Kumi Udui & Gamelan

I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

Returning to posting about my adventures in Okinawa this summer: After our half-day tour to Mabuni and Shuri, the East-West Center conference also included a one-day bus tour trip to Ryukyumura and the Ocean Expo Park.

I struggle for what to call Ryukyumura (“Ryukyu Village”). Many sites call it a “theme park,” and to be sure, it has all sorts of theme park style elements. You can get your picture taken in a variety of traditional Ryukyuan royal or aristocratic court costumes, try your hand at making pottery shisa, meet a water buffalo, and watch regular dance performances in the park’s main plaza that are not entirely different from what one sees at Disney. It’s traditional eisa costume, and standard classic or folk music and dances, so they absolutely are displaying “authentic” classical and folk culture, but they also have park staff dressed up as the king and queen… which is certainly neat for getting a sense of what the king and queen might have worn, and, actually, a sense that much of Okinawan classical and folk music and dances known today evolve to one extent or another out of entertainments specifically restricted to the royal court, but still one cannot avoid the theme park vibe, at least to some extent.

But, even so, in some very important senses, it’s really more of an open-air architectural museum, or historical museum park. Many of the buildings in the park are genuine historic buildings, re-moved to the park. So, you’re looking at genuine homes from various different islands or parts of the islands, and from different social classes. And many of them have displays demonstrating various aspects of traditional/historical folk culture, from sanshin music and textile weaving, to goat products and traditional sugar-cane processing using water buffalo labor.

Rooftops of some of the structures in the park.

I was actually particularly interested to see all these great historical buildings. While I love that Naha has a considerable degree of the aesthetic, with many buildings having either genuine red clay pottery roof tiles, or emulations of it in other materials, so much of the island was razed in 1945, that I can’t imagine any authentically historical buildings survive within the city, and very few if any have been reconstructed other than at the castle site. So, since I have yet to go to the Nakamura house in Nakagusuku, or to any of the other islands, and since there certainly aren’t any courses or books on Okinawan architecture that I’ve come across in English (with the exception of the gorgeous, thorough, but terribly expensive multi-volume bilingual Okinawa bijutsu zenshû – Okinawan art complete collection), it was really great to get a sort of crash course on Okinawan architecture, and so first-hand, in person.

The Ôshiro House at Ryukyumura, an example of a residence of one of the highest-ranking aristocrat families. Originally built in Shuri by the Yonabaru family.

Many of the homes are registered tangible cultural properties – just one level or so down from Important Cultural Properties, making them, really, in a way, elements of an Okinawan architecture canon. These are the famous buildings people might typically cite as the key surviving examples of historical/traditional Okinawan architecture. The park includes storehouses, a stone pigsty, and, alongside a number of other middling-elite style homes, the Ôshiro house, which was originally built as the home of one of the most powerful scholar-bureaucrat-aristocrats in the kingdom – a member of the Sanshikan.

At Ocean Expo Park: The gate to the house of a jitôdai (O: jitudee), a middle-ranking court aristocrat assigned to the administration of a district within the kingdom. Unlike the jitô who they reported to, and who resided in the royal capital of Shuri, a jitôdai actually lived out in the district to which he was assigned; this house might therefore be the grandest house in the district, or at least the most Okinawan in style (as compared to the local architecture of that island).

To my surprise, the Ocean Expo Park, which we visited later in the day, and which I’ll talk about at a little more length in a separate post, has a wonderfully complementary collection of historical buildings. While Ryukyumura definitely wins for having genuinely historical buildings, since those at Expo Park are (I think?) just modern reproductions, Expo Park has the advantage of showing a much broader variety of types or styles of homes. Between the exhibits at Ryukyumura, the Prefectural Museum, and elsewhere, it can be very easy to think that these beautiful wooden homes, with tatami floors and red tile roofs, are the standard, typical, historical form going back centuries. But, looking at the buildings at Ocean Expo Park, we quickly get the impression that during the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, all the way up until the 1870s or so, this style of home was restricted to only the elites, and that it was only after the fall of the kingdom that this style spread and became more widely common.

A typical farmhouse from the Motobu area, in northern Okinawa Island, at the Ocean Expo Park.

Instead, we are shown farmhouses from Okinawa Island, as well as from other more distant islands (such as Yonaguni), that not only have thatched roofs, but are built chiefly from bamboo, with thin twigs of bamboo tied up together to form walls and floors… it’s a very different look, and a very different feel, from those post-kingdom and elite homes. And, while I am of course hesitant to jump to conclusions about assuming that Ryukyuan anything should be indicative of Japanese history, one cannot help but wonder if there might have been similar differences in mainland Japan. What sorts of historical buildings have I actually seen in Japan? When I’ve seen farmhouses at open-air architecture museums, were these Meiji/post-Meiji farmhouses? Or genuinely what Edo period farmhouses would have looked like? Did farmhouses in Edo period Japan have wooden floors? Tatami? Or were they in one way or another as dramatically different from the samurai homes (and urbanite merchants’ machiya “townhouses”, geisha houses, and other things I’ve seen) as these bamboo thatched huts are from the more elite Ryukyuan homes?

Call it a theme park, or whatever you’d like, but this actually really gave me a lot to think about in terms of imagining what Ryukyuan architecture, and town/villagescapes would have looked like, in the early modern period.

My blog post from last year, “K-Pop and an Alternate Masculinity” is one of my most-viewed. I guess it’s a really popular topic, not just because of K-Pop, but hopefully too because of interest in alternate masculinities and gender issues.

Left: Lee Taemin from the boy group Shinee, in last December’s Vogue Girl.

At least one commenter on that post was kind to take the time to explain that there’s another side to this – that despite the fashion and such within these music videos, and despite whatever we might be able to say about alternate masculinities (the beautiful, soft, boy who’s physically intimate with his friends, even while being cis-het, yet at least at the same time being quite different from the standard macho bro, or other “mainstream” versions of ideal masculinity as constructed within Western culture/society), this is not an indication of any level of acceptance of any gender identities or sexual orientations beyond cis-het in South Korea.

Meg Ten Eyck, in an article last week in Posture Mag entitled “Is KPop as Queer as it Appears to be?: Androgynous Fashion, Fan Service, and Boy Love in Korean Pop Culture,” explains out a bit more starkly, and in more detail, South Korean attitudes about LGBTQ and gender identities. And what she portrays is rather discouraging, even disturbing, saddening. Even those people who do identify as LGBTQ (how did Eyck find them?) don’t do so too publicly, and apparently coming out even to your parents is so taboo, so not thought of, that some of the people interviewed even laughed at the idea. Eyck writes:

Siwon Choi engages in graphic boy love fan service, including stroking and kissing his male band members while shirtless on stage and making out with fellow band members. Essentially Choi, and other artists are claiming that their androgynous style and boy love fan service is acceptable because it’s driving sales of their albums and merchandise. However, if someone proclaims their identity as a queer person and engages in the same behaviors, the majority of Koreans would not support them.

This certainly complicates the issue, and I’m not entirely sure what to say. Can we really not, as a society (as any society, American, Korean, or otherwise), have a more pleasant balance, accepting alternate gender identities and sexualities in a fuller spectrum? In the United States, LGBTQ rights, equality, continue to make progress, and to find growing acceptance (though of course some very serious problems still continue as well), even as the kind of things we see in K-pop remain almost entirely absent, and suppressed, excluded, from mainstream pop culture; and meanwhile, in Korea we see guys on TV, in music videos, in posters, etc., with all kinds of soft, sweet, baby faces, wearing makeup and jewelery and fashion and dyed pink hair, caressing even kissing one another – but any actual, real, admission of queer identity is all but unheard of, and all but unaccepted. Here’s hoping that both of our societies can get it together and see some expansion of acceptance in the coming years.

Hōkūleʻa, a modern-day recreation of a traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe, such as those the Polynesians first used to explore the Pacific, discover islands, settle them, and then travel between them in complex interconnected trading & cultural networks.

In many parts of the country, “Columbus Day” is now celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day, Native Americans Day, or the like, and in many other parts, there are people pushing that it should be. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful idea, and a wonderfully progressive act, to establish such a day. But, are there potential discursive or symbolic problems with the government establishing such a day?

I guess I’m kind of of two minds on this. On the one hand, I do appreciate King Kamehameha Day and Prince Kūhio Day, acknowledging and recognizing great people and the distinctive history of Hawaiʻi, and especially in the case of the former, continuing the observation of an official national holiday declared by the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. And, in that respect, the official government acknowledgement of the Native Americans could be rather meaningful, in a particular political/discursive sort of way.

But then, on the other hand, as for the “holiday” itself, given that Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, are all for most people so much more about simply having a day off from work, and about mattress sales, than about the actual people being honored/remembered, well, having an Indigenous Peoples Day just really seems an empty gesture to me. Does it do honor to Indigenous Peoples, their history, and their heritage, to take off from work, and enjoy mattress sales in their name? Does it do right to honor Indigenous Peoples in the most sterile and bureaucratic way imaginable, with some kind of congressional resolution number blah-blah-blah section something-something, creating a bank holiday that will exist more within official government calendars than anywhere else, which is more an empty gesture of an official acknowledgement than any kind of actual cultural observance?

Perhaps more importantly, is it right to declare such a day, and allow our lawmakers to pat themselves on the back (and, to pat ourselves on the back) for doing such a great thing by more officially recognizing, honoring, celebrating, Native Americans’ history and culture?

I won’t pretend I came to thinking about this on my own. To give credit where credit is due, it was a Facebook status update by self-described Native American activist Juliana K’abal Xok, shared by a friend, which got me thinking about it. She writes:

I would like settlers not to be so quick to pat themselves on the back for renaming Columbus Day into Indigenous Day, or posting anti-Columbus memes. Those are merely symbolic gestures. How are you confronting the ignorance and bias of the educational curriculum, the collective societal amnesia? Do you even know whose ancestral lands you occupy?

And, quoting Dakota professor and activist Waziyatawin,

“Decolonization is the intelligent & active resistance to the forces & the impacts of colonization & it’s working towards liberation of indigenous peoples…. So if you are not actively working toward the liberation of indigenous people, as indigenous people or as settler people, then you’re not doing decolonizing work.”

Much thanks to Flickr user kalihikahuna74 for making this photo Creative Commons. Despite three years in Hawaiʻi myself, I guess I never anticipated wanting/needing a photo of street signs.

The whole thing reminds me of an article entitled The Aloha State: Place Names and the Anti-Conquest of Hawaiʻi, in which RDK Herman discusses why and how it is problematic to apply Hawaiian words and names to street names, an act as symbolic and ultimately insufficient as establishing some Native Americans Day. It serves as an appropriation of Hawaiian culture by haoles and others, who take the lead in choosing to rename streets and in choosing what to rename them.

It is from this article that I got my impression, my understanding, of the scholarly jargon term “anti-conquest.” The anti-conquest of RDK Herman, at least as I understood it, is an act, or series of acts, which give the illusion of giving something back, of doing something to honor the indigenous peoples, and to restore something to them, while in fact doing nothing to actually restore sovereignty to those peoples, nor to relinquish the real power that resides in unequal colonial power structures.1 And in a way, this is even more insidious than simply not taking the action at all, because it helps hide, cover over, and ignore the unequal power structures and colonial violence of the situation; surely, we can imagine parallels to the many things said and done that give the illusion of being (in some ways, or to some extent) a post-racial society, or a gender-equal society, hiding the deep and serious inequalities that continue.

I certainly must admit I am as guilty as the next person of reveling in the feeling of the exoticness of Hawaiʻi, of enjoying living somewhere with such a different heritage, with such a different spirit, and the placenames play a big part in that. As Herman writes,

The English-speaking population of the ‘Aloha State’ appreciate an identity of ‘otherness’ in their exotic new home with a place-name code partially meaningful within Hawaiian culture itself, and partially meaningless. Seemingly honoring Hawaiian culture, this use of place names continues to serve the transformation of power and place that ensued with the discursive and economic reordering of the islands.

And I cannot but admit that I certainly don’t do all that much, could be doing a lot more, to be “actively working toward the liberation of indigenous people” as Waziyatawin encourages us to do. But, at the very least, let us not stand behind such a meaningless, and ultimately problematic, gesture as Native Americans Day. Let it not be something empty and artificial handed down by decision of a secular government – and especially by the very government which is so culpable in the dispossession of these peoples of their lands – decolonization efforts should be real decolonization efforts, and they should be something that is not handed down, granted as if a gift from up on high, thus reinforcing the power structures of that we have the power to do so, the power to grant freedoms, but rather, somehow, something that comes from a place of indigenous authenticity and indigenous authority.

(1) As I began to Google for the term in the course of writing this article, I discovered that there is actually a lot more to the term “anti-conquest,” as used by Mary Louise Pratt and others; in their work, it refers more strongly to systems of attitudes about colonialism/imperialism which render the colonizer as innocent. In her book Imperial Eyes, Pratt writes “I use this term to refer to the strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony” (8-9). Later, she talks about how Europeans saw any/all parts of the world not controlled by Europeans as part of “nature”; this alone, without even taking any colonizing or conquering action, is terribly discursively violent and chauvinistic, placing Europeans as the only rational, civilized peoples, and grouping all other peoples in with the animals, essentially, but all at the same time, from within that discourse, if one is raised and educated to believe in this system of civilization & nature, then it all seems quite natural and innocent. And this is certainly not the only discursive system in our history, or in our society today, which we are raised to believe is perfectly “natural,” not realizing the violence it does, or the injustices it perpetuates. So, perhaps this is what is meant by “anti-conquest,” in Pratt’s meaning, which I take as somewhat different from Herman’s

Many dictionary websites meanwhile, such as Wiktionary, have a rather different definition, conflating it with anti-colonial, anti-imperialist attitudes, and defining it as meaning “opposing a conquest; regarding the indigenous inhabitants of a colonised country as victims rather than foes of the colonisers.”

In the process of writing up these last few posts on my wanderings around Naha and Shuri, I came across a few really shiny, sleek, websites which I’d never seen before. I wouldn’t say they’re an absolute /wealth/ of information on the historical sites of these two cities, but they’re certainly examples of beautiful web design, and a hell of a lot more than I’d expected to find. Both, I’m afraid, are mostly in Japanese, though.

First is the official website of the Naha City Museum of History. I don’t know if this site is new… in the past, whenever I tried to find a website for the museum, all I found was this rather basic page within the website of the Palette Kumoji shopping center where the museum is housed.

But, this new site includes not just information about the museum (map, hours, exhibit schedule, publications, brief summary of the history of the kingdom), but also features an extensive online database of the museum’s collections, including beautiful treatments of some of the treasures of the collection. Then, not only that, but it also has this beautiful page of historical sites in and around Naha, which can be browsed using an embedded Google Map, or by categories of lists. Click on the name of a site, and it’ll give you the address, some very brief information about it, photo of the site, and map.

Above: National Treasures listed on the Naha City Museum of History’s Digital Museum site; details about the Ryukyuan royal investiture crown in the museum’s collection; the museum’s page for the historical site of the former site of the Chûzanmon outer castle gate.


The other site I’d like to introduce today is Shuri Aruki (“Walking Shuri”). This beautiful website, with very sleek navigation and graphics, and tons of photos, includes three main sections: About Shuri (首里について), Exploring Historical Sites (史跡をめぐる), and Exploring Breweries (蔵元めぐり). Clicking through into the “Exploring Historical Sites” section, we find three ways of exploring: by map, by list, and by model walking course.

On the map page, you can select from five different neighborhoods, and a whole bunch of different categories (gates, utaki, temples & shrines, etc.), to populate or depopulate the map with those wonderful pink Google pin drops. Unfortunately, at the moment, I’m finding that clicking on one of the pin drops doesn’t do anything… hopefully this is something which is just a glitch, or will be fixed soon. But in the meantime, there’s the “list” page, where headers for each neighborhood are followed by nice squares for each site, complete with photos. They range from the extremely famous and iconic, such as the Shureimon gate of Shuri castle, to the much more obscure, such as sacred springs (called ”gaa” in Okinawan). Click on one of these, and you /do/ get taken somewhere – to a nicely arranged page with a photo of the site in the background, and a brief text description overlaid, along with links for other photos, and for the map, as well as little warning icons, telling you that when visiting the site to be careful for snakes, be careful not to slip, and be courteous to people who might come to pray or pay respects at the site.

After my own Shuri adventures a few weeks ago, in which I managed to find a lot of sites, but failed to find or didn’t even know about a bunch of others, this site seems like it’ll be a great guide for my next such town-wandering exploratory adventure.

Above: The main menu for 「史跡をめぐる」 (“exploring historical sites”) at Shuri Aruki; the list of sites for the Haenohira / Feenufira area; the description page for the grave of 17th century court official Haneji Chôshû.

It’s always nice to feel a bit still connected to goings-on at Japan Society in New York. Sadly, I won’t be in town to see most of this, but I thought I might share briefly about some stuff going on over there.

First, an upcoming film series they’re doing. Entitled The Dark Side of the Sun: John Zorn on Japanese Cinema, the series includes one film a month, from October to February, all chosen by “maverick avant-garde composer, musician and arranger John Zorn,” and representing a wide variety of genres and styles. None have been shown at Japan Society before, and so far as I am aware (but then again I’m not very knowledgeable about film) none are the typical standard ones you’re likely to have seen before.

Here’s the line-up, very briefly:

*Inflatable Sex Doll of the Wastelands (荒野のダッチワイフ)(Saturday, October 18, 7 PM) – a 1967 film directed by Yamatoya Atsushi, described as “about a hitman (Yuichi Minato) who is hired by a rich real estate agent to find an abducted woman (Noriko Tatsumi). This simple setup gives way to a hip and chaotic worldview full of hard-boiled characters, sexy action, and hallucinatory imagery.”

*Crossroads (十字路)(Saturday, November 15, 7:30 PM) – a 1928 silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (1896-1982), and accompanied live on shamisen by experimental musician Yumiko Tanaka. I don’t know much about the film, or the director beyond having seen his film “Page of Madness” (狂った一頁), but, live shamisen? You can’t beat that.

*Top Stripper (丸本噂のストリッパー)(Thursday, December 11, 7 PM), a 1982 pink film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita, who we are told “was one of the handful of young, radical directors who were given the opportunity to explore the visual medium via the constraints of the pink genre.”

*Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People)(Friday, January 23, 7 PM), by none other than Ishiro Honda, director of the original Godzilla. Mushroom People. What more do we need to say?

*Finally, the first-ever official showing in the US of Ôshima Nagisa’s 1964 film It’s Me Here, Bellett (私のベレット), preceded by eight experimental shorts by the godfather of anime, Tezuka Osamu. Friday, February 20, 7 PM.

Here’s a blog post from Lucky Girl Media about the series that may fill you in further.

The film series – specifically the Nov 15 showing of Jûjiro – also intersects with a running theme of this year’s Performing Arts season schedule, “Shamisen Sessions,” a whole bunch of events I wish I could be there for, beginning with the rightfully sold out Sept 27 concert by Agatsuma Hiromitsu – easily one of the most famous Tsugaru players active today, after the Yoshida Brothers – and pop/jazz singer Yano Akiko, who has recorded with the Yellow Magic Orchestra in the past.

The Society’s performing arts programs are always great, but I think it is somewhat rare to have this many traditional (or traditional-related, given the experimental and exciting things some of these performers are doing with shamisen) events in one season. I don’t play shamisen myself, though I’d like to try/learn someday, and just listening is always wonderful. I would love, too, to hear any of these performers talk about their thoughts on tradition, on continuing/maintaining and experimenting with traditional instruments and songs, and on the place of traditional non-Western instruments in modern/contemporary music.

The season also includes shamisen performances, workshops on shamisen, Nihon Buyo, and Noh, and a concert with Okinawan sanshin player Yukito Ara (*dies*). In addition to the “Shamisen Sessions,” another series or theme this year is “Stories from the War,” which includes a series of performances of Noh plays new and old in May, and in January a performance written and directed by huge-big-name contemporary artist Miwa Yanagi. I don’t see anything on the website indicating whether Yanagi-san will be there for a Q&A or anything, but, wow it would really be something to meet her.


Of course, god forbid any of these performances should be shown during Christmas break, when many people, like myself, come home to New York and would love to get to see such things, but, at least the gallery will be open, and this fall/winter’s show, Garden of Unearthly Delights, which just opened earlier this week, and shows until January 11, looks to be an incredible one.

It features Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi, two of the artists from the Bye Bye Kitty exhibition a few years ago, plus teamlab, with whom I’m not so familiar, and continues, as I suppose I should have expected gallery director Miwako Tezuka would, in the wonderful exciting trend of Japan Society introducing New York, and the United States, to brilliant, creative, inspiring Japanese contemporary artists who are not Murakami Takashi or Yayoi Kusama, and who draw upon traditional imagery, motifs, and styles, to create some really incredible, vibrant, new and very 21st century work. This isn’t the 1960s anymore, and MoMa can keep its ostrich head in the sands of the past, but Japan Society is pressing forward with some of the newest works by some artists who are really pushing the boundaries and doing wonderful exciting stuff.

The show includes Tenmyouya’s first ever installation piece, based on or inspired by Zen rock gardens, as well as some animated pieces by teamlab clearly based on the work of Itô Jakuchû. While I don’t like the idea of saying “if Jakuchû were alive today, he’d be this (or that) sort of artist, and he’d make this or that sort of thing,” there really is something about these animated pieces – at least what I’ve seen of them so far in promos for the exhibit – that strikes me as falling within a continuity of his work, as not being opposed to it or a break from it. It’s bird-and-flower painting for the 21st century, not a break with the past but a continuation of it, a continuation of engaging in the same themes, the same aesthetics, and just bringing it up to the present (or the future). Ikeda and Tenmyouya’s work, meanwhile, remix past and present, erasing the borders between the two, and helping us imagine the past as being perhaps not so unlike our own time, and vice versa.

I really cannot wait to see this show. In the meantime, maybe I’ll prepare by watching some interviews with the artists.

In my last post, I shared this same picture of the construction at the original site of Nakagusuku udun, the mansion of the Crown Prince of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and wrote that I don’t know what kind of construction they may be doing, but that sadly, I doubt that it’s archaeological excavation or reconstruction of the site. Well, I still don’t know what’s going on at that site, but as it turns out, there may be plans to reconstruct the mansion at its later historical site, where it was relocated in the Meiji Period, following the fall of the kingdom. While the original, pre-Meiji, site where I took that above photograph is immediately adjacent to Shuri High School, and for all I know, they may be expanding the high school, or they may be building condominiums, the Meiji era site of the Nakagusuku Palace, which was for many years in the postwar period the site of the Prefectural Museum, is just a few blocks away, directly north of the Ryûtan Pond, and very much within the range of where a tourist who’s come to see the castle is likely to walk, and to see. If all of this does come to fruition, I really can’t wait to see the reconstructed mansion myself.

According to a 2012 article in the Ryukyu Shimpo, the prefectural government made a basic plan in 2012, with the intention of in 2013 beginning further investigations and considerations of the possibilities, and the hope of possibly beginning construction as soon as 2015. There was discussion as well of the possibility of including a local community center, and small archive/museum (shiryôkan) on the site.

The Meiji era blueprints, which still survive, show that the mansion had two parts: a front section (表御殿), where men’s activity was centered, and a rear section (御内原, O-uchibaru) which was the women’s area. The reconstruction planning document divides these into three sections: the entire palace will be reconstructed back to its historical appearance on the outside, but while the eastern half of the “front palace” will also be restored on the inside, as a “historical house” much like sections of Shuri Castle have been, the western half of the “front palace” will house a community center, such as local people have been requesting, and the women’s quarters, the rear half, will house the archive/museum/gallery.

Personally, this sounds great to me. Depending on exactly how they do it, it could be that the whole thing, the entire city block, will look just like it did historically (more or less), really contributing to the restoration of the historical / cultural / aesthetic feel of the neighborhood, a neighborhood which only 150 years ago was the home of Ryukyu’s scholar-aristocracy, the very center of Ryukyuan high culture. And, while having that appearance on the outside, the reconstructed mansion will have a nice balance of restored historical architectural areas, where you can to one extent or another really experience the site as if it had survived straight through from the pre-war era, combined with areas where those running it can hold other sorts of exhibits and displays.

Takara Kurayoshi, a very prominent scholar of Okinawan history and as of 2013 (and I think still today) Vice Governor of Okinawa prefecture, is quoted in the 2012 Ryukyu Shimpo article as saying (in my own rough translation),

This representative building of Shuri’s distinctive appearance, as a city lined with udun and dunchi, the mansions of the elite, is being resurrected. This is one piece of the long process of resurrecting what was lost in the Battle of Okinawa.


I have not come across any newer articles indicating anything about the progress of this project, but at least we can say that this summer, when I visited, the site looked much as it did when I saw it for the first time in 2008. Pretty much empty space, surrounded by nice traditional-looking stone walls. So, whether the plan is going forward or not, at least they haven’t build condominiums or anything. Here’s hoping.

The outer walls of the Nakagusuku udun site as they appeared in 2013, and as they still do as of summer 2014.

All color photos my own. Public domain pre-war black & white photographs by Kamakura Yoshitarô courtesy Japanese Wikipedia.