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I have had my eyes set on seeing “Garden of Unearthly Delights” at Japan Society for quite some time, and after Kathryn’s review of the catalog on her blog, I was all the more excited for it. Garden of Unearthly Delights is Japan Society’s latest show of contemporary Japanese art, featuring works by Ikeda Manabu and Tenmyouya Hisashi – two artists they also featured in their exhibit Bye Bye Kitty a few years ago, and who I’ve written about before – as well as works by a collective known as teamlab.

The show opens with a series of works by Ikeda. I had previously only seen his “History of Rise and Fall” and “Existence“, which were included in Bye Bye Kitty. To see these other works now gives a larger sample size, so to speak, and thus a better sense of what type of thing he does. This first gallery is painted a light blue, and there is a sense of calm, happy, uplifting beauty. His works feature flourishing nature – trees and grasses, and beautiful blue waters – as well as birds and people living vibrant lives amidst it. There are bits of ruins, giving the sense of a society building a brighter future atop the ruins of industrial steel-and-concrete modernity. There is a sense of hope, and of just beauty, in these astonishingly painstakingly rendered pen-and-ink pieces.

Ikeda Manabu, “Imprint” (2011). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Detail.

But then, as we enter the next room, there is great sadness and contemplation, too. A copy of Hokusai’s “Great Wave” (which seemed oddly boldly put out in bright lights, but then again Prussian blue isn’t so fugitive, so I guess maybe it’s okay?) echoes Ikeda’s “Foretoken”, his largest work yet. But before we get to looking at that any more closely, there is “Imprint,” done in 2011 while Ikeda was an artist-in-residence at a program in Vancouver. Much has been said since 3/11 about the beauty and yet destructive power of nature as a theme in Japanese art & literature, especially since 3/11; I’m not sure I have anything more eloquent or meaningful to add on that point.

Here we see brilliant blue water and white crests of foam, what would be a beautiful, entrancing, ocean scene, like the brilliant blue of the waters off a Hawaiian or Okinawan vacation beach… except for the red torii peeking out in the darkness beneath the waves. Though “Foretoken” was made in 2008, it eerily predicts (foretokens) the terrible tsunamis of March 11, 2011, which so ravaged not only much of the Tôhoku coast, but also had great impacts upon Japanese national identity and social/political/cultural discourse. I was not in Japan on 3/11, nor for several years afterwards. But I have heard professors speak who were there, especially anthropologists & sociologists who more so than us historians are keenly in touch with the contemporary, and it is evident that this has had a profound impact upon them, and in their eyes, upon Japan, in ways beyond what I myself might perceive or be aware of.

Above: Ikeda Manabu, “Foretoken” (2008). Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board. Below: Detail.

In large pieces like “Foretoken,” or like “History of Rise and Fall,” Ikeda says he thinks of new ideas as he works. Both of these pieces are giant jumbles of new and old, manmade and natural. A red-bottomed industrial-looking ship is beached, practically embedded in the rocky mountainside. Trees grow out of a giant crack in its side, and birds fly past, while only a few inches away (on the work), skiers slide down snowy slopes. In another section of the work, people stand on a ledge formed by what looks like the remnants of a passenger jet’s wing, before a torii embedded in ice, while nearby a fire burns deep in the mountain. I am told the crests of the wave that dominates the piece are meant to resemble the shapes of the Japanese islands. Ikeda produces this works one pen-stroke at a time, with a simple nibbed fountain pen, and as he goes, filling in the textures of one square inch at a time, he apparently improvises and creates new “hidden” details – the skiers, the torii, a twisting green slide, a flock of birds – as he goes. A video in the small middle gallery shows Ikeda at work – it’s really kind of incredible how slowly the process goes. Ikeda even jokes that his guests – the host of the TV show this segment is from – won’t be able to really see any big change, in the brief time they’re filming.

I continue to learn new ways of looking at and thinking about art – perhaps it is a result of my recent readings & discussions about performance theory, but I found myself thinking, asking, not about the “meaning” of elements of these works, but rather about their effects. What effect does it have that Ikeda so often represents people and animals in white silhouette? I feel like it actually enhances the feeling of energy and dynamism of their interaction with the environment; they are not simply a part of the static scene depicted on the canvas, but are separate from it and yet embedded in it, interacting with the slopes, spans, and surfaces. Beyond that, I don’t know. What do you think?

Though Ikeda does not use traditional materials or techniques, and does not reference traditional aesthetics, subjects, or iconography as directly as Tenmyouya, his work speaks to Japanese identity and Japanese history in a way that makes him very solidly a “postmodernist” artist in my mind, even if not necessarily a Neo-Nihonga (neo-neo-traditional Japanese painting) artist as Tenmyouya describes himself. This is a theme I’ll return to in my last post about the exhibit, and explain further what I mean by “postmodern.” But, one thing that is often cited about Ikeda that does connect him to Japanese tradition is the idea of mastery, of taking a long time to do something very precisely, very carefully. The word takumi (巧, meaning “skill,” or 匠 meaning “master craftsman”) is often used to describe him. I don’t want to get into it here, but this is a big deal; I don’t know about in Japan, but one often gets the sense – and this is not just me talking; I’ve heard MFA Studio Art students themselves talk about it – that (post)modern art in the United States, especially as taught within MFA programs, has become so much about the theory and the conceptual, and so little about the skill or the technique. That showing great attention to masterful technique alone – showing that one has mastered their craft, or mastered the art of painting, the art of sculpture, the art of … etc. – makes Ikeda stand out as different, and as evoking tradition, really says something about the state of art today, don’t you think?

In my next post, I’ll talk about the teamlab installation, and Tenmyouya Hisashi’s works in this exhibit. Thanks for reading!

A big shout-out to the Japan Society Gallery for putting together this fantastic exhibit, and for allowing photographs! I know it’s difficult with contemporary art especially, given the active copyrights and such, but you made it work, where so many of your exhibits in the past it wasn’t allowed. Thank you! (After all, as a friend pointed out, what am I going to do with the photos anyway? Sure they’re up online now, but the photos I took with my little point-and-shoot digicam are nowhere near publication quality. If I really wanted to do anything real with them, I’d still need proper permissions; so, might as well allow photos, I guess? Right?

Garden of Unearthly Delights is open at Japan Society (333 East 47th St, at 1st Ave, NYC) until Jan 11. Go see it now! And, if you happen to be in Madison, Wisconsin, Ikeda is currently artist-in-residence at the Univ. of Wisconsin Chazen Museum.

Are Ashkenazi Jews White?

An image from the 1901-1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, depicting “French Jews.” Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hila Hershkoviz posted an interesting op-ed/blog post in the Times of Israel recently, arguing that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. of Eastern European, rather than Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent) are not white, and should stop self-identifying as such.

(This, in response to a Haaretz article on the somewhat separate but also powerfully important subject of “Jews, white privilege and the fight against racism in America” – in short, why Jews as white elites aren’t as active as we should be in continuing to fight racism, oppression, and discrimination against others, esp. as it pertains to Ferguson protests & systematic racism against blacks in our law enforcement & justice systems.)

I’m not sure I agree with everything Hershkoviz says here – in the end, I think the answer is more complicated than a simple white/non-white binary – but it’s certainly interesting to think about.

*First, let me begin with two critiques, or critical thoughts. One, while who we self-identify as is important, who others identify us as is equally powerful, if not more so, operating upon our conception of ourselves, and upon our interactions and position in society in different ways, on different planes. Regardless of how I identify, with whatever nuance I might use to describe my own identity to others, so long as others perceive me as “white” in a myriad of everyday interactions and systematic ways, I will benefit from, and be accused of, white privilege. White privilege is real, and I have genuinely benefited from it, both in my socio-economic status, and in how people regard me in everyday interactions.

It doesn’t matter if I carry around a copy of Hershkoviz’s article to show people. It doesn’t matter – and I say this genuinely, and not sarcastically or by way of complaint – that my grandparents were survivors of one of the worst attempted genocides in world history explicitly because they were not “white.” It doesn’t matter that no one in my family was in the US before 1900, and that I have no direct familial/ancestral ties to any of the whites who were responsible for the worst parts of our country’s history (e.g. seizing of Native American lands, black slavery, etc.). What matters is the fact that I’m here now, and that for three generations, my family has benefited from others perceiving us as white, in everything from bank loans to how we’re treated in the classroom. It doesn’t matter if “white” is an artificial category, which changes over time, and which cannot necessarily be too easily defined. This has real impacts in our society. Even if I’m not “really” white, as articulated by Hershkoviz, for all intents and purposes in our racialized society, I might as well be; or, to put it another way, since race is socially constructed, so long as society sees me as white, I /am/ white – that is the identity category that society places me in.

Two, Hershkoviz’s assertions about who we really are as Jews, compelling though these narratives may be, are ultimately problematic. Identity is constructed and constantly being renegotiated. It’s tempting to want to look back across centuries or even millenia of history and think, this is who we are, this is who we have always been. To think that we are a “tribe,” as Hershkoviz asserts, following certain ideas of identity and membership millenia old. But is Hershkoviz’s idea of tribal identity, what it means and how it works, only a 21st century idea? Would the Zionists of pre-1948 Palestine have agreed? Would Herzl? How would Maimonides describe his identity, in terms of religion, ethnicity, nation, or tribe? Seven, eight hundred years ago, the dominant idea in Western Europe as to identity was not race, ethnicity, or nationality, but religion. Europe was “Christendom,” more so than it was anything else, and while the Europeans certainly also saw themselves as Franks, and the Muslims as “Turks,” “Saracens,” or by a variety of other names which might be said to be ethnic identifiers, the dominant worldview was still one of religious spheres, not one of nations or ethnicities. A few hundred years later, even as national identities (e.g. French, Dutch, English, Spanish) began to emerge more solidly, identity as part of the Catholic world or of the Prostestant world, remained extremely powerful. Today, there are countless groups around the world reimagining, reasserting, their identities in various ways – indigenous groups, new nation-states… In short, how we identify – and what the relevant categories are – changes over time. In all times, we assert that our identities are true, stretching back centuries. But in all times, these identities are constructed more by the needs, and the terminologies, of a given time, than by the past. Just as Japanese look to defeat in World War II and the subsequent turn to pacifism of their nation, among many other things, as key to how they define their identity today; just as the Hawaiians look to the overthrow of their kingdom and the current illegal US occupation of their land as fundamental to their identity; so too do we as 21st century Jews look to the Holocaust, the state of Israel, worldwide anti-Semitism, and our personal or familial experiences of immigration and diaspora, for our constructions of identity, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise – we shouldn’t pretend that our identity as Jews is just as it has always been, stretching back unaltered, as if none of these more recent events/experiences, nor the needs & desires of our contemporary political situation, have any impact.

That said, I think there are a lot of intriguing and thought-provoking aspects of this article.

*I find Hershkoviz’ idea that we need to “decolonize our minds” intriguing. Like Okinawans raised in the Japanese education system (I know it’s an odd example to choose, but it’s one I know better than most), we Ashkenazi Jews are similarly raised in the US (and I would imagine the same goes in Western Europe and many other places, with variation) to think of England, and to only a slightly lesser degree France, Spain, Italy, Holland, and Germany, as the source of our heritage. Now, granted, there is an argument to be made that the United States /is/ founded upon Western European ideas and culture, that that is the majority culture into which we have assimilated, and that it is a major part of who we are as Americans regardless of where we come from – and that while you get your American education in public school (and from peers, media, and so on), you can still get your Jewish identity, heritage, and education from your parents, and from synagogue, Hebrew school, etc. I imagine much the same could be said for Vietnamese-, Indian-, and African-Americans, not to mention just about everyone else – even the Irish- and Italian-Americans get some different identity from their parents, church, etc. in addition to and separate from the public education “American” identity.

But, at the same time, I think there’s something valuable and interesting in the idea that we need to remind ourselves that we do indeed come from a different heritage, that we are immigrants to this land, and that in a sense, really, we Eastern European Jews, descendants of Kiev, Lvov, and Krakow, have no more connection to the heritage of London, Paris, and Rome than do the Asian-Americans. I have no doubt that the latter have no trouble understanding this.

Roger Shimomura’s “Shimomura Crossing the Delaware.”

*Identity and history is complex, and this issue of us being not a religion, not a race, but a Tribe, and having particular ideas of identity and membership as a result, brings up a much broader issue – broader beyond the topic of the Jewish people – which is that in our ever-increasingly globalized world, how much else has been homogenized into global/modern conceptions and categories? How much cultural diversity has been erased by those categories, even as we use those categories to celebrate diversity? We take it for granted today that the hundreds of national flags represent a great diversity of nations in our world. But where does the idea that a nation must have a flag, and that it must be rectangular, come from? What about all the many traditions and histories in which national identity was expressed otherwise? Here too we have homogeneity masquerading as diversity. There are thousands of languages on this planet, hundreds of countries. Does everyone, from the French to the Saudis to the Hawaiians, from the Catholics to the Sikhs to the Quechua, have the same ideas of what it means to be(long to) a religion, a nation, an ethnicity? Surely we Jews are not the only people who assert an identity that does not neatly fall into the global/modern categories of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality.

Of course, there is a need for globally agreed-upon notions, to a certain extent, for the sake of passports and treaties and national representation in the UN, census statistics, and all sorts of things. But, imagine if we more consciously and explicitly acknowledged a wider diversity of ways of thinking about identity, and didn’t insist to other people that their own identity categories don’t make sense, or aren’t real. Imagine if we didn’t force all people all around the world to conform to /our/ conceptions of how identity works. What a world that would be.

Flags at the United Nations, New York. Photo my own.

As with Japanese architecture, “design” has very much the potential – or should I say the danger – of you ending up with a coffee table book, full of beautiful pictures but with very little content. There is also the risk of ending up with a book where the content is all hand-wavey, Orientalist (or bordering on Orientalist) talk about the simple elegance of Japanese design, one where the author is just so captivated, so stunned, by his/her admiration for the simplicity and refinement of the style that they are unable to say anything meaningful. Thankfully, and as I expected, Graham, a former professor and curator at the University of Kansas, is not that author.

She organizes the book in an interesting fashion, with a series of sections on individual aesthetics such as iki, miyabi & fûryû, wabi & sabi, and kabuku & basara, followed by, in Chapter Two, a few pages on religious influence in design, and then a lengthy section on “Ten Key Characteristics” of “design in Japanese culture.” These ten feel like they border on an Orientalist approach, I’m afraid to say – perhaps it is because they are presented in a list as they are, as though these were the definitive, categorical aspects to understanding the fundamental notions underlying all of Japanese culture. And yet, at the same time, even as you run the risk of reifying all the old stereotypes, it’s not as if these things aren’t at least partially true. Japanese design does show great attention to detail, appreciation of changing seasons, and so forth.

In the third chapter, Graham provides brief biographies (roughly half a page to a full page) of a series of prominent 19th-20th century Westerners who “introduced” Japanese art & design to the West, and played key roles in promoting it. This is kind of nice, for me in particular as I’m always looking for info I can adapt directly into the Samurai-Archives Wiki, and its a fine way to learn a little more about the likes of Denman Waldo Ross, Arthur Wesley Dow, Laurence Binyon, and Theodore Duret.

Overall, there’s a lot of good information in this book, introducing readers to proper Japanese terms for a variety of aesthetic categories, for example, and there are tons of gorgeous pictures. Still, overall, it feels a bit scattered. I wonder if the book might have been better, stronger, if it focused on just one of these three chapters, and expanded on those themes into the full length of the book. As much as I enjoy the opportunity to read more about these prominent Western “promoters of Japanese art,” for example, a book which devotes more than a few pages to each of a number of aesthetic categories – iki, wabi & sabi, etc. as mentioned above – might feel meatier.

One thing Graham’s book certainly is not, which I sort of expected it might be, is a detailed description of individual creators – Yanagi Sôri, Tange Kenzô, George Nakashima, Rosanjin – and their works. For better or for worse, it is instead a broader-ranging discussion of aesthetics and style throughout many aspects of Japanese arts & design, touching upon architecture, painting, ceramics, lacquerware, and numerous other arts but each only briefly or tangentially. There is great value to this book, for sure, but when I think of all the things it leaves out – it is neither an in-depth discussion of individual creators, nor a systematic treatment of styles of architecture, pottery, or woodworking, nor does it delve into the aesthetics and style of objects normally outside the realms of art history – things just a little too everyday – – well, I guess I’m just a bit undecided about the book. It’s definitely very beautifully put together, though, and the information it provides is undoubtedly high quality and reliable. For under $20 (it’s $24.95 cover price, but even on Tuttle’s own page it’s showing $17.47 right now), you could do a lot worse.

I recently obtained The Art of Japanese Architecture, by David and Michiko Young. I have been looking for a good book on Japanese architecture, and while JAANUS and Kazuo Nishi’s What is Japanese Architecture? remain some of the best sources for the really detailed terminology, this 2007 book from Tuttle Publishing balances a good level of detail with a beautiful overall layout, and images.

There are a great many Japanese architecture books on the market which are mainly just pretty to look at, and which I suppose could be used for inspiration for renovating your house, or something like that, if you’re the kind of person who has that kind of money (I most certainly do not). To be honest, I had half expected that this book would be much like that – aimed at a very popular audience, and feeding into the Orientalist aesthetic stereotypes of Japanese architecture as so clean and elegantly simple, so balanced, Zen-like, inspiring, and spiritual. And the book does open with much of that sort of discussion, saying that some Japanese architecture evidences a “restrained tradition with its simplicity and asymmetry,” and that in residential architecture, “the goal is to provide a tasteful and relaxed atmosphere for the occupants.” And, we can’t possibly talk about Japanese art without mentioning “an attention to detail.” But, the language here is quite balanced, objective, and careful, not too flowery. And, stereotypes or no, it would hard to argue that any of this is untrue.

Throughout the rest of the book, the authors touch upon just about every period from Jômon to today, nearly every major type or genre or style, and a great many of the famous architectural monuments I can think of. The only truly glaring omissions are Okinawan architecture (which is my own personal interest talking, but its omission is understandable), and, for the reader interested in more modern Japanese architecture, it’s not absent, but its coverage is somewhat minimal. The Youngs even devote two pages to Ainu architecture. Personally, I am a little disappointed to not see more discussion of Meiji architecture (and up through the 1930s), since there are so many beautiful and fascinating examples – from the Rokumeikan to the Iso Ijinkan to the various National Museums – combining Western and Japanese modes in a way never seen anywhere else. But, so it goes. And, the heavy focus on traditional architecture is kind of refreshing in a way; while there is admittedly no great dearth of books on traditional Japanese architecture, I also feel I see just a little too much focus sometimes, too, on just the most modern & post-modern of Japanese architecture, the kind of thing that makes me say “what about history!?” As if “Japan” or “Japanese architecture” is defined solely or chiefly by this post-modern, cutting-edge, steel and glass aesthetic.

In any case, I find the use of language in the book to also be a nice balance – informative as to technical terms without being too laden with jargon. While there are certainly certain terms or topics I am familiar with that don’t appear here – such as the term chigaidana, referring to a particular style of uneven shelf typically seen in shoin-style rooms, and especially tearooms – the book is also not too general, not too simplistic, and does not pull its punches in educating its readers into terms like Wayô, Daibutsuyô, and Karayô styles, or hattô, shôrô, sanmon and butsuden for the abbots’ quarters, belltower, main gate, and Buddha Hall of a temple, for example. This book isn’t the greatest source for the names of every different style of eaves or crossbeams, but it certainly isn’t lacking for names and dates, and just good solid proper details.

The book is organized roughly by period, and within that by types, moving from Pre-Buddhist architecture, to continental influence, “developing a cultural identity” (i.e. in the Heian period), medieval warrior architecture, and then to the Tokugawa or Edo period, with the last 20 pages or so dedicated to modern architecture from Meiji to today. Each section is filled with not only gorgeous pictures of the structures, but also some really fine illustrations and diagrams, showing the layout of a full compound, or the structure of a building.

There’s so much here I hardly know what to say. The book contains brief, but very much existent, treatments of a huge variety of topics, from the evolution of pagodas to terminology of halls/buildings within a Buddhist temple, to discussions of archaeological excavation, the layout of Edo Castle as compared to that of the Imperial Palace, the merging of Shinto & Buddhism, and the organization of machiya together into a city block (chô). As for actual examples of buildings discussed, all the big names are here, from Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji to Hôryû-ji, from Osaka castle to Himeji, from machiya to minka. Okay, now that I’ve said that, I’m sure there are a good number of major examples that are not covered in any depth here – you can only do so much, and I don’t see any extensive discussion of Nijô Castle, Tôdai-ji, or Tsurugaoka Hachimangû. And since there’s no Index – definitely a downside – it’s hard to confirm that without really reading through the book page by page. But, still, it goes way beyond just a highlights tour, spending time on not only Noh stages and Kabuki theaters, but even touching on sumo rings, for example. And, in the Edo sections of the book, it focuses on five towns or cities, in addition to several other sub-sections, giving a nice diversity of cross-sections to its coverage. Countering expectations by not having any lengthy sections devoted specifically to Kyoto as a city, the book talks about the shogunal capital of Edo, the castle town of Kanazawa, the provincial town of Takayama, the merchant town of Kurashiki, and the mountain village of Ogimachi. So, while we don’t quite get a port town, or a major highway post-town (built around inns catering to travelers), as might have been more directly helpful for my own research, it really does cover a variety of types of towns, and in doing so, also a nice variety of types of buildings.

Though not /quite/ detailed in /quite/ the right ways for my own research (I’m also looking for books with greater details on the specific layout of Edo castle, especially the audience halls, as well as slightly more detailed discussion of daimyô mansions, and post-town inns), The Art of Japanese Architecture looks to be an excellent resource for getting a fairly detailed, solid base in the narrative of Japanese architecture. This will be great for me when I plan my lectures for courses, and I think will be an enjoyable read for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese cultural/artistic history.

Congrats to Gov. Onaga!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the realms of I’d better post about this soon while it’s still relatively timely, on Nov 16, Okinawa elected a new governor, Onaga Takeshi, who promises to be more unequivocally and steadfastly anti-base than his predecessor, Nakaima Hirokazu.

And my sanshin teacher from Hawaii (Norman Kaneshiro, in the red) was at the victory party!

Thanks so much to Joseph Kamiya of PaperShop Projects for providing this video! (incidentally, Kamiya has a name-your-price digital album of Okinawa-infused remixes which is pretty excellent. Take a moment and check it out.)

That construction at Henoko – run by the central-government, and outside the direct control of the Okinawa prefectural government – continues despite the opposition of as much as 80% of Okinawa’s population, is often represented by Okinawans and their supporters as a failure of democracy. And I would agree. Okinawans have all the same full rights and freedoms as any Japanese citizens, and they get their proportional portion of votes in the national legislature. But, time and again, they are outvoted, overrode, by Tokyo’s decisions. Which would be fine, and fair, when it comes to national matters. But when it pertains to their own home, their own land…

A Washington Post article on the election begins:

The man likely to become the next governor of Okinawa insists he’s not anti-American. He’s not even anti-alliance. In fact, he declares, he loves the United States.

But what he really loves, most of all: democracy.

“It’s good to be democratic,” Takeshi Onaga said in an interview at one of his campaign offices in central Naha, the capital of this sub­tropical island chain south of the Japanese mainland. “How can we criticize countries like China if we don’t respect democracy here in Japan?”

Onaga is further quoted in the New York Times as saying, very much along these lines, that “The new military base will not be built. … I will convey the will of the Okinawan people to the governments of Japan and the United States.” I am encouraged to read, too, that Onaga plans to open a Washington office, where Okinawan representatives can meet with American officials, and maybe, hopefully, get their voice heard a bit more loudly.

A banner hung on the fence at Futenma Air Base, reading “Revoke the stationing of Ospreys. Close the dangerous Futenma.” Photo my own, August 2013.

Maybe I’m just living in an echo chamber, but after reading anti-base blog posts, news articles, and so forth nearly every day, I found it very interesting to see The Economist’s take on the election. Published on Nov 15, the day before the election, the article calls Onaga “the most dangerous … of the three candidates opposing Mr Nakaima,” and speaks chiefly from a very geopolitical point of view, with a focus on the difficulties this will present for the US-Japan alliance. I do appreciate the turn of phrase at the very end of the article, that “many [Okinawans] feel their country has always thrown them off a cliff; American bases, rather than being a cornerstone of their defence, seem another reason why, one day, they might be attacked again.” But, overall, there is the sense here that the Okinawans are the obstacle for the US and Japanese governments, and not the other way around. Not that there’s anything wrong with offering different perspectives. A multitude of perspectives is, of course, ideal. But, I wonder to what extent other mainstream media sources – if they’re covering it at all – present this geopolitical strategic point of view, with only the briefest acknowledgements of any kind of sympathy for Okinawan perspectives.

That a Deutsche Welle article is titled “Japan’s new Okinawa governor could delay US’ Pacific pivot” shows their point of view. The more I learn of this “Asia-Pacific pivot,” the less I like it. Call me just plain ignorant if you’d like, I fully admit I don’t follow political news as closely as some, but when I was at the East-West Center in Hawaii, maybe it was just because of the environment I was in, but when I heard about the Asia-Pacific pivot, I genuinely thought this meant a “pivot” towards listening more to Asia-Pacific voices, and caring more about Asia-Pacific interests. Seems that’s not the case. The Economist article mentioned above describes it as “tilting American strategic weight towards Asia.” Not exactly what I had in mind.

The Guardian’s reporting takes a very similar position, in an article with the sub-title “Takeshi Onaga’s victory poses headache for Japan’s PM and for Washington, which is pushing for construction of new base.” It’s all in tiny twists of the wording. We are told “almost two decades on, local opposition to the move and political indecision in Tokyo means not a single marine or piece of military hardware has been moved,” implying that it’s the Okinawans’ fault that everything has been so delayed, when in truth I get the impression that these activists have never been pushing for anything to be delayed, but in fact, for the removal of the bases to be sped up as much as possible. It is Tokyo, and Washington, who have delayed dismantling Futenma until the controversial base at Henoko is ready, instead of listening to the Okinawan people, abandoning the Henoko project, and dismantling Futenma at the same time. In short, don’t blame the Okinawans for this, and don’t put Tokyo’s and Washington’s “headaches” as the key point in the story.

The Diplomat similarly reports “Local elections in Okinawa deal another blow to the prime minister’s agenda.”

Only in Forbes, of all places, do we find an article more clearly leaning in Okinawa’s favor. Entitled “U.S. Filled Okinawa With Bases And Japan Kept Them There: Okinawans Again Say No,” Doug Bandow’s Forbes article opens with:

The U.S. is over-burdened militarily and effectively bankrupt financially, but Washington is determined to preserve every base and deployment, no matter how archaic. Such as the many military facilities in Okinawa, which risks sinking under the plethora of American installations, runways, materiel, and personnel. No wonder the Okinawan people again voted against being conscripted as one of Washington’s most important military hubs.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the one major paper in the US of which I’m aware that I expected to have a more sympathetic take, as far as I can tell, has not reported on the election at all.

Above: The gates to Camp Kinser, just one of more than a dozen US military bases on the island, taking up roughly one-fifth of all land on the island, and denying Okinawans access to all this area behind the fences.

Below: The cliffs at Mabuni, where many Okinawans killed themselves in 1945, pushed by their own Japanese Army until they had nowhere else to go. Sacrifice for the sake of the nation was the mantra then, and so it remains today, for Okinawa. Both photos my own, Sept 2014.

The Atlantic: 1491

I must admit, I’ve been kind of sitting on this link since Columbus Day. But, fortunately, it’s now Thanksgiving, so, it’s still sort of thematically appropriate. (Not that it would be horribly inappropriate to post about such things any other time of year.)

It’s a lengthy article from The Atlantic, and a slightly old one, dating back to 2002, but a very interesting one, by Charles Mann, long-time Atlantic contributing editor, and the author of the books 1491 and 1493, this article being a product of the process which eventually resulted in those books.

In this article, Mann asks us to reconsider the myth that North America was only sparsely populated, and that indigenous peoples live in harmony with nature. In a broader sense, the idea that large-scale environmental impact is limited to the modern age is one of the classic ones perpetuated by the presentism of far too many disciplines (not to mention out in the world, outside of the academy), and is one that several of my History department colleagues, in their studies of medieval Europe and Japan, rail against in their work, to be sure. I don’t want to digress for too long, but just to give one example, my go-to example: by the end of the 18th century, Japan was severely deforested, had nearly exhausted its gold, silver, and copper mines, and had dealt a very severe blow to the wolf population, with the Japanese wolf finally going finally extinct by 1905. Of course, the more classic example of the dodo, extinct by 1700, is a fine one too. And how about moas, the large flightless birds endemic to New Zealand and killed off by the Maori – yes, by the indigenous people who live so in harmony with nature – by 1500, long before any Europeans ever arrived. Not that I mean to disparage the Maori. Okay, let me continue this digression just a little bit longer, to say this: it only just occurred to me as I was writing this, but I think it holds some merit. The idea that indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, whoever, or non-Western peoples at all, e.g. the Japanese – are somehow in harmony with nature may seem benign or even a positive stereotype. In this age of environmental degradation, we all aspire to know how to live more harmoniously with Mother Earth. But, actually, this idea comes straight out of Orientalist / Social Darwinist notions of the 19th century, which contrasted “civilization” against being part of nature. In other words, even if the nuances may have changed today, and even if we intend a different meaning, by saying or thinking that anyone was living in harmony with nature, what we’re really saying is that they’re uncivilized, that they’re less advanced. I can’t remember precisely where I saw it, but I recall reading excerpts from European writings about somewhere in the Pacific (yeah, can’t remember the details – sorry) in which they fully lumped in the people with the natural environment, writing something to the effect of that the natural environment of that island – the climate, the plants, the animals, the Natives – was brutal, and would take a lot of work to be tamed. So, let’s maybe step carefully when we talk about other peoples having lived in harmony with nature.

Just a thought.

Now, returning to the Atlantic article. It opens with discussion of an area in Amazonia known as the Beni, an area where until recently, or perhaps still today, indigenous people live who have had only the most minimal of contact with any outsiders. Scholars Clark Erickson and William Balée believe that this area, and indeed much of the Americas, may have been far more densely populated than our conventional wisdom dictates, and further, that the indigenous peoples of the Americas may have imposed a far greater impact on the landscape – read: manmade lakes, hills, and so forth – than is traditionally believed. To be sure, I have heard, and find quite compelling, the idea that since disease killed huge numbers of Native Americans, perhaps as many as 90%, before the Europeans ever came more deeply into the continent, the European accounts of a largely empty land might not properly be able to reflect what was there before – before the Europeans were there to see it. Even the Plymouth colonists themselves acknowledged it, with William Bradford (1590-1657) writing “The good hand of God favored our beginnings, sweeping away great multitudes of the natives … that he might make room for us.”

But, Erickson and Balée’s work remains quite controversial, and understandably so. The article cites two prominent scholars, Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian, and Dean Snow of Penn State, as saying, respectively,
“I have seen no evidence that large numbers of people ever lived in the Beni. Claiming otherwise is just wishful thinking,” and from Snow, that “you can make the meager evidence from the ethnohistorical record tell you anything you want. It’s really easy to kid yourself.”

Perhaps the more important point is one articulated by scholar Elizabeth Fenn:

Whether one million or 10 million or 100 million died… the pall of sorrow that engulfed the hemisphere was immeasurable. Languages, prayers, hopes, habits, and dreams—entire ways of life hissed away like steam. … In the long run, … the consequential finding is not that many people died but that many people once lived.

Recovering the lost history of countless indigenous peoples is of course of incredible importance, and I wish luck to all of those working on such projects.

This particular one in Beni, focusing on the idea that the indigenous peoples profoundly altered the landscape, brings up some particularly interesting questions and implications. Firstly, by understanding the ways in which all societies have environmental impact, we can begin to understand one another as fellow humans better, so that we might stop seeing one another as those who supposedly “live in harmony with nature” and those who destroy it, and to instead start thinking about the ways that all human societies impact the natural environment. But, also, there is the question raised by this article: if the land was already profoundly altered by the people who came before (and who, in many cases are still here on the land), what exactly are we protecting and preserving in our National Parks and so forth, and to what state exactly should we restore things? In the Beni, it has been traditional practice for who knows how long to burn out the undergrowth, and to build causeways and weirs to trap fish. The Hawaiians, too, built fish ponds, and maintained artificially high, manmade, populations of fish within them, though I don’t really know the details of how extensively they altered the land to do this. Later in the article, Mann describes how many North American indigenous peoples used controlled burning, and other technologies, to shape the grasslands, and turn them into massive “farms,” essentially, for herds of wild buffalo, elk, and so forth. Quoting William Denevan, he writes, “Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? ‘The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so after Columbus, and for some regions right up to the present time.'”

After we landed, I asked Balée, Should we let people keep burning the Beni? Or should we let the trees invade and create a verdant tropical forest in the grasslands, even if one had not existed here for millennia?

Balée laughed. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?” he said.

From here, the article moves on to talk about the issue of virgin soil epidemics, and of pre-contact population, more broadly. While no article of course could ever be as thoroughly informative as a whole book, this 11-webpage-long piece is really quite thorough in its scope, touching upon a lot of really interesting information. Mann covers so much here, I can hardly begin to imagine what he covers in his book. I started writing a running summary of the article, noting interesting points as I came to each of them, but this blog post, which is meant chiefly to just point to the article, is already getting quite long itself. No one wants to read a super lengthy “summary” of something that’s only 11 pages in full.

So, this Thanksgiving weekend, go take a look at Charles Mann’s 2002 article in The Atlantic, “1491.” It’s a really fascinating glimpse into what this part of the world might have looked like before (for most of us) our ancestors came here, and what happened to that world.

ʻIolani Palace, the former royal palace of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The only former royal palace in the United States, it is built in very much a European/Western mode, with much of the interior furnishings being made in Germany, but out of koa wood, and with traditional Hawaiian symbols of legitimacy and kingship intertwined inside and out.

Back in September, at the East West Center conference in Okinawa, one of the talks was given by a representative from the League of Historical Cities, introducing us to the League and to the idea that perhaps Honolulu should join the League.

This League, which I had not heard of before, sounds like a rather interesting organization. It includes roughly one hundred cities worldwide; many are the classic examples of the stereotypical “great city,” including Paris and Vienna, and the organization definitely does seem to have an elite sort of air to it (though it may have just been the presenter’s British accent contributing to that impression), privileging cities with grand architecture, including palaces and temples/cathedrals, representing, to be sure, a particular set of values as to what makes a city great, what kind of history we should value, etc. But at the same time, being founded in Kyoto in 1987, it is also far more non-Western-oriented or anti-Eurocentric than one might imagine, at first impression, such an organization to be. Member cities include Accra, Huế, Yogyakarta, Chengdu, Chiang Mai, and numerous other cities in Asia, as well as Fez, Tashkent, and Tunis. Altogether, we are told, it is an Asia-dominant organization, with the Kyoto and Nara representatives holding top board positions, though the Vienna representative is vice-chair. Norwich, known for its extensive examples of still-extant medieval architecture, is the only member city in England.

Above: The Guildhall in Norwich, England’s only member city. Below: The Seiden (Main Hall) and Nanden (South Hall) of Shuri Castle, the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, in Naha, one of only four Japanese member cities.

Naha is also, incidentally, a member city, which is kind of cool to see. Despite the fact that the city, and indeed much of the island, was leveled in 1945, it does have a reconstructed palace, royal mausoleum, numerous shrines and temples, and a rather colorful, precious, unique historical royal and aristocratic culture. Let’s take a moment, actually, to note that while Kyoto, Nara, and Kamakura, some pretty obvious choices for Japanese cultural centers, are member cities, Naha is the only other member city in Japan, leaving out all of the samurai castle-towns. I’m not sure which ones might be the most intact today – those I have visited, Kagoshima, Fukuoka, Hikone, certainly aren’t exceptionally historical in feel. I can imagine an argument being made for Kanazawa, perhaps, but even then it’s really only certain districts. And Edo, while it was at one time one of the largest cities in the world (tied with Beijing at around one million people in the 18th century or so, far larger than Paris or London at that time), and the center of much cultural efflorescence, is now mostly replaced by a city which, while it has a lively vibrant fascinating cultural history of its own in the 20th century, certainly has a much more modern character than a Kyoto or Nara.

Aliʻiōlani Hale, the former chief governmental/administrative building of the Hawaiian Kingdom, whereas ʻIolani Palace, across the street, was the royal residence. The statue of King Kamehameha, created by an American (Bostonian) sculptor based in Florence, Italy, was created with intentional similarities to classical sculpture of Roman emperors, to convey to Western audiences the legitimacy and modernity of the Hawaiian monarchy and kingdom.

In any case, I do think it a very intriguing idea that Honolulu should be a part of this. On a practical and logistical level, it doesn’t sound like membership in the League actually does much, it’s really more of just a symbolic or nominal thing, but then it scarcely costs anything either. We are told the League isn’t really much of an action-oriented body, and is mostly focused on friendship ties and such, but also engages in discussions of historical preservation and related topics like that, which I personally find quite compelling.

I came to this conference only very shortly after spending several months reading a set of works on Pacific, and in particular Hawaiian, history, and so I was in a prime mindset to get right behind this proposal. The Hawaiian Kingdom was certainly not as large, as powerful, or as long-lived as some, but taken from a cultural relativism point of view, and an actively anti-Eurocentric point of view, why should we consider it worthy of exclusion from any sense of comparative monarchy across the world? Even from a perspective of privileging European notions of architectural greatness, of royal dress & presentation, Hawaiʻi had all of this too. ʻIolani Palace and Aliʻiōlani Hale which still stand today, not to mention Kawaiahaʻo Church, the Royal Mausoleum, and the many treasures in the collection of the Bishop Museum, are marvelous examples of a blending of European and distinctively Hawaiian motifs, forms, and materials, truly to my mind a fascinating and beautiful example of an alternative modernity, less successful perhaps than Japan’s (for example) in terms of the longevity of political autonomy, but no less successful, no lesser in rank or quality than Japan’s from a perspective of aesthetics and cultural development, if I might say so.

Stacy Kamehiro, in her book The Arts of Kingship, which I have kind of fallen in love with, details the ways in which Kalakaua and his advisors deployed, or employed, architecture, costume, political ritual, and the like, to make very real, powerful, meaningful discursive impacts, speaking both to a Hawaiian audience to assert Kalakaua’s legitimacy as ruler (he was the first monarch of the united kingdom to not be of Kamehameha’s lineage), and to the great powers of the world in asserting Hawaiʻi’s modernity. Though I don’t believe Kamehiro speaks to it explicitly, and I am not sure if anyone else has written on the subject at any length, based on Kamehiro’s work, I really think that Kalakaua’s administration was doing very much the same things that the Meiji government was in Japan, in terms of the discursive impacts of adopting European clothing, architecture, aristocratic titles and practices, and so forth. It’s only because Hawaiʻi was so much smaller, and because the kingdom does not survive, that it tends to be so overlooked, but that speaks to reading later events backwards onto the past, and in that moment, neither kingdom was yet guaranteed to survive and succeed, or to fail and fall.

While I very much acknowledge the problematic nature of reifying Western value systems as to what is and is not “modern,” “civilized,” “aesthetic,” or whathaveyou, if those are the criteria that earn respect in people’s minds, there is really rather little to see as a failing or a lack in the Hawaiian monarchy. Members of the Hawaiian monarchy studied in England, spoke perfect English, even worshiped in the Anglican Church, and had close friendly, almost familial, relationships with Victoria and Albert, with Queen Kapiʻolani and Princess Liliʻuokalani sitting in places of honor at Victoria’s 50th Golden Jubilee (members of the Japanese Imperial family sat with the Indian princes towards the back, stayed in a hotel, and were otherwise provided a far lower-level of reception). Kalakaua established knightly orders, as so many European states had done at the time, bestowing the Orders of Kalakaua and Kamehameha upon various foreign royals and dignitaries and receiving similar honors in return. He was the first monarch in the world to circumnavigate the globe, meeting with many heads of state, speaking with them in English (or in other European languages? I’m not sure), wearing royal military uniform very much in the contemporary late 19th century European manner (as the Meiji Emperor did too), performing in accordance with European standards of court protocol, and so on and so forth. He made valiant attempts at establishing some sort of Pan-Pacific or even Asia-Pacific Union, which might have united monarchies and other independent states of the region in standing up against Western imperialist pressure/power and encroachment/conquest, and he proposed linking the Hawaiian and Japanese royal families through a political marriage. I suppose I have gone on too long. But the point is, when you think about it a certain way, think of the nobility of the Hawaiian monarchy, and despite its fate less than ten years after Kalakaua’s death, the great, lavish, inspiring visual and material culture of the Kingdom during Kalakaua’s time, before the fall, I think there is something really great in the idea of recovering the legacy, the reputation, of the Hawaiian, Okinawan, Tongan, and other monarch(ie)s, and in asserting their equivalence to those of other regions of the world.

So, again, I don’t know the actual practical impacts that being a member of this League of Historical Cities might have for Honolulu, and the actual cost/benefit analysis for the mayor’s office. Given that none of us in that room that day had heard of the League before, I’m sorry to say I’m not sure what impact this League membership in and of itself might have. But, in some broader sense, even just the notion that Honolulu could, and should, come to be seen as a world city with a “great” history right alongside so many others, that it should be considered and nominated at all, is just very inspiring and encouraging, I feel.

And in conjunction, that the Hawaiian Kingdom, along with those of Ryukyu, Tonga, and others, should be recognized as among the “great” kingdoms of world cultural history, not lesser in any way, but simply culturally different, within a spectrum of diversity, would really be something wonderful. At the very least, I am inspired by my readings this spring/summer to try to incorporate Hawaii, Tonga, and other non-Western cases into World History or other courses I may teach in the future. Even in contexts where efforts are explicitly made to include Latin American, African, Asian, Middle Eastern perspectives, e.g. in a World History textbook that’s trying to de-center The West, the Pacific is still all too often completely overlooked, so it’s very encouraging to see at least somebody – this League of Historical Cities – standing up and taking note.

All photos my own.

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