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Archive for the ‘Okinawan art’ Category

Went to the new NahART なはーと arts center today and saw “Shurijō akewatashi” 首里城明渡し, a 1933 play by Yamazato Eikichi 山里永吉, relating the 1879 events of the Empire of Japan forcing King Shō Tai of Lūchū to turn over Sui gusuku (Shuri castle), the royal palace, and move to Tokyo. It was beautiful to get to see it performed. Beautiful costumes, beautiful sets. I had not anticipated that it would be in Uchinaaguchi – the Okinawan language – rather than Japanese. Which was wonderful for helping it feel and sound right – Though it did mean I spent most of the play trying to read along in the Japanese translation, with the little light that was coming from the stage. (No house lights.)

The play begins with two top court officials, Giwan peechin and Kamekawa ueekata, talking about the circumstances of the times – whether to lean towards Japan or to believe that China will send help… (it’s more complicated than that, but… in essence.)

The last two scenes were, I thought, particularly beautiful, and moving. In a hall at Sui gusuku, painted/lacquered lavishly in red, the top officials in their stark black court robes and young princes in stunning golden robes, argue with Japanese gov’t official Matsuda Michiyuki about what is to happen to Lūchū. Michiyuki, in Western-style formal dress, and backed up by several riflemen, reads out the imperial edict declaring Ryūkyū Domain (est a few years earlier with the unilateral declared abolition of the “kingdom”) to now be abolished, Okinawa prefecture established, and the king and several princes made Japanese aristocrats and forced to relocate to Tokyo.

Still screenshotted from the trailer for the play, showing Imperial official Matsuda Michiyuki reading out the imperial edict to Prince Nakijin and other members of the royal court.

This is not just part of the play. Hearing it recited out felt to me, and I presume to at least some of the Okinawan audience, as a direct reminder of what happened at that time. This is not a personal drama, merely set against the backdrop of a historical time: it is very much so a play reenacting for audiences the historical events themselves, so they might understand and feel the emotional impact of what happened. The political violence committed against Lūchū, and presented in a way that highlights the patronizing self-important attitude and unilateral action of the Meiji state. Michiyuki stands, while the Luchuans all sit, the power differential symbolized and felt in the difference in height. King Shō Tai comes out and says something to the effect of, “perhaps this is happening because I am lacking in virtue. But, whatever happens to me, Lūchū will continue.”

In the next and last scene, the officials are gathered at Naha Port along with the Chifijin (Kikoe-ogimi, the chief priestess of the kingdom) and several other priestesses, as Michiyuki declares it is time for Shō Tai and the princes to board the ship to Tokyo. I was certainly moved as he departs, and everyone who is left behind sobs and cries out, knowing this might be the last they see of him.

I would be very curious, and eager, to produce a translation of the play (it’s less than 30 pages, and in fact only about half that, since each page of the program is half Okinawan and half Japanese translation), and more than that, to try to see what I can do about placing it in context, trying to see what I can say meaningfully about the politics of the time in 1933 (the context in which Yamazato wrote it), and what might be said about why it ends how it does, why it includes and excludes the scenes that it does, why it phrases things in a particular way.

What might Okinawan audiences have thought of it at that time (maybe I can even find reviews!) and what might be said about the choice to perform it again today – in 2022, 150th anniversary of the kingdom being made a Domain, and 50th anniversary of Okinawa’s post-Occupation Reversion to Japan, but not the 150th anniversary of the 1879 events of the play. And, performed right now (late Oct 2022) to coincide with Uchinanchu Taikai (a major event in which thousands of people of Okinawan descent come to Okinawa once every 5-6 years as a sort of diaspora reunion) and with the Kobikishiki 木曳式 for Sui gusuku – the Main Hall of the palace is not by any means done being rebuilt yet, but this week marks a formal ground-breaking ceremony (kikôshiki 起工式) and a ceremony presenting lumber for the reconstruction from the Yanbaru forests up north…

Yamazato is an intriguing figure himself. I don’t know much about him, but once I became aware of his name, it popped up again and again. He was not only the author of this 1933 play, which was performed a number of times down through the postwar era, including as part of a 1980-something benefit event raising funds for the rebuilding of the palace (which was destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa), but also the author of a series of newspaper opinion pieces in the late 1960s opposing Reversion to Japan, which were republished in English as a booklet entitled “Japan is Not Our Fatherland.” He also wrote a number of essays I have come across about Sui gusuku and other related topics of revival of Okinawan traditional culture and heritage.

I have to finish revising my dissertation into a book manuscript first, but, I feel like this could be really interesting to look into as a next project, dealing with contemporary heritage politics, intersecting with issues of colonialism and imperialism, how the arts relate to the complexities of Okinawan politics in the 1870s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s…

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Got to go see some Kumi udui this weekend, and.. it was wonderful as always.

Kumi udui / Kumi wudui 組踊 (or, Kumi odori in Japanese) is an Okinawan form of dance-drama originated in the Luchuan (Ryukyuan) royal court in 1719. It bears many similarities to Japanese Noh or Kabuki, and I suppose perhaps to Chinese theatre forms such as kunqu or jingju as well. You can read a bit more about it at the Samurai-Archives Wiki or on the National Theatre Okinawa’s website.

While Kumi udui is now regularly performed at the National Theatre Okinawa (est. in Urasoe in 2004), among other venues in Okinawa, this weekend’s performance at the Yokohama Noh Theatre was a wonderfully rare opportunity to see it performed here in the Tokyo/Yokohama area.

I am embarrassed to admit, I struggled to focus during the performance of Nidu tichiuchi 二童敵討, a play about two brothers who scheme to get the lord Amaohe and his men drunk, and distract them with dance, in order to get the upper hand on him and kill him in revenge for Amaohe having killed their father. One of the five plays written by Udui bujо̄ (Magistrate of Dance) Tamagusuku Chо̄kun 踊奉行玉城朝薫 and performed in that first ever kumi udui performance in 1719, this remains one of the most frequently performed plays in the small classical repertoire.

I’ve enjoyed the privilege of seeing it performed two or three times before, and unfortunately, embarrassingly, found it difficult to get engrossed, especially during the first half, which is slower, lower energy, consisting chiefly of dialogue. But the costumes were gorgeous as always, and the second half, in which the brothers dance lively dances and execute their plan, that was lively and always fun. 

But the second play of today’s program was a new one for me, and I had far less difficulty paying attention – my mind not wandering – and just getting absorbed into the story and the aesthetics. 

Based on what very little I thought I knew of the play Wunna munu gurui 女物狂 (J: Onna mono kurui), I assumed it would be essentially a variation on the Noh play Sumidagawa, in which a mother in search of her son, kidnapped by slavers, is mad with grief, and eventually learns her son has died. 

But as it turns out, the play has only some few basic similarities. I don’t believe there’s video of the performance I saw, but here is a recording of one from the National Theatre Okinawa:

 

The kumi udui play begins, not with the mother, but with the slaver, who introduces himself to the audience, and then comes across the boy, Kamimachi 亀松. The kid playing this role, Tomishima Kanon* 富島花音, was incredible. Not that I would know precisely what all the marks and movements should be, but as far as I could tell, they certainly seemed very restrained, professional, their movements very controlled and rehearsed, not loose or imperfect at all. I’ve seen a lot of kids in Noh and Kabuki (albeit often perhaps a good few years younger) who were clearly doing their best, but were fidgety, too loud or too high-pitched, more shouting their lines than chanting them properly. And they had much smaller roles than Kamimachi, who has quite a few lines and who is on-stage for a sizable portion of the play. This kid was so impressive. And adorable in their yellow bingata robe, oshiroi makeup, and wig and hair ornaments. Beautiful. 

The boy dances with a pinwheel, and is then captured by the slaver, who takes him to a temple. While the slaver is asleep, the boy tells the monks about the kidnapping, and the monks concoct a fake “wanted” order, describing the man as wanted by the authorities. It was wonderful to see how a 300 year
old play, performed in highly stylized traditional forms and in a language few if any in the audience understand (the Okinawan language is a distinct language from, not a dialect of, Japanese), could still inspire laughs – as the man tries to make himself look shorter, or to wipe or scrunch his face in different
ways to try to avoid matching the description. 

After the slaver is taken away (or flees? it is unclear), a bunch of other kids appear, in adorable red robes, also with lavish hairdos and ornaments. I didn’t quite understand, in terms of the plot, who they were supposed to be. But their performances were excellent too. 

The mother then appears, in gorgeous bingata robes, dragging a willow branch. I know willow features in Sumidagawa too, as a symbol somehow of the grief and madness, though I don’t really know the history or symbolism of why. She dances briefly, recites some lines, and collapses on the ground. 

Then, finally, the monks reunite her with her son. A happy ending, compared to Sumidagawa

Wish I knew what exactly to say further, except that visually, aurally, it was a real pleasure. Tomishima-san was incredible, and of course the adult actors were as well. I would love to see this again. Though I am also now all the more curious and excited to eventually see Mikarushii 銘苅子, a kumi udui play with similarities to the Noh play Hagoromo (“The Feather Mantle”); the costume for the heavenly spirit in this play looks absolutely incredible. While the costume for the shite character in Hagoromo – a celestial maiden – looks like a fancy Noh costume, that for Mikarushii is rainbow-colored, like some of the most brilliant Japanese paintings of phoenixes, ethereal in multiple gossamer layers, and includes a long train which flows behind the figure like a trailing train or clouds. Well. In any case, hopefully someday I’ll get to see this. In the meantime, Wunna munu gurui was a pleasure, and I look forward to seeing this performed again someday as well.

*I am unfortunately unsure of the reading of the actor’s name.

 

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Since the fire at Shuri castle / palace / gusuku this past October, I have been reading a lot about the site; about the process leading up to its postwar restoration in 1992; about the events that have been held there since 1992, including the revivals and reenactments of various forms of court ceremonies and entertainments; and about the meaning, significance, and character of the site for people before and after the tragic October 31, 2019 fire.

The royal throne, imperial plaques (扁額), and decorated pillars produced by Maeda, or under his instruction, in the upper throne room (大庫理, ufugui) of the restored royal palace at Shuri. All lost in the 2019 fire. Photo my own, Sept 2016.

In the process, I have enjoyed learning about some of the people who played a prominent role in these processes. Outside of the field of Okinawan art, I would imagine Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 isn’t a name very many people are familiar with, at all; probably not even within Okinawa, except among those within particular circles. But Maeda was perhaps the leading lacquerware master involved in the restoration work, creating reproductions of the ornate red-lacquered, gilded royal throne (with mother-of-pearl inlay); red-lacquered and gilded plaques which hung over the throne, bearing the calligraphy of Qing emperors, as well as plaques hanging over many of the castle’s gates; and the decoration of the pillars framing the throne, encircled with multicolored and gilded dragons; among many other objects.

Maeda Kōin 前田孝允 was born in 1936 in the village of Ôgimi, in the Yanbaru/Kunigami area of Okinawa Island. A small village near the northern end of the island, Ôgimi is today home to just over 3,000 people, and is famous for its shikuwasa (a fruit related to the lime), its kijumunaa (local spirits somewhat akin to leprechauns or menehune), and perhaps the highest life expectancy in the world, with a considerable number of residents over one hundred years old.

Above: Maeda on Oct 31, 2019. Image from the Okinawa Times.

Maeda would have been 14 when the University of the Ryukyus was established, in 1950, right atop the ruins of Shuri castle (destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with much of the rest of the island). He later attended that university and graduated with a degree from the fine arts section (美術工芸科). His teacher Adaniya Masayoshi 安谷屋正義 (recognized now if not back then as one of the *giants* in early postwar Okinawan painting) then introduced him to a job as a designer in a lacquerware company. Five years later, he showed his works for the first time in a large lacquerwares exhibition, and reportedly made a big impact. In 1968, he opened his own workshop, the Maeda Shikki Atorie 前田漆器アトリエ (Maeda Lacquerwares Atelier).

At some point, he was later designated by the prefecture a “holder of Intangible Cultural Heritage” 県指定無形文化財保持者 – a title granted to those who are exceptional masters of particular traditional cultural techniques, skills, and knowledge. He also came to serve as an advisor to the prefecture on matters of traditional arts, and taught courses as a lecturer at both the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa geidai) and Tokyo University of the Arts (Geidai). It is difficult, he has said, however, to maintain and pass down a tradition of the most expertly refined skills, and of producing the highest-quality works, when popular conception is of your works as “souvenirs.” From the 1950s or so onward (if not in the prewar period as well), Ryukyuan lacquerwares began with increasing rapidity to be produced ever more cheaply, and ever increasingly with styles or motifs catering to a tourist or export market. Americans, as well as Japanese tourists and tourists from elsewhere in East Asia, wanted lacquerwares they could buy as affordable and stereotypically “tropical” or “Okinawan” souvenirs. As many lacquerware makers began to regularly cut corners and to use new techniques to save money, thus producing works they could afford to sell for less, the traditional techniques of how to produce the finest objects began to be lost; Maeda worked to revive that tradition by studying in mainland Japan and bringing such techniques, knowledge, and skill back to Okinawa – such as the skill to select the best part of the turbo shell, and to slice it as thinly as 0.07 mm, to produce the most delicately colorful and iridescent mother-of-pearl inlay.

When he was in his 50s (in the 1980s), he proposed to his partner by saying “let us rebuild Shuri castle together” (一緒に首里城を造ろう),1 which I think is really kind of beautiful, and says something about how engaged and supportive she must have been. Her name is 栄, and I want to be able to talk about her here by name, at the very least, rather than only calling her “his wife.” But I sadly have not yet come across anything which indicates how she pronounces her name. I’ve known some men named 栄, and they pronounced it “Sakae.” Is she Sakae-san? Or is it perhaps Yô-san? Clearly, she deserves profound recognition as well.

The “Shurei no kuni” 守禮之邦 (“Land of Propriety”) plaque hanging over the famous Shureimon near the entrance to Shuri castle is also one of Maeda’s works. Photo my own, Jan 2020.

In a 2013 interview, Maeda said he had discussed with his wife that he would retire at age 90. What will I do when I am 90 and weak? he says he asked her, to which she responded, it’s better to think of that once you turn 90.2

Learning of the fire on Oct 31, 2019 from his hospital bed, Maeda spoke of his hope to leave the hospital soon, after which he would immediately jump back into work reconstructing what was lost. “It’s not over” (「そしたら、すぐにでも復元に飛んでいきたい。まだ、おしまいじゃない」) the Okinawa Times quoted him as saying. His wife Sakae (or Yô?) added, “This is this man’s good point. He can’t help but to keep going.” (「それがこの人のいいところ。また頑張るしかないね」)1

Sadly, Maeda passed away a few month later, on Jan 14, 2020, at the age of 83. He lived to see the destruction of all those priceless lacquerwares in the castle fire, along with many produced in the time of the kingdom, but not to return to his workbench, or to the palace site to share his wisdom, his knowledge, his masterful skill to recreate what has once again been lost. But he will be remembered. If the name Maeda Kōin does not already appear in textbooks, I hope that it will. I most certainly will talk about him if and when I ever get to teach a course on Okinawan art history; Heritage & Tradition; or the like.

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1. 「「まだ、おしまいじゃない」 首里城の玉座制作の漆芸家 落胆の涙を拭い前向く」, Okinawa Times, 1 Nov 2019.
2. 「90歳までは仕事をして、90歳になったら遊ぼうねと、妻と話をしています。足腰も弱る90歳で何をするかと僕が聞くと、妻は『90になった時に考えればいいさぁ』。」“Shitsugei Maeda Kōin-san: Shurijō ni inochi wo fukikonda shitsugei sakka” 漆芸前田孝允:首里城にいのちを吹き込んだ漆芸作家, ”Shuri: Ryūkyū no miyako wo aruku” 首里:琉球の都をあるく, Momoto special issue 別冊モモト, Itoman: Tōyō kikaku (2013/8), 28.

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「美術漆器製造販売」, Meiji period catalog for ordering Ryukyuan lacquerwares.

Here’s one of the many posts I drafted a few years ago and never got around to posting. Still relevant today, I think.

In the course of my dissertation research, I began to get the feeling that Okinawan history can often be prone to certain ideas of conventional wisdom being repeated over and over, without a real solid notion of their veracity. Gregory Smits’ critiques of the oft-cited official histories produced by the royal court in his recent book Maritime Ryukyu would seem to support this. Now, whether this is typical in other fields as well, or whether it is more distinctly an issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, I’m not sure. But, regardless, I grew worried – and to be frank, remain worried – about accidentally including in my dissertation (as well as in conference presentations or journal articles) the kind of statements that would make an expert shake their head at my mistake. Much like how I shake my head at people who say that Okinawan is a dialect, or that Japan was “closed” for hundreds of years, or, as much conventional wisdom in the karate world would have it, that King Shō Shin banned weapons in the 16th century and that Ryukyu has been a kingdom of peace, a culture of pacifism ever since.

I know most people worry the most about the argument, the theoretical interpretation, and so forth. And of course all of that is important. But I think getting the details right, and doing your best to be a source that people can learn (and cite) accurate information from is also important. Advancing knowledge of the field not only in our interpretations but also in our findings: in correcting misconceptions and putting forth correct information, best as we can.

An 1889 book called Ryūkyū shikki kō (琉球漆器考, “Thoughts on Ryukyu Lacquerware”), oft-cited and regarded as a classic on the subject, almost a primary source, tells us the lacquer tree is not native to Ryukyu and has never grown well there – that Ryukyuan lacquer has always been made with imported raw lacquer from Japan or elsewhere. A number of museum catalogs, academic articles, and the like from the 1980s to today say the same, citing only this source. A curator I spoke with during my time in Okinawa, whose specialty of expertise is Ryukyuan lacquerware, told me much the same. And yet, I then read an essay by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1933-2005)* explicitly addressing the point and saying “while many have long said that Ryukyu never had its own lacquer trees, most often simply citing the Ryūkyū shikki kō, as I have explained elsewhere, evidence shows that Ryūkyū certainly did produce its own lacquer, perhaps even since the Jōmon period, thousands of years ago”. Great. Now what? Absent the time, resources, expertise to hunt down the truth myself – which could, honestly, be an entire PhD project unto itself – which are we to believe?

One of the main gates into the portion of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is not open to the public. But prior to 1889, the emperor did not reside beyond this gate, but rather at a temporary palace outside of the current palace grounds entirely.

Learning new things very typically is not this ambiguous. I could cite numerous examples of things which I never knew, but which one scholar revealed, and which I feel I can now take to be true. To name just one, there is the basic general assumption that Edo castle quickly became the Imperial Palace after 1868; in fact, as Takashi Fujitani explains, Edo castle burned down in 1873, and for the better part of the next fifteen years – a pretty central key period in the development of the new “modern” Meiji Japan – there was nothing in the center of Tokyo but a gaping burnt-out hole, and the Imperial Court was based, instead, in the former mansion of the Kishû Tokugawa lords. If you never read Fujitani’s book, or certain other sources, you might never know, simply because so many other authors breeze past it or don’t even realize themselves that “the imperial palace” at that time wasn’t the same site or the same structure as post-1889.

Similarly, most discussions of Commodore Perry omit that he ever spent time in Okinawa. But, once you learn about it, you know it, and there’s no need to worry about doubting its veracity, or being unclear or undecided on which interpretation or account is correct. I could also cite numerous examples of things which remain a matter of interpretation, but at least there is a standard interpretation that’s widely popular and widely accepted among scholars today. I don’t have to feel frozen with indecision over whether to think Japan was “closed” in the Tokugawa period, when pretty much every major early modern Japan specialist today agrees that it wasn’t, or at least that it was no more “closed” than China or Korea at the same time, that “maritime restrictions” might be a better term, and that Japan did have very active and significant contacts with the Ainu, Korea, Ryûkyû, the Dutch, and the Chinese, albeit not with any other major Western powers.

But then you come back to something like the question of whether Ryûkyû historically, traditionally, had its own lacquer trees. And there just isn’t enough published on it to know. As of right now, as I sit here typing this, I have one curator telling me they didn’t (and I presume the gallery labels at that museum would say the same), and one rather preeminent scholar writing that that’s hogwash and that Ryûkyû did have their own lacquer trees. I also have a handful of museum catalogs and other books and articles on Okinawan art in general, or Ryukyuan lacquerware in particular, which make no mention of the issue. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much for my own work; I’m not basing my larger arguments on any of these particular points. And, besides, there are always the questions of who’s going to actually even read my dissertation? And even if they do, are they really going to take note of that one footnote? Ah, but if they do, and if they cite me as having said that Ryûkyû either did or didn’t have its own lacquer trees – and all the more so if they then make some argument that rests on this assertion, well, now I really am complicit, if that’s the right word, in perpetuating a misconception.

So, what am I supposed to believe? This isn’t about judging the quality of the argument, or the evidence – it’s just one assertion against another, with very little if any evidence being presented. Nor is it a case of an active debate in the field, so much as it’s just a lack of information. A lack of evidence. A lack of scholarship. And so, everyone goes along either believing the Ryūkyū shikki kō (and the lineage of scholarship citing back to it), or they believe Tokugawa-sensei. Either way, young scholars like myself who are trying to build up their own knowledge of Okinawan history and culture are left just not knowing.

A bingata robe, formerly owned by the royal family, now a National Treasure and held at the Naha City Museum of History.Gallery labels tell us that this brilliant yellow was restricted to members of the royal family. Is that true? Or another piece of potentially mistaken conventional wisdom?

And, it can be very hard to know who to turn to. I have great admiration for traditional practitioners – dancers, musicians, weavers, martial artists – and could indeed write a whole blog post about how I would love to have a stronger ability to see things through their perspective, a perspective of traditions, cultural significance, technique and aesthetic; understanding things within a cultural context, a context of the tradition to which they belong, and not merely a political, economic, or social history sort of context that may pay attention to that history but without the same sort of appreciation. And yet, at the same time, while some traditional practitioners will have a keen eye for the questions and problems involved and may be able to regale you with their brilliant personal knowledge – beyond anything that can be found in books – as to the entire history of the issue, many other traditional practitioners are simply going to tell you conventional wisdom. They’re going to tell you what their sensei told them, or what they heard through the grapevine, like it’s gospel.

And so, perhaps we turn back again to researchers. And, yes, I can and I should reach out to people like Sudō Ryōko, who is probably one of the leading experts within formal academia on garments worn in the royal court, and ask her what she knows of whether bingata (a particular style of resist-dye decoration) garments were in fact truly limited to only the aristocratic classes, and in what ways and in what contexts. But I fear there will always remain this niggling feeling in my mind that it still isn’t settled. Whatever answer she gives me, there will be some other person, or book, that happens to say otherwise, and I’ll be left not knowing again. This nagging, frustrating, feeling, that no matter where you turn – encyclopedias, or something like Okinawa bijutsu zenshû (“Complete Collection of Okinawan Art,” pub. 1989) – you’re still not getting a truly definitive answer.

Were sanshin truly limited to only the aristocratic classes as well? I have certainly heard it said, many a time, but I am not sure if I’ve read that in a proper scholarly article, let alone read a fuller explanation about it. If I say they were, and even if I cite it to this book or that book, or to a conversation with this sanshin master or that music professor, am I still shooting myself in the foot for other readers who will look at it and say

ugh, how can this guy be so clueless!? Relying on X, doesn’t he know that Y showed that it wasn’t that way? How can I trust anything else this guy is saying if he even gets this wrong!?

Thankfully, I don’t think many or perhaps even any of these debates are crucial to my own argument, and so I may be able to continue to just skirt them entirely. But, even so, wherever I do cite anything on any of these issues, I’m entering into the danger of myself unknowingly repeating the same problematic conventional wisdom. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

*Descendant of the Owari Tokugawa clan, and long-time head of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. Not to be confused with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) of the Mito lineage, and the final shogun.

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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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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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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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“Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs,” an event my friends and I had been planning since last year, finally came to fruition this past February, and I flew back to Santa Barbara very briefly (from Okinawa, where I had been pursuing my dissertation research for a six month stay) to take part. Not quite a symposium or conference, but also not simply an art exhibition, “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” combined an exhibit of new works by MFA student Yumiko Glover with a series of talks by Yumiko, EALCS PhD student Carl Gabrielson, EALCS Professor Sabine Frühstück, Art History PhD student A. Colin Raymond, and myself, plus video interviews of all of us, conducted and edited by YouTuber / LGBT-activist Naoya Matsushima.

Now that the website is complete, I thought it about time to finally post on the blog about this.

The event was originally conceived as something of an “experiment” in graduate-student-initiated and cross-department / interdisciplinary events, which might stand as an example in incremental moves towards (1) greater interdisciplinary collaboration within the academy, (2) greater variety in the style and character of academic events, and (3) more student-initiated events on campus. Of course, few events I’ve ever participated in have ever been nearly as radical, or impactful, as we might imagine or expect or hope for them to be, and all of them, once they are over, are simply over, but I’m still rather proud of, and happy with, what we accomplished.

Yumiko Glover, “Tomoko vs. Mr. A” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 77″ sq. Photo my own. (Sadly, I can’t seem to find any of my photos from that week, so I’m using photos from another art show.)

Yumiko’s artwork continues to get my gears turning – not only beautiful, and masterfully executed, but also wonderfully thought-provoking, containing or suggesting references in numerous different directions, to themes of contemporary Japanese social and political issues, but also anime/manga and youth fashion aesthetics, bubble-gum-bright pop colors, hyperreality and technofuturism – they are highly contemporary works, in modern media and techniques, featuring contemporary or even futuristic subjects (schoolgirls, metropolitan skylines, subways, cellphones, the digital world) but also while subtly referencing or even re-imagining / re-creating (mitate-e) classic images from Japanese art history, such as woodblock prints by Harunobu and Utamaro.

The exhibit opened on Sunday Feb 26, and on the Tuesday, three of us (Yumiko, Colin, and myself) gave brief presentations in Prof. Helen Taschian’s ART 1A: Intro to Visual Literacy class, in addition to all five of us giving talks in a more formal panel event the following day at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre. I could certainly appreciate how these talks at Prof. Taschian’s class might be seen as tangential, or incidental, to the overall project – and there have certainly been plenty of times that I, as a mere attendee to a “main event” panel discussion have not felt that the classroom visits and other activities I didn’t see constituted part of the main event – but, this time around, as a direct participant in this classroom visit, I really did feel it to be a part of the overall event, the overall experience. This has really given me a new appreciation for how it feels to be a visiting speaker, not just for one “main event” but for other things done in conjunction, and a new appreciation for appreciating the fullness of such events. Even with the talks being just tweaked slightly different versions from what we presented the following day at the formal panel discussion, the classroom visit felt quite different. A different audience, with different background and interests and perspectives. The Visual Literacy class itself provided a different context within which – building on their basic foundational knowledge of art & aesthetics acquired over just the past seven weeks of the academic quarter – we were introducing them to Yumiko’s work, to a brief sampling of Okinawan art today (my presentation), and to some issues and problems in thinking about contemporary art, through examples from contemporary Japanese art (Colin’s presentation). It felt really cool to be including a bit of Japanese, Okinawan, and Japanese/American art (or however Yumiko may identify/categorize her own art practice) into their Visual Literacy class. I don’t know how global (how US/Eurocentric or not) Prof. Taschian’s course is to begin with, but I definitely get a kick out of exposing students to non-Western examples as major examples of how we think about art, etc. American or European art – or particular standard canonical examples of non-Western art – need not be the default go-to examples. We are global citizens of a global world. Let us act like it. And talking about some of the biggest artists in Tokyo, and in Okinawa (or we might just as well have said Tahiti, Hawaii, or countless other marginalized, peripheralized places), plus works by someone like Yumiko Glover, using these and not more standard examples from a canon of Western (or non-Western) modern art, is a key element of doing that. Prof. Taschian’s class also did a walkthrough of the exhibit on the Thursday, along with a formal “critique” of Yumiko’s work by professors and grad students from the Studio Art program, and while I wasn’t able to be there for this part, this too is to my mind very much a part of the overall event, making “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” overall a fairly complex, extensive, event, and one I’m all the more satisfied with and proud of having been a part of.

Still, the exhibit itself (and gallery opening reception), and the panel discussion at the MCC, were the real centerpieces of the week. I am so glad to have gotten to do this in the MCC theatre. If we had gotten a classroom, that would have been fine, but doing it in the MCC made the whole thing just feel one level “higher” – classier, nicer, more properly put-together, in a sense. Yumiko talked about her artworks, how they were inspired in large part by her own identity and experiences, growing up in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture (about 63 miles from Hiroshima City), and being Japanese, seeing how Japanese popular culture, media, everyday life, and national-level politics have developed over the last several decades. Yumiko’s works are not only about hyperreality and a colorful, pop-aesthetic Tokyo-urban landscape of everyday life infused with youthful energy, referencing or built upon a backdrop history of Japanese art tradition, but the most recent batches are also increasingly engaged in political commentary, against the renewed militarism and nationalism of the Abe administration and its supporters.

Sabine Frühstück and Carl Gabrielson then talked about that recent trend of rising militarism, particularly in terms of the imag(in)ed role or place of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces within Japanese life or Japanese society, the step-by-step shift of the JSDF from total non-involvement in warzones in the 1990s to increased engagement first in postwar minesweeping efforts in the Persian Gulf overseas construction efforts in Cambodia, and then later in an active warzone (although still not with combat troops – only medics, engineers, etc. etc.) in Iraq in the early 2000s, to now, since 2015, a formal reinterpretation of the Constitution newly adopted into law, which would allow Japan to deploy full-on combat troops not only in defense of Japan (or reaction to attacks against Japanese people or property) but also in response to attacks on allies.

Carl talked in particular about the way the JSDF is marketed to the Japanese public, as protectors of an idealized clean, honest, peaceful, prosperous Japanese everyday life – a very common trope throughout Japanese media – and as protectors who do so without any explicit or overt discussion or display of violence. JSDF ads include very little, if any, depiction of weaponry or action, at all, focusing very much instead on a more quiet, soft perhaps, dignified image of people – largely unseen, unheard, in everyday Japanese life, operating somewhere at a physical remove, a distance – who work to protect Japanese life from turmoil and threats. Even the threats themselves are not only not named, they are left entirely undefined: these ads don’t so much stir up “fear” (e.g. fear of Islamic extremist terrorism) as they do, arguably, perhaps, merely emphasize the goodness of what needs to be protected.

I next shared a glimpse, a sampling, of what I’d seen of Okinawan art in the preceding six months or so. I would say my main intention was twofold: (1) to just simply share something of my experience; even those who’ve spent more time in Tokyo, who know the Tokyo and national art scene better than I do haven’t been feet-on-the-ground seeing all this stuff in Okinawa right now, in 2016-17 as it happens. And (2) to try to contribute just a bit to combatting the continued US/Eurocentrism of our understanding and vision of the art world. This is the 21st century. We are global citizens, Let’s fucking act like it. Okinawa is a part of the world, no less so than California or New York or Texas, no less so than England or France or Japan or China. No matter how small, no matter how seemingly peripheral in one way or another, it is a part of our world, a jigsaw puzzle piece that is essential to a more complete vision of the whole.

Finally, Colin talked about how we understand art and aesthetic categories. In the aftermath of minimalism and modernism reaching (arguably) their limits, the movements having been played out to their fullest possible extent, now what? In our frenetic postmodern moment, when absolutely anything can be art, what now is (and is not) “Art”? Also, as we become increasingly interconnected into the global, just because we have access to seeing more art from around the world doesn’t mean we actually understand it in cultural and political context. It may actually be easier than ever before to think we do – seeing artworks from all around the world on the internet, and at a first glance thinking we “get” it, based on preconceptions about Japan. But, in truth, as Colin explained, there is historical, cultural, and political knowledge that is essential to understanding more validly, more deeply, more truly, what an artwork is referencing or pointing to.

Matthew Limb did an excellent job as moderator, guiding us through some important themes and questions at the end of the panel.

These were accompanied by the brilliant inclusion of a series of video interviews organized by Naoya Matsushima, projected onto the wall of the gallery. While five of us gave talks in UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre in a formal panel event on the Wednesday, that’s ephemeral – even more ephemeral than a one-week gallery show – and these videos, summarizing the main themes of our talks in a (hopefully) even more accessible manner than the talks themselves, brought those talks, those topics, more directly into conversation with the artworks.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with these folks, and to have such an event under my belt, keeping me connected into fields of Art and Art History, and to get to contribute to having just a bit more Japan-related events on campus, introducing our audiences to these various aspects of Japanese & Okinawan art and politics. I look forward to hopefully many more fruitful collaborations in future.

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I recently happened upon two new books on Ryukyuan painting (well, one new, and one from 2003 that’s news to me), which are exciting discoveries. So far as I’m aware, there are very few books like these, even in Japanese – full-color books devoted exclusively, explicitly, to the subject of the rich, colorful, vibrant tradition of pre-modern / early modern Ryukyuan painting. I’ll admit, I haven’t had the time yet to actually read through these two books. So, I’m “reviewing” them (so to speak) based on first impressions. Pardon me for any misrepresentations.

First, is Ryûkyû kaiga: kôgaku chôsa hôkokusho 琉球絵画-光学調査報告書 (roughly, “Ryukyuan Painting: Announcement of [Results of] Optics Survey”), published by Tokyo Bunkazai Kenkyûsho 東京文化財研究所 in 2017. The first half of the book dedicates about 150 pages to images of eleven artworks. We are given not only overall images of the paintings, but for each painting multiple pages of full-page full-color high-quality details. The texture of the silk still cannot be reproduced in print, of course, and no book will ever be a full and total replacement for seeing a work in person, but this is very much the next best thing – better on this particular point than I think I’ve ever seen in any book before. Seeing such details – including the fine brushstrokes, and the texture of the media – is what many art historians want to see, and it’s so difficult to see even in person, when you’re separated by plexiglass keeping you two or three feet away from the work. If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing an artwork in person, without any glass, the painting mere inches away from your face, you’ll know it’s a whole different experience. And this book’s design brings that experience to the reader, as much as any book could. To have this is wonderful – to have it for Ryukyuan paintings, all the more so.

Details of the kimono patterns from a painting of a Ryukyuan aristocratic couple. Maybe a little hard to see in this photo of the page, but in the actual book, you can see the texture of the pigments, the shininess of the gold accents, the brushstrokes.

The book ends with essays on Ryukyuan painting and painters, and on the specific pigments employed, ending with a few pages on signatures and seals, and a family tree, as it were, of major Ryukyuan painters, charting out the links of master-student relationships.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the book available for sale anywhere, at least not yet. I expect that when it does become available on Amazon.jp, or elsewhere, it will be stupidly expensive. As all too often happens with art books, even though ink and paper are dirt cheap, and I find it very hard to believe that it costs anywhere near $15 or $20 to print each copy, publishers still continue to get away with charging $50 or $60 or even $100 for these things… and all the more so when it’s a “research results” volume. Cast the exact same book as a museum exhibit catalog, and it might still be expensive, but quite likely not as much so.

A portrait of Tei Junsoku, one of the most famous and celebrated Ryukyuan officials and reformers. The fine, naturalistic details of the description of the face are just incredible. I have seen this painting several times now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, always behind glass, at a distance of several feet; I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see the original more truly up-close. this reproduction is the next best thing.

The other book I happened upon here in the bowels of the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute library is entitled Haruka naru ogoe: yomigaeru Ryûkyû kaiga 遙かなる御後絵-甦る琉球絵画 (roughly, “Posthumous Portraits from Faraway: Looking Back at Ryukyuan Painting”). Written by Satô Fumihiko 佐藤文彦, a painter expert in traditional methods, and lecturer at the Okinawa University of the Arts, it was published in 2003. ”Ogoe” 御後絵 were official portraits of the Ryukyuan kings, produced by the Ryukyuan royal court after each king’s death. All are believed to have been lost, destroyed, in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with a great many other irreplaceable documents, artifacts, treasures (not to mention thousands upon thousands of lives and livelihoods). Prewar black-&-white photographs of the ”ogoe” survive, however, and are a hell of a lot better than nothing. Satô has conducted extensive research into these works, best as possible with the limited surviving materials, and has produced his own full-color recreations of all ten royal portraits which are known to have been produced.

Satô’s recreation of how the portrait of King Shô Shin might have looked in full-color.

This book opens with full-color plates of all ten of those full-color recreations. The meat of the book is a series of essays (or chapters) by Satô about the ”ogoe” – his research into their history, their style and composition, and his thoughts, struggles, and efforts in recreating them. This is of great value and interest in itself, of course, a beautifully lengthy treatment of such a niche topic (in the broad scheme of things), but a topic of great importance within the field of Okinawan art, especially of Ryukyuan royal art.

What took the book to another level for me, though, is that this discussion of the ”ogoe” is followed by an additional chapter on Jiryô 自了 (aka Gusukuma Seihô 城間清豊), one of the few early modern Ryukyuan painters about whom we know anything much, and one of the few from whom we still have surviving paintings. A book only on ”ogoe” would be valuable enough in itself, but Satô builds upon that with this essay on Jiryô, a reprinting of a 1925 essay on ”ogoe” by Higa Chôken 比嘉朝健, an extensive timeline/chronology of events in the history of Ryukyuan painting, and finally a mini-encyclopedia of topics relevant to Ryukyuan painting. This last thing is a beautiful resource even all by itself; through visits to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and skimming through museum catalogs like that of that museum’s Ryûkyû kaiga ten 琉球絵画展 from 2009, I have come to gain some sense of the body of works that are out there. But, knowing that so many works were lost in the war, and that few survive, it is hard to know just how few; and are the works I have seen more or less the only ones that survive, or only the most famous, or most-displayed, for whatever various reasons? How much (or how little) is out there? This mini-encyclopedia is, of course, not definitive and complete, but it is certainly an additional help in understanding the extent, and content, of the body of works that are out there.

This book is available on Amazon.jp, but is unfortunately priced at over 5700 yen. I’m going to keep my eyes out for a cheaper used copy.

It’s wonderful to see these books coming out. I eagerly look forward to finding the time to actually read them, and expand my knowledge about Ryukyuan paintings. And I hope that I might someday enjoy the opportunity to bring this to the English-speaking audience – to bring these most-famous of Ryukyu’s paintings to a major US museum, and to publish a catalog about them. Ryukyuan textiles, lacquerwares, and ceramics are all wonderful, and any exhibit, any publication, that expands knowledge about Okinawa in any way is a wonderful thing. But Okinawa is not just a culture of “folk arts,” or “decorative arts.” They had just as lively and vibrant a painting culture as China, Korea, or Japan – they had court painters, literati painters, just like these other cultures, and people should learn that, see these beautiful paintings, and learn about this other side of Okinawa’s art history.

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