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I still have lots I’ve yet to talk about from my Boston trip – chiefly, the Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Journeys East exhibition, and the MFA Showa Sophistication exhibit. I’m almost done reading James McClain‘s book on Kanazawa, so I’ll post about that soon, too.

But today, I’d like to talk about the new book MFA Highlights: Art of Japan, by Anne Nishimura Morse, Joe Earle, Rachel Saunders, and Sarah Thompson, which was just published a few months ago. At only $25 for 250 pages of full-color descriptions of a well-distributed sampling of the MFA’s amazing collection, I think it’s among the most reasonably priced art books I’ve ever seen. Softcover, perfect bound, gives the book a good feel in your hands and on your shelf.


The Museum of Fine Arts Boston has the largest collection of Japanese art under one roof anywhere in the world, including a number of pieces of incredible historical and artistic significance, which would quite likely be designated National Treasures or at least Important Cultural Properties were they to return to Japan. This book does a fine job of showcasing these pieces, including an 1189 statue of Miroku by Kaikei, a handscroll painting of the Siege of the Sanjô Palace (from the Heiji Monogatari Emaki), a folding screen of “Waves at Matsushima” by Ogata Kôrin, and a narrative handscroll (emakimono) of Kibi Daijin’s Journey to China.

It also does an excellent job of featuring a wide variety of big names in Japanese art, though it would obviously be impossible to not leave anyone out. Still, the book includes work by Kaikei, Soga Shôhaku and Itô Jakuchû, Kanô Motonobu, Tan’yû and Hôgai, Hokusai, Hiroshige, Harunobu, Shiba Kôkan (though, nothing by Harushige), Kuniyoshi, Murakami Takashi, and Morimura Yasumasa, and does so, more often than not, by treating the reader to works other than those for which the artist is most famous. Hokusai is easily one of the most famous names in Japanese woodblock prints, and the museum could have chosen to feature the Great Wave or any number of other famous prints; but the museum is also lucky to have a number of exquisite paintings by the master, and so chose one of those, a stunning image of a woman looking at herself in the mirror, in addition to two prints. They have also included a beautiful painting by Katsushika Ôi, Hokusai’s daughter. I’ll bet you didn’t know he had a daughter, or that she was a painter; we hear very little about female artists in pre-20th century Japanese art history, so this was a most welcome inclusion.

Most exciting for me, however, in going through this book, is the personal connection I feel to the objects, the museum, and all the people involved in creating this text. Over the course of my internship at the MFA, I became intimately familiar (okay, maybe not “intimately” but quite familiar) with many of these works. I think anyone who is an art enthusiast will appreciate what I mean when I talk about works that you feel a particular connection to, works that are in some way in your mind or in your heart “yours” even though they’re owned by museums, and you actually have no more connection to it than countless others do. Many of the works in this book are that for me. This internship, in fact, provided the foundation of my knowledge of Japanese art history; I’d never had the opportunity to take any Japanese art history courses in college beyond the most introductory level, and so it is through these works of art that I acquired my understanding of the differences between Kanô and Rinpa, Harunobu and Chikanobu, Jakuchu and Taiga.

For me, this book is not purely an art book, yet another “highlights of the collection” book, but a journey in nostalgia, and a fantastic source of reminders on all the artworks that formed the foundation of my Japanese art historical knowledge. I look forward to choosing works from this book for future Spotlight posts.

All images are the property of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and are linked directly to the Museum’s public Collections Database. Fair use is intended to the full extent possible; I make no claims of ownership of or rights to these images.

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Journeyed to Books Kinokuniya, at their new location just off Bryant Park, having moved within the last year from their Rockefeller Center location. The new shop is gorgeous – a very open, airy feeling, with large glass windows facing the street and the park, and a café upstairs that I’ve yet to take a look at (I’m presuming it’s expensive, and how good could the food possibly be?).
I do wonder about their assertion that they’re “by far” the largest Japanese bookstore in the US. After all, only one of the three floors is devoted to Japanese language books, the rest to English language books about Japan and further afield (i.e. Asia), English-language manga, English-language art books and the like, DVDs, CDs, and the café.
In any case, here are my acquisitions:

Okinawa: The History of an Island People by George Kerr.

Surely the most extensive, definitive English-language survey text of Okinawan history, from prehistory to the present. Kerr’s writing style is pleasant and informative, and he does not allow pet theories or his “argument” to get in the way of conveying the facts of the historical narrative. This is the kind of history I enjoy reading, where you’re not poking around trying to extract the objective historical facts and narrative from a text written with the intent of arguing a subjective theory or point.

Originally published in 1958, Kerr also provides an interesting perspective, writing at a time when Okinawa remained under US military occupation, the Occupation in Japan having ended only six years previous. Kerr passionately and eloquently expresses concerns about the unknown future – when will Okinawa return to Japanese sovereignty, if ever? Will it instead become a US territory or protectorate? How long will this military occupation continue?

While one must certainly be careful about reading this book, now exactly 50 years old and outdated, patently incorrect on some points, I find Kerr’s approach, his writing style, quite refreshing, as he basically says it how it is, and is not tripped up by conceptions of political correctness or (what’s that term?) cultural equivalence. He goes a bit overboard in his inaccurate depiction of the Okinawans as being purely peaceful, innocent people, just as writers of the past romanticized the peacefulness and innocence of the Native Americans, Hawaiians, pretty much every other Native group the world over. But in any case, the Afterword by Sakihara Mitsugu written in 2003 clarifies Kerr’s mistakes and offers an updated view.


Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan by Mark Ravina

I have not yet begun reading this, but I get the impression that it’s a fairly essential text for the kind of research I might end up doing in my PhD. I am currently thinking along the lines of two or three different possible threads – (1) studying one particular domain across the Edo period, and hopefully finding one particularly interesting aspect, such as the narrative of economic development, or the efforts of a single given daimyo to focus on, (2) building upon my MA dissertation to do something with maritime trade in the Edo period and Japan’s relations with SE Asia, probably focusing upon southern Vietnam, (3) working Okinawa into the mix somehow. If I go with (1), “Land and Lordship”, which deals with political structures and processes in three particular domains of Edo period Japan would be somewhat essential I think. I’m looking forward to reading it.


Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype by David Goodman and Miyazawa Masanori.

Not even vaguely related to any research I might ever do. And I generally avoid sociology/anthropology topics, particularly those related to discrimination or race. Too touchy. But as a Jew interested in Japan, I simply cannot avoid this topic. People are constantly asking me what the Japanese think about Jews; particularly older members of my congregation who have some fairly racist views of the Japanese, who believe the Japanese in turn to be quite racist. So I get asked a lot, and would like to have a more informed answer. It’s an interesting topic in any case.


Finally, the catalog for the Japan Society exhibit Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York

I think I may have to return this, or resell it on eBay or something. It seems an interesting topic for an art catalog, and some of the essays inside about what Japanese artists think about living in New York, how NY influences their art, etc could be quite interesting. But as I realized too late (after buying it and bringing it home) the profiles on each individual artist are far too short to really be worthwhile. I hate artist profiles that make reference to works without describing what those works are. Why bother spending so much money on this book if all it’s going to be is a pile of keywords that I need to search online (or in other books) to get anything more about?

Art books are damn expensive. I think I would very much like to get my money back for this somehow, and to buy something else, maybe a catalog of Chinese contemporary artists. One that gives deeper profiles of the artists and their work, while still offering a good number of different artists.

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