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Archive for the ‘ryukyu’ Category

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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Eisa performance at Ryûdai Campus Festival (daigakusai).

I’ve been in Tokyo for just over two months now, and I’ve suddenly this week found myself thinking about my life in Okinawa. While I was there, it felt (of course) so totally immediate and real, but now that I’m gone, only two months later, and even after being there for nearly a full six months, the whole thing feels like a dream, or like another life. This happens every time I go from one place to another, so I should be used to it by now, but I’m still not. Who am I? Am I the person I was in Okinawa? Am I the person I am now, here in Tokyo? I *love* my life here in Tokyo, though I sort of dreaded it and knew that in a lot of ways I didn’t want to let go of my life in Okinawa. And I look forward eagerly to spending time in Okinawa again, sometime, but still it feels like a dream, like another life. Getting the Prefectural Museum newsletter in the mail made it feel more real, and also more distant, at the same time. Every new exhibit, every new event, in Okinawa, that I wish I were there on-island for…

Tôdai’s famous Yasuda Auditorium.

I dunno. It’s weird. As I’m writing this, more and more comes back to my memory, and in a certain way it feels real again, in a very normal sort of way – not necessarily like an adventure, an incredible experience of some other world, but like, yes, a place that I lived. The café, the university library, the dorm room. Real and yet unreal. I dunno.

At the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum.

Part of me feels like I should be able to just hop on a bus and go there again, to the bookstore, to the museum, to Kokusai-dôri, just like I did for months. But then I have to remind myself that not only is that a whole plane flight away, but that I most likely will not be going back at all for at least a year, maybe two or three.

And now my life here in Tokyo feels so real. And I don’t want it to end. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to come here so many times, and also to stay here for so long this time. And I know I’ll be back, and it’ll be wonderful all over again. But it’ll never be the same as it was this time. And that’s an odd feeling, too, because what do I really have here in Tokyo, other than the general greatness of this city (which I’ll have the next time and the next time)? I have affiliation with the Shiryôhensanjo, which is fucking amazing – getting to take out books from about half the places on Tôdai campus, and getting to walk the stacks at the Hensanjo and take books out and bring them back to my office where I can scan them or whatever rather than having to pay for expensive copies. And I have this really nice apartment. I mean, it’s not the most lavish amazing wonderful place ever, and I feel weird actually to like any apartment so much (plus, I learned that it’s actually not all that inexpensive for the area) – but, really, it’s just such a nice place. Everything is basically brand new (or at least extremely well-maintained), from the hardwood floors to the totally not moldy or creepy at all shower/toilet room, to the desk and the A/C-slash-heater. It’s not a super big place, but it’s more than big enough for my needs, and close enough to campus, and all of those good things… and I’m going to be sad to have to say goodbye to it. And, since it’s a visiting researcher dorm, I don’t know whether to say that makes it easier, or harder, to think about getting to live here again, in the future… What do I really have that makes this time so special, so desirable to hold onto, to continue or to repeat? The Hensanjo, and the apartment, yes, but the city will be here next time, too, and whichever neighborhood I end up living in, will be a new and pleasant experience in its own way.

I wrote up all of the above in the spur of the moment, as I was thinking about it, and left it kind of incomplete. Coming back to it now to add links and pictures and just a little bit of editing, I find I’m really not sure what more to say, or how to conclude. But, I guess it’s just something that’s going to continue to be on my mind, in different variations, as I continue my time here in Tokyo, and after it comes to an end in August. It’s such a privilege and such a pleasure to get to spend so much time in these two cities. Like everywhere I’ve been, I know that each different stay has a very different feel, a different energy to it. It’ll never be the same again, and there’s something very sad about that. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, no matter how real, firm, and concrete, life in Okinawa (or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or anywhere) might feel at the time, it always inevitably turns to a mirage, a dream, a vague memory. Photos are great, and I’ll keep taking far more of them than I know what to do with; but looking at photos will never be the same as actually being there. I look at photos, and often I remember what else I did that day, or what brought me there, or other associated/affiliated thoughts, but rarely do I remember how I felt that day, or what it really felt like to be there in that place. But, what are you going to do? Shôgannai, as they say in Japanese. We have to just enjoy ourselves while we can, and keep moving forward, and just make peace with the fact that life goes on. It’ll never be everything you might dream it will be, and it’ll never be the same as it was before, but it’ll be good, in whatever new and different ways it will be. Just have to take it as it comes.

Another beautiful, sunny day in Naha, looking out over the city from the monorail station.

All photos my own.

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Finally went to Takae and Henoko today. Thanks so much to Kinjô-san and Ariarakawa-san for taking me along.

These are two sites where the US military, with the support of the Japanese (national) government either are building, or have just completed, new military installations – against the will of the Okinawan people, and despite extremely extensive peaceful protest + formal political & legal efforts.

Right: A banner reading roughly “We don’t need Ospreys in the Yanbaru forest.”

Takae is a region of the sparsely populated, densely forested, northern part of Okinawa Island, called Yanbaru. The US military has controlled a significant portion of this forest for decades, using it to stage training and practices for jungle warfare (esp. during the Vietnam War). Much of the forest has been ruined by Agent Orange, something the US kept secret for years. And now, over the last few years, they’ve tripled the number of helipads in the forest, in large part to use for the experimental Osprey vertical-takeoff-and-landing (VTOL) crafts that keep crashing, and which the Okinawan protesters have particularly seized on opposing. Meanwhile, the US returned portions of the forest to public Japanese/Okinawan use, last week, as part of a distraction, and in order to make themselves look good, and to make the Okinawans look bad. “Look, we returned all this land! You should be grateful!” “Yeah, but it’s useless land, that you stole, that we never chose to give up to begin with, and which you’ve ruined with Agent Orange.” Further, some number of people who’ve lived in this neighborhood for decades, in many cases for generations, are now voluntarily leaving because they just can’t bear to live with the noise and difficulty that these brand-new helipads – built without their agreement or permission, and indeed built against their opposition! – will bring. As the US continues to expand its operations, so long as helicopters and Ospreys continue to crash in Okinawa, it’s only a matter of time before one hits a school or hospital, a residential neighborhood, or even worse, one of the dams that – between five of them – provide some 60% of the fresh water, and much of the electricity, to the island.

Part of the Takae section of the Yanbaru forest.

As for Henoko, this is a gorgeous bay, home to corals and dugongs and much other significant sea life, a beautiful bay which would be fantastic for swimming, boating, fishing, environmental tourism… and which the US has decided to fill in partially with landfill, to create two new runways, to make up for what they’ll lose by eventually returning Futenma Air Base to public (Okinawan/Japanese) control. Of course, the Okinawans don’t want a new base. They want Futenma to be dismantled, and for nothing new to be built to ruin any other part of the island; the positive of seeing Futenma dismantled shouldn’t be balanced out by inflicting further damage and burden elsewhere.

An illustration of the plans for Henoko. The orange area shows where landfill will be done, to build two runways, and a docking area for aircraft carriers. Munitions and possibly even nuclear weapons (despite Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles) will be stored in an area labeled in white, just to the northeast. The red line, meanwhile, shows the area that will be blocked off from civilian entry. Areas circled in dotted white lines are archaeological sites, and the yellow oval within the orange shows a key section of the dugong habitat. Abu, which I mention later in this post, is just off the map to the upper right, just on the opposite side of the bay. Finally, an area just north of the red area contains facilities for hosting eco-tourism, hosting tourists/visitors who would want to enjoy the bay and its wildlife, bringing valuable revenue to the area, if only the bay weren’t ruined by an expanded US military presence. (Thanks to the protesters at the Henoko tent for this information.)

It was really something to finally visit these sites I’d read so much about in the news. To see the tents, which I’d seen so many times in photographs, where protesters have set up camp, protesting day in and day out, for hundreds – indeed, thousands – of days. Beyond that, though, there wasn’t too much to see. I’m not sure what I expected – these are military bases, after all. With the exception of places like Kakazu, where a public park happens to be located on high enough ground that it does offer a pretty nice view down into the base, otherwise, why should I expect that us civilians would ever be able to get a closer view, especially of places that are so contested, so strongly protested? Of course, that said, I have heard that there are boat tours of Henoko, and I would very much like to get to do that, see it from that perspective.

In any case, to begin, we stopped at a few small sights and things on the way up to Takae. This fellow’s name is Konsuke こんすけ. He’s a Ryukyuan boar, and he lives at the Mountain and Water Livelihood Museum 山と水生活博物館 in Higashi Village.

Look at that cute face. Don’t worry – he has plenty of space to chill. As you can see on the right side of the image, his pen goes back quite a ways. And I presume he’s well-fed and looked after.

At Takae, after walking through the protesters’ main tent / camp (where I was instructed not to take photos), we walked down a small dirt path, to find this wacky set of walls and fences and enclosures, blocking protesters (or visitors like ourselves) from even getting close to the guards (in blue, in the background), or to the actual boundaries between public/private Japanese property, and US military property. Layers upon layers. I am in no way an experienced protestor or activist, nor someone with any military background (or the like) whatsoever, so I have no idea what’s normal, but there was something about this that I found just really funny.

Indeed, overall, there’s this funny imbalance or paradox, where on the one hand the authorities have deployed a level of security totally out of proportion to the actual protester presence – suggesting that they see the protesters as a very real and serious threat – while at the same time, just totally bulldozing (sometimes literally) past/over the protesters’ opposition, showing that the protesters in fact pose very little threat at all to their agenda. Things were pretty quiet at both Takae and Henoko today – I saw no more than ten or so guards (private security firm guards) at the one area of Takae we were at (plus two police vans from the Okinawa Prefectural Police), plus a totally reasonable two to five guards or so at each of the gates we passed by.. and similar numbers at Henoko. But, to have even that many, when the protesters are doing absolutely nothing but sitting quietly in a tent by the side of the road, handing out pamphlets and whatever, while anti-base banners and the like have been put up all over the area… what the hell are you guarding against? No one’s doing anything.

Just outside the protesters’ camp, they’ve posted some signs making fun of the signs that are fucking everywhere in Okinawa, saying things like “U.S. Army Facility. Unauthorized Entry Prohibited and Punishable by Japanese Law.” These tongue-in-cheek signs say, roughly, “Entry by those associated with the Police or the Okinawa Defense Bureau is Prohibited,” with the implied earlier line “Territory of the Okinawan People, [Entry … prohibited].” Totally meaningless in terms of actual legal authority, but I really appreciate the chutzpah.

We also visited the beach at Abu 安部, where an Osprey crashed just a couple weeks ago, on December 14. Click through on the photo above to see a larger version. There was nothing really to see there today, as the cleanup was already completed quite quickly, but the crash took place just immediately off the point (Abu-no-saki 安部崎) seen on the far left in the picture. This is a quiet, secluded, beautiful beach in a tiny village, which we accessed only by walking through a small entryway at the end of a quiet street. Locals examined some kind of tank they had found on the beach – not associated with the Osprey, but whether this belonged to the US military, or what it was at all I did not learn. An older man from the neighborhood, recognizing us as outsiders (though two of our party were native Okinawans), came up and engaged us in conversation, telling us about the beach and about the crash…

After visiting Takae, and stopping at Abu, our last major stop for the day was at Henoko. The protesters’ camp/tent is located right along the waterfront, and is loaded with posters, newspaper clippings, flyers, and other resources. We arrived just before four o’clock, when the protesters apparently pack up for the day, before returning at 8:00 the next morning, much as they have done for over 4,500 days now. But, still, one of them was kind enough to take the time to talk to us, and point out on the map much of the information I have shared above. I know it’s difficult to see in this photo, but the rock on the right-hand side of the photo marks where the two runways will converge – the “point” of the “V.”

I welcome clarifications or corrections, but as far as my understanding, while the helipads at Takae were completed last week, regardless of popular opposition, construction has not actually begun at Henoko just yet. The military has conducted various surveys, and maybe some kind of digging or something on the seabed, and has started dropping concrete blocks which will help serve as foundations – something like that – but, there was a Japanese court decision in March 2016 which demanded construction be halted until the situation could be reassessed, and some degree of discussions completed between the Okinawan and national (Japanese) governments. This decision was reversed by the Supreme Court of Japan quite recently, and it is my understanding that Governor Onaga is being obliged to rescind his rescinding of permission for construction to continue, starting as early as tomorrow (Dec 27).

Just a view of Okinawa’s beautiful waters, as seen from the car, somewhere along the north/eastern coast of the island.

I was on the verge of tears several times today, just talking to people, and thinking of how the US and Japanese governments, and most especially the US military, clearly don’t care one bit about the desires or best interests of the Okinawan people. They just don’t regard Okinawa as a place full of people with real hopes and desires, with rights as citizens and as human beings which deserve to be respected – let alone as indigenous people. No, they see it purely through geopolitical strategic lenses, as a Rock, or an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” on which to situate our military bases, using the land and air and water for training and so forth, regardless of who is affected by the noise and pollution, by the crime and crowding, and by the very real dangers of potential aircraft crashes, etc.

It upsets me in particular to see people protesting so vigorously, and yet peacefully, for so long, through so many avenues, and to get just totally steamrolled. People have been holding sit-ins at Henoko for over 4,500 days, and at Takae, Futenma, and other places for at least that long (though perhaps not quite as continuously). Anti-base sentiment dominates in the chief Okinawan newspapers, and it dominates in the Okinawan people’s democratic selection of anti-base candidates for mayors (of Nago and elsewhere), for governor of Okinawa, and for Okinawa’s representatives in the National Diet. It dominates on and off the university campuses, and in academia, and in regular protests before the Prefectural Government building, and elsewhere. And yet, nothing changes. The helipads were completed anyway. The Ospreys are here anyway. Futenma is still here, 20 years after Washington and Tokyo agreed to dismantle it. And Henoko is being built as a replacement, anyway, despite extensive efforts at opposition.

Sign at Henoko. “The will of the people is NO on construction of new bases.”

I of course don’t believe that governments or other authorities should simply bend to the will of whichever group shouts the loudest, on any and every issue. Indeed, there are quite a few issues where I am glad that governments, university administrations, and other bodies of authority have stood their ground despite one group yelling and shouting their fucking heads off, pretending they represent most or all of the rest of us, when they most assuredly do not. And that’s a whole conversation for another time. So, it’s complicated. I certainly don’t think that we should automatically leap to the defense of any or every group that claims to speak for all Native Hawaiians, or all Asian-Americans, especially when one well knows that there are other Native Hawaiians, or Asian-Americans, or Asians, who disagree. But, in this particular case, while I fully recognize that there are those Okinawans who hold differing political views, and while there are some very real, practical, economic considerations for how Okinawa benefits economically from the bases’ presence, even so, I really cannot help but feel that these protesters are not some small fringe – that they truly do represent the voice of the majority of the Okinawan people, and that they truly are in the right. That their voices are being ignored, and their land and water, their sovereignty, their rights as equal citizens of a democratic country, indeed their fundamental human rights themselves, are just being trampled on by top-level (inter)national agents who just think on some other level, some ‘higher’ abstract level of pushing pieces around a Risk board – people who just don’t fucking care. What is the purpose of protest, when it accomplishes so little? It seems almost like a joke. Like a sick joke. These people are here day in, day out, putting so much effort into expressing their political will, into doing something that is at the very heart of what it means to be free and democratic – at the very heart of what it is the US military claims to be defending: Freedom and Democracy. And yet, Tokyo and Washington have the nerve to fucking disrespect and ignore these people so thoroughly, so completely, on issue after issue, month after month, year after year? There is something very very wrong here, and when peaceful protest is so totally ineffective, when a people seem so utterly powerless in the face of government/military agendas, it just makes me feel so saddened, so worried, so disappointed, in the state of our world.

A view of the ocean near the Okinawa Yanbaru Seawater Pumped Storage Power Station.

All photos my own.

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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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Amawari makes his introductory monologue, in Nidû tichiuchi.

11/19/16

Thanks so much to my friend Chizu, who invited me along tonight to drive down to Nanjô-shi for a kumi udui performance in the outdoors, with a small audience sat on folding chairs, in a small open space next door to the Sashiki Shinzato Kôminkan (Civic Hall). What nice timing that I should happen to get to go see (listen to) Nidû tichiuchi, a play about Amawari (lord of Katsuren) and Gosamaru (lord of Nakagusuku), right after visiting (and blogging about) both of those castles!

I guess some terminology explanation is in order. Kumi udui 組踊, or kumi odori, is the chief form of Okinawan traditional dance-drama. It is closely related to Japanese kabuki and Noh, and certain forms of Chinese theatre (kunqu, perhaps? I’m not quite so familiar), sharing many features, and it’s probably good to think of them in similar fashion – beautiful, colorful, elegant, elite art forms, with a deep tradition that people are working today to maintain, to continue.

Jishibai 地芝居 is a term they use for kabuki – I don’t know if they actually use it for kumi udui – but it refers to small local performances, often by amateurs, in a public plaza or civic hall or the like, often as part of a festival, but put on outside of the world of professional kabuki. Since the performers tonight were not amateurs from the local village, but were also not full professional actors from the capital, but rather are trainees 研修生 studying under the professionals, I’m not sure whether this is “jishibai,” but in any case, it certainly felt like it in many ways – while the acting, music, and dance were impeccable, and the costumes top-notch as well, the production surrounding it was quite standard, not top-level elite professional stuff, but just lights, mics, like you would any well-done local event; and more importantly, the small crowd, very close up to the stage, on folding chairs, with people coming around selling cans of beer for just 100 yen, very informal-like, while kids run around, alternatively watching and not, and while friends chat, etc. Now and then there were also kakegoe-like cheers shouted out, or whistles, to encourage actors on a dramatic entrance, or a dance or monologue well done. The environment was just incredible, with a big deigo tree rising up behind the stage and just the overall feeling of being out in the open air. Also, I think somewhere close nearby, wood was burning, filling the area with a wonderful smell.

Nanjô-shi, literally “southern castle city,” is a relatively new city, formed through administrative reorganization of what had previously been some number of villages with actual history to their placenames. The history of Nanjô is more or less nil. But the history of Sashiki, the village within with the Shinzato neighborhood (where the performance was) lies, is a long and interesting one, with connections to some pretty major historical figures, including Shô Shishô, whose son Shô Hashi founded the First Shô Dynasty – and the united Ryukyu Kingdom – placing the father, Shô Shishô, on the throne in 1406.

A drunken Amawari dances with the two boys (nidô or nidû).

In any case, I’m not even sure what to say, except that this was a wonderful experience. The play, Nidû tichiuchi (二童敵討), is a very famous and popular one in the kumi udui canon, but is also thankfully quite short, meaning we got to listen to the whole thing before having to leave early. The story opens with the lord of Katsuren, Amawari (rendered as Amaohei in the play, as theatre is wont to do), boasting about the success of his scheme to engineer the destruction of his rival, Gosamaru, lord of Nakagusuku. He exits, and Gosamaru’s two preteen sons, Chirumachi 鶴松 and Kamiijû 亀千代, enter, talking about how they’ll avenge their father. They speak with their mother, who gives them each a short blade to tuck into their belt, and wishes them luck; they part sadly, knowing they might never see one another again. The two boys travel a long way, and eventually find their way to Amawari’s camp. The denouement is as classic as the overall framing of the rest of the short (45 mins or so) play: they present themselves as entertainers, and dance for Amawari, encouraging him and his men to drink and enjoy themselves. Amawari, enjoying the entertainments and feeling obliged by polite custom to reward the dancers with something in gratitude, gives them his swords, and then his fancy outer robes (which, I’m guessing, might be meant to represent armor) – had he been within his mansion, he might have gifted them other things, but as they found him outdoors, this was all he had on him to gift. The boys dance more, and a drunken Amawari joins them. Caught defensely and drunk, Amawari is driven off-stage by the two boys, who kill him (off-stage), and then return for a celebratory dance. The end.

Two of the actors being interviewed by Prof. Suzuki Kôta (far right).

All of the performers tonight were members of the Shii nu kai 子の会, a group of trainees at the National Theatre Okinawa, all of them men under age 30. They did an excellent job, really not amateurish at all. From the chanting to the dancing and stylized posing, to the music, it was really an excellent performance. Prof. Suzuki Kôta of Okinawa International University, an expert on kumi udui, gave a short talk, a Q&A session, really, before the performance, and then afterward was joined by two of the actors onstage for a second Q&A. I loved how this second Q&A revealed the real, human, personalities of the actors. In performance, they were stunning – seemingly perfectly practiced, expertly trained, professionally disciplined. But, to see them talk openly about how hot it is in the costumes, and how heavy the costume can be to wear; to talk about how this was only the third time Uehara-san had played Amawari, that he was used to playing other roles, and to see his gratitude and relief that it went so well, and that we enjoyed it; and also to see how nervous he was doing a Q&A like this – something he says he’s not at all used to – was in some ways perhaps even better than the play itself. Makes it so much more real, more relatable. These are young people, who’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours practicing their art, but who otherwise are not that different from you or I – young people with an interest in, a love for, traditional arts, and who get hot, or tired, or nervous, people who are just sort of trying their best and are genuinely happy when you say you’ve enjoyed it. People who rag on their friends, and also encourage and help one another out.

Hearing them chant those lines, in that particular kumi udui fashion – not quite singing, like in opera or a musical, but not just saying them straight either like in Western theatre, but really sing-chanting it, like in kabuki, Noh – just put such a smile on my face. I eagerly look forward to listening to a fuller performance at the National Theatre – with full backdrops and all the bells & whistles – but, after tonight, I dare say this feels more real, and that, sort of second best. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to listen to such a small, intimate, local performance.

For anyone interested in seeing (listening to) the whole play, a National Theatre performance of it is available on YouTube, with Japanese subtitles, in four parts:

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In my last post, I talked about visiting the Yonashiro History Museum, where they had on display some Roman coins uncovered in archaeological excavations at Katsuren castle.

After leaving the museum, I made my way to the castle itself, but first had to go find some lunch. This was my first time up to that part of the island, and walking around that section of Uruma City, I don’t know if I just was in the wrong part of town, or if I should have turned left when I instead turned right, but the stretch of road I ended up walking on was just amazingly devoid of any kind of café or restaurant that looked inviting at all. The local Uruma City tourist guide pamphlet I picked up at the castle listed all kinds of wonderful-looking vegetarian cafés and ice cream shops… looked very appealing. But these guides expected you to have a car. And while I certainly could have just taken another bus (still for free), I thought I’d just grab something quick, nearby. I found lots of “snack” bars – which might be just a sleazy townie dive bar, or might be a front for more illicit activities – and a few super-run-down-looking cafés or diners (shokudô), but nothing that looked at all welcoming or appealing. Finally, finally, after walking many blocks, I settled on eating at a Hotto Motto, a chain store selling premade bento boxes. *smh* One of the few days I’m off-campus, and out in a different town, really having the potential to be on vacation (kind of) for a day, to experience a nice local restaurant and maybe try some different foods, and instead I end up at a Hotto Motto.

Anyway, it was an interesting and valuable experience to see this one more corner, one more bit, of the kaleidoscope that is the “real” Okinawa. Really makes me wonder what the experience of everyday life is like there, and what it’s like to grow up there. And just how much of Okinawa prefecture (or even just of Uruma City) looks like this. Certainly, riding on the bus, looking out the window, things didn’t look so different from one city to the next. As we drove up into Okinawa City (formerly Koza), and then Uruma, I definitely had a feeling of excitement at visiting a different part of the island that I hadn’t been to before, and genuinely retained that excitement even despite the fact that everything looked pretty much the same…

The castle site itself was quite interesting, when considered in comparison to Nakagusuku, another major World-Heritage-Site-designated gusuku ruin from the same period, which I had just visited a couple weeks earlier. I was surprised at how small Katsuren was. I don’t know how big it is in terms of square hectares or whatever, or how tall; I have no doubt that it was a sizable and imposing compound in its time. But, while it may have simply been a result of entering via a side gate instead of a main gate, or something like that, Nakagusuku felt as though one had to double-back numerous times in order to make sure one had explored the entire compound. There were a lot of different areas, to put it quite simply. At Katsuren, by contrast, one simply entered at the fourth enclosure (or kuruwa), and walked up some stairs to a small area that constituted the third enclosure, then up a few more steps to the second enclosure, then up a few more steps to the first enclosure, and that was it. Done. You’ve seen the whole castle. And, each of the individual enclosures was also much larger at Nakagusuku.

That said, Katsuren provides I think a more direct, clearer understanding of the structure of a “standard” or “classic” gusuku, both in terms of the experience of the actual site, and because of the very nice model on display in the rest station across the street (right). I’m quite curious to visit Nakijin castle, as that’s the one that seems to get most often cited as emblematic of the standard form. But, this is seen at Katsuren as well.

A small first enclosure was the innermost part of the castle, the most well-protected by virtue of its location atop the hill, surrounded on all sides by either the second enclosure, or steep drop-offs. This would have contained the castle’s treasure houses, and at least one major sacred site. The second enclosure, a bit lower down the hill but still very well protected, was larger, and contained the main administrative buildings and lord’s residence. A narrow set of stairs connected the first and second enclosures, hindering invaders. The third enclosure, by contrast, is separated from the second by a series of very accessible, wide, steps, connecting the palace buildings in the second enclosure to plaza areas in the third, which would have been used for ceremonies and perhaps for other more “public” court events.

Stone foundations suggest the shape and scale of the structures that once stood in the second enclosure.

The third enclosure also included a number of water cisterns, and sacred sites. Following the fall of the castle in 1458, the third enclosure came to be frequented by noro and other local priestesses, who transformed the space into their own – a space for offerings, prayers, and rituals. The third enclosure is the last (or, I suppose the first, depending on how we’re counting) to be well above ground level and to have access protected by twisting and narrow stairways. The fourth is the “ground floor,” so to speak, of the castle compound, a wide extensive area, albeit still surrounded with stone walls, and guarded by heavy wooden gates which are no longer extant today. It was in this area, somewhere, that the Roman and Ottoman coins were found. Sections just outside the fourth enclosure would have included rice paddies and other farmland and swampland; as signs on-site explain, this not only helped supply the castle with food, but also served as a further defense against invaders, who would have had to plod through deep, wet, muddy ground.

Interestingly, unlike many Japanese castles we might visit, most of which took their well-known “Japanese castle” forms towards the very end, or even after, the period of warfare (Sengoku period, 1467-1600), and thus never actually saw serious siege or attack, Katsuren absolutely did. With all of these structural, geographical defenses, one can only imagine how the battle actually went, as the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom took the castle in 1458.

The main gate of Jingû-ji, as it appears from within the temple grounds, looking out.

After taking a second look around to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I called my visit to Katsuren done and successful. I then took the bus down to Futenma, so I could quickly pay a visit to Jingû-ji, the temple immediately next door to Futenma Shrine, which I missed when I went to visit the shrine. Not too much to say about the temple, I suppose. But, I do love and am still not tired of seeing the distinctive Okinawan architectural style – lighter wood than in mainland Japan, and the distinctive red roof tiles. When we remind ourselves that Ryukyu was once an independent kingdom, and we start to think not simply about regional variation within Japan, but about the ways in which different schools of Buddhism took on different forms in different places all across Asia – when we start to think of Okinawan architecture not as a variation within Japanese styles but as something to be compared against Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese styles, there’s something very interesting and powerful there, I think.

Anyway, with that checked off my list, I then started to make my way home, and ended up walking quite some ways, maybe about half the length of the main center of Ginowan Town, along the outsides of the fences of the Futenma Air Base. An interesting contrast with that one neighborhood near Katsuren – for all its problems, and I’m not saying Ginowan is the most happening and exciting city either, Ginowan felt more lively, more welcoming/appealing, and more upscale (though it would hard to not be more upscale than what I saw in Katsuren). Despite the length of the walk, it was surprisingly enjoyable, easy, and refreshing. I passed by lots of shops that looked kind of appealing… many of them quite clearly aimed at military folks as their market. Second-hand shops for clothes and for furniture (specifically American-style furniture), some nice-looking bars, some nice restaurants… closer to campus, further from the base, I found a cute little bakery with scones in all sorts of flavors (banana, green tea, earl grey). I’m really tempted, though it’s maybe a little embarrassing to admit, to try out the California-style Diner. Though maybe try to figure out some time to go when there’s no military around? Actually, that particular moment as I passed by that night, the place was empty…

And once I got my bike back – oh yeah, I locked my bike to a barrier on the side of the sidewalk in Ginowan all day while I rode the bus up to Katsuren. Thankfully, the police or someone didn’t confiscate it, and it was still right where I’d left it :) – I got my bike back, and was thinking of going to BookOff, but was already most of the way back to campus and didn’t feel like backtracking… but I found a great little soba shop on the side of the road! Sometimes you really can’t tell from the outside how nice a place might be on the inside. And by nice, to be clear, I don’t mean fancy – I just mean, it had a pleasant atmosphere. Brightly lit, colorfully decorated, with very friendly staff…

So, yeah, all in all, a rather successful day, I would say.

All photos my own.

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11/4/16

Thanks to the Uchinanchu Taikai, I had a bus pass for unlimited free bus rides all over the island, for nearly a full week after the Taikai ended. So I decided to try to make the most use out of it (well, for one day anyway) while I still could, and went up to Katsuren gusuku – about a one hour bus ride from here, a ride which would normally have cost around 1000 yen (US$10) each way. Saved quite a bit of money.

But before actually going to the castle, I first went to the Yonashiro History Museum. Why it’s Yonashiro and not Yonagusuku is a mystery to me, but in any case, this was a tiny local history museum based in one wing of the town hall. A few years ago, archaeologists working on the grounds of Katsuren castle found a number of coins, which in recent months they determined to be, most probably, from the circa 4th century Roman Empire. That would make these the only Roman coins ever found in Japan – speaking to the incredible maritime activity and connections of pre-modern Okinawa, long before the island ever became part of any Japanese state.

From Kôhô Uruma Magazine’s November 2016 issue:

(rough translation my own; apologies for any errors)

Coins from the Roman and Ottoman Empires discovered at Katsuren Castle

About the excavated coins: In the 2013 archaeological survey conducted at Katsuren castle, ten small, round, metal coins were discovered (nine within the grounds of the castle, and one outside). The metal objects discovered in the survey were brought back [to the research center], and when they were further examined, four were determined by experts’ analysis to be circa 4th century Roman coins, and one a coin made in the 17th century Ottoman Empire. However, as analysis continues, the possibility remains for a different result [to emerge].

The dates we are currently conjecturing for the production of these coins places all five outside of the 12th to 15th centuries, the period of Katsuren’s peak prominence. Continued examination of the Katsuren site, and of ceramics and other objects excavated there, [will hopefully provide some answers as to] why these coins were found there, and how they came to Katsuren.

Other examples of similar coins being discovered in Okinawa are unknown, and it is thought likely that this is the first discovery of similar coins [i.e. from the Roman Empire] anywhere in Japan.

It is thought there is a possibility that someone related to Katsuren castle and serving as some kind of point of contact between East and West obtained the coins somewhere, and as such this is a very important find for continuing research on [the extent and form of] Katsuren’s still largely unconfirmed networks of interaction & exchange. This can be seen as a significant development not only for the fields of Okinawan history or Japanese history, but also for those of the histories of Western Asia, or of the West, and as such for World History as a whole.

Plans from here on: The remaining five coins which have not yet been thoroughly identified will be cleaned, and the designs and inscriptions on them will be examined. Further, the sites that have been excavated, and the artifacts excavated from those sites, will be carefully examined, a more thorough analysis of the composition of the objects will be undertaken, and from this we plan to better determine the time and place when/where they were made.

The History and Archaeological Surveys of Katsuren Castle

Katsuren castle was built around the 12th or 13th centuries, and flourished in the 14th and [early] 15th centuries through overseas trade. The castle fell in 1458, as the tenth lord of the castle, Amawari, was attacked by the armies of the Shuri royal government [i.e. of the unified Kingdom of Ryukyu which ruled over the whole island] and was defeated. From then through roughly the 17th century, the castle was used by the local people in some fashion, but little is known about this period in any detail.

Excavations on the grounds were begun in 1965 by the Ryukyu Government Cultural Properties Protection Agency [part of the Okinawan civil self-government under US martial Occupation], and in 1972 [following the return of Okinawa to Japanese sovereignty] the site was named a National Historic Site. The site was named in 2000 as one of the sites included within the umbrella UNESCO World Heritage Site designation “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.” Today, the Katsuren Castle Site Maintenance Project receives funding from the Agency for Cultural Affairs [an agency within the Japanese national government], and the cultural office of the Uruma City Board of Education is overseeing archaeological excavations and restoration efforts. Excavation efforts began in earnest in 2012, with a focus on the fourth enclosure (the outermost of the castle’s four main enclosures, baileys, or enceintes, depending on one’s preferred term), and excavations of the eastern and northern portions of this area, and of the area immediately around the Nishihara Gate, were completed in 2015.

From my own notes, taken at the exhibition (if only they would have allowed us to take photos!! then I’d have the full gallery labels to look at again, and to take the time to translate them – I just didn’t have the time or patience to copy down everything by hand, on the spot):

Coin #2: seems to be from the Roman Empire, c. late 3rd century.

Coin #4: possibly from the reign of Suleiman II (r. 1687-1691) of the Ottoman Empire. The coin is labeled “Constantinople” in Arabic script, along with the date 1099 A.H. (=1687 CE).

Coin #5: seems to be a mid-4th century Roman bronze coin. Possibly inscribed “CONSTANTIVS”.

Coin #7: seems to be a coin issued on the occasion of the death of Constantine I in 337, thus making the coin’s date circa 337 to 340 CE.

Coin #8: seems to be from the period of shared/collaborative rule between Constantius Gallus and others, c. 337 to 340s or 350s CE. Researchers have noted similarities to a coin dated 347-348 CE and inscribed “CYZICVS.”

Other objects excavated from the castle site and displayed at the museum included Chinese coins from the Sui (581-618), Northern Song (907-1127), and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, as well as dice, hairpins, smoking pipes, elements of Japanese weapons & armor, and plenty of shards of pottery, including Chinese celadons and other luxury items from overseas.

I’m sorry that I don’t have more information… I shall certainly keep my eyes open for further news articles or the like.

Stay tuned for Part Two of this post, as I finish talking about my adventures of that day, at Katsuren castle, the surrounding neighborhood, and in Futenma/Ginowan on the way home.

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