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I was just poking around YouTube, and happened upon this series, “Okinawa: A Journey of Discovery.” It is, I think, produced in part by the Okinawa Prefectural Government, and it is indeed rather touristy and cheesy in some respects – the series follows a group of seven Westerners with no previous experience/knowledge in Japan at all (let alone Okinawa), learning about Okinawa largely from the perspective of simply being interested, open-minded, travelers on a cool vacation.

So, yeah, it sort of has a “reality TV” feel, of these seven young people just having an adventure, and facing various “challenges” on each episode. The series also reinforces the image of Okinawa as tourist destination, as vacation destination, and I suppose that’s the point… but, at least it’s not emphasizing the resorts and beaches, but rather, devotes episodes to music, dance, food, and so forth. I wish they had spent more time (or, indeed, any time at all) on the history. But, I suppose in a series like this you want to only show the positive parts – nothing negative, political, or controversial.

In summary, it’s hardly my ideal video series on Okinawa. At the end of the whole thing, we get the impression that the travelers have simply had a really good time, in an exotic and fun location, but not that they’ve necessarily learned anything truly deep about appreciation for Okinawan culture, indigenous struggles, issues of maintaining or reviving traditional arts… But, still, shallow & superficial though the series is, we rarely see anything at all about Okinawa in English, so, as a basic introduction, it certainly has some value. If you’re interested, go check it out – you should be able to find links to each episode easily from each other one.

Katsuren gusuku. Creative Commons image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. I can’t find any good images of Ryukyuan warriors. But, the island wouldn’t be covered in high-walled fortresses if they didn’t have a long history of warfare.

I feel like I may have posted about this before, but I can’t seem to find it through a Search of my own archives. Well, it bears talking about again. As historians, the questions we ask, and even the answers we arrive at, are often more heavily colored than we might like to admit by the political mood of the present. In the 1930s-40s, English-speaking scholars of Japanese history, in light of the militarist Japan of their day, looked to the Tokugawa period for signs of how and why Japan was so totalitarian, oppressive, and belligerent. In the 1960s-1980s, as the present situation of Japan changed dramatically from its wartime character, scholars began to characterize the Tokugawa period not as backward, dark, and oppressive, but as a period of vibrant cultural development, and looked for elements of how and why Japan was proto-modern and proto-industrial during Tokugawa, setting the stage for positive, beautiful, modern development of the post-war period. But, while our characterization of the past will always, inevitably, be influenced by the political needs of the present, does that mean that we should embrace that bias and just go for it? Do we not have a responsibility to at least try for some kind of objectivity? Where there are elements that would be counter-productive for our political purposes, are we to twist or omit them? Or should we admit the history, whatever it is, as truthfully as we can, regardless of political motive?

This is an issue we face in the histories of most peoples, cultures, and regions, and perhaps especially much so in the fields of the history of Ryukyu, and of the Pacific Islands.

Rotuman scholar Vilsoni Hereniko writes in Remembrance of Pacific Pasts that

It will no longer do to claim ‘objectivity’ or ‘impartiality’ in the name of academic integrity. The researcher in the Pacific who is not committed to empowering the native people as they struggle to transform social injustices and inequalities is, ultimately, an agent of the status quo.1

Does all scholarship need to serve an activist agenda, or else be guilty of being part of the problem, i.e. perpetuating the colonialist status quo? Though I sadly cannot seem to find the exact quote (and if I do find it, I will add it in), I am fairly certain that elsewhere Hereniko writes essentially that scholars should not reveal or discuss anything that harms the indigenous position, anything that harms the activist agenda, for then one is being an obstacle, an opponent, to the indigenous people’s fight for rights and freedoms and equality.

Yet, how should this play out in terms of the activist element of Okinawan Studies, in terms of history working to support the anti-military, anti-colonial, efforts of the Okinawan people and their supporters?

A protest in Okinawa in Dec 2013. The sign on the left says “Don’t sell Okinawa’s soul!” The one on the right reads, roughly, “Dropping out on official [campaign promises] is a BETRAYAL of the constituency.2 The Liberal Democratic Party which sells Okinawa’s soul. RAGE.” Creative Commons photo by Flickr user Ojo de Cineasta.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, just as it also marks the 70th anniversary of the Tokyo firebombings, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and the end of World War II. As a result, there have been a great many articles looking back at these events, and at Okinawa today, as the protests against the US military presence continue. An article by Stephen Mansfield published a few weeks ago in the Japan Times, entitled Okinawa: In the crosshairs of war, is but one of these many articles. It is a fine article, like so many others, on the horrors visited upon the Okinawan people by the war, and on their continued burden down to the present. As the average American – and I would wager the average European, perhaps even the average Japanese in certain respects – knows little of this history, it is great to see articles like these bringing these matters to light. However, like many other articles recent and not so recent, Mansfield’s article quotes an oft-cited myth, namely that “Okinawans had no history of war, and did not make or carry arms. When told of this renouncement of militarism by an English sea captain laying anchor in Corsica, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is said to have been stupefied.”

The Ryukyu Islands, on a map at Pearl Harbor. Photo my own.

That Napoleon wrote or said this may very well be true, but as for the rest, it’s absurd. The Ryukyuan Kingdom absolutely did have a military history – it maintained a military, and fought to defend itself (albeit unsuccessfully) against samurai invaders in 1609, at the end of a century or so of Ryukyuan military expansion, as the Kingdom, centered on the island of Okinawa, sent forces out to incorporate both the Amami Islands to the north, and the Sakishima Islands (the Miyakos and Yaeyamas) to the south. The Okinawans encountered severe resistance on some of the islands, especially Amami Ôshima, and clashed with those same Satsuma samurai (or, to be more accurate, their ancestors) as they continued to move north, just at the same time as Satsuma was extending its influence southward into the Tokaras. So, the Ryukyu Kingdom absolutely had a military, and absolutely used it, in expansionist ways. Gregory Smits expounds on this subject brilliantly, in exciting and interesting detail in “Examining the Myth of Ryukyuan Pacifism,” an article in Japan Focus that I would put at the top of any “suggested readings” list on Okinawan history. In this article, Smits also touches upon the fact that the Ryukyuan people did not give up their weapons in the mid-16th century because they were declaring themselves a pacifist people (what nonsense. has any people in the world ever done such a thing?), but rather because King Shō Shin, known as one of the greatest kings in Ryukyuan history for building the strength and prosperity of the kingdom, confiscated everyone’s weapons in order to consolidate power under the monarchy, in order to guard against rebellion. Whether the origins of karate (unarmed combat, due to the lack of weapons) and other forms of Okinawan martial arts (often using farm implements or other everyday objects as weapons) in fact can be traced to this confiscation, or whether that’s a whole other can of mythical worms, I don’t know – martial arts is by no means among my specialties.

Right: Ryûkyû Segoku retsuden, on Ryûkyû’s own “warring states” history. Written by Uezato Takashi, one of the absolute leading scholars on medieval Ryûkyû – a truly quality book, despite the manga illustrations, which might lead one to think otherwise.

But, the point is, I first was introduced to Mansfield’s Japan Times article via the Facebook feed of an anti-base activist group. In case you didn’t know already, in case you couldn’t tell from some of my previous posts, I am very much a supporter of the anti-base movement, sympathetic to the Okinawan people for all they have suffered from the overthrow, annexation, and colonization of the 1870s onwards, through the war and down to today. And the myth of Ryukyuan pacifism is obviously a powerful tool for supporting the rhetorics of this activism – “not only have the Okinawans been terribly wronged, but they have always been a peaceful people, thus making the wrongs all the more wrong” – so the rhetoric goes. And its advantages for the activist position are obvious. But, whether as activist, or all the more so as a historian/scholar, this presents a problem.

Do we ignore Ryukyu’s military past, rewrite the history so as to pretend it never happened, in order to serve the exigencies of today’s concerns? Should history be so completely malleable, to be whatever we need/want it to be? Given that Japanese revisionism – refusing to acknowledge the degree of the wrongs committed against Okinawa, insisting that the deaths of so many Okinawans during the war was “group self-decision” [suicide] 集団自決 rather than “forced mass suicide” 強制集団死 – is something the Okinawans are fighting against, one would think that there might be opposition to revisionism more broadly. Let us not adhere to myths about our history which serve our agenda – let us figure out the actual truth.

For me, personally, acknowledging Ryukyu’s pre-modern military history does not hinder in any way my feelings that the Okinawans have been horribly wronged, and that they continue to suffer under an unfair burden (in hosting so many US military bases). One does not need to have been peaceful or pacifist oneself for one’s conquest, subjugation, and colonialist/imperialist exploitation by others to be a terrible historical and contemporary wrong.

But, that said, there is a dangerous and delicate tightrope to walk here. I feel strongly about this as a historian, and as an activist, and I should hope that many Okinawans and Okinawan-Americans agree with me. But as I discussed in the previous post, and will likely return to time and again, one must be extremely careful – and very much rightfully so – about ever seeming to be telling indigenous people they’re wrong about their own culture, or otherwise setting oneself (especially the white, cis, male, straight American) up as an “expert” over their own indigenous experts, and I’ll repeat myself, rightfully so, … and thus this presents quite the conundrum. I draw very much upon Okinawan historians in my work, and I intend to spend more time in Okinawa in the not-so-distant future, both working closely with these same Okinawan scholars and more generally immersing myself in the political and cultural environment and community, to get an even stronger sense of their perspectives, attitudes, and approaches. I feel justified, therefore, in moving forward with what I do, and I know I have the support of many Okinawan scholars and activists alike; still, in the fact of those who oppose this perspective, who am I to obnoxiously stand up and defend my position – any position – on Okinawan history, speaking as an outsider, against an insider? This will continue to be difficult, and complicated, and I guess I can only hope that I continue to see the kind of welcoming support I have thus far received from the Okinawan community, as I continue to attempt to navigate these political waters, and to contribute my support to the fight for Okinawan freedom, well-being, and cultural revival.

1. Vilsoni Hereniko, “Indigenous Knowledge and Academic Imperialism,” in Robert Borofsky (ed.), Remembrances of Pacific Pasts, University of Hawaii Press (2000), 88.

2. The word for “constituents” here is 有権者, a word that more literally means “people who possess the authority,” in other words rather directly speaking to the idea that power resides in the people, and that politicians must be subordinate to the public will.

In this, the next in my series of book reviews / response essays produced while studying for exams, I discuss the Introduction and a few chapters of Remembrance of Pacific Pasts, edited by Robert Borofsky (University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2000). The volume is a thick compilation of essays by many of the top Pacific Island historians, from Marshall Sahlins and Greg Dening to Vilsoni Hereniko, Nicholas Thomas, James Clifford, and Epeli Hau’ofa. Many of the essays are reprinted from having been published earlier; I haven’t read through the whole thing, but from what I have read, it could prove a good reader for a university course, as the chief book from which to assign readings (if it weren’t out of print, which it seems to be). The volume covers a range of different topics, with four or five essays on each of the themes of “Making Histories,” “Possessing Others,” “Colonial Entanglements,” and “Postcolonial Politics.” I’ll be discussing a number of these essays in this and future posts, and hope to find the time sometime soon to read more of the volume.

But, to begin, Robert Borofsky’s Introduction is an intense and thorough summary of both the historiography of the Pacific, and of the various issues tied into Orientalism, native & non-native conceptions of the history, and who has the right to speak. This essay is surely going to be one of my touchstones, to go back to, for the arguments and counter-arguments of this most central and crucial issue, and I think if I ever teach a Historiography class, even for historians whose specialties fall far outside of the Pacific, I think I may assign this chapter. In it, Borofsky discusses the constructed nature of modern/contemporary Western academic modes of knowledge, that is, the artificiality and problematic nature of our conceptions or constructions of “objectivity,” in the process touching upon many of the fundamental issues we must engage with as post-modernist, post-colonial, anti-Orientalist scholars. These include the invisible silences created by dominant discourses (especially those in the colonialist/imperialist vein), the unspoken assumptions of our nationalist and otherwise “modern” and Western points of view, and the need for multiple perspectives in order to attempt to get closer to a better understanding of any given history or culture. To cite just one of many compelling quotes from Borofsky’s discussion of these issues:

Bringing different perspectives to bear on our understandings of times past is essential for recognizing the shape of our constructions and strategic silences. Without such differences to confront, we tend to live comfortably within our own complacencies. Without differences we have a rather limited sense of perspective, of ‘objectivity.’ We go galloping about on our rhetoric unappreciative of the silences that speed us along (18).

Further, he addresses the very crucial, fundamental even, complex of issues in Pacific Studies (but also in other post-colonial, non-Western, and/or indigenous contexts) of authenticity, authority, and the “right to speak.” There is a long tradition of Pacific people’s histories being written by outsiders, according to outsiders’ biases, intentions, desires, and values, dismissing native understandings as naïve, superstitious, or in the case of oral traditions, just plainly unreliable and untrue.

Lilikalā Kame’eliehiwa: “Natives have often wished that white people would study their own ancestors… instead of us, whom they generally misunderstand and thus misrepresent.”

Haunani-Kay Trask: “For Hawaiians, anthropologists … are part of the colonizing horde because they seek to take away from us the power to define who and what we are, and how we should behave politically and culturally.”

Borofsky: “What is left unsaid in Trask’s statement is that diverse voices exist within the Hawaiian community, and many take strong exception to her views.”1

Western treatments of the Pacific for a very long time were deeply colored by biases of racism, Orientalism, Social Darwinism, etc. – including ideas of the “noble savage,” of the Pacific as a place where the people live in a perfect paradise, but are naive, uncivilized, and a part of the natural environment. Native notions of their own history, of the sacredness of their land, of the validity of their traditions and societal/political structures, continue to be widely dismissed today. And this dismissal of native intelligence, and of any merits of native societal structures, played a very central role in the destruction of the Hawaiʻian Kingdom, and I would imagine of many other Pacific, African, and other non-Western societies the world over. So, it should come as no surprise that many Pacific Islanders, particularly historians and other scholars in the Western sense, and elders and teachers in traditional modes, feel strongly about being able to tell their own stories, to have their own voices heard, to have their own people (re)gain control of their own histories. Voices, opinions, positions, on this matter run the full spectrum, from the most militant anti-haole positions to the most inclusive, and so there is no one single set of rules to abide by in the field, but rather a complex set of considerations to navigate, often on tiptoe. It is this crowd of contesting voices, and complex of overlapping issues and problems which Borofsky addresses in his introductory essay; I have taken seminars on Orientalism, and on Museum Studies in indigenous/post-colonial Pacific contexts, and have read quite a few essays addressing aspects, or individual perspectives, on this issue. I think Borofsky’s is the most comprehensive I have yet come across.

Arman Tateos Manookian, Men in an Outrigger Canoe Headed for Shore, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Essays by Peter Hempenstall and Vilsoni Hereniko in the first section of the book (“Frames of Reference: Making Histories”) provide personal indigenous perspectives on some of these issues, and specific examples of how these issues, and different approaches, might play out in our analysis or discussion of historical events. Hempenstall writes of the 1908-1909 mau e pule protest movement in Sāmoa, led by orator chief Lauaki Namulau’ulu Mamoe, and how this event can be read and re-read in different ways, to construct or deconstruct various different perspectives on or impressions of the event, later developments, and Samoan national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Through the example of interpretations of this event, he emphasizes the idea that history is “messy,” that it is always more complex and more nuanced than any one account, or one perspective, can relate, and also that there is a “messy,” complex relationship between agency and victimhood – historical figures are (almost?) never wholly free agents, nor wholly helpless victims, but (almost?) always some combination of the two.

Hereniko speaks of the many various ways that indigenous values and traditional knowledge are conveyed, taught, or instilled, and of the problems of the dominance of Western modes of interrogation, which prioritize the written word as evidence, and as indicative of “truth.” Among his examples are songs, poems, dances, myths or fairy tales, conventional knowledge about natural phenomena, gossip about genealogies and local history, and the very names of people, places, and things, which he describes as serving as footnotes, points of evidence, supporting the veracity of oral traditions. Indeed, one of the arguments emerging from Borofsky’s “Introduction”, this essay by Hereniko, and others I have seen, is that Native histories should not have to conform to Western modes of appropriate scholarly form – the insistence on such conformity, after all, being in meaningful ways a continuation of the “colonizing” of indigenous knowledge to begin with: the insistence that Native modes of knowledge are inferior or invalid, and the Western dominance of “truth.” In a post-modern, post-colonial, global world, why should Westerners and their modes of knowledge have a monopoly on what is appropriate in academia?

Hereniko: “By focusing on external reality [i.e. verifiable “facts”], historians marginalized emotional truth.” According to a Fijian elder: “People [outside researchers] do not understand the unseen, which is the reality of our lives; they do not realize its power. They look only at the seen, which is illusion.” (85)

As Hereniko argues, certain modes of writing are privileged in Western scholarship, which excludes or looks down upon certain styles of emotional, personal, or poetic forms of writing. I have long had difficulty with this sort of notion: obnoxiously jargon-heavy and impenetrably theoretical works aside, the purpose of scholarship is to convey information clearly, to create works which summarize wealths of knowledge for the reader, and provide expert interpretation, to help spare the reader from having to engage with such wealths of primary sources themselves. Such is the value of secondary sources: of course there is an understanding that all writers have their biases, and that all interpretations have the potential to be flawed, but we need to be able to take scholars at their word, at least to some extent, in order for their works to be useful in any way. What practical scholarly use is scholarship written in the form of poetry or the like, which is not direct and clear language, but which instead requires interpretation just as if it were a primary source? How does it benefit the field to add to the hopelessly vast array of obscure, evocative rather than descriptive, primary sources, rather than to the (ideally) clear and explanatory corpus of secondary sources? And, yet, the fact that Remembrance includes a number of such poetic works does do valuable work in lending an air of credibility, of insiderness or at least acceptedness, to the volume.

From Claire Bishop, Radical Museology, 2014, p.21.

The other side of this issue, which I continue to mentally chew on, so to speak, is that there are many (white and/or Western) scholars who seek to explore artistic and creative ways of “performing” scholarly practice, in much the same way as modernist/contemporary artists engage in artistic practice. If we can accept this within the realms of Western scholarship, and indeed perhaps even celebrate it as cutting-edge, innovative, and avant-garde, then why not artistic, creative modes of scholarship which draw upon or seek to emulate or express non-dominant cultural modes of expression and ways of thinking? As we begin to open the gate, if only a crack, to scholarship presented in new and different forms, through theatre or performance, through documentary films or digital visualizations, or simply through atypical ways of organizing text and images in one’s writing, it seems it would be arbitrary, and indeed discriminatory, to not also accept atypical forms of scholarship which come out of a cultural tradition rather than an avant-garde movement.

Borofsky’s “Introduction” and these two essays challenge the assumptions of the Western reader on numerous fronts, forcing us to question our attitudes and approaches, throwing us out of our comfortable equilibrium, and requiring us to either seek a new stable interpretive position, or to articulate a defense for previously unquestioned assumptions. In thinking about these issues, I think I have come to some new insights and understandings, but I nevertheless feel I remain in a very unstable place, coming out of these readings without any definitive solution or resolution for these difficulties, neither on a practical level (how to move forward, how to perform my research, writing, and teaching on such subjects), nor on an emotional or intellectual level (how to think and feel about my positions, my identity in relation to Pacific people & culture, how to think and feel about my research, writing, and teaching). I fear that such a resolution might never be found.

I wrote the above a year ago or so. I still feel rather unstable about it all, but I am reassured by the fact that, at least, I am fortunate in that for me the Pacific is primarily a teaching field, not a research field. So I can teach courses in which I assign Native scholars, and draw upon their arguments for my lectures, my role being largely one of simply allowing their voices to speak; this, in contrast to being a scholar actively working in Pacific history, where I would need to contribute my own novel interpretations of Pacific history, coming up against both traditional interpretations and those of Native scholars, and having to defend myself. As is, this is enough of an issue in Japanese and Okinawan Studies, and a valuable set of concerns to keep in mind. But, in the end, having had to come up with some answer to this problem for my exams defense, tentatively, my answer is simply this: Borofsky makes valuable and valid points, that a multitude of voices, including Outsider voices, are important, if not essential, to getting a fuller understanding of any history; but at the same time, I cannot be, will not be, the haole who obnoxiously or obstinately inserts myself against Native scholars – I will do my best to not ever be a “whitesplainer,” just as I strive to not be a mansplainer. I suppose actual situations may be different, and we may have to simply cross that bridge when we come to it, but tentatively, for now at least, I absolutely defer to Native scholars, and would not dare to insist that I have a “right to speak.”

————
(1) Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, “Review,” Pacific Studies 17 (2), 1994, 112.; Haunani-Kay Trask, “Natives and Anthropologists: The Colonial Struggle,” Contemporary Pacific, Spring 1991, 162.; Borofsky, 17.

Eugene Savage (1883-1978, American), A God Appears, 1940, oils on canvas. Seen at Art Deco Hawaii exhibition, Honolulu Museum of Art. Photo my own.

Adding to the heated debate between Sahlins and Obeyesekere are a number of interpretations and responses to that debate, to which I have now added my own.

For the most part, I think I come down in between Sahlins and Obeyesekere; as I said in my previous post, I quite like Dening’s interpretation of the encounter between the HMS Dolphin and the people of Tahiti, and am much more inclined towards imagining a Hawaiian rationality within a distinctive (non-Western) worldview, and structuring of knowledge, of their own. Sahlins is far too strict within his structures, asserting that since the symbols line up, that must be the explanation, straightforwardly and definitively. He leaves no room for interpretive nuance, and suggests the Hawaiians believed, perfectly, Cook to be the god Lono. Obeyesekere, to the contrary, argues against any distinctive Hawaiian sensibility, and attributes Western Enlightenment rationality to all peoples. But, where Western rationality draws a hard line and dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual, or the rational and the superstitious, I think the Polynesian peoples can offer us an example of how to incorporate the two, an example of how to think differently, yet not irrationally. I think there is a possibility for the Hawaiians having seen Captain Cook as possessing of great mana, and thus as being semi-divine, and having seen the momentous event as imbued in some way either with the spirit of Lono, or with the mood of the Makahiki, because of its timing, all while at the same time, simultaneously without it being a contradiction, recognizing Cook as a living, breathing, mortal human being from another land, with plain, practical, intentions and desires.

Crash Course World History does a nice job on the subject. John Green does not merely repeat the standard story – as Sahlins does, and as I might have expected from a basic intro survey YouTube series sort of approach – but explains both Sahlins’ and Obeyesekere’s arguments, and the difficulties with both, ending with a few questions as to the far broader, more profound implications.

Here are some other voices:

*Scott MacLeod of the World University and School offers a brief but in-depth defense of Obeyesekere’s position, asserting a universal human rationality, and attacking cultural relativism. To be sure, there are elements of Sahlins’ narrative where the Hawaiians seem decidedly trapped by their guiding cultural structures, behaving purely according to obligation to act out the myth, rather than freely and pragmatically. Where Sahlins writes that “The killing of Captain Cook was … the Makahiki in an historical form,” and that “Cook’s death at Hawaiian hands just [after the Makahiki could] . . . . be described as [a] . . . ritual sequel: the historical metaphor of a mythical reality,” MacLeod summarizes Obeyesekere as arguing that the Hawaiians may have deified Cook after his death, retroactively inventing the myth, for practical, pragmatic, political purposes related to the assertion of legitimacy of one political faction over another.

*Clifford Geertz offered his own thoughts on the debate, in a 1995 article in the New York Review of Books, which I am still trying to get my hands on, since my university apparently can’t be bothered to subscribe to online access.

*Anthropologist Chris Kavanagh gives a lengthy summary and analysis of the debate on his blog, God Knows What…. In two parts: The Battle Over Captain Cook’s Corpse, Part 1, and Part 2.

With apologies for getting a bit silly, I think the Drunk History segment on Captain Cook is one of my favorites ever. Keep an eye (ear?) out for my favorite line. Can you guess which it is?

Following up on my review of Stacy Kamehiro’s The Arts of Kingship, the next of my reviews written in the course of studying for comprehensive exams.

Gananath Obeyesekere, The Apotheosis of Captain Cook (1992; revised ed. 1997)

Marshall Sahlins, How “Natives” Think: About Captain Cook, For Example, 1995

The debate between Obeyesekere and Sahlins over whether the Hawaiians saw Captain Cook as a “god” is described by Borofsky as one of the greatest recent disputes among scholars of the Pacific. At issue is the question of how “natives” think, with each scholar launching virulent attacks on one another for their approaches.

Obeyesekere’s book The Apotheosis of Captain Cook comes as a harsh response and critique of Sahlins’ Islands of History, published several years earlier, and which I have admittedly not yet read. Sahlins then responded to Obeyesekere’s critique in How “Natives” Think.

In a nutshell, Obeyesekere alleges that all humanity is united in its ability for commonsense “practical rationality,” arguing that the Hawaiians could not have been so foolish as to genuinely mistake Captain Cook for being a “god,” that the myth of Cook being taken to be a god was constructed and perpetuated by Europeans (and later adopted by Hawaiians, though it was not originally their idea), and that to suggest otherwise is terribly Eurocentric and does discursive violence of an imperialistic nature. Sahlins responds that treating Western conceptions of rationality as universal and ignoring cultural particularities is a Eurocentric, Orientalist, and anti-anthropological approach. Further, that not all non-whites think alike, or possess the same culture, and so Obeyesekere’s assertions from the position of “authority” as a fellow “native,” a fellow non-white, despite his lack of expertise in Pacific (let alone Hawaiian) history, is a deeply flawed and damaging claim of “authority.”

I have not been to the Big Island, let alone to Kealakekua Bay, so I’m including some of my photos of Oʻahu here. This one, a view from Makapuʻu

Both accuse the other of misinterpreting or misusing the sources – chiefly journals and the like written by members of Cook’s crew, and histories written by Hawaiians beginning in the 1820s (thirty years after the events). Obeyesekere accuses Sahlins of being insufficiently critical of these Hawaiian sources, the most prominent of which were written by students at the Lāhainā missionary school, and present the events of Cook’s coming through a powerfully Christian and anti-pagan lens. Further, he alleges that these writers have adopted the European-created myth of Cook’s apotheosis (deification), and are merely repeating the myth, not recording what “actually” happened (or how those events were actually perceived at the time, in 1779). He also argues that much of the sequence of the ritual protocols of the Makahiki rite were not formalized until the reign of Kamehameha I (r. 1810-1819), and that Sahlins is anachronistically applying these sequences and dating backwards to an earlier time when such things were not yet systematized in such a form. Sahlins counters that, in countless places, Obeyesekere’s account simply does not accord with the documentary sources, or with what is known of Hawaiian beliefs and practices. He writes that Obeyesekere invents much of what he asserts whole cloth, “interpret[ing] the historical events by notions concocted out of commonsense realism and a kind of pop nativism” (Sahlins, 60). Obeyesekere’s narrative has Captain Cook being installed as a high chief, not welcomed as a god, and offers interpretations for the meaning of each step of the ritual within the context of this “installation ritual,” which he claims was invented on the spot in order to deal with this unprecedented event. He also claims that Sahlins is unconvincing in pressing that each episode of Cook’s time at Kealakekua so perfectly aligns with the ritual sequences of the Makahiki. Why should the Hawaiians take the British Cook, who neither speaks their language nor demonstrates knowledge of the proper ritual protocols, to be a Hawaiian god? Obeyesekere asserts that Cook and his men were not (accidentally) performing the sequence of the rituals of the Makahiki, but rather quite to the contrary, they were violating the kapu (taboos) the entire time (Ob. 101).

Sahlins counters that Obeyesekere’s interpretation shows little understanding or appreciation for Hawaiian cosmologies, politics, or customs. To begin, it is typical throughout Polynesia that the “gods” are regarded as foreign, as coming from across the sea (and specifically from the heavenly place / distant island known as Kahiki), and their forms, language, and thoughts as unknown or unknowable. Thus, Cook coming in ships with white banners, like the white banners associated with Lono, circling the islands before landing at Kealakekua as the Lono image does in ritual procession, and saying he is coming from Tahiti (H: Kahiki), matches quite well with Hawaiian conceptions – as do his foreign appearance and language.

The view from the Pali Lookout.

There is a lot more that could be said by way of summarizing or analyzing the various aspects or elements of these two scholars’ arguments, but the most important is what has already been said, above. The debate has resonances and importance far beyond our interpretation of Cook, however, and even beyond Hawaiian or Pacific Studies alone. I think if I ever teach a grad seminar in Historiography, I will assign this debate. Robert Borofsky has a nice summary of it, so that one does not actually have to read entire books; his summary is available on Scribd here, as well as on JSTOR.

The most fundamental of these broader issues is the very fact that this is a debate over the validity of sources, and of interpretations. This makes it particularly difficult as a reader to determine what to believe. All told, I am much more inclined to believe Sahlins, as he is an experienced and prominent expert in the field, intimately familiar not only with these sources in particular, but with Hawaiian cosmologies and cultural practices more broadly. Obeyesekere is, of course, a very experienced and intelligent scholar in his own right, but Hawaiʻi/Polynesia is not his field of expertise. As Sahlins points out in his point-by-point dismantling of Obeyesekere’s book, there are numerous places in which Obeyesekere makes assertions about ritual significances or practices, or about “native” conceptions of divinity, that simply do not mesh with what the scholarly consensus – or with Hawaiian traditional practitioners both today and writing in the past – indicate. Further, Sahlins points out numerous places where Obeyesekere contradicts himself, or where his arguments otherwise fail to hold water.

However, Sahlins’ own account is disappointingly standard, and to my mind insufficiently nuanced, and insufficiently critical of itself. I had hoped to see Sahlins more explicitly reject the standard interpretation of Cook as Lono, Cook as god, replacing it with a more nuanced or more culturally specific account. I would have much preferred to see Sahlins declaring boldly that the standard story of Cook’s apotheosis is a myth, deriving from a misunderstanding, a misinterpretation, of traditional Hawaiian modes of historical understandings, and then presenting us instead with a new and different interpretation. Something along the lines of saying that of course the Hawaiians did not think that Cook was Lono, but perhaps thought that his coming was somehow blessed by Lono, that Cook’s coming was seen as occurring in concert with the Makahiki “coming of Lono,” rather than being the coming of Lono. I don’t know nearly enough about Hawaiian mythology and traditional beliefs to know what explanation precisely would or would not fit in to those beliefs – I’m basically just spitballing, as Obeyesekere was. But, still, I would have liked to see Sahlins give a more nuanced and revisionist interpretation, rather than simply reiterating exactly the myth that we all learned in elementary school (or wherever), the same myth that Obeyesekere is so critical of, asserting so straightforwardly that Cook was seen as the god Lono, and that just about everything Cook did coincided with the ritual schedule of the Makahiki.

Plaque in honor of Capt. Cook, at Westminster Abbey.

We are left believing Sahlins’ account based solely on one of two possible bases, both of which are potentially quite problematic. We can believe Sahlins on the basis of his experience and prominence in the field, taking his assertions more or less at face value because of his presumed expertise, which is essentially an argument from authority, one of the classic logical fallacies. Or, we can believe (or disbelieve) Sahlins based on whether we find ourselves convinced, by whatever combination of logic (reason) and intuition. Yet, this judgment based on Western rationality and on intuition based on Western cultural assumptions, is very much what Sahlins lambasts Obeyesekere for doing; he points out that Obeyesekere’s argument relies heavily on what “seems strange” or “hard to believe,” versus what seems “more natural to suppose,” inserting Western rationality for an understanding of Hawaiian beliefs (Sahlins 9). As a result, I am left with no idea what to believe.

Returning to the question, or the issue, of practical rationality versus culturally particular understandings, I think Greg Dening, in his article “Possessing Tahiti,” does a far better job of balancing and nuancing the two, than either Obeyesekere or Sahlins. Where Sahlins simply takes the standard narrative, reifying it wholesale and explaining out how this works according to certain frameworks or structures of traditional beliefs, Dening explores the interaction between “literal” (rational, practical) and “metaphoric” (cultural, cosmological) understandings, asserting that they can be overlapping or concurrent, and not contradictory. He notes that Europeans perform “rituals,” too, and understand actions as having metaphorical or symbolic efficacy, pointing to the example of the planting of a flag as a means of claiming possession of a land. Further, Dening speaks of the ways in which the Tahitians could view the coming of the HMS Dolphin as a sacred event simply because of its momentousness, its unprecedented nature, without thinking the captain, crew, or ship to be, explicitly, “a god,” and without thinking the events, at that time, to have been prophesied or to fit into expectations. Rather, by contrast, he suggests that the mythic associations surrounding the coming of the Dolphin were created in consequence of the event, with that approach to the marae (temple/treasure house) coming to be considered a particularly sacred path – or merely of historic significance – because the Dolphin entered via that path, and not the other way around.

Right: A statue of Capt. James Cook at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (England).

Certainly, I am no expert in Hawaiian cosmologies, and for all I know, Sahlins may be perfectly correct. We may never know. However, given the scarcity and unreliability of the sources available on this subject, the fact that Sahlins does not wrestle with multiple possible interpretations, nor entertain the possibility of alternative notions, not even in order to refute them, seems suspect. Perhaps rather than Cook being Lono, he was merely accompanied by Lono in an abstract, incorporeal form, the momentousness, the historic nature of the event in and of itself making it “sacred.” Or perhaps there is some more concrete way to explain more precisely what kind of manifestation or instantiation of Lono Cook was believed to be, and how exactly that particular manifestation relates to “the” Lono. Obeyesekere’s attitude and approach are deeply problematic in a number of ways, and I find Sahlins’ dismantling of Obeyesekere’s narrative quite convincing. Yet, neither am I convinced that Sahlins’ narrative is definitively, and flawlessly, “accurate” or “true.” Even if for nothing else, Obeyesekere’s efforts to cast doubt on Sahlins’ interpretation, and to call for the possibility of “plausible alternatives,” is therefore quite valuable.

Abe and Obama shake hands; another friendly agreement reached between two governments, regardless of what the people want. Photo from Zee News India.

Eric Wada-shinshii of the Ukwanshin Kabudan, one of the leading advocates for Okinawan cultural revival in Hawaii, sent out the following message to his email list. With his permission, I am re-sharing it here. Please consider signing the petition, and if it moves you to do so, there are many other petitions, FB groups, protests large and small, to get involved with.

For more information on what I think is a very important issue, check out What’s Going On in Okinawa?, and one of my own recent blog posts on the subject. There are numerous other websites and news articles about what’s going on in Henoko, as well. In short, one of the aspects I personally find most aggravating, most offensive, is the fact that Tokyo and Washington continue to go forward with these plans without consideration for Okinawan voices. The Okinawan people have made their wishes clear, through protest, through publication, and through overwhelming majorities in local, prefectural, and national elections. For Tokyo, and for Washington, to claim to be paragons of liberal democracy while steamrolling the wishes of the Okinawan people is, frankly, despicable.

Here is Wada-shinshii’s message, from Jun 3:

Aloha Everyone,

I am sending this personal message to you because I think it is important and affects my Okinawa culture, traditions, and ancestral islands.

Governor Onaga and the people of Okinawa have been petitioning help in saving Okinawa’s prestine coral reefs, endangered indigenous sea life, and cultural and sacred sites in Henoko, from the building of a mega US base which will fill in Oura Bay in northern Okinawa’s Nago district.

Governor Onaga was recently here in Hawai`i last week and urgently petitioned the Hawaii politicians as well as addressing the Hawaii Okinawan community. There has been misinformation going around about Okinawa being dependent on the US bases, and also that Onaga is a communist collaborating with China. This is all wrong information as the income produced by the bases, currently constitutes about 4%, as disclosed by the Okinawa councilwomen on their visit to Hawaii in April, and by Governor Onaga and mayor Inamine of Nago. Governor Onaga is also not in collaboration with China, but has made direct relations for trade, as he begins to reconnect with all of Asia and Southeast Asia in making Okinawa a hub for Asian Pacific trade, as was done during the Ryukyu Kingdom. Now some may laugh and say “you can’t go back to kingdom”, and this is not what they are trying to do. The fact is that Okinawa is dependent on Japan which has caused the Japanese government to force actions against Okinawa and punish them for expressing their democracy as they work for peace that they have been hoping for since the end of the war 70 years ago. The media pushes the danger of China and North Korea, however, if we look at it, the strength in China really lies in the investments of the western countries, and a big part being the U.S.. China would not want to lose western interest, and if so, then it is the western countries who should pull out if they thought China was so dangerous.

We need to educate ourselves and our community and make our decisions. Some may not agree or do any action, and some of you may. Either is fine. For me, I have visited Henoko numerous times to understand and educate myself on the area and listen to the elders, who’s lands, cultural and sacred sites have been taken away. The locals depend on the ocean there to harvest their livelihood and sustain themselves and their families. Without this they will be forced to go into town and buy what they have been able to grow and live on. Many will not be able to afford this. The other reason that I have seen is that Okinawa is being sacrificed again and no regard is given to how much our Okinawa relatives, friends and ancestors have already suffered when they were, and still are, sacrificed, where 1/3 of the population was wiped out by the attack or by forced suicide during the bloody battle and cultural genocide of Okinawa. The lands which the bases are on are also stolen lands as in the 1950’s American Occupation, US military went and forced Okinawans off their lands in the middle of they night with bulldozers and bayonets. Our kupuna fought against this and some were killed. Due to the fresh memories of the war, the Okinawa people gave up because they didn’t want anymore to be added to the war death toll.. Now, almost 85% of the population are against the base. The Okinawa people have overwhelmingly voiced their decision by voting in Onaga for governor, Inamine, for Nago major, and Diet representatives who are against the building of the new base. They have followed the legal and democratic actions, but have been ignored and punished by Prime minister Abe. Governor Onaga has called a state of emergency. He is the first governor to have asked for an audience with the Hawaii community, and thought of Hawaii so highly that he made sure to stop here before his visit to Washington DC.
I urge you all to take time and educate your selves to at least know what is going in in our ancestral islands.

For those who would like to do some kind of silent action to support Okinawa, please go to the link below and sign the petition by change.org. If you think it is important enough, please share it.

“Uya nu Yushi Gutu ya, Chimuni Sumiri”, “We shall stain our hearts with the things of our ancestors”. It is our “Fichi Ukiin” , Kuleana, Responsibility.

Yutasarugutu Unigeesabira!

Eric Wada, Artistic Director of Ukwanshin Kabudan, and certified kyôshi (instructor) of Okinawan dance.

Studying for exams was a great opportunity to finally read dozens of books I’d been wanting/meaning to read, and many I had not known of, and was glad to be introduced to. As I made my way through them, I produced 2-3 page reviews, or summaries, for each. I was a bit too overwhelmed with the studying process (and all my other responsibilities) to share any of those, but I was certainly excited to get around to doing so. After all, that’s what we do here, on academic & history/culture blogs, isn’t it? We share about different aspects of history that we’ve just read about, share about interesting books, interpretations, and arguments. A friend shared many of his summaries on Facebook, and I found it quite interesting and useful, actually, since this allowed me to get the basic gist of a whole bunch of different books, in a short, condensed version. Expand my knowledge of the field, and of the content, without having to go read the entire books. So, inspired by his example, I thought I’d do the same. Over the course of the summer, then, I’ll be sharing my reviews of books and articles on Pacific and Hawaiian history, Ming and Qing Chinese history, early modern maritime East Asia, and early modern & modern Japan. I hope you find them interesting; and, please don’t take any of these as the final word on these books – for some, I may focus on just one aspect or another; for some, I must admit, I did not manage to make my way through the entire book, but merely attempted to get the gist. For some, too, I may have had a particular impression upon reading it at that time, and I may not take the time/bother to dramatically overhaul what I previously wrote, thus giving just one impression, one interpretation or reaction, to the book, which might stand (for example) as quite different from how the book looks in comparison with something else I read later.

Without further ado, let us turn to one of my favorite recent books,
The Arts of Kingship, by Stacy Kamehiro (Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2009):

‘Iolani Palace. Photo my own.

Looking at the architectural style and interior layout & design of ‘Iolani Palace, the adoption by Hawaiʻian monarchs of Western modes of dress and court ritual, and of Christianity, it would be easy to think that Hawaiʻi had either given in to colonial pressures, or had self-colonized, in a sense, as Meiji Japan did, in an attempt to resist Western domination. Indeed, as The Arts of Kingship reveals, the design of ‘Iolani Palace and of King Kalākaua’s 1883 coronation & other court rituals and practices, and the erection of national monuments such as the Kamehameha Statue and national institutions such as the Hawaiian National Museum, were aimed at proving Hawaiʻi’s modernity, and asserting its sovereignty, seeking respect from the Western powers, that Hawaiʻi should be accepted as a more-or-less equal member of the nations of the world.

However, as Stacy Kamehiro explains, these projects also served an important role in legitimating Kalākaua’s rule in the eyes of his Native Hawaiian subjects. He was elected to the throne by the Hawaiian legislature, over Queen Emma, a more direct relative to the Kamehameha line which had ruled the unified kingdom of Hawaiʻi from the time of its unification by Kamehameha I around 1800, until the time of Lunalilo (r. 1873-1874), whose short reign immediately preceded Kalākaua’s. Not being particularly closely related to the Kamehameha line, Kalākaua had to work to promote discourses of his legitimacy in order to secure the loyalty of his subjects, many of whom rose in revolt immediately following the announcement of his election in 1874. To that end, Kalākaua argued for his legitimacy by way of his genealogy, his mana, and his rightful possession of sacred royal artifacts; Kamehiro describes in detail the ways in which ‘Iolani Palace, the coronation ritual and regalia, the Kamehameha Statue, and the Hawaiian National Museum, served to advance these narratives.

Right: The Kamehameha Statue commissioned by King Kalākaua, now standing outside Ali‘iolani Hale. Photo my own.

In the process of her discussion, a number of important and interesting themes emerge. One is the complexity of identities and associations among the people of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Certain characterizations of the history cast it in stark categories of Native Hawaiians versus haole (white) businessmen and missionaries, a narrative in which the overthrow is a crime committed by all haoles, with all Native Hawaiians as victims. However, in Kamehiro’s account, we see many haoles who are strongly loyal to the kingdom, supportive of the revival or continuation of Hawaiian “traditions,” and of the strength, independence, and sovereignty of the monarchy, as well as many Native Hawaiians opposed to Kalākaua’s rule, and indeed many who viewed many Hawaiian traditions as pagan, heathen, or uncivilized. It becomes clear that we must consider a greater diversity of intentions and identities among the citizenry of Hawaiʻi – while it is likely that even the most loyal of royalist haoles (such as William Murray Gibson) held to some Orientalist or racist perspectives to some extent, we cannot say that they were unanimously responsible for, or in support of, the overthrow; in fact, some were quite staunchly against it. As emerges in Kamehiro’s narrative, haoles such as John Young played key roles in Hawaiian government from the very beginning, as Young played a key role in helping Kamehameha defeat his rivals and unite the islands, as well as in advising the king in various other matters.

One of the most prominent arguments throughout the book is an argument against the false binary of traditional vs. modern, and for a notion of tradition as always evolving, and as being incorporated into an alternate, distinctively Hawaiian, modernity. Both at that time, and today, many look at non-Western arts and traditions as having existed in some purely traditional form, and at any modern(ized) or Western-influenced arts or practices as being less authentic, and less Hawaiian (or less Japanese, as the case may be). That Kamehiro’s 2009 book is one of the first, or at least one of the most major, scholarly attempts to discuss these hybrid, neo-traditional, distinctively Hawaiian-modern forms, can surely be attributed in large part to such attitudes. In Japanese Studies as well, we can clearly see that for the most part, scholars both in Japan and in the West focused far more heavily on “authentically” “traditional” Japanese arts, all but ignoring, for example, Nihonga (neo-traditional painting), yōga (Japanese oil painting), and the like until only the last few decades.

In Kalākaua’s time, too, many Native Hawaiians and haole alike saw Hawaiʻi as losing its traditions, as losing its culture; in some very important respects, this was absolutely true, and it was for that reason that Kalākaua did much to promote hula, traditional or “ancient” (read: precontact) Hawaiian modes of knowledge, and the like. But, as Kamehiro points out, Hawaiian culture was at the same time evolving, developing, into something no less authentically Hawaiian even as it became something decidedly more modern. The Kamehameha Statue, in bronze, designed and cast by a Bostonian sculptor in Florence, depicted a Hawaiian monarch bearing fully traditional symbols of Hawaiian monarchical power and legitimacy, even as it also incorporated the pose and stylistic form of ancient Roman statues of emperors. The Hawaiian National Museum, similarly, displayed objects symbolic of (or manifestations of) Kalākaua’s rightful royal power and lineage, a sort of modern version of the ways these objects might have been displayed in more “traditional” contexts, serving a decidedly Hawaiian discursive purpose even as the national museum itself, as a concept, and in various aspects of its form and activity (collections, display, open to the public for public moral education, etc.), was a Western invention (with the British Museum & Louvre, among others, as the most prominent examples, evolving out of and alongside the exhibitionary complexes of the World’s Fairs, etc.). And, ‘Iolani Palace, though constructed in brick and concrete, wired up for telephone and electric lighting, and furnished throughout in the Western style, as Kamehiro explains, also incorporated numerous elements of distinctively Hawaiian iconographies, including representations around the main entrance referencing “traditional” symbols of kapu.

A guerilla public art piece, on Hotel Street in Honolulu Chinatown, Feb 2010. Photo my own.

The parallels to Meiji Japan are striking, and I think The Arts of Kingship could serve a very useful role in a comparative discussion, or comparative consideration, of non-Western polities seeking to assert their sovereignty and modernity in that historical moment (or other ones). I have yet to read anything too much in depth as to the origins of the National Museums in Japan (in Tokyo, Nara, and Kyoto), their layout, philosophies of display, and architectural styles, but it is easy to imagine parallels between the Hawaiian National Museum and these Japanese museums; between ‘Iolani Palace and the Akasaka Palace (along with various other examples of Meiji period architecture, incl. e.g. railroad stations); between the Kamehameha Statue and various examples of bronze memorial or monumental statuary erected in Meiji Japan; and between Kalākaua’s coronation and the associated regalia on the one hand, and the various Western-influenced costumes, court practices, and modes of display (e.g. photographs) of the Meiji Emperor. How might these compare, too, with Westernizing/modernizing and nationalizing efforts by imperial or royal courts in China, Korea, Siam, Samoa, or Tahiti around this same time? Kamehiro’s work not only fills a glaring lacuna in scholarship on Hawaiian (art) history up until now, but also inspires pursuit of similar projects of investigation and analysis for other cultures/polities.

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