structures regarding fishing exceptional, or typical? This sort of approach, as discussed to one extent or another by Sakai, Roberts, Ravina, and Dusinberre, would have dramatically enhanced the accessibility and usefulness of Kalland’s text.

Echoing my comments on Dusinberre and Amino, however, Kalland’s emphasis on fishing villages, and his arguments against seeing Tokugawa Japan as merely a dichotomy between urban merchants and rural farmers, are of great value in combating a conception which ignores coastal & maritime activities entirely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Saga:
*The Mietsu naval facility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The two main buildings of the Shôkoshûseikan museum, with the Japanese national Hinomaru, and Shimazu clan crest flags waving before them.

Friday, Sept 12.

On my third day in Kagoshima, I finally made it to the Shôkoshûseikan. Putting all that nonsense with Kagoshima Station, and with the station staff telling me there was no way to get out there except by taxi, I found out about the CityView bus, and just took that. It’s a tourist bus, to be sure, but it operates much like a regular public bus – wait at the bus stop, get on, pay the right amount (I think it was less than 200 yen) when you get off. Simple as that. No reservations or tour package membership needed. And it lets off right in front of Shôkoshûseikan.

The Iso Ijinkan, or Iso Foreigners’ Hall.

I had noticed in the last few minutes of the bus ride a few smaller sites – monuments and the like – which I wanted to check out, so I put the whole Shôkoshûseikan compound on hold for a bit, and walked back down. There I found the Isoijinkan (Iso Foreigners’ Hall), a major famous Meiji piece of architecture which also serves as the setting for the only kabuki play of which I’m aware that has anything to do with Ryukyu. Sadly, it’s a postwar play, not an Edo period one, so it’s not really something that falls within my typical purview of study. Or, rather, I should say, of course I could go and analyze it or whatever if I so chose, but it won’t reveal anything about Edo period views or attitudes.

Anyway, it’s a gorgeous and very Meiji-looking building, which was used as housing for British & other foreign engineers. I wish we had more structures like it still in use. Two other Western-style wooden buildings located just down the street, which look like they would be right at home in old 19th century California, house other galleries and such; one is a glass studio. Later in the day, I glimpsed people working with the furnaces, and blowing glass, but I never did end up making it back over there to check it out any more closely. The other of the two buildings was originally built as an office managing the Shimazu clan’s gold mines, but I’m not positive what it’s used for today. Other monuments included one for Satsuma’s first Western-style shipyard, and of its first industrial spinning mill (today the site of a 7-11).

I then returned to Sengan’en, the large gardens adjoining the Shôkoshûseikan, and home to the lord of Satsuma’s secondary residence, the so-called Iso Palace. In the Meiji period, after the castle was taken over by the central government, the samurai class abolished, and the daimyo (lord) re-titled, re-situated into the new aristocracy, this became his primary residence. By that time, the palace was already surrounded by – i.e. the gardens were already filled with – industrial foundries, power plants, and the like. Today, the Shôkoshûseikan is just two museum buildings, but originally, back in the Bakumatsu & Meiji period, all of this would have been one large complex, with the lights (and other things?) at the palace being powered by a hydroelectric dam (!!) on-site, as early as 1892. ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu likes to boast having electricity (or is it phones?) before even Buckingham Palace or the White House, and this was only six years later than ʻIolani.

One aspect that’s particularly interesting about all of this is that the Shimazu began the process of developing these various technologies – steamships, reverbatory furnaces for forging cannon – before Japan “opened” to the world. This is something the Shôkoshûseikan museum exhibits will emphasize to you time and again. Whereas most of the rest of Japan’s modernization/industrialization in the 1850s-1860s (and later) was done with Western experts, Western equipment, etc. directly imported from Europe and the United States, this earliest (and rather successful & impressive) effort by the Shimazu was done chiefly from Western /books/ alone, with Satsuma scholars reading Western materials, looking at pictures, and using their own Japanese techniques and raw materials to attempt to construct these technologies. Though as I’ve said before I’m not too interested in being a Bakumatsu/Meiji Satsuma fanboy, one has to admit this is all pretty damn impressive. I wonder how unique it is. Were Chôshû, Mito, or others doing anything at all of the sort?

Of course, it’s not just industrial technology that was a major activity at the Shûseikan factory complex. It was here, in the mid-to-late 19th century, that Satsuma wares (ceramics) and kiriko glasswares were developed and produced. Satsuma can boast all they like about these great “traditional” art forms, but so far as I’m concerned, beautiful and impressive as they are in certain ways, inventions of the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods are generally not “traditional” in my book. Especially since kiriko glassware was only produced for a very short time in the Meiji period, and then went unpracticed for the better part of a century before being revived in the 1980s. I can just imagine someone in 1890 saying “look at these marvelous glasswares; we’ve been producing them in Satsuma ever since a few years ago; they’re a great long-lasting traditional famous craft product of our region,” or someone in 1930 or 1950 saying “remember those great glasswares we produced for just a few years in the 1880s? Yeah, they really symbolize and embody Satsuma culture, Satsuma identity.” Ha.

Anyway, the gardens are pretty extensive, including not only the former sites of quite a few industrial factories and the like, but also a lengthy hike up the mountain to see a great view of Sakurajima, and out over the port. A small exhibit discusses Jigen-ryû swordsmanship, of which Satsuma is oh-so-proud, and lets you try it out a bit yourself.

The main entrance of the Iso Palace.

A tour of the palace itself (for an extra 600 yen, and incl. a very rushed/brief tea ceremony experience at the end) is quite nice, though no photos are allowed, and though the tour is only about 20 minutes. I might have preferred to walk around on my own, at my own pace, as at so many other historical houses. We are taught that Shimazu Tadayoshi, last lord of Satsuma, kept his topknot and much of his traditional or samurai-style practices, e.g. in terms of his clothing, and the furnishings of his residence, though we are also shown fairly lavish Western-style reception rooms, complete with elaborately carved European-style wooden dining room table and chairs, a chandelier made in England & powered by the nearby hydroelectric dam, Satsuma kiriko glassware, and a European set of “china” (serving set – plates, teacups, silverware).

One of the highlights for me, of course, was a small pavilion gifted to the lords of Satsuma by the king of Ryukyu. It’s a pretty plain-looking thing, just a small tile-roofed and stone-floored rest space, like that you would find in a Chinese garden. I wonder if it was originally more lavishly painted, perhaps in red and gold. Today, it looks quite plain, in unpainted wood. Still, it’s a neat thing to see. And for those who are interested in sites related to the great heroes of the Bakumatsu/Meiji, this exact pavilion was the site of a famous conversation between Katsu Kaishû and Shimazu Nariakira.

Unlike a lot of formerly waterfront sites which are now further inland, due to redevelopment (land reclamation) and/or natural sedimentation or whatever, Sengan’en remains quite close to the waterfront today, with just a single road, and set of train tracks, between the compound and the beach. It’s really something to think of the Shimazu lords, relaxing in their gardens, right on the sea.

Above: The main torii at Tsurugane Shrine, looking out over the water; you can see just how close Shôkoshûseikan and the Sengan’en gardens are to the water. Both compounds run right along the waterfront, with only (today) a single road, and a set of rails between the walls of the compound and the beach. Below: The innermost cloister, so to speak, of Tsurugane Shrine.

The Sengan’en / Shôkoshûseikan compound also includes a Shimazu family Shinto shrine, called Tsurugane Shrine, and the two buildings of the Shôkoshûseikan Museum proper. There’s some pretty incredible stuff in here, including mainly armor, weapons, and other objects belonging to the Shimazu lords, going all the way back to the Kamakura period, as well as letters & other documents associated with the Shimazu, portraits of them, and the like. The exhibits are pretty well-done too, looking very sleek and up-to-date in style. Sadly, here too no photos are allowed, so I was forced to simply take notes best as I could, rather than photographing the gallery labels and having their full text available to look over later. The exhibits begin with the pre-modern and early modern (that is, up until 1860s) history of Satsuma, with a particular focus on (1) Satsuma as semi-independent, doing its own thing politically and economically, and possessing its own distinctive culture, and (2) Satsuma as a maritime place; the phrase “Kaiyô kokka Satsuma” (Maritime State Satsuma) appears a number of times. Following this pre-modern / early modern portion, the remainder of the exhibits – the majority – focus on Satsuma’s industrialization efforts in the 1850s-1870s or so, at the Shûseikan itself in particular.

After my frustrations with the meager offerings at the Reimeikan museum shop bookstore, I had sort of pinned my hopes on the Shôkoshûseikan; sadly, they did not have any of those Reimeikan offerings, nor too many of their own catalogs, though they did have lots of other neat stuff. Lots of clear files (file folders) with neat designs – incl. family trees of the Shimazu and Tokugawa, and synopses of the Bakumatsu & Meiji periods. Cell phone straps in a variety of designs. Plenty of books about Bakumatsu & Meiji Satsuma. I picked up a cellphone strap of the Satsuma/Ryukyu five-pointed star official National Decoration that Satsuma gave out at the 1867 World’s Fair, where it boldly appeared with its own separate booth, to the consternation of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who was trying to represent Japan as a whole. (Incidentally, Hawaii had its own pavilion at the 1970 Osaka Expo, far on the other end of the grounds from the USA pavilion. But I’m not sure anyone thinks too much of it…)

I eventually asked one of the staff about the possibility of obtaining catalogs from previous exhibits, even though I figured that their non-appearance on the shelves most likely indicated they simply weren’t for sale. To my surprise, she came back from the back room with three catalogs, and when I asked whether they were for sale, she said that for someone (like me) with a genuine interest, I could have them for free! Bam. Sometimes it really doesn’t hurt to just ask!

I spent two more days in Kagoshima after that, but there’s not too much to say about those days, which were quite a bit more bara bara, as I just visited a lot of bookstores, did a little clothes shopping, got caught in the rain, poked around a few sites I hadn’t been to yet, went back to the Prefectural Library, and failed to get into the Kagoshima University Library, which is apparently closed both on weekends during the summer, and on national holidays (that Monday was Respect for the Elderly Day).

Right: Tagiruba, a small yatai bar at Kagomma Yatai-mura, specializing in buri, among other things.

Highlights of these last few days included the Museum of the Meiji Restoration – which does allow photos, thanks so much!, and which features some dramatic and not too cheesy video / animatronics shows about the period – and getting to spend my last dinner in Kagoshima at a tiny yatai bar eating actual local specialties and chatting with people. The whole thing may be really touristy, I don’t know, but at least at the bar I was sitting at, there seemed to be some regulars, close friends of the main guy behind the bar. For some reason, this whole month I’ve had trouble finding good places to eat, and have ended up more often than not at family restaurants, fast food places, and the like. But in Kagoshima, I did find one place with excellent tomato ramen, and this yatai, this was an excellent way to end my time in Kagoshima. It’s a small maze of something like fifteen (maybe more) little stalls, each with only about ten or fifteen seats, at most, and each offering different local specialties. Most of them served pork of one kind or another. One specialized in Amami Islands cuisine, which would have been really cool, but it was just too too crowded. In fact, they were all crowded, and it took me four or five times walking through, and almost giving up twice, before I finally found a seat at the one place I did end up at. And the food was excellent. Buri (yellowtail) sashimi, buri “fried fish” chunks with tartar sauce, cream cheese tofu (which is a lot better than it sounds – really delicious), and good drinks and conversation.

Thanks, Kagoshima! I had a blast. The next day, I was off to Okinawa.

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Well, I spent the last two weeks in Edo Tokyo, and didn’t post a single thing about it. Haha. How did that happen? Well, now it’s too late – my adventures are all jumbled up in my mind, and while I know I have things to say about this and that tidbit (seeking out Tanuma Okitsugu’s grave was a bit of a thing), I don’t think I could really do (or would want to do) a day-by-day recap. So, maybe I’ll come back to it – I know I took notes on my thoughts on visiting the former site of Edo Castle. But, for now, Kagoshima!

The JetStar check-in area at Narita Airport.

I arrived in Kagoshima on a Tuesday; JetStar, despite being a budget airline, was much better, much nicer than US Airways, United, American, which I think really says something about the horrendous state of air travel in our country. Everything was clean and sleek, check-in was a snap, and all the staff were as courteous and well-put-together as could be. Makes you actually feel like it might be the 21st century. There was a concern our flight might get diverted to Fukuoka since Sakurajima was feeling a bit more smoky that day; diversion on account of volcano! That would have been a first for me. I couldn’t remember if I’d bought travel insurance, so if we had gotten diverted, I was worried I might be footing the several hundred dollar Kyushu Shinkansen ticket myself; but, on the flip side, it would mean getting to ride the Kyushu Shinkansen, maybe getting to see some cool sites along the way, maybe even figuring out a way to stop along the way to actually explore Nagasaki, Kumamoto, Hirado, etc. Or maybe not. In any case, the flight did not get diverted, and we arrived in Kagoshima safe and sound.

The main form of public transportation in Kagoshima is by streetcar (*ding ding*), seen here passing by the original/main location of the Yamakata-ya department store, built during the Taishô period (1912-1926).

I would like to try to avoid generalizing about the character of the town – that romantic characterization thing we all do when we travel (and when we don’t) – especially since anything and everything is always too complicated for that, and anything I could say would be smoothing over, ignoring, other things. But, let me just point out some of the key features I’ve noticed so far.

One, Bakumatsu, Meiji, and pre-war modernity are everywhere. Of course Kagoshima has plenty of post-war buildings like any city does – especially a city that suffered bombing and such in the war – and, in fact, has some rather sparkling 21st century shopping malls and the like. In all truth and fairness, I cannot say that the city is dominated by any particular historical aesthetic – on a typical side street (or even along the main road), the vast majority of buildings are quite ordinary looking, meaning late 20th century or early 21st.

But, upon first impressions, especially first getting off of the streetcar (市電) at Tenmonkan in order to then go searching for my hotel… Tenmonkan is the historical commercial & urban culture center of Kagoshima. In the Taishô period (1912-1926), a period known for its eager adoption of Western/American urban and popular culture, Tenmonkan was Kagoshima’s center of jazz clubs, cinemas, cafés, and the like. And while it certainly doesn’t look the same today as it did then, it remains one of the city’s major shopping areas, pinned around the main/original location of the Yamakata-ya department store chain, a massive Taishô era (I think) building whose architectural motifs are carried over to line the shopping arcades for many city blocks. And having the streetcars passing by certainly helps evoke something of an imagination of what this area all looked like in the past. Incidentally, while the roads themselves are paved, of course, the streetcar tracks are grassy green strips cutting through the center of the boulevard, for the entire length of the central part of the city. I don’t know what the reasons are, but I like it. Many other historical and prominent buildings in the city are of a similar age – late 19th, early 20th century styles.

One of a handful of “living history” tableaus erected across the city; this one, relating to events of 1860, depicts a young Ichiji Shoji and Yoshii Tomozane discussing the ongoing political changes.

But what’s also really prominent in the city is the focus – which comes not at all as a surprise – on Bakumatsu and Meiji history. Walk around town, and you will see not only markers and signs for historical sites related to the great heroes of the Bakumatsu & Meiji periodsSaigô Takamori, Sakamoto Ryôma, Ôkubo Toshimichi and the like – and not only grand historical statues, but quite recently erected statues, as well, by way of bringing the history more actively, more visibly, onto the streets.

I certainly count myself as interested in the great modernization/Westernization of the country and of this city in particular, as one of the pioneering areas in those developments; there’s something very compelling about imagining how samurai developed the first steam engines in Japan, hydroelectric dams, and the like, simply through looking at books imported from the West, before travel or direct consultation with Western experts was possible, building some of the first Western-style / “modern” industrial factories, docks, and the like in Japan using a combination of Western technology and Japanese styles, materials, and techniques, and imagining how the city began to look in the late 19th century as these developments took hold. But, as many of the great “heroes” of Satsuma’s Bakumatsu and Meiji history are the same oft-cited “heroes” of Japanese history more broadly, I’ve long ago already become bored, tired, of their lionization. Sometimes it seems like everything is always about goddamned Saigô Takamori. Come see Saigô’s statue, Saigô’s birthplace, the site of Saigô’s death, the site where Saigô fought off so-and-so, the site where Saigô made this famous speech. Ugh. Enough already. I get that he’s kind of sort of the George Washington of Japan – leader of the revolution, whatever. But, honestly, as if Shimazu Yoshihiro doesn’t deserve to be celebrated as a great son of Kagoshima. Where’s his giant bronze statue? You’d think Saigô was the be-all and end-all of Japanese history.

Anyway, I’ll stop before getting too much further into a rant. The point is, it is interesting to see how a city defines itself, presents itself, both in the present, and in the Meiji-through-pre-war period, when so many monuments and memorials were first constructed, when the modern nation-state of Japan, its modern prefectures and cities, and their histories and identities were first being consciously constructed. Some cities, like Kanazawa and Hikone, at least from what I saw of them, are all about their castles, and their Edo period legacies. Kanazawa in particular, as home to the Maeda clan, second wealthiest samurai clan in the archipelago after the Tokugawa, has made itself known for its castle, its many still-intact Edo period samurai residences and still-operating geisha district, and traditions of ceramics, lacquerware, and gold-foiled-everything (even cakes), with extremely little emphasis, if I remember correctly, on anything Meiji or later.

Here in Kagoshima, formerly home to the Shimazu, the third wealthiest samurai clan after the Maeda and the Tokugawa, we get a very different story. The castle site is there, and is now home to a pretty excellent history museum, but there are very few marked historical sites, let alone statues, of any figures significant before, say, the 1840s or 1850. From Atsu-hime to Shimazu Nariakira to Saigô Takamori, everything is about a narrative of Kagoshima as pioneers in the modernizing of Japan, and as the birthplace of quite a few of the “founding fathers,” so to speak, of Japan’s modern revolution. Even the more historical exhibits – particularly at the Shôkoshûseikan (one of the first factories in Japan), but even at the Reimeikan (history museum on the former site of the castle) – fit these earlier periods of Kagoshima’s medieval and early modern (Edo/Tokugawa) history into a narrative of Kagoshima having always been engaged with the sea, with being “open” to the outside world, and open to new technologies and foreign cultures, as if Satsuma knew ahead of time to be ahead of its time, everything leading up to this “opening” to the modern world in the 1850s-1870s.

Incidentally, I do find something really intriguing about the idea of Satsuma as semi-independent, as enforcing its own “sakoku within a sakoku,” developing its own culture and pushing its own agendas. Which isn’t to say that other regions/domains weren’t doing the same, to one extent or another, but if there is any truth to the notion of Kagoshima being more seriously a major center of cultural and economic developments of a decidedly separate nature from that of Kyoto, Osaka, Edo – the core and source of much of “Japanese” history and tradition as we hear it from the national level – rather than being a provincial backwater, I’d be curious to hear more about it.

But, returning to the point, even as early as Meiji, Kagoshima was celebrating its own modernity, and quite understandably so. One can easily imagine a city – home to much of the earliest “modern” industrial / technological developments in Japan, and to many of the most powerful politicians/bureaucrats in pre-war Japan – desperately trying to push itself up into being a major city, and not a provincial backwater.

Right: Statue of Shimazu Hisamitsu at Tanshôen Gardens, one of three massive bronze statues of mid-19th century Shimazu lords erected there in 1917.

The Terukuni Shrine, a site, of course, as a Shinto shrine, of largely traditional architecture, customs/practices, and beliefs, features gaslamps right alongside the more traditional stone lanterns, and in the neighboring Tanshôen Gardens, three massive statues were erected in 1917, honoring three generations of Shimazu lords who ruled over the city’s modernization. I love these statues, because they are just so laughably massive, and because they are precisely the kind of thing that could only have been erected in the late 19th or early 20th centuries, when that particular brand of nationalism, demonstrated through monuments and memorials, was all the rage. And, of course, no doubt that the Shimazu, still plenty wealthy and powerful into the 20th century in large part because of their industrial operations, would want to build as big as they could. Admittedly, I’ve seen some pretty massive Buddhist sculptures elsewhere, but that’s a whole other thing; I’m not sure if I recall ever seeing any other historical figures in Japan put on such a pedestal – literally! – as these three Shimazus at Tanshôen, and Saigô across town.

One can only imagine how things might have gone differently, if Kagoshima were today to have become (or remained) the far more major city that people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were trying to represent it as being.

….

If we’re going to be talking about the character of Kagoshima as a city, there is another side to it too. Walking around Tenmonkan, and near the castle, and all the places I spoke of above you wouldn’t necessarily see it, but go out to the Shôkoshûseikan, and other more northerly parts of the city, and you find that Kagoshima is also very much a maritime town, and a beach town. I don’t want to go on and on about it too much, since this post is already really long, but suffice it to say that there is a certain something, a certain aesthetic, a certain atmosphere, that you get in beach towns that you don’t really get elsewhere. I didn’t find anywhere in Kagoshima that feels quite so strongly of that as in certain parts of Naha, to be sure, but even so, looking out from Tsurugane Shrine (at the Shôkoshûseikan complex), through/past the torii, to the sea, I can’t help but be reminded of that small shrine in Ôgimi-son, the village in northern Okinawa I visited last summer.


As seems to be the case everywhere, areas of the city which were once waterfront property only a few hundred years ago are considerably less so today, so we have to try to imagine… But, picturing the Shimazu second residence, at the Iso Palace (later, the site of the Shôkoshûseikan factory compound), being right on the water, and even the castle itself being only ten or fifteen blocks from a very active port, kind of gives you a different sense of the character of the town. Not so much in town, but out by the Shûseikan, I saw ads for jetskiing, stand-up paddleboarding, etc. advertising that it’s good weather for that year-round in Kagoshima, and just really emphasizing the water sports aspect of Kagoshima tourism. And perhaps more to the point, there’s just something about being able to see the sea, and thinking about how certain buildings stand there overlooking the sea, that just gives them a very different feeling. A small branch shrine of Yasaka Shrine, located a short walk away from the Shûseikan, and from which you can see the ocean just a couple blocks away, gives this feeling, though it’s not quite as directly associated with the beach as, for example, “Above the Waves” (Naminoue) Shrine in Okinawa. Just looking at the slight wear on the main shrine building, who knows if there’s really anything about that wear that marks it as distinctively coming from sea spray or maritime moisture coming up off the water, but you sure do get that feeling.

Above: The main torii at Yasaka Shrine, Iso neighborhood, Kagoshima; Below: the shrine’s main worship hall, a short walk from the Shôkoshûseikan, and just a block or so from the beach.

I have one post on tap summarizing my first full day in Kagoshima – a sort of walking tour history like so many travel blogs do, like my second and third posts on Sakura from last year. And, like I said, I have some topics about my time in Tokyo I’m hoping to come back to. But, we’ll see how much I end up doing for the second and third days, or how far I fall behind. Stay tuned!

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The Asahi Shimbun reports today that a document has been discovered, sent from Annam (Vietnam), and addressed to Toyotomi Hideyoshi using the title “King of Japan” (日本国王). The announcement comes from the Kyushu National Museum. Up until now, the oldest known extant document related to Japan-Vietnam relations was believed to be one from 1601, received by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and visible today at the National Archives of Japan Digital Archive – a document which, incidentally, I once wrote a paper on.

The Tokugawa-era document comes from Nguyen Hoang, lord of southern-central Vietnam1, who writes to Ieyasu reporting that he has captured the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who had terrorized the Vietnamese coast sixteen years earlier. Nguyen uses this occasion as a pretext for extending offers of good will, and requests for a continuation of good relations. Ieyasu’s response, which I have never seen as an image of an original document, but have only read descriptions of, describes the shuinjô (“red seals”) system, explaining that any Japanese seamen who do not carry licenses with the shogunate’s red seal can be apprehended as smugglers or pirates, but that those who do carry such licenses are licensed “above-board” merchants, authorized by the shogunate. Thus was the earliest known extant document recording, marking, the establishment or continuation of Japanese-Vietnamese relations – that is, until now.

The 1601 letter from Nguyen Hoang to Tokugawa Ieyasu, from the Gaiban Shokan.

The newly discovered Hideyoshi-era document is on display at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture) as part of a Vietnam exhibition which opened April 16.

In this document, a Lord Nguyen (presumably the same Nguyen Hoang, r. 1558-1613) writes, in Classical Chinese of course, something to the effect of “I offer gifts, and would like to bind us in friendly relations.” The document is dated with a Vietnamese reign era which corresponds with 1591 on the Western calendar, and is explicitly marked 「日本国・国王」 (“Country of Japan, King”). It seems to have been brought to Japan by a Japanese merchant, many of whom were actively engaged in maritime trade in Southeast Asia at the time. The primary figure active in Japan at that time for whom the title “King of Japan” would correspond would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi; however, whether the Vietnamese were aware of Hideyoshi, or knew specifically who they were writing to, is unclear.

1) Generally known as Quang Nam 広南 or Cochinchina, in contrast to Tonking 東京 to the north, ruled by the Trinh family, and Champa, the territory of the Cham people to the south.

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I had heard, a few years ago, that way out in New Jersey, there is a legendary Japanese superstore called Mitsuwa Market. I finally went out there, checked it out, for the first time yesterday, largely on account of the fact that they were having a Kyushu-Okinawa Fair; this is a relatively standard thing to see at the large food markets at department stores in Japan, and elsewhere. They call it a “fair,” but really all this means is a few extra booths/stands offering, for a limited time, a variety of regional/local specialties. I’ve seen a Hokkaido Fair at a major shopping center in Naha, Okinawa, and constantly rotating regional fairs just outside Yokohama Station, for example, as well as these same types of events at Shirokiya in Honolulu, and in a Kyushu/Okinawa Month at the cafeteria at Dôshisha University in Kyoto.

Having been to all these events, I guess I should have known better than to expect any huge production. There were no performances, and very few non-food offerings, such as sanshin (musical instruments), music CDs, textiles/garments, or books about the region. But, that’s okay. I don’t mean to be too negative – it was actually really cool to discover such a place so relatively close

to home. Granted, it did take more than 2 1/2 hours to get there, but on a day when traffic wasn’t so terrible, I can imagine it going a lot quicker and more smoothly. Besides, there’s a free shuttle to and from Midtown Manhattan, too. And, once we got there, it really felt, in some ways at least, like being back in Japan, which is a wonderful feeling. I’m not sure what other shops there are in the same complex, the same parking lot, as Mitsuwa, but inside, it’s not just a nice big supermarket; there is a food court with at least five or six places, including ramen, donburi, soba, and a couple other options, plus a bakery, and a few other shops, such as a cellphone booth (I wonder if one can get a phone that works in Japan there, thus circumventing the in-country Japanese policies of only giving cellphones to those with alien resident cards, and not those with a shorter-term visa). The only thing that could have made it feel more like really being back in Japan would be if more of the staff were (or acted like) native Japanese. A little more of the Japanese style of immaculate customer service, and a little less of the American “hey, how’s it going” casual attitude. Which is not to say that the customer service was bad in any way – not at all – but just that in terms of cultural flavor, it was markedly different, shattering the illusion of being in a wholly Japanese space. Or maybe it’s inappropriately Orientalist of me to even talk on this point at all.

In any case, I introduced my best friend to andagi (Okinawan donuts) and a few other such things, enjoyed some special “Tatsunoya” type of Kyushu ramen the noodles in which were a new type, a new texture for me, and some other nice foods, including beni-imo (Okinawan purple sweet potato) soft serve ice cream. It certainly could have afforded to be a bit more extensive, with more different goods on offer, but, with Okinawan food & culture being one of the more difficult things to find here in New York (as compared to how ubiquitous Okinawan culture is in Hawaii), it was great to get to introduce a dear friend to a little of what I’ve been engaging with and enjoying in Hawaii.

The supermarket itself was pretty keen. I’d love to have something this large and extensive more conveniently located, closer to the City. I wonder if it’s out there in Jersey simply because that’s where it’s easier & cheaper to find the space, or because of the large Japanese community out there (for some reason) in Edgewater, NJ. Or, if the Japanese community is gathered out there because Mitsuwa is there…

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