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I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”

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Yesterday, June 23, marked the annual Okinawan observance of Irei no Hi 慰霊の日, an official holiday in memory of those many, many Okinawans and others killed in the Battle of Okinawa.

The Cornerstone of Peace.

I figured this an opportune time to finally post something about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park & Museum (Okinawa Heiwa Kinen Kôen / Shiryôkan 沖縄県平和祈念公園・資料館), which I visited several times during my time in Okinawa this past year. I took extensive notes the last time I was there, and went back to my notes to build this post, but found that what I had written was quite descriptive, and strangely I’ve found myself kind of struggling to write something more interpretive about the museum. I guess it’s been too long since I’ve been in a Museum Studies frame of mind.

The Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum is located within the Okinawa Peace Memorial Park at Mabuni, near the southern tip of Okinawa Island. In many ways it reminds me of the memorial park at Hiroshima, and also of Holocaust Museums I have visited in various cities around the United States, and of Yad Vashem, the chief Holocaust memorial site in Jerusalem. The park itself is quite extensive, and includes a number of different memorials. The main one is a series of rows of black stone slabs, inscribed with the names of all those killed in the Battle, whether they be Okinawan, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, or American; the slabs are organized in rows, fanning out from an eternal flame, known as the Cornerstone of Peace (Heiwa no ishiji, 平和の礎), and beyond that, the sea. The whole arrangement creates the impression of waves, waves of peace, emanating out from the Cornerstone, emanating out from Okinawa, into the world. I must admit, when I first read that this was the intention of the design, and first truly felt that image in my mind, in my heart, I started crying. Far too many people are unaware of Okinawa’s story, and of the lessons it has to teach; far too many people are as of yet untouched by those waves of peace, emanating out from Okinawa, trying desperately to bring peace to the world.

As for the museum itself, it begins with a very detailed account of the 1930s to 40s, the economic and political situation in Japan, in Okinawa, and the world, setting the stage, described in a way that strikes me as “objective” in voice, or at the very least, with a detached sort of perspective. And by this I mean that I did not sense within the phrasing of the labels, or the organization of this first part of the exhibit, blatant lionizing or villainizing; I did not sense a blatantly, boldly, pro- or anti-Japan perspective. Rather the exhibit basically just explains what happened, what events took place, what decisions were made; it provides the background situation amidst which Japan made the decisions it did – in terms of both domestic and international considerations, and so forth. All of this set-up is given in a series of labels, displays, objects, short videos, packed into the displays around the edge of the first, circular, room.

I think this is a really good approach for a Memorial Museum. Maybe I’m too biased (in favor of the Okinawans) and thus was blind to the biases in the exhibition, but, really I think it took a rather objective or distanced stance. And this is a smart move because, unlike at so many other museums – e.g. the Hiroshima Memorial Museum, the Yûshûkan at Yasukuni Shrine, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery which I’ll post about soon – where the bias is blatant and obvious, thus making the whole thing all too easy to dismiss out of hand, here the Museum is telling you, in cold hard facts, this is what happened. This is real, this is true. It’s not being blown out of proportion or taken out of context.

In truth, I think there’s a lot to be taken away from this first room, alone. I’m not as expert on this period as some of my colleagues, and I am not expertly familiar with all the various nuances and complexities of the different narratives, different versions, different approaches, to understanding Japanese imperialism, but from what I have seen, I really think this is about the best. It presents the context, the pressures upon the Japanese government (both real and perceived), the reasons the government did what it did – even if those choices were, to be sure, horrible and worthy of being condemned – thus presenting the Japanese certainly as oppressors, aggressors, but not as irrational monsters, while also not going too far in the other direction, portraying the Japanese as merely victims of world circumstance. Imperial Japan had real reasons for choosing the path that it did – they were regular human beings, not monsters – but still, the path they chose was one of violence and oppression. We must understand the circumstances, the choices made, and the repercussions, the outcomes, in order to learn the lessons of the past, and to be able to work more truly towards building a better future, a better path, such that similar events should never happen again.

Because I found this exhibit so well done, I was quite frustrated on my first and second visits to the museum that they don’t allow photographs. And, as you’d expect if you know me, I’m still quite frustrated about that. But, on my third visit I found, what I had not seen previously, a museum catalog book of the permanent exhibition for sale, which essentially contains much of that same content, in easily purchasable and keepable form, for less than 2000 yen. Now that I own this book, I very much hope that I find the time at some point to read it all and write it all down – in English – into a form I can use for lectures, whether it be World History, Japanese History, or East Asian History.

Another way the museum did an excellent job in making their story more accessible, more meaningful, is that they don’t really limit it to the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan perspective. Yes, the succeeding rooms are specifically about Okinawa, but the set-up, this first room of 1930s-40s Japanese and world historical context, is broad enough, general enough, that it really works as a quality account applicable and useful in general, for anyone discussing Imperial Japan & the Asia-Pacific War – perhaps even the best account I’ve yet seen at all. Hopefully, it speaks to visitors from all around the world, and not only to those interested in the Okinawan case, or the Okinawan position. Hopefully, by telling the story this way, it should be able to successfully convey the message of the dangers of militarism, of ultranationalism, in general, no matter who is doing it (not just the Japanese).

A view of the first gallery, courtesy OkinawaClip.com.

After making one’s way through this detailed and well-presented background behind the origins of Japanese ultranationalism, militarism, and imperialism, a short video in the center of the first room summarizes the progression of the war itself, from one battle to the next.

To the side of this room is a special exhibit corner, which at that time had a small exhibit on the Japanese colonies in Nanyô/Micronesia. And also on comparing history textbooks not only between US, Japan, China, Korea, but also with Palau, Malaysia, and elsewhere. Really interesting to see – not something we normally get exposed to.

The next room is set up to evoke the atmosphere of the so-called Typhoon of Steel – that is, the Battle of Okinawa. It is dark, with steel girders and concrete protruding here and there. A large 3D map of Okinawa sits in the middle of the room, with various things about the battle marked out on it. And hanging above the map is a large video screen, on which plays a short video about the Battle. This, for me, was probably one of the centerpieces of the entire exhibition. The museum provides the background, the set-up, in the previous room, and the aftermath in the following rooms. Here, it provides the story of the event itself: what happened to Okinawa that this museum as a whole (and the memorial park outside) is memorializing – what suffering, what death and destruction, took place here. It brings you in, it makes you understand. It makes you feel, the death and destruction, the sadness.

Then, we move into the following room, and the museum shifts dramatically, from historical narrative, to a memorial mode. I suppose, sitting and writing this out now, that this is still historical narrative, but it’s shifting from a “big picture” mode of the history of politics, economics, and war, to a far more personal level. We see large photos of individual people and individual scenes of death and destruction, and next to it, a walk-in reconstruction of the gama, the caves in which people hid during the Battle. Mannequins are set up to show how people suffered and survived in the caves, and committed some truly horrific acts in order to survive, including killing crying babies so their screams wouldn’t alert soldiers outside to the presence of the civilians hiding inside the cave.

The Testimonials Room at the museum. Image again thanks to OkinawaClip.com.

The next room of the museum is a Testimonials room. I don’t know if it’s actually more brightly lit than the previous rooms, but it gives a feeling of starkness, whiteness. Desks are arranged in perfect rows, and books/binders provide numerous first-hand accounts of people’s experiences during the battle. I only read a very few, but they were horrific. People who were just small children at the time, witnessing their siblings or parents killed right in front of them, whether by soldiers, or by suicide. People who hid in caves and were so terrified to come out, for fear of what might happen to them. Reading these individual stories, of individual people, often young children, who had lived such (relatively) normal lives up until then, and who we can imagine might have had such bright futures ahead of them, thrown into this world of suffering and death, and all because of war, because of militarism and imperialism and ultranationalism, and in the specific case of Okinawa, because two world superpowers based in capitals thousands of miles away decided that their tiny island should be the place to battle it out.

A bank of small viewing rooms sits on the back side of this Testimonial hall. I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to sit and watch any of the the video testimonials, though I really should.

A poem, written on the wall outside the Testimonial room:

Image again from OkinawaClip.com.

Whenever we look at
The truth of the Battle of Okinawa
We think
There is nothing as brutal
Nothing as dishonorable
As war.

In the face of this traumatic experience
No one will be able to speak out for
Or idealize war.

To be sure, it is human beings who start wars
But more than that
Isn’t it we human beings who must also prevent wars?

Since the end of the war
We have abhorred all wars,
Long yearning to create a peaceful island.

To acquire
This
Our unwavering principle,
We have paid dearly.

From here on, we are led through a chronological narrative of Okinawa’s post-war history. The Testimony room is followed by refugee camps 収容所. Dark wood poles and canvas tent sections overhead evoke the feeling of being in such a camp. Along with laundry hung on barbed wire fences. This is followed by a section made up to look like a 1950s commercial shopping street, with barbershop, bars, nightclub, tailor shop… And then, as we enter the next section, it turns to barbed wire fencing, with a mannequin in US military uniform looking as though he is asking for your ID. Exhibits include detailed descriptions of the progress of developments in politics, economics, protests, and so forth, from the US Occupation of Okinawa, to the eventual “freedom” from Occupation, and rejoining Japan in 1972, up to the present, as the military presence and protests against it continue.

I made sure to take extensive notes on my last visit to this museum. While I had known about the prewar and wartime history to a certain extent, I had very little sense of the date-by-date chronological developments of the post-war period. Seeing it spelled out was really quite interesting, moving, and impactful. There’s just so much here, so many twists and turns, that add such depth to the story. We learn about the refugee camps and the evolution of semblances of Okinawan self-governance from the 1950s through the 1970s to today; how the US Occupation ended so much earlier in the Amami Islands; the visit of the head of the ACLU to Okinawa; the way the military forced people into leasing out their land for exceptionally low, unfair, rates; the way bayonets and bulldozers were used to physically remove people from their land; and details of how the resistance and protest and independence movements rose and fell; connections to Communism and to US anti-Communist crackdowns; and the progress of developments in how the US Occupation authorities dealt with political opposition, and how they deal with crimes and scandals today.

I know I haven’t said much in this post of an analytical or interpretive nature. There are formal Museum Studies academic journal articles, and exhibit reviews, out there, I’m sure, which articulate far better what I wish I could here. But, as much as I wish I knew how to articulate all that myself, I think that for now, I’ll just leave it by saying that this is truly an excellent Memorial Museum, an excellent history museum, and while I know it’s a bit out of the way, I really wish more people – I wish everyone – would go and visit the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum. This is not just a niche story relevant only to those with interest in Okinawa; nor is it in any way what you might expect from a local, out-of-the-way, provincial museum. Truly, this is a top-notch, world-class World War II Memorial Museum. I think the lessons it has to teach are of immense importance for everyone around the world, and that this museum does an excellent job of conveying those lessons (including by making the exhibits quite accessible, with labels and video subtitles in multiple languages).

On this Irei no Hi, let us take a moment to think, to remember, and to sympathize. Let us picture in our minds waves of peace, flowing out from Okinawa, waves of people trying desperately to reach out, and to wash over the whole world, such that what happened in Okinawa, and tragically in so many other places all around the world, might someday truly cease to ever take place again.

The Mabuni cliffs, just outside the museum, where in 1945 a great many people, pressed down to the southern end of the island trying to flee the violence, had nowhere left to go, and threw themselves off the cliffs, to their deaths.

All exterior photos my own.

I recently happened upon two new books on Ryukyuan painting (well, one new, and one from 2003 that’s news to me), which are exciting discoveries. So far as I’m aware, there are very few books like these, even in Japanese – full-color books devoted exclusively, explicitly, to the subject of the rich, colorful, vibrant tradition of pre-modern / early modern Ryukyuan painting. I’ll admit, I haven’t had the time yet to actually read through these two books. So, I’m “reviewing” them (so to speak) based on first impressions. Pardon me for any misrepresentations.

First, is Ryûkyû kaiga: kôgaku chôsa hôkokusho 琉球絵画-光学調査報告書 (roughly, “Ryukyuan Painting: Announcement of [Results of] Optics Survey”), published by Tokyo Bunkazai Kenkyûsho 東京文化財研究所 in 2017. The first half of the book dedicates about 150 pages to images of eleven artworks. We are given not only overall images of the paintings, but for each painting multiple pages of full-page full-color high-quality details. The texture of the silk still cannot be reproduced in print, of course, and no book will ever be a full and total replacement for seeing a work in person, but this is very much the next best thing – better on this particular point than I think I’ve ever seen in any book before. Seeing such details – including the fine brushstrokes, and the texture of the media – is what many art historians want to see, and it’s so difficult to see even in person, when you’re separated by plexiglass keeping you two or three feet away from the work. If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing an artwork in person, without any glass, the painting mere inches away from your face, you’ll know it’s a whole different experience. And this book’s design brings that experience to the reader, as much as any book could. To have this is wonderful – to have it for Ryukyuan paintings, all the more so.

Details of the kimono patterns from a painting of a Ryukyuan aristocratic couple. Maybe a little hard to see in this photo of the page, but in the actual book, you can see the texture of the pigments, the shininess of the gold accents, the brushstrokes.

The book ends with essays on Ryukyuan painting and painters, and on the specific pigments employed, ending with a few pages on signatures and seals, and a family tree, as it were, of major Ryukyuan painters, charting out the links of master-student relationships.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the book available for sale anywhere, at least not yet. I expect that when it does become available on Amazon.jp, or elsewhere, it will be stupidly expensive. As all too often happens with art books, even though ink and paper are dirt cheap, and I find it very hard to believe that it costs anywhere near $15 or $20 to print each copy, publishers still continue to get away with charging $50 or $60 or even $100 for these things… and all the more so when it’s a “research results” volume. Cast the exact same book as a museum exhibit catalog, and it might still be expensive, but quite likely not as much so.

A portrait of Tei Junsoku, one of the most famous and celebrated Ryukyuan officials and reformers. The fine, naturalistic details of the description of the face are just incredible. I have seen this painting several times now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, always behind glass, at a distance of several feet; I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see the original more truly up-close. this reproduction is the next best thing.

The other book I happened upon here in the bowels of the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute library is entitled Haruka naru ogoe: yomigaeru Ryûkyû kaiga 遙かなる御後絵-甦る琉球絵画 (roughly, “Posthumous Portraits from Faraway: Looking Back at Ryukyuan Painting”). Written by Satô Fumihiko 佐藤文彦, a painter expert in traditional methods, and lecturer at the Okinawa University of the Arts, it was published in 2003. ”Ogoe” 御後絵 were official portraits of the Ryukyuan kings, produced by the Ryukyuan royal court after each king’s death. All are believed to have been lost, destroyed, in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with a great many other irreplaceable documents, artifacts, treasures (not to mention thousands upon thousands of lives and livelihoods). Prewar black-&-white photographs of the ”ogoe” survive, however, and are a hell of a lot better than nothing. Satô has conducted extensive research into these works, best as possible with the limited surviving materials, and has produced his own full-color recreations of all ten royal portraits which are known to have been produced.

Satô’s recreation of how the portrait of King Shô Shin might have looked in full-color.

This book opens with full-color plates of all ten of those full-color recreations. The meat of the book is a series of essays (or chapters) by Satô about the ”ogoe” – his research into their history, their style and composition, and his thoughts, struggles, and efforts in recreating them. This is of great value and interest in itself, of course, a beautifully lengthy treatment of such a niche topic (in the broad scheme of things), but a topic of great importance within the field of Okinawan art, especially of Ryukyuan royal art.

What took the book to another level for me, though, is that this discussion of the ”ogoe” is followed by an additional chapter on Jiryô 自了 (aka Gusukuma Seihô 城間清豊), one of the few early modern Ryukyuan painters about whom we know anything much, and one of the few from whom we still have surviving paintings. A book only on ”ogoe” would be valuable enough in itself, but Satô builds upon that with this essay on Jiryô, a reprinting of a 1925 essay on ”ogoe” by Higa Chôken 比嘉朝健, an extensive timeline/chronology of events in the history of Ryukyuan painting, and finally a mini-encyclopedia of topics relevant to Ryukyuan painting. This last thing is a beautiful resource even all by itself; through visits to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and skimming through museum catalogs like that of that museum’s Ryûkyû kaiga ten 琉球絵画展 from 2009, I have come to gain some sense of the body of works that are out there. But, knowing that so many works were lost in the war, and that few survive, it is hard to know just how few; and are the works I have seen more or less the only ones that survive, or only the most famous, or most-displayed, for whatever various reasons? How much (or how little) is out there? This mini-encyclopedia is, of course, not definitive and complete, but it is certainly an additional help in understanding the extent, and content, of the body of works that are out there.

This book is available on Amazon.jp, but is unfortunately priced at over 5700 yen. I’m going to keep my eyes out for a cheaper used copy.

It’s wonderful to see these books coming out. I eagerly look forward to finding the time to actually read them, and expand my knowledge about Ryukyuan paintings. And I hope that I might someday enjoy the opportunity to bring this to the English-speaking audience – to bring these most-famous of Ryukyu’s paintings to a major US museum, and to publish a catalog about them. Ryukyuan textiles, lacquerwares, and ceramics are all wonderful, and any exhibit, any publication, that expands knowledge about Okinawa in any way is a wonderful thing. But Okinawa is not just a culture of “folk arts,” or “decorative arts.” They had just as lively and vibrant a painting culture as China, Korea, or Japan – they had court painters, literati painters, just like these other cultures, and people should learn that, see these beautiful paintings, and learn about this other side of Okinawa’s art history.

An Okinawan Dream

Eisa performance at Ryûdai Campus Festival (daigakusai).

I’ve been in Tokyo for just over two months now, and I’ve suddenly this week found myself thinking about my life in Okinawa. While I was there, it felt (of course) so totally immediate and real, but now that I’m gone, only two months later, and even after being there for nearly a full six months, the whole thing feels like a dream, or like another life. This happens every time I go from one place to another, so I should be used to it by now, but I’m still not. Who am I? Am I the person I was in Okinawa? Am I the person I am now, here in Tokyo? I *love* my life here in Tokyo, though I sort of dreaded it and knew that in a lot of ways I didn’t want to let go of my life in Okinawa. And I look forward eagerly to spending time in Okinawa again, sometime, but still it feels like a dream, like another life. Getting the Prefectural Museum newsletter in the mail made it feel more real, and also more distant, at the same time. Every new exhibit, every new event, in Okinawa, that I wish I were there on-island for…

Tôdai’s famous Yasuda Auditorium.

I dunno. It’s weird. As I’m writing this, more and more comes back to my memory, and in a certain way it feels real again, in a very normal sort of way – not necessarily like an adventure, an incredible experience of some other world, but like, yes, a place that I lived. The café, the university library, the dorm room. Real and yet unreal. I dunno.

At the Okinawa Prefectural Art Museum.

Part of me feels like I should be able to just hop on a bus and go there again, to the bookstore, to the museum, to Kokusai-dôri, just like I did for months. But then I have to remind myself that not only is that a whole plane flight away, but that I most likely will not be going back at all for at least a year, maybe two or three.

And now my life here in Tokyo feels so real. And I don’t want it to end. I’ve been so fortunate in my life to come here so many times, and also to stay here for so long this time. And I know I’ll be back, and it’ll be wonderful all over again. But it’ll never be the same as it was this time. And that’s an odd feeling, too, because what do I really have here in Tokyo, other than the general greatness of this city (which I’ll have the next time and the next time)? I have affiliation with the Shiryôhensanjo, which is fucking amazing – getting to take out books from about half the places on Tôdai campus, and getting to walk the stacks at the Hensanjo and take books out and bring them back to my office where I can scan them or whatever rather than having to pay for expensive copies. And I have this really nice apartment. I mean, it’s not the most lavish amazing wonderful place ever, and I feel weird actually to like any apartment so much (plus, I learned that it’s actually not all that inexpensive for the area) – but, really, it’s just such a nice place. Everything is basically brand new (or at least extremely well-maintained), from the hardwood floors to the totally not moldy or creepy at all shower/toilet room, to the desk and the A/C-slash-heater. It’s not a super big place, but it’s more than big enough for my needs, and close enough to campus, and all of those good things… and I’m going to be sad to have to say goodbye to it. And, since it’s a visiting researcher dorm, I don’t know whether to say that makes it easier, or harder, to think about getting to live here again, in the future… What do I really have that makes this time so special, so desirable to hold onto, to continue or to repeat? The Hensanjo, and the apartment, yes, but the city will be here next time, too, and whichever neighborhood I end up living in, will be a new and pleasant experience in its own way.

I wrote up all of the above in the spur of the moment, as I was thinking about it, and left it kind of incomplete. Coming back to it now to add links and pictures and just a little bit of editing, I find I’m really not sure what more to say, or how to conclude. But, I guess it’s just something that’s going to continue to be on my mind, in different variations, as I continue my time here in Tokyo, and after it comes to an end in August. It’s such a privilege and such a pleasure to get to spend so much time in these two cities. Like everywhere I’ve been, I know that each different stay has a very different feel, a different energy to it. It’ll never be the same again, and there’s something very sad about that. And, as I said at the beginning of this post, no matter how real, firm, and concrete, life in Okinawa (or Tokyo or Hawaiʻi or anywhere) might feel at the time, it always inevitably turns to a mirage, a dream, a vague memory. Photos are great, and I’ll keep taking far more of them than I know what to do with; but looking at photos will never be the same as actually being there. I look at photos, and often I remember what else I did that day, or what brought me there, or other associated/affiliated thoughts, but rarely do I remember how I felt that day, or what it really felt like to be there in that place. But, what are you going to do? Shôgannai, as they say in Japanese. We have to just enjoy ourselves while we can, and keep moving forward, and just make peace with the fact that life goes on. It’ll never be everything you might dream it will be, and it’ll never be the same as it was before, but it’ll be good, in whatever new and different ways it will be. Just have to take it as it comes.

Another beautiful, sunny day in Naha, looking out over the city from the monorail station.

All photos my own.

Daimyo Clock Museum

The Daimyo Clock Museum, or 大名時計博物館, is one of the more prominent sites on any tourist map of the Yanaka neighborhood of Tokyo. While it’s hardly among the top ten must-sees in all of Tokyo – to be honest, hardly on the radar at all – it came up for me on my very first day living in the neighborhood, as I took a walk to just wander and explore, and ended up seeing it pop up on Google Maps as I walked past. It was already too late in the day at that time to try to visit, but I figured I would make it back eventually. Weeks passed, and on another such explorational wandering, I passed by again, this time noticing the architecture of the place – large tile-roofed wooden buildings behind a high wall which caught my eye and inspired me to take a photo before I even got around to looking to see what building that even was that I had stumbled across (oh, the Daimyo Clock Museum! Ah, I knew it was in this area somewhere!).

Stele marking the former site of the Katsuyama domain’s lower mansion (shimo yashiki).

Today, I finally decided to stop in and give it a look. The museum is located on the former grounds of the Edo mansion of the lord of Mimasaka-Katsuyama domain, which kind of makes sense given the size of the space, the high walls, and the attractive, traditional-looking (but most likely 20th century) architecture. Interestingly, though, once you enter through the gate, you quickly find that most of what’s inside those walls seems to be (near as I can tell) private homes. The museum itself is just one small room, and the large two-story buildings peering up over the walls remain a mystery.

I stopped to take off my shoes and change into the slippers provided, and then struggled with the door. Were they closed? It’s 1pm on a Friday. Surely they’re open, right? A young man comes up, apologizing, and unlocks the door. Ah, I see. The place is so sparsely visited that they don’t even bother staffing it (or leaving the door unlocked) throughout the day. Well, either that or he just stepped out for lunch. I dunno.

In any case, I had somehow had in my mind an image of a very sleek, nicely maintained, very modern-looking museum. Like the Tokyo Bike Rentals places I’ve seen elsewhere in Yanaka, retrofitted into old machiya storefronts, and looking very new, sleek, chic, very 21st century hipster/gentrification style. Instead – and I don’t mean this in a critical or negative way, but only to say that for no reason at all I had somehow imagined it differently – we find an older display room, looking a bit run-down but that’s just fine, with thin carpeting, hand-drawn signage, and catalogs just a slight step up from being printed out in the back room and stapled by hand. A more cozy, local, sort of feel, helping us to appreciate that this is just some guy’s personal collection, that he so wanted to share with the neighborhood.

Hard to tell from photos, but between these two images, hopefully maybe you can get a sense of the size of the small, one-room, museum. Click through for more photos of the exhibit, from Takachi’s Japanese-language blog on LIG Inc.

Sadly, they don’t allow photos – I would have loved to have captured and kept some sense of the experience myself; there really is something about having your own photos, and not just finding photos online… But, in any case, it is one room, with a few tens (maybe as many as one or two hundred? I’m terrible at estimating these sorts of things) of clocks, most of them from the Edo period, some of them quite large and impressive. Some bear the crest of the Tokugawa family on them. Some are still running, their mechanisms opened up making it clearly visible for the visitor how they work. Labels on the walls explain how time-keeping was considered in the Edo period, not on a system of twelve or twenty-four evenly spaced hours like today, but rather (as I’ve discussed in a previous blog post) a system of six hours of daylight and six hours of night, which lengthened and shortened with the seasons. Mechanical clocks were first imported from Europe, their mechanisms copied and reproduced, and adapted to serve this Japanese mode of telling time.

It’s interesting – we don’t tend to think of the Edo period as a time of machines. And, granted, the vast majority of people – even relatively well-to-do townspeople – had no such possessions. But, daimyo certainly seem to have had clocks, and not just a single official clock for the mansion’s business, but actually relatively small ones to keep by one’s bedside as well. European fashions enjoyed a major boom in popularity among the top echelons of the samurai for about 80 years or so, from c. 1550 to c. 1630, and then disappeared almost entirely, but some things, a few things, such as these clocks, remained.

As for the museum itself, as much as I adore sleek, shiny, beautiful small museums – as much as I might have loved to find a Daimyo Clock Museum that’s… I don’t really have the words, but, a place closer in aesthetic to the Nezu Museum, or the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, totally up-to-date, 21st century, but retrofitted into this old, historical, traditional space, a jewel of the postmodern, giving me the feeling that I was taking part in something very new, very cutting-edge 2017-Tokyo, at the same time, though it gave me a sort of record-scratch feeling internally in my mind, in a very different way, it’s also kind of wonderful to feel I found, and experienced, something very small, and old, and local. A corner of Tokyo very few tourists (or even locals) have ever bothered to go see. A piece of the decades-old past that’s still running, just quietly, over in this obscure corner of things. Kind of like the clocks themselves, I guess.

All exterior photos my own. Interior photos by Takachi, from LIG Inc. blog.

Nihon Mingeikan

The exterior of the Mingeikan, in the Komaba neighborhood of Meguro. A short walk from the University of Tokyo, Komaba campus, and two train stops from Shibuya. Photo my own.

April 25, 2017

The Nihon Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) is an interesting place. It’s a terrible shame they don’t allow you to take photos, because the atmosphere is just wonderful. It’s a 1930s house, all in dark wood and just a very “rustic” Mingei appropriate sort of feel. Indigo-dyed textiles hang on the walls, and rough ceramic jugs sit in the corners here and there. Very little about the museum looks post-modern – the display cases are in dark wood, like handmade artifacts of cabinetry in themselves. The gallery labels are all handwritten. Few of the objects are really all that compelling by themselves, at least to me, but in contrast to many museums, where the idea is to contemplate or appreciate each individual object in a void, here the value is found in the total experience – seeing these objects all arranged together, as part of the total Mingei aesthetic of the overall space, along with the building itself.

I was sad to not see any Okinawa objects on display right now, but they do have rooms set aside for African pieces, and for Korea. The rest is all Japanese. There’s also something wonderful about how nearly all of the objects they have on display are worn, damaged. I don’t think you have to come into it with a particular eye for that aesthetic to be taken in by it, to quickly come to think about these objects as aesthetic, as beautiful, as capable of being appreciated, despite not being gorgeous, stunning, shining like-new works. Even though they are old, and worn, and damaged, still, (or perhaps all the more so) we can appreciate their aesthetic. Their colors, their textures. How they were made.

And while the museum is mostly ceramics, lacquerwares, textiles, I was pleasantly surprised to see some very neat artifacts – like an Edo period clock – and some paintings and woodblock books.

From the Mingeikan’s official website. If they won’t let me take my own photos, I’ll just have to use theirs.

I don’t want to get into a whole discussion of the pros and cons of Mingei thought here, but let’s suffice it to say that I think it’s a really interesting building, and an interesting art/aesthetic movement. Yes, Mingei is (was) closely tied in with a colonialist and patronizing rhetoric of “modern” Japan as more modern, more advanced, better, than the “twee” “quaint” Ryukyu, Korea, Ainu, and Taiwan. That Mingei appreciates these arts is intimately tied into a sort of patronizing “we’ll protect you, and protect your art and culture for you, because we appreciate it [better] and because we can protect it better than you can.” Not to mention the vast complexes of Oriental Orientalism, the ways in which Ryukyu and Korea were not actually appreciated on their own, but rather appreciated as signs of how Japan used to be, and as elements of what now was included within the Japanese Empire. The quaint, rustic, aesthetic and culture that modern Japan had lost.

But, you know, for all of that, while we certainly can’t ignore it, can’t forget about it or put it aside, at the same time, is there not value in appreciation of the rustic in and of itself? Yanagi and friends went against the currents of their time, and of our time, to say that these things, worn, old, damaged, many of them made quite roughly or crudely to begin with (as judged by certain metrics or value systems), were worthy of appreciation too. That “art” should not be limited to the more explicitly “beautiful,” and that we should be wary and careful of what we lose in the rush to modernity. Is that not worthy of praise, or appreciation, in itself?

There’s also an interesting question to ponder as to whether we should see the Mingeikan, as a whole, as an artifact of a past age, or whether we should see it as very much a part of what Japan remains today. I’m not sure I have an answer for that. Certainly, on the surface, it feels like it still very much fits in. Doesn’t look all that out of place amidst this suburban neighborhood… To me, the house doesn’t feel like stepping back into the 1930s, like many historic houses might be intended to do; rather, it feels like stepping into another side of, another part of, what Japan still very much is, today.

Reminds me of a talk I went to recently with the artist Yamamoto Tarô. Many of his paintings juxtapose traditional/historical motifs, styles, elements – sometimes entire historical compositions – with elements of the contemporary. Such as a copy of Ogata Kôrin’s “Red and White Plum Blossoms,” but with a Coca-Cola can pouring into the river, creating that same swirling aesthetic as Kôrin painted centuries ago. Or a Tagasode (“Whose Sleeves?”) painting of kimono hanging on a rack, but with the kimono replaced by an Aloha shirt and Hawaiian-style quilt. He told us he had the idea while sitting within the grounds of a centuries-old Buddhist temple, eating a Big Mac. I had always thought of his paintings as whimsical parodies. And I think he does intend some degree of humor. But, listening to Yamamoto talk, I realized his deeper point – that while the Big Mac does feel weird, does feel like a juxtaposition against the grounds of that medieval temple, in another way it’s actually really quite normal. The temple is a part of contemporary Japan, a part of contemporary life in that neighborhood, just as much as anything else. Contemporary life in Japan is not made up solely of the things invented or created or designed in the last century; tradition and history are very much here, and real, and really a part of it.

So, that brings us back to the Mingeikan. Many historical houses intentionally preserve the appearance of the past, in order to transport you there. There’s certainly a lot to be said about that, too, and how these historical houses are nevertheless inevitably also a part of real, contemporary life, contemporary cityscapes. There can never be a more complete separation – either it exists within the contemporary, or it simply doesn’t exist at all. But, still, to the extent that many historic houses, castles, and so forth very much explicitly intend to be a pocket of the past, separated from the present, I’m not sure the Mingeikan is trying to do that, which is quite interesting to me. Both in Yanagi’s own time, and today, I think Mingei is trying to say, appreciate tradition, appreciate the rustic, keep it in your modern life, don’t rush to become too totally modern too quickly.

At a former samurai home in Sakura, Chiba. (Photo my own.)

Ise Ondo at Kabuki-za

April 24, 2017

Hm. I really feel like I ought to write something – this was my first time back at Kabuki in years, and my first time seeing Ise Ondo on stage; and, since it’s an ephemeral experience, it’ll be really good to have a blog post I can look back to, to remember what I thought and how I was feeling.

I’m super glad I went. Let’s just start there. Huge big thanks to Nick Ish for giving me the heads up that Ise Ondo was showing. I was *super* into Kabuki for a time, some years ago, but I guess my interests had just sort of wandered, and I just didn’t even think to keep an eye out for what was showing in the Kabuki world, now that I’m in Tokyo. And, quite frankly, looking through the listings, there was a time when there were a dozen or so shows I would have been excited to see, but now, while I no doubt would enjoy it, I think Ise Ondo might be one of a very few that I’d actually really be sure to go out of my way to make sure I saw.

Ise Ondo was the show that I was fortunate to play a very small part in, at the University of Hawaii, back in 2011. And so, it’s a play that I have come to know quite well, and a play with a special place in my heart – thinking back to all our practices and training and rehearsals; to actually sitting on that very set (or, well, one built to very closely resemble it); to which of my friends played which parts and how they played them; and to all the various hijinks and little backstage shenanigans we had. Not to mention late-night post-rehearsal dinners at Like Like Drive-Inn and Sanoya Ramen… Probably the only Kabuki play where I know the lines before they are said.

It was just so much fun seeing this show, done professionally – not that our version was amateur hour by any means; I remain in awe of my friends and castmates, and of the resources UH had or pulled together to do the wigs, costumes, props, sets, music, as accurately as they did. But, to see the “real” version, come to life, after so many years of waiting and hoping for the opportunity to get to see it, was just really cool. The next step is to find my way to Ise, so I can actually visit some of the sites where it takes place – though, as excited and determined as I am about that, I realize it’ll probably take no more than a few minutes. Snap a photo of the stone marker where the Aburaya Teahouse once was, and that’s about it.

Funny enough, even after so many read-throughs and rehearsals and everything, I think I actually sort of understood the plot better watching it today. Maybe that’s because of how broken up it was actually being in the cast – we always rehearsed only one scene or one act at a time, and constantly went back over particular lines or actions until we got it right; and even when we did do a full run-through rehearsal or performance, it’s not as if we were steadfastly watching and paying attention to all the scenes we were not ourselves in. … I wonder if maybe this is a common or even standard, typical, experience for actors. This is the only show I’ve ever been in, so I wouldn’t know. How about you? Experiences you’d care to share? Even in terms of the scenes I was actually in, I was paying far more attention to cues, and to making sure I did my (very small) part right, and was actually consciously trying to not pay attention as an audience member would, for fear of it reflecting on my face or in my posture. When on stage in the actual productions, I really mainly just focused on sitting still, and staring out into the audience in as neutral a manner as I could muster.

For me, this was my first time really watching the whole show, straight through, as an audience member. And suddenly, the characterizations and plot twists made so much more sense. Oshika thinks Mitsugi has been sending her love letters (because Manno has engineered it), and when he denies it, of course she’s jilted and upset and feels horribly lied to – not just because he’s denying it, but because she thinks he’s denying it solely because Okon is there. But then, Okon also thinks he’s denying it just for her benefit, and thinks he’s been cheating on her. And all of this takes Mitsugi by surprise. And then, on top of it all, he’s getting made fun of by the visitors from Awa. … I dunno. I guess I knew all of that. But, somehow, it just made more sense today. Maybe in part, too, because we had a nice fancy subtitles device in front of us, so we were not only experiencing the Japanese play in full (as an audience member, and not as a cast member alternatively in scenes, and hanging out backstage w/o paying attention to the scene, when not in it), but actually seeing the English – not stylized chanted from the actors’ mouths, but just spelled out on a screen.

And the costumes and the sets and everything were very nearly just how we had them in our version. Though there were some parts that were done quite differently, in terms of choreography, in terms of just doing an abbreviated or unabbreviated or simply different, alternative, version of the scene entirely – but all the rest was nearly exactly the same choreography, and so it was like reliving it again in a sense. Just, really so great. So much fun.

And, because I wasn’t watching it for the first time, to be shocked or surprised by the plot itself, but rather was quite familiar with the plot already, I was enjoying it in a different way, or on a different level. A mix of nostalgia, and enjoyment at seeing how it’s done differently by each actor… how these actors play the roles differently from how we did them. Manjirô in particular stood out to me, as in our version he seemed to me a young, wagoto romantic lead sort of character, whereas here he seemed to be played as older. And Mitsugi, too, seemed perhaps somewhat less the hero, less the heroic lead, perhaps even less sympathetic overall, but just as a protagonist, a guy, in a still positive but somewhat more neutral sort of way. Manno, too, seemed older, more plain in this version, whereas in ours I thought I felt there was something more of a sexy villain sort of thing about the character – Gong Li’s Hatsumomo in Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind, maybe, though I haven’t seen that film in ages and I’m not sure it’s an appropriate comparison.

Anyway, this was also my first time going to Kabuki-za for just hitomaku (lit. “one curtain”). Instead of paying upwards of 6000 or 8000 yen (roughly $60-80) for the entire afternoon or evening program, which is what I think I’ve always seen before, this time we got, essentially, “rush tickets,” showing up by 10:30 to wait in line to buy tickets that started to be sold only beginning at 11:15, to watch just the 12pm to 2pm portion of the program. Fifteen hundred yen (roughly $15) for a two-hour show is plenty for me. And all the more so when those two hours cover the entire story – all of Ise Ondo – so it’s not like you’re seeing only one portion of the story. (The rest of the afternoon program was filled out by two other, unrelated, pieces) I don’t know why I haven’t been doing this all along – and instead seeing Kabuki as an expensive “splurge” “treat yourself” sort of thing. Yes, for hitomaku, I will be sure to go back again more times before I leave Tokyo.

All photos my own. From the exterior of Kabuki-za, and from the Kabuki-za Gallery, where you can try out some of the costumes, props, and musical instruments.