Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘museum’ Category

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.”

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, June 23, marked the annual Okinawan observance of Irei no Hi 慰霊の日, an official holiday in memory of those many, many Okinawans and others killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

The Cornerstone of Peace.

I figured this an opportune time to finally post something about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park & Museum (Okinawa Heiwa Kinen Kôen / Shiryôkan 沖縄県平和祈念公園・資料館), which I visited several times during my time in Okinawa this past year. I took extensive notes the last time I was there, and went back to my notes to build this post, but found that what I had written was quite descriptive, and strangely I’ve found myself kind of struggling to write something more interpretive about the museum. I guess it’s been too long since I’ve been in a Museum Studies frame of mind.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum is located within the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park at Mabuni, near the southern tip of Okinawa Island. In many ways it reminds me of the memorial park at Hiroshima, and also of Holocaust Museums I have visited in various cities around the United States, and of Yad Vashem, the chief Holocaust memorial site in Jerusalem. The park itself is quite extensive, and includes a number of different memorials. The main one is a series of rows of black stone slabs, inscribed with the names of all those killed in the Battle, whether they be Okinawan, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, or American; the slabs are organized in rows, fanning out from an eternal flame, known as the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no ishiji, 平和の礎), and beyond that, the sea. The whole arrangement creates the impression of waves, waves of peace, emanating out from the Cornerstone, emanating out from Okinawa, into the world. I must admit, when I first read that this was the intention of the design, and first truly felt that image in my mind, in my heart, I started crying. Far too many people are unaware of Okinawa’s story, and of the lessons it has to teach; far too many people are as of yet untouched by those waves of peace, emanating out from Okinawa, trying desperately to bring peace to the world.

As for the museum itself, it begins with a very detailed account of the 1930s to 40s, the economic and political situation in Japan, in Okinawa, and the world, setting the stage, described in a way that strikes me as “objective” in voice, or at the very least, with a detached sort of perspective. And by this I mean that I did not sense within the phrasing of the labels, or the organization of this first part of the exhibit, blatant lionizing or villainizing; I did not sense a blatantly, boldly, pro- or anti-Japan perspective. Rather the exhibit basically just explains what happened, what events took place, what decisions were made; it provides the background situation amidst which Japan made the decisions it did – in terms of both domestic and international considerations, and so forth. All of this set-up is given in a series of labels, displays, objects, short videos, packed into the displays around the edge of the first, circular, room.

I think this is a really good approach for a Memorial Museum. Maybe I’m too biased (in favor of the Okinawans) and thus was blind to the biases in the exhibition, but, really I think it took a rather objective or distanced stance. And this is a smart move because, unlike at so many other museums – e.g. the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, the Yûshûkan at Yasukuni Shrine, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery which I’ll post about soon – where the bias is blatant and obvious, thus making the whole thing all too easy to dismiss out of hand, here the Museum is telling you, in cold hard facts, this is what happened. This is real, this is true. It’s not being blown out of proportion or taken out of context.

In truth, I think there’s a lot to be taken away from this first room, alone. I’m not as expert on this period as some of my colleagues, and I am not expertly familiar with all the various nuances and complexities of the different narratives, different versions, different approaches, to understanding Japanese imperialism, but from what I have seen, I really think this is about the best. It presents the context, the pressures upon the Japanese government (both real and perceived), the reasons the government did what it did – even if those choices were, to be sure, horrible and worthy of being condemned – thus presenting the Japanese certainly as oppressors, aggressors, but not as irrational monsters, while also not going too far in the other direction, portraying the Japanese as merely victims of world circumstance. Imperial Japan had real reasons for choosing the path that it did – they were regular human beings, not monsters – but still, the path they chose was one of violence and oppression. We must understand the circumstances, the choices made, and the repercussions, the outcomes, in order to learn the lessons of the past, and to be able to work more truly towards building a better future, a better path, such that similar events should never happen again.

Because I found this exhibit so well done, I was quite frustrated on my first and second visits to the museum that they don’t allow photographs. And, as you’d expect if you know me, I’m still quite frustrated about that. But, on my third visit I found, what I had not seen previously, a museum catalog book of the permanent exhibition for sale, which essentially contains much of that same content, in easily purchasable and keepable form, for less than 2000 yen. Now that I own this book, I very much hope that I find the time at some point to read it all and write it all down – in English – into a form I can use for lectures, whether it be World History, Japanese History, or East Asian History.

Another way the museum did an excellent job in making their story more accessible, more meaningful, is that they don’t really limit it to the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan perspective. Yes, the succeeding rooms are specifically about Okinawa, but the set-up, this first room of 1930s-40s Japanese and world historical context, is broad enough, general enough, that it really works as a quality account applicable and useful in general, for anyone discussing Imperial Japan & the Asia-Pacific War – perhaps even the best account I’ve yet seen at all. Hopefully, it speaks to visitors from all around the world, and not only to those interested in the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan position. Hopefully, by telling the story this way, it should be able to successfully convey the message of the dangers of militarism, of ultranationalism, in general, no matter who is doing it (not just the Japanese).

A view of the first gallery, courtesy OkinawaClip.com.

After making one’s way through this detailed and well-presented background behind the origins of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and imperialism, a short video in the center of the first room summarizes the progression of the war itself, from one battle to the next.

To the side of this room is a special exhibit corner, which at that time had a small exhibit on the Japanese colonies in Nanyô/Micronesia. And also on comparing history textbooks not only between US, Japan, China, Korea, but also with Palau, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Really interesting to see – not something we normally get exposed to.

The next room is set up to evoke the atmosphere of the so-called Typhoon of Steel – that is, the Battle of Okinawa. It is dark, with steel girders and concrete protruding here and there. A large 3D map of Okinawa sits in the middle of the room, with various things about the battle marked out on it. And hanging above the map is a large video screen, on which plays a short video about the Battle. This, for me, was probably one of the centerpieces of the entire exhibition. The museum provides the background, the set-up, in the previous room, and the aftermath in the following rooms. Here, it provides the story of the event itself: what happened to Okinawa that this museum as a whole (and the memorial park outside) is memorializing – what suffering, what death and destruction, took place here. It brings you in, it makes you understand. It makes you feel, the death and destruction, the sadness.

Then, we move into the following room, and the museum shifts dramatically, from historical narrative, to a memorial mode. I suppose, sitting and writing this out now, that this is still historical narrative, but it’s shifting from a “big picture” mode of the history of politics, economics, and war, to a far more personal level. We see large photos of individual people and individual scenes of death and destruction, and next to it, a walk-in reconstruction of the gama, the caves in which people hid during the Battle. Mannequins are set up to show how people suffered and survived in the caves, and committed some truly horrific acts in order to survive, including killing crying babies so their screams wouldn’t alert soldiers outside to the presence of the civilians hiding inside the cave.

The Testimonials Room at the museum. Image again thanks to OkinawaClip.com.

The next room of the museum is a Testimonials room. I don’t know if it’s actually more brightly lit than the previous rooms, but it gives a feeling of starkness, whiteness. Desks are arranged in perfect rows, and books/binders provide numerous first-hand accounts of people’s experiences during the battle. I only read a very few, but they were horrific. People who were just small children at the time, witnessing their siblings or parents killed right in front of them, whether by soldiers, or by suicide. People who hid in caves and were so terrified to come out, for fear of what might happen to them. Reading these individual stories, of individual people, often young children, who had lived such (relatively) normal lives up until then, and who we can imagine might have had such bright futures ahead of them, thrown into this world of suffering and death, and all because of war, because of militarism and imperialism and ultranationalism, and in the specific case of Okinawa, because two world superpowers based in capitals thousands of miles away decided that their tiny island should be the place to battle it out.

A bank of small viewing rooms sits on the back side of this Testimonial hall. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to sit and watch any of the the video testimonials, though I really should.

A poem, written on the wall outside the Testimonial room:

Image again from OkinawaClip.com.

Whenever we look at
The truth of the Battle of Okinawa
We think
There is nothing as brutal
Nothing as dishonorable
As war.

In the face of this traumatic experience
No one will be able to speak out for
Or idealize war.

To be sure, it is human beings who start wars
But more than that
Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars?

Since the end of the war
We have abhorred all wars,
Long yearning to create a peaceful island.

To acquire
This
Our unwavering principle,
We have paid dearly.

From here on, we are led through a chronological narrative of Okinawa’s post-war history. The Testimony room is followed by refugee camps 収容所. Dark wood poles and canvas tent sections overhead evoke the feeling of being in such a camp. Along with laundry hung on barbed wire fences. This is followed by a section made up to look like a 1950s commercial shopping street, with barbershop, bars, nightclub, tailor shop… And then, as we enter the next section, it turns to barbed wire fencing, with a mannequin in US military uniform looking as though he is asking for your ID. Exhibits include detailed descriptions of the progress of developments in politics, economics, protests, and so forth, from the US Occupation of Okinawa, to the eventual “freedom” from Occupation, and rejoining Japan in 1972, up to the present, as the military presence and protests against it continue.

I made sure to take extensive notes on my last visit to this museum. While I had known about the prewar and wartime history to a certain extent, I had very little sense of the date-by-date chronological developments of the post-war period. Seeing it spelled out was really quite interesting, moving, and impactful. There’s just so much here, so many twists and turns, that add such depth to the story. We learn about the refugee camps and the evolution of semblances of Okinawan self-governance from the 1950s through the 1970s to today; how the US Occupation ended so much earlier in the Amami Islands; the visit of the head of the ACLU to Okinawa; the way the military forced people into leasing out their land for exceptionally low, unfair, rates; the way bayonets and bulldozers were used to physically remove people from their land; and details of how the resistance and protest and independence movements rose and fell; connections to Communism and to US anti-Communist crackdowns; and the progress of developments in how the US Occupation authorities dealt with political opposition, and how they deal with crimes and scandals today.

I know I haven’t said much in this post of an analytical or interpretive nature. There are formal Museum Studies academic journal articles, and exhibit reviews, out there, I’m sure, which articulate far better what I wish I could here. But, as much as I wish I knew how to articulate all that myself, I think that for now, I’ll just leave it by saying that this is truly an excellent Memorial Museum, an excellent history museum, and while I know it’s a bit out of the way, I really wish more people – I wish everyone – would go and visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum. This is not just a niche story relevant only to those with interest in Okinawa; nor is it in any way what you might expect from a local, out-of-the-way, provincial museum. Truly, this is a top-notch, world-class World War II Memorial Museum. I think the lessons it has to teach are of immense importance for everyone around the world, and that this museum does an excellent job of conveying those lessons (including by making the exhibits quite accessible, with labels and video subtitles in multiple languages).

On this Irei no Hi, let us take a moment to think, to remember, and to sympathize. Let us picture in our minds waves of peace, flowing out from Okinawa, waves of people trying desperately to reach out, and to wash over the whole world, such that what happened in Okinawa, and tragically in so many other places all around the world, might someday truly cease to ever take place again.

The Mabuni cliffs, just outside the museum, where in 1945 a great many people, pressed down to the southern end of the island trying to flee the violence, had nowhere left to go, and threw themselves off the cliffs, to their deaths.

All exterior photos my own.

Read Full Post »

The Daimyo Clock Museum, or 大名時計博物館, is one of the more prominent sites on any tourist map of the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo. While it’s hardly among the top ten must-sees in all of Tokyo – to be honest, hardly on the radar at all – it came up for me on my very first day living in the neighborhood, as I took a walk to just wander and explore, and ended up seeing it pop up on Google Maps as I walked past. It was already too late in the day at that time to try to visit, but I figured I would make it back eventually. Weeks passed, and on another such explorational wandering, I passed by again, this time noticing the architecture of the place – large tile-roofed wooden buildings behind a high wall which caught my eye and inspired me to take a photo before I even got around to looking to see what building that even was that I had stumbled across (oh, the Daimyo Clock Museum! Ah, I knew it was in this area somewhere!).

Stele marking the former site of the Katsuyama domain’s lower mansion (shimo yashiki).

Today, I finally decided to stop in and give it a look. The museum is located on the former grounds of the Edo mansion of the lord of Mimasaka-Katsuyama domain, which kind of makes sense given the size of the space, the high walls, and the attractive, traditional-looking (but most likely 20th century) architecture. Interestingly, though, once you enter through the gate, you quickly find that most of what’s inside those walls seems to be (near as I can tell) private homes. The museum itself is just one small room, and the large two-story buildings peering up over the walls remain a mystery.

I stopped to take off my shoes and change into the slippers provided, and then struggled with the door. Were they closed? It’s 1pm on a Friday. Surely they’re open, right? A young man comes up, apologizing, and unlocks the door. Ah, I see. The place is so sparsely visited that they don’t even bother staffing it (or leaving the door unlocked) throughout the day. Well, either that or he just stepped out for lunch. I dunno.

In any case, I had somehow had in my mind an image of a very sleek, nicely maintained, very modern-looking museum. Like the Tokyo Bike Rentals places I’ve seen elsewhere in Yanaka, retrofitted into old machiya storefronts, and looking very new, sleek, chic, very 21st century hipster/gentrification style. Instead – and I don’t mean this in a critical or negative way, but only to say that for no reason at all I had somehow imagined it differently – we find an older display room, looking a bit run-down but that’s just fine, with thin carpeting, hand-drawn signage, and catalogs just a slight step up from being printed out in the back room and stapled by hand. A more cozy, local, sort of feel, helping us to appreciate that this is just some guy’s personal collection, that he so wanted to share with the neighborhood.

Hard to tell from photos, but between these two images, hopefully maybe you can get a sense of the size of the small, one-room, museum. Click through for more photos of the exhibit, from Takachi’s Japanese-language blog on LIG Inc.

Sadly, they don’t allow photos – I would have loved to have captured and kept some sense of the experience myself; there really is something about having your own photos, and not just finding photos online… But, in any case, it is one room, with a few tens (maybe as many as one or two hundred? I’m terrible at estimating these sorts of things) of clocks, most of them from the Edo period, some of them quite large and impressive. Some bear the crest of the Tokugawa family on them. Some are still running, their mechanisms opened up making it clearly visible for the visitor how they work. Labels on the walls explain how time-keeping was considered in the Edo period, not on a system of twelve or twenty-four evenly spaced hours like today, but rather (as I’ve discussed in a previous blog post) a system of six hours of daylight and six hours of night, which lengthened and shortened with the seasons. Mechanical clocks were first imported from Europe, their mechanisms copied and reproduced, and adapted to serve this Japanese mode of telling time.

It’s interesting – we don’t tend to think of the Edo period as a time of machines. And, granted, the vast majority of people – even relatively well-to-do townspeople – had no such possessions. But, daimyo certainly seem to have had clocks, and not just a single official clock for the mansion’s business, but actually relatively small ones to keep by one’s bedside as well. European fashions enjoyed a major boom in popularity among the top echelons of the samurai for about 80 years or so, from c. 1550 to c. 1630, and then disappeared almost entirely, but some things, a few things, such as these clocks, remained.

As for the museum itself, as much as I adore sleek, shiny, beautiful small museums – as much as I might have loved to find a Daimyo Clock Museum that’s… I don’t really have the words, but, a place closer in aesthetic to the Nezu Museum, or the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, totally up-to-date, 21st century, but retrofitted into this old, historical, traditional space, a jewel of the postmodern, giving me the feeling that I was taking part in something very new, very cutting-edge 2017-Tokyo, at the same time, though it gave me a sort of record-scratch feeling internally in my mind, in a very different way, it’s also kind of wonderful to feel I found, and experienced, something very small, and old, and local. A corner of Tokyo very few tourists (or even locals) have ever bothered to go see. A piece of the decades-old past that’s still running, just quietly, over in this obscure corner of things. Kind of like the clocks themselves, I guess.

All exterior photos my own. Interior photos by Takachi, from LIG Inc. blog.

Read Full Post »

The exterior of the Mingeikan, in the Komaba neighborhood of Meguro. A short walk from the University of Tokyo, Komaba campus, and two train stops from Shibuya. Photo my own.

April 25, 2017

The Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) is an interesting place. It’s a terrible shame they don’t allow you to take photos, because the atmosphere is just wonderful. It’s a 1930s house, all in dark wood and just a very “rustic” Mingei appropriate sort of feel. Indigo-dyed textiles hang on the walls, and rough ceramic jugs sit in the corners here and there. Very little about the museum looks post-modern – the display cases are in dark wood, like handmade artifacts of cabinetry in themselves. The gallery labels are all handwritten. Few of the objects are really all that compelling by themselves, at least to me, but in contrast to many museums, where the idea is to contemplate or appreciate each individual object in a void, here the value is found in the total experience – seeing these objects all arranged together, as part of the total Mingei aesthetic of the overall space, along with the building itself.

I was sad to not see any Okinawa objects on display right now, but they do have rooms set aside for African pieces, and for Korea. The rest is all Japanese. There’s also something wonderful about how nearly all of the objects they have on display are worn, damaged. I don’t think you have to come into it with a particular eye for that aesthetic to be taken in by it, to quickly come to think about these objects as aesthetic, as beautiful, as capable of being appreciated, despite not being gorgeous, stunning, shining like-new works. Even though they are old, and worn, and damaged, still, (or perhaps all the more so) we can appreciate their aesthetic. Their colors, their textures. How they were made.

And while the museum is mostly ceramics, lacquerwares, textiles, I was pleasantly surprised to see some very neat artifacts – like an Edo period clock – and some paintings and woodblock books.

From the Mingeikan’s official website. If they won’t let me take my own photos, I’ll just have to use theirs.

I don’t want to get into a whole discussion of the pros and cons of Mingei thought here, but let’s suffice it to say that I think it’s a really interesting building, and an interesting art/aesthetic movement. Yes, Mingei is (was) closely tied in with a colonialist and patronizing rhetoric of “modern” Japan as more modern, more advanced, better, than the “twee” “quaint” Ryukyu, Korea, Ainu, and Taiwan. That Mingei appreciates these arts is intimately tied into a sort of patronizing “we’ll protect you, and protect your art and culture for you, because we appreciate it [better] and because we can protect it better than you can.” Not to mention the vast complexes of Oriental Orientalism, the ways in which Ryukyu and Korea were not actually appreciated on their own, but rather appreciated as signs of how Japan used to be, and as elements of what now was included within the Japanese Empire. The quaint, rustic, aesthetic and culture that modern Japan had lost.

But, you know, for all of that, while we certainly can’t ignore it, can’t forget about it or put it aside, at the same time, is there not value in appreciation of the rustic in and of itself? Yanagi and friends went against the currents of their time, and of our time, to say that these things, worn, old, damaged, many of them made quite roughly or crudely to begin with (as judged by certain metrics or value systems), were worthy of appreciation too. That “art” should not be limited to the more explicitly “beautiful,” and that we should be wary and careful of what we lose in the rush to modernity. Is that not worthy of praise, or appreciation, in itself?

There’s also an interesting question to ponder as to whether we should see the Mingeikan, as a whole, as an artifact of a past age, or whether we should see it as very much a part of what Japan remains today. I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Certainly, on the surface, it feels like it still very much fits in. Doesn’t look all that out of place amidst this suburban neighborhood… To me, the house doesn’t feel like stepping back into the 1930s, like many historic houses might be intended to do; rather, it feels like stepping into another side of, another part of, what Japan still very much is, today.

Reminds me of a talk I went to recently with the artist Yamamoto Tarô. Many of his paintings juxtapose traditional/historical motifs, styles, elements – sometimes entire historical compositions – with elements of the contemporary. Such as a copy of Ogata Kôrin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms,” but with a Coca-Cola can pouring into the river, creating that same swirling aesthetic as Kôrin painted centuries ago. Or a Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”) painting of kimono hanging on a rack, but with the kimono replaced by an Aloha shirt and Hawaiian-style quilt. He told us he had the idea while sitting within the grounds of a centuries-old Buddhist temple, eating a Big Mac. I had always thought of his paintings as whimsical parodies. And I think he does intend some degree of humor. But, listening to Yamamoto talk, I realized his deeper point – that while the Big Mac does feel weird, does feel like a juxtaposition against the grounds of that medieval temple, in another way it’s actually really quite normal. The temple is a part of contemporary Japan, a part of contemporary life in that neighborhood, just as much as anything else. Contemporary life in Japan is not made up solely of the things invented or created or designed in the last century; tradition and history are very much here, and real, and really a part of it.

So, that brings us back to the Mingeikan. Many historical houses intentionally preserve the appearance of the past, in order to transport you there. There’s certainly a lot to be said about that, too, and how these historical houses are nevertheless inevitably also a part of real, contemporary life, contemporary cityscapes. There can never be a more complete separation – either it exists within the contemporary, or it simply doesn’t exist at all. But, still, to the extent that many historic houses, castles, and so forth very much explicitly intend to be a pocket of the past, separated from the present, I’m not sure the Mingeikan is trying to do that, which is quite interesting to me. Both in Yanagi’s own time, and today, I think Mingei is trying to say, appreciate tradition, appreciate the rustic, keep it in your modern life, don’t rush to become too totally modern too quickly.

At a former samurai home in Sakura, Chiba. (Photo my own.)

Read Full Post »

Returning finally to my previous series of posts talking about Okinawa’s postwar art history, we jump back chronologically a bit as we finally visit the second of the three exhibits I saw that day at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Okinawa no kôgei (“Craft Arts of Okinawa”), an exhibit put on in conjunction with the 80th anniversary of the Nihon Mingeikan, the leading Folk Arts Museum in Tokyo, discussed the Mingei (“Folk Arts”) movement, and the place of Okinawa in it, as the movement’s founder, Yanagi Sôetsu, traveled to Okinawa several times in the 1930s-40s, and took Okinawa’s traditional arts (along with those of Korea, Taiwan, and the Ainu) as representative of some of the greatest things modern Japan had lost. Sadly, the exhibit closed here in Okinawa on Oct 23rd. But more like it are going on constantly, I assume, at the Mingeikan in Tokyo.

Here, too, we have another set of stories to learn and to know, and then to retell. The biographies of Yanagi and his compatriots, Serizawa Keisuke, Hamada Shôji, Kawai Kanjirô, Bernard Leach, and others – their individual stories – and also the story of the attitudes/aesthetic/ideology of the Mingei movement, a story which I feel is all the more intriguing, all the more fascinating, for how problematic it is. One scholar, Kikuchi Yûko, has flat-out called the Mingei movement “Oriental Orientalism,” for how it romanticizes Okinawan, Korean, Taiwanese, and Ainu cultures, appropriating them, recrafting their narratives through the lens of Japanese imperial/colonial attitudes and interests, and so forth. Even as someone for whom ceramics, lacquerwares, and textiles have never been as attention-holding as paintings, I find the story surrounding it – this story of Oriental Orientalist aesthetic ideology, and so forth – really quite fascinating.

An unexpected treasure of this exhibit was a collection of many tens of photos by Sakamoto Manshichi, who traveled to Okinawa with Yanagi several times, and whose photos provide for us a window into the look and feel of traditional / prewar life in Okinawa – traditional fashions, hairstyles, architecture, cityscapes, and lifeways otherwise, which any sort of structural political/economic/social history would never be able to express. Images, artworks, culture, giving as close as we’ll ever get to a real, full, five-senses impression of what it really looked and felt like to be there at that time – what these people’s everyday world looked and felt like. I had not realized the extent to which, even as late as the 1930s, even in Naha and Shuri (the largest cities in the prefecture, and the chief political & economic centers), many people were still very much living in traditional architecture, and traditional clothing and hairstyles. I wouldn’t want to falsely leap to the assumption that these 1930s photos represent what it was really like 30 or 40 or 60 years earlier, in quote-unquote “traditional” times, as if nothing had ever changed. But, even so, at a time when Tokyo was already covered in cafés, jazz clubs, movie houses, moga (“modern girls,” the Japanese equivalent of the flapper), at a time when one might think it would have already been too late to hope to see photographs of “traditional” Okinawa, there it is: hugely valuable documentation of what things looked like before the island was so utterly devastated by the war between Okinawa’s two foreign invaders/colonizers: the Japanese and the Allies.

Uchaya udun, a no longer extant secondary palace of the Ryukyuan royal family, as seen in a photo by Sakamoto Manshichi. Public domain image from Naha Machitane.net.

And, among those photos, images of specific sites of great historical significance. If these buildings had survived, they would be among the most significant historical sites in the islands today, and among the key exemplars of traditional Okinawan architecture. The fact that these temples, palaces, and the like were lost is only the tip of the iceberg of what was lost in 1945, but to see them in these photos is really incredible – not just the outer faces, but various different views of the insides of many of these buildings… And, incredible just to think, just to realize, that all the way up until 1944-45, so much of this was indeed intact, simply surviving continuously (if not actively maintained) since the 19th century. In that sense, while Sakamoto’s photos of daily life – of everyday people’s homes and clothing – may be more truly indicative of a “modern” 1930s Okinawa, his images of Engaku-ji, Uchaya udun, and Sôgen-ji might be said to be at least somewhat reflective of the Kingdom era appearances of those buildings. His photos of Ryukyuan theater and dance, and of Yanagi & friends themselves are of course valuable historical documents as well. One can only wonder, if the island had not been devastated as it was in the battle, what it might look like today. Might Shuri look more like Kyoto, a decidedly traditional-feeling cultural space, as full of traditional architecture on the outside as it is full of traditional arts activities on the inside (behind closed doors), mixed in more naturally, more positively, with modern developments?

“Churashima Henoko” 美ら島・辺野古, by Miyara Eiko 宮良瑛子, 2005.

Finally, jumping forward once again, the museum was also showing at that time (earlier this fall), a solo exhibition of the works of Miyara Eiko (b. 1935), a prominent figure in the postwar Okinawan art world, still active today. I must admit I was completely unfamiliar with her name or her work before going to the museum that day, but according to the exhibition, she played key roles in the founding of a number of notable Okinawan artists’ associations, exhibitions, and so forth, and in particular in building a space for women artists in the postwar Okinawa art scene. I was excited to learn this history, to learn Miyara’s story, and also to see & learn of her works themselves, representative of one piece of the canon of the history of postwar Okinawan art. As gallery labels explained, this is the first exhibit of what will surely prove to be a great many, highlighting new acquisitions by the Museum, as they continue to work to amass an extensive and representative collection of Okinawan art.

As we enter the exhibit, we see Miyara’s “Song of the Bottom of the Sea” (水底の歌), a bronze produced in 1994 as a prayer or song for those killed in the Battle of Okinawa, including many who lie now at the bottom of the sea. It is a statue of a young woman, nude, with her hands in a gesture of prayer, and her eyes looking upwards. She leans forward on her tiptoes, as if leaning towards the gods, or towards a shrine, or the sea.

Right: Miyara’s Mina no soko, bronze, 1994. As the museum wouldn’t allow photos, and as to my amazement a basic Google Images search reveals no “free use” images of Miyara’s work whatsoever, I am using this image, which I found on the blog of radio personality Arthur Binard. Thank you, Mr. Binard, for sharing with us what so many other institutions wouldn’t.

Miyara moved from Tokyo to Okinawa in 1971, a year before Okinawa was returned to Japanese sovereignty. I know little about the logistics and policies of entering or leaving Occupied Okinawa – during the period from 1945-1972 when the entire prefecture was essentially under American martial law – but I assumed this would be quite difficult. And, the exhibit tells us it was, but that even so, and even despite her husband being a known member of the Japanese Communist Party, they were somehow able to do it.

In Okinawa, as was surely the case elsewhere in Japan and around the world to varying extents, Miyara found that men held all the dominant positions in the local art world. Major art activities on the island, such as the Okiten prefecture-wide Salon-style exhibitions (akin to the Nitten, the most prestigious national-level juried art exhibition, except on a prefectural, Okinawa-wide, level), were all controlled by the art department at the University of the Ryukyus, and most if not all of the professors in that department – and most certainly the heads of the department, the most prominent or influential professors, etc. – were men. And it’s not just that they happened to be men, but that they were actively exclusionary of women artists, or of certain attitudes, approaches, or themes these women brought. Thus, along with other women artists in Okinawa, Miyara began organizing exhibitions of artworks specifically by women, in 1971, 1974, and 1975; as another significant step towards addressing the male dominance of the field, Miyara helped found the Association of Okinawan Women Artists (沖縄女流美術家協会).

Her own works, featured in this exhibit, include the one bronze, and numerous works on canvas. Miyara also made a career of doing watercolor illustrations for children’s books. Many of these related stories of World War II, and of the Battle of Okinawa in particular. One I picked up and flipped through told the story of the Tsushima Maru, a civilian ship, carrying Okinawan civilians – including many schoolchildren – which, while trying to take these innocents away from the warzone, was sunk by a US submarine.

In 1982, Miyara helped establish the Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition (沖縄平和美術展). Inspired to action after thinking about the Vietnam War – and about Okinawa’s role in that war as one of the chief places from which American forces were launched, etc. – Miyara led the exhibition with a philosophy of allowing anyone to freely exhibit their artworks, regardless of theme, an idea she associated with the power of peace. She writes that it was in Okinawa, especially, that an exhibit “crowned” with peace had to be shown (「沖縄でこそ平和を冠した美術展を開くべきだ。」). This first Okinawa Peace Exhibition in 1982 was shown at the Naha Civic Hall (那覇市民会館). Ômine Seikan, a major figure in the postwar Okinawan art scene, easily a member of the canon of Okinawan artists I discussed in my previous posts, served as chair of the exhibition committee. However, during the opening ceremonies, he found he was too choked up to say anything. And so, Miyara Eiko stepped in. This Okinawa Art Peace Exhibition continues today, having taken place now 21 times.

One section of the works displayed in the current exhibition (this fall, at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum) were from Miyara’s “Scorched Earth” (焦土) series. They show figures in long robes, their heads covered (are they meant to be Arabs/Muslims, perhaps? Unclear.), in many cases holding children, or holding bodies which are either dead or dying. The background is more or less featureless, yellow and orange, colors which somehow evoke (for me, anyway) a greater impression of the feeling of suffering.

Another of Miyara’s works, entitled 「オモニ幾星霜」 (roughly, “Mainly, Many Months and Years”) and painted in 1996, caught my eye with its deep blue composition. A woman in blue robes, resembling to me perhaps the Korean hanbok, stands in the lower right corner of the composition, her face rendered only in greys. The entire rest of the piece is merely a blue background, shifting in tone, growing darker towards the top, and interrupted here and there by stretches of red. I find this piece a very interesting combination of abstraction, juxtaposed against this depiction of a woman. What are we supposed to think is the theme, or the setting? Just the blue and the red, alone, abstractly, attracts interest – and I don’t normally go for abstract works. It’s a beautiful, cool, relaxing, blue, but shot through with red, like anger, like blood. How does this artwork make me (the viewer) feel, is I suppose the question the artist may be wanting me to be asking. I don’t even know the answer. Is the blue and red supposed to represent, perhaps, the memories or emotions of the woman?

My notes from the exhibit cut off there. But, as I said, this is the first of what is intended to be a long ongoing series of exhibits of the museum’s newest acquisitions, introducing visitors to the ever-growing, ever-changing collection, as the museum continues its efforts to obtain more Okinawan art, and to become ever moreso the chief collection of Okinawan art in the world, the chief center for the exhibition and study of that art, the chief center for the construction and dissemination of the standard narrative, the canonical story, of the history of this art – a history, a story, that is dreadfully, woefully, sadly unknown out in the wider world.

The Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own. The Museum is starting to get a lot better about allowing photography in the galleries – on the History side – but they still have a long way to go, towards allowing photos on the Art Museum side, if they want people to be able to spread and share the story, the beauty, the importance, the wonder of Okinawan art with others.

All in all, to conclude this whole series of posts on that one busy day at the Okinawa Prefecture Museum, there is something terribly exciting about seeing these exhibits, and feeling that even simply in attending the museum and seeing them, I am somehow a part of this storytelling, this narrative-writing. Though I am only a visitor, I am witnessing the construction of the Okinawan canon, and of the standard narrative of Okinawan art history, as it is being written. These are *the* exhibits where that is taking place, and this is *the* museum that is doing it. Much like the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, this is the one and only leading institution leading the charge in telling this story – in amassing a collection and using it to tell a story which, while we likely can’t say it’s never been told before, is certainly being told in a more fully coordinated manner now. All canons are false, and no narrative can ever be truly definitive. Canonization is terribly problematic in its own ways. But, still, in our teaching and in our research, we have standard narratives of Japanese art history, of Chinese art history, of European art history, to build upon, to critique, to work against; something to work to revise. Okinawan art history doesn’t have that yet – the Prefectural Museum is doing this very exciting work right here right now, as we speak, and by visiting the museum, we get to witness it, in the making. And that’s a really exciting thing, something you won’t get to see at the Metropolitan, the Boston Museum, the Freer-Sackler, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, LACMA, the Seattle Art Museum, or at many other places. All of these are excellent top-notch museums, and I absolutely love visiting them; I love them for what they are and what they do. But, I have a hard time feeling that any of them are really the one singular place – more so than any of the others on this short list of American museums – in functioning as the one and only leading institution leading the way in any one particular thing, let alone in recovering and telling the stories of their peoples; none of these museums are the one and only leading repository of not only objects but also of experts, expertise, and authority on a single culture, as places like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Bishop Museum are.

As I walk through the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, or the Bishop Museum, I find myself feeling a certain kind of feeling of “good luck!” “hang in there!” “Chibariyo~!” A feeling of encouragement towards the staff of this museum as they embark on this project that is so personal and powerful and meaningful for them, as Okinawans, creating something for their own people, to promote their own history to the world. It’s a feeling akin to that which I felt in meeting Kamalu du Preez, Interim Collections Manager at the Bishop Museum, briefly, at the LACMA opening earlier this year. A kind, energetic, young person, who is also a key member of a team (a staff) working to do this thing, recovering, safeguarding, sharing, the treasures of the history of her people, the Bishop Museum as one of the chief voices unto the world of what Hawaiian history and culture is (was), its beauty, its importance.

And a place like the Okinawa Prefectural Museum feels welcoming to me, in a weird way, despite the fact that I’ve only ever been a visitor and that it’s exceptionally unlikely I’ll ever be staff of any sort. Perhaps it’s simply because I’ve visited so many times, and so it feels familiar. But perhaps it has something to do with the notion that I fear I will never be “art historian” enough for any of those mainland US museums – that the staff see me as a “historian,” as an outsider, and so long as they’ve got Columbia & Harvard PhD students explicitly in Art History primely placed to get internships or entry-level positions in those institutions, I’ll continue to be left out in the cold… whereas, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, as someone who is more a specialist in Okinawan Studies than nearly anyone else in the US-centered academic world, I can allow myself to feel a bit more “insider” here. I may not ever be staff; I may not even get to know, or get to be known by, the staff for some time yet. But even just as a visitor, just by going to the museum, I am learning things about Okinawa, witnessing exhibitions, that 99.99999% of Americans have never seen, and I can be the one to share it with them – in English, in a museum, gallery, book, or college classroom closer to home.

Read Full Post »

Continuing on from my last post

Right: Chinese folk deity Guan Yu, by Higa Kazan 比嘉崋山 (1868-1939), one of the premier Meiji period artists in the Okinawan equivalent of (mainland) Japan’s Nihonga movement. (Reproduction on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Photo my own.)

I find it really exciting to be seeing these exhibits at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. This is the history of Okinawan modern art, and the associated canon of works, being promulgated right here, right now. By which I don’t mean to say this is Okinawa’s equivalent of the Armory Show or the Salon des Beaux-Arts, events where the newest latest artworks made a great splash, receiving such positive or negative reactions that they later became famous, oft-cited – in other words, canonical – touchpoints in the history of modern art. But, still, these exhibits right now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum are the ones pointing to those earlier events and telling a story about them, in perhaps the most coordinated effort yet, and thus in doing so are creating the standard story of Okinawan modern art, and the standard works featured within that story. Imagine being there the first time a major museum put works by Monet, Manet, van Gogh, Cezanne, Magritte, Picasso, Gaugin, Seurat, Matisse, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Pollock, and Rauschenberg in a room together and told you, the viewer, that this is the story of “modern art.” Imagine getting to see all of those works, which a decade or two later have – as a result of this exhibit – become known as some of the most important, most famous works in the world. At that later time, students and others see these paintings in textbooks, in lecture slides, in newspapers or magazines or websites, and dream of someday hopefully getting to see them – but you were there, at the exhibit that made them famous. Visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and seeing all of these works by Nadoyama Aijun, Higa Kazan, Nakasone Shôzan, Ômine Seikan, Adaniya Masayoshi, Yonaha Chôtai, Kawahira Keizô, and all the rest, is something like that, but for Okinawan art.

I may be mistaken, I may be reading this whole thing wrong, but it certainly feels to me, as I walk through these galleries, that these are the exhibits that are setting the story. These are the exhibits people within the field will be talking about for decades to come. I certainly will be. I don’t know what competition might be out there, other up&coming English-speaking specialists in Okinawan art, but I’m certainly hoping to be one of the first to put out some kind of comprehensive survey in English on the overall history of Okinawan art, and/or to teach classes on it, and I certainly will be looking back at exactly these exhibits, and at some of those I have already missed, but for which I at least got the catalog, such as the museum’s opening exhibit, back in 2007: “Okinawa bunka no kiseki, 1872-2007.”

I wrote in my last post about developments in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as Western oil painting (yôga) came onto the scene, and as “traditional” Japanese painting transformed into something new (Nihonga) in order to adapt to the new modern age. Sadly, I missed the earlier rotations of this “Okinawa bijutsu no nagare” (“The Flow of Okinawan Art”) exhibit, and as I am not so well-read on any of this yet, I don’t know actually what was going on in Okinawa’s art world at that time, that might better parallel these developments.

“Yaeyama Landscape” 八重山風景, by Ômine Seikan 大嶺政寛, 1970.

But, despite leaping anachronistically straight to the postwar period, artists like Nadoyama Aijun (1906-1970) and Ômine Seikan (1910-1987) were still hugely influential and significant pioneers in their own ways, for that time. I wish I could say what the earlier history of oil painting, or other Western influences, in Okinawa were, and thus where exactly Nadoyama and Ômine fit into a longer story. I’ll learn that in time. But, even in the postwar period, they were creating works that depicted traditional Okinawan subjects in relatively realistic (if at times Impressionistic) styles, that far more closely resemble the styles of Paris-trained Meiji era artists, than those of abstract or conceptual artists of, say, the 1960s. Maybe a more trained eye would be able to look at these and know immediately that there’s something about their style that marks them as being no earlier than the 1940s-50s, but to me, they remind me of those Meiji developments, as artists like Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui worked to depict their own world – Japan, a Japan still very much filled with “traditional” sights – in a Western, “modern,” realistic mode. Also like the Meiji artists of a half-century or so earlier, Nadoyama and his contemporaries were founding artist communities, exhibitions, and journals, and exploring new (well, by the postwar maybe not so new) ways of being an artist in the modern world.

Nadoyama followed, really, somewhat, in the steps of the major Meiji period artists. Born in 1906, he began studying oil painting in 1924, at the Tokyo Art School (Tôkyô bijutsu gakkô), the very same school that is at the center of the standard narratives of the major developments of Meiji art. Twenty years later, he lost nearly all of his works in a major air raid on October 10, 1944.1 Two years later, after the end of the war, he created what’s now in the process of becoming one of the canonical works of 20th century Okinawan painting, a portrait of a woman in a white bingata robe, titled simply 「白地紅型を着る」 (lit. “Wearing Bingata with a White Ground”, Left.).

Meanwhile, in August 1945, within the very first weeks of the Occupation, US Navy officer Willard Hanna headed the establishment of what they called the Okinawa Exhibit Hall (沖縄陳列館). The US Military Government of the Ryukyus also established an Office of Culture & Art (文化美術課) and enacted some significant efforts to support and promote artists, actors, dancers, and the like. In 1948, Nadoyama, along with a number of others, successfully petitioned the mayor of Shuri for the creation of an artists’ community which they termed Nishimui; many of the artists who took up residency there worked for this Culture & Arts Office, either as “art officers” (美術技官) or in some other capacity. They established private studios at Nishimui, and many made a living by painting portraits for GIs, using that money and stability to pursue their art practice. Today, we are told, one of those studios remains in operation in the Gibo neighborhood of Shuri.

As early as the following year, in 1949, the artists of Nishimui organized the first “Okinawa Exposition,” or Okiten, an event meant to stand as the premier art exhibition in Okinawa, paralleling the national-level Ministry of Arts Exhibition, or “Bunten,” held annually in Tokyo, which had by then been renamed the “Japan Exhibition,” or Nitten.

Though it may be anachronistic to compare 1920s-40s Okinawa with 1870s-90s Japan, I cannot help but see Nadoyama’s story as connecting into the broader story of Okinawa’s art history, as a parallel to Japan’s. Just as we learn of the Tokyo Art School and the Bunten, and the various different art schools, artists’ groups, exhibitions, notable events, art/literary magazines, that took place, and the factions and tensions and rivalries, and the role of all of this in influencing the art itself in Meiji period Tokyo and Kyoto, so too does Okinawa have its stories, of the Nishimui artists’ village, created in 1948 in Shuri, and the relationship of these artists to the US military Occupation government; and of the Okiten, first held in 1949. And for me, that’s one of the things I love the most, is the stories. Stories that have yet to be told widely enough; stories that have yet to be incorporated into our mental vision, or understanding, of our infinitely complex, diverse, colorful world.

“Now… (3)” by Kawahira Keizô, 1988. Apologies for the skewed shape of the image here; I wish I would have been permitted to take my own photos in the exhibit, but since I wasn’t, and since I can’t find images of the work online, I had to fall back to taking a cellphone photo of an image out of a book.

The other major side of what I found so intriguing about this exhibition at the Prefectural Museum was how starkly obvious it is, just by glancing around the room, that Okinawa was right there, following right along with global art trends – that Okinawa is not only folk art; that they were not woefully behind the times; that while they may have been absent from the global art scene, and remain absent from our narratives of world art history, they were indeed producing modern art indicative of the styles current around the world in the 1930s, 1960s, 1980s. Looking around the room, one can immediately spot works that absolutely reflect those styles, and interests, in abstraction or whatever it may be, while at the same time reflecting the particulars of Okinawan culture, identity, history, politics, and experience.

“Now… (3)” (1988) by Kawahira Keizô, an oil painting depicting the Japanese and American flags flying together against a perfect cloudless blue sky, has a smoothness and starkness that, well, I don’t know what exactly was going on in the 1980s elsewhere in the world, but it’s certainly moved on past the obsessions with abstraction and conceptual art of the 1960s-70s, and with earlier decades’ trends in rejecting realism and embracing impressionism. This is one of the cleanest paintings in the place – bright colors, stark clear lines, nothing impressionistic or “stylized” about it.

“Koko ni iru watashi” (ここにいるわたし) by Gibo Katsuyuki 儀保克幸 (2009). Image from galleryokinawa.com.

Koko ni iru watashi” (“I, who am here”), a wooden sculpture of a schoolgirl by Gibo Katsuyuki, made in 2009, similarly, would not stand out at any contemporary art gallery. Put it in a US university’s art gallery and tell me it’s by one of the MFA students, or one of the professors, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all. But, look closer, and you find that the girl is hiding her hands behind her back, and that they are tattooed with designs which were typical on Okinawan women’s hands prior to the late 19th century, and which were banned as “uncivilized” practices for many decades.

These pieces are not only beautiful, masterful, inspiring, moving pieces of art, just as good, just as modern, as anything produced elsewhere in the world, but they also speak to the viewer of a particular story, a particular experience. They convey for us the emotions of that experience, and the issues and difficulties of that particular history, a history unique to Okinawa, and thus contributing to the diverse fabric of global understanding something that only they can provide – the uniquely Okinawan piece of the jigsaw. At the same time, these same issues parallel those shared by a great many indigenous and colonized peoples around the world – issues of suppressed, destroyed, lost traditions and efforts to revive and restore one’s identity; issues of stolen land and of suffering under occupation – issues which the vast majority of utterly mainstream (post)modernist, conceptual, abstract, thematic works by Japanese, American, or European artists won’t give you.

I can’t believe it; I wasn’t planning for this to be a whole series of posts. I think my first (lost) draft was actually much more concise. Oh well. I’m certainly not going to complain about having more content. Stay tuned for Part 3.


1) At least one of Nadoyama’s prewar works, long thought lost, was actually discovered in 2006.; as for the air raid, why am I not surprised that even despite the extensive interest among English-language Wikipedia writers, and English-language history enthusiasts more generally, in just about all aspects of World War II, there is no English-language Wikipedia page for the 10-10 Air Raid, an event cited regularly in Okinawan histories as a specific and extremely notable event?

Read Full Post »

I have been very much enjoying visiting the Okinawa Prefectural Museum several times these last few weeks. They have three exhibits up right now on different aspects of Okinawan modern art, which not only provide the opportunity for me to learn new things, to continue to work towards an ever-fuller (though never complete) vision, or understanding, of the infinite depth and breadth of all that is “Okinawa,” its people, and their history & culture, but they also remind me of who I want to be as a scholar. I feel in my element, in a way, in those galleries. I am not someone whose passion lies chiefly in wrestling with complex conceptual interpretive problems about how our society functions, or what anything “really” “means,” so much as I am someone who revels in learning new things – stories, images – and then sharing them with others.

I am not a specialist in modern art, and none of these exhibits really do much to inform my research in any direct way. They are addressing a different period, a different set of themes and questions: problems of modernity, of identity amid a particular context of 20th century political and cultural experience. But these are still Okinawan objects and images, Okinawan stories – stories that are only just now beginning to be told; stories I am glad to be learning, deepening and expanding my knowledge; and stories that I am eager to share with others, should I ever be fortunate enough to get the opportunity to teach a university course on Okinawan art history, or to curate an exhibit.

The museum’s exhibition calendar for 2016-17, which I’m putting here as a stand-in for the notion of Okinawa bijutsu no nagare, the “flow” of the history/development of Okinawan art.

The first of these exhibits is part of an ongoing, or at least quite frequent, series of rotations of objects from the museum’s permanent collection, constructing and conveying a standard narrative of the history of Okinawan art, as well as a canon for that art history. On those rare occasions when Okinawan art appears at all in museum exhibitions outside of Okinawa, or in textbooks or course syllabi, it almost always takes the form of folk arts or decorative artstextiles, lacquerwares, ceramics – or, if you’re really lucky, you just might see discussion of the aesthetic world of the Ryukyu Kingdom more broadly, one drawing heavily on Ming Dynasty Chinese styles, in terms of the bold colors of Shuri castle, and of the court costume of the Confucian scholar-officials who peopled its government; not to mention ships, paintings, traditional Okinawan architecture otherwise… Or, you might maybe see something of far more contemporary work, political art, speaking to contemporary indigenous identity struggles and/or the ongoing protest campaigns against the US military presence. And all of these are fantastic and wonderful in their own ways. But, what you won’t see at other institutions, and what therefore makes these exhibits at the Prefectural Museum so exciting, is the fuller narrative of how Okinawan art got from one to the other – and the fuller narrative of everything that happened in between.

Right: Nadoyama Aijun 名渡山愛順, one of the giants of Okinawa’s early postwar art scene.

Having studied Japanese art under John Szostak, a specialist in late 19th to early 20th century “modernist” movements in Japan, I have something of a basic knowledge of the vibrant and complex developments of that time. As Japanese artists began to engage with Western “modern” or “modernist” art, and with negotiating their own place in the “modern”/”modernist” art world, many took up European oil-painting (J: yôga, lit. “Western pictures”), creating works that drew heavily upon and emulated – sometimes more closely, sometimes less – the styles, approaches, and themes of French Academic painting, Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and so forth, albeit while still creating works distinctively Japanese in their subject matter, thematic concerns, or otherwise. Meanwhile, other artists worked to maintain “traditional” Japanese painting – in traditional media, i.e. ink and colors on paper or silk, depicting traditional subjects, motifs, themes – and to adapt it to the modern age, giving birth to a movement known as Nihonga (lit. “Japanese pictures”). Both of these movements were also closely tied into issues of inventing a national identity, a set of national arts and national traditions, the creation of a canon of “Japanese art history,” and issues of performing modernity, proving to the world that the Japanese (1) can do modern art, and modernity in general, just as well as anyone else; that they are fully modern people and ought to be treated as respected equals, and that the Japanese (2) possess a history and cultural traditions that are just as noble, as beautiful, as anyone else’s.

The stories of this time in Japanese art history, of these movements in painting, and of parallel developments in architecture, textiles, ceramics, and countless other aspects of visual & material culture (or, aesthetic life), are beginning to be shared in major art museums, university classrooms, and elsewhere in the US, though they remain woefully under-discussed, under-known. Giants of Japanese art history such as Asai Chû, Kuroda Seiki, and Leonard Foujita; Ernest Fenollosa, Okakura Kakuzô, Kanô Hôgai, Uemura Shôen, and Maeda Seison; among many, many, others, along with the stories of their competing art schools, the development of the salon-style Bunten national art exhibitions, and so forth, remain almost entirely unknown even among the most regular visitors to the Metropolitan (for the example), the most devoted, cultured, informed, passionate lovers of Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, or whatever. And I am most certainly eager to someday hopefully be granted the opportunity to share these stories with college students, museumgoers, or some other portion of the willing public.

But Okinawa has its art history story, too, and it is fascinating to see how these very same trends manifested in Okinawa at the very same time, in ways that sometimes closely parallel what was going on in Japan, and sometimes diverge, speaking to Okinawa’s unique, particular, cultural and historical experience. I sadly missed the earlier rotations of this Okinawa bijutsu no nagare (“the flow of Okinawan art”) set of exhibits, which would have covered precisely that period, from roughly the 1860s until the 1900s, as the Ryukyu Kingdom was abolished and absorbed into the newly-born modern nation-state of Japan, and as Okinawan artists first began to wrestle with the very same issues of tradition and modernity, Okinawanness/Japaneseness vs. the Western, and so forth, creating their own Okinawan version of the Nihonga movement, as well as oil paintings, and so forth. But, even in the rotation I did see, which begins around the 1930s and features artists and artworks up through the end of the 20th century, we see many of the same themes, and we see how they played out similarly, and differently, in Okinawa.

(More on this in my next post, coming up soon. Okinawa Prefectural Museum and Okinawan Art & History Part 2)

Thanks to the Ryukyu Cultural Archives for making the photo of Nadoyama, and so many other images easily accessible on the web, while the Prefectural Museum prevents one from right-clicking to either link to or save the images from their website. All images used here only for explanatory/educational fair use purposes.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »