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Posts Tagged ‘金沢’

The Art of Japan: Kanazawa is a beautiful new website which has emerged recently. It includes numerous pages about a myriad of aspects of traditional and contemporary arts and culture in and around Kanazawa, the capital city of Japan’s Ishikawa prefecture, and is constantly being updated.

Above: The tsutsumi-mon, or “drum gate”, outside Kanazawa Station. A beautiful example of traditional lacquer arts combining with contemporary architectural creativity & innovation to represent a city as wholly modern, but drawing upon a rich past. Something Kyoto Station entirely fails to do. Photo taken myself, during my one brief visit to Kanazawa, in January 2008.

Back in February, the Art of Japan Kanazawa staff collaborated with Japan Society in New York to produce what looks like an exquisite evening of traditional and contemporary culture – including displays of Ishikawa crafts (pottery, lacquerware, etc.), a butoh performance, and saké served by a professional geisha from Kanazawa, one of the few cities which still has an active geisha district. How I would have loved to be there for such an event.

Other posts focus on beautiful and interesting places in the city, local events, and arts.

Boy, I so wish I could be in Kanazawa (or Kyoto, or Naha, or half a dozen other places) right now, to have the opportunities to explore such a city, to attend these events, to be surrounded by and immersed in these arts and goings-on. But more than that, I wish I could work for a project like Arts of Japan Kanazawa. It may not be the most prestigious thing (like being a professor or a curator at a major institution), but who cares? How I would love to be constantly immersed, engaged, with a vibrant Japanese arts & culture community, and to make a living at it. I wonder how many other cities have similar projects, similar websites.

….

Meanwhile, for sadly only a very short time, an incredibly major Japanese artwork is on display at the National Gallery in Washington DC. The “Colorful Realm of Living Beings” (動植綵絵, dôshoku sai-e), a National Treasure of Japan, is a series of thirty hanging scroll paintings by Itô Jakuchû (1716-1800), completed over the course of ten years. They are accompanied at the National Gallery by a triptych of hanging scrolls depicting Buddhas, on loan from Shôkoku-ji, a major Zen temple in Kyoto. The works are easily among the most famous of Japanese artworks, included in many if not all survey textbooks of Japanese art history; I don’t think it’s absurd to compare them to being a Japanese equivalent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but multiplied times 33, filling a room, and creating their own atmosphere.

Just seeing pictures of the installation, I can imagine the setting Jakuchû is said to have aimed to create – of the Buddha presiding before all the living beings of the world, and preaching to them. Standing in this room, you are surrounded by incredible images of a myriad of living beings, from roosters and peacocks described in exquisite detail, sketched from life, to fish, insects, and lizards in a variety of undersea and overland environments, and you feel that you too are in the presence of the Buddha.

One could easily write pages and pages about Jakuchû, his life, his art, but I’ll leave it for now. Check out my Samurai-Archives Wiki article on the artist, and the following:

As usual, embedding doesn’t seem to be working properly, but here is a link to a PBS has a wonderful brief video about the exhibition, including snippets of an interview with guest curator, Harvard professor Yukio Lippit: 18th Century Japanese Scrolls Make Rare U.S. Appearance.

I had no idea that a National Treasure could ever leave Japan – this is the first time that these works are on display, all together, anywhere outside of Japan, and it is incredible that this is happening. I wish I could be there.

The “Colorful World of Living Beings” is on display until April 29, in conjunction with the 100th anniversary Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival.

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When I traveled to Kanazawa for a weekend last winter (early Jan 2008), I fell in love with the city. A more removed, obscure topic to be sure as compared to Edo/Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, on which most histories of Japan (particularly in the Edo period) focus, the city has a rich history as the capital of Kaga han, the wealthiest han (feudal domain) in Tokugawa Japan. Spared bombing during World War II, and the site of much historical research, conservation, and reconstruction, the city is home to an extensive rebuilt castle complex (which remains an active archaeological site), still-active geisha district, historical samurai manor district, one of the three most famous/beautiful Japanese gardens in the country, and the 21st century contemporary art museum.

After contemplating the price tag for the entire year since my trip, and indeed since long before that as well, and hoping to get lucky and find a bargain on it somewhere, I gave in and purchased James McClain’s book Kanazawa: A Seventeenth-Century Castle Town, and eagerly began reading it. It is just about everything I could have hoped for. The introduction describes the text as a case study of Kanazawa as an example of an early modern castle town, presenting insights into early modern urbanization and castle towns in general – both in Japan and abroad, i.e. in Europe. McClain makes comparisons between Paris and St. Petersburg, in particular in the role played by the monarch in creating, organizing, and developing the respective cities, and claims that his book is aimed at providing another example to add to the mix, thus illuminating the roles of the public and private spheres (i.e. 民官, minkan, “government and people”, as they say so succinctly in Japanese) in the creation and development of early modern castle towns, in a global context.

But what this book is really about, and what it does better than most Edo period histories I have read, is provide an excellent, detailed narrative of the 17th century history of the city. It provides a view of the city complete with not only the names of prominent merchant families, but brief biographies of them and their careers; detailed geographic descriptions of the shifting districts, as merchants, artisans, samurai, and temples moved & were moved from one part of the city to another; and some degree of insights into the personalities and politics of individual daimyō.

I have written before perhaps on my disappointment with other Edo period history texts, such as Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, which uses Yonezawa, Tokushima, and Hirosaki domains as case studies in order to examine political economy in early modern Japan, but ultimately fails completely to be a definitive source on any of these domains in a broader sense, beyond political economy. We learn next to nothing about the character of the castle towns, the personality and politics of individual daimyō, major merchant families, commoner entertainments, or other aspects of the domain’s history that one might be interested in.

Perhaps it is inappropriate to criticize a book based on expectations outside of what it intends to be. For a look at political economy in early modern Japan as a whole, using these three domains as representative examples, Land and Lordship does a fine job. But for anyone looking for a thorough description of the history, economics, politics, society, and culture of any one of these domains, or glimpses into the biographies of the daimyō, it falls flat. As the only book available in English on these domains, I feel that there is a responsibility and an obligation to provide a more thorough, more general overview, analyzing the history of a domain the way you would treat the history of a country – as a topic worthwhile on its own merits, and not purely as a representative example used as a tool to speak to more abstract historical theories.

Returning to McClain’s book on Kanazawa, he succeeds where Ravina fails, in describing not only one aspect of the politics or economics of the domain, but indeed painting a vivid picture of life in the castle town – from the political influence of the temples to kabuki and other commoner entertainments to the relations between the daimyō of the Maeda clan and the Tokugawa bakufu. His writing style evidences close readings of, and intimate familiarity with, a wealth of primary sources, passing on these first-hand accounts to the reader. Countless phenomena about which I had previously only read in broad generalities now seem more genuine, more real, for having seen these assertions borne out in McClain’s thorough research.

To take just one example, McClain’s descriptions of kabukimono and of early kabuki provide insights which truly deepen my understanding of these phenomena beyond what I have seen in countless books & lectures on ukiyo-e, kabuki, and related topics. Most accounts of the history of kabuki gloss over the early decades of the 17th century, when the art form was just coalescing, when all the actors were women (a little later, young men, after women were banned from the stage) and the plays and dances were essentially little more than advertisements for the performers’ sexual services. In providing even just a few pages on the role of these early kabuki troupes in the culture of Kanazawa, and on the relationships between these troupes and the Maeda clan daimyō, McClain provides more concrete details – making the phenomena seem more real, connecting it into politics and society – than the vast majority of ukiyo-e and kabuki books out there, which focus on it as a cultural development, insufficiently tying it into the tapestry of politics and society in the city. Similarly, most texts touch only very briefly on kabuki in the provinces, focusing exclusively on the major theatres of Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo. Thus it is that McClain’s account provides fascinating insights relevant not only to Kanazawa’s case, but to a deeper understanding of early kabuki as a whole.

There are only a few aspects of Kanazawa’s early modern history that the eager reader might find lacking. I know that a number of my friends at the Samurai Archives are quite interested in the Sengoku period military exploits of Maeda Toshiie – first daimyō of Edo period Kanazawa and a fairly major figure of the Sengoku/early Edo periods more widely – and as a result, quite interested in his successors, and the Maeda clan as a whole; if you’re looking for in depth biographies of Toshiie and his relations, I am afraid you won’t find it here.

On a separate topic, one which quite intrigues me, McClain devotes a number of pages to the Kaga Ikki, a group of commoner/peasant religious zealots who overthrew the samurai governor of Kaga in the early 16th century, ruling Kaga for nearly 100 years as the only province in the country not under Imperial or samurai control or that of a prominent, recognized Buddhist temple organization. The Ikki ruled from a fortress cathedral called Kanazawa Gobō (or Oyama Gobō), on the site where Kanazawa Castle would later be built. It would seem that very little is known about the Kaga Ikki or their fortress cathedral even in Japanese scholarship, though archaeological investigations are still ongoing, and these few pages in McClain’s book are surely the most that there is to be found in any single English-language source, so while one might have hoped for greater insights, I suppose I cannot truly express disappointment on this point.

All in all, McClain’s Kanazawa represents an all too rare look at the history of a Japanese city or region focusing not solely on politics, economics, culture, society or some aspect thereof, but providing a thorough representation of the complex tapestry of the city’s history which results from the combination of all these factors. His descriptions can be a bit too detailed at times, for example in detailing the geographical boundaries and locations of certain districts in such a way that I think one would need to be intimately familiar with the layout of the city to follow McClain’s description, and to find it interesting, worthwhile and meaningful. At some points, I found there to be too many numbers to keep track of, and McClain’s decision to translate the names of different ranks and positions (such as Lesser Attendants and Senior Guards) rather than sticking to the original Japanese made it difficult for me to gain much out of those passages. Nevertheless, for someone doing serious, thorough research on the subject, I think these details are invaluable, and that McClain has done his duty as a historian by providing the reader with this information in a (somewhat) readily available, (sort of) widely published English-language format, rather than leaving it there in the primary source documents in an archive buried deep in a building somewhere in Japan where only the most determined and dedicated scholar will even look for it, let alone find it.

McClain’s treatment of the subject nominally ends around 1700, with only a few pages dedicated to a very rough overview of some later developments. He thus leaves open the possibility for a future study to be done on 18th-19th century Kanazawa, picking up where he left off. I don’t know, however, how much of interest there may be to uncover about that time period, but while I fear there may not be much room left for me to write my own history of early modern Kanazawa, I look forward to researching and writing a similar treatment of Kagoshima, Hakata, Edo period Kamakura, Tosa han (Kōchi), Takamatsu, Matsuyama, or another city or region, none of which have yet been covered (in English) in anything approaching as thorough a manner as McClain’s treatment of Kanazawa.

Photo of Kanazawa Castle taken myself, Jan 2008.

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