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Fes, Day 3

La Gare.

On our third day in Fez, we first left the medina and went out to the train station, to make sure we booked our tickets to Marrakesh sufficiently early. The train station, like the airport, looks really new and clean and shiny. Actually, here and there all throughout the city we saw various buildings which looked super new and clean and shiny, in stark contrast to everything else around them. Some were labeled “International Agency for Human Development” or something like that; others, such as an old caravanserai, we were told were renovated at the expense of the King. But, in any case, after the train station, we went to a district called the Mellah, about a 20 minute walk just southwest of the Medina, which was once upon a time the Jewish quarter. There, a kind man in his late 20s named Abdul Assif, offered to show us around. And he really did a very kind job of it. Didn’t lead us too far astray, or pressure us to buy anything. Just genuinely showed us various markings and sights, including the rabbis’ houses, and some markings of horseshoes, stars, and hamsa over doors or windows which he claimed marked the former homes of Jewish artisans. I’m not sure I buy it.



But, still, he then also showed us the gates to the Jewish cemetery, labeled “Beit Ha Chaim,” or “House of Life” in Hebrew, a very typical name for a Jewish cemetery. And finally he led us to what we were really looking for – Ibn Danan, a 17th century synagogue that’s no longer in operation but is maintained as a historical site. Nothing too exceptionally special on the inside, looking quite similar to ones I’ve seen in Tsfat (Safed) and elsewhere, but still very very cool to see – a synagogue, in Morocco!, in that particular traditional style where the pews face no particular direction, and the bimah (pulpit) is its own tiny little box with a pointed roof over it, looking quite a bit more like counterparts in Catholic and Muslim traditions, rather than the larger simpler stage and lectern that we see so often in the West (or, at least, almost ubiquitously in the US). As we expected to hear, the men would pray in the main room downstairs, and the women in a little balcony upstairs. There was also a tiny ritual bath (mikva) in the basement. And from the roof, we could see the cemetery. I don’t know anything about Moroccan Jewry – the synagogue itself looked very similar to things I’ve seen elsewhere, Sephardic or Mizrahi traditions, with some elements, such as the hanging lamps, clearly quite similar to Muslim aesthetic styles. But as for the rows and rows of perfectly white tombs, that’s new to me. I wonder where I might be able to learn a little more about that.

After the synagogue, Abdul Assif led us to his friend’s shop, who sells just about everything from shoes and leather bags to argan oil and other health products to rugs and ceramics. The argan oil was quite cheap, and the guy kept going on about how his prices were so much cheaper than in the Medina, because he sells wholesale to Moroccans – not usually to tourists – but then in the end he still charged us something like 280 dirhams ($28) for a cup or bowl! So, we kind of got taken in. Oh well. But, Abdul Assif then led us back to the gates of the medina, and was really quite kind and good as he let us go. No further pressure or anything.

We then made our way back into the medina, and had dinner that night at a place called Cinema Café, where they offered a special break-fast buffet. It was mostly tourists, so I felt a little weird about that – people have been fasting all day, and are eager for their traditional (or, in this case, at a café, maybe not quite so traditional) break-fast dinner with friends or family, and yet here we are, as tourists, pretending at joining in the same sort of religious or cultural custom. I think if we were Muslims visiting into town, who didn’t have any friends’ or family’s home to break fast at, that might feel more to the point to me. Like when I myself am overseas and am happy to find somewhere to celebrate Thanksgiving or Hannukah or whatever with others. Still, anyway, we did this thing, and both the food and the atmosphere were quite good. Cinema Café and another place we went to numerous times, Café Clock, are hip little oases of the kind of “hip” “modern” “cosmopolitan” sort of places one might expect to find anywhere else in the world. Feels a bit more like London, New York, or Tokyo than one might think or expect of Fes – which isn’t to say, of course, that Fes isn’t allowed to be modern, worldly, cosmopolitan, but hopefully you follow my meaning.

Café Clock is a funny place. On the one hand, it sort of feels like the hip sort of place that cosmopolitan young Moroccans might hang out in, a place that works really well as a “third place,” to go to regularly, to have a coffee or smoothie and (use the wifi and outlets and) work, or just hang out. Certainly the staff, many of whom seem like they’ve probably gone to school in Europe or elsewhere, seem to have that air of having the space serve that for them. But, then, on the other hand, it also feels really touristy in certain ways, like you’re doing a bad tourist, bad expat thing by “escaping” to this more comfortable place, which is cleaner and nicer, a bit more upscale… They have cooking classes, film screenings, music performances and music lessons, and other cultural events all the time, which is really great, but then also, makes it again feel more touristy. So I’m not sure what to think, except that we enjoyed it, and I’m glad it was there, and I’m not going to feel sorry or embarrassed about enjoying it. They had excellent smoothies and other things on the menu, a beautiful rooftop terrace with a view out over the neighborhood, a slightly quieter/cozier downstairs area with tables where I just worked on my computer while my gf had a private one-on-one oud lesson.. and the best wifi we’ve yet found in Morocco – much faster than in the guesthouse, allowing me to upload and email photos to my father, etc. We went back to Café Clock I don’t know how many times, for oud performances – my gf got to join in and play for one of them – for break-fast buffets twice, for getting a little work done, and for just having tea and sweets late at night. I also tried their camel burger. I’m glad I did, just as something I can say that I’ve tried, but frankly it was pretty gross. But then again, this is the first meat I’ve had in many many months, and I’ve never really been into burgers or steaks to begin with. So who knows if it was actually prepared badly, or actually all that bad-tasting, but it just wasn’t for me.

As I think I mentioned, in Fes, not only do people constantly call out to you to come look at their wares, and then haggle with you over the price, and make it hard for you to leave, but people will also constantly come up to you asking where you’re going, and offering to help guide you there – then take you around and around, intentionally getting you lost to make you feel like you really did need their help (and will need their help getting back, so you can’t leave!)… they take you to their friends’ places and try to push you into buying things, and then at the end demand some kind of fee for their help. … Simone is quite good at haggling, but even so we both were taken in a few times.

Thankfully, we were lucky, nothing too horrible ever happened to us at all. We got tricked or pressured a few times into buying things that were much more expensive than we’d expected – for example, a 28 Euro bowl that we’d expected would be closer to something like 70 dirhams (7 euros), given the expectation that everything ought to be much cheaper in Morocco, and that it almost undoubtedly *is* much cheaper, for Moroccans, just not for tourists; and for example taxi rides where they refused to use the meter, and then at the very end tacked on an arbitrary additional amount, say 30 or 50 dirhams, for the bother of loading and unloading our luggage. … That’s about all. Really the worst was just that a couple of kids (mid-to-late 20s) offered us tea and hash, and got us sitting and talking for a long time, and then led us around and around and around the winding roads of the medina for at least an hour, maybe two, I don’t know, at like midnight, offering to show us all sorts of key sights but really showing us pretty much nothing, and then we made the mistake of arranging to meet them the following morning so they could show us around again, and made the mistake of telling them where we were staying. Such that the following morning, even after we decided we were sketched out, and would just ditch them by staying in our room and just not answering the door, they waited for us for *two hours* and then cornered us when we finally did leave our guesthouse. Fortunately, again, though we were a bit scared and turned off by the whole thing, scared they might follow us, or just keep showing up demanding more money, or bring more friends to – I don’t know what, actually turn to physical violence? – fortunately, once we were firm and just told them we were done, and to go away, nothing more came of it.

Bab Semmarine, one of the main city gates out by the Mellah (Jewish quarter), about a 20 minute walk from the medina.

But, with that experience under our belts, by the time we got to Marrakesh, we were really on our guard. As we left the train station, none of the taxi drivers were willing to use the meter; all cited numbers we thought were probably too expensive. And then they started actually yelling and arguing with one another over who was going to get to take us… We eventually just got into one, just to get it over with and get away from there.

Then, when our cab finally stopped somewhere, and people just started taking our bags out of his cab, our first reaction was, where are we, who are these guys, what’s going on? For all we know, this cab driver could have been a scammer, who had brought us to his friends who were going to steal our stuff. Or something. Or, if not quite so bad, even still, maybe these guys were just random touts who were going to insist on “helping” us to our guesthouse, maybe even guiding us some excessively roundabout way, and then demand a tip. So we both said, hey, I don’t know who you are, we don’t need your help, we’ll be fine. I was actually a little bit scared. Having to defend yourself like that, and protect all your possessions when you’re outnumbered and don’t know where you are and have so many bags to manage… But then the lead guy – who is a young man, maybe late 20s, dressed in cut-up jeans and otherwise just looking like one of these street touts – pulled out a card showing he was with the guesthouse, so we decided, okay, I guess we should go with him. … This of course made the rest of our stay awkward, since we’d so distrusted him, and now he’s our host for however many nights. But, so it goes sometimes, I guess. If it happened all over again, I’m not sure I’d react any differently.

Bab Boujloud, the “Blue Gate.” The main gate into the medina of Fes.

Between this Morocco trip, and our time in Israel, Turkey, and Greece last year, I really have to say this whole street market culture of harassment, haggling, and scams is really one of my least favorite aspects of travelling in the Middle East. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, as an American, I have different expectations and values and desires, but, I just really hate being forced by the situation to constantly, constantly, have to be impolite to people just to get them to leave you alone, or to treat you fairly. I hate having to assume that all the shopkeepers are constantly lying about the quality of their product, and about the price, constantly having to second-guess whether they’re being nice out of genuine kindness or as part of a method to get your money. Even in a “tough” city like New York, when you tell people to leave you alone, they generally do. But here, people will follow you for a block or more, still trying to haggle to try to sell you something even after you’ve said no. They’ll show you a dozen different versions of something even after you’ve firmly established that they don’t have the right color, style, size, or price for what you’re looking for. You can’t even look at something in the market streets, even glance in the direction of a shop or mouth the words “hey, that’s kind of nice,” without someone showing up to try to encourage you into their shop, sometimes even physically grabbing you or physically shoving the product into your hands. I hate that when you say No, they keep pressing. There’s really no way to get people to go away except to say No over and over and over again, and to just keep walking. There’s no way to deal with the constant calls of “Hello,” “Where are you from?,” “why don’t you just take a look?,” “very good prices, very good products, for you,” except to finally just ignore them entirely. And it’s not ignoring in a neutral sort of way, like how you ignore shop calls in Japan and they don’t care because it’s perfectly normal – here, people treat it like you’re being rude to them, even though that’s exactly what’s necessary in order to get them to leave you alone.

On the plus side, though, I guess I’m getting more used to it. I’m still taken in a lot, but it’s certainly less shocking, less aggravating, than it was last year. One travel tips website actually said that market touts in Fes and Marrakech are less pushy and so forth than in Istanbul or elsewhere in the region; I’m not sure this is true, but … whatever. You learn and you deal and you move on.

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Fes, Day 2

The next day, Ahmed was nice enough to show us around a bit. He pointed out, right in the center of the Medina, a home where Moses ben Maimonides, also known as Rambam, one of the most famous Jewish philosophers of all time, once lived. Today, it’s a Chinese restaurant! Haha. He also took us inside Bouinania, one of two major madrasas in the medina where tourists are welcome to visit and see the intricate carvings and other features of classical Islamic architecture; there are only a handful of mosques in the entire country where non-Muslims are allowed to visit, so this is the closest we get. But it was beautiful. Between this and some of the other sites we’ve now seen – as well as from just walking around the streets – I really begin to understand why Art History textbooks often focus so much on mosaics and on doors. At least here in Morocco – I don’t know about the rest of the Muslim world – these really are the things that catch the eye; the places where ornamentation and attention is placed. Ahmed also took us to see a bronze worker, see a little bit of how these beautiful plates are decorated, extensive intricate patterns chiseled into them tiny bit by bit, by hand. Really incredible.

We then also got to see the Tanneries, where they make leather by traditional handmade methods. The place is terribly smelly. We got a view of it just from above, from a nearby rooftop. They bring in skins from outside of the city by donkey, and then treat the skins in various different ways, in different vats, scraping the wool and meat off, treating it in vinegar and pigeon droppings and other natural materials to get it to the right texture and strength and whatever, and use a giant wooden barrel, which looks like a waterwheel, as a pre-industrial-style washing machine, to wash the leather. Finally, another set of vats are used to fix colors into the leather, using a variety of plant dyes and other natural colors. Cochineal for red, indigo for blue, saffron or turmeric for yellow. Apparently goat skin is the softest and nicest; sheep skin doesn’t hold color quite as well, and it fades over time. Camel leather is quite rough, but is very much a thing. Makes me wonder how common camel leather (or imitation camel) is back home, because now that I’ve seen the real thing, I feel like I’ve seen it before.

A bunch of fortresses or walls are visible up in the hills in the distance, along with the tombs of the Merinid Kings. I don’t know if we’ll make it out to them. (In the end, we didn’t.)

Finally, Ahmed took us to two shops run by his friends, to see if Simone could get her hands on some music CDs. Tiny little shops that I don’t think we’d ever have found on our own, way down a ton of winding winding streets… It’s weird, on the one hand, whenever anyone leads us anywhere it feels like it takes forever, down a gazillion turns. But then, once we’ve gotten there, there’s somehow this sense that surely it can’t be that hard. Surely, if we just walked down the main street and made just a couple of turns off, here or there, we’d find it, right? I don’t know. But, in any case, we did find one shop where this guy just burned custom CDs of whatever from his massive digital library. Personally, I would have liked to have some nice cover art and insert booklets – or at the very least to have a track listing with artists and song titles, instead of just somebody’s rough scrawl “Arabic music,” as generic as can be. But, then, I guess that’s part of the joy of traveling, and doing ethnographic work or whatever one wants to call it; you end up collecting all sorts of things – cassettes, LPs, not just commercial CDs.

I’m also still trying to think about just how cheap it is to be here. For example, that one fellow charged us $4 per CD he burned; certainly quite cheap compared to $15-20 at Best Buy or whatever back home, but when you buy 10 CDs, you’re still paying $40. Not exactly just pocket change. On the other hand, we found some shoes for 20 dirham a pair – about $2; certainly an exceptional deal compared to anything. Even (knockoff?) Converse for 100 dirham ($10) is also a great deal. We also had a nice post-Ramadan break-fast buffet for 50 dirhams ($5) each – a steal. But, then a lot of the other places we went were still charging around $7-10 for a sandwich, another $2 for a bottle of water, soda, or tea, $18 for a bottle of wine; and there are places we went where a full multi-course prix fix dinner was anywhere from $30 to $50-60. So, again, it’s not like pennies a day. And, as for the hotels, to stay somewhere really nice for $30 or $50 or $70 a night is a wonderful treat, especially when the prices of hotel rooms in the US are so bloatedly overpriced (I have found tons of places to stay in Tokyo and all over Japan for $30-50/night, but even motel rooms in the middle of nowhere in the US it can be difficult to find anything decent for less than $80-100 in my experience), but even so, $50-70/night is still a not insubstantial amount. I hear rumor there are places in the world one can visit where it really is ten dollars a day, or whatever it may be, including the lodgings. Morocco is pretty cheap, but it’s not that cheap. All in all, I don’t actually know precisely how much I spent in total on our Morocco trip, but it certainly wasn’t an entirely insignificant amount.

In any case, Ahmed introduced us to another place, Restaurant Batha, where they had a single oud player, quieter and tamer than the show the first night. Actually, it was a bit hard to hear. But at least it was a bit more well-attended, and thus less awkward. Similarly beautiful, expansive, space. I wonder if maybe we’ve hit the quiet season. Maybe during other times of the year these places really are full and bustling. I hope so.

Of course, during our time here, we’ve had our fair share of haggling and harassment. You can’t even look at something without someone coming up and trying to sell it to you. And sometimes they’re really persistent – Simone pointed out a pair of shoes I might like, in a neat cerulean sort of color. But even after we pretty quickly determined that they didn’t have that color in my size, the kid just kept trying to insist that the shoes could be made smaller if you put insole inserts in, and that I should just have a seat and try it on, try it on again, this color, that color…. And a couple of times we were taken in by people who brought us back to their other shop, or their other other shop, sometimes way down a whole series of winding streets such that we’d never find our way back on our own… and then once you finally get there, you learn that the ceramic bowls aren’t 2 or 3 or 5 dollars each, but are actually $28 (but are actually only $4 or $5 if you can haggle your way down to it – $28 isn’t really a real price)… and it just takes so long, and so much back and forth, trying to haggle down and trying to just get out of there. I hate it. And then, you have all the people who invite you into their shop for a cup of tea, or offer to show you around to wherever you want to go, and the next thing you know you’re in a situation where you really feel like in order to be polite you have to give them something, or to at least hear them out, or at least give their wares a try…. and so you’re there even longer….

Visiting Morocco

At one of the many, many, shops in the souks of Fes’ medina.

Even with air travel being what it is today, making the world ever more accessible, the United States is still unavoidably at a great geographical distance from so much of the world. For travelers from Britain, France, Spain, it may not be such a big deal to think of taking a holiday in Morocco, but for us Americans, just about anywhere outside of the Americas or Western Europe feels like an incredible crazy thing that we might not have ever imagined.

Even after all the traveling I’ve done – I’ve been so fortunate and privileged to get to do, far far beyond what my grandparents or even my parents might have imagined – there’s still a very long list of places I never thought I’d end up going to. Morocco is most certainly one of those places. Yet, there I was. My partner was accepted to present a paper at an academic conference in Essaouira, a beautiful beach town on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, and so the opportunity presented itself. Prior to heading to Essaouira, we took the opportunity to visit Fes and Marrakesh. During the trip, I wrote up notes and thoughts… I’ll share these over the next however many blog posts, probably mixing unedited copy-pastes from the notes with some post-trip revising. Maybe I’ll put original sections in italics, and my later revisions unitalicized.

Here we go.
June 9-14, Fes

Even after all this traveling, I still find it hard to wrap my mind around the idea that I’m actually in such a place. Whether it’s Hawaii, England, Okinawa, Istanbul, or Morocco, it’s weird to think that I’m actually physically geographically located in such a different place on the globe right now, and also culturally, that I’m in a particular place that I’ve heard about read about seen pictures of. Hard to believe this is Morocco. This is *the* Fez, sacred city of music, and not… I dunno, some substitute that’s not quite the real thing but is still better than nothing. It’s weird to walk the streets, and sit in the cafés, and think this is *the* Fes, this is what it’s really like.

In a way, it’s almost a bad thing, making it all feel too real, too ordinary, too mundane. Actually going and visiting these places breaks the illusion. I don’t know what I expected of Morocco – I’ve barely seen any movies based in that “Oriental” setting, and just haven’t really been immersed in it, I guess. I have some very vague, general, stereotypes that swirl around my head just from being a part of the general popular consciousness – fezes, turbans, bellydancers, camel caravans. But, of course, as we know from Edward Said’s Orientalism and everything that’s come after it, Orientalism was always much more about Western people’s fantasies than it was about Middle Eastern realities. And perhaps all the more so today, as everywhere in the world things only ever get more and more modernized, more and more removed from historical realities, over time. Thus, the only turbans, bellydancers, snake charmers that we saw were there explicitly intentionally for tourist consumption, and not because that’s just how things actually are in Morocco.

Fes skyline, as seen from above the tanneries. Minaret of Bouinania medersa on the right.

As a result, I find it quite weird to be here, and to be finding it frankly not so magical, not so breathtaking. I’m not sure what really to think, what to say are my takeaways. I’ve been really kind of struggling to think of what to say, what to think, how to characterize it all for myself. Sure, it’s a Third World country, and it feels like it in a lot of ways. There are goats and donkeys and chickens in the streets. There is raw meat hanging right over the stalls, and people bustling through tiny winding market streets, and a lot of the other key main features of what we might imagine of “Morocco”. But, then, at the same time, everyone has cellphones, and electricity, and TVs with world news, and lots of the cafés have wifi, and people are just going about their normal everyday business. I’ve been to too many market streets in Jaffa and Jerusalem, and Yokohama and Naha and elsewhere, to really find this so exceptionally out of the ordinary. And while the tourist websites and such tell us that there *are* snakecharmers in certain squares, we haven’t seen any yet. All in all, it just doesn’t quite have that magical, mysterious, “Oriental” quality that we might imagine from books and paintings and movies… And especially some of the cafés we’ve been to feel so modern, even hipstery, that it throws one’s sense off even more. What is the “feel” of this city? Once you move past stereotypes, once you’ve traveled enough, it all gets plainer…

A former home of Maimonides, aka Rambam, one of the most-cited Jewish philosophers in history. Today, a Chinese restaurant.

The medina, the old city center, consisting of some 9000 narrow winding cobblestone streets within heavy stone walls, dates back many centuries. Some of the oldest buildings are from the 9th century, and I think the walls, the city overall is 11th or 12th. Maimonides once lived here.

It’s said to be the largest car-free urban center in the world. The streets are indeed far too narrow for cars, and the artisans and merchants transport their goods in and out of the medina by donkey or by handcart.

Right: the alleyway leading to our guesthouse. I loved this blue.

It’s actually a pretty incredible architectural arrangement. Heavy walls and coverings over the streets between them keep the heat out, keep it cool here inside the medina, even when it’s sunny and hot outside. It was a comfortable 60-something degrees every day we were in Fes; until one stepped out of the medina and was struck by just how powerfully the sun bears down on you. It was closer to 80, or maybe even hotter, outside of the medina.

The walls themselves, all along these many winding paths, are generally quite plain, with the doors being the main ornaments. Though every here and there the walls are painted blue or pink or green – it’s beautiful. And then behind each door, even the most unassuming doors, so many of these houses are just huge big open spaces, three or more stories of rooms, often with a rooftop terrace. Many of the places we’ve seen are amazingly decorated, with tile and marble and mosaics… Of course these are fancy restaurants and guesthouses. Regular people’s homes might not be as fancy. Though they still may be surprisingly spacious and with rooftop terraces.

After a long 10-hour flight, we arrived at London Gatwick, where we had a nice five-or-so hour layover. It was a bit annoying to have to wait through immigration and baggage claim and everything just to pick up our bags and then go somewhere else to check back in – as opposed to connecting more directly from one flight to another as we all so often do, but all in all it went smoothly. And it was so nice to have just a tiny taste of London again, haha. Hung out at Costa Coffee during the layover, and grabbed a couple things from M&S and Boots. I really think I could love to live in the UK again.

Then, a short two-hour flight to Fez. Fez Airport is quite nice, very new-looking, very clean and sunny and bright. From what little we saw of it, we just came in right off the tarmac into a building that was basically just one big room – one half taken up by the immigration lines, and then once we passed through that, the second half of the building was baggage claim, and then that was it. I kind of wonder where the whole rest of the airport is!

Our guesthouse is a small quaint place in the far corner down an alley. It’s a beautiful little place, run by a kind couple. About four or five guest rooms, I think, across two or three floors, with a sunny skylight/atrium sort of thing running down the middle, like in a lot of the places here. Ahmed speaks many languages – English, Spanish, French, and of course Arabic, with great fluency, and his wife French and Arabic. She makes all the food for breakfast herself – cream cheese, apricot jam, several kinds of bread – and they’re all delicious. The jam especially. Just amazing.

We got in to the guesthouse around 5pm, so there was still some time left in the day to walk around the market streets. Everything gets really busy around 4-5, as people buy food and other things to prepare for their daily break-fast (oh, yeah, did I mention it was Ramadan for our entire time in Fes?), and then from about 6 or 7 until 9 or so, it’s super quiet, as everyone closes up shop to go break fast with their families.

Ahmed introduced us to a place called Restaurant Alfassia to see a show of live music, bellydancing, and so forth. It was a pretty fancy place – super big space, multiple floors, all covered in intricate mosaics. A restored/renovated 15th century home, apparently. Sadly, there was only one other party there besides us, so it felt far too big, an awkward situation with the performers outnumbering the audience. A shame. But, the show itself was good. “Classical” Arabic music on oud, violin, and drum, some bellydancing, and some processional-style music with a different set of drums and chimes and such. There’s a certain style of Moroccan (Berber?) drum, with camel skin for the drumskin, which has a thumbhole in the frame, so you can spin the drum while you hit it; a nice little fun trick.

One of the main gates into the medina. Not actually a photo from that first night, but, whatever, right?

Late that night, I went out to the little corner shops to get shampoo and shaving cream, as we still hadn’t showered in all that time, since first boarding our flight in LA. And when I went out, I heard some kind of drums and chimes, sounded like maybe processional (parade) music? After I got back, and we were in bed, we could still hear it all the way into our room. So we threw on some clothes (again) and went out in search of it. By now it was maybe 11pm or even midnight… and we found this one place (a club? a mosque?) where the music was just pounding, the lights were going, and people were just pouring in and out. A super major party. Not electronic “house” dance music or whatever, but something more traditional. We really debated whether or not to try to go in. It could have been a great experience, especially in terms of Simone’s ethnographic explorations, listening to the music, learning firsthand how people enjoy or interact with certain styles of music on certain occasions, etc. But we just didn’t know if it was a private party, or what. If it was a private party for a particular family and their friends, or for a certain Club or Society or whatever, we wouldn’t want to just bust in like the ignorant tourists we are; and if it was a mosque (the party seemed far too lively for my idea of a mosque, but then what do I know?), then we certainly shouldn’t try to get in. … So, we just skipped it, and had paninis and french fries next door. But the music was really something. I don’t know if Simone or I got any recording of it… I don’t recall.

So, that was our first night, and first impressions, of Fes. More in the next blog post.


Akamine Mamoru – “The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia”, translated by Lina Terrell, edited by Robert Huey

The first overview of Ryukyuan history in English since George Kerr’s Okinawa: The History of an Island People, this is a most welcome publication. I have not read the original Japanese version, and so I cannot speak to how much it has been changed, but I am overall quite happy with this new book.

Though I expected it to address just one aspect of Ryukyuan history, serving as only one argumentative/interpretive piece of the scholarly tableau of Ryukyuan history alongside works by Tomiyama, Watanabe, Smits, Takara, Kamiya, and so many others, it really does serve as an introductory overview of the entire history of the kingdom, from the Gusuku period (roughly, 9th to 14th centuries, when elites and eventually “kingdoms” first began to emerge, before being unified under a single Ryukyu Kingdom) all the way up to the abolition of the kingdom in the 1870s, though it focuses most strongly on the early modern period (1609-1870s) and on relations with China over those with Japan. I have not had a chance to read the entire book through, and so I cannot say definitively what the book as a whole includes and what it overlooks, but generally it does seem an excellent overview, touching upon domestic developments, political relationships with China and Japan, Ryukyu’s prominent place in regional trade networks, and so forth.

I actually really appreciate this focus on relations with China. Any choice that an author makes, to emphasize connections with China over those with Japan, or vice versa, is a political choice. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and is much more nuanced and complex than perhaps any one publication could ever really convey. So, you have to choose. The same is true for the choice to emphasize the integrity of “Ryukyu” as a unitary and cohesive political, social, economic, or cultural entity over its disunity and diversity, or the other way around. So, perhaps the best we can do is to keep putting out works that illuminate or highlight one side of it, one aspect, and just keep re-balancing, and further complicating, further nuancing, further (re-)correcting the narrative that emerges in aggregate.

For a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the Ryukyu Islands are today part of Japan, their connections to Japan have always been strongly assumed, emphasized, and discussed. And there is certainly validity to that – Ryukyuan culture (esp. folk culture, rather than elite/court culture) in many key respects originates fundamentally, in prehistoric times, from the same “Japonic” wellspring as Japanese culture. The language bears much in common with classical Japanese, the folk religion and folk customs otherwise bear much in common with those of Japan, and the occasional Chinese official’s assertion that Ryukyu “belongs” or “belonged” to China historically is a load of hogwash. But, this association with Japan being the dominant assumption, there is great value in explicating, or illuminating, Ryukyu’s own separate distinctive history, and its history of connections to China. In that respect, it makes me want to read more of Akamine’s work (and that of others, such as Watanabe Miki).

Speaking of the early modern section, which I focused on in my reading, I was quite happy to see Akamine discuss domestic, internal developments within the Kingdom, and to devote an entire chapter to “Reform and Sinification of the Kingdom.” Smits touches upon this, to be sure, but while it might be just the bias formed by what I have been choosing to read in order to research my own topic (and what I have not been reading), I feel as though there is so much debate and discussion about how we talk about Ryukyu’s relationships with China and Japan, and some of the internal developments drop out. This past year, as a visiting researcher at the University of the Ryukyus, I heard professors and grad students from time to time mention the gradual but significant Sinification of the kingdom over the course of the 17th to 19th centuries, shifts and changes in ritual practices, and so forth, as if this was already well-known and established. Well, maybe it’s because I still haven’t gotten around to reading the full-length monographs by Tomiyama, Takara, Watanabe, and others (because they’re lengthy, time-consuming, and intimidating, hundreds of pages in Japanese), but I just never felt I had come across any real explanation of this. So, I am very pleasantly surprised to see it articulated by Akamine. He also touches upon the introduction of feng shui into the kingdom, and into the organization and layout of Shuri castle, another of a handful of topics simply not explicated in other books or articles I’ve happened to read.

It’s really a great book, and I am glad to see the English-language coverage of Ryukyuan history expanding.

My only critiques are a few small points about language, which caught my eye.

To begin, I am still very much struggling with decisions to make in my own work as to how to represent names, places, titles, and other specialty terms, whether
(1) in an Okinawan (Uchinaaguchi) reading, which might arguably be the most accurate, and would help disrupt the assumption that the Japanese readings of these terms, imposed following Japan’s annexation of the islands and forced assimilation policies in the late 19th-early 20th centuries, are the natural and default readings,
(2) in a Japanese reading, as is standard in both English- and Japanese-language scholarship, and would serve purposes of clarity and consistency, or
(3) in a Chinese reading, as might be more accurate in many cases, but for which I just don’t know the truth.

I had drafted quite a few paragraphs trying to address this issue in my review of this book, going back and forth about a lot of different aspects of this issue, but if anything I think that merits a separate blog post of its own. So I think I’ll skip that mini-rant for now, and just say that I applaud Terrell and Huey’s choice to give Ryukyuan individuals’ Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin. Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats often had multiple names, going by an Okinawan/Japanese style name in some contexts, and a Chinese-style name in others. For example, the great educator, scholar, and official generally known as Tei Junsoku 程順則 was alternatively known as Nago ueekata Chōbun 名護親方寵文 (or, I suppose, in Okinawan, something more like Nan ueekata Chūbun?). Yet, while he’s very well-known today as Tei Junsoku, one wonders if he ever went by that name, or if he and others pronounced it in a Chinese fashion, as Chéng Shùnzé. Throughout the volume, Terrell and Huey give these Chinese-style names in Mandarin pinyin; I don’t know if Ryukyuans genuinely pronounced them in Chinese,1 or in Japanese or Okinawan readings, but if the former is historically accurate, I think it’s excellent to push against the Japanization of these Chinese-style names, and to introduce readers to thinking about these people by the non-Japanized, pinyin, readings of their Chinese-style names. I just wish I knew if it was accurate.

Now, I must admit I cannot speak to the quality of the translation overall, as I have not read the original Japanese version of the book. However, if I have one criticism of the book, it is an under-critical use of terminology, including the Japanese readings and meanings of terms, here and there. To be honest, this only glared out at me a few times, but where it did, well, ideally it shouldn’t happen even once.

I am surprised to find that Akamine himself – a native-born Okinawan scholar dedicated to the study of the Ryukyu Kingdom as a separate polity from Japan, or from Japanese history, and someone who did much of his graduate work at National Taiwan University, and not in Japan – would be so uncritical of Japanese perspectives or assumptions. Then again, perhaps this is more a matter of the translators/editors’ approaches. Or perhaps it’s just an accident or oversight. With apologies to nitpick on one thing, I do think this is of importance:

To note just one example which stuck out to me: on p80, they discuss the use of the term shi 士 (C: shì) to refer to the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocracy. Using that character to refer to the scholar-aristocracy is, so far as I know, accurate. I think, if I remember correctly, that term does appear frequently in the primary sources. However, the book then spends a good number of lines both in the main text and in the endnotes talking about how this term means “warrior,” and explaining how the Ryukyuan scholar-aristocrats were not, in fact, a warrior class. Now, I may be wrong, and if I am please do let me know, but my understanding is that the character 士 only has that “warrior” meaning in Japanese because it was appropriated by the samurai class in order to represent themselves as cultured, refined, elites. In Chinese, and in the context of Confucian discussions of the meaning of the term, it does not refer to a warrior (武士, J: bushi), but to a scholar-gentleman (君士, C: jūnshì), which it seems to me is precisely how the Ryukyuans were using it. So, in short, it is surprising to me that Akamine, and/or Terrell and Huey, find themselves tripping over untangling the word from its Japanese meaning, when they could have just skipped that entirely – or could have more explicitly stated that the association of this term with warriors, and thus the mistaken assumption that Ryukyu had a samurai (or samuree) class, is a mistaken understanding based on an insufficiently nuanced understanding of the meaning of the term 士 as referring (even from the very beginning, in the Analects of Confucius themselves) to an educated, cultured, well-mannered, scholar-gentleman.

On a somewhat similar note, likely in large part because it’s a translation of a Japanese work, and not originally written in English, the text does not engage with its own choices of terminology. For example, while Akamine describes out the character of Ryukyu’s relationships with Japan and China, how the kingdom was more directly impacted by Japanese rules and regulations, while on the Chinese side it was a more purely ceremonial and cultural (+economic) relationship – though he does do a good job of describing out this complexity, still the book calls Ryukyu a “vassal” of Japan and a “vassal” of China, without touching at all upon the questions of what we mean by “vassal,” “Japan,” and “China.” (p82-83) Earlier in the book, too, the term “client-state” is used without any discussion of the implications of that term. What is meant by “client-state”? How is this different from “vassal”?

So, those are my quibbles with a few language issues. But, overall, this really is a great book; I’m glad to see a new survey of Ryukyuan history out there on the shelves, and one which explores and explains quite a few aspects of the history not well-explained elsewhere in the very few other English-language books on Ryukyu. Glad to have finally gotten my own copy, and to add it to my shelf. Looking forward to Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu, 1050-1650, which promises to add to this story further.


1. And, of course, once you start getting into language issues, you start getting into issues of historical language as well. Of course, Ryukyuans in the 17th century didn’t actually pronounce anything according to modern 21st century Mandarin, Japanese, or Okinawan. And even if we did take the bother to try to represent these things in accurately early modern Beijing, Edo, or Naha-Shuri pronunciations (which is a nearly impossible task), this still wouldn’t properly take into account whether they might have spoken Fujian, Kagoshima, or other dialects. The issues are endless.

Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

Golden Kingdoms at the Getty


Many years ago – presumably sometime around 2004-2006 – I attended a great talk & book-signing event with author Roger Atwood, at Back Pages Books, a fantastic little indy bookstore in Waltham MA, run by my friend Alex Green. Atwood’s book, Stealing History, opened my eyes to incredible stories of the international black market in illegally unearthed & smuggled antiquities.

One of the stories he tells in this book is of the illegal looting and subsequent trafficking in 1987 of a cache of solid gold artifacts and other objects from the Peruvian tomb of the Lord of Sipán, an elite of the Moche culture (c. 50-700 CE). One of the most significant objects in the cache was a large golden backflap, described in Archaeology Magazine as follows:

Made of gold, copper, and silver, the backflap weighs about 2.5 pounds and is 25.6 inches long and 19.6 inches wide. It consists of flat blade-shaped central piece surmounted by rattles made of matching front and back pieces. Known from tombs of Moche warrior-priests and depictions on vases, backflaps were suspended from a belt around the waist and covered the wearer’s backside. Warrior-priests wore them as armor in combat and as symbols of power during rituals including the sacrifice, perhaps to insure rainfall and agricultural fertility, of captured enemy warriors.

If I recall correctly from what I read in Atwood’s book, the traffickers eventually ended up trying to sell the backflap and other objects to a potential buyer known only as “El Hombre del Oro.” After a number of communications to arrange the exchange, they met him in a parking lot on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike, only to be arrested by members of the FBI Art Crimes unit, learning to their dismay that “El Hombre del Oro” was Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Goldman. The treasures of Sipán were turned over to the Peruvian authorities, and some (all?) made their way into the collections of the Museum of the Nation in Lima.

I love this story. And I hoped that someday I might eventually happen to make my way to Lima, where I might happen to see the golden backflap at the center of this story. What a pleasure it was to see it – not just any other Moche backflap, but what I’m hoping, assuming, is the very same one – at the Getty’s “Golden Kingdoms” exhibit of pre-Columbian art. It’s incredible getting to see, in person, objects you’ve read about, heard about, seen in illustrations or photographs. It’s incredible seeing objects and knowing this whole story behind them – whether it’s a story about the artist, or the composition, or in this case a story of international smuggling & an FBI sting operation.

For this alone, the exhibit was absolutely worth it. But “Golden Kingdoms” turned out to be a truly excellent exhibit otherwise, as well. As I return to thinking about designing World History courses that I might, hopefully, potentially, teach in the future, the artifacts and labels in this exhibit, seeing how they described and discussed various pre-Columbian cultures, was just really interesting and useful. And huge massive thanks to the Getty for allowing photos, even of all these objects from collections all across the Americas! I took photos of many gallery labels, to hold onto the content for future syllabus- & lecture-writing.

One thing that was especially great about this exhibit was its spotlights on many individual cultures and sites. From this, I can piece together just a bit more (more than from the textbook, and whatever other resources I may use) on the Maya, Aztecs, Olmecs, Inca, Moche, etc., not only in general, but with some small degree of specific focus on sites such as Sipán, Chichen Itza, Tenochtitlan, and Palenque.

For a Latin America specialist, all of this might be rather basic material. But for someone like myself, who specializes in East Asian and Pacific history, and who wants to incorporate more of the premodern, the non-West, and more discussion of visual & material culture in his World Survey courses, this was really great. Of course, I could eventually get my hands on the exhibit catalog, or various other materials, but, still, there’s nothing like seeing an exhibit in person and getting inspired right then and there, to talk about how different cultures associated gold, jade, shells, and other materials with being “emitted, inhabited, or consumed by gods,” and …

Having just returned from a trip to Hawaiʻi where I finally got to see the feather cloak (ʻahu ʻula) gifted by Kalaniʻōpuʻu to Captain Cook, now on loan from Te Papa Tongarewa to the Bishop Museum, I also thoroughly enjoyed seeing some Wari and Nasca feathered cloaks and wall panels. On top of the Māori feather cloaks we saw in the newly renovated Pacific Hall at Bishop Museum, this provides a great opportunity for comparison.

The Getty exhibit also included: an Inca checkerboard tunic, an example one can use to illustrate what’s described in Spanish records of the first meetings between conquistador Francisco Pizarro and Inca emperor Atahualpa.; some stunning stelae from Tikal and related cultures; and just a few objects from the post-conquest period, concluding with a painting of Don Francisco de Arobe and his sons Pedro and Domingo, Native elites from what is today Ecuador, dressed in a combination of Native and Spanish clothing.

The Getty’s contributions to the citywide “LA/LA: Latin American and Latino Art in Los Angeles” event also include a show of contemporary Argentinian photography, a show of the “Concrete” art movement in Latin America (which compares interestingly with the Gutai movement in Japan), and a small but excellent exhibit in the Research Center on “The Metropolis in Latin America,” discussing the modern urban history of Havana, Buenos Aires, Lima, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City – how they developed themselves into modern cities, with national monuments, national architecture, public transportation, and so forth, later becoming centers of Modernist architecture as designers and thinkers turned to Latin America with ideas of building these cities into Modernist utopias. This exhibit not only provided me with comparative narratives and examples, adding to my knowledge/interest in how cities such as Honolulu, Tokyo, Kyoto, Naha, and Seoul were transformed into modern(ist) cities in the 19th-20th centuries, but the exhibit also included some very nice timelines of the major events of Latin American history.

Looking forward to eventually teaching World History, and incorporating some of this great content.

“Golden Kingdoms” runs until Jan 28, 2018 at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. “The Metropolis in Latin America” closes on Jan 7.

All photos my own, taken at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

“Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs,” an event my friends and I had been planning since last year, finally came to fruition this past February, and I flew back to Santa Barbara very briefly (from Okinawa, where I had been pursuing my dissertation research for a six month stay) to take part. Not quite a symposium or conference, but also not simply an art exhibition, “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” combined an exhibit of new works by MFA student Yumiko Glover with a series of talks by Yumiko, EALCS PhD student Carl Gabrielson, EALCS Professor Sabine Frühstück, Art History PhD student A. Colin Raymond, and myself, plus video interviews of all of us, conducted and edited by YouTuber / LGBT-activist Naoya Matsushima.

Now that the website is complete, I thought it about time to finally post on the blog about this.

The event was originally conceived as something of an “experiment” in graduate-student-initiated and cross-department / interdisciplinary events, which might stand as an example in incremental moves towards (1) greater interdisciplinary collaboration within the academy, (2) greater variety in the style and character of academic events, and (3) more student-initiated events on campus. Of course, few events I’ve ever participated in have ever been nearly as radical, or impactful, as we might imagine or expect or hope for them to be, and all of them, once they are over, are simply over, but I’m still rather proud of, and happy with, what we accomplished.

Yumiko Glover, “Tomoko vs. Mr. A” (2016). Acrylic on canvas, 77″ sq. Photo my own. (Sadly, I can’t seem to find any of my photos from that week, so I’m using photos from another art show.)

Yumiko’s artwork continues to get my gears turning – not only beautiful, and masterfully executed, but also wonderfully thought-provoking, containing or suggesting references in numerous different directions, to themes of contemporary Japanese social and political issues, but also anime/manga and youth fashion aesthetics, bubble-gum-bright pop colors, hyperreality and technofuturism – they are highly contemporary works, in modern media and techniques, featuring contemporary or even futuristic subjects (schoolgirls, metropolitan skylines, subways, cellphones, the digital world) but also while subtly referencing or even re-imagining / re-creating (mitate-e) classic images from Japanese art history, such as woodblock prints by Harunobu and Utamaro.

The exhibit opened on Sunday Feb 26, and on the Tuesday, three of us (Yumiko, Colin, and myself) gave brief presentations in Prof. Helen Taschian’s ART 1A: Intro to Visual Literacy class, in addition to all five of us giving talks in a more formal panel event the following day at UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre. I could certainly appreciate how these talks at Prof. Taschian’s class might be seen as tangential, or incidental, to the overall project – and there have certainly been plenty of times that I, as a mere attendee to a “main event” panel discussion have not felt that the classroom visits and other activities I didn’t see constituted part of the main event – but, this time around, as a direct participant in this classroom visit, I really did feel it to be a part of the overall event, the overall experience. This has really given me a new appreciation for how it feels to be a visiting speaker, not just for one “main event” but for other things done in conjunction, and a new appreciation for appreciating the fullness of such events. Even with the talks being just tweaked slightly different versions from what we presented the following day at the formal panel discussion, the classroom visit felt quite different. A different audience, with different background and interests and perspectives. The Visual Literacy class itself provided a different context within which – building on their basic foundational knowledge of art & aesthetics acquired over just the past seven weeks of the academic quarter – we were introducing them to Yumiko’s work, to a brief sampling of Okinawan art today (my presentation), and to some issues and problems in thinking about contemporary art, through examples from contemporary Japanese art (Colin’s presentation). It felt really cool to be including a bit of Japanese, Okinawan, and Japanese/American art (or however Yumiko may identify/categorize her own art practice) into their Visual Literacy class. I don’t know how global (how US/Eurocentric or not) Prof. Taschian’s course is to begin with, but I definitely get a kick out of exposing students to non-Western examples as major examples of how we think about art, etc. American or European art – or particular standard canonical examples of non-Western art – need not be the default go-to examples. We are global citizens of a global world. Let us act like it. And talking about some of the biggest artists in Tokyo, and in Okinawa (or we might just as well have said Tahiti, Hawaii, or countless other marginalized, peripheralized places), plus works by someone like Yumiko Glover, using these and not more standard examples from a canon of Western (or non-Western) modern art, is a key element of doing that. Prof. Taschian’s class also did a walkthrough of the exhibit on the Thursday, along with a formal “critique” of Yumiko’s work by professors and grad students from the Studio Art program, and while I wasn’t able to be there for this part, this too is to my mind very much a part of the overall event, making “Love, Peace, Dreams, and Bombs” overall a fairly complex, extensive, event, and one I’m all the more satisfied with and proud of having been a part of.

Still, the exhibit itself (and gallery opening reception), and the panel discussion at the MCC, were the real centerpieces of the week. I am so glad to have gotten to do this in the MCC theatre. If we had gotten a classroom, that would have been fine, but doing it in the MCC made the whole thing just feel one level “higher” – classier, nicer, more properly put-together, in a sense. Yumiko talked about her artworks, how they were inspired in large part by her own identity and experiences, growing up in Fukuyama, Hiroshima prefecture (about 63 miles from Hiroshima City), and being Japanese, seeing how Japanese popular culture, media, everyday life, and national-level politics have developed over the last several decades. Yumiko’s works are not only about hyperreality and a colorful, pop-aesthetic Tokyo-urban landscape of everyday life infused with youthful energy, referencing or built upon a backdrop history of Japanese art tradition, but the most recent batches are also increasingly engaged in political commentary, against the renewed militarism and nationalism of the Abe administration and its supporters.

Sabine Frühstück and Carl Gabrielson then talked about that recent trend of rising militarism, particularly in terms of the imag(in)ed role or place of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces within Japanese life or Japanese society, the step-by-step shift of the JSDF from total non-involvement in warzones in the 1990s to increased engagement first in postwar minesweeping efforts in the Persian Gulf overseas construction efforts in Cambodia, and then later in an active warzone (although still not with combat troops – only medics, engineers, etc. etc.) in Iraq in the early 2000s, to now, since 2015, a formal reinterpretation of the Constitution newly adopted into law, which would allow Japan to deploy full-on combat troops not only in defense of Japan (or reaction to attacks against Japanese people or property) but also in response to attacks on allies.

Carl talked in particular about the way the JSDF is marketed to the Japanese public, as protectors of an idealized clean, honest, peaceful, prosperous Japanese everyday life – a very common trope throughout Japanese media – and as protectors who do so without any explicit or overt discussion or display of violence. JSDF ads include very little, if any, depiction of weaponry or action, at all, focusing very much instead on a more quiet, soft perhaps, dignified image of people – largely unseen, unheard, in everyday Japanese life, operating somewhere at a physical remove, a distance – who work to protect Japanese life from turmoil and threats. Even the threats themselves are not only not named, they are left entirely undefined: these ads don’t so much stir up “fear” (e.g. fear of Islamic extremist terrorism) as they do, arguably, perhaps, merely emphasize the goodness of what needs to be protected.

I next shared a glimpse, a sampling, of what I’d seen of Okinawan art in the preceding six months or so. I would say my main intention was twofold: (1) to just simply share something of my experience; even those who’ve spent more time in Tokyo, who know the Tokyo and national art scene better than I do haven’t been feet-on-the-ground seeing all this stuff in Okinawa right now, in 2016-17 as it happens. And (2) to try to contribute just a bit to combatting the continued US/Eurocentrism of our understanding and vision of the art world. This is the 21st century. We are global citizens, Let’s fucking act like it. Okinawa is a part of the world, no less so than California or New York or Texas, no less so than England or France or Japan or China. No matter how small, no matter how seemingly peripheral in one way or another, it is a part of our world, a jigsaw puzzle piece that is essential to a more complete vision of the whole.

Finally, Colin talked about how we understand art and aesthetic categories. In the aftermath of minimalism and modernism reaching (arguably) their limits, the movements having been played out to their fullest possible extent, now what? In our frenetic postmodern moment, when absolutely anything can be art, what now is (and is not) “Art”? Also, as we become increasingly interconnected into the global, just because we have access to seeing more art from around the world doesn’t mean we actually understand it in cultural and political context. It may actually be easier than ever before to think we do – seeing artworks from all around the world on the internet, and at a first glance thinking we “get” it, based on preconceptions about Japan. But, in truth, as Colin explained, there is historical, cultural, and political knowledge that is essential to understanding more validly, more deeply, more truly, what an artwork is referencing or pointing to.

Matthew Limb did an excellent job as moderator, guiding us through some important themes and questions at the end of the panel.

These were accompanied by the brilliant inclusion of a series of video interviews organized by Naoya Matsushima, projected onto the wall of the gallery. While five of us gave talks in UCSB’s MultiCultural Center (MCC) theatre in a formal panel event on the Wednesday, that’s ephemeral – even more ephemeral than a one-week gallery show – and these videos, summarizing the main themes of our talks in a (hopefully) even more accessible manner than the talks themselves, brought those talks, those topics, more directly into conversation with the artworks.

It was a real pleasure to collaborate with these folks, and to have such an event under my belt, keeping me connected into fields of Art and Art History, and to get to contribute to having just a bit more Japan-related events on campus, introducing our audiences to these various aspects of Japanese & Okinawan art and politics. I look forward to hopefully many more fruitful collaborations in future.