Mind Your Mind

In honor of my 600th post, something broad and conceptual, about what we do as graduate students. I am so thankful for so many things in my life on this Thanksgiving, not least of which is the privilege to spend my time pursuing my interests.

Think about what you think. Think about what you know. Think about what you think you know.

Why do you think what you think? How do you know what you think you know? Why do you think you know what you know you think?

A T-shirt I bought at WEGO this past summer, in Harajuku.

Quick Links in Arts

Moving on, back to less touchy subjects…

*The British Museum is now showing its first great exhibition of Shunga – early modern Japanese erotica. I’m a bit surprised it took this long for there to be such an exhibit; but, then, I can understand why it should be controversial. It’s a shame, really, that these images are so graphic, since they are undoubtedly some of the most lavish Edo period woodblock prints and illustrated books. Gold, silver, mica, thick expensive pigments, embossing…

The exhibit is up through Jan 5, 2014.

One of a number of less explicit, but certainly gorgeous, works specially on display in conjunction with the exhibit is a 1780s painted folding screen depicting women of the Yoshiwara.

Turning to the somewhat related topic of the preservation of traditional culture, when we talk about such things, we often talk about fears of the disappearance of theatrical forms such as kabuki and Noh. Declining audiences, declining interest, leads to not enough revenue to keep it going, and so on. And, for many arts, it’s not solely a matter of loss of audience (customers), but also, diminishing numbers of people interested in pursuing the art itself. Kabuki still seems quite strong, to my eye, but this remains a concern there, as well as in Noh, and in many other performance forms. But, one thing which often goes overlooked is the “smaller” but still highly essential traditional arts involved in creating and maintaining costumes, set pieces, musical instruments, etc. I know from my own limited experience in Hawaii, that while we are certainly concerned about continuing to have dance/choreography teachers, and shamisen players, in coming decades, we also need to be concerned about the very niche specialty knowledge of maintaining and styling the kabuki wigs. Our resident specialist in Hawaii, Bandô Jôji (George), has studied formally with kabuki experts in Tokyo, and is a proper wig & costume expert in his own right; but he is getting up in years, and has no successor. These, I get the impression, are the arts we need to really watch out for. As Diane Durston discusses in her book Old Kyoto, the number of expert makers of traditional umbrellas, buckets, and the like is dwindling dramatically. The bucket maker she mentions in her book, Tomii Hiroichi of Taruden, eventually ended up selling chiefly only to movie studios.. and when he passed away, he had no successor, and the operation, the last truly traditional-style bucket maker in the city, closed up shop for good. I wonder where Kabuki gets their buckets from, when they need new ones?

So, even with Kabuki seemingly relatively strong, I think these concerns are quite valid within that realm as well. Even if there are still theatres, and plenty of actors, musicians, costumes & costumers, stagehands, etc., what happens when the tradition of producing, for example, the tortoise-shell hair ornaments for courtesans’ wigs, dies out?

Two of the courtesans’ wigs, complete with hair ornaments (kanzashi), from the 2011 Hawaii Kabuki production of “The Vengeful Sword.” Photo my own.

These hair ornaments are traditionally made by hand, with subtle but important differences in design to be appropriate for different characters, and in particular forms that are particularly good at remaining in place despite actors’ exaggerated movements. As a recent Asahi Shinbun article explains, many of the craftsmen who produce these ornaments have no successors, and there are fears of the art dying out. Master craftsman Takahashi Toshio is quoted in the article saying, “If the ornaments I currently have become unusable, no more will be available.” Learning of this situation, freelance writer Tamura Tamiko established in 2009 an organization known as Dogu Labo for Japanese Traditional Performing Arts, or 伝統芸能の道具ラボ, which has since then been raising funds and otherwise working to help support these specific arts.

This year, the organization has entered into a partnership with a manufacturer of eyeglass frames – another object traditionally made from tortoiseshell – which has now put its industrial machines to work producing plastic replicas of the traditional hair ornaments. From the tone of the Asahi article, this really seems to be a sort of savior for meeting demands for such costume elements. In addition, however, Dogu Labo is seeking to hire interns or apprentices to learn the traditional skills of how to make stage props, hairpins, and the like, in order to keep the tradition alive.

On a somewhat related note, speaking of kabuki, a film has been discovered depicting an amateur kabuki performance & party involving Mishima Yukio, Edogawa Ranpo, Ishihara Shintarô, and Kobayashi Hideo. Sadly, beyond an image of Ishihara as Sukeroku, the brief news article doesn’t tell us much more, let alone contain an online version of the video. But, still, quite a find.

A Korean ritual seal associated with King Taejo (1683), on display now at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea. An example of the very same type of object, but otherwise unrelated to those seized by customs and returned to Korea in this news story. Photo my own.

Finally, for today, Archaeology.com reports that a number of Korean royal seals, taken out of Korea by a US Marine in the 1950s, have been recovered and returned to Korea.

Though I may not be a Korea specialist, through my studies of Okinawa (Ryukyu), I have come to appreciate something of the impact of the loss or destruction of so much of Ryukyu’s royal accoutrements, and thus their great importance and moral/cultural value. And, having seen a number of royal seals at the Asian Art Museum recently (In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art is still up until Jan 12! Go see it!), I can personally attest to the great beauty and power of these objects.

A very nice story of Korea recovering some precious artifacts. A very different story from those we sadly see so much more often, in terms of Korea and disputes over artifacts.

This Upworthy post & video entitled I Never Thought I’d Want To High-Five A Teacher For Yelling At A Student, But I Was Wrong has been going around on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) in the last few weeks… I’ve seen a number of people express great support for it, as we all quite often, and quite rightfully, do when we find a video that calls out societal wrongs and aims to make a difference. I felt quite differently.

I cannot express how angry and upset this video made me. It took more than half an hour for a friend to talk me down. I put off writing this post for a long time, and considered not posting it at all, for fear of the feedback. But, I am still terribly offended, appalled, disgusted, with this teacher for treating her students this way, for thinking it okay to do so, and for thinking this an appropriate way to teach about racism, and I continue to see people posting positively about this video, so I feel I need to say my piece. If we disagree, I hope we can discuss it civilly and calmly, focusing on issues of pedagogy and discourse, without saying anything that should make anyone feel personally attacked.

The video opens with the teacher talking to students about listening skills, and body language, in a very severe, harsh, authoritarian sort of manner. She clearly expects the students to behave as she dictates, and to reiterate things as they’ve been taught, without question. One student, a young lady in a bandana, attempts to say something about how strict adherence to a set rule doesn’t actually work in all aspects, or doesn’t apply in all situations, and the teacher not only shuts her down, but does so in a manner that sets up the rest of the class against her. The teacher says “bring it on, bring it on,” as other students laugh, and then as the student attempts to make her voice heard over the commotion, the teacher says “now, does that make sense, what you just said?” The student continues, setting up a “yes, in general it’s like this, but..” sort of argumentative structure, but is rudely interrupted by the teacher who tells her STOP, you’re getting too wordy.

I apologize for this pop media reference, when it should have been a picture from a famous civil rights protest or the like. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good picture of a single person standing up amongst a crowd, to speak out against injustice. And this one served the purpose…

She raises her hand. She attempts to play within the rules of a normal classroom, signalling that she has something to say, but is politely waiting to speak rather than shouting out. She is denied again, and harshly, being told that if she is raising her hand, it means she’s thinking about what she wants to say, rather than truly listening to what others are saying. A fair point. But, even so, this strikes me as terribly controlling, overbearing. Clearly, this is no normal American classroom. As the teacher continues to attempt to shut her down, the student continues to speak up. Finally, she says “I don’t care, because it’s wrong, and you persecuted her for standing out, and you persecuted him for standing out, and the only change that ever happens is when people stand out.” The teacher then says, “Martin Luther King…”

I was ready to applaud. I thought the girl’s reaction was precisely what the teacher was looking for – that people should not take things sitting down, that when someone demands you have to think like them, have to think their way, without questioning, that people should instead speak out. I thought the teacher was going to say “Martin Luther King spoke out against injustice. He stood up, and spoke out, when few others would, and when the status quo and the powers that be were very much in opposition to him.”

Imagine my surprise when she instead completely discredits this student’s courage, her outrage, her willingness to stand up against injustice, by saying “Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Are you in any physical danger here?” Seems to me somebody is missing the point. Martin Luther King spoke up, spoke out for what he believed in, despite the physical danger. This girl, too, stood up and spoke out, despite the dangers of a verbal chastising, detention, suspension, a failing grade, or whatever other consequences a teacher might be able to dole out.

And yet, as the video continues, we are led to believe that this student, the one student who was willing to stand up to an authoritarian presence, the one student who felt the injustice of the situation so strongly that she became quite genuinely upset, was in the wrong. That she’s the one who didn’t get it. And that all the students who simply sat there silently, accepting what the teacher told them without question, were the ones who “got” the lesson.

I don’t disagree with this teacher’s message whatsoever, of course, but I very much take issue with her methods. There is a very important lesson to be learned here about racism, to be sure, and it is a lesson that I think everyone should learn. But I do not think that being domineering and controlling is the way to do it. For such a complex, touchy, and deeply personal, topic as racism, I believe the best way to do it is to have open discussion perhaps based around readings, a film, a lecture, or the like. Allow people to ask questions. Allow people to ask why. Allow people to share what they have experienced, or what they have been taught, and help them work towards a more progressive or enlightened understanding. This is how I learned about indigenous issues in Hawaii and the Pacific (and by extension, indigenous, post-colonial and ethnic/race issues around the world), and I am extremely grateful to my professor for teaching in this manner. For understanding that if I came into the class believing certain things about the United States, about imperialism, about native peoples, it was only because that’s what we are taught in public school, and by popular media, that I am not an inherently “racist” or bad person, and that with exposure to new narratives, evidence, discussion, and debate, I can come to a new and more progressive understanding.

When you force a paradigm, a discourse, down someone’s throat, telling them you have to see it my way, you have to think how I think, without allowing for raised hands, without allowing for questions, that is how attitudes are enforced in fascist and totalitarian regimes, not here in the United States. If this were a lesson on civil disobedience, if this were a lesson on how Nazi Germany and Maoist China and totalitarian Japan ran their education system, and on why we in the free and democratic United States oppose their methods, then having the student defy the teacher, to speak out against having an ideology shoved down her throat, would be the right answer, the correct ideal outcome.

Just because your lesson, your message, is a morally superior one, an anti-racist one, does that entitle you to use such methods? How is your forcing me to unquestioningly believe one thing about race that much different from forcing me to believe a different thing about race? What sets you apart from so many others, in Germany and China and Japan, who have in such a domineering controlling way forced students to adhere to a given ideology?

I’ve heard of this “experiment” before, and indeed remember being taught about it from a very young age, albeit in a slightly different context. The metaphor was not whites and blacks, but rather Jews and Gentiles. We were taught that this was similar to how the Nazis ran their classrooms, and their society. The Jews and the Gentiles were separated, the Jews forced to wear a yellow star on their shirts identifying them as different. And so they were treated differently. And if anyone spoke out, they were not only harshly punished, but they were made an example of, so that the other students would remain in line. Adherence was reinforced not only through fear, but through ideology, making the students believe that aligning with the teacher, adhering to what teacher taught, was the right, good, proper, way to be. And in talking about this experiment, the entire point of the discussion, the entire point of the experiment, was for the students to realize that the set-up itself, the division and different treatment of people by whatever features, is unjust, is inappropriate, and is something to be opposed. In other words, within the metaphorical context of this experiment, Mrs. Elliot represents the authority figure enforcing the institution’s racism, by herself dividing people up in her classroom, and treating them differently, and as such, she should not be obeyed, but should be resisted and opposed.

Now, I don’t know what this student would have said were she allowed an opportunity to speak; many who have shared this video on Facebook have suggested that what she had to say was racist, in opposition to or resistance against the underlying lesson being taught. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but, have not we all struggled with our own prejudices? Have we not all struggled with the belief systems, the myths and discourses about our identities that we were raised with? Were not a great many of us raised, for example, to believe in Columbus as a great noble explorer, in Manifest Destiny and western expansion as great, noble things that allow us to have the great God-given country that we have today? Were we not taught that the United States has never been an imperialist/colonialist power, and that in fact, the US is from its origins, ultimately anti-imperialist & anti-colonialist? As someone who has myself struggled very much with unlearning these lessons we’ve all been taught in the past, and as someone who has often felt personally under attack simply for being who I am – accused of being racist, misogynist, imperialist, oppressor, purely because I am a white male from a well-off suburban New York family, regardless of my actual beliefs, attitudes, experiences, actions – and most importantly, as someone raised from a very young age with stories of how the Nazis spread and reinforced their ideology, I sympathize very much with wanting to stand up, to speak out, against the forceful blanket imposition of an ideology, whether that ideology is good or bad.

What lesson have these students learned? That Ms. Elliot is a harsh bitch? That one should not ask questions, should not question or challenge, or even consider or think about what a teacher tells you, but should just accept it at face value because she’s the teacher, and she’s right? Is that the lesson we want our students to learn? Is that what it means to be an American?

The list of things that disgust and appall me about this video could fill numerous pages. But I think this post is long enough as is, and so I shall leave it here.

Laura Willard, who created the post on Upworthy, writes “Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.” As for myself, not that long ago, I too could have been the girl who walked out. I’m glad that my teachers welcomed me back into the room more warmly, less harshly, using discussion to help me come around, rather than excluding me as harshly as this teacher, Jane Elliot, does here. I am glad that my teachers allowed me to ask questions, so that I could work through the answers myself, to come to decide for myself what I believe, and why I believe it, for such is a much stronger, more genuinely belief than something you are forced to agree to, simply because your teacher said so.

Caroline Kennedy Time Slip

Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador of the United States to Japan, traveled to the Imperial Palace this past Tuesday to formally present her credentials to the Emperor.

What I find incredibly interesting is the manner in which she traveled to the palace. In a horse-drawn carriage that looks like it could be straight out of the Meiji period, complete with horsemen and footmen in gloriously anachronistic dress. Is this typical? Is this standard? Have all US ambassadors, or all ambassadors from any country, to Japan, traveled to offer their credentials in this same manner?

It’s an Imperial carriage, as indicated by the gold chrysanthemum crest on the sides; Kennedy, like Ulysses S. Grant more than 130 years ago, is being received and welcomed like royalty. So, that’s certainly interesting, and I’m sure there’s something to be said for Japanese attitudes towards JFK and the Kennedy family. I’d love to see that something said, explained out, by someone more thoroughly familiar with the subject. Maybe comparisons to Grant’s visit in 1879, or descriptions of the history & tradition of the ceremony surrounding previous ambassadors’ presentations of their credentials. Instead, I am somewhat surprised, and disappointed, to see that, of the admittedly few news articles I have read on the event, none make even the vaguest attempt to address the history of this practice, or its symbolism or significance. What political/diplomatic symbolic message is Japan sending to its citizens, to the world, to Ms. Kennedy, by having her ride in this sort of carriage? What does it mean, what does it signify, indicate, or represent, that this is done in this style, in this manner, rather than any other form? What message does it send that this ritual is draped so extensive in the aesthetics and forms not of any other period, but specifically of the Meiji (or perhaps Taishô) period?

I love ritual and performance, tradition and culture, and I love that they’re not doing this in an utterly post-war late 20th century sort of way. Black Towncar, everyone in suits, whatever. Boring. And, I absolutely understand why they wouldn’t have Ms. Kennedy ride in, for example, a more traditional Japanese palanquin. Not only does that send totally the wrong message about Japan’s modernity, but, there is no way that a palanquin ride is comfortable. Not to mention that any kind of palanquin, sedan chair, or rickshaw would be just asking for accusations of Orientalism on Ms. Kennedy’s part, and rightfully so, as it would so easily resemble and be compared to images of Western women (and men) riding around 19th century Japan, China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa, etc., in such conveyances. Thankfully, those involved seem to recognize the discursive dangers inherent in such an option and have avoided them.

Image from the Daily Mail. (c) AFP / Getty Images.

However, Meiji was a period when Japan was doing its best to emulate the Western powers, in a wide variety of ways, in order to prove itself modern, including the adoption of European diplomatic/political protocols and elite/aristocratic material culture. “Look at us, we’ve got horse-drawn carriages! And floofy hats! And these cool waistcoats! Look at us, being modern! Just like you!” Except that today, these protocols appear a full 100 years out of date. Or at least they do to an American eye; I guess I can’t really speak to what a Brit might think, given the period style of much of the ritual & ceremony that goes on over there. Are we still not past that feeling of a need to prove ourselves “modern”?

Furthermore, by recalling Meiji, this recalls a period which, for all its many positive and laudable attributes, was also a period characterized by political structures and culture which directly laid the groundwork for the ultra-nationalist, imperialist, militarist, and expansionist politics & culture of the 1930s-1945.

Of course, such associations are only one possible interpretation. I am merely playing around with some of the possible connections that might be drawn. … I have no doubt that all in all this was simply meant in order to add an additional layer of pomp and circumstance, of aristocratic tradition, and, for all the potential suggestions of absurdity, or of negative connotations, there are some wonderful resonances with, again, for example, the visit of Gen. Grant, drawing a wonderful link to the past, and recalling a time when the material culture of politics & diplomacy was considerably less blah.

Image from NBC News. (c) Imperial Household Agency of Japan via AFP – Getty Images

I eagerly look forward to a more scholarly in-depth analysis, perhaps from an art historian. Japan Focus?

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has a fantastic exhibit up right now, through Jan 12 2014, of images and objects related to royal ceremonies and processions in Joseon Dynasty Korea, many of them on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea itself. And, despite all these objects being on loan, photography was allowed! Thank you, Asian Art Museum!!

My research focuses on ritual processions, and paintings of them, and so this exhibit was particularly interesting for me. I’ve looked at a number of paintings, prints, and illustrated books depicting Ryukyuan processions in early modern Japan. Comparisons to Korean processions could, in theory, be quite useful for me. And, indeed, it was interesting to see how similar the content of the images was, and how different the format and composition. In short, we see a lot of the same elements – extremely similar style of palanquins, ceremonial umbrellas, names of official posts – but, whereas the Japanese depictions of Ryukyuan & Korean processions generally display figures in single- or double-file, and quite large, in great detail, in a manner that might be said to resemble the view of the procession from the side of street, here we see something perhaps more resembling a bird’s eye view, with figures spread out in a grid, rather than bunched up in file. In any case, in short, it’s certainly given me a lot to think about, and I look forward to getting my hands on the catalog (available on Amazon for a very reasonable $26.42).

Plus, the exhibition included quite a few objects which certainly seem like they would be of great historical significance & really special to get to see. I regret my ignorance when it comes to Korean history… I’ve seen exhibits of objects of similar significance for Japanese history, and have felt it a very special and fortunate opportunity.

This was really a fantastic exhibit; I’m sorry I didn’t get to spend more time and see it more thoroughly. But I absolutely recommend it to anyone who can make it out.

In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art During the Joseon Dynasty is on display at the Asian Art Museum at Civic Center, San Francisco, from Oct 25 2013 until Jan 12 2014. Admission to the special exhibit is included in regular admission to the museum.

An image that was making its way around my Facebook feed a few weeks ago. People get very tied up in the idea that they don’t possess the proper training, or knowledge, to be able to properly appreciate a work of art. But, really, according to one school of thought at least, no matter how you appreciate it, no matter what you get out of it, that’s a valid, proper, response. I know, myself, I get caught up far too easily in what I do know, or can figure out, about the art – style, period, symbolism, the character or scene being depicted – while my father, a bright guy but in no way a trained art historian, often has the greatest insights, coming to it as he does with a much fresher eye, and an open mind.

A short post by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings offers some famous historical quotes about art, and what is art. They include:

Above all, artists must not be only in art galleries or museums — they must be present in all possible activities. The artist must be the sponsor of thought in whatever endeavor people take on, at every level. – Michelangelo Pistoletto

Art begins with resistance — at the point where resistance is overcome. No human masterpiece has ever been created without great labor. – André Gide

An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk then how are you going to make something really beautiful, that hasn’t been seen before? I always like to say that cinema without risk is like having no sex and expecting to have a baby. You have to take a risk. – Francis Ford Coppola

So, art is produced by individuals. It is inspired, and is a form of very personal self-expression. It is also a mode of political or social commentary. Art is meant to be a masterpiece. Art is meant to make people think. Art is meant to challenge assumptions.

And yet, are we not here making assumptions about art itself?

Personally, I vacillate between enjoying, and rejecting, this approach to art, this very modernist or post-modernist approach that highlights the artist as genius, and the artwork itself as thought-provoking, inspired. This kind of thing can be quite fun, quite inspiring, quite interesting at times. But, in the periods that I study (namely, especially, the Edo period of Japanese history), and indeed for artworks produced throughout the pre-modern and early modern world, I think the pertinent notion is not one of the individual artist who produces art as a mode of self-expression, nor as a mode of political or social commentary, but rather an appreciation that art provides a window into the aesthetic and culture of a particular time and place. That art serves a certain social, cultural, and economic purpose within its cultural/historical context.

This is, of course, a false dichotomy – those are not the only two possibilities that exist, nor are they necessarily opposed to one another. But, I do think that modernist attitudes about art have come to dominate our assumptions about all art, allowing this set of values and attitudes that are actually little more than a hundred years old1 to become our primary, our chief, set of attitudes about art, when in fact these attitudes are not properly applicable to anything produced outside of that mode.

Further, modernist art has infected the popular collective consciousness, such that when you stop someone on the street and ask them if they like art, or what they think about art, I think it’s a relatively safe assumption that the response they give, saying “I don’t get art. I don’t understand that crazy stuff,” is a response to their envisioning a Jackson Pollock, or Mondrian, or performance art in the style of Allan Kaprow or Marina Abramovic. Since when did our default imagination of “art” become abstract, expressionist, crazy, modernist art, rather than hearing the word “art” and immediately thinking of portraits and landscapes in oil on canvas anything else, the much wider, broader span of what might be considered “art”? I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who’d say they don’t “get” Rembrandt or Rubens or Velasquez, and indeed I am one of them insofar as if you asked me to explain the finer points of the composition, use of color, or symbolism, as an art historian would; but anyone can appreciate that an artwork is beautiful, moving, and/or masterful. And is that not good enough?

(1) Art historians typically trace the origins of the “cult of the artist” to Michelangelo; in other words, they say Michelangelo represents the first generation of artists who were seen as inspired individuals, and appreciated for their personal style and creativity, rather than simply their masterful skill. Still, art as personal self-expression, non-representational and abstract art, art as social commentary, did not get into full swing in the West until the late 19th century at the earliest, beginning with the Impressionists.

*I posted a few weeks ago about a dispute between the Russian government and Chabad, over a collection of documents which Chabad claims Russia is refusing to return to them. A not-so-different situation has emerged in Japan regarding a number of Buddhist sculptures stolen by Koreans, who claim they were simply stealing them back, and who now refuse to return the objects to Japan.

Two Buddhist sculptures recently stolen from Tsushima and now in the hands of S. Korean authorities. Images from Japan Daily Press.

One such sculpture, the New York Times reports, was seemingly stolen right out of a Buddhist temple on the Japanese island of Tsushima. The statue, originally held in a Korean temple in the early 14th century, has been on Tsushima for centuries, and has been designated an Important Cultural Property by Nagasaki Prefecture. As the article relates, the statue was soon afterwards discovered by South Korean police, but then a Korean court judged that the object did not need to be repatriated to Japan, as its arrival in Japan may have originally been at the hands of pirates who stole it from Korea.

A model of a red seal ship, or shuinsen, on display at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). Though the model is not explicitly, specifically, labeled as or intended to be a pirate vessel, but rather, by definition an authorized, legal, merchant vessel (the “red seal” being the official mark of authorization), this is representative of a typical seagoing Japanese ship of that time.

People sure are obsessed over these pirates. I of course know nothing about this specific case, and cannot say whether the object was, indeed, brought to Japan by pirates who stole it from Korea, or not. But, I can say that contrary to popular belief, the so-called wakô (C: Wōkòu, K: waegu, lit. “Japanese bandits”) were not exclusively or even primarily of Japanese origin. A great many of them were from China, Korea, or Southeast Asia. Even if the object had been stolen by pirates in the 15th or 16th centuries, does that really mean that it ought to be returned to Korea? Is it still an outstanding case, an ongoing “wrong” that needs to be righted? Or is it just history? Where do we draw the line? Interestingly, the Japan Daily Press reports that the Chosun Ilbo, one of S. Korea’s most major newspapers, has published pieces by Korean scholars arguing both in support of the piracy theory, and against it, with the latter scholar suggesting the statue may have made its way to Japan as a gift, as part of diplomatic exchanges between Joseon Dynasty Korea and Tokugawa Japan.

Last year’s (2012) Tsushima Arirang Festival Korean Missions Procession, as recorded & uploaded by YouTube user syokichi0102.

Tokugawa Japan & Joseon Korea had rather peaceful and friendly relations for roughly 250 years, from the early 1600s until the 1850s or so, via Tsushima. A great many objects were given as gifts, in both directions, though the Korean authorities today (and in particular, representatives of the temple which originally owned the statue back in the early 14th century) seem dead-set on rejecting the idea that the sculpture could have possibly been gifted or sold willingly. The Korean diplomatic missions which passed through Tsushima in the 17th-19th centuries are celebrated and reenacted every year by the people of the island along with visitors from South Korea. Or, at least, they are normally. The festival has been canceled this year, in response to the Korean court’s decision, and the broader controversy/incident surrounding the theft of this sculpture.

Roughly half the residents of Tsushima have now signed a petition to be submitted to the Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, asking that the statue be returned. We shall see what happens. The Japan Times (in English) and J-Cast News (in Japanese) also have articles on this subject.

The Korean peninsula as depicted in Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu.

*Meanwhile, on a related note, while I fully admit that I do not know much at all about the actual content of Korean scholarship, I have always gotten the impression that it is rather nationalistic, and in particular, emphasizing a Korean cultural superiority & individuality, downplaying Chinese influence on Korea, and up-playing Japan’s cultural/historical debt to Korean cultural influence, while also emphasizing Japanese violence and militarism throughout history. To what extent, or in what precise ways, any of that is or isn’t true, in all honesty, I do not really know for myself.

But, given those rumors I’ve heard, given those impressions I’d been given, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear about best-selling S. Korean art historian You Hong-june, whose newest book not only goes against my impressions of what is typical in Korean scholarship, but also appears to provide radically new and interesting – genuinely valuable – perspectives on the history of Korean-Japanese interactions.

To give an example, during Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea in the 1590s, in addition to the extensive violence inherent in any such war, a great many potters and craftsmen were also kidnapped from Korea, essentially taken as prisoners of war, and forced to teach their techniques to Japanese potters. Any art history textbook will tell you that many of the most famous Japanese pottery styles owe their origins in Japan to these Korean potters. Most English-language scholarship that I’ve seen has emphasized the kidnapping, the terrible wrongs inherent in those actions, and rightly so. I get the impression that most Korean scholarship emphasizes this violence even further, and while I don’t really know, I somehow get the impression that much Japanese scholarship might not take too different a position, acknowledging this as kidnapping, as a violent act. But, getting to the point, interestingly, You Hong-june is quoted as pointing out an additional, interesting, and important side of all this: “In a description of the area in Kyushu that produced the Arita and Imari styles of pottery, You writes that the potters brought to Japan by troops sent to invade the Korean Peninsula by the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 16th century were ‘of lowly status in Korea, but in Japan treated as skilled artisans.'”

Speaking of the origins of the Japanese state, and of “Japanese” culture in the 6th-8th centuries, You also writes that “foreigners [i.e. Koreans] who came to settle in ancient Japan exerted an influence, but what grew there should be regarded as Japan’s own culture.” Again, as I don’t read Korean, I can’t say what truly is said in most Korean scholarship, but I get the impression this is a relatively radical notion against claims of Japan’s origins being entirely a borrowing, or a stealing, of superior Korean culture, or something to that effect.

Stereotypes and misconceptions abound in any and every culture. That’s unavoidable. But, You seems to be encouraging Korean readers to take a fresh, new, open-minded look at Japan. “Knowing about Japan as it really is will further broaden readers’ understanding of Korean history,” he writes, encouraging a less nationalistically-centered view of Korean history and Korean identity, and instead one more engaged with regional exchanges and interconnectedness. Having only these quotes from today’s Asahi article, I can’t say what the content of his book is like through-and-through, but if it’s anything like what I suspect, it could be wonderful to see it translated and published in Japanese and English, providing a new, different, additional perspective on Korean attitudes about Japan.


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