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Emperor of Japan

I’m currently working on a small project based in the Meiji period, so as soon as I got home (for the winter break), I grabbed Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World off the shelf, and started flipping through it.

This is a monster of a book, as you can clearly see. It’s nearly 800 pages, and that’s not including notes, bibliography, index, etc. It’s surely the most detailed account of the life and times of the Meiji Emperor available in English – at that length, it would be hard not to be. One review on GoodReads, as well as several of my friends, expressed how difficult it is to get through this book, and I certainly can’t blame them. As the reviewer on GoodReads writes, “It wasn’t that the subject matter wasn’t fascinating; the problem was that Keene has no sense of priority. The book is loaded down with far too much detail with no concession to relevance.”

He may have a point. Still, I think that same level of detail that this reviewer complains about could potentially make Emperor of Japan a rather valuable resource. Granted, for any specific episode (e.g. General Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879, or the overthrow and annexation of Ryukyu around the same time), there is likely a full-length journal article or two that describes the topic in greater detail. But, even so, I’ve certainly found it an entertaining and interesting read for the brief sections I’ve chosen to pick up. To bring it around in a different way, let me say this – while an excessive level of detail may weigh down the book and make it less of a page-turner, it provides a fuller, more complete, narrative than most scholarly analyses. Where many other texts might mention King Kalakaua’s visit to Japan, for example, only very briefly, if at all, Keene devotes a full four pages to it. And where an argumentative/analytical work might pick and choose only those aspects of Kalakaua’s visit that support the author’s argument, Keene simply lays out a series of details (certainly not the most complete version possible, but, then, is that ever truly possible?) that allow one, as the reader, to then pull from in order to form different interpretations or arguments, or simply to understand a more full version of the narrative.

Here we see not only that Emperor Meiji and King Kalakaua discussed Japanese emigration to Hawaii, for example, and the political and economic details and implications, such as might appear in an article arguing something political, economic, or social historical about the origins of the Japanese-American community, but rather, we also see how Kalakaua and Meiji shook hands, how Meiji received Kalakaua almost at the threshold of his palace, and walked with him, as equals; we see Kalakaua being offered refreshments, but refusing, having heard it would be improper to eat in front of the Emperor, and we see the Emperor (or his men, at least) paying a visit to Kalakaua and his men only an hour after dismissing them, in an effort to adhere to European royal customs of etiquette, only to find the Hawaiians all in their underwear, relaxing after the long day. I suppose if someone really wanted to know the fine details of what Kalakaua ate while in Japan, where he stayed, what he wore, and what the Emperor wore, etc., they could look for the Complete Writings of David Kalakaua, or the like. But, there’s still something to be said, I think, for a rich, dense narrative like this one, that focuses not exclusively on political movements, but on personal, cultural, visual & material aspects, truly constructing for the reader a sense of the aesthetic & cultural world in which the Meiji Emperor lived, and the complexity of the many different things going on in his life, in his Court, in his government all at once. It is easy, when reading a journal article about Kalakaua’s visit, for example, to lose track of just what else might have been going on in Tokyo (or in the Imperial Palace in particular) at that time.

While there may be a wonderful wealth of books and articles discussing the Meiji period from a conceptual, ideological, or analytic point of view, providing valuable discussions of colonialist & imperialist discourses, discourses of “modernity,” and the like, here is a rare work actually describing what happened, in a direct, detailed, narrative manner.

Liebster Awards


Much thanks to Buri-chan of the blog San’in Monogatari, where she shares wonderful posts about her adventures in tea ceremony, kimono, and otherwise in Matsue, for nominating me for the Liebster Award! It was a most pleasant surprise to see her message this morning. (Of course, I realize now that the nomination was actually back in August… thanks much for the reminder!)

The Liebster award is intended to give some exposure to small blogs with less than 200 followers. The rules are as follows:

1] Link back to the blogger who nominated you
2] Answer the 11 questions given to you by the blogger who nominated you
3] Nominate 11 other bloggers with less than 200 followers
4] Go to the blogs you nominated and notify them of your nomination
5] Give your nominees 11 questions to answer.

—-
So, without further ado, here are the questions I’ve received from Buri-chan. Apologies that they’re not the tightest, most eloquently written answers…

1. What inspires you to blog?
I think there are sort of two categories of sources of inspiration for me. One, there are simply a lot of things I see, hear about, read, or experience which I want to share, or share my thoughts about. And this is a nice platform to get to do that, to share my thoughts and interests on all sort of things, without being restricted by the limits of proper scholarly production – I can simply post on here without having to be truly expert, without having to do extensive research, and without having to be vetted or peer-reviewed.

Secondly, I take great inspiration from those I’m nominating in return, and from many of my other friends, who are so active and engaged in online communities, blogging, and social media, and who produce such excellent material. Not only do they set a high bar that I hope to reach for, but there is also a sort of romantic notion of involvement, engagement, which I yearn for. Not that I seek “fame” or “popularity,” per se, but it is a wonderful feeling to think that I am involved, that I am an active participant in the online discussion, beyond those I directly, physically interact with in the halls of the History department here in Santa Barbara. And, if through blogging, Tumblr, podcasts, and the like, I can have some impact, gain some small degree of “internet fame,” it’s wonderful to feel engaged in this global, social networking, internet world, to express myself and be engaged in a way I cannot be in academia (given the snail’s pace at which formal research, peer review, publication, etc. works in academia, and given, ultimately, how few people outside of academia will ever see what you produce).

2. What do you hope readers take away from your blog?
Oh, I don’t know. Of course, I would love if I might have some kind of impact on inspiring readers’ interest in kabuki, Ryûkyû, Japanese arts, or Japanese history more broadly, or if I might help to break down US/Eurocentric attitudes, stereotypes about Japan, or the like. But, I harbor no delusions that I might actually be having such an impact. So long as readers enjoy it, and maybe learn something, that’s more than enough of a “take away” for me.

3. In a world without the internet, how would you try to accomplish the above?
I’m already on my way to hopefully becoming a published scholar; I also entertain ideas of curating museum exhibitions. But, in a world without the internet, I suppose I would also try to get a position writing theatre reviews or as an art critic for a magazine or newspaper or the like.

It’s kind of incredible how much the internet has changed our world, and this question really brings that to the forefront. I very often think how much I’d love to be more involved in podcasts, in writing for major online magazines or aggregator blogs, or the like, but all that too, and not just this one blogging platform, would be unavailable “in a world without the internet.” We’d be relegated to local radio, or local newspapers at best, unless one could crack into the much more exclusive and limited (read: small) world of truly national or international media.

4. Would you rather live in the mountains or by the beach?
Whichever has a more active city, walkable and accessible (i.e. public transportation), with lots going on, the kind of place I’d be “missing out on” if I weren’t there. I’ve never been to, for example, Denver, but I imagine I could be just as happy there as, say, Boston (which does have beaches), more so than Goleta, despite Goleta having the prettier beaches.

5. What food are you proud you tried, but would never eat again?
Crab, basashi, habu-shu, nattô.

6. Do you have any interesting stories behind any scars?
No, not really. Thankfully, I don’t have very many scars, or “interesting” stories of that sort. One very small scar I have on my foot comes from being stung by a Portuguese man-o-war while walking on the beach at Kailua a few years ago. I must say, they’re a lot smaller than I’d thought – about the size of a quarter.

7. How would you pitch your favorite travel destination to someone who has never heard of it?
Places people haven’t heard of? Well, that rules out Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Tokyo, and Kyoto… So, I suppose if I were to try to pitch someone to visit Naha, I’d tell them about the amazing food, the glorious history and historical sites (especially Shuri palace), and the music. Oh, yeah, and nice weather, beaches, whatever. Granted, I’d want it to be more well-organized and articulated than that, but, that’s the basic gist. Okinawa! More than just beaches and scuba diving and whatever! History! Culture! Food!

8. Your camera breaks while you’re on an exciting vacation. What do you do?
This sadly seems to happen to me quite frequently. I’ve bought new cameras last minute quite a few times; in fact, I think at least half the cameras I’ve owned were bought in such a fashion, in Japan.

9. However big or small, what’s something you have always wanted to try doing?
I’m sure there are a ton of things that would be rightful answers to this, but one thing I’ve been thinking about in recent years that I would very much like to someday achieve, would be to organize a museum exhibition of Okinawan arts, or art depicting Okinawan subjects, that goes beyond the standard tropes of “folk art” or “folk culture,” to really show a fuller sense of the history and elite culture of Okinawa.

On the rare occasion that we see exhibits of Okinawan art at all, it’s usually textiles, lacquerwares, and pottery. And that’s all well and good, and there are reasons for that – chiefly, the fact that these are the objects which are most prevalent and numerous and easy for museums, especially outside of Japan, to acquire. Sometimes we also see exhibits of post-war and contemporary art, which is either very political, or largely abstract and conceptual. But I fear this gives an impression of Okinawa as a quaint, rural sort of place that possesses only “low arts,” and/or as a place defined solely by its much more recent history, when in fact, historically, Ryûkyû was a proper kingdom, with ornate palaces, elaborate court protocols and rituals, and just as much emphasis on “high culture” as Japan or Korea, including ink paintings, calligraphy, gorgeous architecture & sculpture, music, theatre, dance, etc. It’s just that a lot of Ryukyuan paintings and other artifacts were destroyed in World War II, and so are far more rare today than those from Japan or Korea.

But, the Okinawa Prefectural Museum has a few tens of paintings by Ryukyuan scholar-officials, including ink landscapes, birds & flowers, portraits and the like, as well as works of calligraphy. The Imperial collections (at the Sannomaru Shôzôkan) have a series of beautiful landscapes by one of Japan’s first oil painters, depicting scenes in Okinawa. The University of Hawaii, British Museum, and a number of collections in Japan have gorgeous handscroll paintings, also by Japanese artists, depicting the processions of the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo… not to mention folding screen paintings of Naha Harbor held by a number of Japanese universities, the collection of fine 18th century musical instruments held at Nagoya Castle, and the many illustrated books, some in manuscript copies, owned by the University of Hawaii and other institutions. I know that for many of these objects it is exceptionally unlikely, but if we could get these objects together, and put on a proper show about the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom and its “high” arts, that would really be a dream come true.

10. A favorite childhood memory?
You know, sad as it may be, I just can’t really bring to mind any particular childhood memories. There are things I know I did, things I remember hearing about, or telling about, or seeing in photos, but things that I actually remember experiencing? I’m not sure any really come to mind.

11. What person, in any place or time period, would you trade places with for a day?
An excellent question. You know, I had never even thought of this, trading places. More often, we see the question “if you could travel to any time and place,” but the problem with that question is that as a skinny white man with an American accent, there are a great many times and places I could not go without standing out like a sore thumb. Send me to early modern Japan, and I’d be immediately executed (or, if I’m lucky, deported to Batavia) as a foreigner.

But, to switch places, and actually fit in, well, that certainly opens up the field. I’d like to be a Ryukyuan scholar-official, able to see Shuri & Naha at their height, and, if it were for longer than just a day, to get to visit Kagoshima, Edo, Fuzhou, and Beijing… Or I could simply switch places with an Edoite, I’m not sure who, someone of some means but not too much responsibility, so that I could see Edo at its height. Visit the kabuki theatre and see one of the truly great stars of all time; maybe, depending on who I’ve switched places with, getting to meet some of the famous artists, poets, and the like of the time. I’d be tempted, of course, to visit the Yoshiwara, too, just to see what it was like, since this is one of the most major parts of Edo popular culture that does not really survive at all today (unlike sumo, kabuki, and prints). But, then, the Yoshiwara was surely overflowing with STDs and just general filth, so I might be better off to skip it entirely.

And now, 11 questions for those I am nominating, mostly borrowed from those asked of Buri-chan on her own Liebster Awards page.

1) What prompted you to start your blog, and what keeps you going?

2) How have your attitudes towards blogging, your style or approach, changed since you’ve begun your blog?

3) What’s your favorite place that you have lived?

4) What is one of your favorite sites (a temple, castle, or other historical or cultural site) that you have visited, and why?

5) What is your next travel destination, somewhere you’ve been thinking about wanting to go visit?

6) What was the last concert, play, or performance you went to? Last book you read?

7) Tell us about a book, movie, or the like that changed your perspective.

8) Do you collect anything (e.g. stamps, action figures)?

9) Who is among your favorite historical figures, and why?

10) What is a historical event you find particularly interesting, and why?

11) What person, in any place or time period, would you trade places with for a day?

And, finally, the nominations. My apologies – and congratulations! – if your blog has more than 200 followers; I’m not sure there’s any way for me to know how many followers you have.

1) Marky Star of JAPAN THIS!, one of the most well-researched and wonderfully detailed blogs out there posting about the history of Edo. And wonderfully snarky to boot.

2) Nate Ledbetter of The Sengoku Field Manual, rewriting our understandings of how samurai did battle.

3) The authors of Shogun-ki, the official blog of the Samurai Archives, which despite Wikipedia’s horning in remains, in my opinion, the foremost samurai history site on the Web.

4) Daniel O’Grady of Japanese Castle Explorer, far and away the shiniest Japanese castles website out there, and with lots of great videos of Dan exploring castle sites. I’ve tried doing videos, but the wind and other background sounds were just terrible, and the camera was shaky, and… I don’t know how he does it.

5) Kathryn of Contemporary Japanese Literature, who is constantly posting great translations and insightful analyses of literature, media, and popular culture.

6) Molly Des Jardin of Wasting Gold Paper, my favorite source for digital humanities talk specifically pertinent to Japan.

7) Matt of Kamigata Rakugo, surely the leading rakugo blog in English.

8) Diego Pellecchia of 外国人と能, a most thought-provoking and insightful blog on Noh and traditional Japanese theatre.

9) The folks at Nihonga 日本画, promoting and keeping alive the tradition of traditional Japanese painting.

10) The folks at Vagabonds RPG, who are putting together probably the most well-informed pen-and-paper Japan-based RPG ever, and are posting some wonderful posts in the process, on various aspects of Edo period society.

11) Julia of I would, given unlimited everything, which keeps me on my feet, and keeps me feeling connected to Honolulu life. Her fantastic blog “Real and Imagined Taxa” has sadly gone the way of Geocities, but I eagerly look forward to more linguistic ruminations from Julia.

And, that’s about it. Thanks again so much to Buri-chan for nominating me! Now I just have to go around and let all these other wonderful people know that I have nominated them.


I’m looking forward to visiting the Metropolitan Museum within the next few days, chiefly to see their exhibit Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom, which promises to be a precious rare opportunity to see Korean National Treasures. But there’s always so much going on at the Met, and right now they also have a small exhibit on obelisks, in conjunction with the upcoming conservation of the so-called Cleopatra’s Needle, which stands just outside the museum in Central Park. Allison Meier of Hyperallergic.com posted this fascinating review today (complete with lots of pictures):

When Cleopatra’s Needle was commissioned by Pharaoh Thumose III around 1450 BCE for the Heliopolis sun temple, the island that would be Manhattan was mostly woodlands. Yet through an unlikely journey the 69-foot, 220-ton length of red granite would arrive in 1880 in New York City and become one of the icons of Central Park. Now the obelisk is needing a little care after centuries of movement and decay, and in anticipation of the Central Park Conservancy’s Spring 2014 conservation project, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition on the obelisk, which rests just outside its walls.

Cleopatra’s Needle actually isn’t just an exhibition on that one ancient artifact, but a small exploration of obelisks as a whole, from their symbolism of the sun in ancient Egypt, to monuments of power for Rome, to connections to the past in the Renaissance, to their proliferation through Victorian cemeteries and Egyptomania. The exhibition is only two small galleries, but it still gives a rather thorough overview of the major points of obelisk lore. …

Read more at Hyperallergic.

Photo my own, taken Dec 19, 2013.

Exploring Sakura (Part 2)

It’s been more than six months since I meant to write this post… where last I left off, I’d just visited the three old samurai houses along Kaburaki-kôji, and it was still early in the day. Of course, since it’s been six months, sadly, I can no longer remember exactly what route I took, or how I was feeling, over the course of the day.

To summarize, then, I wandered around the town, which is wonderfully walkable, and checked out a whole bunch of Buddhist temples. I’d picked up a few tourist guide pamphlets and maps at the museum, which list 27 sites across town. Looking at the pamphlets again right now, I realize I missed the Sakura Old Samurai Town Museum of History and Folklore altogether. Drat. But, I did manage to make it to quite a few of the temples. It’s hard to tell from the tourist pamphlets which temples are going to be particularly beautiful, or which might be hiding some great historical significance. So, why not check them all out?

The main hall at Daishô-in.

The first stop was Daishô-in, which is located along the same street as the samurai houses. The home to two of Sakura’s “Seven Lucky Gods” – Daikokuten and Hotei – Daishô-in is also the site of the grave of Hosokawa Tadayoshi, a famous Sakura swordsmith.

Above: The Sakura Shinmachi O-hayashikan. Below: Hiyodori-zaka.

After making my way down Hiyodori-zaka, a small bamboo-lined walking path said to be (more or less) still in the same form it was in the Edo period, I made my way to the center of town, passing by quite a number of old homes dating to the Edo or Meiji periods, and the Tsukamoto Sword Museum, which is closed on weekends, and which I was thus never able to visit. I found my way to the Sakura Shinmachi Ohayashikan, where locals practice folk dances and the like for annual festivals, thinking that I might rent a bicycle, to get around town faster. There are several places in town that one can rent a bike, and it’s a wonderfully convenient thing that they offer it. However, I was advised by the kind woman manning the desk there that it wouldn’t really be worth it, logistically, for me, since bikes had to be returned by 4pm, and returned to one of several places nowhere near the guest house I was staying at (in other words, I’d have to return the bike and then walk halfway across town to get home). Besides, she assured me, the town is really quite walkable – and, dear readers, having now done it, exploring more or less everything there is to see in Sakura, on foot, I’d have to say I agree.

Noticing that quite a few of the temples on the map were quite close together, all along one small side street, I headed off in that direction. And, incidentally, I should mention, Sakura does an excellent job of having signs pointing towards the major historical sites in town. As you walk around the town, you’re constantly coming upon signs with arrows, “Jindaiji 300 m [this way]”, “Juntendo Memorial Hall, 1km [that way],” “Makata Shrine, right here” [point point]. It’s really quite nice, especially as many of the temples are hidden down back streets.

The main hall at Jindai-ji, originally built in 1726, but at a different temple, being moved here only in 1961.

Sôen-ji, home to the grave of Juntendô founder & Rangaku scholar Satô Taizen, was my next stop. It is also the Jurôjin shrine on the circuit of the Sakura Seven Lucky Gods. Sadly, I did not get to see the grave, but Jindai-ji, right across the street, would more than make up for that. Jindai-ji is the patron family temple, or ”bodaiji”, of the Hotta clan, who ruled Sakura from 1746 until the abolition of the domains in 1871. The temple itself is quite nice, with a main hall (hondô) with striking vermillion accents. But, the real key attraction, and I’d say for any fan of samurai history, perhaps the top historical attraction in the city outside of the National History Museum, is the Hotta clan graveyard, which contains the graves of all the Hotta clan daimyô of Sakura, including Hotta Masatoshi (1634-1684, rôjû under Ietsuna and Tairô under Tsunayoshi), Hotta Masayoshi (1810-1864, the chief shogunate official involved in negotiating and signing the Harris Treaty), and Hotta Masatomo (1851-1911, the last daimyô of Sakura, who built the Hotta clan mansion maintained on the outskirts of town). I’ve seen a couple of other clan graveyards – the chief one that comes to mind is that of the Hosokawa at Kôtô-in in Kyoto – but this is the first one I’ve seen where you can really sort of walk around in it.

Not that it’s all that huge – took me no more than five or ten minutes to see the whole thing, including taking pictures and such. It’s also an interesting space in that the temple itself isn’t that large, and is kind of next door, so to speak, so the clan graveyard really doesn’t feel contained within a temple grounds, so much as just sort of, there, along a small suburban street. I suppose, now that I look at my photos again, there is a wall around the cemetery, and gates that can be closed. But, even so, the approach from the street isn’t particularly marked at all – it feels more like entering an empty lot than it does a temple or historical site. Not that I’m complaining – this kind of variety only makes it more interesting. Imagine if all temples & historical sites looked the same.. it’d drain all the enjoyment out of it.

Above: The squat, plain main hall at Shôrin-ji. Right: The “Sakura daibutsu,” at Kyôan-ji.

Shôrin-ji, constructed under the patronage of prominent early Edo period figure Doi Toshikatsu, contains small memorial towers (kuyôtô) dedicated to Toshikatsu, his parents, and his wife, as well as the oldest wooden building in the city. Kairin-ji, meanwhile, is the patron temple of the Chiba clan, though I’m not sure there are actually any proper graves of famous Chiba lords to be found there. Another small temple in town, Kyôan-ji, is known for its large bronze Jizô, also known as the Sakura Daibutsu, despite not being nearly the size of the more famous Daibutsu in Kamakura, or that in Nara.

In wrapping up this post, I suppose I ought to say something about travel tips or the like, rather than just listing off places I saw. Generally, I’m a fan of just wandering around, taking in the atmosphere of the city, and seeing what you run into. I guess that’s the New Yorker in me. But, while that works well in Manhattan, and in a city like Kyoto which is about as dense as they get in historical sites on nearly every corner, in a place like Sakura, or for that matter, Naha, or almost anywhere else you might go, I do think that having a map is a huge help. Especially if, like myself, you do not have a full smartphone data plan in Japan, and thus cannot call upon the internet and Google Maps to help you find your way around.

Even when I was in Kyoto, though, and was in full-on roaming mode, I still usually had a specific destination in mind; and then, on the way to that destination, whether you get lost or find it quickly, you’ll find other things along the way. In Sakura, there were not necessarily all that many historical sites or the like of true interest along the way, but, in the process of traipsing around looking for temples, I did get to see quite a few back streets, residential neighborhoods, and to really get a nice feeling for the town, a bit more than if I’d stuck to the main streets and more exclusively to the bigger-name sites. And there really is something interesting and enjoyable about simply seeing the range of style of houses, the range of layouts of streets (gee, I wonder what it would be like to live on this tiny street, or on this major street, or up on that hill, or next door to this temple). Sakura also has an interesting variety of styles of temple gates – it might just be that I visited so many in one day, but it truly did strike me, how some temples had simply two stone pillars framing the entrance to the space, some had more elaborate roofed wooden gates, and some no gates at all; Myôryû-ji even has a pair of ornately carved white pillars topped with lion-dogs, one of which has sadly, however, toppled over. The temple buildings themselves are also quite varied, in a calm, simple sort of way.

Since I did visit so many in one day, and since each was so small, with very little to take notice of, or to set them apart, beyond simply the style of the buildings, I guess it helped focus me in on noticing the variety. I can’t quite figure out how to put it into words… of course temples have great variety – if you go around Kyoto, you’ll see some incredibly, wildly different buildings. But, in Sakura, none of the buildings are, to be honest, all that especially striking, and in a way, this makes the variety more… what am I trying to say? I guess, the great famous monuments of Kyoto will certainly give you a crash course in many of the most iconic buildings in Japanese history, but, Sakura gives me a sense of seeing a more standard, typical, variety of architecture such as would have (and, obviously, still does) exist in any average typical Japanese city. Kyoto, Nara, certain other cities, you know are going to have a rather special feel, because of their very special histories. But, in Sakura, the temples – their main halls, their gates – alongside old homes and shops from the Edo & Meiji periods, and more modern structures, come together to provide a real atmosphere of a “typical” (though I don’t know how typical it truly is) small Japanese city.

In my next Sakura post, I’ll talk about the Juntendô, and the Hotta clan mansion.

All photos my own.

So, apparently the National Reconnaissance Office has used a giant octopus in the logo for their new NROL-39 spy satellite. “Nothing is Beyond Our Reach,” the associated slogan says.

Apparently, they’ve forgotten that, for a long time, the octopus has been something we use to represent our enemies. It is a symbol used all over the world to represent an imperialist power sticking its tentacles where they shouldn’t belong, grabbing up territories all over the world, and squeezing, strangling the peoples of those lands. It’s not something we should want to be.

One of the most classic examples of this iconography – an American cartoon from 1888 depicting the United Kingdom with its grimy hands all over Egypt, India, Canada, Ireland, etc., grabbing up territories all over the world.

A map of the world in a Japanese publication, from around 1904, showing the Russian octopus grabbing at Tibet, Persia, and Turkey, having already strangled Poland and Finland to death, while one sneaky tentacle reaches over towards Korea and Liaodong.

A poster designed by the Dutch National Socialist Party (yes, Nazis), showing the capitalist empire of the United States as an octopus, grabbing up territory, and depicting Japanese attacks in 1942 as nobly cutting off America’s tentacles which had been reaching into Asia.

So, this is who we are now? We’re agreeing to being the octopus?

What is Cultural History?


This question came up in our research seminar today. I’d actually been thinking about it for awhile, as I consider myself a “cultural historian,” but when pressed, wasn’t actually sure exactly what I meant by that. And, perhaps more importantly, because we hear the term a lot, and I’m never quite sure that others are always using it in the same way. In a seminar last year, we read sections from Lynn Hunt’s The New Cultural History; we were told this was itself a seminal text in, or was representative of, the “cultural turn,” whatever that means. As with most Theory/Historiography books I’ve been assigned, I came out of it with little clear sense of what it was talking about. And so, finding this book to be dramatically different from my own understandings (or assumptions) as to what constituted “cultural history,” I began to wonder, What is Cultural History?

I have long considered myself a cultural historian because I find myself chiefly interested in visual and material culture, in art, architecture, performance, spaces, display, representation, and in the overall appearance, aesthetic, style, feel, atmosphere of a particular place and time. To put it another way, I consider myself a cultural historian because I’m interested in “culture” more than I am politics, economics, or social history (social history includes class hierarchies, gender roles, family structure, and some other key things I’m sure I’m forgetting). In essence, though I don’t think I ever managed to articulate it for myself before, I think I might say that in this particular understanding of it, (1) cultural history is the history of cultural practices, forms, identity, and difference. It includes concrete or specific topics typically said to belong to the disciplines of art history, theatre history, music history, architectural history, such as the biography of an artist; analysis of a particular object, image, movement or dance, piece of music, festival, or work of literature; or discussion of stylistic developments. But it also includes a myriad of topics that simply emphasize or highlight such things.

The Buddhist temple Sensô-ji, in Asakusa, Tokyo. Photo my own, taken June 2013 from the new Asakusa Tourist Center.

Because of my interests, I tend to associate “culture” with the arts – with visual and tangible stylistic or aesthetic elements. When I think of “Japanese culture,” I think of architectural styles, styles of painting, forms of theatre, styles of music. But, of course, there’s also the idea that “culture” means attitudes, values, ways of doing things. And there are those who, when they hear the term “Japanese culture,” might immediately think of Confucianist or Buddhist values, group mentality (vs. individualism), politeness, certain attitudes about gender roles, or the like. This is no less valid, though it does certainly complicate things.

I never considered it a political statement to say I did cultural history, but simply a matter of personal taste, or preference. And so, imagine my surprise when I was exposed to Marxist history, and to the idea that economics drives everything, and that culture is merely the dressing. This is the idea that regardless of whether you’re in 14th century Mali, 3rd century China, 18th century Hawaii, or 20th century Paris, the most significant forces driving historical change are struggles between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and shifts in control over, or availability of, labor, land, and capital. (I’m sure that Marxist historiography is much more complex than this, but, no doubt there is, or was, a school of thought that took this as its fundamental jumping-off point.) This is certainly a political statement, a particular position. And, in contrast to this Marxist history, (2) cultural history is that which takes culture, rather than economics, to be the chief force in driving historical change.

Angus Lockyer’s “A Short History of the World,” glossing over differences in visual or material culture, and emphasizing the impact of the balance of land, labor, and capital, in driving the most major overarching threads of world history.


On the one hand, the land/labor/capital triangle can explain a great many things, regardless of the time, place, or cultural context. As can economics theory more broadly – supply & demand, the impact of taxation upon those two, the idea of externalities, etc. etc. Whether you’re talking about saké or Merlot, silk or cotton, transported by horsecarts or by container ship, purchased with gold coins or with credit card, much of the “laws”, formulas, and models of economics will apply just the same. And issues of scarcity, of ease of access to certain goods, of the economic benefits or dangers of using certain materials (e.g. the economic losses if your stone building collapses in an earthquake where a wooden building would have survived), can certainly have a profound influence upon the form that cultural forms take. But, on the other hand, there are surely many cultural forms that arise largely independent of economic concerns – the Impressionists’ emulation of elements of the style of ukiyo-e prints, the popularization of particular hairstyles at this or that time, or the advent of particular stylistic aspects of kabuki, purely on the basis of aesthetic decisions or other types of cultural influences and artistic decision-making. That is, unless you want to attribute all of it to commercialism, and simply doing what will sell best.

There are also cultural aspects that have profound economic impacts – Confucianism teaches that concerning oneself with monetary matters is vulgar, and base, and that a cultured scholarly gentleman should not concern himself with such things. This ideal was adopted by the samurai class in Japan, who as a result did not embrace, allow, or encourage commercialism and proto-industrial developments as strongly as they might have otherwise, and who therefore declined considerably as the merchant class – who Confucianism said were low, base people for their greedy obsession with material wealth – grew more and more economically powerful and influential. Another example of cultural concerns might be the use by Ryukyuan ambassadors to Japan of Ming Dynasty robes, representing their association with the great Chinese civilization. Of course, in truth, both economics and culture are irrevocably intertwined. Economic concerns influence and shape cultural forms, and cultural forms have economic impacts, and to say that either trumps the other is, to my mind, misleadingly reductionist.

Ryûkyû-jin tôjô no gyôretsu 琉球人登城之行列 (Procession of Ryukyuans Enroute to Edo Castle), 1710. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii at Manoa Library.

But, returning to the point, there is a third definition of cultural history. As it has been explained to me, the “cultural turn” of which Lynn Hunt’s book is apparently representative was all about the assertion that “history” did not have to be political or economic history, or whatever the classical, conservative, standard, traditional mode of history had been. History does not need to be about “big men” (great historical figures who brought about great changes), or about the rise and fall of political entities, or about development and progress towards certain abstract ideals, such as “civilization,” or “freedom.” History could be about culture as well. Now, on the surface, this seems perhaps not so different from my own definition of cultural history, presented above. But, I get the impression that the cultural history of the so-called cultural turn was less about artistic, aesthetic, or stylistic developments, or even about nameable religious movements or guiding philosophies, but rather, (3) cultural history is about attitudes, mentalités, or “the social process[es] whereby people communicate meanings, make sense of their world, construct their identities, and define their beliefs and values.”1 It’s all very theoretical/conceptual – post-structuralist, something something.

And then, finally, there’s the fourth definition of cultural history, one I came across for the first time today. As a result of Googling “what is cultural history?”, I came across this wonderfully clearly written blog post entitled “Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?” To summarize, the blog post suggests that since the cultural turn, “cultural history” has expanded to “a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.” So, if cultural history encompasses so much, then what is not cultural history? A very compelling, interesting, and important question, and if you’re interested, I definitely recommend checking out the full blog post over at And After That The Dark.

But, to jump to the part that’s most relevant for my topic of today, this blog post defines (4) cultural history as “the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time. … All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.” Well, that’s certainly interesting. It’s certainly a form of historical inquiry I’m particularly interested in, and it’s certainly one that seems particularly strong these days.

So, to bring this thing to an end, which one of these four definitions best matches your understanding of “cultural history”?

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(1) Stephen Best, “Culture Turn,” Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology Online (2007).

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.

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