Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006.

Time for another book review from my exams. I thought we were at an end, which would have been sad, but there are still a few more to go.

In Escape from Impasse (David Noble, trans.), Mitani Hiroshi details attitudes and events relating to Japanese relations with Western powers, from the time of Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s and the Russian incursions of the 1800s, through the signing of treaties with five Western powers in 1858.

Among his arguments is that the concept of sakoku, of a “traditional” “ancestral” policy of keeping the country closed against formal diplomatic or trade relations with other nations (with only strictly limited exceptions), originates in the 1790s-1800s, and marks a significant change or shift from earlier attitudes about foreign relations. In support of this, in addition to descriptions of Shizuki Tadao’s Sakokuron and other writings, he notes a number of shifts in wording or terminology in official documents. First, he points to the fact that the original so-called sakokurei (鎖国令, “Closed Country Edicts”) of the 1630s only specified the expulsion of specific peoples (the Spanish and the Portuguese), rather than expressing a more all-encompassing policy of seclusion or isolation from intercourse with all foreign powers; it was only in the 19th century, in Mitani’s estimation, that the shogunate explicitly pursued such a policy stance. He also points to the identification of China, Holland, Ryukyu, and Korea as the only countries with which Japan engaged in intercourse (tsūshin tsūshō 通信通商) – to the exclusion of all others – as being first articulated only in the 19th century. At that time, for the first time, China and Holland were formally named (in a letter to Russia) as the only countries with which the shogunate had only trade relations (tsūhō) and Korea and Ryukyu as being the only countries with which Japan had diplomatic relations (tsūshin).

An 1832 woodblock print depicting the street procession of a Ryukyuan mission to Japan. These diplomatic/tribute missions received in audience by the shogun in Edo were a key element of tsūshin relations. University of Hawaiʻi Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. Photo my own.

I find this argument less than entirely convincing, however, relying as it does on shifts in wording, rather than on fundamental shifts in policy stances. Attitudes and interpretations of policies can change over time, and Mitani certainly provides compelling and extremely detailed evidence that this took place, but if there were major policy changes enacted in the 1790s, 1810s, or 1820s, to fundamentally alter the core of the so-called “sakoku” policies put into place in the 1630s, these are not evident in Mitani’s narrative. Further, despite his emphasis on changing ideas of “sakoku” in the 1790s-1850s, Mitani makes no mention of the concept of kaikin 海禁, or maritime restrictions, and the associated arguments by Arano Yasunori, Nagazumi Yoko, and others, who assert that the concept of sakoku, essentially coined by Shizuki Tadao in 1801 as a translation of a foreign (mis)understanding of Japanese foreign policy positions, and seen in only a handful of uses prior to that time, is an inappropriate framework for understanding a policy position that was neither one of isolation nor seclusion, but rather one of seeking to exercise strong control over the archipelago’s engagement with the world beyond. While there are certainly other points on which Mitani offers decidedly intriguing and compelling alternatives to standard scholarly interpretations, for him to neglect discussion of this matter seems a glaring omission.

The major strength of Mitani’s volume is its incredible degree of detail as to every single step in the process of encounters and negotiations between the Japanese and the Westerners, particularly in the densely complex and contentious period of the 1850s. There is so much more to this – so much more – than any simple narrative of Commodore Perry coming and “opening” up the country and boom bam that’s it. No. There were French and English and Dutch and Russians, and the Japanese negotiating with each of them under slightly different conditions, as the situation shifted and changed with each new development.

A Korean mission makes its way through the streets of Edo, in a painting by Hanegawa Tôei. Image from blog ペンギンの足跡II.

Yet, despite Mitani’s astonishingly detailed attention to these episodes of encounters and negotiations, and of policy debates both within the shogunate and among “private” intellectuals of the time, he neglects to address how Japanese officials and intellectuals of the time conceived of diplomatic relations, in contrast to Western understandings. At times, Mitani seems to take the ideological, political, or practical/logical reasons for Japanese positions as given, as understood, without explaining more deeply or extensively the reasoning behind them. For example, why was it that the Japanese wished to avoid formal diplomatic relations with Western powers at the outset (in the 1800s-1850s, when Western ships started coming with greater and greater frequency), and what, more precisely, did “formal diplomatic relations” mean, or entail, in their minds? Hellyer, Roberts, Ravina, and Toby each in different ways provide for their reader some understanding of how people of that time conceived of their nation, and how they conceived of the nature of commercial intercourse and its potential benefits and drawbacks. James Hevia, in Cherishing Men from Afar, places particular emphasis on the great disparities between how a British envoy and the Qing Chinese court in the 1790s conceived of diplomatic relations, including what constitutes diplomatic intercourse, how it is undertaken, and for what purposes. He explains, to cite just one example, why the British concept of the establishment of a permanent consulate in Beijing was so foreign to the Qing, and in doing so suggests that the reader should reconsider the notion that either the British or Qing ways of thinking, and of performing diplomatic interactions, are rational or natural; both are arbitrary, and reflective of different conceptions of the nature of the “nation,” and of international relations.

In Escape from Impasse, we see scraps of treatment of these matters here and there throughout the book, in discussions of the attitudes of a number of different officials and commentators, but there seems to be no coordinated discussion of Japanese conceptions, attitudes, and intentions such as would help the reader form a broader and more solid conception of what the Japanese thought diplomatic relations entailed, how it should be performed, and why. When Mitani mentions how shogunal officials resisted having the shogun sign the treaty with Commodore Perry, because that would mean this treaty constituted formal diplomatic relations, something the shogunate wished very much to avoid, I found myself skimming backwards, scrambling to find any broader or deeper discussion of just what did and did not constitute diplomatic relations in the Japanese view, and just why it was that they were seeking to avoid formal relations, beyond merely the idea of adhering to precedent, and to supposedly “traditional” “ancestral” laws.

Still, Mitani’s work is profoundly informative, and there are a number of ways in which Escape from Impasse contributes significantly to the scholarly discourse on Japan’s engagement with the West in the first half of the 19th century. His point that the Russian incursions of the early years of the 1800s marked a significant moment, awakening fears of Western expansion and military force, is something echoed too by Hellyer and others. As Mitani explains, there was considerable disagreement as to how to respond to these events, with some seeing them as passing crises, not something to be concerned with after the fact, and others deeply concerned, their sense of crisis spurring many government officials to action, or at least to discussion and debate; if this does not mark the very beginnings of pushes for the expansion of coastal defenses, discussions of the expansionist (or not) intentions of the Western powers, the need for more solid claims to the northern territories, etc., it certainly marks the beginning of these topics being discussed, and acted upon, in a more extensive, serious, and prominent way.

Detail of monument to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Newport RI. Photo my own.

Mitani’s exceptionally detailed narrative also provides a more nuanced view of this process of Japan’s “opening” to the world, revealing elements which, in their absence, cause rougher summarizing overviews to misrepresent the process. As he explains, Commodore Perry did not, in fact, press for the opening of trade relations in 1853-1854, but rather the focus of his mission was on opening ports for the repair, coaling, and supplying otherwise of American ships; along similar lines, we are told that Perry asked for the stationing of an American consul in Shimoda not as part of a push for the opening of true diplomatic relations, but rather primarily in order to oversee the behavior and treatment of American sailors operating in these newly opened ports. This is an important contrast with the understanding of Perry we learned in high school, or which the average person on the street might relate. Mitani also discusses a number of differences between American, Russian, Dutch, British, and French desires, intentions, and interactions with the Japanese, and between interactions and events over time; to name just one example, we see how the Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 came about almost by accident, as a result of misunderstandings, and not as part of a coordinated effort by the British to “open” Japan for full diplomatic and commercial relations. Further, Mitani notes stark differences among the Western nations in their economic desires, with the British seeing Japan as a market for their industrially manufactured goods, while the Americans were more interested in access to Japanese export goods. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the same way throughout the West, and we should take Britain’s experience of it to be an exception, rather than the rule, so too we are led to a clearer understanding of the diversity and differences in the attitudes & desires of the various Western powers vis-à-vis Japan, and in the precise contents of the treaties and relationships which resulted.

Another of Mitani’s arguments, going against what he identifies as the standard interpretation, concerns identification of the key moment when the balance shifted from aims of maintaining or returning to sakoku policies being dominant among the top shogunate officials, restricting as much as possible formal intercourse with foreign powers, to the pursuit of finding ways for Japan to embrace fuller open engagement with the world while preserving its own “national polity” and protecting its interests, economic and otherwise, becoming dominant. Mitani identifies the Dutch treaty with the Japanese in 1856 as marking this shift (262). In fact, of course, there can be no one single moment, as these are ideas which had been discussed in one form or another for quite some time, and which had gained currency due to a combination of factors. Still, it is interesting to see him explicitly point out his argument against interactions with Townsend Harris as being the key stimulus (264).

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of this book, overall, is that it reminds us to not think of either Perry’s time in Japan in 1853-1854, or the Treaty signed with Harris in 1858, as hard and fast dividing lines in historical periodization, as if political thought, or the political atmosphere of the time, was something sharply divided and entirely separate from that of the rest of the Edo period. Mitani’s narrative shows us how Perry arrived in a Japan very much dominated by ideas and political structures of a continuity with the past, and that even after he left, it was only in fits and starts, piece by piece, as the result of a series of events and other influences, that different ideas and political paths began to gain dominance and prominence. The Bakumatsu period cannot be seen as a wholly separate thing from the rest of the Edo period, and neither the Western powers nor the Japanese response should be seen as monolithic.

Images from Hawaiian history, laid over a Hawaiian flag, from a Hawaiian Independence Day event at University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, 2015. Labeled on Google Images as free for reuse. Sad to be missing such vibrant cultural and historical events, day after day.

Since the overthrow, and perhaps even more so since the cultural renaissance of the 1960s-70s, there has been a strong segment of society in Hawaiʻi agitating for sovereignty, and for a return to independence. This is a huge topic, with a long and complicated history, complete with much factionalism, and I fully admit there is so much I do not know about it. So, I invite you to look into it more on your own. And, if I have misrepresented anything, comments and corrections are most welcome.

What I would like to introduce in this post is a recent set of developments which have the potential to become a truly historic turning point – and perhaps might be identified as a significant historic set of events already. In coming months, the Hawaiian people may move significantly closer to attaining federal recognition, after the fashion of many mainland Native American Tribes/Nations. This is a really big deal.

The opening lines of the Akaka Bill. Image from the Honolulu Civil Beat.

In an article in the Hawaii Civil Beat from last October, Trisha Kehaulani Watson explains some of the key steps leading up to this. First, for many years, Daniel Akaka (US Senator from Hawaii 1990-2013) pushed a bill (commonly known as “the Akaka Bill“) which would grant the Native Hawaiians federal recognition. Many supported this, of course, as it would mean official recognition by Washington of the Hawaiian people as being a Nation, with certain sovereign rights, and possessing a government with the power to negotiate with Washington on an equal (or, kind of sort of equal) basis, regarding rights, policies, benefits, etc.

Many Native Hawaiians were staunchly opposed to the bill, however, with some of the key reasons being (1) fear that being “given” recognition would be seen by too many in Washington as balancing the scales and negating any further grievances the Native Hawaiians may have, as to land, reparations, etc., (2) fear that recognition would make true sovereign independence more difficult to obtain later down the road, and (3) opposition on the basis that the federal government – that is, the United States of America – is an illegal occupier, and has never had any rightful legal authority over the islands whatsoever. In short, that being officially recognized by Washington means officially acknowledging that Washington has any right or sovereign authority to be the ones granting such recognition.

Image from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), as seen on the Huffington Post blog post “OHA CEO Forces Standoff Over Sovereignty.”

Those seeking federal recognition then pursued the establishment of a formal roll of Native Hawaiians, an important step towards building a base of voters for some future election of a committee or government which could then represent the Native Hawaiian people in government-to-government negotiations with Washington. This roll, called Kanaʻiolowalu in Hawaiian, and organized through the State Senate’s Act 195 (signed in 2011), was also deeply unpopular. While they aimed to get some 200,000 people to sign up – which would still be less than half of the total Native Hawaiian population – they got less than 10% of that. And so, with the backing of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA; a government agency deeply invested in the federal recognition track), these pro-recognition factions apparently got another bill passed, which allowed a whole bunch of people already on other lists to be added to this Kanaʻiolowalu roll without their consent. Kehaulani Watson identifies this as a very serious and problematic development – the fact that this allows OHA to pretend the Kanaʻiolowalu has more support than it actually does, is only the least of it. Her concerns, expressed in the Civil Beat article, can be heard too in an interview she did with Noe Tanigawa of Hawaii Public Radio (an NPR station).

Which brings us to Naʻi Aupuni, and the most recent set of developments. Now, while I admittedly could probably quite easily do a little Googling and figure out more, I think the fact that I don’t already have a sense of who Naʻi Aupuni is, from all the newspaper articles and blog posts I’ve been reading, I think really says something. Naʻi Aupuni is not a US federal or state agency of any kind; neither is it part of the OHA, nor is it an organization that in any way genuinely represents the whole, or the core, of the Hawaiian people. Best as I understand it, Naʻi Aupuni are just some organization, one of a great many factions, but the one chosen by (or formed in cahoots with) the OHA to receive the official rolls from the Kanaʻiolowalu, and to start moving towards an election that a great many Native Hawaiians were opposed to holding.

As I am beginning to understand, it seems a common story among many indigenous groups that there are those factions who develop “in” relationships with the authorities, and then regardless of how marginal those people may be (and they often are) in relation to the community at large, or in relation to chiefs, elders, culture-bearers, powerful families, or whatever it may be, suddenly now these people gain so much power. Museums and anthropologists work with those (sometimes marginal[ized]) people in the community who volunteer themselves to engage with them, and even if these people are rival factions, or in one way or another not actually representative of the community, its attitudes, interests, or desires, suddenly they are the ones who are seen by the museums, scholars, and authorities, as the voices of authority, as the recognized representatives of the tribe/nation. And this can be terribly problematic, as the “recognized” faction attacks others as being less authentic – those who control the museums often control what happens to artifacts, and those connected to local government can control recognition, benefits, land agreements, and so forth. I’m beginning to learn bits about the local politics and issues facing the Chumash peoples, who are local to the area I am living in today in Southern California, and, boy…

Right: Image from Law Journal Hawaii.

But, to get back to the Naʻi Aupuni, they held elections this past fall, to elect representatives to an ʻaha, a committee which would then meet and discuss to work to organize a government. That government would then, in theory, represent the Hawaiian people just as the various federally recognized tribes/Nations on the mainland do, to negotiate with the federal government on a supposedly equal (but actually deeply unequal) government-to-government basis. A huge number of Native Hawaiians did not vote, and so the whole thing was hardly representative, but the counting of votes was in any case halted by the US Supreme Court, on account of racial discrimination. The only ones eligible to vote were those of Native Hawaiian ancestry, which is essentially “race.” This is ironic, of course, in that first of all it’s an election to form a government that would represent the Hawaiian people, so it just makes sense that, obviously, only Hawaiian people should be able to vote. But, also, what could be more American than “government of the [Hawaiian] people, by the [Hawaiian] people, for the [Hawaiian] people”? That said, though, there are many even within the Native Hawaiian community who have pointed out that the unified Hawaiian Kingdom was multi-ethnic from the start, incorporating British, French, [mainland US] Americans, and many others. King Kalākaua had his “Hawaii for the Hawaiians” motto and movement in the 1880s, and with good reason in my personal opinion, but even then, he simultaneously backed systems for foreigners to declare their loyalty to the King and to thus become royal subjects & naturalized citizens. Walter Murray Gibson, one of Kalākaua’s chief advisors and one of the strongest advocates for “Hawaii for the Hawaiians,” was just one such naturalized subject. So, anyway, the point is, the Kingdom was always a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic one, and so doing it by race/ancestry is a bit weird. But, what’s the alternative? Let descendants of the missionary families vote, or descendants of those who were directly complicit in the overthrow, and you’re drowning out the voices of the Native Hawaiians themselves, who according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as various other documents, have a fundamental right to self-determination.

The counting of the votes was thus stopped. But Naʻi Aupuni decided to go ahead and just have all the candidates go forward to become members of the ʻaha, as if the election wasn’t halted, and as if they had all been elected. This ʻaha then met in February 2016 for a four-week convention. Kaʻiulani Milham, one of the members of the ʻaha, has shared “What Really Happened at the ʻAha” in a pair of articles in the Hawaii Independent: Part 1, and Part 2.

Prof. Jon Osorio, former director of the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, has been quite critical of the entire process. In one interview, he simply said quite explicitly,

Whatever they come up with, I’m going to be one of the thousands of people who say, ‘you do not represent me, you do not speak for me.’

Osorio has also written several pieces in the Hawaii Independent, Honolulu Civil Beat, and elsewhere, expressing his opposition. And he’s not the only one. As one man, Isaac Kaiu, told the Department of the Interior at a public hearing in 2014:

“The law of nations tells me that we are the Kanakas, the only people that have a legal right to conduct our affairs. No other entity, whether state or federal government has that authority”

Meanwhile, Prof. Lilikalā K. Kame’eleihiwa, the current director of the Center, is among those who have expressed their strong support for federal recognition. She argues that federal recognition is the first important step towards gaining “standing,” a position from which to begin, to start to negotiate with Washington, as a first step towards gaining true sovereignty.

As a haole, it is of course not my place to insert my opinions in this contentious, complicated, and important issue – it is something for the Hawaiian people to decide for themselves, and not for me to judge. Of course, I cannot help but have my opinions, but I hope I have not intruded by hinting at them in this post.

As you can already see, even this Naʻi Aupuni series of events alone is quite complicated – not to mention the broader issues of sovereignty, internal politics, and history – and so as a mere observer, who has been following all of this only through a scattering of some news articles and blog posts (and who knows how many I have missed), my sincere apologies again if I omit or misrepresent any key bits. I invite you, dear reader, if you are so inclined, to look around the Internet, and read more, to inform yourself further. And if you know more, or know different, please do feel free to leave a comment pointing out my errors, and/or pointing me to further information.

Lots to report on right now, with events touching upon many aspects of Hawaiʻi’s history, and future.

The Hōkūleʻa, in a photo from Wikimedia Commons. I hope to have my own photos of the boat someday.

The Hōkūleʻa was built in the 1970s as a recreation in the spirit of the double-hulled canoes with which the Polynesians originally explored and settled the islands of the Pacific, guided not by any instruments but only by their expert knowledge of sun, stars, wind, and waves. Its construction and first voyage to Tahiti was but one of the many great accomplishments of the grand cultural revival enacted by the Hawaiian people – and by indigenous peoples all around the world – at that time. In 2014, the ship departed Hawaiʻi on its first attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In recent weeks, it has reentered US territorial waters for the first time in many many months. The boat is now in the Caribbean and will be visiting New York in June or July. A whole bunch of events have already been going on in New York in anticipation of it – as a (lowercase ‘n’) native New Yorker who has never really been aware of very much Hawaiian anything going on in the city, I am very excited that this is going on, but also sad to be missing out on it. If you’re in New York, check out Halawai on Facebook for updates and information about Hawaiʻi-related events in the city.

The sister ship, Hikianalia, has not been receiving as much attention, but is scheduled to be visiting the West Coast of North America over the course of this summer, with stops in Seattle (May 29 – June 10), Vancouver (July 5-14), San Francisco (July 29 – Aug 14), Monterey (Aug 15-21), and San Diego (Aug 26 – Oct 10). Why am I not surprised they’re not coming to Santa Barbara? Nothing ever comes to Santa Barbara (even though we have the oldest working wood wharf in California, and that’s gotta mean something, right? Plus, the opportunities for interactions between the Hawaiians and their indigenous cousins, so to speak, among the coastal Chumash).


Polynesian people sailed the seas, crisscrossing the Pacific in ships not unlike the Hōkūleʻa, for centuries before any Europeans ever entered the Pacific. Englishman Captain James Cook was, famously, the first European to happen upon the islands. Cook would eventually be killed in Hawaiʻi, but before that, he was warmly welcomed by Chief Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who gifted him a feather cloak (ʻahuʻula) and feather helmet (mahiole), royal gifts loaded with mana. Truly incredible gifts which made their way back to England, and then were passed through a number of different hands, different owners and collectors, before being given in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand. Today, over a hundred years later, Te Papa Tongarewa, the successor to the Dominion Museum, is returning these items to Hawaiʻi for a ten-year extended loan. Even if they are not returning to Hawaiʻi permanently, still, this is their first time back in the islands since they were first given to Cook, in the 1770s. I know some of what was said about the temporary return of two Kū statues to the islands back in 2010, about how significant that exhibition was as well. Thinking of how ancient these objects are, their association with momentous events and with two figures – Kalaniʻōpuʻu and Cook – who are both regarded as possessing immense mana, I can only imagine how powerful and moving this must be for many members of the Hawaiian community. I hope it’s not Orientalist or something to say so, but just looking at the objects in the video below, I felt like I could almost sense the mana myself – and thought of the traditional kapu (from which we got the English word “taboo”) against touching anything of the king’s, for fear that its great mana would be literally fatal to anyone of lesser station. Clearly, attitudes and practices have changed, though I have no doubt that the objects are still being treated with utmost respect, awe, and a sense of their power and significance.

This video, narrated in Māori, discusses the ritual process of Hawaiian representatives ceremonially reclaiming these royal treasures from the Māori people, who have served as their caretakers for the past 100 years.

A cacophony of additional videos, photos, and other coverage can be found on the website of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Further ceremonies will be held at Bishop Museum in Honolulu on March 17, and I expect there will be video related to that as well. I look forward to it. The treasures will be on display at Bishop Museum beginning March 19. I hope I get to see them at some point…


“Ua Mau Ke Ea O Ka Aina I Ka Pono”. A royal motto appropriated for the State motto. Usually translated as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Seen here on the gates to `Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC is hosting an exhibit on the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom (which emerged out of the unification of the islands by Kamehameha I some decades after Cook’s time), including especially “the undermining of Hawai`i’s independence and its annexation by the United States; to the rise of the Hawaiian rights movement in the late 1960s and the resurgence of Hawaiian nationalism today.”

I haven’t been able to find much about the exhibit just yet beyond this basic exhibit description on the museum’s website, and a brief Star-Advertiser article. As this is not only an exhibit relating in one fashion or another to some aspect of Hawaiian culture, but is quite likely the most major exhibit the NMAI will hold on the overall story of Hawaiʻi’s history for many years to come, I very much hope that I (somehow?) manage to make it to DC to see it. The exhibit is open until January 2017.

Here’s a video from part of the events held at the museum in association with the exhibit:


Today, over 100 years since the overthrow and illegal annexation of the Kingdom, we find ourselves suddenly in the midst of what might become (if it hasn’t already) the next significant turning point in Hawaiian history. In my next post, I will discuss the Naʻi Aupuni elections, ʻaha committee discussions, and possibility of Native Hawaiians being formally recognized by the US federal government, in the near future, as something akin to a Native American Nation.

Japan Quick Links

A few things that have been going on lately in and around Japan.

The airstrip at Futenma Air Base on Okinawa. Photo my own.

US Pacific Command (PACOM) reports that the dismantling of Futenma Air Base on Okinawa might be delayed yet again, until at least 2025, due in large part to Okinawan opposition to the construction of its replacement at Henoko. The Japan Times quotes Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps, as telling a congressional hearing on Weds March 3 explicitly:

The project has been “delayed partly due to demonstrators and lack of support by the government of Okinawa.”

Tokyo responded that they had never told Washington there would be any such delay.

The Okinawan people have been protesting for decades for Futenma to be dismantled, and for no new bases to be built in its place. But while the US finally agreed in 1996 to move towards dismantling the air base, more than 20 years on, they (we) have dragged their (our) feet, taking Okinawan protests and opposition not as impetus to actually do what the Okinawans demand – accelerating the dismantling, and at the same time not building any other bases – but rather, to delay, and to cite the protests as the reason, as our excuse. The US (and Tokyo) continue to stand firm that this new base will be built, that there is no other way, and that as soon as Henoko is complete, Futenma can be dismantled.

But, meanwhile, the Okinawans have stood firm as well, that there must not be any new bases. That the new base at Henoko is unacceptable, and that “there is no other way” other than actually dismantling bases without constructing new ones. If it’s not evident already, I side with the Okinawans, and on a moral level, I feel it is incumbent upon Washington & Tokyo – not upon Okinawa – to change their ways. But, on a practical level, if Okinawan protests (as well as criticism in newspapers, opposition through political avenues, etc.) have for the last 20+ years only succeeded in having the opposite effect – of delaying rather than accelerating the dismantling of Futenma – one has to wonder what other tactics the Okinawans could or should be using? What could they do differently to impel the decision-makers in Washington and Tokyo to change their policy?

Tokunoshima, Kagoshima prefecture. Photo by Wikimedia Commons User:Opqr, courtesy Creative Commons licensing.

On a related note, the Asahi Shimbun reports that they’ve obtained a classified US government document which may have been used to help block Prime Minister Hatoyama’s efforts to get Futenma moved. Hatoyama, prime minister of Japan in 2009-2010, was probably the most vocal and explicit of all recent prime ministers about committing to getting Futenma moved; he was so committed to it, in fact, that when it failed, it contributed significantly to his getting pushed out of office.

At the time, Hatoyama had been backing a plan to relocate the base, not to Henoko (still on Okinawa Island), but to Tokunoshima, a smaller island to the north. According to the classified document the Asahi claims to have obtained, the US blocked this by citing a policy that “Marine Corps helicopter unit[s] should not be based more than 65 nautical miles, or 120 kilometers, from [their] training grounds.” This seems nonsensical on the very surface of it, because if you relocated the base to Tokushima, and declared Tokushima the training grounds, then it wouldn’t be far from itself at all. Why continue to have Okinawa considered the training grounds once you’ve moved the base X km away to another island? Regardless, what makes this all the more interesting is that US Forces Japan denies that there is any such policy, and Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Gaimushô) “cannot confirm the existence of such a document.” The latter may be simply because it is a classified document. But it still raises an eyebrow for me. Does this document, and the policy it cites, exist or not? Was this policy invented explicitly in order to block Hatoyama – the US Marines manipulating a foreign head of state?

I’ll admit I wasn’t following these events nearly as closely at that time, six years ago, but I was still back then aware of Hatoyama’s support for taking real action to actually get Futenma shut down, and I was in support of it. The idea of moving it to Tokunoshima, however, is complicated. Tokunoshima used to be a part of the Ryukyu Kingdom, until it was taken and annexed by Satsuma domain in 1609-1611; unlike the kingdom itself, based on Okinawa, which was allowed to retain some considerable degree of autonomy, Tokunoshima and all the other islands north of Okinawa were fully absorbed into Satsuma territory, and were no longer under the authority of the kingdom. So, when the people of Tokunoshima protest against a base being built there, as they did indeed protest, this too is a Ryukyuan indigenous and anti-colonial protest, sharing considerably in the core character of the Okinawans’ protests. Moving the base from Okinawa to Tokunoshima is like moving a base from Hawaii to Guam – you’re lightening the burden on one colonized indigenous people only to increase the burden on another.

While Tokunoshima does have 1/10th the population density of Okinawa, it’s still undoubtedly sacred land in its own way, as basically all Ryukyuan land is. And, there are arguments to be made that the smaller the island, the smaller the population, while yes you may be placing the burden on a far smaller group of people (and thus benefiting a greater number, whose burden is lightened), the burden on that smaller group is all the heavier. Which logic, or morality, is to win out? The notion that the benefit of the many outweighs the benefit of the few? Or the notion that the tyranny of the majority is tyranny and is to be avoided/opposed?

If the bases were to be moved to the Japanese mainland, e.g. Kyushu or Honshu, I think there is still an argument to be made for the disruption of sacred and/or historical land. Almost anywhere you put it, you’re going to be building on top of a sacred Shinto space, and/or a historically significant location. Even as rural Japan continues to become woefully depopulated – a major societal concern that’s a whole other topic unto itself – those abandoned villages still have history, going back hundreds of years, and to erase them from the face of the earth to build a military base should be undesirable. But, at least, the indigenous and colonial issue is not present, and that’s something I think the Japanese government needs to learn to recognize and acknowledge – that the Okinawans, and those of islands such as Tokunoshima, are not simply Japanese citizens like any others with all the same obligations to the Nation, but that they are colonized, occupied people, and deserve a little more consideration.

“Nuclear Power, the Energy of a Bright Future,” a sign in Futaba, Fukushima prefecture, within the exclusion zone. Image from the Asahi Shimbun.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Japan, a town in the Fukushima exclusion zone is taking down signs promising “nuclear power, the energy of a bright future.” And the signmaker is not happy. He argues that taking the signs down “could be perceived as an attempt to “cover up” the shameful past,” whereas leaving them up is a reminder of the arrogance and mistakes of the past.

Robert Jacobs, professor at Hiroshima City University, has an article in the Asia-Pacific Journal this month on a closely related topic: “Forgetting Fukushima.”


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

The Japan Times reports that a new book on Ainu history has won a prestigious award. Prof. Segawa Takurô’s new book “Ainu Gaku Nyûmon” (“Introduction to the Study of the Ainu”) challenges long-held stereotypical views about indigenous peoples, that they were quite politically and culturally isolated in their villages, not engaging with the outside world. To the contrary, Segawa emphasizes that the Ainu – the indigenous people of northern Japan – were historically (going back quite a few centuries) quite actively engaged in (political) contact, trade, and cultural exchange with a considerable number of other cultures – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, and numerous various indigenous peoples – across a large geographical area.

For those of us with a certain extent of formal background in Japanese Studies, and especially those of us who have studied indigenous issues in general or Ainu Studies in particular, this is not exactly new. Still, from what little the Japan Times article is saying, Segawa seems to be suggesting an even greater degree of interaction than I’d have thought. And, more importantly, he is introducing this to a popular Japanese audience, and hopefully contributing to an eventual sea change in how people see the Ainu – as possessing a great history, never so isolated, and today as fully modern people, their culture and traditions no more “backward” than Japanese traditions or those of any other culture.

For this book, Segawa won grand prize at the third Ancient History and Culture Awards 古代歴史文化賞, and also received an invitation to speak before the Ainu Association of Hokkaido 北海道アイヌ協会 (the most major Ainu Association there is), alleviating his concerns about how the Ainu community might receive his arguments.

Grey Area (Brown Version) by Fred Wilson, 1993. Not actually a direct replica of the Berlin Nefertiti, but obviously based upon it. Seen at the Brooklyn Museum. Photo my own.

Finally, one more thing that doesn’t have to do specifically or exclusively with Japan. As the New York Times reports,

Two German artists walked into the Neues Museum in central Berlin in October and used a mobile device to secretly scan the 19-inch-tall bust of Queen Nefertiti, a limestone-and-stucco sculpture more than 3,000 years old that is one of Germany’s most visited attractions. … Then last December, in the tradition of Internet activism, they released the data to the world, allowing anyone to download the information for free and create their own copies with 3-D printers.

Now, there’s a whole side to this that has to do with whether or not the Nefertiti was “stolen,” whether it should be returned to Egypt, and so forth. And I’m not going to comment on that today.

But, here’s the thing – regardless of whether the bust legally belongs to Germany, or to Egypt, either way, it really belongs to the world. That’s what museums are for, to conserve and share art and artifacts for the benefit of the whole world. Yes, there is plenty to be said (books and books of Museum Studies commentary) about museums for constructing a sense of national identity, and so forth, and that’s something too. But, no one living made or painted this bust. According to the underlying values and spirit of copyright law (in the US, at least, but I imagine to a large extent internationally as well), copyright expires and things fall into the public domain. How much more so things made thousands of years ago. In short, my point is, the museum may own the object, but do they really – morally, ethically – own the rights to the image? So, if you forbid museum visitors to take photos of one of your most famous and iconic objects, is it really your right to do so? Sure, I guess any institution can make whatever rules they want within their own building, and if you don’t like it you can leave. But is it right? Mike Weinberg discusses the basic details of this in a post on the 3D printing blog Shapeways.

If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know this is one of my main pet peeves, one of my main sticking points. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll talk about it again. Today’s post isn’t a particularly coordinated logical argument, and I’m okay with that. For now, in short, let me just say that, the “stolen artifact” “Egyptian repatriation” issue aside, I think “stealing” into the museum and taking totally non-invasive photos or scans of one of the most iconic pieces in the world, and sharing it with the Internet, is a great victory for art, culture, heritage, world community. These things belong to the world, and the museum is merely its steward – it is your job as a museum to share these things, to make them available to the public, to learn from, to be inspired by. If you are being stingy and protectionist about these things, that’s just wrong. And all the more so in our current internet age – the Nefertiti and its scan being 3D objects makes it a bit different, but when it comes to 2D images, I think we are in desperate need of new laws and understandings, both within our various countries and worldwide, as to whether sharing images online counts as “publishing” (and thus subject to the same stringent permission requirements) and what should be the bounds of the rights of museums, libraries, archives, which own the objects but not the copyrights, to tell us what we can and cannot do with those images (and the rights of such institutions to block us from access to the objects, and/or from taking photos to begin with).

EDIT: Blogsite ArsTechnica is now reporting that the scan was likely not, in fact, covertly done in the gallery but rather is likely an official scan commissioned by the museum and then “stolen” in some fashion by the two German artists – either through direct hacking of the museum’s systems in some fashion, or through having someone at the museum, or the contracted-out scanning company, give them the information.
This certainly changes the character of the situation a shade. I’m not sure whether it actually changes the copyright situation – in the US, the question of whether a highly accurate photographic record of something truly introduces “creativity” and thus qualifies as a new copyright (owned by the photographer) has some degree of legal precedent. I have no idea the case in German or EU law.

But, perhaps what’s most pertinent is conveyed in this quote from the ArsTechnica article, from Cosmo Wenman, an artist who has done his own covert scans of museum objects:

I know from first-hand experience that people want this data, and want to put it to use, and as I explained to LACMA in 2014, they will get it, one way or another. When museums refuse to provide it, the public is left in the dark and is open to having bogus or uncertain data foisted upon it.

Museums should not be repositories of secret knowledge, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted elsewhere, Neues is not alone in keeping their scan data to themselves. There are many influential museums, universities, and private collections that have extremely high quality 3D data of important works, but they are not sharing that data with the public.

In the course of my research, I have begun to come across highly detailed references to which time of day events took place. I don’t know yet whether I will end up having anything to say about the ritual, political, or social significance of the fact that such-and-such an event took place at such-and-such a time, but at least on a basic logistical level, just trying to visualize whether people were going up to the castle in the morning or in the evening, how long an audience with the shogun lasted, and so on, so long as my sources are telling me what time it was, I might as well make a note of it, and make an effort to understand what time that was. Over the years, I’ve skimmed over quite a few different explanations or guides to telling time in early modern Japan. Perhaps one of the best online is that posted by the late Anthony Bryant on his website, SengokuDaimyo.com. Even so, I never quite managed to grasp it, until this week.

Above: A Japanese clock from 1678, on display at the British Museum. Not quite as impressive as this other one also at the BM, but I think the face and mechanics are a bit more visible here, because of the size. Photo my own. Apologies for the graininess that emerged as I brightened the photo.

I think a large part of what makes it so difficult to grasp is simply because our own timekeeping culture is something we learn from such a young age, and use so ubiquitously in our lives, it is so deeply ingrained, that it seems almost natural, and so it can be hard to conceive of other systems. Of course, the fact that there were several different ways of telling time in early modern Japan (by numbers that don’t correspond to our 12pm, 1pm, 2pm system, and by zodiac symbols which I have never managed to memorize the order of), and that Japanese “hours” shortened and lengthened with the seasons, doesn’t exactly help.

Thanks to Japanese blogger Chihuahua Luke for this diagram.

The day was divided into six koku (刻 – though often referred to as “hours” 時 or 時分 in the documents), and the night another six koku, for a total of 12 koku corresponding to each of our 24-hour days. You can see on the above diagram, the six “hours” of night on the top half, and the six “hours” of day on the bottom half. Midnight is at the very top, and noon at the bottom, with sunset at the left and sunrise at the right.

So, since there are 12 koku in each day+night cycle, each is roughly equivalent to two hours in our modern 24-hour reckoning. Kind of. The thing is, daylight was always six koku long, and night was another six koku. So, depending on the seasons, as daylight grew longer and shorter, so too did the koku. As this diagram below shows, in winter, there is less daylight each day, so the daytime (昼) koku are shorter, and the nighttime (夜) koku longer. In summer, this is reversed. When mechanical clocks were first introduced to Japan by Europeans in the 16th or 17th century, their mechanisms – designed in Europe to tell regular time, one hour per hour, 24 hours per day, like clockwork (literally) – had to be modified to allow for these shifts in the “hours” (or koku) with the seasons. Basically, the small weights which drove the clockwork (and which you can see under the bell on the image at the top of this post) had to be adjusted every day, or every few days, to accommodate the days growing longer or shorter. If you’re interested in further details on how these clocks worked, wristwatch company Seiko has a nice description on their website.

Another diagram from Chihuahua Luke. Thank you! This one shows how daylight hours shifted across the year. The small 1-24 numbers on top and bottom are our modern hours, while the numbers given in kanji are the bell system I describe below. You can see on top how in summer, with sunrise around 4am and sunset around 7pm, the six daylight hours (from 明け六ツ to 暮れ六ツ) were lengthened. And the reverse in the winter, shown on the bottom.

Still with me? It gets a little more complicated. If you read Edo period documents, or look at Edo period clocks, you won’t see the hours identified in a simple progression from one to six, or one to twelve. Nanatsu-toki 七つ時 or nanatsu-jibun 七つ時分, which we might call “7 koku” is not the seventh one of the day, and it does not come after six. Rather, each koku was assigned to one of the twelve “zodiac” animals, progressing from Hour of the Hare at dawn, to Hour of the Horse at noon, Hour of the Cock at dusk, and Hour of the Rat at midnight. These “animal” names for the hours can be seen in numerous sources, including in Utamaro’s ukiyo-e woodblock print series “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara” – twelve prints depicting courtesans at various hours of their day. The print for the Hour of the Hare shows a courtesan presenting her client with his jacket, as it is dawn and it is time for him to go.

Right: The Toki no Kane (“Bell of Time” or “Bell of the Hours”) in Kawagoe. Photo my own.

The time was also announced in the big cities by networks of belltowers, which rang nine bells at noon or midnight, progressing down to eight, seven, then six bells at dawn or dusk, then five, and four, before jumping back up to nine. I have pasted a copy of a chart of this up on the wall by my desk, and have been consulting it frantically, as I was just a little too overwhelmed with the complexity, was having a really hard time remembering which numbers corresponded to which time of day, and just didn’t think I was going to be able to memorize it. As I made my way through my sources, I took meticulous notes of the corresponding times – for example, where the source says 七ツ時 (7 bells), I wrote “3-5am,” as it says directly on my chart.

But, then my advisor reminded me that it really doesn’t correspond directly to our regular hours; rather, it shifted over the course of the seasons. (EDIT, 3/13: Besides, let us not forget the idiosyncrasies of our own system, which includes setting our clocks forward or back by an hour each spring and autumn.) Oy gevalt. But, complicated as this all is, I had a sort of “aha!” moment today, and realized two things, which spurred me to be writing this post.

First, no one had wristwatches or anything like that at the time, and in an age before railroad timetables, very few things were done strictly according to schedule (i.e. directly on-time). So, really, it’s the rough time relative to dawn or dusk, or relative to noon or midnight, that is perhaps most relevant – and this gives us a stronger sense of the actual look/feel of the day. 七ツ時 (7 bells) is shortly before dawn, so that means it’s dark out. People would have put out paper lanterns to help light the way; these will be extinguished right around dawn. Are people up yet? Are they milling about? Are they just sort of first starting their day, starting to get things ready? The source tells us it was snowing that day… So, I think I may simply change all my references to “3-5am” to instead read something like “shortly before sunrise.” While this is vaguer, it is also less inaccurate, and arguably perhaps more directly indicative of the time of day relative to dawn, dusk, etc.

Second, while I do think I’ll be leaving the chart up for reference, I think once you manage to learn/remember that six bells is always sunrise or sunset, that nine bells is always noon or midnight, and that the bells count down from nine to four, and then jump to nine again, everything else falls into place. Five bells (五つ時) is the early morning or the early evening, four bells (四ツの時分) is late morning or late evening, and then we jump back up to nine bells for the time around noon, or midnight. Eight bells is either early afternoon, or very early morning (i.e. the hours after midnight), seven bells is either late afternoon (approaching dusk) or the hours approaching dawn. And that’s actually about it.

People milling about, possibly getting their day started? Or, perhaps it’s closer to sunset, and closing time? A model of the Echigo-ya, one of Edo’s most major department stores, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Photo my own.

It was quite common for people in early modern Japan to rise during the period of seven bells (七つ時), that is, within the last koku before dawn (the last hour or two before sunrise in our modern conception), to begin to get ready for the day. While on the road, we find that Ryukyuan missions very often departed a town around dawn (thus implying they’d already been awake for a bit, to pack up and prepare for departure), and arrived places by around dusk. Still, there were many occasions when they arrived considerably after dusk, and fure were circulated around the town ordering that homeowners & shopowners put up paper lanterns (chôchin), taking the lanterns down at dawn.

When traveling up to Edo castle for formal audiences, the missions generally got prepared around 8 bells (that is, two koku before dawn) – as, one supposes, there were a lot of preparations to be done – and then departed the mansion for the castle shortly before sunrise, arriving at the castle after daybreak (6 bells). It’s certainly something to think about, that they would have been marching through the streets, in their colorful costumes, banners, palanquins, and everything, and blasting street processional music, at such an early hour – and in the faint light of dawn. One supposes the popular crowds came out more when the missions came back down from the castle later in the day? But, then again, we should not presuppose based on modern-day conceptions of what feels too early in the day according to our own modern lifestyles…

As for how time was actually calculated in order to know when to ring the bells, I’m not actually sure. But, both for individuals and institutions (e.g. castles, temples), there were a number of other ways in which time was counted as well. Perhaps one of the most obvious is to simply look at the sun – I haven’t actually read up on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the most common method out in the countryside. Shuri castle maintained a water clock – water was allowed to drain out of a large tank in a controlled manner, such that the level of water could be used to tell how much time had passed. This was used in combination with a sundial to tell the time, which was then announced to the castle and the city by drums. Though this is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan) example, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it were used in Japan as well. So, various kinds of water clocks and sundials. Candles could also be burnt to tell the time – just keep track of how far down the candle has burned, or how many candles you’ve gone through. In the Yoshiwara, a client’s time with a courtesan was measured based on how many incense sticks had been burned, and he was charged on that basis.

For more on timekeeping in Edo period Japan, check out Dissertation Reviews’ review of Yulia Frumer’s recent PhD dissertation, “Clocks and Time in Edo Japan.” The dissertation itself is sadly embargoed until November 2016. Hopefully Frumer will be getting her work published as a book in the near future; I’ll be looking out for it.

Prof. Doris Sommer came and gave a talk here the other day, on the value and importance of art and beauty, and boy was it inspiring. The topic, ostensibly, was related to the defense of the humanities, the defense of the importance of the arts, as fields such as STEM, economics, business, continue to gain greater and greater traction with students, parents, university administration, and lawmakers alike.

Above: Not apparently a true quote. But a powerful and important notion nevertheless.

We so often don’t know what it is we have until we lose it, and shifting from an Art History department to a department of History, I never suspected that a cultural, or aesthetic, view of the world would be so lacking in the latter. Or that I, who had been steeped in such a view for so many years, would so quickly and so easily forget it, lose it, and become adrift. Some art historian I am. I adore my colleagues, and faculty mentors, in History, but whereas that love of the value of the aesthetic was so taken for granted in my Art History program, here I feel it’s left up to me to keep that energy, that perspective, in my work, as my professors can’t advise me in that direction … and so I am struggling to retain that art/culture aspect to my work, amidst (even unintentional) pressures to focus on “real” political concerns, and more than that, subtle pressures simply to see the world in a different way, a way other than that of the aesthetic or cultured lens.

The Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote on this aesthetic view in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” In one section, he writes:

Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war. “If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.” And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, … Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important…

(Emphasis added.) Reading this quote, I cannot help but think of Chinese landscape paintings. For centuries and centuries – and most certainly after the writings of Dong Qichang (1555-1636) were taken up as the orthodoxy – painters in China rejected realism as a mere parlor trick, embracing as the true artist’s talent the ability to paint things not merely as they appear, but as they truly are. In other words, capturing the spirit of the thing, or the place, and not just its visual perceived appearance.

And I do think there’s something wonderful and powerful and inspiring about this notion of seeing things not merely as they appear, but as they are – thus cutting through to a deeper sense of the character or nature of a thing – as well as this notion of making objects unfamiliar and forms difficult, so that we might better recognize and appreciate the vibrant aesthetic world of colors, shapes, and textures all around us, rather than taking these for granted and thus allowing them all to fade to grey. To be sure, Shklovsky’s aesthetic lens makes everything we encounter in life new, novel, and interesting by alerting us to color, form, texture. And I imagine we could extend this too to the modernist art of the 1890s-1960s, that put aside realism, or naturalistic illusion, to ask viewers to consider the materials and forms themselves – the texture of the canvas, the thickness of the paint, the greenness of the pigment, the squareness of squares, the coldness of stone, the warmth of wood. But I don’t think we even need to go that far to simply say, let us appreciate the vibrant, colorful, exciting, cultural diversity of our world. Let us revel in, and take some enjoyment from, the myriad forms that things take, and not focus only on their function.

As wonderful as Shklovsky’s quote is, I think I like Prof. Sommer’s paraphrase (as it appears in my notes, likely somewhat misquoted) even better:

“Habituation kills everything – it kills my relationship with my wife, it kills how I dress, it kills my fear of war. Art makes me fall in love with the world again.

After all, when we get bogged down in our daily routines and personal family obligations, and when we get caught up in all the great many political and social ills in our world, it can be severely demoralizing. But, thinking about all the beauty in our world, the power of human creativity, can really revive our love of the world, and our desire to contribute to it, or even just to keep moving forward.

I did not get into the study of history so I could think about oh-so-grey things like economic forces or political structures, policy papers or ideological writings. I got into history because I was excited by, enthralled by, enraptured by, the sights and sounds of the culturally diverse worlds of the past. The architecture, the costumes, the admittedly rather romanticized imaginings of what it looked and felt like to be there, in that time and place. I want to highlight the colorful, the vibrant, the musical, in order to contribute to enlivening the world, by introducing my reader to something beautiful and exciting. Our world is full of such beauty, and I think that highlighting this, emphasizing it, getting my reader, and my students, to see that beauty and to expand their love of the world, is just as important – if not, arguably, even more important – as making some argument about our interpretation of political or social structures or patterns.

I have written things like this on this blog so many times – I am ashamed to have forgotten it, to have lost that vision, and the passion for that vision. And so I am so thankful to Doris Sommer for reminding me, reminding all of us in that room, of the power of art and the importance of aesthetic vision.

I don’t know if I will be taking the time to read Kant’s Critique of Judgment, Hannah Arendt’s lectures on Kant, Friedrich Schiller’s Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, and Doris Sommer’s commentary on all of these. But, I do think I will continue to struggle, with renewed determination, to find ways to include the color, the vibrancy, in my work in a way that centers and foregrounds it, and in a way that my advisors find is essential enough to my argument for it to be allowed to remain included within the paper (the dissertation).

Thanks to Flickr user duncan c for making this image Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0 licensed.

Hard Times in the Hometown

Martin Dusinberre, Hard Times in the Hometown, University of Hawaii Press (2012).

I think I’ve mentioned this book quite a few times already, in previous blog posts. Though the majority of the book is devoted to more modern topics, the first chapter alone, covering the Edo period, is excellent. In summary, it covers the story of the Inland Sea port town of Kaminoseki (in Suô province / Yamaguchi prefecture), and the residents’ successful 30+ year fight against the construction of a nuclear power plant in their metaphorical backyard. In the wake of Fukushima, and amidst the controversies over nuclear power which resulted, not to mention growing attention to citizen protest in Japan, the US, and beyond, the book is of obvious relevance and interest. Yet, it is a fascinating book for historiographical reasons as well, as Hard Times in the Hometown is an excellent example of how to address local history.

In his treatment of Kaminoseki – a small fishing & port town in the Inland Sea – Dusinberre is careful to evade implications that Kaminoseki should be taken as a “typical” case. Yet, I think that in doing so, he does not set Kaminoseki apart as a uniquely distinctive case – the lessons from which cannot be applicable to anywhere else – but rather highlights or suggests the a-typicality of a great many other locales – or, quite possibly, of every/any other locale. In this, Dusinberre’s account mirrors some of the key arguments of Amino Yoshihiko, who, in his Rethinking Japanese History (Alan Christy trans.), argues for Japan’s medieval period that not all hyakushō were agriculturalists, and that as historians we must acknowledge and recognize the great diversity of activities in which “villagers” engaged. Much as Amino discusses individuals in what we would consider today rather “backwater” parts of Japan, managing sizable fleets of ships transporting goods from as far as Ezo, and also discusses small islands and other communities, particularly in the Inland Sea, which despite being regarded as “poor” areas due to their minimal rice production, were quite active in their production of salt, sulfur, iron, timber, or other commodities, so too does Dusinberre highlight the quite active and at times prosperous commercial warehousing & shipping activities of the people of Kaminoseki. In this respect, Dusinberre and Amino both push for an image of medieval / early modern Japan as a place not so much comprised of simply a dichotomy of major cities and backwaters, but of a much more complex and diverse collection of places.

The view of Iwaishima (Iwai Island) from Kaminoseki. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Returning to the issue of whether Kaminoseki can be taken as “typical,” even if the individual histories of ports such as Mitarai, Tomonoura, and others which appear more prominently in my documents may differ in some important respects, I find it hard to believe that there would be no parallels at all. Dusinberre’s description of a small set of fishing villages and local trading harbors with some local significance (e.g. as a base of operations of the Murakami Suigun) which in the Edo period housed Korean and Ryukyuan embassies and sankin kōtai entourages, and became home to teahouse districts and ton’ya warehousing & shipping operations, connecting them into archipelago-wide commercial networks, rings as a story likely to have great relevance or applicability for other towns. Further examination of the particular histories of Mitarai, Tomonoura, and the like will hopefully reveal the specifics of those cases; but I think it compelling to believe that at least some of the smaller ports shared similar experiences with Kaminoseki, seeing the vast majority of the private homes along their main streets commandeered to house samurai officials whenever a foreign mission or sankin kōtai entourage came through, for example, even if this does not necessarily hold true for all such coastal villages.

The use of Kaminoseki as a focus point for the (re)telling of broader historical developments also allows for an informative different perspective on those events. The descriptions of commercial, urban, and proto-industrial growth or shifts in Edo period Japan in other scholarly works relate the story of those developments with a particular focus on their manifestations within Edo and Osaka, discussing overland and maritime networks, and developments in the provinces more generally, only in a much more general manner, in broader, rougher strokes. Even the few pages Dusinberre devotes to discussion of the Western Circuit & Inland Sea trade routes already provide more information (or at least valuably different information) about those maritime routes, and the operations of the shipping agents (ton’ya), private merchant shippers (kitamaebune), and port towns, warehouses, inns, teahouses, etc. than any of those Edo- or Osaka-focused narratives I have read in the past. So much of the Edo period’s economic / commercial and urban/popular cultural changes took place on the backs of this maritime trade, and yet its functioning, and the people and places it involved (outside of the big cities), are so overlooked.

I am very glad to have had Hard Times in the Hometown recommended (assigned) to me. I am not sure that it is a volume which would have caught my attention, or which I would ever have thought to look for, or come across, otherwise. And yet, just the Edo period chapter alone has already proved quite informative, and thought-provoking, for a number of points directly relevant to my project. Dusinberre’s introduction, as he addresses broader questions and problems of approach, defending both local history and “everyday life history,” and addressing the very gendered nature of his accounts, are also quite valuable, helping me to question and assess my own thoughts on local history approaches, and serving as an example, perhaps, which I might look back to for how to address questions of broader relevance and theoretical frameworks, and other such issues, in my own dissertation introduction, and quite possibly in the prospectus.

While I must confess I only skimmed the “modern” sections of Hard Times in the Hometown in a rather cursory manner, feeling it pertinent to press forward with other items on the reading list more explicitly relevant to my Edo period focus, Hard Times seems it would be a fascinating read, and I am very glad to now be more aware of it, for when I do find myself looking to read more deeply about developments of the Meiji through pre-war periods, and especially developments and issues of post-war Japan. Hardly the peripheral, “local history only” book it may appear to be to some, I imagine it in future providing a key, core, role in informing my understanding of modern & post-war Japan.


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