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Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I saw this post today on RocketNews24, entitled ““Breaching the laws of equality” – Has Japan’s preferential treatment of women gone too far?”, and wanted to share it.*

Really, this whole post is just by way of sharing a bunch of different gender-related links (and webcomics) that I’ve come across in the last couple weeks. My friend Leah, over at The Lobster Dance, and I had spoken briefly about how there doesn’t seem to be any good Japan-centered gender blog, doing for Japan what The Grand Narrative does for Korea, and what Sociological Images does for, well, a much broader range of topics and geographical/cultural locations. I’m not sure if my ramblings, in this post, are really the best place to start for my part in this “project”, as it’s more just my own personal thoughts, rather than any proper academic-style analysis, but it is a start. Even if my own words may be a bit too rambling, or even misguided, I hope you will find the links valuable and interesting.

Returning to the subject of the RocketNews post, many of the busiest train lines in Japan have for years already had “women-only” train cars (beginning in 2001), where women can escape the threat of chikan (groping), and apparently, there are now beginning to be established, here and there across Japan, women-only cafés, women-only spaces in co-ed university libraries, and the like. Plus, the ladies’ day discounts at the movie theatres. And some people, such as a lawyer quoted in the RocketNews post, are beginning to question whether this is not in violation of legal (and, indeed, constitutional) requirements for equality. Personally, I’m not so interested in the legal aspect, as I am the cultural impact, the homosocial spaces and homosocial experiences that these spaces represent. What kind of space is a women-only space? How is it arranged or decorated or managed? How does it feel to be there? What kinds of activities and interactions occur there? What kind of experience, or atmosphere (fun’iki), is enjoyed in these spaces? I have to admit, I do not know, as I am not permitted access to such spaces. But, I think I can pretty safely assume that at least some of these spaces to be much more pleasant places than male-dominated spaces; less aggressive, less combative, less confrontational, less rough, more classy, cleaner, prettier, more comfortable/luxurious in certain ways. Sounds pretty nice.

In discussing such spaces, though, first, of course, we have to be clear that these spaces are not created purely to give women some kind of advantage, purely to give them nice things and thereby create an inequality. Women-only spaces are, generally, created in the name of protecting women from men, who are, as a group, as a whole, seen as a threat. Whether it’s the groping on the trains, or simply being made uncomfortable and distracted from one’s work because of men leering in the library, there is a feeling of a need to escape. And I certainly won’t argue that there is no such threat, because, unfortunately, this is the society we live in – whether in Japan or in the US – where far too many men think it’s perfectly okay to leer, verbally harass, grope, or worse. And that leads to a society full of women who are wary of any and all men, at least to some extent. And, while it’s an unfortunate state of affairs in general, and terribly frustrating for myself, I don’t blame the women for feeling this way.

I’m not a woman, and there may be all kinds of social pressures or social frictions that women experience from one another, which I don’t know about, but, I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have female spaces to, presumably, feel comfortable in. Places with an atmosphere more attuned to your tastes, comfort, whatever. This of course doesn’t go for all such women-only spaces, but at least some are explicitly described as “far more luxurious” than the corresponding co-ed spaces.1 And, for my female readers, in case you were unaware, accurate or not, most men romanticize female homosocial interactions, and imagine all female-only spaces to be quite clean, fancy, comfortable/relaxing, compared to male or co-ed spaces. I lived for years under the apparently misguided impression that women’s bathrooms typically had nice comfy couches, and were generally much cleaner and more well-appointed than men’s.

I wish I could spend time in luxurious spaces. Well, of course, I can. In fact, I went out with some guys to two really fantastic bars in Shibuya just the other day. But, those are not male-only spaces, and outside of the fact that we were drinking beers, I’m not sure there was much of anything we were doing that was really particularly macho or “masculine.” And if they were more truly “manly” spaces, I can’t imagine I’d want to spend time there. Not because of anything having to do with a desire to pick up girls, and the resulting need for there to be women there; this whole idea of the “sausage fest,” with the implication that one wishes there were women there so that one could hit on them, is disgusting. But, rather, because just like women need a space free of masculine energy and the male gaze, so do men, crazy as that might sound.

I have for a very long time found standard expressions of masculinity unappealing, and lately, have begun to find them especially repulsive. Anything and everything about machismo, or “dude-bro” culture, is just… disgusting, and I want to have nothing to do with it. But, then, what does that leave? If there is to be an alternative American masculinity, one that rejects machismo and dude-bro culture, what are its defining characteristics? Who am I to be? What am I to strive for?

I recently came upon the above quote, and felt it describes better than almost anything else I’ve ever come across before, how I feel – how I have felt for a very long time. (If you’re interested, please take a look at the Kickstarter for the documentary from which the quote & image is taken.) Not to make light of the very serious harassment, and worse, that far too many women suffer every day – not to say that what I experience is comparable at all, but, simply to put that aside and talk about this interconnected but other phenomenon, I absolutely feel this anxiety almost every day. I have very few friends with whom I feel I can truly be myself, without having to worry about what to suppress, how to behave differently, in order to behave masculinely enough for those around me. Which is crazy, because I am sure that quite often, they are simultaneously worried about me thinking them manly enough. We are each of us, constantly, worrying about whether we are living up to the standards of the men around us – are we being manly enough? Do the other men (or, women, for that matter) around us think we’re failing or lacking in some respect? It’s crazy, and it’s stupid, because while there may be those meatheads who genuinely believe in and aspire to normative modes of masculinity, a great many of us are simply performing masculinity for the benefit of fitting in with those around us – whereas, if we all just dropped the act, and were more honest and genuine with one another, that anxiety might lessen, and our relationships with other guys might become that much closer and more meaningful. Yet, all too often, we can’t.

A Hawaii-themed pancake café in Narita City. I wish I had gotten a picture of the three young ladies enjoying fluffy pancakes covered in mountains of sweet whipped cream and fruits, lightly chatting and enjoying themselves, so as to better illustrate the Hawaii-themed café as a particular flavor, or atmosphere, of young women’s homosocial space, for which I’m not sure there’s a male equivalent.

The equivalent, the turn-around, to women-only spaces is not men-only spaces. I don’t want the sports bar, or watching the game and drinking brewskies in the “mancave.” And I don’t want the pretentious “old boys club” or businessman’s bar. And I certainly don’t want the frat house. Actually, I’m not really sure I want a men-only space at all. Because it’s not about escaping from women; it’s about escaping from expectations of manliness. … I’m not sure what I want, I guess. Except that I think I want whatever it is the women have. I think about the stereotypical “ladies who lunch,” or the girls going out together to a parfait place or a Hawaii-themed café2, or a cat cafe, or any number of other types of establishments clearly aimed at girls going out with their girlfriends… I look at these interactions, and I feel like there is a freedom there, to be yourself, to do what you want, to be a woman with other women, to put aside your everyday life, and your everyday mask, and to experience something just a bit elegant, just a bit cosmopolitan, in a kind of fantasy space, as if you’ve been transported to Waikiki, or to an elegant little teashop in Victorian England. Of course, now that I spell it out that way, of course, there are plenty of men-and-women-both-welcome places in all kinds of styles and atmospheres, where one can enjoy such an experience, whether it’s a fancy brunch place or a theme restaurant, to a classy Japanese restaurant with all the furnishings. But, even so, thinking about these women’s homosocial interactions, I cannot help but feel that we men are failing, or lacking, somehow, somewhere. That the women know how to have proper social relationships, proper friendships, and further that they know how to enjoy themselves, how to live the good life as it were, in whatever small ways, with their luxurious cafés and luxurious recreational activities in general, that seem classy, and cosmopolitan, and cultured, while somehow avoiding the obnoxious pretension all too often inherent in more male-dominated spaces, such as the businessmen’s bar. Maybe the solution is simply that I need a group of female friends to adopt me into their group and invite me along with them to the cafés, to brunch, whatever. Because as much as I have enjoyed some very good times with other men, at nice cafés or theme bars, having wonderful academic conversations, and whatever, it’s not the same. Is it?

This is not a proper way to end a blog post, I know, but, frankly, I just really don’t know what else to say. There is no conclusion. I barely even know what it is I’m looking for, or whether I’m even looking for it. I don’t know what the conclusion to this topic is, or if there even is one. The above are just some thoughts I had, and I’m still trying to work them out, what I think, what I feel, about all of this. It remains unfinished.


Comics from Sinfest.net, by Tatsuya Ishida.

*Before we go any further, perhaps a definition for “homosocial” is in order. Merriam-Webster gives the definition, in part, as “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex.” The key thing is, if you’re coming across this term for the first time, it’s about friendly, social interactions, and is not talking about romantic or sexual relationships, or sexual orientation or preferences.
(1) Quoted from the RocketNews article, describing a women-only space in a university library in Saitama.
(2) One could write volumes on the appropriation and discursive imagination of Hawaii in Japan, and in particular, on vacationing in Hawaii (or just going to Hawaii-themed cafés) as a young women’s homosocial activity. I wonder if anyone has. I came here that day hoping it might be a proper Hawaii-style restaurant, as I was hungry, and in the mood for a mahi mahi sandwich, or miso butterfish or something, but all I found was dessert pancakes. Is that even a Hawaii thing? At all? I guess maybe in Waikiki…

Naritaya Chawakai

I had a mikka-renzoku (three days in a row) kabuki-packed weekend a few weeks ago. It was wonderful. After our school field trip to the National Theatre on a Friday, the very next day, I attended a special event organized by (for?) the Naritaya kôenkai (後援会)1, a very fancy reception, essentially, for lack of a better word (they called it a 茶話会, lit. “tea party”), at the Peacock Room (孔雀の間) of the very fancy Imperial Hotel (帝国ホテル).

Though not quite precisely on the anniversary, the event was set to mark 150 days since the passing on February 3 of the late, great, Ichikawa Danjûrô XII, at the not-so-old age of 66, following a ten-year battle with leukemia.

I still hate the terribly awkward face & pose I’m doing in this picture, but, oh, what a privilege, to have actually met Danjûrô! Little did I know at the time that he was in the middle of only a relatively brief comeback, between hospital stints.

The event involved, chiefly, comments from Danjûrô’s son Ichikawa Ebizô XI – an extremely prominent kabuki actor in his own right – and a series of videos of “memories of Danjûrô,” as well as a quiz game with extremely difficult questions about Danjûrô, his personality and his life. I got selected by my table to be their representative, holding up my arms in a circle (for “True”) or an X (for “False”), to represent the consensus of the table as to each question. We unfortunately didn’t last too long, as a single wrong answer meant your team was out. But one team managed to answer something like fifteen answers correctly in a row, revealing their expert knowledge of Danjûrô’s favorite foods, childhood toys, 1960s TV appearances, French honorary cultural achievement awards, etc. And, as their prize, each person at that table got to have their picture taken – individually – with Ebizô, his family, and his disciples. Ebizô was accompanied by his mother (i.e. the wife of the late Danjûrô), the always elegant Horikoshi Kimiko (立派な is the word that comes to mind); as well as Danjûrô’s sister, Ichikawa Kôbai II, head of the Ichikawa-ryû school/style of Nihon Buyô (Japanese dance)2; his own sister, Ichikawa Botan III, also a very prominent Ichikawa-ryû performer; and his wife and two young children. I’m afraid I didn’t catch the names of the five or so other Ichikawa-family monjin (members of the household/school) or deshi (apprentices) in attendance.. But, in any case, to be in a room with such people – as well as with such true, dedicated fans, a few beautiful geisha, and I would imagine quite a few others prominent or famous but who I myself simply did not recognize – was a really incredible experience. What a privilege! What a truly special privilege!

A friend later joked as to whether I have a dream of becoming a kabuki actor myself, but, in truth, I feel like becoming a member of a fan club such as this is far more within reach… and putting aside the fact that the vast majority of people involved are aunties (obasan), there really is something rather attractive, appealing, about feeling that one has an “in,” that is a “regular,” that one has some kind of caché or status within the kabuki world, and a greater or deeper experience of that world, such as the experience of going to events like this one. Maybe I could even be the voice on the English explanation headsets.. Maybe, someday.

I wasn’t able to take any photos during the event itself, e.g. of Ebizô or his family, or of the videos they showed, so this is pretty much it. But, still, you can perhaps kind of get a sense of the caliber or style of the event. Reminds me of the Inner Circle events I’ve attended at the New York Hilton.

The videos were pretty interesting, as with the trivia questions. Just how personal/private is too personal? I gather that the opportunity to see these videos was sort of an extra special thing for these particularly dedicated and loyal fans (and who probably contribute significant financial amounts), but even so, I was really surprised at the extent of the personal/private that was revealed in these videos – roughly half of which were essentially family home videos of Danjûrô in the hospital.

I couldn’t find a news clip reporting Danjûrô’s death, but, here’s an interview with Ebizô afterwards, one of quite a few related clips to be found on YouTube.

I know very little about the dynamics of contemporary kabuki fan culture, or the position of someone like Danjûrô in the greater, general, public society or popular consciousness. I’d actually be really curious – what does the average person, who has never seen kabuki, think about Danjûrô’s death, or other kabuki events, being discussed on the evening news? Or when a kabuki actor, such as Ebizô, appears on variety shows? Are people embarrassed of their lack of familiarity with kabuki, because of the association with tradition and therefore with “Japaneseness”? Or is it just a niche thing, and if you’re not one of those niche people, if you’re not a kabuki fan, then you don’t mind or care? Or, is there a pretty general familiarity with at least the most prominent actors, whether because of the association with tradition, and some sort of feeling of obligation to be familiar with tradition, or simply because of general background exposure (in the same way I am at least familiar with the names of a zillion Hollywood actors, even though I’m by no means a movie buff or particular fan of mainstream American pop culture)?

In any case, I would imagine that for someone such as Danjûrô, who is so known for his strong, bold, powerful roles in extreme makeup and extensive costume, to see him so weak, and in a “normal” context, with no makeup, amongst family, in a hospital bed, is even more remote from what might be the case with most celebrities. If you’ve seen Danjûrô on stage, or if you haven’t and have only a basic, vague, stereotypical imagined understanding of what kabuki is, you’ll have an image of him that’s extremely different from that of the very genuine/honest, ordinary, and vulnerable man who appears in these home videos. Ebizô, too, I have only ever seen in very formal clothes, making formal announcements, at press conferences, or the like, or, otherwise, I’ve seen him onstage, in extensive makeup and costume, and deep in character. So to see him here, at age 26-32 or so, joking around with stuffed animals and essentially photobombing his father’s video diary on numerous occasions, was very interesting, and fun, but also really made me wonder about where the line is drawn between the private and the public. Don’t get me wrong – it’s clear the family was willing to share what they shared – and the same goes for all the very specific personal or family things that came up in the trivia questions (such as, not only Danjûrô’s favorite stuffed animal toy as a kid, but Ebizô’s as well, a generation later); the family was also, apparently, open about inviting cameras into their home and having Danjûrô’s return home after three months in the hospital (at one point) broadcast publicly on television.

I have been fortunate to have never yet been hospitalized myself, but, I can imagine that returning home for the first time in three months would be not only a very personal moment, but also with great potential for emotional or physical difficulty. Or, to put it quite plainly, one, I would not expect to be all that photogenic at such a time, and two, I expect I would need to relax at such a time, as freely and relaxedly as possible, without trying to look good – or strong, or anything – for the cameras.

In any case, it was fascinating to get this little glimpse into the broader kabuki world – a world of actors and fans – beyond the theatre itself. When I first started going to see kabuki back in 2008, I often wondered just how many people in the audience were particularly dedicated fans, and to what extent, and what kinds of events or activities went on beyond the performances themselves. And now, I’ve gotten a bit more of a taste of the answer to that.



(1) “Naritaya” is the guild name, or yagô, of the kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjûrô and his family. As for the word “kôenkai,” I got chided when I said it was a “fan club,” as it’s much more high-class than that; what shall we call it? Reminds me somewhat of the “Friends of the Museum” sort of organizations that a lot of museums have – donate a certain rather substantial sum, and you get to be a member of this somewhat exclusive group, and get to attend these ritzy events.
(2) Officially, Danjûrô was the head of the school, and I’m guessing that his son Ebizô inherits that position. But, insofar as Danjûrô and Ebizô are first and foremost kabuki actors, and terribly busy with all of that, Kôbai, who is first and foremost a dancer, acts as head in many respects.

The Japan Times and New York Times have both reported within the last couple weeks on the ongoing movement for Okinawan independence. The movement is still very small, with only a few hundred truly active members, according to the NY Times; meanwhile, surveys continue to show only a small minority of Okinawans expressing their support for independence. Apparently, there have been some more official, or more visible, meetings & establishment of societies recently – including the Association of Comprehensive Studies for Independence of the Lew Chewans (ACSILS), founded by a group of five academics this past May, and gaining over 150 members in the short time since then – but, from what little I know of the situation, I get the impression that the independence movement has always had its small groups of supporters, and I think it’s probably too early to say right now that it’s actually any stronger than it has been in the past. But, then, who knows what the future may bring?

*New York Times (Jul 5): “In Okinawa, Talk of Break From Japan Turns Serious”

*Japan Times (Jul 11): “Okinawans explore secession option”

EDIT (7/25): An article posted on The Diplomat, entitled “Okinawa: the Scotland of Asia?,” is just one more of the many articles on this subject to emerge in the last several weeks, citing and linking to an article from the Asahi Shimbun as well.


A couple weeks ago, I went to the National Theatre of Japan (Kokuritsu Gekijo) as part of a formal field trip to see one of their “Kabuki no Mikata” programs, aimed at introducing first-timers, especially students, to kabuki. The program essentially consisted of an introduction to what kabuki is all about and why it’s exciting, followed by a short production of Ashiya Dôman Ôuchi Kagami, the story of a kitsune (magical fox spirit) who impersonates and replaces the Princess Kuzunoha, marrying the courtier Abe no Yasuna in place of the real Kuzunoha. If you’ve ever heard of the legend of Abe no Seimei’s mother being a fox, or heard of a kabuki play in which a fox character writes a message on a set of shôji screens, that’s this play.

This was not my first time to the National Theatre, nor my first time to see Kabuki no Mikata. And yet, as much as I’ve thoroughly enjoyed kabuki performances at the Shinbashi Enbujô and Kabuki-za, I had only vague memories of the National Theatre productions being somehow not as good, or at least not as memorable. Why would that be? What’s different?

The title is cute – it has the double-meaning of “how to watch/see kabuki” and “friend/ally of kabuki.” And, the introductory portion, in which kabuki actor Nakamura Mantarô, along with the obnoxiously cute mascot character Kurogo-chan, explain the stage tricks and props, was great. I could hear all the high schoolers in the audience oohing and aahing, and laughing, clearly impressed, amused, and engaged. One of the previous times I saw such a production, it was two young, hip, onnagata who did this introduction, first entering onstage in an explosion of lights and smoke, as if we were at a boy band idol concert or something; their attractive ikemen faces and hip Shibuya/Shimokita fashion and hair, I thought, would have dramatically aided their appeal and relateability for these high school viewers. This time, Mantarô, in kimono and hakama, and Kurogo-chan, who I can only assume was schvitzing like crazy in that mascot character costume suit, explained that kabuki is supposed to be a popular art form, and that more than having any deep literary or conceptual meaning, that is, instead of being seen as something so serious, or as difficult to understand or appreciate, instead, it is meant to be, above all, entertaining.

Mantarô and Kurogo-chan showed off the mawari-butai (revolving stage) and seri (trap doors), along with various special effects and props – incl. a fish, a chicken, and a mouse that actors or kuroko (stagehands) can wield and move to create rather impressive, surprising, or believable action – and the kids certainly seemed entertained and impressed. But the production then went on to make minimal use of any of these, and, in fact, to present a performance that put just about everyone to sleep.

I wonder why it is, whether it’s a matter of resources, or just sort of a matter of appropriateness, placement/location, and tradition, but it certainly seems that the National Theatre tends to do much smaller shows, with less flashy costumes or special effects, less action, and far, far too much talking. Yes, the hayagawari (quick-change) was quite impressive, very briefly, as a single actor switched between appearing as the decadent Kuzunoha-hime (Princess Kuzunoha) in red, on one end of the stage, one moment, and as the much more reserved Kuzunoha-nyobô (Wife Kuzunoha), in purple, on the other end of the stage, the next moment. But that was about it.

The first part (of three) of a provincial performance of the play, in Tosa. As you can see, lots of talking, not much action. But, certainly interesting as a provincial (jishibai) production.

Pretty much the entire show consisted of talking, followed by an abstract dance piece at the end. There were some neat special effects, as the kitsune uses her magic to slam doors, or to pull a byôbu (folding screen) up over her child, and into place, standing properly on the floor. But don’t you think that some of the bolder, flashier scenes from Sukeroku or Benten Kozô would make a better introduction to kabuki? Or a fight scene? Or, even better yet, the last scene or two of Yotsuya Kaidan, what with things bursting into flame, and a ghost appearing almost out of nowhere, flying around the stage, and grabbing people? There are many kabuki plays filled with bold heroes, exciting fight scenes, impressive scene changes, dramatic plot twists, and even, sometimes, characters flying out over the audience. Benten Kozô transforms from a very convincing woman into a rough, tough guy gangster right in front of you – showing off the actor’s very impressive acting abilities – and then, a scene or two later, commits suicide on the rooftop of a temple gate which then rises out of the stage to reveal two or three stories (floors) in which other characters appear, ready for the next scene; Sukeroku and Agemaki are about as colorful and bold as kabuki gets; and characters such as Genkurô (in Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura) and the lead character in Ukare Shinjû actually fly out over the audience, which is about as dramatic an exit as one could hope for. None of these appear in Ashiya Dôman, nor in Bô Shibari or Migawari Zazen, the other two plays I remember seeing at the National Theatre (though the latter two are definitely funny). Not to mention – and this is crucial, though I don’t know where to fit it in – the incredibly cramped seats and largely ineffective climate control. Even a dedicated fan such as myself was sent to sleep by the heat and stuffiness.

The last two acts of Benten Kozô. Skip ahead to around the 32min mark for the beginning of a thrilling swordfight / action sequence on the roof, or to 40mins for the end of that fight scene, and the dramatic scene change I describe above.

Now, maybe they think it’s mottainai (a waste, to translate loosely) to do big-name shows for such school trip audiences, since these are so popular, and there might be some kind of conflict between the regular audiences who’d feel left out, or cut out, if such performances were to be done (only) for school trip groups. But, really, that’s no excuse, since they could just as easily continue to have those same big-name shows at the other venues, at the same time. Honestly, I don’t know what reasons the National Theatre has for doing what they do; I’m just taking stabs in the dark. Perhaps it has something to do with the level of actors (or just the pure number of actors, the size of cast) that a given play traditionally requires – is it the case that only the top-ranking actors can play the roles of Benkei, Sukeroku, or Benten Kozô? That the younger actors who typically appear in Kabuki no Mikata haven’t yet earned the right to play those roles, and that the more senior actors are too busy or simply too important to appear in Kabuki no Mikata? There certainly are tiers and hierarchies in kabuki, and strong traditions about which families or lineages perform which roles – and in which seasons – and so, perhaps, something of this contributes to the reasons for the more major plays not appearing in Kabuki no Mikata. Still, even so, even if Benten Kozô and Sukeroku are to be limited to the bigger theatres, and to the bigger name actors, why not something like Ise Ondo, or some other show? Ise Ondo has a lot of talking, to be sure, but it also has some great costumes, jokes, and exciting action (swordfights) & physical comedy.

Pick a bolder, more dramatic, more colorful, and more action-packed play, turn up the A/C a bit, renovate the seating, and I think it’ll go a long way towards getting the school trip audience more interested and engaged – or at least more awake – and, it just might be more effective at shaking off kids’ preconceptions of kabuki as a dusty, stuffy, “traditional” art, and getting more of them genuinely interested.

PhD Comics, 10/3/2003, (c) Jorge Cham.

Whenever I’ve heard (or read) people say things like “the more you learn, the more you realize how little you know,” I always used to think it referred to a breadth and depth of detailed knowledge. The more you learn about Japan, the more you realize how little you know about England, the Netherlands, or Korea (not to mention Botswana or Guyana); at the same time, the more you learn about any given aspect of Japanese culture or history (for example), the more you realize just how many other castles, samurai lords, artists, events & incidents, works of literature, or whatever it may be, that you still don’t know about. Plus, even within any given topic, the more you know about Hokusai or Danjûrô or Saga Castle, for example, the more you realize just how much more about that same topic you still don’t know. That’s all certainly true.

But, I’ve come to realize there is a whole other dimension to this phenomenon, too. Specifically, as I’ve spent more time in academia, as I’ve learned more and more, and come to appreciate the diversity and complexity inherent in any and every topic, I’ve discovered an inability to speak confidently on almost any subject, or indeed to even think confidently that I properly or sufficiently understand any given topic.

From the “Sumidagawa Digital Picture Scroll” on display at Tokyo Sky Tree. Artist unknown.

When I came to Japan for the first time ten years ago, I had all kinds of ideas and impressions about what Japan, or Tokyo, was like, and what Japanese culture or attitudes were like, and I didn’t hesitate to share these in blogs, and in talking to friends and family. At that time, thinking my undergraduate courses & reading made me actually something of an expert, combined with my experience as a study abroad student in Tokyo, which I thought a rather rare and special experience, I saw myself as truly having some kind of expertise, and some ability to speak on a wide variety of subjects pertinent to Japanese culture or history. Of course, the fact that so many of my family and friends asked questions and seemed to think me something of an expert only encouraged this. What do Japanese think about the war? Why did they do it at the time? What do they think about the Emperor? What do they think about Hiroshima? about Pearl Harbor? about Christianity? about Judaism? about the US? Asked these questions, based on my experiences, books, professors’ lectures, and my own personal ideas or impressions which I mistook for possessing some authority, I commented with a considerable degree of confidence on everything from life in Tokyo, contemporary pop culture, and contemporary political attitudes, to attitudes during the war, to aspects of traditional culture or samurai history.

A view of the “real” Tokyo, from that same Tokyo Sky Tree.

Yet, today, if you asked me about half these topics, I’d almost definitely say I have no idea. Whether this is simply a function of getting older, or a function of the amount of “knowledge” and experience I’ve accumulated over my many years in graduate school, or whether it has to do with post-modern theory that’s been imposed upon me, I don’t know, but, I have absolutely come to feel a dramatic lack of confidence in my ability to “know” or say anything definitive about almost anything.

I used to think my professors and my history books provided definitive answers, and that based on these, and whatever else I’d been exposed to, that I “understood” or “knew,” and could reiterate (or regurgiatate, as if on an exam) a relatively definitive answer. I used to believe that books and professors were perfectly reliable, believable, sources of “facts” which, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, or bricks in a building, could be collected, arranged, assembled, to form an increasingly detailed – if never complete – knowledge of a given subject.

But today, I’d say that the issue, whatever issue it may be, from military bases in Okinawa to the current economic situation, is far too complex, and that I haven’t done the proper research. I haven’t interviewed or surveyed hundreds of people, and I haven’t scoured through hundreds of texts (or other evidence/sources), so, I don’t know. I can tell you what I think about the issue myself, and I can tell you what a few things I’ve read or heard say about it, but, I have no idea what most people think, or what they really think, or the precise reasoning or thought process behind why they think that… and so, in contrast to when I was younger, recognizing or acknowledging the limitations of my knowledge, I generally would hesitate to say anything much at all on the subject.

Leaving Yokohama/Tokyo a few days ago, coming out to Chiba, and seeing so much open space, fields, mountains, open up before me, I couldn’t help but have certain ideas, impressions, thoughts, about “this” Japan and “that” Japan, about what each one is like, and about which one I prefer, or which one better matches my expectations or desires. But, while there was certainly a time when I would have written down all these thoughts, and shared them on a blog, now, there was a voice in my head saying, “whatever you think, it’s too generalizing, it’s too conflating. Anything and everything is too complex, too diverse, to be grasped. Nothing you can say will be accurate or appropriate.”

A Hikari Shinkansen locomotive, at Hiroshima Station. Taken in August 2003.

Just because I’ve grown used to something, just because the novelty has worn off, does that mean I’m now seeing it more truthfully? Does that mean I’ve “realized” the “truth” about it? Does it make my new experiences any more genuine than my old ones? My first time in Japan, I was amazed by the Suica card system, by the Shinkansen (so fast, so clean, such a smooth ride, and so convenient, if a bit expensive), by how clean and completely non-sketchy the convenience stores were, by how perfectly on-time the trains were and how organized and polite most people were in most situations. I had a cellphone for the first time, and, of course I was amazed too by the technological capabilities of the toilet seats. Japan seemed at that time so sparkly shiny wonderful, so futuristic, and so wonderfully civilized. More so than [my experiences of] the US, in so many ways.

But, now that I’m used to these things, and they’ve lost their novelty, now that I see supercrowded trains not as a sign of how vibrant and active and urban Tokyo is, but instead as an obnoxious product of overcrowding and of the negative sides of urbanization – now that I see a train ride in Tokyo as an ordeal rather than an adventure – does that mean my new view is any more correct? Or that Tokyo or Japan has in any way genuinely declined, stagnated, or gotten further twisted up in inefficient and stupid bureaucracy in the intervening ten years? I don’t know.

Nishi-Nippori Station, in northeastern central Tokyo. Is this the “real” Tokyo, and the flashiness of Shibuya merely a front? Or is Shibuya the “real” Japan, and this a sort of left-over from an earlier decade, that simply hasn’t quite caught up yet to the “real” Japan of today?

If I’ve seen more delayed trains in the last two days than ever before in my quite limited experience in Japan, if I’ve seen more train stations served by far too few trains (coming far too infrequently) and surrounded not by an exciting, intriguing, or “quaint” or attractive town, but instead by nothing but asphalt, concrete, pachinko parlors and rundown hotels, is that an indication of the “real” Japan? Or of a decline? Or is it just an accident of where I’ve been, and when I’ve been there? Which is the exception, and which is the normal?

It is in these ways, and for these reasons, that I increasingly feel totally incapable of saying anything with any kind of authority about Japan, whether it’s a scholarly comment or even just something to write down in my journal. While I certainly understand why making such gross generalizations would be inappropriate – I’ve read and talked about Edward Said’s Orientalism more than enough – at the same time, it’s kind of sad, and leaves me feeling kind of empty. Looking out over the landscape, or reflecting upon my experience, I want to be able to think something about it; I want to be able to consider it and analyze it and feel I’ve come away having learned something or gained something or realized something. But, instead, I just stare blankly, unable to think anything at all without simultaneously thinking that that thought is too generalizing, too biased, too based on insufficient information or insufficient consideration. What is the purpose, after all, of reflecting upon my experiences or impressions, when these are so completely subjective, results not only of my individual personality and perspective, but also of my mood that day, and of all kinds of accidental factors, e.g. that I went to this shop rather than that shop, or this town rather than that town, or that I got there an hour earlier or an hour later, or a day earlier or a day later?

For certain types of things, I still believe in the value of “facts,” of building up one’s knowledge of what’s already “known” (or, rather, what’s already said) about a given subject, and of adding to that collective “knowledge” through one’s own investigations (research, e.g. reading texts). But for other things, it’s sometimes very much a feeling that we don’t know, we can’t know, we cannot, will not, every know. Which leads to the next question: if none of us can truly call ourselves experts, if none of us can ever truly obtain anything approaching or resembling expert knowledge, if “knowing” X or Y is impossible, then, as scholars, what the hell are we doing?

I kind of hate that I think this way now, but I’m not sure there’s any going back…

A recent opinion piece in The Guardian argues that “There can be no such thing as free access to academic research. Academic research is not something to which free access is possible. Academic research is a process – a process which universities teach (at a fee).”

I’m not going to get into any lengthy or thorough discussion of the subject, but would rather like to just comment back at Prof. Osborne’s opening statement in this article, that “the fundamental argument for providing open access to academic research is that research that is funded by the tax-payer should be available to the tax-payer.I disagree entirely. Yes, this reason is among those most frequently recited and debated, but to my mind, it is hardly the most fundamental, or appropriate, argument for open access. Rather, I believe in open access because:

(a) as researchers, students, and scholars, the work we do is not-for-profit, and therefore others, such as online journal database providers, should not be making profit off of it.

Rather, the journal database providers are, or should be, members of that same academic community, should see themselves in that way, and should dial down their asking prices accordingly.

(b) as researchers, students, and scholars, we are members of a community that functions through the sharing of knowledge. Everything we do is based on having access to others’ findings or interpretations, and access to as complete as possible the body of scholarship on a given subject. Consider the number of articles scarcely ever read, and never cited, because they are not easily accessible through the normal routes – i.e. whether freely, or through one of the standard subscription services such as JSTOR or Project Muse – there is a bias here, a bias towards scholarship that is based not on the entirety of the scholarship out there, but based instead on only the scholarship that is easily accessible through standard avenues. And that’s a problem.

(c) on a somewhat similar note, the very nature of scholarship itself, the intention of scholarship, is to inform the world, whether that be the public / the masses, or fellow researchers, and to add to a growing body of knowledge. When that body of knowledge is hidden behind paywalls, when obstacles are put in place to prevent either scholars or “regular” members of the public from having access to that information, the information might as well not be a part of that body of knowledge to begin with.

(d) finally, returning to the idea of academia as a community based on the sharing of knowledge, open access is the broad-scale equivalent, or extrapolation, of the small-scale phenomenon of my walking down the hallway, knocking on the door to a friend’s office, and handing him a book (or sending her an email with a PDF attachment of a journal article) that I think would be of interest, relevance, or importance to their research. This is the essence of a scholarly community, the essence of scholarly collaboration; when one does it on a small scale, there’s no subscription service, access fees, or other middleman involved, so why should there be on a large scale?

I don’t know if these really constitute four separate reasons, or four aspects of a single, not-so-well-worded, idea. But, either way, I think, I hope, that most academics are thinking along similar lines to myself, and not along the lines of this oft-repeated, tax-payer-centered argument.


As I gradually made my way, one character at a time, through the primary source document I’m reading right now, I came across the name/title Matsudaira Izu no kami1, and I had a thought. I don’t know if anyone has written on this, if there is any scholarship on it, or if there’s any real supporting evidence, but, it’s just a thought.

The document refers to Matsudaira Izu no kami without any indication of a given name. Now, certainly, there are all sorts of potential reasons for this, in terms of etiquette and politeness, respecting and honoring the title or the position instead of referring to the individual, and/or reserving the use of the personal name for personal relationships. But, the thought occurred to me, does it matter to the person writing the letter who this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is? Does he care whether this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is the father, or the son, whether he is Matsudaira Nobuyori or Matsudaira Kazunobu or Matsudaira Tadakazu?2 Whether he is this sort of person, or that sort of person, in terms of physical appearance or personality? Or does the author of the document only think of Matsudaira Izu-no-kami as a position, as a person embodying that hierarchical and administrative position, as a member of the Matsudaira clan more or less interchangeable for any other member of the clan who might alternatively be occupying that title, or position, of Izu-no-kami?

What if, when you inherited a name or title, you weren’t just taking on the name or title while retaining your own individual identity? What if the common cultural understanding at the time was, rather, that you’re taking on that identity as well, subsuming, replacing, or erasing your own individual identity, and becoming a continuation, or embodiment, of that identity?

It was quite common in the Edo period, particularly within certain trades, for a son or successor to have the exact same name as his father, or predecessor. Look through Andreas Marks’ book on Edo period publishers, and you’ll find that a great many of them seem to have been active for spans of nearly a hundred years, or in some cases even longer. Moriya Jihei, whose publications included works by ukiyo-e greats Hokusai, Utamaro, and Kunisada, was active from roughly 1797 to 1886. Clearly, there was more than one individual operating under this name; it is exceedingly unlikely that a single person, by the name of Moriya Jihei, could have lived that long. Now, individual identity seems to us today pretty natural, and obvious – on at least some level, surely, people of any time and any culture would have had to recognize that one person (e.g. the original Moriya Jihei) has grown old and died, and that a different person, younger, with a different face and a different personality, has taken his place. I don’t think I would ever want to go so far as to suggest that there was no concept whatsoever of individuality in the Edo period. But, is it not possible that there was, at least to some extent, some idea of this young man as being the [new] Moriya Jihei, and not an entirely different person who’s taken on the name alone?

Perhaps what I’m getting at might be seen best in the arts. People expect a certain style from Hiroshige, or from Toyokuni. And they get (pretty much) the same style, the same themes and subjects, from the figures we today call Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III. In our individual-oriented conception today, we might say all kinds of things about Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III being separate individuals, with individual personalities and desires, taking on the name of their teacher because of custom/tradition, and/or applying that name in order to continue to sell an established, popular “brand.” But what if – and I’m not saying it was the case, but only that it would be an interesting phenomenon if it were – what if people at the time saw these artists not as new, different, individuals who had taken on a name, not as new, different artists with their own unique interests and styles, but as truly continuations of the same identity?

To make it even sharper, take the case of Kabuki. The history/historiography of kabuki of course recognizes the birth and death dates, life events, and unique personalities, skills, and talents of individual actors such as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII or Onoe Kikugorô III. But, kabuki tradition also holds that there are certain roles and techniques at which Danjûrô or Kikugorô excel, and in each generation, the actor bearing that name was expected to reflect those talents. In the West, we might say that so-and-so Jr. was really good at X, Y, and Z, while his father so-and-so Sr. was a completely different person. Charlie Sheen is not Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges is not Lloyd Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland, and we wouldn’t expect them to be, even if any of them did have the same name (e.g. Martin Sheen Jr.). Kabuki actors, on the other hand, are expected to not simply emulate or imitate the performance style of their predecessors, but, in a way, to be their predecessors. Danjûrô I (d. 1704) excelled at, among other techniques and distinctive moves, crossing his eyes and popping them out, and ever since then, each Danjûrô has been expected to do the same. To be unable to do so would mean not being Danjûrô — this is something that Danjûrô is famed for, and you’re Danjûrô, so you should be able to do it. Even if our more individual-oriented approach tells us that popping your eyes out, or crossing your eyes, like wiggling your ears or curling your tongue, is simply something that some people can and some people cannot do. Similarly, Onoe Kikugorô is famed for his ability to play both female roles and male roles, and especially for his skill, or talent, at playing both at once – in the play Benten Kozô, he plays a man disguised as a woman, who then strips his/her disguise and reveals himself within a scene. In the Western tradition, we might identify this as the special talent of one particular individual, saying, Onoe Kikugorô V was really especially good at this, and Kikugorô VI wasn’t, but Kikugorô VI was really good at such-and-such other thing… I don’t think this happens quite as much in kabuki. Kikugorô VI is Kikugorô; he’s the Kikugorô, the only Kikugorô (of this current generation, of this contemporary moment), and he is expected to perform, and embody, all that Kikugorô is expected to be.

Again, I don’t know that people in the Edo period generally, or even to whatever extent, or in whatever ways, did or did not think about identity and individuality in this way; I don’t have extensive evidence or scholarship that I’m drawing upon right now. I’m not saying it was, but only what if it were, and isn’t that an interesting thought. How did people of the Edo period view individual identity, and the relationship between individual identity and names?


1) I’m surprised to not find any good pages to link to online to explain the term “kami” (守) but, essentially, being the “kami” of a province, e.g. Izu no kami 伊豆守, or Satsuma no kami 薩摩守, was an honorary court title. It had no direct connection to the province a given lord was from, nor the province where he held power, and was purely a symbolic/honorary/ceremonial title. Nevertheless, this was a very prominent way of identifying people.
2) I’m making these names up, and not referring to anyone in particular; which is, essentially, the point. The name, and the individual identity, doesn’t seem to matter to the writer.

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