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Archive for the ‘Okinawan art’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Continuing on from my last post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A typical scene in Nishihara. Just walking along the side of the highway, no shops at all in the immediate vicinity except for auto repair and the like…

As I wrote in my last post, Nishihara is… a new experience for me. Quite scattered and disparate in its layout. Just walking around the neighborhood immediately off-campus to the south, Uehara, I think I’ve counted at least five hair salons (for whatever reason), at least five car places (dealerships, garages, auto repair, motorbike shops, etc.), one fast food joint, plenty of real estate or apartment management places, a bunch of other random establishments, and zero bookstores. Zero cute cafés. Zero welcoming-looking restaurants. No supermarket that I’m aware of. Certainly no big box electronics store (or even a small one). I’m not even sure I’ve seen a cellphone store at all, in this particular neighborhood. On one day I popped off campus, thinking I would find, just something, whatever, to eat for lunch, and just make it quick and come back to my room to do more work. I wandered around for literally at least 30-40 minutes, getting further and further from campus, finding absolutely zero places that looked inviting – or even open – before I finally found myself at a supermarket (and still no appealing-looking restaurants), way off in another part of town entirely.

Now, granted, I do think that once I get a bit more settled in, and start to get more familiar with what’s available on each side of campus, in each part of the area, I’ll feel a bit better about all of this. After four years in Santa Barbara, I’m finally starting to feel that there’s really enough variety of dining, and enough to see and do otherwise – almost.

In the streets of Naha’s Tsuboya neighborhood. One shop after another, each inviting, each providing goods or services of real interest, like in a normal town.

But, still, I imagine you can understand why it was a major breath of fresh air to take the bus down to Naha, the prefectural capital, the other day. A city I’m familiar with, with lots of familiar sights, and just a real city, filled with things to see and do, all the resources you could possibly want. I was glad to discover that the bus runs relatively frequently, goes at least kind of late into the night (until 9:30 or so – thankfully not 6:30 or 7 as I’d feared), and takes only about half an hour. Looks like I’ll be able to get down into the city relatively easily and often. Thank god. Even so, I think next time around, the next time I find myself in Okinawa on a fellowship or a postdoc position or a sabbatical or whatever, I think next time it’d be super great to be based at the Okinawa University of the Arts – right below the castle, right in the city (more or less). I’m sure Ryûdai will be fantastic, in all sorts of ways, in terms of students and faculty and the library, and hopefully in terms of arts and events too. But, oh boy, how awesome would it be to live right there in Shuri? Next time.

This time, I took the bus to Omoromachi, and if I remember correctly went first straight to the big electronics store – Yamada Denki – and picked up a five-meter-long ethernet cable, so I can finally use my computer (with internet connection) in bed. Relax while I simultaneously get shit done – shit like blogging; or, maybe, actual reading/research work. With no stores around that I had yet found near campus, none at all really outside of basic convenience stores, even something as simple as this took a real adventure to get. Then I was pointed by the Yamada Denki folks across the street to San-e, the big department store / shopping mall, where I was able to get a prepaid data SIM card. Still no voice function (which means no phone number – hopefully I won’t need to have a number to put down on forms or anything), but, I’m all set on data for the next month – thank god. One more thing down.

As it turns out, we /do/ have such things here in Nishihara, too, just not immediately near campus (so far as I’ve seen thus far) – I would later discover a San-e way down near the town hall (about a 45 min walk from campus), which though still pretty basic compared to what’s available in the totality of Naha City, is just sizable enough to provide for much of what I’d feared was only available in the city. Namely, things like prepaid data SIM cards.

The main lobby of the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Clean, sleek, bright. I wish I could share with you photos of the actual galleries, but they don’t allow photos…

In any case, errands accomplished, I poked over to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Thought I was going to buy up some museum catalogs, maybe some other stuff. As it turns out, (1) the one catalog I was really looking for, from an exhibit only two years ago on Kumemura, is all sold out and gone, and (2) there weren’t really any exhibits up right now that I wanted to bother paying to see. So, I bought myself a little coin purse, to hold all the change that keeps otherwise falling through the holes in my pants pockets, and I moved along.

Before leaving the museum, though, I decided to go check out the rental galleries – outside of the paid areas of the museum, where groups or individuals can come in and rent out the space for their own use. The last time I was here, two years ago, these spaces were being used for an exhibition of college students’ artworks, from the Okinawa University of the Arts. Maybe like a BFA thesis / graduation show. I’m not 100% clear. This time, I happened to catch a one-day-only exhibition of Western Australian artists, organized by Peter Davidson. I feel like the name is really familiar – like maybe I’d come across his Okinawa work before already – but if I have, I still haven’t quite figured out why the name rang a bell. Maybe it’s just a really common name.

“Okinawa Study” by Peter Davidson. Image from Wild Swan Arts Group blog.

Spoke with Mr Davidson for a little while, and got to take a look at his paintings. They’re small, but wonderfully vivid and colorful. They really capture the richness of Okinawa, I think – the lush greenery, the orange of the roof tiles… It’s a shame that the photographs can’t capture the texture and vibrancy of these paintings. Makes them look so flat…

Skipping seeing any of the regular exhibits I’d have to pay for (and which I’ve already seen, and which they won’t let visitors photograph because they’re obnoxious jerks), I then went back to the monorail station and headed over to the Naha City Museum of History. I imagine I must have posted about this museum before – it’s a funny sort of place, very small, tucked away on the 4th floor of a shopping center in downtown Naha. But, despite its small publicly visible footprint, and small municipal sort of name (City Museum), the Naha City Museum actually holds numerous National Treasures in its collection, and is a major center of Historical activity, including not only extensive documentary archives & library, but also publications (e.g. city histories), and playing some major role in organizing the historical markers & explanatory plaques all around the city.

They have just two small gallery spaces, one where they show decorative arts, mainly – textiles, lacquerwares, and the like, often from royal collections, often including some National Treasures. I’ve seen the royal sword Chiyoganemaru in that space, and this time, they had a replica of the last surviving royal investiture crown on display. I was disappointed it was only a replica, but, what are you gonna do. In the other gallery, they started off with a bunch of various different things relating to the city’s history – maps and paintings of early modern Naha from the 19th century or so, and also a model of a section of downtown Naha as it looked in the 1930s. One of the few things in the gallery they explicitly said we could take pictures of.

And then, the rest of the gallery is what really rotates, thematically. Right now, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Basil Hall to Okinawa – his accounts of his journey remain one of the more canonical accounts in English. So, they had a very nice display detailing his trip, day by day, with copies of his journal, including the beautiful color illustrations, and so on and so forth.

Shuri Castle, lit up in the twilight.

Finally, after finding some food and poking around the Heiwa-dôri shopping arcade for a bit, I headed down to Shuri castle. I had been planning to get back to campus already by that point, as I was nervous about getting back after dark, and because I was already pretty tired, already feeling I’d had a long day. But, I saw a poster for a special Mid-Autumn Festival celebration at the castle, complete with lots of classical Ryukyuan dance and music, and this just wasn’t to be missed. So I steeled myself up, and lasted out the day, and finally headed down to the castle around 6pm, only to find that because of strong winds and potential of rain, the event had been canceled. Boo.

On the plus side, though, I’d never been to Shuri castle before so late at night. It was beautifully illuminated, and I managed to catch a few good photos. Plus, there were very few tourists around, inside the castle, so I got to get some closer photos than usual of things inside – and to just enjoy it and have a quieter, nicer. time of it, without so many crowds.

And then, when that was done, just very easily caught a bus back to campus. Great to know I can do that whenever, from now on. All in all, a really great day in the city. Looking forward to more such adventures – the next time there’s a concert or performance or museum exhibit, or whatever…

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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In this and the next post, I deviate a bit, I suppose, from my more typical history/arts/culture focus and (hopefully, maybe) vaguely academic approach, to write like a personal travel blog. Here, I’m talking about my experiences with the British Library, and about my research, so I guess there’s that. But the next post is really about hanging out with friends in London, and a bit about how I feel about visiting the city and wishing I were here for longer…

8/2/15

It’s been interesting being back in London. I lived here for a year while I did a Master’s, just a couple of years before starting this blog. And now, eight years later, I’m back for the first time since then, just for a few days before heading up to Cambridge for a workshop program thing. With only four days in the city, and especially since it’s been eight years, and who knows when I’ll be back here again, one would think perhaps I should be running around, seeing the sights, really taking in the city. Well, I haven’t been doing that, but I haven’t been sitting around in my room either. Coming up on the end of my fourth day in the city, I wonder if I should have gone out and seen more – there are so many parts of the city that I completely have not seen on this trip, and which I likely won’t see again for god knows how many years. But, at the same time, I’ve had a relatively productive time at the British Library, did a very successful run of the British Museum, and spent a lot of time with a few good friends, poking around a few areas of the city, going to a couple of quite nice little cafés and restaurants and so forth, and perhaps most importantly & most enjoyably, just hanging out with locals, like a slightly more regular visitor, or someone here to visit friends, might do – i.e. unlike the tourists.

Thursday, I arrived early in the morning, and after checking in to my lodgings, made my way straight to the British Library, because I’m a dork. Within a few hours, ran into a colleague from my university back home, because she’s a diligent, responsible, and classy sort who does her studying at a place like the British Library.

The main lobby of the British Library.

Turns out the one thing I wanted to see at the BL isn’t properly catalogued into the system, so, you can still request it if you know the right call number (shelfmark, they call it here), but you can’t find it by any variation of the title or topic tags or the like. Fortunately, with the very kind help of the librarians, I did end up finding it in a printed catalog, and even more fortunately still discovered a companion piece, which I had not known about. On the downside, for reasons they refused to disclose, the Library wouldn’t allow me to take my own photos of these works. Most other works, yes, but not these. Because. The only option was to pay something like £80-90 to order images from the library. Assholes. I’ve taken my own photos at numerous other institutions, including at the British Museum, just down the road, not to mention the National Archives of Japan, and other such major institutions, and it was free. Seriously. Upwards of $125 just to get photos of something; the kinds of things I could do with $125 otherwise, the numbers are just really unbalanced. Digital photos of sixty pages of a book I could have photographed for free if only they would have allowed me to do so, versus buying five whole academic books (or 1-3, if they’re more expensive). I asked to make sure there was no way around it, no other possibility, but, anyway, so, that happened.

I appreciate from the institution’s point of view, (1) you want to conserve the objects, so you want to avoid people shoving a 200-year-old volume onto a scanner or photocopier, and so forth, and (2) if you are going to have the staff, rather than the visitors, take the photos, they have to get paid – for the staff, for the time & effort, for the equipment. And, maybe, the latter part really does add up to being just about this much money. But, I suspect that a large part of it is also that a lot of people have ample research budgets, and the archives, libraries, and museums can simply get away with this. It’s for a very similar reason that journal publishers get away with charging sky-high prices for institutional subscriptions to online databases like JSTOR. Still, the point remains, why wasn’t I allowed to take the photos myself? If I’m trusted enough to handle the book, shouldn’t I also be trusted enough to photograph it, with a tiny handheld digital camera? It’s shit like this that makes me wish I had Google Glass or a spy camera or something.

These are gorgeous books, and loaded with both images, and complex classical Chinese text. I really need the images. I can’t just take notes. Maybe if I were here for a few months, I could work with them closely, in person, and get everything out of them I might need, without taking photos home with me. But, even then, I would have to go into it with a truly full knowledge of all the questions I might potentially have, which these documents might potentially answer. As it is, I only know certain questions, and don’t know what else might come up, later in my research, for which these materials might be good. So, I paid the goddamned money. What choice did I have?

Illustration of a shawm, suona, or sonai, from Ryûkyûjin gakki kanpuku zu, in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. Image from TNM Digital Archives.

Of course, I have no photos to show you, since it takes 2-3 weeks to process my request. Hence the above image from a completely different work; but, it gives a sense of what sort of thing I was looking at. The one book I knew about is a manuscript (handwritten, handpainted) album of records and images of Ryukyuan music and dance performances in Edo in 1796. As soon as I looked at it I realized it’s probably a handscroll that’s been re-formatted to become an album; each page consisted of multiple pieces of paper, with a vertical seam, just like that you would see in a handscroll, where papers are attached end-on-end to form a single long piece, which can then be rolled up. If it were originally designed as a book, the seams would all be on either the outer edge, or the inner spine, of the book, and not in the middle of each page. Anyway, they contain lists of all the dances & musical pieces that were performed, including lyrics and the names of the performers, as well as simple paintings depicting the dances, and the musical performances. The second book I discovered in the catalogs, is cataloged at just one number earlier in the tally, and bears nearly identical binding, interior marks (e.g. pencil writing that it was transferred from Printed Books on such-and-such a date), and so forth. Both, by the way, came to the British Library as part of the Siebold Collection. Siebold, in case you are unaware, is a pretty major figure. So that’s kind of neat. I suspect, though I have no real evidence, that this second volume may have originally been a second scroll, belonging to the same set as the other volume. This one contains, mostly, monochrome ink diagrams of the Ryukyuan embassy members’ clothing, musical instruments, and other accoutrements, from hairpins to banners. I found some exciting stuff in here, like sketches of the “mandarin squares” or chest badges worn by the Ryukyuan ambassadors, indicating their (honorary, or equivalent) rank or placement in a Ming Chinese hierarchy of officials, something I had been worrying about. While the book doesn’t, unfortunately, give any explanation of why the banners carried by the embassy bore the particular designs or symbols that they did, it does give precise dimensions for every object, and just seeing the images is a great help towards understanding what different things are. Many of the objects carried or used by the missions have multiple names, so this helps clarify that, and some are just unclear, without looking at the pictures – for example, the most typical Ryukyuan string instrument is called a sanshin, based on the Chinese sanxian, meaning “three strings” (三線). The missions are described as also carrying instruments known as “two-strings” (二線), “four strings” (四線), and “long strings” (長線). What do these other instruments look like? According to this illustrated book, the “two strings” is not in fact simply a two-stringed plucked version of the three-stringed sanxian, but rather is a bowed instrument, like a fiddle, more closely resembling the erhu or the kûchô.

Two erhu (二胡) and a Chinese sanxian (三絃) on display at Ryukyumura, in Okinawa.

I guess I can’t really just end on that note. So, let’s go a little farther. Well, let me sort of talk about the Library in general. I don’t actually know, don’t actually have a proper sense, of just how prestigious the British Library is. I mean, I can certainly guess, on an intellectual level. Their collections certainly contain tons of the greatest treasures in the country, and thus in the world, including numerous examples of the oldest this, and the only extant that; they of course also have extensive collections relating to many of the greatest British individuals and institutions, from the East India Company and Captain Cook, to Shakespeare and Thomas More, I am sure. And, it is most certainly a very clean, sleek, upscale-looking institution. Yet, somehow, perhaps because they are so open to the public, I don’t really feel like I’m so privileged to be there, or anything like that – a feeling I do get when visiting various other institutions. Perhaps the very modern feel of the place contributes to that, too; I’m curious to see how things feel at Cambridge – maybe just being in among a much older-looking place will make it feel that much more elite and exclusive. That said, the British Library has very few public stacks; the building is taken up mostly by numerous Reading Rooms, where you have to have a Reader Card to access (which means an application including your credentials as a researcher, and reasons for wanting to access these collections), and where you have to request items to be delivered to you from storage. So, it’s that sort of place. But, like I said, very clean, modern, well-lit, with public exhibits, free wi-fi, a nice café & restaurant… feels more like a museum than an exclusive research library, and even then, getting to go behind the scenes and look at objects in a museum collection still feels like a more exclusive privilege, a really special experience, than looking at things at the British Library… but, given how many libraries & archives have given me a really hard time getting in to look at objects, I’m certainly not complaining.

I’ll summarize the rest of my London adventures in another post. Cheers for now.

Except where indicated otherwise, all photos are my own.

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Now that I’ve posted about that really fantastic last day in Okinawa, let me jump back to our Saturday of field trips. Between the Ryukyumura theme park, and Ocean Expo Park, we stopped for lunch at a rest stop sort of place on the side of the highway. Run by the Okinawan chain of souvenir sweets shops called Okashi Goten (“Sweets Palace”), the place included a lunch buffet restaurant, and large souvenir shop. Though the official field trip schedule gave us a woefully limited time at each actual stop, they gave us a whole hour and a half for lunch. I noticed signs indicating some kind of museum across the street, so when I finished eating I went and took a look.

Feels a bit bizarre to find a museum of any sort just on the side of the highway in the middle of, well, not exactly nowhere, but… Yet, as it turns out, there is some sense to it after all. The Okinawa rekishi minzoku shiryôkan, or Okinawa Museum of History and Folklore, which just opened in summer 2013, is a private venture showing off the personal collection of the CEO of Okashi Goten. So, if you want to see the museum, you’re going to end up at the rest stop for lunch and/or souvenirs; and, if you’re stopping at the rest stop as we were as part of a bus tour, you just might take a moment to check out the museum, as I did.

Sadly, the museum doesn’t allow any photos inside, but boy was it incredible. I’m not sure if there’s any one item, to be honest, which is all that photo-worthy, but I wish I even just had a picture of the rooms themselves, filled with objects. The sheer number of things came as quite a surprise, as I walked into this small random building on the side of the highway way out in Yanbaru. The collection includes quite a number of ceramics, lacquerwares, farming and fishing implements, and other “folklife” and “folk craft”/decorative arts sort of objects. Plus, a whole set of displays of papier-mache figures, each meticulously dressed in garments made from real bingata and the like, and made up otherwise – hair, props, etc., depicting various aspects of Okinawan history and folk life, from royal processions to sacred rituals.

Generally, you can walk around the place freely, on your own. But one of the staff was kind enough to chat with me, and walk me through the exhibits. She explained that all of this is the personal collections of the Okashi Goten CEO, who established the museum and decided to share his collection with the public out of concern that the younger generation simply isn’t taught enough, and thus doesn’t know enough, about their own history. The Okinawan language (“hôgen“), so harshly suppressed in the early 20th century, was apparently strongly discouraged within the classroom even as late as the early 1970s, under the US Occupation, and as a result, few still speak it well; further, Okinawan history, art history, etc. simply aren’t taught in the public schools. My tour guide, probably in her 60s or so, born and raised in Yanbaru going back many generations, expressed her own deep personal concerns for these things, and her own personal embarrassment that she herself knew so little about any of this before working at the museum.

She eagerly pointed out notable works of ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, and explained that many of the works in the collection are by Living National Treasures such as Kinjô Jirô (金城次郎) or otherwise famous or prominent Okinawan artists such as Kobashigawa Genkei (小橋川源慶), Seiji (小橋川清次), and Isamu (小橋川勇), and Ômine Jissei (大嶺實清), and that the collection in fact includes more numerous or better works of various types than even the Prefectural Museum. If you’re into Okinawan ceramics, lacquerware, and the like, I’d definitely recommend checking it out.

An Okinawan lacquerware stand, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2009. I wonder how light this is; I wonder what wood it’s made from.

I also learned that traditional Okinawan lacquerware, being made from the wood of the deigo tree, rather than other woods used in Japan, is amazingly lightweight. All lacquerware is surprisingly lightweight, if you’re not used to it, but this stuff especially so. This is the first I’ve heard of deigo wood being used for anything; since so much of Okinawan arts tends to seem, at least initially, on the surface, to be simply variations on Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Southeast Asian forms, I quite like that they should use something like deigo wood, adding considerably to the distinctiveness of the art, and the object. It reminds me of how all sorts of things are made from koa wood in Hawaii, infusing them with a distinctively Hawaiian character even if the form may not be. Much of the furnishings of ʻIolani Palace, though made in Germany in purely European styles, is made of koa, making the palace itself – its floors, its staircase bannisters – something that feels decidedly distinctively Hawaiian. Similarly, with the Okinawan lacquerwares. Sadly, though I didn’t quite catch the reason why, in more recent times (I can’t remember if she said since the fall of the kingdom in the 1870s, or if she said since 1945), they don’t use deigo anymore, and instead use banyan tree wood (gajumaru), which at least is also a distinctively Okinawan material.

I know this doesn’t make for the most informative blog post… but, you can see more about this small museum at their blog. Visiting such a place really makes one wonder what other treasures, collections, museums might exist, tucked away in remote parts. Even within Okinawa alone, I just came across the website for yet another similar architecture + folkcrafts museum / theme park, Ryukyu Kingdom Castletown (Ryûkyû ôkoku jôkamachi), in Nanjô City. Time to add that to my list of places to visit next time I’m in Okinawa…

All photos my own.

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While investigating something over the winter break, I came upon a question, or should I say a conundrum. I had thought, or assumed, or believed that I had read somewhere, that when the Kingdom of Ryukyu fell and the royal family and their entourage all moved to Tokyo at the end of the 1870s, they had taken just about all their royal treasures with them. Robes, lacquerware platters, whathaveyou. The royal family, the Shô family, though stripped at that time of their kingdom and “royal” status, were incorporated into a new Japanese aristocracy on the European model, alongside many former daimyô (samurai lords) and the like; they were no longer royals, but they were by no means commoners, and so I assumed that they continued to live a relatively lavish lifestyle, and kept much of their treasures with them, in Tokyo. The royal palace back on Okinawa had been transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army garrison even before the royal family left, and by 1883, a British visitor to the island noted in his diary how gutted and abandoned the whole palace looked. So, if the palace was more or less empty, and if the Shô brought so much to Tokyo, how come we’re always hearing about so many Ryukyuan treasures having been lost in the Battle of Okinawa?

As I began to investigate this question, I began to come across some very interesting stories. As it turns out, yes, a great many treasures were brought to Tokyo, but a great many others remained in Okinawa, housed (at least in part) at the former residence of the Crown Prince, the now no longer extant Nakagusuku udun, or Nakagusuku palace,1 and cared for by a team of (in 1945) eight stewards. In 1945, as the battle loomed, the stewards hid a number of these objects in a drainage ditch just outside the palace, hoping to come back for them after the battle was over. When they returned, however, they found the treasures gone. I do not know how many objects were in that ditch, what they all were, or how many have been recovered, but I have in the last couple weeks learned a little about two of them.

A photo of the Nakagusuku palace by Kamakura Yoshitarô, taken sometime in the 1920s. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One was a copy of the Omoro sôshi, said to have been at that time the last extant copy2 of the earliest known Okinawan text, a collection of poems which like Japan’s Kojiki and Man’yôshû reveal hints about Okinawa’s history, making the Omoro sôshi at the same time Okinawa’s earliest history. It turned up shortly afterwards, when a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt (d. 1976) brought his war loot to Langdon Warner, curator at the Harvard Museums, to see if Warner could help identify them. Warner is himself a rather interesting figure – I’ve begun a humble bio of him on the Samurai Archives Wiki. He figured out what these documents were, and it is said that Sternfelt, upon hearing just how important they were, agreed to relinquish them. The Omoro sôshi was returned to Okinawa in 1953, as part of exchanges relating to the 100th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to the islands. A number of other objects taken from Okinawa at one time or another have also been returned in recent decades. A Buddhist temple bell from Okinawa’s Gokoku-ji, taken by Perry in 1853 and hung at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until its return in 1987 may be among the most famous; a bell taken from the temple of Daishôzen-ji and hung for many years at Virginia’s Military Institute was likewise returned to Okinawa in 1991. But, I was interested to learn, there are those who believe that Commander Sternfelt, or someone else, had also taken from that drainage ditch a royal crown. Known in Japanese as a hibenkan, this crown, made of strips of gold ornamented with jewels and affixed to a cloth headpiece pierced by a massive golden hairpin, was used in investiture ceremonies, in which representatives of the Chinese Emperor came to Okinawa and formally “invested” the king, formally recognizing him as King, on behalf of the Emperor of China. A second such crown, which had been taken by the family to Tokyo, is the only such crown known to be extant. Today housed at the Naha City Museum of History in Okinawa, it has been designated as a National Treasure, alongside a considerable number of other objects as a single group, the so-called Historical Documents of the Shô Family Kings of Ryûkyû (Ryûkyû kokuô shô ke kankei shiryô).

Above: The one known extant crown, on display at the Naha City Museum of History. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finding all of this terribly interesting, I began to poke through the New York Times archives, among other places, and came across an article on the website of the US consulate in Naha, which discusses much of these issues. Entitled “Provenance of Okinawan Artifacts in the United States,” it was written by Ms. TAKAYASU Fuji,3 who has also written an MA thesis on the subject, based on an extensive survey she conducted of collections of Okinawan objects in US museums. She catalogued 1,984 Okinawan objects in 37 US museums, including “569 ceramics, 501 written documents, 420 dyed fabrics, 289 pieces of lacquerware, 10 paintings, and 194 other pieces, including old coins.” I am not at all surprised to learn that these collections include so many ceramics, textiles, and lacquerwares – the kinds of works we see so often in exhibits or other discussions of Okinawan art. I am terribly curious, though, about the written documents, and especially the paintings. I would so love to see these objects someday, maybe even get to exhibit them myself, if/when I get to be a curator. I wonder how many more objects in private and museum collections across the country, and around the world, are not recognized as Ryukyuan, and are mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or just unknown unusual East Asian because, of course, we cannot reasonably expect all East Asia curators to have the sort of specialized expertise to recognize Okinawan works. Many may be lacquerwares, pottery, and the like, but what if there were some paintings, royal portraits even, or important historical documents, or even royal artifacts, just hiding in a museum collection somewhere, their true identity and significance unknown?

Skipping back to the issue of stolen, looted, artifacts for a moment, when President Clinton visited Okinawa in 2000 as part of the G-8 summit, it was hoped that some Ryukyuan object(s) might be able to be returned, as the Omoro sôshi was in 1953, as a display of friendship, reconciliation, and the like. In the end, no such arrangements were made, or at least not in time. However, we are told, eleven Ryukyuan royal treasures were added to the FBI’s official National Stolen Art File. I’m not sure exactly what search terms to use to find them all, or if all 11 remain on the list today, nearly 14 years later, but I was able to find two: the missing royal investiture crown which had been hidden in that drainage ditch in 1945, and an investiture robe which would have gone along with it.

Given such high-profile news stories, from Pres. Clinton adding objects to the FBI Stolen Art File, to the repatriation of the Omoro sôshi and Gokoku-ji and Daishôzen-ji temple bells, combined with various other sources of influence, it comes as no surprise that many people in Okinawa (and, I’d imagine, among the Okinawan community in Hawaii) imagine collections of Okinawan artifacts in the United States to derive chiefly from war booty. Takayasu’s research reveals, however, that the majority of these nearly 2,000 works in 37 museums were legally purchased either before or after the war, with roughly 400 obtained before World War II, 1200 during the extended US Occupation (1945-1972), and the remaining 400 or so acquired more recently. This is good news, of course, for those of us who wish to visit museums, work with museums, and/or work at museums with a relatively clear conscience. But, we must remember that much of what was taken from Okinawa during the war most likely never made it into any museum or other publicly visible collection, and instead remains hidden away in private homes and storage lockers. How many objects that might include, of what sort, and of what historical significance, remains unknown.

But, serious as the issue of missing, stolen, looted, or destroyed objects is, I find the stories themselves quite interesting and enjoyable, and am interested to learn more about the legal collections of Okinawan art in the United States – which objects exist, in which collections, and to hopefully eventually get to see some of them.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about these works and their stories, and I expect I will either come back and edit this post, or create new posts on the subject and I continue to read about it. But, for now, I suppose I shall just leave it here.

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1) Located just across the way from Shuri Castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku gusuku), located elsewhere on the island.
2) William Honan, “Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 13 July 1997. I find it hard to believe that this was the only surviving copy, since it was surely copied numerous times in both manuscript, and later in cyanotype or the like. But, perhaps this was the only extant original copy?
3) 高安藤 Normally, I don’t follow the practice of putting surnames in all caps like this, but after myself mistaking Fuji for being the surname and struggling to find anything more about this “Ms. Fuji” (when I should have been looking for Ms. Takayasu), I figure I might as well try to be a little clearer here.

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