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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.

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