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Archive for the ‘Okinawa’ Category

A shop along Naha’s Yachimun-dôri (“Pottery Street”) in the Tsuboya neighborhood, the center of Okinawan pottery production for hundreds of years. Today, heavily trafficked by tourists.

I visited Okinawa for just a very few days in late October last year (2019), mainly to spend time with my friend Vicky, who is a world traveler like no one else I have ever met, but who had never been to Okinawa, wanted to go, and wanted me to show her around. Since she has trouble with stairs and inclines and so forth – and with crowds – we skipped Shuri castle during that trip. I wrote the following thoughts immediately upon my return to Tokyo, but then before I finished writing more, polishing and preparing the post for “publication,” the unimaginable happened. I cannot believe it was only a very few days later that there was this tragic accident, this fire, which destroyed the most central buildings in the complex – indeed, I still can’t believe that it happened at all.

In late January (2020), I made another very brief visit to Okinawa, before going to Amami, and aside from the many things I could say about the palace and the fire, what I would write now upon this latest trip is largely the same as how I felt during/after that previous trip.

One of the things I’m loving about Okinawa right now – and I guess I should say, specifically, the capital city of Naha in particular – is that I feel like I know Naha in a way I know no other city.

It’s dumb and untrue, but I feel like it’s “my” city in a way… This is patently dumb and untrue because, first of all, by all means, everyone who’s Okinawan, whether they grew up there or in the diaspora, they have a special connection to the place that I could only hope to ever sense or experience the slightest taste of. And I do know plenty of people – Okinawan, Japanese, (white) American – who have indeed spent more time in Okinawa than I have, and who by all means do know and in a certain sense have “claim” so to speak upon the city more than I do. But I don’t mean to compare myself to those people, so much as I mean to say that (1) within my own experience, of cities that *I* know, I feel I perhaps in a certain sense know Naha the best and (2) out of all my Japanese friends, Japanese Studies colleagues, etc, it’s easy to feel I know Naha better than any of them. It’s my place in a certain sense, if that makes sense. You sit around and talk to people about how long they’ve lived in Nagasaki or Kôchi or Sendai, how well they know Fukuoka or Sapporo or Kobe – all places I have only the most minimal experience with – and talk about how all us all know Kyoto, Tokyo, Yokohama to varying extents. But, Naha, I go back to Naha, and I can show you around. If you’re going, let me know, I can give you advice.

The Naha city skyline, as seen from within the grounds of Shuri castle.

New York, of course, is home in a certain sense. In a certain sense, that will always be my city. But at the same time, in another sense, New York or LA or Tokyo can never be my city, because they’re just too vast and there are too many millions of people who know all different sides of it that I’ve never seen; different lives, different experiences, different neighborhoods. Naha is small, and while there are undoubtedly many sides to it that I don’t know, haven’t seen, at the same time, I feel like I know my way around like the back of my hand as they say. All the most major landmarks, at least, from the monorail stations to the shrines, temples, museums, shopping centers, etc. “Oh, that’s in Asato? No problem, I can walk there from Makishi, no problem.” “Oh, that’s in Wakasa? Oh, I see. Well, that’ll be a bit of a walk. But maybe I can stop at Chihaya Books on the way there.” “Oh, we’re meeting up at Ryûtan-dôri? What do you think about eating at Beans? I love Beans. Or, there’s that one place right on the corner that I’ve never been to.” People suggest restaurants to go to, and very occasionally, I’ve actually been to that exact restaurant before; or, if I haven’t, I know the area, I know the neighborhood.

And while anywhere else, even in Honolulu, I don’t really have my favorite places that aren’t exactly the same places anyone else might say are also their favorites, here I really do have my go-to places, my favorite bars, restaurants, bookshops…

And I have a certain relationship with the city that I can come back here and recognize what’s changed, every store that comes up or gets shuttered…. And many memories over many individual different visits. Walking around Heiwa Dori and thinking about Sakae-san and his Daiei Shokudo. Thinking about times spent with Simone, probably some of our happiest times, getting ice cream at the same little shop several days in a row, etc…. I feel privileged to get to have this kind of relationship with the city. I remember shops that aren’t there anymore; I got to see them before they were gone. I got to visit certain places when they were brand-new. Of course, Shuri castle is perhaps the biggest of these – I had the privilege of visiting it several times before the fire. But I also remember the Okinawa Monorail before they extended it into Urasoe, and the Makishi Market before it got closed down earlier this year, though I am a bit sad I couldn’t be there to witness the actual closing. And it’s those kinds of memories or experiences, that kind of historical/cultural local knowledge, that I think is just so precious, such a privilege, even if it is, in the grand scheme of things, not necessarily something that will ever actively come out onto the page (of my professional scholarship) or necessarily play out in any way at all.

Heiwa-dôri, a maze of covered shopping arcade streets in central Naha.

Heiwa-dôri is a special place for me. I feel like it’s the kind of place that if you lived in central Naha, if you spent enough time in Heiwa-dôri, you could really get to know the people there. Really get to develop a real feel of the place. During the day it’s packed with tourists, but in the evenings, it’s all small, individual bars, very local feeling. But tons of them – like the possibilities are almost endless. Feeling like if I did live there, I might be able to develop a relationship fairly quickly, having my regular bars, maybe even get the bartenders/owners to know me.

On my very first trip to Okinawa, the very first shop I ate at was a little shokudô deep in Heiwa-dôri, way back from the main touristy street, called Daiei Shokudô. As I’ve probably related on this blog before, Sakae-san, the owner, very kindly sat with me and talked with me, invited me to come back that night to play/sing folk songs with him and his friends. Somewhere I think I still have a shirt he or his wife gave me when I arrived soaking wet from the rain. That shop is now gone; it’s been more than ten years since then. But last I asked, I asked around random shopowners in the neighborhood, and they knew who he was and they said he was still in good health, very genki. Happy to hear it. But it’s that kind of neighborhood – getting to know the individual shops, getting to know the shopowners. Living in Nishihara for six months, and staying in Tsuboya (just a couple blocks from Heiwa-dôri) on multiple occasions – with my girlfriend, with another friend, with my Dad, and since then on several occasions on my own – I went up and down those alleyways, in early morning, in late evening. I can’t say I’ve gotten to know any of the shopowners, certainly not to the extent that they’d know me. But I do feel like I’ve gotten just a taste of feeling like I “know” Heiwa-dôri, like I feel just the tiniest bit at home there, far more so than in any shopping mall / shopping arcade anywhere in Tokyo. And if I were to ever write an ethnography of a neighborhood, an ethnography of a shôtengai, boy would it be Heiwa-dôri. Absolutely. Maybe sometime down the road, years from now…

Naha Main Place, the main shopping mall (I’d say) in Naha.

And Naha Main Place, the shopping mall. Now, that’s a funny one, too. Who has special feelings about a shopping mall? But the time I spent there, unlike any tourist would, the late evenings in Naha, not yet ready to want to take the bus back to Nishihara (the University of the Ryukyus is located in a fairly out-of-the-way area; only about 20 mins from Naha by bus, but even so, “rural”, or inaka as they say in Japanese; a whole other world from the “big city” of Naha). I don’t think there is any shopping mall or department store anywhere in the world that I feel like I know my way around like I do in Naha Main Place. That’s a weird sentence. Now, this is in part because it’s so small. But, I don’t how to say it, I just… being there makes me feel like I live in Okinawa, like I am, however temporarily, a local, and not a visitor. 在沖。It’s funny, it’s crazy ironic and weird, because it is such an utterly ordinary shopping mall – none of the textured feeling of history, of local community, that Heiwa-dôri has – but even so, when I think about the experience so many grad students and others have had of making their way through daily life in Tokyo or Kyoto, and here I am, X hundreds of miles away, in some other place, buying my cellphone plan at Naha Main Place, buying my groceries there before catching a bus back to Nishihara. Watching Kimi no Na ha there. Going back time and again to ogle the kariyushi shirts and to shake my fist at how expensive they are (I don’t care if it’s handmade by local artisans and costs X number of manhours to make from special local materials and so forth, what am I supposed to do with a $300 shirt? Or even a $100 shirt for that matter? It’s just too much to spend.) Spending time at Naha Main Place makes me feel like someone who is living everyday life in Naha, and not like someone who’s there for only a few days on a trip. Someone familiar with the city, yes, admittedly in the way that a tourist would be, but also in the way a local might be. Shopping there as my normal shopping, eating at whatever, Starbucks or whatever, the mall pizzeria or whatever, and being okay with that because I’m not on vacation, I don’t need to have that special “Okinawan” Kokusai-dôri experience.

This last time that I visited Okinawa, and an Okinawan friend said “why don’t we meet up at such-and-such restaurant in Sakae-machi?” I felt like she was asking me with a sort of unspoken assumption that I would know where that was. Which I did. She made no hint of that she felt she had to take me out touristy, or take me somewhere else to show me another side of Okinawa that I wouldn’t have seen… Even though she’s from Naha, born and raised, and has infinite more experience with and connection to the city, she treated me like someone who also knows his way around; she knows this isn’t my first time in Naha, and that I don’t need help finding my way, or need to be shown “a good time,” to make me want to come back, or anything like that, any of those various ways you might treat a tourist, a visitor; no, she treated me like someone who was already there, and within a context of just “let’s meet up for dinner. where should we go?”

I feel like Sakurazaka Theatre is another touchpoint for me, like Heiwa-dôri and Naha Main Place are. It is, I think, the chief indy movie theatre in the city. If it’s not, I’d be surprised; it would mean there’s some other theater I have just completely never heard of. Sakurazaka has regular films, indy films, international art films, documentaries, film festivals… But they also have a café, and they also sell tons of local music, all sorts of books and magazines and goods, and locally-made ceramics and glasswares. It’s not just a movie theatre, but it’s also in a certain sense a center of local arts. Not that there aren’t a zillion other “arts centers” in Naha. But, if it’s an art film, documentary, film festival, it’s probably happening at Sakurazaka. If you’re looking for CDs from a certain vein of local musical artists – not the super traditional ones (though they have those too) and not the big-name pop bands, but the ones who play local gigs at the venue owned by (or in some kind of partnership with?) Sakurazaka just across the way – the artists involved in Sakurazaka’s annual “Trans Asia Music Meeting” or the annual Shimauta mix album, that’s where you’ll find it. I’ve only seen a film there once or twice. Have never eaten at their cafe. I have bought things from their shop, or at least perused the wares, on quite a few occasions. But I have been to Trans Asia Music Meeting once; they get a whole bunch of different artists and bands from – well, ostensibly it’s all over Asia but the one time I went it was one band from Taiwan, one from S Korea, and like eight or nine from Okinawa, and that was it. But still, very cool – and these artists all mingle and exchange with one another in closed workshops for a day or three or something, and then they have a big multi-venue concert, for free. Spend a whole evening going back and forth between the two halls, hearing different music, from rock to Okinawan folk to synth-remixed-Okinawan-folk. Going to this event was probably my only time showing, or acting upon, any interest in the local music scene, haha; certainly I’ve never been involved in such things in Honolulu or Tokyo, let alone in NY or LA. But at Sakurazaka, I felt like I was engaging in something special, getting to know bands I would never have heard of otherwise. Bands that 99% of my friends will never have heard of. I was obtaining a certain special kind of cultural capital. A kind of Okinawa ‘cred.’ Or something. And that’s what Sakurazaka represents to me, I think: a touchpoint where, if I lived in Naha, if I had the opportunity to really keep up with what was going on at the theatre, that would be my portal into learning about bands, films, documentaries. That would be my portal to learning about “what’s going on” in Naha – within one particular avenue, at least. And seeing tons of Okinawan, Japanese, and other films that I might not see otherwise.

Kokusai-dôri in Evening Glow. A calm, quiet, beautiful evening along Naha’s main tourist street.

All of that said, though, on this latest trip I had a bit of a realization about the character of my relationship to Naha, which I actually found rather troubling and frightening. And I’m sort of wrestling with it. Because I actually really enjoy staying near Kokusai-dôri and Heiwa-dôri and spending time there. I enjoy being in the heart of what a lot of people would consider the very touristy part of the city – the Times Square or Waikiki of Naha. … To me, this is Naha. This is my Okinawa. Quick and easy access to the museums, to the castle, to the big bookstores. I understand that for a lot of people, places like Koza or Chatan are more the “real” Okinawa. At a distance from the tourists and from the cultural displays and performances crafted specifically to appeal to the tourists, these neighborhoods put you in much more direct proximity to the military bases, to the specific kind of urban life that’s grown up around the bases – grey concrete; heavily car-oriented; A&W fast food and shopping malls and taco rice and vintage stores and bars and clubs and so on – and, I presume, in more direct proximity to poverty and unemployment and struggles otherwise of modern Okinawan life today. Or, you could go out to a place like Ôgimi, or a dozen other small villages, far removed from the city life entirely. What exactly life is like there, I don’t know. I assume it’s not as idyllic, not as filled with music and relaxation and some romanticized imagined idea of “traditional” island village life as is portrayed in movies.

I want to be clear, I’m not saying I dislike Koza or Chatan, that I wouldn’t want to spend time there, or anything like that. Frankly, I haven’t really experienced other parts of Okinawa enough to say I dislike those areas, or like them less. If anything, it’s somewhat the contrary: I feel like because I’ve never lived in Koza or Chatan, never been on-base, that maybe I haven’t experienced “the real Okinawa,” or at least haven’t experienced as much of Okinawa, as others. I feel inadequate at best, phony at worst, when I think about these other parts of the island. And that’s not even to get into talking about the other islands in the prefecture, which I very very much hope to visit someday but have yet to go to.

One of the gates of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), and the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts – Okinawa Geidai – just beyond.

But I do enjoy staying in Tsuboya or on Kokusai-dori, right in the heart of things. And I begin to worry that maybe that’s a problem. I certainly have moved away from the most explicitly touristy shops and activities – after my second or third visit, I’m far less interested in the sort of live bars where all the patrons are tourists, and I want to find somewhat more local places; I think I may be done with visiting the yatai-mura and noren-gai, these highly commercialized, brand-new restaurant streets pretending to recreate the authentic feel of alleyways filled with decades-old food stalls; I want to try to do better to figure out which shops are actually run by Okinawans. I still have my favorite shops, even if some of them are very popular with the tourists, e.g. C&C Breakfast, but I don’t think I really care about that being in some way a weakness or a problem. And I still love walking around Heiwa-dôri. But I’m beginning to appreciate more deeply, more genuinely, how locals might see Kokusai-dôri much the same way as we New Yorkers see Times Square; much the same way many who live on O‘ahu see Waikiki – as an over-commercialized tourist mecca that’s too crowded, too loud and too bright, too expensive, too plastic, and best to just be avoided. Not a place real Okinawans go. Or so I’m guessing – I haven’t had anyone say so to me explicitly, actually. But building upon what I do know about locals’ attitudes about Times Square and Waikiki and extrapolating from that, I’m embarrassed to have never really thought about that before quite as deeply, quite as seriously, in the Okinawan case.

Now that I’m no longer on such a shoestring grad student budget, I think I’m going to try to stay at Tsuboya Garden House from now on – a place I know is run by a local Okinawan owner, and not by a mainland Japanese conglomerate; even if it’s more expensive than a place like Abest Cube, and even though I absolutely can be fine with the tiny (“cabin”) guestroom and shared bathrooms at Abest and don’t need the full apartment you’re renting at Garden House, it feels like a place I’ve already developed a relationship. A place that’s decidedly less corporate, more local, a bit off the beaten path. But even there, I wonder if I’m still in a sense playing the tourist, or the expat; I will of course always be an expat, I’ll never be a local. And there’s something appealing, to be sure, about feeling like I’m the scholar, journalist, or whathaveyou, who’s been there X number of times, who always stays at the same hotel. There’s something romantic and appealing about that. But it’s also something rather elite/elitist in its way, and I don’t think I could ever really be friends with the staff so long as they’re, you know, staff, who are being paid to serve the guests and make us happy and so on and so forth.

A wonderful little thing I got in a gatchapon machine. Trying to catch them all, but at 500 yen a pop, I have absolutely no need to get the same ones twice :/ And the only ones I really want are the BEGIN guys.

Every time I go back to Okinawa I think about how much I want to live there. Of course, I do think I could be very happy living almost anywhere in Japan, and by all means could be more or less happy in various other places all around the globe. But especially now that I’m living in Tokyo, and am certainly content, and am certainly aware in an intellectual fashion of how exceptionally lucky I am to be where I am, to have the job/position that I do, and yet emotionally, I come back to Okinawa and I just immediately think about how much I would *love* to live there again. Not just contentment, but active enjoyment. I want to develop or maintain “regular” places – my regular cafés, my regular “haunts.” I want shopkeepers and the like to get to know me; I want to make friends. I want to develop stronger and deeper networks with people at the Ryûdai library and the Naha City Museum of History and numerous other institutions. I want to feel free to just do whatever – study at the Starbucks, see a movie at the Naha Q Cinemas, pop into the Junkudo – things I can’t or don’t or won’t do when I feel I’m on a tighter “I’m only here for three days” sort of schedule. And I want to gradually, eventually, get around to visiting all the different places that I might finally get to visit if I lived there more long-term, from historical sites, statues, markers, little things in this and that corner of the island, to in fact visiting other islands such as Kumejima, Iheyajima, even as far away as Taketomi or Yonaguni, something I might very well do just on a lark one weekend if I lived on Okinawa, and something I see as somewhat less likely living in Tokyo. And I want to be able to attend all the exhibitions, special talks and events, symposia and conferences, concerts, film screenings, all the things that go on throughout the year… And I also want to be there to witness big changes. Like the opening or closing of a new public market, prefectural library, or whathaveyou.

A good kitty named Donnie ドニー. Lives at the guesthouse. It was so good to see them again after so many years. And when no one was looking, Donnie even jumped up on my lap and let me pet them, for a really nice long few minutes.

And I think it’s okay to live in Okinawa, or want to live in Okinawa, as whoever you are. I will never be Okinawan. I will always be an outsider who’s there because of my interest and enthusiasm for history and culture. And I certainly try to do my best to be as respectful as possible of the historical, cultural, spiritual significance of sites, and to just generally try as much as possible to avoid being an obnoxious or bad tourist in whatever various ways. But, at the same time, am I not inevitably in some way a perpetual tourist? Am I not consuming Okinawa in a sense, and is that not unavoidably, irreparably, at the core of what appeals to me about visiting or living there?

I guess on this latest trip I came to realize more seriously, or more strongly, than I had before just how much my own experience is just so different from that of locals, the extent of the gap not only between how they and I do experience Okinawa, but also the gap between how they and I want to see, understand, know, experience Okinawa. Their Okinawa will never be my Okinawa, and while my feelings and attitudes and preferences and perspectives are constantly changing and evolving, I begin to have a worry deep in my gut… what if it’s not okay to be this different person, to experience and engage with Okinawa in this different way? What if on some fundamental level my entire approach to Okinawa, what I love about being there, is at its core orientalist or the like? What if on some level, to some extent, in some way, the really best thing to do is to either adopt the perspective of the “indigenous rights” activists, or certain other segments of the population, or else just leave, sever my ties to Okinawan Studies, admit that I was being Orientalist or colonialist or racist or something about it and go find something else to do with my life?

Just another view of Naha rooftops, from a hill right near Sakurazaka.

I would love to live in Okinawa again, and to be able to live a more everyday life there. I think being there for a longer time would in and of itself make it less of a “trip,” less of a “vacation”; it would allow me the opportunity to engage with Okinawa in a more normal, everyday way, in terms of using the shopping malls and department stores more in the way that locals do – to buy anything and everything, mundane things, things for the apartment; in terms of popping into museums, bookstores, and all the rest as a (temporary) local and not as a one-time (or, eighth- or ninth- or tenth-time) “tourist” visitor. Dropping by to see what’s going on that day, coming back another time, and so forth, rather than the energy of the visitor who is trying to squeeze in as much as possible into only a short few days, buying all the books they can now because they won’t have a chance next week, and like that. But regardless, even if I did live in Okinawa again more long-term, still I would live a certain life: the life of a scholar, the life of someone who spends a lot of time at museums and bookstores and academic events; the life of someone who’s deeply excited to be as active as possible in experiencing cultural events (concerts, plays, etc), and who is not here for family, for community activism of the same flavor as most local community activists – if I really were to be here more long-term I just might get involved with some cultural organization, like the Shuri machizukuri kai (roughly, “Shuri community-building association”) or some Shurijô-fukugen-nantoka-kai (“Shuri castle restoration something-something association”), but it’s just not who I am to get involved with the more “local community activism” kind of stuff like really grassroots community organizing, teaching kids indigenous knowledge, and so forth. For those who are doing those things, more power to them. I think you do amazing work, and it’s so important, and I wish you the best. But it’s not my place; it’s not for me, and I don’t think they’d necessarily want me there anyway, in spaces where it’s all about Okinawans claiming space for themselves and building their own future and so forth.

I have some friends in Okinawa – Okinawan, Japanese, and from other backgrounds – who I do easily imagine I could become even more regular friends with. Meet up from time to time for a beer. Ask how they’re doing, how their partner is doing, how things went with X thing that had been going on in their lives. Say hello to their cat. Connect and reconnect, say “let’s get together again sometime.” Not just academics, but a guesthouse owner, a magazine editor, a member of staff at the consulate. And who knows, I’d like to think that if I lived in Okinawa again, maybe I just might end up becoming friends with someone who works at the movie theatre or the t-shirt shop or the café or the pottery shop, though I know that’s a whole other complex can of worms – the retail/service industry people who are obligated by their job position to be friendly to you but are they actually feeling or wanting to be friendly? … But to actually become friends and not just collegial colleagues with people at the museums and so forth…

But I think that living in Okinawa I would also have to carefully navigate, and adapt to a constant state of perpetually navigating, my position between certain groups – including the core Ryukyu Studies scholars who are native Japanese language speakers/readers/writers trained at Ryûdai or elsewhere who will forever be the ones I am interacting with at conferences, symposia, etc etc and who, if I should ever get on the wrong side of any one of them or of the group as a whole I’m sunk; certain categories of indigenous and community activists who have particular politics which, again, I can’t necessarily jump on-board with a hundred hundred percent but who I also cannot afford to have them mark me as the wrong kind of person (racist, imperialist, orientalist, whatever) and get ostracized or defamed or whatever… Within the world of Japanese Studies in the West, or among English-speakers, or however one wishes to put it, I’m relatively free to be as I wish. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty to navigate there to be sure and I’m by no means alone in the field of Ryukyuan Studies, or Early Modern Japanese foreign relations, or anything like that. It’s not like I’m entirely unanswerable to anyone. And I certainly certainly don’t consider myself an expert, let alone the expert, on anything. I see my expertise as very beginner-level still, deeply incomplete, flawed, with massive gaps. But even so, on a more casual level, just in terms of chatting with whomever I may happen to meet in Tokyo, or at a conference in the States, or whatever, among those people I’m generally the only Okinawa specialist in the room, and if I’m not, I’m the only premodern / early modern Ryukyu person in the room, and so while I certainly would like to think that I’m a rather humble person and I very much hope that I am, there isn’t that context of a pressure, to have to be deferential to others who, whether because of their academic expertise (in the case of Ryûdai people) or their life experience and cultural/ethnic identity (in the case of Okinawan community activists etc.) I have to be very careful who I am around them, how I behave, what I say that I think or know or believe… Who would I be if I lived in Okinawa long-term, relative to those communities? For myself, I would enjoy myself and continue experiencing and engaging and learning and growing, I would continue reading and researching, and I would produce whatever I produced and shoot it off into the English-speaking world (e.g. journal submissions, conference presentations), but within certain circles in Okinawa I would be perpetually out of my depth, perpetually the one who is far behind and can’t keep up… and how would that feel? What relationship or role or lifestyle would that develop into?

Lots to think about. I guess I’ll just have to keep carrying this with me. See how I feel upon my next visit to Okinawa again. I’ve found Okinawan colleagues, friends, others, to almost always be so much more welcoming, accepting, easy-going about these sorts of things than I sometimes fear and worry about. They relieve my anxieties. I wonder if living there again, rather than this popping-in popping-out brief visits pattern, would make me feel more settled about a lot of this. But even so, if this last visit is any indication, I fear that ironically, conversely, I may be finding my relationship to Naha, and to Okinawa, growing incrementally less comfortable, and not more so, the longer I keep at it.

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As I continue my reading of newspapers from around the time of the first postwar restoration of Shuri castle in 1989-1992, I came across a short essay by Takara Kurayoshi 高良倉吉 which I found interesting and which I thought I might share. Takara (b. 1947), at that time the head of the Urasoe City Library and now Professor Emeritus, University of the Ryukyus, is one of the top big-name scholars of the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom alive today.

The following is only a very rough summary / translation of his essay; I apologize but admit directly here that I am not taking the time to do a better, closer, more careful translation. Any misrepresentations are my own. If you wish to cite, quote, or refer to this essay for your own purposes, I would strongly encourage you to go back to the original.

“Shuri Castle: Topics Going Forward, Thoughts as We Approach the Public Opening”
「首里城 これからの課題―一般公開を迎えて思うことー」
Takara Kurayoshi, head of the Urasoe City Library
Ryûkyû Shimpô, 2 Nov 1992

Takara writes that being involved in the project is like a forest. Looking at it from the outside, you might not be able to see just how dense and complicated it was. For years, people worked hard to raise money, and also discussed and debated, dealing with the desired form and content, but also limitations of budget, and some problems ultimately had no solution. So, he asks, as the public opening approaches, please don’t come to this with an arrogant attitude, or looking at it knowingly, and criticize the restored castle. Please recognize the great work and energy that went into this, and first show respect to those efforts.

The architects who went without sleep and without breaks. I keep thinking about (or “you should keep thinking about”?) the artisans who brought the highest expert techniques/skills to this. The restored Shuri castle was not brought about by the gods. It was built with limited documentary sources, limited budget, limited knowledge, and of course it is not perfect. As a result, the various aspects of its imperfection must become the subject of new investigations in “Shuri castle research” going forward.

What I would like to caution people on is that the detailed data about how the castle was reconstructed has not been made public yet. We were too busy to put it all together properly; so, once this data is made public, or published, then the true evaluations can begin.

As you will see when you visit the restored castle, what has been restored is only one portion of the castle. The king’s study (shoin and sasunoma), and the living quarters of the royal family (ouchibaru) are not included. The castle’s largest sacred space, the kyô no uchi, has also not been restored. In the future, how should these areas be restored, will also be a topic to discuss. [Note: all these areas which he mentions here were later restored.]

To restore these as-of-yet unrestored areas, appropriate study is necessary. There are many points regarding the structures of the Ouchibaru which are unclear, and the concrete appearance of the Kyônouchi is also unclear. Thus, specialists must from here forward perform surveys, and amass research.

On a related note, what should we do with the nearby Engakuji temple? Should it be restored, or not? If it is to be restored, how would the restored space be used? I think that the prefecture needs to put some thought to that soon.

There hasn’t been much research on the Engakuji yet. To make this decision whether to restore it or not, it is essential first to amass relevant historical sources. Personally, I do think that the restoration of Engakuji would be essential to the continuation (the passing down) of the techniques that allowed for the restoration of the castle, though.

(Takara Kurayoshi, at that time head of the Urasoe City Library)

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Kobikishiki procession of logs from Kunjan passing through the streets of Shuri, on the way to the castle site. Photo from Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, 3 Nov 1989.

Reading scholarship by Tze May Loo and Gerald Figal, the only work I know of in English on the history and significance of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku, Ufugusuku), I found that while both tell fascinating, touching, and profoundly informative and important stories about the events leading up to the restoration of the castle in 1992, neither focus very much on that moment in history. I most sincerely recommend both books to historians of all stripes, as I think everyone should know more about the history, culture, and current struggles of the peoples of Okinawa, Hawaiʻi, Guam, East Turkestan, Kurdistan, and countless other places & peoples all too often overlooked and under-known. But also because I think these two books, one on the ways a site such as Shuri castle is shaped, appropriated, altered both in its physical being and in its meaning and significance by early 20th century imperialist/colonialist processes of the construction of national narratives and national identity, and the other on how such a site is shaped by touristic motives and the political and economic forces of the late 20th century. Along with works on the history of ʻIolani Palace, and countless other examples from around the world, these are valuable and informative examples for how we can understand sites of history and heritage in the West as well, and around the world.

But, Loo spends little more than a paragraph on the completion of the restoration in 1992, at the end of a chapter covering the entire postwar period, and Figal similarly focuses chiefly on the postwar period as a whole and not on exactly how people were feeling and thinking in 1989-1992 as the restoration project was underway.

So I decided to head into the newspaper archives. Thank you to the Okinawa Bunka Kenkyûjo at Hôsei University for keeping these old newspapers and making them available when it seems no online database, and only one institute or library at the University of Tokyo does so.

On November 2 and 3, 1989, three years before the restored castle would be opened to the public for the first time in history, the groundbreaking ceremony 起工式 was accompanied by a number of other celebratory events. A tree-felling or lumber-carrying ceremony 木曵式 (J: ”kobikishiki”) was performed in Kunigami (O: Kunjan), in the northern portion of Okinawa Island.

Right: Priestesses chanting prayers for the success of the restoration efforts, as they march alongside the logs of Kunjan wood, through the streets of Shuri. ”Ryûkyû Shimpô”, Nov 3, 1989.

Prior to the castle’s destruction in 1945, it had last been rebuilt (and not merely repaired or renovated) in a major way in 1714. The wood at that time came primarily from the Yanbaru 山原 forests of Kunjan, as it had in earlier times as well. Now, in 1989, there were few or no trees of sufficient size in Yanbaru to use for actually rebuilding the castle; those in forests in mainland Japan were largely in protected areas, and so ultimately the restoration project imported wood from Taiwan. Nevertheless, in keeping with tradition and the powerful symbolic importance of incorporating lumber from Yanbaru, the ”kobikishiki” was performed in Kunjan, and several trees were ceremonially carried to Shuri.

More than 500 people from neighboring villages came to watch the Kunigami Lumber-Carrying Ceremony Festival, with one elder interviewed in the Ryûkyû Shimpô saying that “there is no one here who has truly carried the lumber for Shuri castle,” which I took to imply a deep feeling of the importance and significance of these events, and perhaps a happiness at seeing such ritual traditions restored, or reenacted. People performed Kunjan sabakui, a folk song and dance closely associated with exactly such activities – the people of Kunjan prided themselves for centuries on their trees being used in the royal palace – a song and dance regularly performed still today, but not within the direct context of a “tree-felling” ceremony for the castle for over 30 years, since the restoration of the Shureimon gate in 1958, and not (as far as I know) since this time, in 1989.

A video I found on YouTube of students at Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai) performing Kunjan Sabakui in 2015.

Watching this video, I can only imagine how dancers and onlookers both must have felt at that time, performing a dance they’d all danced or seen so many times before, but one specific to their village, and specific to this event which only comes about once in a generation, or once in a lifetime, if even that. An opportunity to have the traditions and proud identity of one’s rural village play a part, a crucial part, in an event of such momentous significance for all Okinawans. For someone like me, who has only ever heard this song, or seen this dance, simply as yet another example of Okinawan folk song/dance amongst many others, it definitely takes on a new meaning now.

The felled trees were carried by participants for some distance within the local festival area in Kunigami before being placed into models of the Yanbaru-sen 山原船 ships which would have traditionally carried the logs, by sea, down to Tomari port near Shuri; in this 1989 event, these model ships (with the logs aboard) were instead placed on trucks, which then transported them down to Naha, the prefectural capital, in a “motor vehicle parade” 自動車パレード which played a part in multiple local festivals – Nago Festival, Tomari Festival – as it passed through those neighborhoods over the next day. The entire island (or, some large part of it) was thus brought into the festivities, the excitement, of this first step restoration of the castle.

By early the following afternoon (Nov 3), the logs were making their way down Kokusai-dôri, the main central tourist & shopping street of downtown Naha, from Makishi to Asato, and then through the neighborhoods of Shuri, on their way to the castle. As the procession did so, it was preceded by lion dances and other processions by groups from each of those neighborhoods it passed through. The newspaper reported 「カメラや映写機に歴史のひとコマを収めようと郡らがった。」“Cameras and video cameras gathered together hoping to capture just one shot of history.” And as they paraded, those carrying the logs chanted, in the Okinawan language, 「さー首里城の御材木でえびるヨイシーヨイシー」(saa, Sui gusuku nu uzeemuku deebiru yoishii yoshii, “saa, this is the lumber of Shuri castle, yoishii yoshii”) and 「首里天じゃなしぬ御材木だやびる」(Sui tin janashi nu uzeemuku dayabiru, “this is the lumber of the heavenly lord of Shuri”).

A 93-year-old woman sitting and watching the parade said “I have been looking forward to this Shurijô kobiki, which I had only heard people talk about” (or, “which I had only heard about in stories”).

What an incredible thing it must have been to be there in that moment. Even as there is no longer a king, and no longer a kingdom, I would not be surprised if for many of these people this meant a whole lot more than just “reenacting” something of the past, as though it were a mask or costume they wore, an act they were putting on. For many of the participants, surely, this wasn’t “reenacting” in the sense of our Civil War reenactors, or Colonial Williamsburg reenactors, or museum guides who dress as Teddy Roosevelt or Ben Franklin for purely educational (and partially hobbyist or entertainment) purposes. This wasn’t just a costume or an act, this was people taking up the same role that their ancestors had performed, embodying Ryukyuan identity in relationship to a castle – a symbol of cultural greatness, of rich heritage to be proud of – that was long gone but that was about to rebuilt. This was interconnected with feelings of Ryukyuan identity and culture, so long trampled upon, actively suppressed and passively neglected, reviving, regaining strength.

I do not speak Okinawan; I understand just enough to understand the phrases above, but I feel a poetry, a cultural aesthetic in the above words that English translations cannot convey, and that feels a bit too hard or cold (かたい) if rendered into standard Japanese. What a feeling it must have been for participants, especially those from Kunjan, whose ancestors supplied lumber to the castle, to be able to be there in that moment, chanting those words, “we bring lumber to the king, lumber for the castle,” and especially amidst their own life experience of never having seen a castle on that site, only an empty space (well, a university campus) where a castle had once stood.

As they processed through the streets, the log-carriers were accompanied by, among many others in historical and festival costumes, Ryukyuan priestesses in white robes who performed purification chants and kweena クェーナ prayers that the restoration of the castle should go without incident.

A video I found on YouTube of a kweena prayer being performed at Shuri castle in 2016.

Meanwhile, as the log-carriers made their way into Shuri, another procession departed from the castle gates. Recreating a procession of the king’s formal ceremonial visits to three shrines or temples in the area immediately around the castle, this was the 24th year in a row that this “old-style procession” 古式行列 had been performed in Shuri. With a reproduction of the centuries-old bell at the royal Buddhist temple of Engaku-ji rung as a signal, this royal procession – consisting of numerous Shuri/Naha locals dressed as members of the royal court, with one dressed as the king and riding in a lavish palanquin [on wheels, I’m guessing, not actually carried on people’s shoulders] – made its way down from the castle gates, and through the streets of Shuri, where it mixed with a hata-gashira festival group, and then joined the log-carrying procession as they made their way into the castle.

As the logs, felled in the Yanbaru forests of Kunjan and ceremonially transported all the way here to Shuri for the first time in decades, perhaps centuries, arrived at the Unaa 御庭, people sang Kajadifû bushi かぎやで風節, an extremely standard song to be performed for an auspicious start or end to any event, but which surely took on extra meaning that day.

今日の誇らしゃや 何にぎやな譬る
Kiyû nu fukurasha ya, nao ni jana tatiru

“To the happiness of this day, what can compare?”

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Early in the morning on Thursday Oct 31, 2019, exactly 27 years to the day after its postwar restoration was complete, seven of the central buildings of Shuri castle (Sui gusuku) the royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, burned down in what seems to have been a tragic, tragic accident.

The front page of the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper, Nov 1, 2019.

I awoke that morning to this shocking news. Whether I saw it first on Twitter or on Facebook, I don’t recall. I had actually been in Naha just a week or so earlier, but hadn’t made it to the castle on this visit. Video of the castle in flames was showing amongst other news briefs on the video screens on the Tokyo Metro subway as I made my way into work, and by the time I got into the office, there was an email very kindly forwarded to me by a friend, from Singapore-based Channel News Asia looking for someone to speak briefly, live on-air, via Skype. We had already begun to see reactions in the English-language news, social media, and elsewhere – of which I, I will admit, was guilty as well at first – dismissing the fire as being not that important, since the buildings destroyed were all 1990s-2000s reconstructions and not authentically historical buildings. As I later learned, contributors on Wikipedia similarly came to a swift conclusion not to include the fire in the “In the News” section of Wikipedia’s front page because, as one user wrote, “If this was about the original buildings being destroyed, it’d be newsworthy,” later adding “Thanks for the correction, let’s make it a strong oppose then. I’ve got clothes older than the buildings destroyed. This is completely misleading and not in the slightest newsworthy.” Having since read much, not only in scholarship and newspapers, but also on friends’ social media accounts, about how much the castle meant to them, I was saddened and infuriated.

I still feel conflicted about having accepted the invitation to speak on-camera, rather than doing the “recognize your privilege” thing and deferring to Okinawan or Okinawan-American friends – I hate that anyone should think that I would be eager to use such a tragic event as an opportunity for self-promotion. But I did think that most Okinawans or Okinawan-Americans I might pass it along to were likely plenty busy with commenting or responding in other ways – and many did end up being interviewed by the media, or having an opportunity to respond publicly in other ways, and I hope I can feel okay with the idea that I wasn’t really stealing anyone’s spotlight but simply adding an additional, supporting, voice, repeating and amplifying the voices I had heard, to do what little I could to try to help correct some misunderstandings and, simply, to bring Okinawa, its people, and their history and culture, to the world’s attention if only for a moment.

Jon Itomura, executive director of Hawaii United Okinawa Association, being interviewed by the Ryukyu Broadcasting Company (琉球放送, RBC):

Since then, I have been keeping up with the news as much as I can, and with individual friends’ and colleagues’ social media posts, as well as discussing the fire and the significance of Shuri with friends both here in Tokyo and overseas. That very night, after the fire, I immediately started reading two books which had long been near the very top of my “to read” pile: Tze May Loo’s Heritage Politics: Shuri Castle and Okinawa’s Incorporation Into Modern Japan, 1879–2000, and a chapter on Shuri castle and “Ryukyu Restoration” in Gerald Figal’s book Beachheads: War, Peace, and Tourism in Postwar Okinawa. Thanks to another kind recommendation, I was able to share some of what I had learned, about Okinawans’ own feelings about the significance of the 1992 restoration, the existence of the castle since then, and the tragedy of its loss, in a piece for a UK-based art world magazine, Apollo. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Simon Kaner for passing this opportunity along to me, and to Apollo for seeking to publish something on this beautiful and powerful place that has such a special space in so many people’s hearts.

The main hall (Seiden 正殿, or Momourasoe udun 百浦添御殿) at Shuri castle, in a photo I took in Sept 2014.

There is still so much more that I have to say, and that so many others have been saying. It’s been more than two weeks since the fire now, and a part of me felt that I really ought to post something here on the blog almost immediately. Some of my loyal readers, if I indeed have any (I don’t presume I do), may have noticed the conspicuous absence of any comment on the event until now. But I delayed because I felt there was still so much to read, and to think about, and to synthesize. And I think there will still be more posts yet to come. But I wanted, now, finally, today, to start to share some introductory thoughts. Over the coming days and weeks, if I end up keeping to it, I may end up posting more.

For those interested in contributing to the reconstruction efforts:
*One way to do so, particularly for those in the US, is through a GoFundMe organized by the Hawaii United Okinawa Association.
*Those who pay taxes in Japan can redirect their furusato zeikin to the reconstruction effort: https://www.furusato-tax.jp/gcf/717.
*And the Ryûkyû Shimpô newspaper is maintaining a list of other ways to donate: https://ryukyushimpo.jp/news/entry-1019118.html

Those who have visited the castle may wish to share photos with a lab at the University of Tokyo which is working to combine crowdsourced photographs into a 3D virtual digital model, or recreation, of the castle. See this link: https://www.our-shurijo.org/index_en.html

Another organization is working on creating an archive of people’s thoughts and experiences regarding the castle – not just rebuilding the castle, and continuing to try to safeguard the roughly 1100 out of 1500 physical historical cultural treasures which survived the fire, but to build and maintain an archive of memories. Watch this space: https://miraifund.org/kikin/shurijo/

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Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, University of Hawaii Press (2018).

After waiting some time for my library to pick up a copy of Gregory Smits’ new book, Maritime Ryukyu, I finally gave in and bought my own copy at the over-inflated price of $68 (hardcover). I justified it to myself with the idea that (1) everything else in my order was at the ridiculously low sale price of $5/each, and (2) by spending this much I was becoming eligible for free shipping, and thus saving money. In any case, as I had had hints that this new book was going to present some radical new arguments, interpretations, or findings regarding the foundations of how we approach Ryukyuan history, I knew I pretty much had to read it for my dissertation.

Maritime Ryukyu was a fascinating read. Knowing some of what Smits was going to argue, and the controversy they might stir up, I went into the book with some trepidation and considerable skepticism. But, I have to say, for the most part, I do find his revisionist approach pretty compelling. While there are certainly elements that will spur “political” (for lack of a better word) controversies, due to their profound implications for notions of historical Ryukyuan cultural, ethnic, and national identity and indigeneity, and while I’m still a little on edge to see what activists, scholars of modern Okinawa and/or indigeneity, traditional arts practitioners, etc. may have to say about it, and while I’m also a bit scared and hesitant about exactly how I will engage with these ideas in my own work for fear of stepping on the wrong toes and putting myself on the wrong side of these controversies, the actual historical narrative he presents seems, as far as I should know, quite plausible.

A copy of the Chûzan seifu 中山世譜 on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. A version of the earlier Chûzan seikan 中山世鑑, revised in the 1700s-1720s to be written in classical Chinese (rather than a form of Japanese), and to present a more pro-Chinese narrative.

One of the core arguments of Maritime Ryukyu is that the official histories written in the 17th century, which have become the foundation of the overall narrative of Ryukyuan history, are simply not nearly as reliable as people have been treating them. Smits draws a strong line between the Ryukyu Kingdom (or “empire” as he calls it) from 1609-1879 and what came before. The islands were invaded in 1609 by forces from the samurai domain of Kagoshima, and though the kingdom was allowed to remain politically, administratively, intact for the most part (territorially speaking, Kagoshima seized nearly all the islands north of Okinawa), they became subject to Kagoshima’s authority in various ways, and perhaps more importantly became far more cut-off, isolated from the wider region, and thus more internally integrated as well. Both to appease Kagoshima’s desires and simultaneously as an act of resistance, the royal court at Shuri enforced policies of Sinification and de-Japanization, at least at the elite level. While Ryukyuan villagers continued to maintain some form of the “Japonic” culture they’d always maintained, the royal court and aristocracy, officials, and so forth, redoubled their adoption and use of Ming (and sometimes Qing) style practices, including Confucian political philosophy, Ming-informed architecture and political organization, Ming- and Qing-inspired court ritual and court music, Chinese-style names, Chinese-language official documents (though many official documents were still written in a form of Japanese nearly indistinguishable from that of Japanese records of the time, thank god), and so forth.

The Shimazu lords of Kagoshima forced Ryukyu to enforce strict restrictions on who could come in and out of the islands, and for what reasons. What had previously been a diverse intermixing of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and islander peoples coming and going was now a much more strongly strictly islander (i.e. Ryukyuan) society, with only a very few Japanese officials resident in the main Okinawan port-city at any given time, the occasional Qing embassy, and I suppose at least some traffic by Buddhist monks/priests, as well as of course petty fishermen and the like blurring the boundaries at the margins. Japan as a whole was, of course, rather cut off from the outside world as well, though not as severely as our high school World History textbooks with their emphasis on the American Commodore Perry “opening Japan” would have liked us to think. The point being that it was this particular set of circumstances at this time which caused Ryukyu to develop as a much more politically and culturally distinct entity than ever before; and it was during this time, for very particular political reasons relating to Shuri’s tenuous and complex relationships with the Ming, Qing, Shimazu, and Tokugawa, and with Ryukyu’s own “Chineseness,” “Japaneseness,” and “Ryukyuanness” that these official histories such as Chûzan seikan (“Mirror of Chûzan”) and Kyûyô (“Ryukyu Yang” or “Ryukyu Sun”) were written.

The rear gate of Nakagusuku castle, on Okinawa.

Like most official histories compiled by East Asian courts, they emphasize continuities stretching back farther in time than other sources corroborate, and otherwise emphasize or assert greater unity, organization, culture or civilization, than a skeptical and revisionist history based on other sources (seemingly) reveals. I must admit, I had never truly considered this aspect, of just how politically-motivated, biased, and therefore unreliable the official histories are. As Smits points out, numerous kings’ reigns and numerous major events are given only minimal treatment or no treatment at all in these official histories, wherever their discussion would go against the larger narrative – that is, a Confucian narrative of a kingdom in which the virtue of the ruler and of his rule is the primary driver of the peace and prosperity (or lack thereof) of the kingdom, and not complex politics or outside forces. This is a narrative, too, of Ryukyu having a particular type or style of history of state formation akin to that of China, Korea, or Japan, in which kings created dynasties, and dynasties sometimes gave way to other dynasties, each of which had particular long-standing loyal or at least peaceful/prosperous relations with China and Japan …

I have to say, even just from what I’d read in George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People – the only full narrative survey of Okinawan history available in English, written in the 1950s and only somewhat revised in a 2000 edition – and in other works, I’d always been sort of skeptical of the earlier sections of Okinawan history, up through the 14th century or so. We are given only the vaguest impression of what sort of political arrangements might have existed previously, and then suddenly in the 12th century or so, we have “kings” emerging, with only two- or three-character names, no dynastic surname, and we are told only the littlest bit about any of them, before the Shô dynasty comes to the scene at the beginning of the 15th century. And even then, while the official histories tell us some degree of a more normal, fuller, account of the events of the 15th-16th centuries for the Shô dynasty and for the kingdom of Chûzan, we are left with only the most minimal and ambiguous information about the other two 14th-15th century kingdoms active on Okinawa Island, Hokuzan and Nanzan (or Sanboku and Sannan), and only the most minimal information about what happened on any of the other islands. Of course, that’s Kerr and a few other secondary sources (works by modern historians) – I haven’t actually read the official histories myself to know exactly what they do and don’t cover. But, regardless, I did always think it was strange. The few books I have read on this period, in both English and Japanese, could never seem to agree on the birth, death, and reign dates of the kings, often leaving considerable gaps (seeming interregnums) between the death date of each king and the date of succession of the next; they could never seem to agree on the names of the kings of Hokuzan and Nanzan, or even on whether they should instead be called Sanboku and Sannan.

So, it didn’t take much therefore for Smits to hook me, as early as page 2, with the notion that “for the most part, the details of early Ryukyu in the official histories are based on lore of unverifiable provenance,” and that looking at other sources might provide a very different (hi)story indeed.

Masks and costumes for folk festivals from some of the northern Ryukyu/Amami Islands, on display at the Reimeikan Museum, Kagoshima.

Maybe it’s just because of my positionality as an American, as someone with less personally invested in Ryukyuan identity, that I am able to say so, but I do find something quite fascinating and compelling – exciting – about the idea of a revisionist history. Maybe this is saying too much, saying that I’m too gullible, not critical enough, but I must say this book makes me feel quite similarly to work in the vein of the so-called “New Qing History,” which suggests that China was part of a larger Qing Empire, and focuses upon the ways that the Qing Empire was rather Manchu, or non-Chinese (non-Han Chinese) in character, in contrast to the received wisdom still touted as the party line within China, that the Qing Dynasty was a dynasty of Chinese history, a part of the greatness of China, not some larger other entity which simply conquered or contained China within it, that the “barbarian” Manchus adopted Chinese culture/civilization, Sinified (Sinicized?) themselves, and only because of that were able to rule as effectively as they did.

It is important in History that we be open to new ideas, revisionist interpretations. It can be so easy to fall into the trap of taking certain things for granted so deeply that we forget (or simply never even learn, never even realize to begin with) where those assumptions come from. And I do really appreciate Smits’ statements that he is willing to be proven wrong, that his entire revisionist narrative/interpretation may prove to have serious flaws, but that he is happy to have at least started a conversation. I think this is really important in Okinawan history, because so many people do invest so much into it, and into certain now-established positions about whether the work of Iha Fuyu and Higashionna Kanjun is or is not good scholarship – and whether they were or were not good people – for this reason or that reason. I’ve known some people to be truly put off by even the mention of one of these names. Okinawan history as we know it is based so heavily on the 17th c. official histories that Smits challenges here, and on early 20th c. writings by figures such as Ifa and Higashionna which are so foundational that they might as well be “official” histories… I’ve been skeptical of those writings from the beginning, but haven’t really known where else to turn.

The Shureimon – main gate to the royal palace at Shuri, and major symbol of Okinawa today.

I had always assumed that these deficiencies in concrete and widely-recognized knowledge about earlier periods of Okinawan history was because of the lack of documents. And it is. But where I had assumed it was because so much was lost in World War II, leaving the documentary record of Ryukyuan history far sparser than it might have been otherwise, Smits asserts that Ryukyu simply didn’t produce many documents prior to the 15th or 16th century. That the Kumemura “Chinese” or “Confucian” community was far smaller and less active than in the 17th-19th centuries, and the royal court, i.e. central government (even in the 15th-16th centuries, as the Kingdom was unified and the remaining islands were conquered and brought under Shuri’s authority) simply wasn’t as centralized, organized, developed, as we have been led to believe. That even more so than the issue of documents having been lost or destroyed, that they just never really existed; that the systems or practices of maintaining more extensive and more organized government records, in writing, remained undeveloped all the way up until the late 16th or even early 17th century. Sadly, my own level of expertise, my own level of familiarity with pre-17th century documents, is totally insufficient to judge for myself whether to believe this or not. But, I guess we just have to go forward, trying to play both the “believing game” and the “doubting game” at the same time, until such time as I have a chance to corroborate this with other scholars; the fact that Smits cites many other scholars on the period in supporting these claims certainly makes it seem more compelling – seems to lend credence to the idea that not only Smits, but also a number of Okinawan and Japanese scholars also now subscribe to this revisionist view, of medieval / premodern Ryukyu as a much more decentralized and diverse maritime space, deeply interconnected with the wider region perhaps to an even greater extent than it was in any way unitary or unified unto itself. But, on the other hand, just because he cites them on this and that point doesn’t mean that their entire books, with titles like Ryūkyū ōkoku to wakō (“The Ryukyu Kingdom and Wakô [Brigands/Pirates]”), necessarily support Smits’ interpretation or historical narrative. I would need to read them to find out.

So, while I don’t have enough personal first-hand experience with these documents to say for myself whether I believe Smits’ new narrative to be true or not, there is certainly something compelling about it. If we choose to take a skeptical view of the official histories, and to also not take the work of Ifa and Higashionna as “gospel,” then, sure, why couldn’t we believe that Ryukyu was never so unified as the conventional wisdom says it was, that Ryukyu was in fact much more of a pirate haven and a loosely-knit-together collection of competing maritime power-holders, competing not even so much for territory and hegemony in Ryukyu in the sense of the traditional nationalist sort of assumptions about history, but rather competing for prominent or dominant positions in trade and maritime activity otherwise. As soon as you say that the official histories are not to be trusted, that they were all written with a certain agenda of lionizing certain kings and ignoring or disparaging others, of exaggerating political unity, connections to high Chinese Confucian civilization, and connections with & respectful recognition from Japanese powerholders, it makes it so easy to just flip the whole thing upside down and say that maybe things were the reverse way around and the official histories were ashamed of it and wanted to hide it and so forth. Now, I want to be careful, I do not mean to imply that Smits is just making things up. Not by any means. Even without having the time or the resources to check these documents myself, I trust that he’s done due diligence and has performed his research in a properly rigorous manner. And I trust that he’s discussed these ideas with other scholars, other experts on the period. So, whether he’s right or wrong, I trust that there is rigor here. That there is some merit – and perhaps quite a great deal of merit – to what he is suggesting. And, furthermore, as he himself says, whether he is ultimately right or wrong, it is good, it is important, to shake things up and start a conversation.

A recreation on 30 Oct 2016 of a royal Ryukyuan procession, with members from the community playing the roles of King, Queen, and royal officials, all dressed in clothes and surrounded by music and physical accoutrements distinctively 17th-19th century Ryukyuan in character. An annual event, now, I believe.

If I have one critique of Maritime Ryukyu, though, I would say that in his zeal to challenge or revise our understandings about premodern Ryukyu (up to c. 1650), Smits fails to say quite enough about whether or not he recognizes the continued validity of these historical interpretations for later periods. Let me explain out what I mean: One of Smits’ key arguments in Maritime Ryukyu is that prior to the 16th century, there was never really a unified and centralized Ryukyuan state, nor a unitary or distinct Ryukyuan culture, and furthermore that because of these various influxes of people from the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the 11th-14th centuries, there really can no longer be any “indigenous” “Ryukyuan people” to speak of, if there ever was one. He is trying to emphasize the diversity and dis-unity of the Ryukyu Islands in the period prior to their forcible unification by Shuri in the 16th century, their fundamentally Japonic culture origins, and the relative lack of any particularly strong Ming / Confucian / Chinese cultural influence or political ties prior to 1550 or 1600 or so. Okay, fair enough. Very interesting, very compelling, and an important counterpoint to the conventional wisdom (based on the official histories, on 20th century political motivations spurring a desire to revive and take pride in Okinawan identity, etc.) that Okinawan or Ryukyuan identity and culture stretch back many many centuries, with a long and proud history of Chinese-influenced “high” “civilized” cultural traditions, and so forth.
But what’s also really important is that ever since 1609 or 1650 or so, and all the more-so since the 1870s, and all the more so since 1945 and since 1972, there is, there has been, a strong Okinawan identity. In focusing on how all of these developments developed only after the 16th century, and weren’t so true for earlier periods, Smits sort of de-emphasizes the fact that from the 16th or 17th century onwards, these things were in fact true, that they did come to pass (albeit only at a later stage than conventional wisdom would have had us believe), and that the fact of these later developments has a profound and real impact on Okinawan culture and identity today. One could fill entire bookshelves with books on the invention of tradition and all of that, and on how most if not all “national” and “ethnic” identities today can be traced back to invention or re-invention in the modern period (19th-20th centuries in most cases), but even so, notions of Okinawan and Japanese identity as developed through those early modern and modern processes (in the 17th to 20th centuries) are real today, and that includes indigeneity. I hope for Prof. Smits’ sake that he doesn’t attract too much backlash due to his assertions regarding Okinawan indigeneity (or, that he attracts lots of backlash and takes the point and shifts his tack). But, as I believe most scholars of indigeneity and many indigenous leaders will say, indigeneity isn’t really about the questions of whether your people truly have been there since ancient times (or whether they were displaced or absorbed many centuries ago by influxes of other peoples, as Smits asserts happened in the Ryukyuan case), and whether they have actually been a distinct and unified people with a collective notion of their own distinctive and unified identity for all of that time. Rather, it’s about identities formed in reaction to oppression, dispossession, displacement, and so forth, particularly in the modern period, particularly in colonialist/imperialist contexts, which have inspired the creation of assertions of “indigenous” identity. It’s about maintaining or reviving or re-articulating an indigenous identity for particular socio-political or cultural-political reasons, as resistance against assimilation, oppression, dispossession, displacement, etc.

Smits notes in the book that there is a lengthy conversation to be had about how Okinawan identity is conceived or constructed today, and while I certainly appreciate that going into it in length would be beyond the scope of this book – in some respects, a real major digression – I think that his arguments about the premodern period could have benefited from a little more time and energy spent acknowledging the significance of later developments and the validity of the contemporary identities based upon those later developments; as well as attending to Indigenous Studies approaches, definitions, and sensibilities.

All photos are 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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