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Archive for the ‘museum’ Category

A folding screen in the home of art collector Alex Kerr. I’m not sure exactly how it’s lit, but notice how the gold shines; it’s easy to imagine how this might have helped brighten a room when only natural light or candles were available.

In a recent article in the Nikkei Asia Review, Michael Dunn proposes that the lighting in Japanese museums is inexplicably arranged poorly, deadening the textures and reflectiveness of works and casting aspects of their shapes into shadow.

As he writes, Japanese art and design can be fascinating and enchanting in its myriad forms, from handscrolls and hanging scrolls to the most modern and postmodern designs. But that, according to him,

visitors to the country’s many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces.

At the core of his argument would seem to be simply that works are regularly lit from above and not from the side, despite the fact that traditional works were nearly always designed to be lit by incidental sunlight or fire-light from the side and not from overhead, and despite the fact that they would look better that way (in terms of the way the gold-foil would catch the light, etc.). I’ll be honest, I never paid attention really to how works were lit; definitely something to start thinking about. But I did notice when visiting the Getty Museum recently here in LA how much the gold accents in their illuminated manuscripts shone, so much more brightly and more noticeably than in most other exhibits I’ve seen. Lighting or other factors were used very successfully to highlight the presence of such features. I also remember photographing Japanese woodblock-printed books as an intern at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, and how we used various camera angles and other techniques to capture the reflectiveness of mica, silver, and other materials on the pages, which would not otherwise show up in photographs, making the attractiveness of these works more directly visible to (digital) viewers.

I’m kind of amazed that a publication like Nikkei Asia Review would publish such a one-argument article on such a technical, niche, sort of issue.But I’m certainly interested to read such things, as I have long been interested in these sorts of museum-world considerations. Dunn goes on to complain that whenever he has brought up this issue with Japanese curators, they have simply insisted that their lighting system was state of the art – the implication being that they either don’t understand why there should be any problem with lighting things in this way, or that they’re dodging the question.

Screen painting of Nagasaki harbor, at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). I have no idea if this is the best example, or how exactly this was lit, but notice how the gold seems flat, not shining at all. Perhaps this is what Dunn is talking about.

I think there’s a deeper and potentially quite interesting history to be uncovered here, which is going unspoken in this article. To what extent do display practices today in Japanese museums stem from the development over the last 120+ years or so of a particular modern tradition of museum practices, which is then adhered to? Regardless of how they were made, displayed, and viewed in the past, in the modern era it has come to be its own “tradition” that museum professionals always display folding screens /this/ way, and ceramics /that/ way, because that’s the right way, the professional way, the proper way, that museums do it. Something like that? And to what extent, I wonder, does this stem from the infiltration of Western ideas (or Japanese notions of/about Western ideas) of how art is to be displayed or appreciated?

One of the tokonoma at LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion, using natural light filtered through shoji screens to light the paintings. Not the most attractive photo, but…

In any case, with the example of gold-accented or gold-foil-backed paintings, “intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight — a magical property of gold — through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night,” there’s a give-and-take to be had, always. On the one hand, yes, lighting them more minimally so that the gold really shines, giving an impression of how they might have looked historically, is one way to go about it. Joe Price played some major role in having the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed to do just that. At LACMA, Japanese paintings are hung in (a modern stylized version of) the traditional tokonoma, and they are lit at least in part by sunlight filtered through white paper shôji screens. And it really is incredible to see such paintings in situ, at temples and palaces, to get a sense of how the artworks actually interacted with the space and with the people in it. This is part of what I love about certain works by Tim Screech, William Coaldrake, and others, who talk not just about the paintings themselves, their style, their composition, but about how works interacted with the environment around them. How they were used. To give one example, how fusuma and byôbu arranged behind or around a shogun or other lord within his audience halls augmented the sense of his prestige. But, this is an art museum, and as aesthetically impactful and intellectually meaningful as it would be to portray such things in limited lighting or even in an architecturally loyal manner, there will also be a great many visitors – from the most casual tourists to professional art historians – who will want to see the works as well-lit as possible, in as much detail as possible, so that they can appreciate the style, composition, and aesthetics otherwise of the object itself, in as fully visible a manner as possible.

I think that in museum display in general – whether in Japan or anywhere in the world – there is a balance to be struck between aesthetic impact (displaying things with a focus on their striking beauty) and other modes of display which might highlight the historical or cultural context, or which allow visitors to see the work more fully. There will always be multiple ways in which an object can be shown – as an aesthetic object vs. a practical one; emphasizing its original historical context vs. its provenance (the history of which/whose collections it’s been in); as a practical object vs. a religious/sacred one; as an object unto itself vs. as a part of a whole or of a grouping; and so on and so forth. There will always be visitors, scholars, trustees, and other “stakeholders” as they say, who will always want it to be some other way, but decisions have to be made, and you can’t please everyone. But, you can certainly give it consideration; and while most museum visitors might not think about it, lighting is most certainly one of those considerations.

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The main tower keep of Himeji Castle.

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

7/22 HIMEJI

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

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

Inside the main keep at Himeji castle.

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

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

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

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

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

7/22 ISE

「大林寺の方へ飛んでいたわいな。」

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

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

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


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

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

7/23 NAGOYA

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/24 FUTAGAWA-JUKU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos my own.

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Falling farther and farther behind on blog posts. Still only up to events of July, and so much has happened since then! But bear with me, please.

I know it’s a little crazy, but I actually went straight from Fukuoka all the way back to Tokyo, in order to catch a few meetings, and then head back the other direction (west). Ultimately, I skipped Hiroshima and Okayama, as I wasn’t sure what conditions were like given the then-recent flooding disaster. But, as I’ll touch upon in future posts, I managed a crazy whirlwind set of visits to Kobe, Himeji, Ise, and Futagawa (Toyohashi) before settling in Kyoto for my last week. We’ll get to that. But in the meantime, while I’ve already posted about my feelings on going back to Tokyo, here’s a separate post on the exhibit “The Ryukyu Kingdom: A Treasure Chest of Beauty” (琉球:美の宝庫) held at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo this summer.

It was truly wonderful to see such an extensive Ryukyu exhibit. Not just “decorative arts” – textiles and lacquerwares – but paintings as well. With label text highlighting “the superb artistic and technical mastery of the kingdom’s painters,” the fact that so much was lost in the war so we can’t know the full extent or “a full portrait of Ryukyuan achievements.” And, further, highlighting that the royal court had “a particularly deep connection with the Fuzhou art world,” and an extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese works. We can only imagine, if the war hadn’t happened, if none of this had been destroyed, how much more brilliant, more cultured, more “deep” for lack of a better word, Ryukyu would seem.

And I do love that they’ve brought some of the greatest treasures of Ryukyuan painting here. A cat by Yamaguchi Sōki; pheasants in the snow by Zamami Yōshō. Paintings of officials from the TNM, and of Gi Gakugen and Tei Junsoku from the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The Naha Port screens from Kyoto and Shiga Universities. Good thing I didn’t try to see any of these works at their home insititutions – they were on loan, here in Tokyo.

But, as wonderful as it is to see these treasures, I’m perhaps even more pleased to see additional works, like a painting of Li Bai viewing a waterfall, attributed to Gusukuma Seihô. Most of what once existed has been lost, but what survives goes beyond just a few famous paintings of cats, pheasants, and mythical beasts. Ryukyuan painting, like Chinese or Japanese, has a whole range, and that’s what we’re getting a tiny taste of here.

I’m excited to be learning the names of a few additional Ryukyuan painters. It’s not all Zamami Yôshô, Gusukuma Seihô, and Yamaguchi Sôki. There’s a very nice trees in snow landscape by Yakena Seiga which reminds me a bit of Sesshû or the like. Several pieces by Izumikawa Kan’ei 泉川寛英(Shin Shikyū 慎思丸)1767-1844, a painter for the Keezui bujôju, whose son Izumikawa Kandō 泉川寛道(慎克熈 Shin Kokki)b. 1800, painted the famous painting of a young official and his consort which graces the cover of the Ryukyu Kaiga catalog.

「琉球進貢船図屏風」(Ryukyu Tribute Ship Folding Screen), Kyoto University Museum.

It was exciting, too, to see the two most famous folding screen paintings of Naha Port, which I had previously only seen digitally, or in catalogs. One is held by the Kyoto University Museum, and the other by Shiga University in Hikone. Being so scattered, I had never had the chance to see them in person before. As a result, I don’t know that I had ever realized, but the Shiga screen is much larger and brighter than the Kyoto one. Both are great, but the Shiga one feels more iconic to me. Seeing them in person now, I realized it’s the one I remember much better, making the Kyoto one feel off, like a bad imitation, though of course it is not – it’s a fantastic original artwork unto itself. The Shiga screen stands tall, like it was meant to be put on the floor, while the Kyoto screen seems to be the height for being put up on a platform, like in a tokonoma perhaps. Interestingly, the composition is quite similar in both – how the returning tribute ship is placed relative to the haarisen (dragon boats), for example, and how the bay and other parts of town are arranged.

Another work on display that’s very cool to see is the Chinese basis for the famous pheasant painting by Okinawan painter Zamami Yôshô. I hadn’t realized there were these two, but I guess it makes sense. It’s great that the Churashima Foundation (which operates Shuri castle) owns this Chinese painting, so that it can be displayed comparatively with the Ryukyuan version.

A handscroll by Sun Yi 孫億 of birds and flowers was just gorgeous. A brightly colored piece in reds and blues and greens against an oddly bright yet not actually gold-foiled silk ground…

琉球来聘使登営図 (detail). Handscroll by Bun’yû, Tokyo National Museum. 1843.

And how about that, just my luck, the TNM procession scroll I wanted to see was here too. Now if only they had allowed photos, I could have gotten what I didn’t (couldn’t) get from making an appointment at TNM. Well, for part of the painting anyway. In any case – the scroll is beautiful, very well done with bright colors and careful details. But since we know it’s by Bun’yû 文囿、a student of Tani Bunchô, and not by any official Shogunate painter, I wonder if we can explain away the oddities as simply incorrect. The section of the scroll opened and visible begins with the two placard holders, then six muchi bearers (instead of just two; these were red-lacquered staffs used to part the crowds to make way for the procession). After one mounted figure in Ming style costume, we see one chingu 金鼓 banner and one tiger banner paired up with one another, then a few musicians, then the Prince’s sedan chair, followed rather than preceded by the royal parasol (ryansan). I do wish I could look at the whole thing.

A procession scroll from the Kyushu National Museum (Kyûhaku) was on display too, making me feel better about not trying to request objects there – this one would not have been available anyway. We see Prince Tomigusuku, head of the 1832 mission, surrounded by figures identified as 中小姓 (“middle[-ranking] page”), and by other names and titles. This may be the only scroll depicting the 1832 mission. They also had Kyûhaku’s copy of Sugitani Yukinao’s Zagaku scroll. This is a gorgeous, full-color, scroll painted by Kumamoto domain court painter Sugitani Yukinao depicting Ryukyuan Chinese-style musical performances at the Satsuma mansion in Edo in 1832. One version is now held by the Eisei Bunko, the collection of the Hosokawa family (descendants of the lords of Kumamoto), one of the more difficult samurai family collections to get into. But, apparently, Kyûhaku and Shuri castle own copies of it, each of which are slightly different. This one has gold leaf, but the colors are much more muted, thinner. How many copies of this painting are there?


“Evening Glow at Jungai,” by Hokusai, 1832, and the image he based it on, from an 1831 Japanese reprinting of the 1757 Chinese book Liuqiu guo zhilue.

And, finally, they had on display half of the eight prints of Hokusai’s “Eight Views of Ryukyu,” displayed alongside copies of the Ryûkyû koku shiryaku (C: Liuqiu guo zhilue) on which he based the images. Very nice. I know that so many of these names and references to particular works won’t mean much to the majority of readers, and for that I apologize. I am so far behind on blog posts, I’m afraid I’m just not taking the bother to really properly rewrite these personal notes on the exhibit into a more proper (audience-friendly) blog post. But, suffice it to say, I suppose, that just about every one of the most famous works related to Ryukyuan art were on display in this exhibition. A real marvel to see, and something I would dream of replicating if/when I might ever have the kind of curatorial position that might allow me to propose such a thing.

Moving down to the next level, they had more of the most famous treasures on display, including a pink bingata robe with dragons (National Treasure) that I saw a replica of at Shuri castle just the week before, and a white one with pink, blue, purple streaks, also very famous. A set of incredible royal serving dishes which I’ve seen many times before in catalogs but which is all the more impressive in person, for it’s size and bright red and gold colors, with the royal mitsudomoe crest.

A replica of the royal crown – they later showed the real one for a few weeks in August – similarly shines. Somehow I never thought of it as being quite so bright and colorful. But I suppose when it’s lit up properly – unlike the dim lighting at Shuri castle – that gives it the opportunity to do so. How impressive this must have looked on the king’s head, with the Okinawan sun reflecting off of the gold and jewels.

Next, a somewhat restrained lacquer dish that I think I like especially. No gold, no mother-of-pearl, just matte red and black, with a simple design of the mitsudomoe in the center. Apparently this was used in the ūchibaru (the women’s quarters of Shuri palace), for less ceremonial, more regular occasions. I wonder if the rest of the palace used similar designs, or if those for the women were especially restrained.

A 2014 recreation of the ogoe of King Shô Iku is a great inclusion. All of the official royal portraits were lost in 1945, though we are fortunate to at least have b&w photos. It’s hard to say just how accurate this painting might be to the brightness or boldness or coloration of the originals, but if all you can do is a replica, I like this better than nothing, for showing the brilliance and power and so forth of Ryukyu. And that it’s not all decorative arts and folk culture, but that it was a full culture, a full kingdom, just like Japan or Korea or anywhere else. Can you imagine if Western bookstores put all the Japan stuff under “folk culture” instead of under History and Art? I’m pretty sure they used to. If China and Korea aren’t under such categories, whether in the bookstores or in how they’re displayed in museums, why should Okinawa (or Hawaii, or anywhere else) be?

The next X number of objects were all lacquerwares of course, because what’s a Ryukyu exhibit that isn’t disproportionately filled with lacquerwares and textiles. But here was something new and interesting – an Okinawan lacquerware box (I guess I trust the experts that somehow we know from style, or otherwise, that this is indeed of Ryukyuan manufacture) decorated with the Tokugawa crest. And yet the labels say it’s not typical of the kinds of things given as formal gifts, but rather that it was likely to be shown, or seen, in the hand 手元で鑑賞するふさわしい逸品である, whatever that means. Having written these notes before buying the exhibit catalog, and not having that catalog on hand right now as I type this up, I’ll have to go back and look at it sometime, try to figure this out.

The exhibit ended with photographs and notebooks by Kamakura Yoshitarô, a prewar scholar whose mingei (“folk art”) ideas about Okinawa were, I suppose, rather problematic in ways, patronizing and orientalizing. But at the same time, he was instrumental in having Shuri castle saved from destruction, and in saving or at least photographing or copying down countless examples of Okinawan arts, crafts, architecture, and documents. His notebooks have very recently been digitized and also published in modern type transcription by the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, and are just invaluable for anyone studying certain aspects of early modern Okinawan history. So many royal government documents – not just about arts or whatever, but about policies and events too – survive today only in those notebooks. I’ve been reading a lot from these modern publications, but to see the originals was really something. His sketches are just incredible. I’m glad they’ve been designated Important Cultural Properties. They deserve it. I would love to see more of them in person. If possible, it’d be amazing to do just an exhibition organized around them.

Gradually working my way through my time in Japan this summer. Next, some brief thoughts on some various other places I visited, and then finally, Kyoto.

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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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After our fifteen minute tour of Independence Hall and a quick peek at the Liberty Bell, we made our way to the National Museum of Jewish History. Beautiful building, very new shiny clean exhibits. The first three floors house a permanent exhibition on the history of Jews in America, and on the top floor, until Sept 2, they’re showing a special exhibit on the life of Leonard Bernstein. Now, I really must admit, I had only the vaguest idea who Bernstein was. I knew he’s a famous musician, and I’ve been to his grave actually, but that’s about it. Even so, I learned, and I found the exhibit just fascinating and wonderful. For someone so deeply involved in Jewish spirituality, music, liturgy, and philosophy, who composed so many pieces directly based upon or inspired by liturgy, to become so popular and successful in such a mainstream way is really incredible. I know some composers or musicians today who, I don’t know their career aspirations or anything, but who are definitely deeply involved in Jewish music. But if Bernstein can be accepted and loved and therefore successful in a mainstream and widespread way, and not only within the niche world of Jewish music, maybe they can too.

The exhibit was, of course, not terribly musicological. We didn’t learn much at all about precisely how or why his music was groundbreaking. How he used the devil’s interval in “Maria” in West Side Story, or how his half-speed rendition of the fourth movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony, featuring the harp, was so revered. Or that Mahler was Jewish, for that matter. At least, I don’t think I remember seeing any of that in the exhibit; just learned it from my gf.

One thing I really enjoyed about the exhibit was how well they included multimedia interactives. There were several listening stations and also small screening rooms, where you could listen to his music, watch segments from a performance of his “MASS,” or watch segments from all over popular culture reenacting or referencing bits from West Side Story. There were also several video screens with clips from documentaries about Bernstein, including one I found particularly interesting, on his trip to Israel in 1967.

There was also a station where a whole bunch of wooden blocks were scattered on a table; by choosing a block and putting it in a designated spot, you could activate a screen with video and audio relating to one of Bernstein’s works. By turning the block to different sides, you could get the screen to focus on the lyrics or the composition or the recording or other different aspects. They could have just done this with a series of buttons, or any number of other arrangements, but doing it with blocks was very neat, I thought. The whole thing, the whole exhibit, was just really interesting. Learning about this man’s relationship with his Judaism, but then also with African-American music and civil rights, with allegations of association with Communists – even suspicions that Bernstein was explicitly a Soviet spy. He was never actually brought up on any charges of any kind, nor subpoenaed, so far as I know, in connection with any of that, but a copy of his 800-page FBI file was on display in the exhibit. Pretty incredible.

Bernstein with the Ex-Concentration Camp Orchestra, in a Displaced Persons (DP) camp in Germany, 1948. People who had suffered and survived the concentration camps only to be left in refugee camps for years… and yet still had enough strength, and talent, and memory of their training & skills, to perform as an orchestra. Just reading about this was terribly moving.

And, he went to Germany in 1948 and conducted an orchestra composed of DPs (displaced persons, i.e. refugees), and went to Israel just after Independence Day, going back again in 1967, when he then conducted the Israel Philharmonic, previously the Palestine Philharmonic, composed originally of some of the absolutely best musicians in Europe, members of the Vienna and Munich and Prague Philharmonics, who were given visas and documents and help to leave Europe in the late 1930s or very early 1940s if I remember correctly, escaping from the Nazis before it was too late.

Two of the three floors of permanent exhibits.

And then we turn to the permanent exhibits, which were pretty great. More than just being a “Jewish Museum,” this is a Jewish history museum, and actually really endeavors to tell the history chronologically. We learned of the first Jews in the New World – all Sephardic Jews living in South America. Some of them then relocated to North America fleeing Catholic persecution, and became the first Jews in the British colonies. The first synagogue in New York, as I already had known, was a Sephardic synagogue. After these early stages, the vast majority of the exhibits after that made little mention of the Sephardim, however, which is a real shame because I was curious and would have loved to learn more about their history.

Today, I am told, there are more Jews in New York City (or maybe it’s the broader greater NY metro area?) than in any other single city in the world. But, still, that doesn’t mean that NY Jewish history is all there is to Jewish history in the US! I found it really interesting to learn about the first Jewish communities in Charleston, SC; Newport RI; New Orleans; Detroit; all these different places. I was sad to not see any focus on LA at all, only since I’ve been spending more time there lately and would be interested to learn more about that history as well.

But, while I suppose one could write a whole blog post solely on the issue of how this compares to other “ethnic” history museums, my head’s not really in that game right now. It would certainly be interesting. The key thing which struck me and got me thinking about that was the one section on the role of Jews in the Civil War. I suppose you might not be surprised to learn that there were Jews on every side of that political / ideological conflict, as there were also in the Revolutionary War. I don’t know what to say about people of any other ethnic or national background, but Jewish residents of the 13 British colonies, just like Protestant and Catholic residents, included both some loyal to the revolution and some loyal to the Crown. And I’m not at all surprised. Though we might in retrospect consider one side “patriots” and the other side “traitors” or whatever, at the time, in the moment, how the hell was anyone to know? Not just in terms of thinking strategically in terms of siding with whichever side you think is going to win, but just simply the fact that there was no simple right answer. Do you remain loyal to your country, which yes has imposed some unfair laws and whatever, but generally speaking is the only government you’ve ever known, and one which has provided some notable degree of security and stability and all of that, or do you join up with this rebellion that’s led by who exactly? fighting for what exactly? to separate from one of the great powers of Western Civilization in order to instead build a new nation (or thirteen separate ones?) in this rugged frontier? …. I think about Jews living in Europe in the 1930s, and especially those of some wealth and privilege, those who perhaps had the most freedom to actually get out (e.g. disposable income to pay for train tickets, political or civic connections to get the papers, connections elsewhere in the world to have somewhere to arrive to), but who also in a certain sense had the most to lose. I think about people invited to join the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, who had such comfortable, upscale, well-to-do lives in Vienna or Berlin or wherever, who really didn’t know what the right decision was. How could they know in 1936 just how bad it would get, and that it really was going to get like that? … And in light of that, in light of the genuine reality of people not knowing what to do amidst what turned out to be one of the most extreme situations in recent history, it’s really quite reasonable to realize that of course there would be Jews on both sides of the Civil War. Many Jews just like Protestants and Catholics were slaveowners, and many Jews were abolitionists. Many Jews were farmers and many were industrialists. Many were small-town people and many were big city people. Many braved the frontier and settled the West (and probably were pretty horrible to Native Americans and others in the process). Many did not. Is this because we were “white”? Maybe. I don’t know. But we were still an ethnic/national and religious minority. So while there are pretty stark reasons that the vast majority of Blacks, Chinese(-Americans), Native Americans, and members of certain other groups went one way politically, and very few another way, at various times in history, on various contentious issues, there are surely numerous other groups which were more divided, more diverse, in their positions and actions at such times. I’d be curious to see other ethnic history museums address this issue. I don’t recall seeing JANM or NMAI address such matters… And I can certainly understand why. But, even so, our country has been more diverse than most people realize for a much longer time than most people realize, and I’d be genuinely curious to learn more about more individuals of different backgrounds involved in the Revolution or the Civil War on both sides, people of different ethnic/cultural backgrounds involved in (or in trying to stop) actions against the Native Americans, hell for that matter, people of all different backgrounds involved in overseas wars as well. After all, history is rarely so simple, as to assume that all our ancestors, in whichever ethnic or religious community, were on the “right” side of history so to speak.

Of course, such matters are by no means the central theme of the National Museum of Jewish History either. After the Civil War, the exhibits go on to talk about the origins of the Reform Movement, early 20th century immigration restriction policies, and numerous other topics and themes, before eventually getting to the Holocaust. This section was very well-done, with concurrent videos of Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches run next to each other, giving a sense of the history going on at the same time, as it indeed was.

One thing I found particularly interesting and somewhat unexpected in this section was examples of just how anti-semitic American society was at that time. We like to believe in a story of how the US was this bastion of freedom, this great hero that came and eventually rescued the Jews, and the world, from Hitler and Nazism. And of course there’s truth to that. I one thousand percent am happy to live in a world where the Nazis lost that war. But even so, to have the displays be not about conditions in Nazi Europe and about US heroism, but rather about anti-semitism here at home, was kind of eye-opening, actually. And very sad. And a lot of it echoes very strongly with what continues to go on today with other groups in the case of fears of immigrant groups overwhelming the American population and taking over the country. But a lot of it echoes with anti-semitism that continues to go on today as well. A booklet published in 1939 entitled “Am I an Anti-Semite?”, which on first glance you might think would be a good thing, a book educating people about Jews and about anti-semitism. But, no. This is a book justifying the author’s anti-Jewish sentiment through discussion of the horrors of (Jewish-associated) Communism. I’m not sure whether the author’s answer to “Am I an Anti-Semite?” is “no,” or if it’s “yes, and for good reason,” but either way, the same might as well be published today, just denying or justifying the author’s anti-semitism by talking about the horrors of Zionism instead of Communism. Or just flat-out continuing to repeat the same-old “Jewish conspiracy” lies. These days, in the era of Trump, we’re seeing some of those old canards come roaring right back, to a truly frightening extent sometimes. Some things never change.

There was so much to see, we ran out of time twice, coming back to see the museum a second day, and then even on the second day not getting to see all of it. I ended up rushing through much of it, getting very few photos of the 19th century section at all. Afterwards, we made it to the UPenn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which was fantastic, but only for a brief time there too before turning around to head home entirely. Much still left to see in Philadelphia, another time.

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It’s been such a summer of adventures, and I can’t believe I’m still only about halfway through blogging about them. (Of course, the summer isn’t over yet, either.)

Our room at Les Terrasses d’Essaouira. I guess it doesn’t look like much in the photo, because of the bad lighting or something, but I promise it was a pretty nice room.

Leaving Essaouira, even though I had already seen more or less all of the historical sights, I still felt as I almost always do in every city I visit, that I wished I had just one more night. I think this is also a function of leaving so late at night – when you’re preparing to leave in the middle of the night to catch a very early morning flight, as you pack up your things and maybe sit on the bed, all you want is to sleep in that bed one more time. And, yeah, maybe more generally, regardless of what time of day you’re leaving, wishing to walk the shopping streets or visit X restaurant or Y shop just one more time…

We got a taxi at 1am to drive us the 2 ½ or 3 hours to Marrakesh airport, to get there by 4am so my gf could check in for her 6am flight, and me for my 7am flight. We split up for the next ten weeks or so, going different places for our research and so forth. I caught a short flight from Marrakesh to Marseilles, and then from Marseilles to London Stansted, where I was supposed to transfer again to a flight from London to New York, to get home. But because of the way the flights were arranged, I couldn’t simply go through “International Transfers” or “Connecting Flights” or whatever they call it. I had to go through Immigration, wait for my bag, then go back around to Departures to then check in and drop my bag like normal, like as if I had just arrived in the airport from staying or living in London. This takes time. So when the flight from Marseilles arrived 20 minutes late, and then the ground crew at Stansted took their sweet time getting the stairway/jetway to the plane, deplaning us 20-30 minutes late, and then the little transit shuttle between parts of the terminal broke down, I lost enough time that I ended up missing my connection.

I took this photo basically just to send to my gf to say, “hey, you’ll never guess where I am,” since my flight was supposed to be out of Stansted. But I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.

The two staff members at the check-in desks who I talked to – I wish I’d gotten their names – were not only unhelpful, but flatout rude. I suppose they deal with tens of people every day who have missed their flights for various reasons that are their own fault – just not planning ahead well enough or whatever, so I guess to a certain extent I can’t blame the staff for taking that particular perspective. Still, ultimately, this wasn’t my fault. Yes, I scheduled a connection that left only 2 ½ hours to make the connection, and didn’t leave a lot of room for error. But, this was a set of flights that was an authentic one offered to me in my online searches – not something I hodgepodged together myself. And 2 ½ hours really should be enough, if everything goes according to plan. And if it doesn’t go according to plan, well that’s not my fault – it’s Stansted’s fault, really, for whatever happened with the severe delay to the deplaning process, and for the transit shuttle, which anecdotally I get the impression breaks down on an almost daily basis. The staff member at the airport information booth, by contrast, was very kind, even looking up for me any possibilities of any other flights to NY from any London airports that evening, though she suggested I would have to pay out of pocket for those flights, £350 or whatever it may be.

Thankfully, even where the airport and the airline were unwilling to be of any help whatsoever, Kiwi.com (where I’d booked my flights to begin with) was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights for no additional charge. But, keep reading – it’s not all roses and happiness with Kiwi. I called them, and they said they’d look into alternative options, and they would get back to me within 2-4 hours. Reasonable enough, I thought at the time, though in retrospect I feel like every other time this sort of thing has happened to me, someone has searched and figured it out and offered me a new flight almost immediately, in 5-15 minutes or whatever, while I stood there. Still, okay, whatever. So, knowing there were no more flights to New York that evening and that no matter what happened I would need to stay over in London overnight, I got on a bus into the city. In retrospect, I suppose I should have just stayed at the airport. But, then, I couldn’t have known exactly how things were going to play out. It was still relatively early in the day, and while it would be too late to visit museums or anything, I guess I thought there was still plenty of time in the day to put down my stuff at a hostel somewhere and then go out and experience London a little bit, walk the streets, whatever – maybe meet up with a friend for dinner or a pint. As it turned out, that’s not quite what happened. After a very long bus ride into London proper, I schlepped myself around to several hotels asking for a last-minute room, and all of them were inexplicably booked solid. I finally ended up getting a bed at a youth hostel – definitely the most cramped space I would have ever slept in, with four beds crammed into a tiny corner room, plus it was terribly muggy in the room, with no A/C and only one small window which somehow didn’t seem to help enough. Before I settled in at all, though, I then got an email from Kiwi offering an alternative plan – saying that they would book me at a 4-star hotel near Gatwick, and book me tickets on a set of flights the next day to get me home. Great. I clicked to Accept that offer, to set the ball rolling on them actually booking those things for me, and headed out towards Gatwick. Turns out the hotel is not right at the airport, but a good ten-minute drive away, in essentially the middle of nowhere. Cost me £16 just for the 10-minute taxi ride, though I suppose I must have accidentally come across some expensive “car service” instead of a normal taxi. Finally got to this very nice hotel, and mind you it’s been about two hours at least since I clicked “Accept,” and still no confirmation email from Kiwi. I am just so relieved that after all these hours and hours of traveling, I’ll have a nice bed to sleep in, a private room with a shower, and I can really genuinely just relax before my flight the next day. So, imagine my surprise when the hotel tells me that not only do they have no reservation for me, but that they and all the other hotels for ten miles are completely booked solid. I called Kiwi again, and they said essentially that they were still working on it. Still working on it? It’s been hours since I clicked to Accept this offer of a rebooking, and it’s now 11 o’clock at night and all I want to do is shower and sleep. I’ve just spent £16 to get to a hotel in the middle of nowhere, and now what, I’m supposed to spend another £16 to get back to the airport and then take my chances with finding somewhere to sleep there, either in an airport hotel or lounge or just on the benches out in the lobbies? How long does it take to make a set of bookings for someone? And don’t they know that they have to move quickly or else it’ll get booked up?

Thankfully, the manager at the hotel was very kind and rather than just saying “no room at the inn, I’m so sorry sir,” and kicking me out, instead he let me sleep on a couch in one of the back rooms, a restaurant or reception room far from any activity. It was really wonderful. I cannot thank him enough. As upset as I was at the time, feeling stranded and lost, and just not even knowing whether or not I would in fact have a flight in the morning, it really was just so great to have somewhere to sleep. I generally don’t need that much in life – a shower would have been great, but a couch is just as good as a bed, much better than a bench or a floor, and I had outlets to charge my phone + computer, and a quiet, dark, room to myself where I could actually get some sleep.

I got up about five or six hours later to find an email saying that Kiwi had in fact booked and confirmed me for this new set of flights. So, now I was to take an early morning flight from Gatwick to Paris, have a seven hour or so layover, and then take an evening flight to New York. Okay. Amidst all of this craziness, and as tired and un-showered and sore (from so much sitting on planes, buses, and trains) as I was, the opportunity to visit Paris for even just a few hours was a real silver lining. I’d never been to France at all before, so this was great. Still, before we get into that, let me just highlight again: I am very glad that Kiwi was willing to rebook me on a new set of flights, and to even offer me a hotel for the night, and reimbursement for my various buses and taxis within London, even after the airport and the airline both said “you’re outta luck.” I’m very glad and grateful that, even though none of this was really Kiwi’s fault to begin with – it was Stansted’s – they would do this for me and spare me £350 or whatever the amount would have been. … And, admittedly, I’m not positive whether or not I will use Kiwi again. I just might, though I guess I’ll try to be more careful about planning long enough layovers to account for any potential problems. But, just to state it out explicitly: it should not take 2-4 hours to find an alternative set of flights, and it should not take an additional however many hours to actually book and confirm that alternative plan. Once they offered me a room at that Gatwick hotel, and especially given the intervening two hours it took me to get to the hotel (during which time they could have been making the calls and making the booking), I should not have ended up at that hotel at 11 o’clock at night with nowhere to stay for the night, and no confirmation (yet) that I would actually have tickets for the flight they offered me, which was departing only 8 or 9 hours later.

Apropos of nothing going on in my story, a US military plane on the tarmac at the Marseilles Airport. Why? What are they doing here? Do we have military bases in France? I didn’t know.

I’ve been fortunate to not have to deal with this sort of situation very many times in my life, but when I have, it’s never been like this. It’s always been the airline either rebooking me immediately, or saying go walk around the airport, get a coffee or whatever, come back to me in 30 minutes, or 45 minutes or an hour, and I’ll see what we can do for you. From what I remember of my first time ever going to Hawaii, that was pretty much what happened. It was either USAirways or United, I forget which, but on their flight from NY to Phoenix, it was way too cold in the cabin, and not only were they charging money for blankets but they were sold out. So I was freezing. And they were also sold out of any vegetarian options for food. So by the time we got to Phoenix I was already in a bad state, having not slept much the night before because it was a very early morning departure. We then transferred to a different plane at Phoenix, which had been sitting on the tarmac in literally 110+ degree weather, and it was absolutely boiling inside. I passed out, and was taken off the plane by paramedics or EMTs or whatever. The airline immediately offered to book me on the next flight, and I don’t remember exactly how it happened but somehow or other I suggested that I didn’t feel well enough to fly yet and they offered to pay for me to have a hotel in Phoenix for the night. So, I got a hotel, and a new flight, easy as that. I don’t remember exactly how long it took for them to schedule it, but it happened. I wasn’t left stranded, left in the dark as to what was going to happen to me or where I was going to stay for the night or when I would ever make it to Hawaii. All in all, relatively easy and efficiently taken care of. Not so with Kiwi. So, buyer beware – be careful with Kiwi. I don’t think this is by any means an isolated incident. I imagine that with just a tiny bit of Googling, one could come up with plenty of other similar stories from people who were not treated so well by Kiwi. And thank god I had the flexibility in my schedule to be able to deal with this. Imagine if I really truly had somewhere to be the next day.

So, that said, I did get to spend a good few hours in Paris. It’s a very weird feeling, to visit such an incredible big-name world-class city, but only for a few hours. To go back to the very first lines of this series of blog posts on my trip to Morocco, to feel that I’m actually in Paris, *the* Paris, the one and only one, and yet, to be seeing so little of it and then just leaving again. It’s a very strange feeling. Can I even really say now that “I have been to France,” that “I have seen Paris,” when really all I’ve seen is the Louvre, a short set of streets on the walk from the Chatelet-Les Halles train station to the Louvre and back, one sandwich shop, and one boulangerie? I’m glad that in addition to the museum I did think to go to a genuine Paris boulangerie and get a baguette sandwich with camembert, experiencing the authentic Paris version of what I’ve had so many times at French-style places in LA, Tokyo, and elsewhere. But, yeah, it’s a funny feeling. Someday I’ll have to go back, see the city so much more. See the Musee Quai Branly and the Eiffel Tower and all the rest. In the meantime, I did that horrible thing that tourists do, that as a proper art historian I’m a bit embarrassed about, but knowing this might very well be my only time in Paris for who knows how many years, I ran around the Louvre just making sure to see, and photograph, every one of the most famous artworks I could. To be totally frank, I don’t actually even know what I got out of that experience.

My photos aren’t nearly as good as what I could pull up in five seconds on Google Images, and it’s not like I stayed in front of any of these artworks long enough to appreciate them further, more deeply, than to just capture a photo, so, what am I really doing? … But, still, I guess there was something to it. I’m glad to be able to say I’ve been to the Louvre, and to have gotten some sense of how it looks and feels and how it’s all laid out. Now, when it happens to come up in conversation, I can have at least something to say about it, yes, I have some sense of how amazingly difficult it is to find your way from one section of the museum to another, constantly going upstairs in order to get downstairs, and going all the way down one end of the building just to be able to cross over to get to another section… And I have some sense of how opulently decorated the building itself is, the walls, the ceilings, even beyond the artworks on the walls and plinths. And some sense of how exceptionally Eurocentric the collection is, which I had not realized. One very new gallery in the basement, opened in the 2000s, dedicated to what they used to call “Primitive Art” – the arts of the Americas, Africa, Oceania, and Southeast Asia – while the entire rest of the museum is just Western European art, chiefly Spanish, Italian, French, German, and Dutch. (Oh, yeah, plus a section on Islamic Art). Not a single Chinese ink painting or Japanese woodblock print in the entire building, and that’s a building that’s at least as big as the Metropolitan or the British Museum. But, okay, to each their own. Next time I’ll have to be sure to visit some other museums – the Quai Branly, the Guimet, and the Cernusci. In the meantime, I got to see, if not to really engage with, the Venus de Milo, Victory of Samothrace, Da Vinci’s portrait of St. John the Baptist, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, Gericault’s Medusa, the Grand Odalisque, Jacque-Louis David’s Horatii, the incredible crowd around the Mona Lisa, and so on.

One of Delacroix’s beautiful notebooks.

Actually, one neat unexpected highlight of the Louvre trip was that they had up at the time a special exhibit on Delacroix, which included a handful of his works produced during his trip to Morocco. So, for me, this could not have been more timely. To spend a week and a half in Morocco, and then immediately afterwards see these Orientalist paintings and sketches of what Delacroix saw a century earlier, precisely the paintings that in part inspire our Western conceptions and imaginations of a fantastic Morocco full of bellydancers, harems, and so on and so forth.

Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment. I had been told that since Muslim women were inaccessible to him, hidden within their homes and not visible to a foreign visitor, he had painted Jewish women. That a great many of the Orientalist paintings of “women of North Africa” from that time were in fact of Jews and not of Muslims. But the Louvre webpage for the painting suggests otherwise. Interesting.

And then, after that, I made my way back to CDG Airport, and finally home to New York, no further surprises or hiccups.

This Delacroix exhibit will be up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York Sept 17, 2018 to Jan 6, 2019.

All photos my own. My thanks to the Louvre for allowing photographs, even in the special exhibition.

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

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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