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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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Machiya storefronts at Ogawa-Kami-goryô-mae, one of countless sights I would not have experienced/enjoyed if not for simply taking a walk (or bike ride) with no particular destination in mind. Immediately nearby you can find Fushin’an, a temple with some connection to tea master Sen no Rikyû, and the remaining foundation stones of Dôdôbashi, a bridge famous as the site of clashes between Hosokawa Katsumoto and Yamana Sôzen.

I have been following Michael Lambe’s Deep Kyoto for several years now, at least, both the blog and on Facebook, and have thoroughly enjoyed the posts, which come not from the perspective of a tourist, writing to a (potential) tourist, but rather from the perspective of someone deeply situated within the life of the city. I was fortunate myself to spend six weeks in Kyoto back in 2010 (and unfortunate that it wasn’t longer), six weeks which felt like (and continue, in my memory to feel like) several months at least – a real experience. During those six weeks, I of course visited tons of historical sites, and in fact spent a few hours nearly every day riding my bike off in search of one, and seeing what else I came across along the way. But, in those six weeks I also got a taste – just a taste – of what it might be like to live there more long-term. I was generously invited by a friend to attend his Noh recital, and to go to dinner afterwards, a private reception on the second story of a Mukade-chô shop. I went to a local public bath several times, and got to know a handful of wonderful cafés. The couple from whom I was renting a room invited me to go see their aunt’s paintings at the city museum.

Hanging out along the riverbanks at Sanjô, as people have been doing for centuries.

Through Deep Kyoto, I get a sense of this kind of life on a regular basis. If you’re visiting for just a few days, you’re going to go to all the big-name tourist sites, or at least as many as you can fit in. And for that, you’re going to want a typical sort of guidebook. But, if you’re going to be in Kyoto for longer, or if you’re like me and you’re not sure when you’ll be in Kyoto again any time soon, but you (want to) feel some sort of connection to the regular ongoing cultural events and life of the city, you’re going to be interested in art openings, performances, all sorts of out-of-the-way cafés, restaurants, shops, and sights. And that’s what Deep Kyoto provides. If I were living in Kyoto more long-term, this would be among my chief sources of information on all the exciting things going on, from wine festivals and record & CD sales to the International School’s annual bazaar, album release parties, and gallery openings. And that’s all just within the last month or two (May-June 2015).

So, I guess it should have come as no surprise that Deep Kyoto’s first book, Deep Kyoto Walks, is not your typical guidebook. Available only on Kindle, for the nice low price of US$7.99 or 811 yen, it contains 18 travelogues, stories, accounts, musings, by a handful of different authors, writing about different walks through the city.

I loved riding my bike around, and got a very different feel for the city as a whole, or for individual neighborhoods, than I would have gotten focusing only on the destinations. Indeed, whenever my father and I visit a city together, we do a lot more walking around, just generally getting a sense of the place, than frantically crossing off a list of must-sees. And I think this approach – whether on bike, or walking – works especially well for Kyoto. There is so much to see, it’s like almost every single city block contains at least one “destination” of note; and beyond that, Kyoto is such a historical, cultural, romantic, city, and that really comes out in “Deep Kyoto Walks.”

The Rokkakudô, seen through a Starbucks.

These, then, are not your typical “walks” that you’d find in a guidebook. They don’t say “look to your left, and you’ll see such-and-such. Such-and-such has a long history, and is famous for this-and-that. Be sure to notice the X and Y.” These are not pre-programmed tourist walks for you to emulate, per se. They are accounts of personal experiences, which bring the city to life, fleshing it out with the lives of people who have lived there and experienced the city for themselves, in a deep way, and I suppose setting a model or an inspiration for you to go and experience it for yourself. Still, these stories are deeply rooted (I used “deeply” at first in this post by accident, by coincidence, no pun intended; but now I’m just embracing it) in specific places in the city, and so one could certainly take them as guides to places to visit, as well.

In a chapter entitled “Old School Gaijin Kyoto,” Chris Rowthorn writes about his experiences in Kyoto in the early ’90s as a young man his mid-twenties. He touches on big-name sites like the Gosho – the Kyoto Imperial Palace – though only as a public park he happened upon in his wanderings one day, and stopped to scarf down an orange on one of the park benches. He talks about the English school he worked at, and the Japanese language school he took lessons at, not that either do anything for the aspiring tourist, but I suppose that’s not the point. Most of the chapter is dedicated to talking about cafés, bars, and restaurants he enjoyed during his time in Kyoto – these, too, are written from his own experience, a first-person autobiographical anecdote, and not necessarily as a “guide” to the reader, though one could certainly take him up on his recommendations and search out some of these places.

Some chapters take a somewhat more standard form. In “In Praise of Uro Uro,” Joel Stewart walks us through an actual walk through the city, from Daitoku-ji, past Imamiya Shrine, through some neighborhoods and other sights not explicitly named, to Shôden-ji, a small temple I have certainly never heard of, but which from Stewart’s story sounds like a precious hidden gem. A number of the other chapters follow this similar form, providing an actual walk one could recreate, from one place to another, commenting on history and things to note seeing, though still from the point of view of personal experience, of a traveler’s anecdotal story, not through the voice of a tour guide embedded in the oh-so-artificial tourism industry.

The Takase Canal, which runs alongside Kiyamachi-dôri.

A chapter by Michael Lambe entitled “Up and Down the Ki'” takes the reader on a bar crawl in Kiyamachi and Pontocho – probably Kyoto’s most famous or stereotypical nightlife district – with a particular focus not only on the bars, and drinks, but also on music.

The book ends with an Epilogue by Judith Clancy, author of Exploring Kyoto: On Foot in the Ancient Capital and Kyoto Machiya Restaurant Guide: Affordable Dining in Traditional Townhouse Spaces, two books which I own but must admit I have yet to get around to reading at all, but which I imagine are quite useful. Having lived in Kyoto for 40 years, Clancy writes in general about the experience of walking around in Kyoto – the experiencing of the city itself – and what one gains by looking around, and especially looking down. I find this amusing, and intriguing, pointing to just how special and different Kyoto is, as so many writings will advise you to look up in New York, for example. In New York, or Tokyo, you look up, and you see the architecture, the impressive height of the buildings, the impressive totality of the urban environment. In Judith Clancy’s Kyoto, you look down, and notice potted plants outside of rows of houses along a quiet side street. I quite appreciate her closing words,

Nihon ni Kyoto ga atte yokatta. Thank goodness Japan has Kyoto. … I agree.”

And I agree as well.

The book’s appendices contain bios of each of the authors, representing a fair diversity of Kyoto experiences, and a set of nice maps to help guide you through your own exploration of the city. If you’re reading it on a device with proper capabilities, each clean and easy-to-read map is also accompanied by a link to view the same area on Google Maps. I don’t personally own a Kindle (read this on my clunky laptop), and am not well accustomed to such devices, but for one who is, I can easily imagine this working well, to have just the map open, full-screen, as one walks around the city, possibly taking breaks at a temple or a café to read through the chapter. Just remember to look around, and experience Kyoto for yourself – don’t get lost in your screen.

As for me, I cannot wait to go back to Kyoto again.

All photos my own.

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I recently obtained The Art of Japanese Architecture, by David and Michiko Young. I have been looking for a good book on Japanese architecture, and while JAANUS and Kazuo Nishi’s What is Japanese Architecture? remain some of the best sources for the really detailed terminology, this 2007 book from Tuttle Publishing balances a good level of detail with a beautiful overall layout, and images.

There are a great many Japanese architecture books on the market which are mainly just pretty to look at, and which I suppose could be used for inspiration for renovating your house, or something like that, if you’re the kind of person who has that kind of money (I most certainly do not). To be honest, I had half expected that this book would be much like that – aimed at a very popular audience, and feeding into the Orientalist aesthetic stereotypes of Japanese architecture as so clean and elegantly simple, so balanced, Zen-like, inspiring, and spiritual. And the book does open with much of that sort of discussion, saying that some Japanese architecture evidences a “restrained tradition with its simplicity and asymmetry,” and that in residential architecture, “the goal is to provide a tasteful and relaxed atmosphere for the occupants.” And, we can’t possibly talk about Japanese art without mentioning “an attention to detail.” But, the language here is quite balanced, objective, and careful, not too flowery. And, stereotypes or no, it would hard to argue that any of this is untrue.

Throughout the rest of the book, the authors touch upon just about every period from Jômon to today, nearly every major type or genre or style, and a great many of the famous architectural monuments I can think of. The only truly glaring omissions are Okinawan architecture (which is my own personal interest talking, but its omission is understandable), and, for the reader interested in more modern Japanese architecture, it’s not absent, but its coverage is somewhat minimal. The Youngs even devote two pages to Ainu architecture. Personally, I am a little disappointed to not see more discussion of Meiji architecture (and up through the 1930s), since there are so many beautiful and fascinating examples – from the Rokumeikan to the Iso Ijinkan to the various National Museums – combining Western and Japanese modes in a way never seen anywhere else. But, so it goes. And, the heavy focus on traditional architecture is kind of refreshing in a way; while there is admittedly no great dearth of books on traditional Japanese architecture, I also feel I see just a little too much focus sometimes, too, on just the most modern & post-modern of Japanese architecture, the kind of thing that makes me say “what about history!?” As if “Japan” or “Japanese architecture” is defined solely or chiefly by this post-modern, cutting-edge, steel and glass aesthetic.

In any case, I find the use of language in the book to also be a nice balance – informative as to technical terms without being too laden with jargon. While there are certainly certain terms or topics I am familiar with that don’t appear here – such as the term chigaidana, referring to a particular style of uneven shelf typically seen in shoin-style rooms, and especially tearooms – the book is also not too general, not too simplistic, and does not pull its punches in educating its readers into terms like Wayô, Daibutsuyô, and Karayô styles, or hattô, shôrô, sanmon and butsuden for the abbots’ quarters, belltower, main gate, and Buddha Hall of a temple, for example. This book isn’t the greatest source for the names of every different style of eaves or crossbeams, but it certainly isn’t lacking for names and dates, and just good solid proper details.

The book is organized roughly by period, and within that by types, moving from Pre-Buddhist architecture, to continental influence, “developing a cultural identity” (i.e. in the Heian period), medieval warrior architecture, and then to the Tokugawa or Edo period, with the last 20 pages or so dedicated to modern architecture from Meiji to today. Each section is filled with not only gorgeous pictures of the structures, but also some really fine illustrations and diagrams, showing the layout of a full compound, or the structure of a building.

There’s so much here I hardly know what to say. The book contains brief, but very much existent, treatments of a huge variety of topics, from the evolution of pagodas to terminology of halls/buildings within a Buddhist temple, to discussions of archaeological excavation, the layout of Edo Castle as compared to that of the Imperial Palace, the merging of Shinto & Buddhism, and the organization of machiya together into a city block (chô). As for actual examples of buildings discussed, all the big names are here, from Kinkakuji and Ginkakuji to Hôryû-ji, from Osaka castle to Himeji, from machiya to minka. Okay, now that I’ve said that, I’m sure there are a good number of major examples that are not covered in any depth here – you can only do so much, and I don’t see any extensive discussion of Nijô Castle, Tôdai-ji, or Tsurugaoka Hachimangû. And since there’s no Index – definitely a downside – it’s hard to confirm that without really reading through the book page by page. But, still, it goes way beyond just a highlights tour, spending time on not only Noh stages and Kabuki theaters, but even touching on sumo rings, for example. And, in the Edo sections of the book, it focuses on five towns or cities, in addition to several other sub-sections, giving a nice diversity of cross-sections to its coverage. Countering expectations by not having any lengthy sections devoted specifically to Kyoto as a city, the book talks about the shogunal capital of Edo, the castle town of Kanazawa, the provincial town of Takayama, the merchant town of Kurashiki, and the mountain village of Ogimachi. So, while we don’t quite get a port town, or a major highway post-town (built around inns catering to travelers), as might have been more directly helpful for my own research, it really does cover a variety of types of towns, and in doing so, also a nice variety of types of buildings.

Though not /quite/ detailed in /quite/ the right ways for my own research (I’m also looking for books with greater details on the specific layout of Edo castle, especially the audience halls, as well as slightly more detailed discussion of daimyô mansions, and post-town inns), The Art of Japanese Architecture looks to be an excellent resource for getting a fairly detailed, solid base in the narrative of Japanese architecture. This will be great for me when I plan my lectures for courses, and I think will be an enjoyable read for anyone with a serious interest in Japanese cultural/artistic history.

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I’ve recently gotten my hands on a copy of Andreas Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints: Artists, Publishers and Masterworks, 1680-1900 (published by Tuttle). It is a mighty hefty book, over three hundred pages long, hardcover. And at $35 right now on Tuttle’s own website (on discount from the real cover price of $50), it’s not an unreasonable price, either, which is a wonderfully welcome rarity when it comes to these kinds of books – large, hardcover, filled with full-color images, you’d expect them to slap whatever the hell pricetag they feel on it, asking for $60, $80, or even $100. In light of that, $35 seems almost reasonable.

But let’s get into the meat of the book, shall we? It opens with an essay by the author, introducing and summarizing the topic of woodblock prints, overall, with a refreshingly particular focus on the commercial, ephemeral nature of the prints – subject to the market, to popularities of the time – and a focus on the importance of the publisher, and others, not only the print designer (the “artist”), in the design and production of these prints. Combined with the brief introduction by Stephen Addiss, which says essentially the same, the book makes clear that it is working to try to push (or simply participate in, or be reflective of) a shift in the way we think about ukiyo-e. This might be my axe to grind more than Marks’, but for too long, ukiyo-e has been seen as some elevated art form, to be appreciated for its aesthetic and design elements, the artists lauded and celebrated as Japanese Michelangelos. But, as Addiss and Marks emphasize here, designers worked closely with publishers and others, who had a great deal of influence upon the subjects that would get published, and the style and designs they wished to sell; and, that print designers were further subject to the demands of the market – they had to design prints that would be popular, prints that would sell. Not entirely unlike the relationship between a comicbook artist, his editor, and the fans/consumers today, perhaps.

This introductory essay is followed by a nice little sidebar which talks about the different kinds of names artists held (yômyô, zokumyô, gasei, some given by parents, some by teachers, some chosen oneself as an art-name), Western vs. traditional Japanese dates, and the various sizes of prints in both cm and inch equivalents (e.g. ôban as 27x39cm or 10.6×15.4in). Far too many authors in my experience – not just in art books, but in Japanese Studies more broadly – aren’t clear whether the dates they’re giving are Western dates, or references to a Japanese date, and aren’t so diligent about informing the reader about different types of names, so it’s nice to see Marks put this in clearly and explicitly.

Most of the rest of the first half of the book is taken up by biographies of artists, ranging from one paragraph (in the case of Kiyonobu II) to the better part of a full page in length (in the case of Utamaro), interspersed with multiple, large, full-color images of selections of each artist’s works. His use of single names – e.g. Kiyonobu instead of Torii Kiyonobu – in the main headline or title of each bio rubs me a bit the wrong way, like he’s buying into, or perpetuating, the elevation of these “artists” as personalities, as individual geniuses, but then again, he could be doing this in order to help highlight that artists’ names were multiple, and sometimes misapplied. For example, Hiroshige has come to frequently be called Andô Hiroshige, using his family name inherited from his father; but as Hiroshige is an art-name, I have read elsewhere that he would never have used these together. Utagawa is the name of the studio or school in which he studied, and so he earned the right to use the Utagawa name from his teacher, but he’s not a typical Utagawa artist, and went on to do other things. Then, Ichiyûsai is just his own fanciful studio name he invented himself. So perhaps there is something to be said for not perpetuating a canonization of any one of those names as the chief one? But, even so, to see “Sukenobu” and “Toyohiro” instead of “Nishikawa Sukenobu” and “Utagawa Toyohiro,” I cannot help but feel there is an energy of mythologization, as if we were to pluck these people out of their specific historical context and place them into a canon of the greatest artists, all so great they’re known by just one name – Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Madonna. As someone who is not a specialist or expert in European art, I feel it all the more, because I genuinely don’t know the fuller names, in many cases, of even the most famous European artists. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn feels like the name of someone who might have lived in 17th century Amsterdam, but “Rembrandt” transcends time and space, and cultural and historical specificity in a way that I think we need to stop thinking about our artists.

Given Marks’ introduction, his emphasis on the importance of publishers and of the market, I find it strange, and off-putting, then, that he would continue to do this sort of thing with the single names, and in fact that he continually uses the word “artist” – including in the title of this section – rather than pushing the discourse by using a term like “print designer.” If you believe that these individuals were not uniquely divinely inspired geniuses, but were instead commercial designers hired by and restricted by publishers and by the demands of the market, then don’t call them “artists”! Call them print designers – and encourage the popular perception today, among collectors, dealers, enthusiasts, to change!

Skimming through the book, I expected to find bios that look great at first glance but are actually far less informative, less thorough, than one might wish for. I’ve certainly seen plenty of books of this sort, on a wide range of topics, which look great on first glance, but when you get into actually reading them, you realize they say so little about each individual thing – lords, clans, events, port towns, individual merchants – as to be essentially worthless for learning anything about those individual things. Many of the older Taiyô Bessatsu (“The Sun” Special Edition), sadly, seem to be of this sort.

However, as one reads a bit more closely, Marks’ Japanese Woodblock Prints does not seem to be doing that. Sure, granted, one could write an entire book on Utamaro, Hokusai, or Hiroshige, and of course many people have. Marks’ book certainly cannot be said to be as thorough as any of those, nor as meticulous as Richard Lane’s work listing every known work by a given artist. But we don’t need Marks to do that, to be that, because we already have Lane. What Marks does here, what he provides here, are good, solid, biographies of a great many artists, including many who I imagine are given short shrift in most other publications – even three paragraphs on Chôkyûsai Eizan is three paragraphs more than I think I’ve ever seen elsewhere. And it’s not a light bio full of useless fluff – in these three paragraphs, Marks informs us of Eizan’s birth year, the name of his father, the neighborhoods he lived in, the artists he studied under, the year and age of his death, and the name of the temple where he is buried. Granted, we only get a brief bit on what types of works he produced, and his stylistic influences, but for me at least, this is actually better. Marks provides the kind of concrete biographical details that most art historical treatments, more focused on style, genre, and influences, would pass over. And, besides, even for a minor artist like Eizan, we’re given five full-color images of examples of his work, one of them a full-page illustration, giving us a sense at a glance of his style – we don’t need it described out in lengthy paragraphs. So, in this way, I do think that Marks’ book is a wealth of knowledge, a real deep, solid, source to consult for names and dates and the like, a true compendium of artists.

The fact that Marks includes publishers at all is also fairly revolutionary, since “traditional” scholarship on ukiyo-e has always focused on artists almost exclusively, elevating them, and all but ignoring publishers and others involved in the process. Newer scholarship including Marks’ works have tried to instead emphasize that ukiyo-e was a commercial venture, and a process that involved multiple figures. The print designer only ever painted designs for prints, often with considerable influence from the market (i.e. what would sell, what was popular) and/or input from publishers – we really should be comparing them more to designers, illustrators, comicbook artists and the like, who do not simply produce whatever they want, out of their personal emotional expression and individual genius inspiration, but instead are hired or commissioned by publishers to produce specific products, often with particular content and in a particular style. In ukiyo-e, the designer’s design would then be carved into blocks by a professional block carver, and printed by hand by a professional printer, with the original designer very often /not/ having the final say on colors. Furthermore, it was whoever held the woodblocks (a person called the hanmoto, often the publisher) who had the right to reproduce, or even to alter, images – in this way, too, the ukiyo-e print designer resembles the comicbook artist; the basic design, the likeness, the character, of Wolverine and Batman are owned by Marvel Comics and DC, and not by the individual writers or artists who originally designed them. In short, print designers were not “artists” in the Renaissance/post-Renaissance modernist / post-modernist way we tend to think of artists today; they were not the individual inspired genius who produced whatever he chose, and was celebrated for his inspiration, as we tend to think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Pollock, Rauschenberg, today. And Marks addresses this in the book, not only in essays, but also by including such a large section on biographies of publishers. Apologies for repeating myself, but I am surprised, therefore, that he would nevertheless employ the word “artists” in the title, and throughout the book. I wonder if this was pushed upon him by the publisher, in order to make it more accessible to a wider, more popular audience, or something.

Some of Marks’ publisher’s biographies are quite good, quite thorough and informative as they are for the artists. With others, however, I have some difficulties. In some of these bios, he explicitly discusses who took over a publishing operation (and the name of the head) in each generation – who was the second Tsutaya Jûzaburô, and the third? Were they biological sons, or apprentices adopted in? Or were they son-in-laws, who married Tsutaju’s daughters? For some of the publishers, we get these narratives. For others, from Marks’ biographies, you might almost be inclined to think that a given publisher – the same individual person – was actively active in publishing for decades and decades, since he spends so little time talking about how many different people took on each publisher’s name, when they succeeded one another, etc. Moriya Jihei, for example, is described as having been a member of the Jihon toiya, or “Picture Book and Print Publishers Guild” in 1807, worked with Utamaro around that time, with Hokusai in the 1830s, was a member of the “Old Faction,” or moto gumi, of that same guild as of 1851, and as of 1876 was still active. That’s an active career of nearly seventy years; not just a life of seventy years – this man would have to have been at least 80-something in the end, and that’s if he started when he was 12. Was this the same man? Who knows? Marks doesn’t seem to even /acknowledge/ the question.

In any case, and this is an important point – I do not have Marks’ Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, published only a year earlier, immediately at hand, but from what I remember seeing in there, I would not be surprised if much of the content is duplicated. So, be careful. Don’t buy both thinking you’re going to get 100% all-new content.

By way of saying something overall about this book, in the end, I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for out of a book on woodblock prints. For someone looking for their first book on woodblock prints, I think I would recommend Frederick Harris’ book, which I reviewed recently, over this one. Whereas Marks’ book is devoted chiefly to individual bios of individual artists and publishers, Harris’ book will take you through the styles and genres, the chronological progression of the evolution of the art form, the introduction of different materials and techniques… much of the foundational narratives and other concepts and knowledge about the history and development of woodblock prints in general. You won’t get such a clean narrative from Marks’ book – outside of the essays, within the bios, I’m not sure you’ll really get a good sense of when and how woodblocks got started, when and why landscapes became a big thing in the 1830s, when and how Prussian blue was first introduced and why that’s a big deal, or how prints flowed commercially and functioned discursively, as well as you would with Harris’ book. But that’s fine. Because not everyone wants or needs such a general, and introductory, sort of book. I am more than happy to have Harris’ book on my shelf as a great foundational, and broad-coverage book to turn to, but when it comes to ukiyo-e in particular, such a popular topic, popular among art collectors and just general public armchair enthusiasts, as well as those who just dip their toe into Japanese things only a little, those who are just buying it as a neat present, or as a coffee table book, there are a wealth of introductory-level books out there on ukiyo-e. So I am glad, too, to have a book like this one by Andreas Marks, which does something very different. He allows those other books to cover that other stuff, and focuses in on providing bios of tens and tens of artists and publishers, many of whom I’d only ever find the tiniest bit about in most of those other books. So, the next time I’m looking for something on Adachi Ginkô, Utagawa Kokunimasa, Eishôsai Chôki, or Toshinobu, I’ll have somewhere to look. Or even, if I’m looking for some names & dates sort of details about the life of Hiroshige or Hokusai (e.g. when did he take on the name Hiroshige? 1812.) without having to wade through pages and pages about style, I’ll have this book to turn to.

Much of the information on the publishers does seem to duplicate what’s in the compendium, so I’m not sure whether or not it’s valuable to own both; this is something I’ll have to look into. Also, I must note that while Marks does include many lesser-known ukiyo-e print designers here, there are still plenty he does not cover. If you want to learn anything about Ekin, or Hiroshige II or III, you won’t find them in this book. And you also won’t find much about ukiyo-e painting, a topic still woefully overshadowed by the popularity of prints. I’m still waiting for books (there might be a few out there, but waiting for them to become more numerous and more dominant) which talk about ukiyo-e as a school, or movement, or genre, that included both prints and paintings and illustrated books, all at once, pushing a shift in popular perception from the idea that “ukiyo-e = prints” to the idea that prints are no more major, no more important, no more emblematic of ukiyo-e than books or paintings. The vast majority of these “artists” were doing all three, and some would likely privilege paintings or book illustrations over prints, in fact. It’s about time we get the popular public conception to acknowledge and accept that.

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