A Name Change for the Blog

When I first started this blog, I wanted to give it a name that would not be too specific to any one topic – I didn’t want to pick a title that would express only my interest in kabuki, for example, or to pull from a reference to any one artist or artwork. I thought a title of something doing with tea would work well, suggesting the idea of sitting down with a bowl of tea and thinking about, or talking about, any number of different cultural topics. And I struggled to find a title that would work – I was originally thinking of going with some Japanese saying related to tea, like 滅茶苦茶 (mechakucha), meaning “all mixed up, confused” (lit. “ruined tea, painful/difficult tea”), or 無茶 (mucha, lit. “no tea” or “lacking in tea”), similarly meaning “absurd, ridiculous.” But, then I wanted to not represent myself as confused or ridiculous, but rather as someone who has some sense of what he’s talking about. Of course I’m happy to be self-deprecating, but I also wanted to give the thing an air of authority and respectability. Yes, I am just another shmo, another nobody writing about his adventures in Japan. But, I’m also a graduate student, and an aspiring scholar and expert. So, I thought, better to be a man with tea, rather than a man without tea.

But, I’ve known all along that the title is terribly awkward and clumsy, and that 有茶 (yûcha) or 茶有 (chaari), “to have tea”, the natural opposite of mucha, isn’t a real word, or saying, of any sort. So, I’ve been thinking for a while now about what I might change the title of the blog to. And, today, I have two ideas, both based around the classical Okinawan song Nubui Kuduchi (上り口説)。

The song is a travel song, sung in association with the journey of Ryukyuan scholar-officials “up” to Satsuma, or in sending them off on their journey. Along with the associated dance, it was also performed in Kagoshima, as part of entertainments for Satsuma officials.

The song opens with 「旅の出立ち観音堂」 (たびぬ’んじたちくわぁんぬんどー, Tabi nu njii taachi Kwannun-dô), meaning roughly “at/before departing on a journey, Kannon Hall.” The Shuri Kannon-dô, also known as Jigen-in, a temple in the Okinawan royal capital of Shuri and housing an image of Kannon, bodhisattva of compassion, was one of several places scholar-bureaucrats typically prayed for safe journeys before departing for Kagoshima or Edo.

And so, in short, I am thinking of two possibilities for a new title for this blog:

(1) Nubui Kuduchi – A Song of Travel, referencing not only my actual travels to and within Japan, and my posts about visiting various sites, but also referencing the “journey” more generally, as I continue to explore and learn and grow.

(2) Tabi nu njiitachi – The Departure Point, because I feel the journey is never over, and we are always, constantly, starting again, departing upon new journeys, new directions. And, maybe, if it’s not being too self-important or anything, if any one of my blog posts should prove a departure point for someone else to want to investigate a topic further, that would just be incredible.

So, What do you guys think? Do you like (1) or (2), or neither? Why? Do you have suggestions for another, different, title?

Thank you so much. Ippee nifee deebiru.

The Shuri Kannon-dô in Shuri, Okinawa, also known as Jigen-in, where scholar-aristocrats would pray for safe journeys before traveling to Japan. Photo my own.

Prof. Victor Mair has just posted an interesting blog post over at Language Log, in which he writes that “If I were the czar or god of Chinese and Japanese language pedagogy, I would not teach students a single Chinese character until they were relatively fluent — about two years.”

He suggests that students should be taught language the same way native speakers learn it as children – namely, by learning speaking & listening comprehension first, and reading & writing much later. He also cites a study by Jerome Packard which “found that the time lag of delayed character introduction improved students’ ability to discriminate Chinese sounds, and improved their fluency.” Of course, I’m summarizing dramatically, and would invite you to read the whole, rather short, blog post over at Language Log.

The idea certainly sounds compelling, and I can see how this might very well be the case – that students would learn spoken & listening fluency more quickly, and more truly fluently, if that’s all that’s focused on for the first year or two. But, I’d worry – as I did when I first started learning Japanese, and still do today – that the longer one spends working with just romaji or kana, the more one will think in romaji or kana, and not in kanji. Even to this day, if I think up a Japanese phrase, it appears in my mind in romaji, and it takes an extra mental step to think about how to write it in kanji. And, besides, just in general, to take a language for two years and come out of those two years with essentially no ability at all to read or write?

Image from 8asians.com article, Will Chinese Soon Be The Primary Language In America?

I find the whole argument rather intriguing especially because for a long time – based on my experience as a language learner, though admittedly without any formal language pedagogy experience – I thought I wished we had spent more time on kanji, and sooner. After four and a half years of college-level Japanese classes (meeting a few hours a week), I still had a hell of a time reading almost anything. The concept of recognizing radicals and other parts of a character, and being able to use those to guess the meaning and/or pronunciation, had not at all been ingrained in me. Coming across any character I didn’t already know proved a major obstacle, and reading just about anything a terribly arduous process. And then I went to IUC’s intensive all-day everyday 10-month program, and, well, I don’t remember if it happened in the first month, or in the second, but pretty quickly, something clicked and I found it far far easier than ever before to recognize radicals and parts, to guess at meanings & readings, to look up characters I hadn’t previously known, and to remember more of them more quickly & completely. By the end of the ten months, I ostensibly knew all 2,000-odd jôyô kanji (though I wouldn’t say I necessarily know all of them perfectly today). And so, coming off of that experience, I always thought I wished we had done more with kanji sooner – quite the opposite of what Mair is advocating here. And, yet, most intriguingly, he concludes by saying that when the introduction of characters is delayed, and the focus is placed only on speaking/listening for the first few years, “surprisingly, when later on they do start to study the characters, students acquire mastery of written Chinese much more quickly and painlessly than if writing is introduced at the same time as the spoken language.”

What do you think? What were your experiences with gaining fluency, and learning characters?

While investigating something over the winter break, I came upon a question, or should I say a conundrum. I had thought, or assumed, or believed that I had read somewhere, that when the Kingdom of Ryukyu fell and the royal family and their entourage all moved to Tokyo at the end of the 1870s, they had taken just about all their royal treasures with them. Robes, lacquerware platters, whathaveyou. The royal family, the Shô family, though stripped at that time of their kingdom and “royal” status, were incorporated into a new Japanese aristocracy on the European model, alongside many former daimyô (samurai lords) and the like; they were no longer royals, but they were by no means commoners, and so I assumed that they continued to live a relatively lavish lifestyle, and kept much of their treasures with them, in Tokyo. The royal palace back on Okinawa had been transformed into an Imperial Japanese Army garrison even before the royal family left, and by 1883, a British visitor to the island noted in his diary how gutted and abandoned the whole palace looked. So, if the palace was more or less empty, and if the Shô brought so much to Tokyo, how come we’re always hearing about so many Ryukyuan treasures having been lost in the Battle of Okinawa?

As I began to investigate this question, I began to come across some very interesting stories. As it turns out, yes, a great many treasures were brought to Tokyo, but a great many others remained in Okinawa, housed (at least in part) at the former residence of the Crown Prince, the now no longer extant Nakagusuku udun, or Nakagusuku palace,1 and cared for by a team of (in 1945) eight stewards. In 1945, as the battle loomed, the stewards hid a number of these objects in a drainage ditch just outside the palace, hoping to come back for them after the battle was over. When they returned, however, they found the treasures gone. I do not know how many objects were in that ditch, what they all were, or how many have been recovered, but I have in the last couple weeks learned a little about two of them.

A photo of the Nakagusuku palace by Kamakura Yoshitarô, taken sometime in the 1920s. Public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One was a copy of the Omoro sôshi, said to have been at that time the last extant copy2 of the earliest known Okinawan text, a collection of poems which like Japan’s Kojiki and Man’yôshû reveal hints about Okinawa’s history, making the Omoro sôshi at the same time Okinawa’s earliest history. It turned up shortly afterwards, when a Commander Carl W. Sternfelt (d. 1976) brought his war loot to Langdon Warner, curator at the Harvard Museums, to see if Warner could help identify them. Warner is himself a rather interesting figure – I’ve begun a humble bio of him on the Samurai Archives Wiki. He figured out what these documents were, and it is said that Sternfelt, upon hearing just how important they were, agreed to relinquish them. The Omoro sôshi was returned to Okinawa in 1953, as part of exchanges relating to the 100th anniversary of Commodore Perry’s first visit to the islands. A number of other objects taken from Okinawa at one time or another have also been returned in recent decades. A Buddhist temple bell from Okinawa’s Gokoku-ji, taken by Perry in 1853 and hung at the Naval Academy at Annapolis until its return in 1987 may be among the most famous; a bell taken from the temple of Daishôzen-ji and hung for many years at Virginia’s Military Institute was likewise returned to Okinawa in 1991. But, I was interested to learn, there are those who believe that Commander Sternfelt, or someone else, had also taken from that drainage ditch a royal crown. Known in Japanese as a hibenkan, this crown, made of strips of gold ornamented with jewels and affixed to a cloth headpiece pierced by a massive golden hairpin, was used in investiture ceremonies, in which representatives of the Chinese Emperor came to Okinawa and formally “invested” the king, formally recognizing him as King, on behalf of the Emperor of China. A second such crown, which had been taken by the family to Tokyo, is the only such crown known to be extant. Today housed at the Naha City Museum of History in Okinawa, it has been designated as a National Treasure, alongside a considerable number of other objects as a single group, the so-called Historical Documents of the Shô Family Kings of Ryûkyû (Ryûkyû kokuô shô ke kankei shiryô).

Above: The one known extant crown, on display at the Naha City Museum of History. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finding all of this terribly interesting, I began to poke through the New York Times archives, among other places, and came across an article on the website of the US consulate in Naha, which discusses much of these issues. Entitled “Provenance of Okinawan Artifacts in the United States,” it was written by Ms. TAKAYASU Fuji,3 who has also written an MA thesis on the subject, based on an extensive survey she conducted of collections of Okinawan objects in US museums. She catalogued 1,984 Okinawan objects in 37 US museums, including “569 ceramics, 501 written documents, 420 dyed fabrics, 289 pieces of lacquerware, 10 paintings, and 194 other pieces, including old coins.” I am not at all surprised to learn that these collections include so many ceramics, textiles, and lacquerwares – the kinds of works we see so often in exhibits or other discussions of Okinawan art. I am terribly curious, though, about the written documents, and especially the paintings. I would so love to see these objects someday, maybe even get to exhibit them myself, if/when I get to be a curator. I wonder how many more objects in private and museum collections across the country, and around the world, are not recognized as Ryukyuan, and are mistaken for being Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or just unknown unusual East Asian because, of course, we cannot reasonably expect all East Asia curators to have the sort of specialized expertise to recognize Okinawan works. Many may be lacquerwares, pottery, and the like, but what if there were some paintings, royal portraits even, or important historical documents, or even royal artifacts, just hiding in a museum collection somewhere, their true identity and significance unknown?

Skipping back to the issue of stolen, looted, artifacts for a moment, when President Clinton visited Okinawa in 2000 as part of the G-8 summit, it was hoped that some Ryukyuan object(s) might be able to be returned, as the Omoro sôshi was in 1953, as a display of friendship, reconciliation, and the like. In the end, no such arrangements were made, or at least not in time. However, we are told, eleven Ryukyuan royal treasures were added to the FBI’s official National Stolen Art File. I’m not sure exactly what search terms to use to find them all, or if all 11 remain on the list today, nearly 14 years later, but I was able to find two: the missing royal investiture crown which had been hidden in that drainage ditch in 1945, and an investiture robe which would have gone along with it.

Given such high-profile news stories, from Pres. Clinton adding objects to the FBI Stolen Art File, to the repatriation of the Omoro sôshi and Gokoku-ji and Daishôzen-ji temple bells, combined with various other sources of influence, it comes as no surprise that many people in Okinawa (and, I’d imagine, among the Okinawan community in Hawaii) imagine collections of Okinawan artifacts in the United States to derive chiefly from war booty. Takayasu’s research reveals, however, that the majority of these nearly 2,000 works in 37 museums were legally purchased either before or after the war, with roughly 400 obtained before World War II, 1200 during the extended US Occupation (1945-1972), and the remaining 400 or so acquired more recently. This is good news, of course, for those of us who wish to visit museums, work with museums, and/or work at museums with a relatively clear conscience. But, we must remember that much of what was taken from Okinawa during the war most likely never made it into any museum or other publicly visible collection, and instead remains hidden away in private homes and storage lockers. How many objects that might include, of what sort, and of what historical significance, remains unknown.

But, serious as the issue of missing, stolen, looted, or destroyed objects is, I find the stories themselves quite interesting and enjoyable, and am interested to learn more about the legal collections of Okinawan art in the United States – which objects exist, in which collections, and to hopefully eventually get to see some of them.

There is, of course, a lot more to be said about these works and their stories, and I expect I will either come back and edit this post, or create new posts on the subject and I continue to read about it. But, for now, I suppose I shall just leave it here.

1) Located just across the way from Shuri Castle, and not to be confused with Nakagusuku Castle (Nakagusuku gusuku), located elsewhere on the island.
2) William Honan, “Hunt for Royal Treasure Leads Okinawan to a House in Massachusetts,” New York Times, 13 July 1997. I find it hard to believe that this was the only surviving copy, since it was surely copied numerous times in both manuscript, and later in cyanotype or the like. But, perhaps this was the only extant original copy?
3) 高安藤 Normally, I don’t follow the practice of putting surnames in all caps like this, but after myself mistaking Fuji for being the surname and struggling to find anything more about this “Ms. Fuji” (when I should have been looking for Ms. Takayasu), I figure I might as well try to be a little clearer here.

Resource: Nippon.com

I recently discovered the website nippon.com. Run by Nippon Communications Foundation, the people behind Japan Echo (published until 2010), with support from the Nippon Foundation… admittedly, these are not organizations with which I am familiar, but as compared to certain other sites, they do a truly excellent job of providing quality content. Nippon.com’s articles are not superficial treatments or basic summaries of the most canon Japanese tourist sites & cultural experiences, aimed at first-time (and possibly one-time-only) visitors to Japan; rather, they are aimed at those with a more serious interest in Japanese culture, who may be relative beginners but who are serious about learning more, and engaging with issues related to culture & heritage preservation, traditional arts, and historiography.

The articles on Nippon.com go far beyond the standard stories in several ways – both going deeper, as in the case of articles about specific goings-on in the kabuki world & interviews with kabuki actors in place of the very superficial and generic “kabuki is a traditional theatre form dating back hundreds of years, with colorful costumes and bold action. Even if you’re only in Tokyo for a few days, you should definitely try to check it out!“, and going beyond in the sense of discussing aspects of Japan way off the beaten track. Take for example Nippon.com’s series of articles – yes, an entire series – on Islam in Japan, including two on Tokyo’s largest mosque, and one interview with a Japanese convert to Islam who makes efforts to combat stereotypes and ignorance, and to educate people about Islam.

Apropos of nothing, a view along the Kamogawa in Kyoto. Photo by own.

I am particularly impressed by the site’s use of interviews with, and articles by, prominent experts on the subject, where many other sites and publications simply use their own internal tourism/journalism staff, who repeat commonly-held beliefs or attitudes, without any true expertise. One of the first posts on Nippon.com I discovered, which immediately told me this was a very different kind of site, is one entitled “Foreign Relations in Early Modern Japan: Exploding the Myth of National Seclusion.” The misconception that Japan was “closed” or “isolated” during the Edo period (1615-1868), the connected idea that Edo period Japan was “dark,” regressive, or backwards as a result, and the continued use of the term “sakoku” (lit. “chained country”), is truly one of my greatest personal pet peeves as a historian. I know it sounds terribly obscure and picky and geeky, but this is actually a big deal – it has a major impact on how we, as Americans, as Japanese, as Europeans or Chinese, view and understand Japan. Scholars such as Arano Yasunori and Nagazumi Yoko in Japan, and Ronald Toby among others in the US, have been arguing since the 1980s that Japan was not “closed,” that it was quite active in international interactions and cultural exchange, and that we should stop using the word “sakoku,” and yet, today, far too many sources (tourism websites, guidebooks, popular magazines, TV shows, even supposedly top-rate newspapers and, sadly, occasionally, scholarly works) still continue to reinforce these misconceptions. And since TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and tourist materials are so much more widely consumed than history books and scholarly journal articles are, these misperceptions persist. I don’t know their numbers – hits, readership – but Nippon.com represents a more widely accessible and more “popular” form of media – an online popular magazine, if you will – and Arano Yasunori’s article on their site is a truly excellent treatment to the subject. It is thorough and reflective of the latest research, and genuinely informative, as well as easy to read, clear, and engaging, with lots of nice diagrams and images, and all while being relatively short.

Ainu robes on exhibit at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Feb 2013. Photo my own.

Nippon.com goes further, with equally interesting articles on “The Ainu and Early Commerce in the Sea of Okhotsk,” “The Dutch East India Company and the Rise of Intra-Asian Commerce,” “Historical Trends in Eurasia and Japan: Mongols to Manchus,” and “The Extra-National Pirate-Traders of East Asia.”

The breadth and depth of articles on this site is truly incredible. I wish I had the time to read more of these articles, on everything from “The Xinhai Revolution and Sino-Japanese Relations,” to “The Dolls that Sparked Japan’s Love of Robots: “Karakuri Ningyō”,” to The Aichi Triennale and contemporary art in post-3/11 Japan, to the history of asadora (TV morning dramas).

I am really impressed with this site, and think it may be one of the best on the Internet, for high schoolers, college students, armchair historians, or anyone interested in learning more about Japan, through short but high-quality articles introducing a truer, more complex, vision of Japan – a Japan with a long history of interactions with Russia, a Japan with a contemporary Muslim population, a Japan wrestling with maintaining, preserving, protecting, and changing traditions.

Two excellent posts came across my dash in the last week, breaking through the dominant discourses of the things we take as normal in our everyday lives, and boldly forcing us to realize just how artificial, how inappropriate and even disturbing those norms are.

*First, the subject of how women are described in obituaries & in other news reports. Numerous blog posts, forum discussions, and even full monographs have pointed out that all too often, obituaries and other descriptions of women in the news media describe an individual by her identity as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a homemaker, describing her cooking, her hospitality, her feminine hobbies, and the like, or even devoting more space to describing the career and societal contributions of her husband or father, rather than her own. By contrast, a man’s obituary generally emphasizes his career, his political activity, or contributions to knowledge. And yet, we read these obituaries, biographies, and the like, and a great many of us, I would wager, never really gave it a second thought.

Misandrist Obituaries by Kathleen Cooper pokes fun at the whole thing, but with a very serious underlying message, displaying boldly, by example, what no description about the problem could ever do as sharply.

Clementine Churchill’s husband, Winston, son of the famous American socialite Jennie Jerome, has died at 91. Sir Winston was an accomplished amateur painter and famous for his tea-cakes.

Rosalind Franklin’s lab partner, James Watson, has passed away at 98. For many years a scientist, his true calling was home cooking and he was said to make a wonderful macaroni and cheese casserole.

Incidentally, though not of direct relevance to this blog post, did you know that Marie Curie’s papers are still radioactive today, 100 years later? I had no idea.

Seeing these twisted obituaries, does it not become so much more obvious the bias inherent in how we characterize and describe women in media and in history? It’s one thing to simply say “women should be described as individuals in their own right, and acknowledged for their own individual careers and contributions, and not described or known chiefly for who their husband or father was,” but, to see it played out in this way is, I think, wonderfully stark, clear, and effective.


*Second, scantily-clad babes in video games. If you’ve never understood why people might find Lara Croft, or the beach babes of Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, disturbing, or, if you think you kind of get it intellectually, but just don’t get that gut reaction against it, maybe this image by DeviantArt artist Ulysses0302, or the expanded series of images of “Larry Croft” seen here on Tumblr will help you:

This goes back to my post almost exactly two years ago on “Gratuitous Sexiness in Comics.” The Hawkeye Initiative has become very popular for its satirization of the absurd poses women are drawn in in comics. It does this showing the male hero Hawkeye in those poses and therefore showing how ridiculous these poses are. Well, I apologize to rag on the Hawkeye Initiative again, but you’re putting a man in women’s poses to show how ridiculous those poses are for women? Seems a bit too roundabout and diluted. Having a male looking or acting feminine is enough of an absurdity to begin with (within sexist normative gender discourses), that it doesn’t really properly highlight the absurdity of the females’ poses for females, but only highlights how absurd they are for males. Of course it looks ridiculous for a man to be in a female pose – he’s not a woman, after all!

Which is why I think that something like “Larry Croft,” which breaks out of the “male fantasy” mode entirely, and shows what a video game character might look like if games were truly, thoroughly, created from the approach of a straight female sexual fantasy, or, a gay male fantasy, is so much more effective. Women who read comics and play video games are engaging with media created (often) within a discourse of male fantasies. And I, like most men, on the surface of the thing, didn’t really appreciate why these images should be so disturbing or disgusting to so many women. Sure, they’re sexualized, but, whatever, right? Wrong. These images of an imagined alternate universe Tomb Raider, starring Larry Croft, show us boldly, directly, explicitly, what hypersexualization looks like when it’s on the other foot, and for me at least, it’s rather effective at eliciting that gut response, and helping me realize even more fully than before, just how artificial, unnecessary, excessive, and disgusting hypersexualization is in so much of our popular media.

Finally, there’s this lengthy post from the Feminist Current, entitled “Feminists are Not Responsible for Educating Men.

I have tried many times to respond to this, writing and then deleting many drafts, and I really don’t know what to say. This is very much something I’m still struggling with, struggling to figure out what to think, how to believe about it, and I’m sure that no matter what I say, I’ll get some angry feedback. Still, here’s an attempt to say just a little about one side, one aspect, of this very delicate issue.

When you learn something, when you discover or realize something, does it become your obligation to tell everyone else about it? Certainly not. If I sit in my room, and spend the day not explaining to someone else about Eurocentrism, Orientalism, and imperialism, let’s say, that’s not a moral failing on my part. And, likewise, if a feminist spends his or her day doing anything other than devoting all his or her time to explaining feminism to others, that’s not a moral failing on their part. That’s not a failure of that person to live up to their obligations or responsibilities.

But, if I go around yelling at people for their arrogance in daring to not know about the plight of the Okinawan people, or about the illegal takeover of Hawaii, is that right? Is that appropriate behavior on my part? “Hey, I just read this article, and learned about a terrible wrong in the world. How dare you to have not read it already?”

So, are we each of us obliged to seek for ourselves to educate ourselves about various issues (including feminism), that is to say, are we obliged to not sit passively in our ignorance, expecting others to educate us? Absolutely. But, one of the most fundamental concepts in feminism, or indeed in (anti-)Orientalism, Eurocentrism, racism, post-colonialism, whathaveyou, is the power of discourse to normalize socially-constructed and artificially imposed ideas – the power of discourse to make us think that all sorts of things in our society are normal, are natural, are automatically just the way it is, and the power of discourse to hide from us that these are assumptions which can be or should be questioned. Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, any of these people will tell you, it’s not so easy to simply pull the scales down from off your own eyes, to pull the wool from before your own eyes. You need to question assumptions. But before that, you need to learn that you need to question your assumptions – and this is not something that is taught in our high schools, in our public education system. It is something that, I think, I hope, maybe, is starting to become more widespread in required courses in undergrad, but it is something that I, personally, was never really exposed to at all until graduate school, and so angry as I may be that the vast majority of people on the street know nothing about questioning their ethnocentric attitudes, I don’t exactly blame them.

So, my very sincere thanks to Kathleen Cooper at The Toast, to the blogger behind Video Games Made Me Gay on Tumblr, and Ulysses0302 at DeviantArt, for these great resources boldly breaking the mold and helping viewers/readers realize the artificiality and the assumptions inherent in what we might otherwise take for normal.

A star map from Dunhuang, c. 700 CE, today in the collection of the British Library. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In my research on early modern East Asian diplomacy, though it may sound purely “secular” (if that’s even the right term) and political, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of cosmological conceptions of the Emperor’s position between Heaven and Earth, his spiritual identity and ritual role, and the relationship of all of this to conceptions of a regional or world order, with the Emperor at the center, emanating virtue so virtuous as to be seen or sensed or felt even in the most distant lands; the barbarians of those faraway lands, recognizing the Emperor’s virtue, would then naturally, as a matter of the natural proper cosmic order, would journey to the Imperial capital to pay tribute, and the beneficent Emperor, in return, would magnanimously provide these envoys with gifts. Such is foreign relations under the traditional Chinese model – tribute, and gifts, and maybe some other trade on the side.

I’m not quite sure when or how actual political policy negotiations ever took place in the Chinese case, but, at least in the meetings I am researching, between envoys of the King of Ryûkyû and the Tokugawa shogun (the shogunate having adopted & adapted certain aspects of the Chinese discourses of Imperial power & legitimacy), no such discussions of actual mundane matters took place – it was all pure ceremony – ritual obeisances, etc. Perhaps most importantly in all of this, which I think those questioning political or economic motives miss, is the belief that all of this was necessary towards maintaining the proper cosmic order; the emperor was responsible for keeping the entire cosmos spinning correctly, and if foreigners didn’t come to give tribute, and if the emperor did not reciprocate with gifts, all would fall into disorder and chaos. Perhaps the crops would stop growing; such was the importance of maintaining proper Confucian relationships.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, I would strongly recommend John King Fairbank’s edited volume The Chinese World Order (Harvard University Press, 1968). Of course, plenty of newer works draw upon this, but none have really superseded it as the seminal volume on the subject. Other things I’ve read which may be of interest include the chapters on Han Dynasty foreign relations in the Cambridge History of China, and James Hevia’s book Cherishing Men from Afar, which addresses court rituals and conflicting attitudes about foreign relations in the Macartney Embassy of 1793.

A reconstruction of the Imperial throne at the reconstructed Heijô Imperial Palace in Nara. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, getting to the point of this post, anyone who has studied Chinese or Japanese history and has learned anything about the arrangement of classical Chinese capitals – such as Chang’an, and the Japanese capitals of Heijô (Nara) and Heian (Kyoto) based upon it – knows that the Imperial Palace is located in the north of the city, and faces south. The main gates of the palace, and indeed of the whole city, face south, the Audience Hall faces south, and within it, the Imperial throne faces south. Why is this? Most textbooks, if they offer an explanation at all, say something hand-wavey about geomantic beliefs and feng shui and pretty much leave it at that. And I don’t blame them. To be honest, it’s not necessarily an area of things I ever thought I’d be particularly interested in pursuing further.

But, then, as I read something on the origins of the terms huáng dì (皇帝, J: kôtei) and tiān huáng (天皇, J: tennô), the most common, standard terms today for Chinese and Japanese emperors respectively, I came across something about the association in China of the term tiān huáng with the Taoist worship of the North Star. This same essay, “Restoration, Emperor, Diet, Prefecture, or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages” by Ben-Ami Shillony, explained that the term tiān huáng was in fact only used in China very briefly, from around 675 CE until around 705 CE. So, I dismissed the whole North Star thing as interesting but ultimately just sort of obscure and particular only to ancient Taoism. Of course, there are shrines in Japan dedicated to the kami and/or bodhisattva of the North Star, known as Myôken 妙見. But, then, this too could be easily dismissed as being just another obscure corner of Shinto belief; after all, there are kami for just about anything, and it’s not all that shocking that a strain of ancient Chinese Taoism should survive in some form somewhere in Japan.

But then, today, a discovery. The Analects of Confucius, 2:1*:

One who governs through virtue may be compared to the polestar, which occupies its place while the host of other stars pay homage to it.

I hope that I am not reading too deeply into this one passage, or jumping to conclusions too quickly, but as I read this, a concept sort of clicked into place for me. The Emperor is like the Polestar. He stands fixed, and Heaven and Earth revolve around him. This is what is meant by the Emperor being the “axis” between Heaven and Earth, a word choice I never quite understood. And, if the Emperor is associated with the North Star, then, standing at cosmic North, it makes perfect sense that everything he surveys, in all directions, would be to his South.

Now, granted, when it comes to other aspects of traditional Chinese beliefs about the cardinal directions, the Emperor is traditionally associated with Center, and yellow, and not with North, and black. But, I shall continue to keep my eyes out for further pieces to this puzzle.

*Sources of Chinese Tradition, p46.

Above: A suit of samurai armor donated by Bashford Dean to the Metropolitan Museum, along with a photo of him wearing it, c. 1900.

As a kid, I loved the Metropolitan Museum’s Arms & Armor section, as I am sure a great many other kids did then, and do today. But I never really appreciated until quite recently just how special, how unusual, it is for a major museum to have such a large and prominent permanent exhibit of arms & armor. In the case of the Met, it’s all thanks to a fellow by the name of Bashford Dean, who founded the museum’s Department of Arms & Armor in 1912. In honor of this 100 year anniversary, the Met has organized an exhibit about Dean and the founding of the department of Arms & Armor, which I got to see last summer. It’s a great little exhibit, and it will be up through Fall 2014.

A 5th-6th century helmet and piece of body armor from Kofun period Japan, the latter donated to the museum by Dean in 1914.

Some highlights for me included an actual catapult stone from the Crusades, and, of course, the various Japan connections. Dean traveled to Japan around 1900, and lent his collection of over 125 objects of Japanese arms & armor to the Metropolitan in 1903. The catalog he wrote for that 1903 exhibition was the most extensive treatment yet at that time, in English, on the subject of Japanese arms & armor, and after he donated much of his collection to the Met, it became by far the largest collection of such objects anywhere outside Japan. I’d be curious whether it retains that title today. But Dean went further – in 1905, he arranged an exchange with the Tokyo National Museum, giving Tokyo a number of Egyptian objects in exchange for a number of pieces of arms & armor from Japan’s kofun, or “tomb mound” period (c. 250-550 CE).1 Cool as it is to get to see all these swords, helmets, and suits of armor from the Edo period (1600-1868, as I imagine the majority of the collection must surely be) which Dean brought back, kofun period artifacts are far more rare, and so to have these in the collection from such an early date is really something.

Allison Meier has written a great review of the exhibit, loaded with lots of great pictures.

Dean started collecting armor as a child, but his first academic love was fishes. At Columbia University he studied both paleontology and zoology, especially intrigued by those ancient fishes with flesh that seemed born for battle. He soon became a professor at the university and started to travel, and while that would be achievement enough he branched out into a full obsession with Japan, especially its military history. Soon he had the most impressive Japanese armor collection outside of Asia, and this transitioned into an extensive delve into the whole history of military protection that entailed the building of a whole display hall at his home of Wave Hill. Eventually in 1912 he became the first curator of arms and armor at the Metropolitan Museum, in addition to already being a curator of fishes at the American Museum of Natural History. He’s still the only person to have held curatorial positions at both places simultaneously.

Check out the rest of Meier’s review over at Hyperallergic.

Above: A Dutch or Flemish pikeman’s helmet, or “pot,” adapted in Japan in the 17th century. Another rare and quite special object from Dean’s collection – certainly the only example I recall ever seeing of a European helmet adapted by the Japanese. The gallery label says these modifications took place in the mid-to-late 17th century, after all large-scale fighting had ended. But, if it were just slightly earlier, the 1570s to 1630s were the high point of the use of arquebuses in battle in Japan, and the adoption of European armor to help defend against European weapons certainly makes a degree of sense.

Dean’s concurrent specialties in fish and arms may seem bizarre, and indeed it is, but, it’s hardly unique. In fact, it reminds me of Edward Sylvester Morse, Dean’s rough contemporary, who originally traveled to Japan to study brachiopods, shellfish and such, and ended up playing a major role in introducing Japanese ceramics to the West (as Dean did for armor), and in pioneering the beginnings of archaeological research in Japan.

As someone interested in the history of museums and of collecting, in the history of Japanese Studies, and in the sometimes quite exciting provenance of individual objects or collections, this exhibit on Bashford Dean was really quite a treat. As Meier points out in her review, the Met’s Arms & Armor permanent displays, and this long-running but temporary exhibition are all the more interesting, and important, in light of the fact that the Higgins Armory Museum, located in Worcester, Mass., closed down at the end of 2013 after 83 years of being the only museum in the entire United States devoted exclusively to arms and armor. Though I lived in Boston for several years, I never made it out to the Higgins; and I’m sad to learn that now I never will. Still, we have the Metropolitan, and the smaller but still excellent permanent exhibits of Japanese arms & armor at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Bashford Dean and the Creation of the Arms and Armor Department is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd St) through Fall 2014.


1) When visiting the Tokyo National Museum last summer, I got to see some mummies which were the very first Egyptian objects acquired by the TNM, back in 1904. It would have been a wonderful connection if these were the same objects given the TNM by Dean & the Met in exchange for the kofun era objects, but, alas, it is not the case.

All photos in this post are my own.


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