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Jakarta

Well, I finished the PhD. Still a little hard to believe. Still not sure all the things and places I might need to change my bio, or do other things. Not to mention the fact that for the first time in years I don’t have a big ongoing project looming overhead. I still have plenty of different things I want to research and write next, but nothing I need to be working on right now.

Lots of thoughts, of course, forthcoming, on how I feel about leaving grad school. But before that, let me first see what I can say about one more place I was fortunate to visit this past year.

The Old City Hall of Batavia, now the Jakarta History Museum.

I was fortunate back in the summer of 2017 to participate in a Japan Foundation Summer Institute, in which they brought together graduate students and professors from the US, Japan, and various Southeast Asian countries, to have some professional/scholarly networking that we (i.e. especially those based in SE Asia) might not have access to otherwise. It was an incredible experience, which it would seem I didn’t blog about (then again, I don’t often blog about workshops, conferences, quite so much as I tend to blog about the travel surrounding them). In any case, while there I was encouraged to apply to present at the next Japanese Studies Association of ASEAN, which was to be held sometime in 2018 in Indonesia. Long story short, I did. The conference was held in Jakarta in early December 2018 (you can see how far behind this blog has gotten), and I got to go.

It was my first time in Southeast Asia, my first time in Indonesia. I had hoped (expected) to see a bit more wayang and gamelan – two of the chief traditional Indonesian art forms known worldwide – but as I have continued to learn since, Jakarta is just not the place for that. If I’d had more time (and money), Yogyakarta or Bali would I suppose have been better for that.

Perhaps the only gamelan I saw on the entire trip: on display at the Wayang Museum. Quiet.

The conference itself was pretty good. Got to see some old friends, met many new people. Heard some really interesting talks about Halal tourism in Japan, regional security issues, anime tourism, and other topics; very few talks on history or traditional arts/culture, which was a shame, but so it goes. Also finally got to see Regge Life’s film version of Ôshiro Tatsuhiro’s play “The Cocktail Party,” a play about sexual assault by US soldiers/Marines in Okinawa and the complicated relationships between Americans, Japanese, Okinawans, and Chinese living there.

And even though there was no gamelan, we did get to see Pepen U-Maku Eisa, an Okinawan eisa group from Jakarta, perform. Afterwards, I realized I had met some of them in Okinawa back in 2016!

Above: Statue of Jenderal Sudirman.

Before, during, and after the conference, I also got to explore Jakarta a little bit. Overall, I’m really not quite sure what to say of the city. Much of what I saw is quite run-down, either just in very poor condition or in the process of (re)construction, but then intermixed with brand-new, very shiny, construction. Just walking down the street from my hotel – a pretty nice hotel, certainly nice enough, not run-down at all – one walked past lots of construction, as they’re building new apartment buildings or hotels and a new subway line, but then also lots of just run-down whatever. The streets are packed with packs of scooters and motorcycles in amongst the cars, trucks, and buses – a far higher proportion of scooters/motorcycles than on the streets here; in fact, it seems the chief default mode for Uber/Lyft (or Grab, the native Indonesian version) is to ride on the back of someone’s bike, and that seems to have been one of the primary ways to get around – rather than by taxi – prior to the age of smartphones as well. But getting back to the walk, one walks past all this construction and run-down whatever, on the side of a very very busy road, an exceptionally urban space, eventually coming to a brand-new-looking, very shiny, very upscale, and massive shopping mall. Reminded me of the shopping malls in Istanbul.

The Istiqlal Mosque, largest mosque in all of Southeast Asia. A Brutalist, 1970s, eyesore.

This proved to be a pattern. Went out to check out the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest mosque in all of Southeast Asia, and found that it’s just a huge Brutalist concrete thing, lacking any of the elegance of, say, Hagia Sophia, or indeed of pretty much any of the other mosques I’ve visited. I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s beautiful on the inside – all the mosques I’ve visited in Turkey and elsewhere have been. But it was just way too crowded, so I didn’t feel comfortable trying to get inside. Just across the street is the Jakarta Cathedral, seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop of Jakarta. A gorgeous building, reflective of historical/traditional architectural styles.

Cafe Batavia, the second-oldest building on the square.

I also made my way on one of the days to Jakarta Old Town (Kota Tua), the center of the old Dutch city of Batavia. In terms of history, this was the highlight of the trip. Though the Batavia Museum and Wayang Museum were somewhat sparse, small, not too well-lit, not too well air-conditioned, and just overall a bit less modern, less upscale, however you want to say it, than museums I’ve seen elsewhere in the world, still it was a great opportunity to see some historical Dutch East India Company buildings in person, and to learn something about the local history. I took tons of photos of objects, displays, and explanatory plaques, as I always do.

While I would certainly be interested someday to learn more about Indonesia’s pre-colonial and post-colonial history – the histories of the various kingdoms and sultanates which played a role in the oh-so-vibrant maritime world of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, and the post-colonial modern history of this country – as an early modernist, and as a Japan specialist, it’s the Dutch East India Company which really attracts my attention. And Batavia was the center of that Company. I’m not sure how many of the buildings are original, but in this one spot, surely one of the chief tourist traps of the city, where one is bound to have one Indonesian student after another ask you to help them with their “interview a foreigner” English homework, the buildings are all organized around a central square.

A plaque inside the Wayang Museum summarizing the history of the Dutch Church which previously stood on the site.

The Wayang Museum (a small museum dedicated to Indonesian traditional puppet theatre) stands on the former site of the chief Dutch church, and the gravestones of a number of Dutch East India Company governor-generals are kept on display.

The Jakarta History Museum is housed in an 18th century Batavia City Hall, the oldest building in the square. And Café Batavia, a nice place with a combination of Indonesian and Western dishes, is housed in the second-oldest.

Above: a former lighthouse, now part of the Bahari Museum.
Below: inside the Bahari Museum.

I then took a walk a few blocks to the city’s maritime museum, Museum Bahari, housed in a set of old Dutch East India Company warehouses. This museum, like the last, is also not too well-maintained, well-lit, air-conditioned, whatever, by I guess big-city Western standards. But, hey, I don’t mean to expect too much. The content was pretty good – lots of models of ships, history of the port, etc. To be honest, it was a lot better than the first half of the Istanbul Naval Museum, which just displays the sultan’s fleet of pleasure craft, more a display of wealth or whatever than a real history museum.

But, the point being that the walk between these two spaces was, again, a taste of the “real” Jakarta. Tons of extremely run-down homes and shops, people selling live chickens on the roadside, crumbling sidewalks. Not to criticize, but just to give a sense. I suppose this probably isn’t too unusual throughout much of the developing world – brief spots of upscale, very new construction, surrounded by all the rest.

The view outside the Maritime Museum.

Now, this post is getting even more disjointed, but I’m going to share a story of my most adventurous day in Jakarta – an adventure which got me thinking about travel more broadly, and about how the more you travel, the more you come to realize just how familiar, understandable, navigatable, the world is. As wonderful and incredible as the diversity of our human world is, and even with it being my first time in SE Asia, and one of my first times in a developing country, as much as I definitely enjoy visiting new and different places, with their very different history and culture, still some things are shared in common all across the world.

One of numerous antiques shops along a small antiques-shops-street (I forget the name of the street :/).

Trying to get to Blok M Plaza shopping mall today in order to try to catch the eisa group’s rehearsal, I took a cab which, I don’t know if he was trying to scam me or something or if this was genuinely the best way there. But in any case, we ended up stuck in traffic amidst a massive crowd of soccer fans. Just huge. Continuing on for blocks and blocks. So I got out and walked, before the cab fare came to exceed the money I had. But I think my phone must have been dead. So I had little choice but to just walk…

I finally found a Circle K, and used the ATM, and then kept walking…

It’s funny, even halfway around the world, in a country so foreign so distant from what I have any familiarity at all with, some things are just inevitably just basic, I guess, to anywhere you go. This is a very poor country, and a relatively poor neighborhood compared to some I’d been in, and the process of crossing the street is different from what I’m used to. But still, a sidewalk is a sidewalk, and a train station is a train station. And so you walk. Just like I have done X number of times in Japan, or Okinawa, or Istanbul. Sometimes you even walk through neighborhoods that are especially rundown, and just so different in aesthetic and smells and sounds from what you’re used to – so different even from the more touristy parts two blocks over – but, no matter how unfamiliar, still, a street is a street. And so you walk. And so in this same way, I walked from the main square of Old Town Jakarta (ringed by museums, very touristy) to the Maritime Museum Bahari, in an old VOC warehouse a 15 min walk away, through neighborhoods of just shacks and ruins, giant piles of rusted chains for cars or something I guess, a bunch of guys sitting on the sidewalk managing birds and other animals in little bamboo cages, women behind counters selling bottles of soda, cigarettes, whatever else. And then a couple hours later, as I worked to make my way away from the football crowds, once again, I was passing by lengthy areas of “nothing.” But actually, as foreign as it may be, I don’t know the language, or the foods, or the customs, in a lot of ways it’s just no different from doing similarly in Naha or Fez or a half dozen other places. The next day, too, I walked down totally middle of nowhere feeling streets, with just totally local shops or no shops or just nothing I could really discern or interact with, and then what do you know, a Starbucks. Not that it has to be a recognizable brand name, but just…

The main square of old Batavia.

One thing I did notice in my exceptionally limited experience of Jakarta is that here and there throughout the neighborhoods I saw, there are plenty of very new-looking, nice-looking shops, cafes, restaurants, intermixed with the more run-down or just “nothing” sorts of areas. I feel like a lot of other places I’ve visited, there are the good neighborhoods and the bad neighborhoods, if I may – that’s not really exactly what I mean to say but I trust you take my point. There are the neighborhoods where you can go to find good cafes, brunch, a nice place to walk up and down and just shop or whatever, and then there are those neighborhoods where you won’t find anything like that. Here I could be totally wrong but from my very limited experience I feel like it’s much more interspersed, intermixed.

And eventually, you find tiny bits of things that are in fact familiar. Like Circle K, and Pocari Sweat. It is interesting – not too surprising I suppose maybe, but interesting, to see which brands exist here. Both in the main shopping mall and elsewhere I found many Japanese brands, not really Chinese or Korean ones I don’t think, and yes American brands or at least ones we’re familiar with in the States like H&M, but then also things like M&S, Topshop, British brands which I don’t think we tend to have so much of – if any at all – in the States. The Circle K (not sure if it’s a Japanese company or just also used to operate in Japan) carried a whole ton of drinks I didn’t recognize at all, plus Pocari Sweat. For example.

The view from inside my hotel room.

I don’t know if I just wasn’t noticing or recognizing the European or Chinese/Korean brands just because I’m not familiar with them and my eye catches on noticing those things that I am more familiar with. But, I dunno, I don’t think they were there as much. I don’t think they were. And they have Uniqlo and Coco Ichi and Marugame Udon, and H&M and Zara and… I dunno, whatever. Coffee Bean. Starbucks. In this age of globalization I’m not too surprised, but even so I am still surprised that it’s so much Japanese and British companies, and not so many I recognized as European or Asian. Watson’s – which I had never seen anywhere else outside of Turkey, and which turns out to be a Hong Kong company. (Yet, interesting that a Hong Kong-based company has no locations in Britain. Or maybe not so surprising?)

It’s a funny thing, coming to a place like Jakarta. Before coming, I had more or less no idea what to expect. It’s my first time in southeast Asia, my first time certainly in Indonesia. I had some sense of Indonesian music, Indonesian dress, and food, and a general idea that Jakarta is a huge big city, but probably pretty poor, … But I dunno, it’s hard to say, I guess I had some sense, but still felt really unknowing. Excited to experience a new place.

But now that I’m here, and I guess Morocco was kind of the same, I get a strong feeling of just, oh, okay, yeah, this makes sense.

I’m not sure what I think about that. It certainly does make world travel less exciting in a certain sense. When I went to Japan for the first time, *everything* was new and exciting. And now, I’m going to places like Morocco and Indonesia – I mean, wow, places so far beyond where I at 18 or 20 years old might have ever imagined I’d ever be traveling to, and I’m finding these places, well, certainly new and different, certainly worth visiting, certainly experiences I value, but at the same time, whether it’s because of my own experience in traveling or what, it’s just not that eye-openingly different I guess anymore. Of course, the flipside of that is that I *can* go halfway around the world, get lost, and be okay. Remain calm, know what to do, what to look for, how to manage myself. And that’s pretty awesome. Anyway, I dunno. This post has gone on long enough. I know it’s terribly disjointed, but it’s also six months late. I’m just going to leave it at that. Cheers. Construction along the street just outside of my hotel.

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A folding screen in the home of art collector Alex Kerr. I’m not sure exactly how it’s lit, but notice how the gold shines; it’s easy to imagine how this might have helped brighten a room when only natural light or candles were available.

In a recent article in the Nikkei Asia Review, Michael Dunn proposes that the lighting in Japanese museums is inexplicably arranged poorly, deadening the textures and reflectiveness of works and casting aspects of their shapes into shadow.

As he writes, Japanese art and design can be fascinating and enchanting in its myriad forms, from handscrolls and hanging scrolls to the most modern and postmodern designs. But that, according to him,

visitors to the country’s many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces.

At the core of his argument would seem to be simply that works are regularly lit from above and not from the side, despite the fact that traditional works were nearly always designed to be lit by incidental sunlight or fire-light from the side and not from overhead, and despite the fact that they would look better that way (in terms of the way the gold-foil would catch the light, etc.). I’ll be honest, I never paid attention really to how works were lit; definitely something to start thinking about. But I did notice when visiting the Getty Museum recently here in LA how much the gold accents in their illuminated manuscripts shone, so much more brightly and more noticeably than in most other exhibits I’ve seen. Lighting or other factors were used very successfully to highlight the presence of such features. I also remember photographing Japanese woodblock-printed books as an intern at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, and how we used various camera angles and other techniques to capture the reflectiveness of mica, silver, and other materials on the pages, which would not otherwise show up in photographs, making the attractiveness of these works more directly visible to (digital) viewers.

I’m kind of amazed that a publication like Nikkei Asia Review would publish such a one-argument article on such a technical, niche, sort of issue.But I’m certainly interested to read such things, as I have long been interested in these sorts of museum-world considerations. Dunn goes on to complain that whenever he has brought up this issue with Japanese curators, they have simply insisted that their lighting system was state of the art – the implication being that they either don’t understand why there should be any problem with lighting things in this way, or that they’re dodging the question.

Screen painting of Nagasaki harbor, at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). I have no idea if this is the best example, or how exactly this was lit, but notice how the gold seems flat, not shining at all. Perhaps this is what Dunn is talking about.

I think there’s a deeper and potentially quite interesting history to be uncovered here, which is going unspoken in this article. To what extent do display practices today in Japanese museums stem from the development over the last 120+ years or so of a particular modern tradition of museum practices, which is then adhered to? Regardless of how they were made, displayed, and viewed in the past, in the modern era it has come to be its own “tradition” that museum professionals always display folding screens /this/ way, and ceramics /that/ way, because that’s the right way, the professional way, the proper way, that museums do it. Something like that? And to what extent, I wonder, does this stem from the infiltration of Western ideas (or Japanese notions of/about Western ideas) of how art is to be displayed or appreciated?

One of the tokonoma at LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion, using natural light filtered through shoji screens to light the paintings. Not the most attractive photo, but…

In any case, with the example of gold-accented or gold-foil-backed paintings, “intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight — a magical property of gold — through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night,” there’s a give-and-take to be had, always. On the one hand, yes, lighting them more minimally so that the gold really shines, giving an impression of how they might have looked historically, is one way to go about it. Joe Price played some major role in having the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed to do just that. At LACMA, Japanese paintings are hung in (a modern stylized version of) the traditional tokonoma, and they are lit at least in part by sunlight filtered through white paper shôji screens. And it really is incredible to see such paintings in situ, at temples and palaces, to get a sense of how the artworks actually interacted with the space and with the people in it. This is part of what I love about certain works by Tim Screech, William Coaldrake, and others, who talk not just about the paintings themselves, their style, their composition, but about how works interacted with the environment around them. How they were used. To give one example, how fusuma and byôbu arranged behind or around a shogun or other lord within his audience halls augmented the sense of his prestige. But, this is an art museum, and as aesthetically impactful and intellectually meaningful as it would be to portray such things in limited lighting or even in an architecturally loyal manner, there will also be a great many visitors – from the most casual tourists to professional art historians – who will want to see the works as well-lit as possible, in as much detail as possible, so that they can appreciate the style, composition, and aesthetics otherwise of the object itself, in as fully visible a manner as possible.

I think that in museum display in general – whether in Japan or anywhere in the world – there is a balance to be struck between aesthetic impact (displaying things with a focus on their striking beauty) and other modes of display which might highlight the historical or cultural context, or which allow visitors to see the work more fully. There will always be multiple ways in which an object can be shown – as an aesthetic object vs. a practical one; emphasizing its original historical context vs. its provenance (the history of which/whose collections it’s been in); as a practical object vs. a religious/sacred one; as an object unto itself vs. as a part of a whole or of a grouping; and so on and so forth. There will always be visitors, scholars, trustees, and other “stakeholders” as they say, who will always want it to be some other way, but decisions have to be made, and you can’t please everyone. But, you can certainly give it consideration; and while most museum visitors might not think about it, lighting is most certainly one of those considerations.

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Fes, Day 2

The next day, Ahmed was nice enough to show us around a bit. He pointed out, right in the center of the Medina, a home where Moses ben Maimonides, also known as Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish philosophers of all time, once lived. Today, it’s a Chinese restaurant! Haha. He also took us inside Bouinania, one of two major madrasas in the medina where tourists are welcome to visit and see the intricate carvings and other features of classical Islamic architecture; there are only a handful of mosques in the entire country where non-Muslims are allowed to visit, so this is the closest we get. But it was beautiful. Between this and some of the other sites we’ve now seen – as well as from just walking around the streets – I really begin to understand why Art History textbooks often focus so much on mosaics and on doors. At least here in Morocco – I don’t know about the rest of the Muslim world – these really are the things that catch the eye; the places where ornamentation and attention is placed. Ahmed also took us to see a bronze worker, see a little bit of how these beautiful plates are decorated, extensive intricate patterns chiseled into them tiny bit by bit, by hand. Really incredible.

We then also got to see the Tanneries, where they make leather by traditional handmade methods. The place is terribly smelly. We got a view of it just from above, from a nearby rooftop. They bring in skins from outside of the city by donkey, and then treat the skins in various different ways, in different vats, scraping the wool and meat off, treating it in vinegar and pigeon droppings and other natural materials to get it to the right texture and strength and whatever, and use a giant wooden barrel, which looks like a waterwheel, as a pre-industrial-style washing machine, to wash the leather. Finally, another set of vats are used to fix colors into the leather, using a variety of plant dyes and other natural colors. Cochineal for red, indigo for blue, saffron or turmeric for yellow. Apparently goat skin is the softest and nicest; sheep skin doesn’t hold color quite as well, and it fades over time. Camel leather is quite rough, but is very much a thing. Makes me wonder how common camel leather (or imitation camel) is back home, because now that I’ve seen the real thing, I feel like I’ve seen it before.

A bunch of fortresses or walls are visible up in the hills in the distance, along with the tombs of the Merinid Kings. I don’t know if we’ll make it out to them. (In the end, we didn’t.)

Finally, Ahmed took us to two shops run by his friends, to see if Simone could get her hands on some music CDs. Tiny little shops that I don’t think we’d ever have found on our own, way down a ton of winding winding streets… It’s weird, on the one hand, whenever anyone leads us anywhere it feels like it takes forever, down a gazillion turns. But then, once we’ve gotten there, there’s somehow this sense that surely it can’t be that hard. Surely, if we just walked down the main street and made just a couple of turns off, here or there, we’d find it, right? I don’t know. But, in any case, we did find one shop where this guy just burned custom CDs of whatever from his massive digital library. Personally, I would have liked to have some nice cover art and insert booklets – or at the very least to have a track listing with artists and song titles, instead of just somebody’s rough scrawl “Arabic music,” as generic as can be. But, then, I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling, and doing ethnographic work or whatever one wants to call it; you end up collecting all sorts of things – cassettes, LPs, not just commercial CDs.

I’m also still trying to think about just how cheap it is to be here. For example, that one fellow charged us $4 per CD he burned; certainly quite cheap compared to $15-20 at Best Buy or whatever back home, but when you buy 10 CDs, you’re still paying $40. Not exactly just pocket change. On the other hand, we found some shoes for 20 dirham a pair – about $2; certainly an exceptional deal compared to anything. Even (knockoff?) Converse for 100 dirham ($10) is also a great deal. We also had a nice post-Ramadan break-fast buffet for 50 dirhams ($5) each – a steal. But, then a lot of the other places we went were still charging around $7-10 for a sandwich, another $2 for a bottle of water, soda, or tea, $18 for a bottle of wine; and there are places we went where a full multi-course prix fix dinner was anywhere from $30 to $50-60. So, again, it’s not like pennies a day. And, as for the hotels, to stay somewhere really nice for $30 or $50 or $70 a night is a wonderful treat, especially when the prices of hotel rooms in the US are so bloatedly overpriced (I have found tons of places to stay in Tokyo and all over Japan for $30-50/night, but even motel rooms in the middle of nowhere in the US it can be difficult to find anything decent for less than $80-100 in my experience), but even so, $50-70/night is still a not insubstantial amount. I hear rumor there are places in the world one can visit where it really is ten dollars a day, or whatever it may be, including the lodgings. Morocco is pretty cheap, but it’s not that cheap. All in all, I don’t actually know precisely how much I spent in total on our Morocco trip, but it certainly wasn’t an entirely insignificant amount.

In any case, Ahmed introduced us to another place, Restaurant Batha, where they had a single oud player, quieter and tamer than the show the first night. Actually, it was a bit hard to hear. But at least it was a bit more well-attended, and thus less awkward. Similarly beautiful, expansive, space. I wonder if maybe we’ve hit the quiet season. Maybe during other times of the year these places really are full and bustling. I hope so.

Of course, during our time here, we’ve had our fair share of haggling and harassment. You can’t even look at something without someone coming up and trying to sell it to you. And sometimes they’re really persistent – Simone pointed out a pair of shoes I might like, in a neat cerulean sort of color. But even after we pretty quickly determined that they didn’t have that color in my size, the kid just kept trying to insist that the shoes could be made smaller if you put insole inserts in, and that I should just have a seat and try it on, try it on again, this color, that color…. And a couple of times we were taken in by people who brought us back to their other shop, or their other other shop, sometimes way down a whole series of winding streets such that we’d never find our way back on our own… and then once you finally get there, you learn that the ceramic bowls aren’t 2 or 3 or 5 dollars each, but are actually $28 (but are actually only $4 or $5 if you can haggle your way down to it – $28 isn’t really a real price)… and it just takes so long, and so much back and forth, trying to haggle down and trying to just get out of there. I hate it. And then, you have all the people who invite you into their shop for a cup of tea, or offer to show you around to wherever you want to go, and the next thing you know you’re in a situation where you really feel like in order to be polite you have to give them something, or to at least hear them out, or at least give their wares a try…. and so you’re there even longer….

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Akamine Mamoru – “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia”, translated by Lina Terrell, edited by Robert Huey

The first overview of Ryukyuan history in English since George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People, this is a most welcome publication. I have not read the original Japanese version, and so I cannot speak to how much it has been changed, but I am overall quite happy with this new book.

Though I expected it to address just one aspect of Ryukyuan history, serving as only one argumentative/interpretive piece of the scholarly tableau of Ryukyuan history alongside works by Tomiyama, Watanabe, Smits, Takara, Kamiya, and so many others, it really does serve as an introductory overview of the entire history of the kingdom, from the Gusuku period (roughly, 9th to 14th centuries, when elites and eventually “kingdoms” first began to emerge, before being unified under a single Ryukyu Kingdom) all the way up to the abolition of the kingdom in the 1870s, though it focuses most strongly on the early modern period (1609-1870s) and on relations with China over those with Japan. I have not had a chance to read the entire book through, and so I cannot say definitively what the book as a whole includes and what it overlooks, but generally it does seem an excellent overview, touching upon domestic developments, political relationships with China and Japan, Ryukyu’s prominent place in regional trade networks, and so forth.

I actually really appreciate this focus on relations with China. Any choice that an author makes, to emphasize connections with China over those with Japan, or vice versa, is a political choice. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and is much more nuanced and complex than perhaps any one publication could ever really convey. So, you have to choose. The same is true for the choice to emphasize the integrity of “Ryukyu” as a unitary and cohesive political, social, economic, or cultural entity over its disunity and diversity, or the other way around. So, perhaps the best we can do is to keep putting out works that illuminate or highlight one side of it, one aspect, and just keep re-balancing, and further complicating, further nuancing, further (re-)correcting the narrative that emerges in aggregate.

For a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the Ryukyu Islands are today part of Japan, their connections to Japan have always been strongly assumed, emphasized, and discussed. And there is certainly validity to that – Ryukyuan culture (esp. folk culture, rather than elite/court culture) in many key respects originates fundamentally, in prehistoric times, from the same “Japonic” wellspring as Japanese culture. The language bears much in common with classical Japanese, the folk religion and folk customs otherwise bear much in common with those of Japan, and the occasional Chinese official’s assertion that Ryukyu “belongs” or “belonged” to China historically is a load of hogwash. But, this association with Japan being the dominant assumption, there is great value in explicating, or illuminating, Ryukyu’s own separate distinctive history, and its history of connections to China. In that respect, it makes me want to read more of Akamine’s work (and that of others, such as Watanabe Miki).

Speaking of the early modern section, which I focused on in my reading, I was quite happy to see Akamine discuss domestic, internal developments within the Kingdom, and to devote an entire chapter to “Reform and Sinification of the Kingdom.” Smits touches upon this, to be sure, but while it might be just the bias formed by what I have been choosing to read in order to research my own topic (and what I have not been reading), I feel as though there is so much debate and discussion about how we talk about Ryukyu’s relationships with China and Japan, and some of the internal developments drop out. This past year, as a visiting researcher at the University of the Ryukyus, I heard professors and grad students from time to time mention the gradual but significant Sinification of the kingdom over the course of the 17th to 19th centuries, shifts and changes in ritual practices, and so forth, as if this was already well-known and established. Well, maybe it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to reading the full-length monographs by Tomiyama, Takara, Watanabe, and others (because they’re lengthy, time-consuming, and intimidating, hundreds of pages in Japanese), but I just never felt I had come across any real explanation of this. So, I am very pleasantly surprised to see it articulated by Akamine. He also touches upon the introduction of feng shui into the kingdom, and into the organization and layout of Shuri castle, another of a handful of topics simply not explicated in other books or articles I’ve happened to read.

It’s really a great book, and I am glad to see the English-language coverage of Ryukyuan history expanding.

My only critiques are a few small points about language, which caught my eye.

To begin, I am still very much struggling with decisions to make in my own work as to how to represent names, places, titles, and other specialty terms, whether
(1) in an Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi) reading, which might arguably be the most accurate, and would help disrupt the assumption that the Japanese readings of these terms, imposed following Japan’s annexation of the islands and forced assimilation policies in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, are the natural and default readings,
(2) in a Japanese reading, as is standard in both English- and Japanese-language scholarship, and would serve purposes of clarity and consistency, or
(3) in a Chinese reading, as might be more accurate in many cases, but for which I just don’t know the truth.

I had drafted quite a few paragraphs trying to address this issue in my review of this book, going back and forth about a lot of different aspects of this issue, but if anything I think that merits a separate blog post of its own. So I think I’ll skip that mini-rant for now, and just say that I applaud Terrell and Huey’s choice to give Ryukyuan individuals’ Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin. Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats often had multiple names, going by an Okinawan/Japanese style name in some contexts, and a Chinese-style name in others. For example, the great educator, scholar, and official generally known as Tei Junsoku 程順則 was alternatively known as Nago ueekata Chōbun 名護親方寵文 (or, I suppose, in Okinawan, something more like Nan ueekata Chūbun?). Yet, while he’s very well-known today as Tei Junsoku, one wonders if he ever went by that name, or if he and others pronounced it in a Chinese fashion, as Chéng Shùnzé. Throughout the volume, Terrell and Huey give these Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin; I don’t know if Ryukyuans genuinely pronounced them in Chinese,1 or in Japanese or Okinawan readings, but if the former is historically accurate, I think it’s excellent to push against the Japanization of these Chinese-style names, and to introduce readers to thinking about these people by the non-Japanized, pinyin, readings of their Chinese-style names. I just wish I knew if it was accurate.

Now, I must admit I cannot speak to the quality of the translation overall, as I have not read the original Japanese version of the book. However, if I have one criticism of the book, it is an under-critical use of terminology, including the Japanese readings and meanings of terms, here and there. To be honest, this only glared out at me a few times, but where it did, well, ideally it shouldn’t happen even once.

I am surprised to find that Akamine himself – a native-born Okinawan scholar dedicated to the study of the Ryukyu Kingdom as a separate polity from Japan, or from Japanese history, and someone who did much of his graduate work at National Taiwan University, and not in Japan – would be so uncritical of Japanese perspectives or assumptions. Then again, perhaps this is more a matter of the translators/editors’ approaches. Or perhaps it’s just an accident or oversight. With apologies to nitpick on one thing, I do think this is of importance:

To note just one example which stuck out to me: on p80, they discuss the use of the term shi 士 (C: shì) to refer to the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocracy. Using that character to refer to the scholar-aristocracy is, so far as I know, accurate. I think, if I remember correctly, that term does appear frequently in the primary sources. However, the book then spends a good number of lines both in the main text and in the endnotes talking about how this term means “warrior,” and explaining how the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats were not, in fact, a warrior class. Now, I may be wrong, and if I am please do let me know, but my understanding is that the character 士 only has that “warrior” meaning in Japanese because it was appropriated by the samurai class in order to represent themselves as cultured, refined, elites. In Chinese, and in the context of Confucian discussions of the meaning of the term, it does not refer to a warrior (武士, J: bushi), but to a scholar-gentleman (君士, C: jūnshì), which it seems to me is precisely how the Ryukyuans were using it. So, in short, it is surprising to me that Akamine, and/or Terrell and Huey, find themselves tripping over untangling the word from its Japanese meaning, when they could have just skipped that entirely – or could have more explicitly stated that the association of this term with warriors, and thus the mistaken assumption that Ryukyu had a samurai (or samuree) class, is a mistaken understanding based on an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the meaning of the term 士 as referring (even from the very beginning, in the Analects of Confucius themselves) to an educated, cultured, well-mannered, scholar-gentleman.

On a somewhat similar note, likely in large part because it’s a translation of a Japanese work, and not originally written in English, the text does not engage with its own choices of terminology. For example, while Akamine describes out the character of Ryukyu’s relationships with Japan and China, how the kingdom was more directly impacted by Japanese rules and regulations, while on the Chinese side it was a more purely ceremonial and cultural (+economic) relationship – though he does do a good job of describing out this complexity, still the book calls Ryukyu a “vassal” of Japan and a “vassal” of China, without touching at all upon the questions of what we mean by “vassal,” “Japan,” and “China.” (p82-83) Earlier in the book, too, the term “client-state” is used without any discussion of the implications of that term. What is meant by “client-state”? How is this different from “vassal”?

So, those are my quibbles with a few language issues. But, overall, this really is a great book; I’m glad to see a new survey of Ryukyuan history out there on the shelves, and one which explores and explains quite a few aspects of the history not well-explained elsewhere in the very few other English-language books on Ryukyu. Glad to have finally gotten my own copy, and to add it to my shelf. Looking forward to Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, which promises to add to this story further.


1. And, of course, once you start getting into language issues, you start getting into issues of historical language as well. Of course, Ryukyuans in the 17th century didn’t actually pronounce anything according to modern 21st century Mandarin, Japanese, or Okinawan. And even if we did take the bother to try to represent these things in accurately early modern Beijing, Edo, or Naha-Shuri pronunciations (which is a nearly impossible task), this still wouldn’t properly take into account whether they might have spoken Fujian, Kagoshima, or other dialects. The issues are endless.

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Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

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Lost in the Shuffle

The WordPress App for iOS formerly had a terrible glitch to it that if you lost internet connection (e.g. going into a tunnel) while saving/uploading a blog post, the post would get “stuck” in a “currently uploading” status, and could not be edited, retrieved, re-saved, retried, or anything. It would just be “still uploading” forever.

Fortunately, the bug has been fixed in the newest update. Thus, a blog post I wrote back in July became once more accessible and editable for me, and so I posted it today.

If you are interested, please jump back a couple months, and check out my newly posted & backdated blog post about two films I saw at Japan Society’s “Japan Cuts” film festival: Ogigami Naoko’s “Rent-a-Cat” and “Ushijima the Loan Shark.”

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I’ve been taking a course on research methods in Japanese sources this term. It’s amazing the resources out there that one would never otherwise know about…

(1) Union Catalogue of Early Japanese Books (日本古典総合目録)

I never suspected that such a database existed, so accessible and easily searchable. Looking for a kabuki play? a samurai clan’s records? records of the trade at Nagasaki? an Edo period novel? You can search for it here, and find out which libraries have handwritten manuscript copies (写本), and which compilations or anthologies contain a modern typed up (活字) copy.

It’s pretty incredible. All these things which I never thought I’d ever be able to find, suddenly available (almost, not quite) at my fingertips.

I searched for Gosannen Ôshû Gunki, a kabuki play composed in 1879 for the special occasion of a visit by former US president Ulysses S Grant to Japan. Performed only once, so far as I knew, I assumed that there was no written record of the script – kabuki, so far as I was told, never tended to keep scripts, the plays being pretty fluid, changing a bit every time they are performed. But, search for it I did, and there it was: original (woodblock?) printed copies in numerous libraries, including Tokyo University, Kyoto University, Waseda University, Geidai (aka Tokyo Univ of the Arts), the National Diet Library, and the collection of Shôchiku (the kabuki production company). And! a typed version of the document available in an anthology called 続帝国文庫並木宗輔浄瑠璃集 (zoku teikoku bunko Namiki Sôsuke jôruri-shû; Collection of Jôruri plays by Namiki Sôsuke, Imperial Archives, continued). Finding that anthology might not be the easiest thing to do, but, for a document I suspected never even existed to begin with, that’s really something.

(2) Want to read a certain Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if an English translation exists, what it’s called, or who it’s translated by? Want to translate and seek to publish a Japanese story or novel, but aren’t sure if someone’s beaten you to it?

日本文学翻訳書誌検索 (Japanese Literature in Translation Search), powered by the Japan Foundation, is another very interesting and useful database.

You can choose from a great many languages, not just English, and search by Japanese author, title, publication year and/or keywords, and find whether the book in question has been published in translation.

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