Feeds:
Posts
Comments


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.

It’s that time again. I’m in Japan for the summer, which really does need to happen more often. Of course, traveling and settling in and all of this means the open tabs have piled up. So, it’s time to write some quick links, some quick summaries and responses and post them, get them out there, and done with.

*I don’t follow Japanese politics very closely, and I don’t know the details, but, apparently, the Japanese election system is terribly skewed towards empowering rural areas. This would seem to help to explain why conservative policies (and conservative politicians) continue to hold so much sway… not that I necessarily know just how liberal the majority attitudes might be in the urban areas. But Masunaga Hidetoshi is among a number of people trying to change this. As a recent NY Times article explains,

Disparities in Japan’s election system … have long favored conservative rural districts over urban ones by giving them a disproportionately large number of representatives in the Diet, Japan’s Parliament. Those inequalities — which date to American occupation policies aimed at turning farmers into a powerful anti-Communist voting bloc — are now cited as a critical reason that Japan has clung so tenaciously to its postwar status quo despite its long stagnation.

Mr. Masunaga says he is making what in Japan is a novel constitutional argument: that every citizen’s vote should carry the same weight, a principle enshrined in the United States as one person, one vote. He says the current Japanese system is unconstitutional because it gives districts in some rural areas the same number of representatives as districts near Tokyo despite having less than half the number of voters — in effect, giving those rural areas the equivalent of one person, two-plus votes.

*A post on Why Chinese is So Damn Hard, by David Moser, of the University of Michigan. I have seen numerous similar posts on why Japanese is (supposedly) hard, but as I haven’t yet begun studying Chinese, and simply as a Japan specialist in general, I haven’t read too many of these.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure what my thoughts or reactions are on this. Sounds legit; but, then, what do I know? I will say this: the main things that worry me about Chinese, for if/when I ever do ever start studying the language, are (1) tones – pronouncing them correctly is likely to be a bitch. And the vowels and other sounds aren’t going to be that easy, either. Like that err / arr sound that’s usually rendered in pinyin as -ih, for example. Moser gives French as his standard example of an easy language, but, compared to Spanish or Japanese, or even Hebrew, I have to say, I think French is pretty intimidating to pronounce, too. (2) Romanization. Pinyin is okay, once you learn that ‘q’ is pronounced as “ch” (as in Qianlong), that ‘x’ is pronounced as ‘sh’ (as in Xie He), etc. But Wade-Giles, while more accurate and direct in a sense (e.g. ‘ch’ is rendered as ‘ch’), is hideous and obnoxiously different when you’re used to seeing the pinyin everywhere (e.g. is Ch’ien-lung the same as the pinyin Qianlong, or is it someone else? Is Soochow the city of Suzhou, or somewhere else entirely?). (3) Simplified characters. Most Traditional characters, and Japanese versions of the simplified characters, contain strong similarities to other characters in the same ‘family’, and contain indications of their meaning and/or pronunciation. The traditional Chinese & Japanese character 愛 (ai), for example, meaning “love,” contains the character 心 (J: kokoro), meaning “heart”; the simplified version, 爱, however, does not. I could go on and on about this point, but I’ll leave it alone. Suffice it to say that I have a lot of problems with the simplifications, and expect them to be a bitch to learn.

But, I plan to start taking classes soon. So, I guess we’ll see.

*Shifting gears entirely, the NY Times also reports that archivists and historians are running up against a proposal in the European Union for the “right to be forgotten.” On the surface, it makes sense that individuals might want to have some control over what remains out there, especially on the Internet, in perpetuity; one could even think it a fundamental right, and I can appreciate that point of view. Twitter remarks, things on Facebook, all sorts of things – including things originally posted as private, or things that one posts by accident, in a moment of passion, while drunk, or things otherwise posted which misrepresent one’s actual personality, opinions, attitudes, or activities. But then we have to think, what about companies and governments? What about people of particular historical significance? As historians, one of our chief obstacles, one of our chief struggles, is that all documents have biases, and even journals/diaries and autobiographies are heavily self-censored or edited, to represent the author in the way s/he wishes to be remembered.

This is not only a concern for historians – when governments, corporations, and individuals of particular historical significance are able to censor and “curate” (prune, control) what records of their activities and opinions do and do not remain for posterity, when we allow them to craft the way they wish to be remembered, are we not doing ourselves – and our successors – a terrible disservice?

It’s a complicated issue, to be sure, and I can absolutely appreciate why one should think that you or I, the random person on the street, the Average Joe Citizen, should be able to enjoy such privileges (or “rights”). But the line has to be drawn somewhere, and since politicians, celebrities, and CEOs are private citizens too, and since we as a society absolutely should, in my opinion, demand posterity to retain a more extensive and less self-pruned set of records of those individuals and their activities, perhaps there is no answer but for such “rights” to not be granted to anyone.

*Speaking of (re)writing history to suit one’s political inclinations, certain sources in China are voicing calls to ‘reconsider’ whether Okinawa rightfully belongs to Japan. This NY Times article on the subject is but the latest of quite a few describing this same turn of events. Now, first, I think we should be clear that, as yet, the Chinese government itself is making no official statements to this effect – it’s only individual officials, military officers, and private citizens who are making such statements.

Now, of course, the question of whether a given country has a “right” or a “rightful claim” to any piece of land is complicated and questionable – most especially when it’s a place such as Okinawa (i.e. as compared to Shikoku, for example) that has a long history of political independence and cultural difference, and which was rather clearly conquered, and later “colonized,” if we want to use that word. The legalities and “rightfulness” of Japan’s claims to Okinawa are a matter for another time, and I won’t get into it here, though I think one quick and simple thing we can say is that, I don’t know about today, but it would certainly seem that in the 1960s-1970s, and in 2006, the vast majority of Okinawans wanted to be part of Japan, rather than being under US control, or rather than independence.

What’s important here, though, and I feel like I may have spoken on this point before, is that regardless of the intricacies of the Ryukyu-Japan-US relationship, and any questions as to the “rightfulness” of anything going on there, China simply put has no reasonable rightful claims whatsoever. The history of tributary relationships, as a basis for a claim, is a load of bull, to put it bluntly, because (a) if that were valid, then Chinese claims to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, not to mention Kenya, Iran, and England, would have to be considered, and (b) no Chinese administrators or officials ever actually administered or governed the islands. Ever. Plus, when Japan did finally abolish the kingdom and annex its territory, even as certain prominent Ryukyuan scholars & officials petitioned the Qing Court to do something about it, Qing Dynasty China scarcely lifted a finger, a clear indication that China never really considered Ryukyu part of its territory (worth defending) to begin with.

And I guess I’ll leave it at that. Here’s hoping these stupid provocations come to nothing.

An example of “hotel hula,” performed not for a traditional or ritual purpose, but as a show for large crowds at Waikiki.

If you’re not already aware of it, Sociological Images is a wonderful blog, posting excellent, well-worded, well-thought-through comments on a variety of sociological issues, mainly gender/sexuality and racism/Orientalism. One recent post touches upon Orientalism and the male gaze as they manifest in the performance, consumption (watching), and development of hula; the post basically summarizes the three chief types of hula – traditional, contemporary, and hotel – and touches upon the impact of hula-for-tourism upon the image or understanding of hula more broadly, and upon the character, therefore, of the performance form. Another post, from a few months ago, talked about the use of the “hula girl” as a stereotypical image in the marketing of Hawaii as a tourist destination. I’ve barely said anything here – I definitely recommend clicking through and taking a look at these two brief articles.

Though focusing on feminist and Orientalism issues, both posts also touch upon or relate to issues of tradition and authenticity, and the difficulty of how to share traditional culture and make it visible and available to visitors, while at the same time maintaining the tradition. “Hotel hula” has developed into such a thing rather different from traditional hula, both in terms of its ritual significance, and its very sexualized & Orientalized image – this, in turn, has profoundly affected the attitudes and impressions of people outside Hawaii about what hula is.

A video from 1975, an example of the kind of “classic” image of tourist Hawaii that ties into how we continue to imagine the islands today.

Reading this, I thought of geisha as well; there are a number of places in Kyoto, and I would assume elsewhere as well, where one can go see geisha dances as a tourist. The more genuine, traditional context is to either hire a geisha to entertain as part of a very fancy/expensive private dinner party, or to attend Miyako Odori dance events; when I stayed in Kyoto three summers ago, I saw geisha performances in a hotel lobby, and at a culture museum. I think it’s great that these things are offered at a museum, as part of educating about the culture in a manner that isn’t purely static, and in a manner that seeks to be more inclusive, of not only objects and images, but of activities and performances as well. As for the hotel, well, I understand the desire, the demand – people come to Kyoto, and one of the chief things they associate with the city and desire to see is geisha dances, just like the hula performances in Hawaii.

But, who are these geisha who perform in such contexts? How are they, and their art, affected discursively by the context in which they perform? Even if the dances (and costume and makeup) themselves are perfectly identical to “genuine” traditional dances, nevertheless, when you’re performing for tourists, at a hotel or at a museum, that has a dramatic impact upon you as a performer, upon what it means to be a geisha. These dances take on a major part in the regular life of a young geiko or maiko, who performs at a hotel or museum X times a week, explaining her craft & lifestyle, getting her picture taken with one tourist after another, and who trains or prepares for such events, practicing her introductions and answers to questions, etc., as a museum staffer or tour guide would – a very different thing from other aspects of geisha training & everyday life.

Displays of geisha costume & dance, at the Kyoto Museum of Traditional Crafts (Miyako Messe Fureaikan).

So, again, what does it mean to be a geisha when a lifestyle that once focused almost exclusively on life within the geisha house, on dance practice & other training, and on entertaining guests in elite establishments now includes commuting to a hotel or museum & coordinating with that institution when & how often and which geiko will go there, spending X portion of one’s days preparing for or performing for tourists, and preparing presentations or explanations of the tradition for viewers? Perhaps most importantly, geisha are in these contexts put on display in a sense, as museum objects, in a sense, removed from their cultural context of the geisha house or the fancy restaurant… what does it feel like to be on display for tourists? What does it feel like to be a cultural commodity, and what does it mean for the art to have it experienced and understood in this profoundly diluted way?

These are major themes in post-colonial studies, and I am sure there is a lot of Theory and scholarship out there on the subject… I look forward to hopefully discussing these themes in a seminar or otherwise engaging with these questions further.

I’m staying with friends in Tokyo for a few weeks – it’s amazing to be back in Japan, and I’ve certainly gone through numerous emotions and trains of thought about being here again, but rather than ramble through all of that, I’ll try to put that aside and talk about just one or two things, for the moment. My friends live in a pretty quiet, out of the way neighborhood, so even though I’ve been here a few days already, today was my first real trip into the city, in a sense. I was thinking of checking out Shimokita or Jiyûgaoka or something, and maybe another day soon I will. But today, I’m glad I decided to go to Harajuku and Shibuya – in a sense, it really doesn’t feel like you’re in Tokyo, or like you’ve come to Tokyo, done Tokyo, had the Tokyo experience, until you’ve gone to one of these major areas (e.g. Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Akihabara) and felt the energy.

Harajuku certainly doesn’t feel the subculture hotspot it once was, and I don’t think that’s an accident of the time or day that I went, or the weather. Compared to ten years ago (when I first came to Japan as a study abroad student), there are markedly fewer people in goth-loli, punk, or other fashions that stand out dramatically, and fewer shops specializing in such things. And that’s certainly unfortunate in various ways. But, on the plus side, the area is still very vibrant, very active, and which one short strip along Meiji-dôri is now dominated by utterly mainstream Western chains such as GAP, Forever 21, and H&M, the smaller, Japanese, shops along Takeshita-dôri and in the adjoining backstreets are still selling Japanese street fashion sort of things – meaning, the sorts of things that the average hip, stylish, young Japanese guy or girl would wear; not ordinary blah t-shirts and jeans, but something with style. And, while we’ve certainly lost (or are losing) something in terms of the spectacle and the experience of Harajuku in that sense of the decline of the area as a punk/goth-loli hotspot (I wonder where they’ve all gone), it’s actually become an excellent spot for me to do clothes shopping, as much of what’s on sale is now a lot tamer, more wearable (for me, in that sense of it not being so out there, so boldly punk or goth or whatever), and more affordable, while still being distinctly fashionable – these are things that not only fit me well and look good on me (I hope), but which I can feel special about owning and wearing, that when people back home ask, and even if they don’t, I’ll know that I bought them in Tokyo, and that I am in whatever little way connected to the Tokyo fashion scene, or whatever. Plus, things just fit me better here; the average target customer is shorter/smaller, and the style is slimmer.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I was glad that I decided to go to Harajuku & Shibuya today, because you can really feel the energy of the city. Not just that it’s busy, or crowded, but there’s a cultural energy, a feeling of the experience of this place, this very central, happening, place, a place you’ve heard of or thought of or imagined, and now you’re experiencing it – and, a place that is very much a center of activity, of the latest trends, of events, etc. Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most happening cities in the world. It’s a city of neon lights, crazy crowds, fashion, art, electronics, incredible design, excellent food… and especially in contrast to the experience of other parts of Japan, it’s in places like Harajuku and Shibuya, moreso than in a quiet, out of the way residential neighborhood, that one really feels that.

Today, in the course of just one day, I saw the grave of a famous major Japanese historical figure, visited several Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, poked around a whole bunch of Japanese fashion stores, enjoyed a genuine authentic Harajuku crepe (with matcha ice cream. yum.), discovered an entire two-story store devoted just to Evangelion goods (and I’m assuming this is here for just a limited time, making the experience of the shop itself, as well as all the goods, though I didn’t buy any, an even more special experience), saw a couple of young guys playing music outside Shibuya Station, heard/saw a couple of giant soundtrucks pass by advertising the Les Mis movie and blasting “Do You Hear the People Sing?“, heard and saw a political soundtruck, with candidates shaking hands and shouting slogans, rode the Yamanote, and poked around the giant Tsutaya at Shibuya Crossing, getting a brief glimpse at what music & movies are cutting-edge new and popular in Japan.

Yappari, it doesn’t feel like Tokyo, it doesn’t feel that one has truly returned, until one goes to these big-name, vibrant, active, and, yes, obnoxiously crowded, areas. But, therein lies the energy, the beat of the city, that I have missed so.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,458 other followers