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Posts Tagged ‘history’

Reading Gregory Smits’ Maritime Ryukyu again and thinking about some of the issues I touched upon in the last post – is Amami “Ryukyu” or “Japan”? – I come upon a frustration with Maritime Ryukyu that I have had with nearly every work I’ve read in English about Ryukyu, one which I thought I might endeavor to remedy in my own work. Namely: just about every book or article I’ve read about Okinawa uses some standard Japanese readings and some Okinawan terms, jumbled up, interspersed right next to one another, without explicitly labeling them.

Left: A storefront in central Naze marked as both a “sanshin” サンシン・三線 shop, using the Ryukyuan term, and an “Amami shamisen” 奄美三味線 shop, using the Japanese term for the instrument. Which is more truly, or commonly, or standardly, the “Amami” term, I don’t know.

When I thought I would do better in my own work, I ran into all kinds of difficulties (what is the Okinawan reading for this term? what’s the best way to label which reading a given word is?). And I guess it’s something I’m still thinking about and struggling with. To my surprise, despite the entire book, Maritime Ryukyu, being about trying to disentangle our understanding of Ryukyuan history from the myths, half-truths, and outright falsehoods put forward in the Ryukyu Kingdom’s official histories, Smits seems to not be so careful with his choice of readings/spellings for a lot of things. Or, if there’s a strict logic to it, I don’t see it. He labels a location within Okinawa as Kyan (喜屋武), using the Okinawan reading for the place, and not calling it Kiyabu, which someone with zero background in Okinawan language and only in Japanese language might assume, based on the kanji characters. But then on the very same page he talks about Sonohiyabu utaki 園比屋武, a reading I have never seen elsewhere; the more common reading, “Sonohyan utaki” does not appear anywhere in the book. He acknowledges the complexity by identifying one place on the map as “Gushichan (Gushikami),” giving both readings, but then calls a nearby location Yomitanzan, never writing Yuntanzan anywhere in the book. He goes out of his way to inform the reader that the Japanese equivalent of Tamaudun is Tamaodon even though I don’t believe I have ever, in any context whatsoever, ever seen the site referred to as Tamaodon (or that character, , read as ”odon”; it’s typically either ”misasagi” or ”ryô”). But then for some terms he goes the other way, talking about ”utaki” (an Okinawan term) without ever bothering to note that it would be the equivalent of ”otake” in standard Japanese.

Some of these choices I still think are quite strange, at the very least. But, thinking about the broader issue – properly distinguishing what’s Okinawan/Ryukyuan and what’s Japanese – and thinking about how one traveling to Amami (or for that matter anywhere in Okinawa prefecture) might find themselves unconsciously noticing what strikes them as “Ryukyuan” and what as “Japanese,” I think I am gradually coming around to maybe taking a more laid-back and postmodernist position on the whole thing – why do we need to categorize it so strictly anyway, what’s Okinawan or Amami and what’s Japanese?

Arimori Shrine 有森神社 on Amami Ôshima. A shrine dedicated to a Japanese warrior, and constructed in definitely a Japanese Shinto shrine architectural style (a Ryukyuan utaki would involve some stone walls, but otherwise minimal manmade structure), but if I’m not mistaken in a lighter wood, a different aesthetic somewhat to most archetypal/stereotypical “mainland” Shinto shrines.

As I said in my previous post, when I lived in Okinawa – and I think being there for an extended period of time, without much exposure to visits to “mainland” Japan, contributed to this – I did keep noticing what stood out as (seemingly, perhaps) distinctively Okinawan, and what strikingly Japanese. But my experience on Amami last month struck me quite differently, and got me seeing things differently. Now, instead of saying that some cultural elements are A and some are B, I’m beginning to feel a lot more comfortable seeing it all as just one big giant mush of simply being what it is. After all, culture is complex, it’s diverse, it takes in different influences, it evolves and changes. It’s organic. What’s not organic is the imposition, by politics, by scholars, or otherwise, of declaring what is A and what is not A, and what is B. Which individual pieces of the culture are “local” or “native” Ryukyuan Amami culture and which are Japanese. But Amami is not a box of red and blue marbles that have been thrown together. Amami is like a box of marbles in all different shades of purple. A spectrum, each element not pure or emblematically “Japanese” or “Ryukyuan,” but rather all marbles reflective of the reality of Amami, and all of them one form or another of mixed or in-between, in and of themselves. Something like that.

If there’s one theme that I think has always underlied and driven my interest in history, it’s an appreciation of the incredible, vibrant, cultural diversity of our world. Neither “Japan” nor “Ryukyu” should be essentialized, as if there is any singular, definitive, true form of each. Each contains within it incredible diversity, a range of complex and different cultural traditions, expressions, and elements.

An adan アダン or pandanus fruit. Though the leaves are traditionally woven into hats, baskets, mats, even sails in many cultures all across the Pacific, within Japan the image of the adan is particularly associated with Amami, perhaps thanks in part to painter Tanaka Isson.

Relatedly, visiting Amami has really gotten me thinking about the unending diversity and range to be explored within Japanese Studies, and how that kind of range or depth or diversity is so often not appreciated or rewarded or encouraged in US-based academia. Yes, it’s true, that a large part of what makes Amami fascinating for me, especially on this initial trip, first impressions and all that (i.e. perhaps more so than if I were far more deeply engaged into & committed to Amami Studies), is how Amami (and/or Yoron, Kikai, etc.) expands, challenges, informs, alters our understandings of “Japan” and “Ryukyu.” There’s oodles to be said about how the inclusion of these islands expands and alters our perception of the scope of what counts as “Japanese” history, how the historical narrative changes if we devote just a bit more focus to the significance of trade or migration or influence or engagement otherwise with/from the islands, and so on. And the same for how Amami makes us reconsider various aspects of “Okinawan” or “Ryukyuan” history.

But, whether we’re talking about Japanese history, Okinawan history, or Amami history, the question always comes back around to, why should the study of this place’s history and culture only be of interest when it applies to some larger, broader, more abstract concept? What can Amami teach us about colonialism? About “frontiers”? About islands or Island Studies? Don’t get me wrong, with the right approach, the right argument, it could be fascinating. I have read some work in this vein and it is fascinating, and I enjoy it very much, and I am eager to read more of it. And, on a sort of flip side, I would absolutely love to see people who are discussing these topics in a global or non-Asian-focused context include more consideration of more different places. And, yes, admittedly, I do understand that it goes just the same in the opposite direction – as a specialist in French, Mexican, or US history, you may feel quite passionately that your own topic is just so interesting, in and of itself, as an exploration of that particular time and place in and of itself, and you might not understand why a Japan specialist like me doesn’t get it, isn’t revved up by it. Fair enough. I see that. If I were that interested in US or French or Mexican history I wouldn’t be a Japan specialist to begin with. But even so.

I love visiting new places, especially within Japan, and seeing how each different part of Japan is similar yet different; how the puzzle pieces fit together, with each region having so many points of similarity or interconnection with other regions or with the national narrative and yet also so many aspects to their history that are distinctive to that place. In Amami, we find sacred sites associated with or dedicated to Ryukyuan deities that are scarcely if at all worshipped in mainland Japan, but they’re worshipped at sites that resemble more than anything Shinto shrines. But those shrines, with their torii gates and haiden worship halls, are even so painted in colors I’ve never seen elsewhere, or have a particular light-wooden aesthetic that feels distinct from the standard mainstream aesthetic. We find Shinto shrines dedicated to members of the Taira (Heike) clan who according to local legend survived the battle of Dan-no-ura and made it to Amami. The Taira and the battle of Dan-no-ura are about as central as one could possibly get to mainstream Japanese national history. The Tale of the Heike is one of the most famous and standard items of medieval Japanese literature; it’s read not only in (I would imagine) middle school or high school classrooms all across Japan, but in Japanese Studies classrooms all around the world. It appears prominently in various traditional music genres, Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatre, all over premodern and early modern literature and painting, and so on and so forth. But, naturally, different parts of the (hi)story take place in different places, and no matter how much time you spend in Tokyo and Kyoto you’ll only ever see parts of it. The final defeat of the Heike was at Dan-no-ura, at Shimonoseki. Those that survived, if they did indeed survive and it’s not just legend, fled to parts of Shikoku, Kyushu, and the Ryukyus. Visit Shimonoseki, certain sites in Shikoku and Kyushu, and Amami, and you’ll see, read, learn, experience, different parts of their story.

Reconstruction of the home Saigo Takamori and his Amami wife Aikana lived in during his exile.

Saigo Takamori is another example. Saigo is so lionized and celebrated in Japanese history, especially among samurai history enthusiasts, that as a result I have never had much interest in his history at all. He’s way overblown, over-canonized, some great national hero who’s become a total cartoon of his actual historical self. But, here again, if you hang out in Tokyo, you’ll learn one aspect of his story; if you visit museums in Kagoshima, you’ll get another. But in both versions of the story, the fact that he lived in exile in Amami for three years is (I would presume; I haven’t actually read very much about Saigo and I don’t plan to) a footnote, quickly passed over to focus more on his activities on the national stage. And yet, you come to Amami, and if you’re like me and knew nothing about him except for some generalities about his role in pushing for, and then rebelling against, the new Meiji Imperial Government; if half of what you think you know about Saigo comes from The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise as the wholly unnecessary white man in a movie that could have and arguably should have been entirely about Japanese characters, then you may be surprised and intrigued, as I was, to learn that Saigo married a woman from Amami, whose surname was simply Ryû 龍 (not a surname I’ve ever seen in Japan before; and one-character surnames are fairly rare in Japan), whose Ryû lineage (if I have the story right) was descended from Ryukyu Kingdom officials who came from Okinawa Island and settled in this particular neighborhood of what’s now Tatsugô Town 龍郷町, and whose relations – that is, the broader Ryû branch families, etc etc, taken as a whole – still control roughly half the land in that village today. A completely different side to the story than I might ever have known otherwise. And to see the Ryû family cemetery, and to think about not just Saigo Takamori himself and his brother Saigo Tsugumichi who were so prominent and significant in various ways in the national-level narrative of “Japanese history,” but to think about his wife’s family, these various other Ryû family individuals, who they were, what exactly their connections were to exactly what places or historical events or developments in Okinawan history; and to the local history right there on Amami; and so forth.

The Ryû family cemetery in Tatsugô Town, on Amami Ôshima, near Saigo’s home in exile.

Everywhere you go in Japan, you see, learn, experience things which challenge, expand, deepen your understandings of “Japan,” of “Japanese history,” of “Japanese culture.” History is an infinitely rich tapestry; the history of Japan no less so.

And on that note, I think I’ve run out of steam. But this is most certainly something I am going to keep thinking about, and keep coming back to. If there’s one theme that runs through my approach to teaching (that is, courses I’m planning, if and when I should ever actually get the chance to teach them), it’s diversity; learning about and gaining an appreciation for, and simply enjoying and thinking about the incredible, vibrant, infinite diversity of our world.

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Illustration from H.M. Stanley’s book In Deepest Africa, used here as an image of the metaphorical wilderness. No further implication of African, colonialist, etc. contexts is intended or desired.

Post-modern theory tells us that, either, there is no Truth out there to be discovered, or that it is out there, but it is simply unattainable. Everything is reflections and representations. Everything is subjective. Nothing is sure.

This exchange from West Wing (ep 1×03), taken completely out of context, expresses I think my feelings on trying to do history in a world governed by such attitudes.

Pres. Bartlet: “what the hell are we doing here?!”
Leo: “Of course, it’s not good. There is no good. It’s what there is. … It’s what our fathers taught us.”

There was a time not that long ago when we thought we knew so much. And now, we believe we know nothing. All is in doubt. Everything is in question. Nothing is true. And, so, what can we do? What can we do, but to just keep moving, keep doing history like our fathers taught us. Post-modern critique tells us there is no good history, there is no good scholarship. There is only what there is. We do what we can.

One of my professors calls doing history in the wake of post-modern discourse “pitching a tent in the wilderness.” And wilderness it is, indeed.

In a sense, I feel we have come full circle. In the early days of the historians’ profession, there was so much left unknown. So much to be learned. Even as we began to meticulously record, or narrate, the details of our own histories – for US & UK historians, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Tudor and Stuart Dynasties, the Norman Invasion – massive fields went untouched. In those early days, there was so much yet unwritten (in European languages, at least) about China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Middle East, not to mention about Latin America, the Pacific, and sub-Saharan Africa. A wide open wilderness, it was. Documents yet to be read, entire histories yet to be told (in European languages). … Our supposed “knowledge” eventually expanded to encompass many of these histories, though, of course, there was always more out there to be uncovered. … And then it all came crashing down. So, today, with everything in doubt, with nothing known for sure, have we not, in a sense, returned to where we began, knowing nothing? The key difference, of course, is that where before we thought we had solid ground to walk on, today, the wilderness is made entirely of quicksand.

I think my tent is sinking.

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Given the success of my post last month on engaging with Japanese culture in the US, I thought I would delve into another, somewhat similar topic, that addresses who I am, who we are, as academics, or as those otherwise active in studying or engaging with art, history, and culture.

I’m eager to hear people’s thoughts on these matters. But, before I start, a Disclaimer: (1) Please don’t think I mean to diss any discipline. There is nothing wrong with any discipline, they all have their merits, they’re all wonderful, and I love aspects of all of them; it’s just I have been frustrated finding my space within them, and this post is part of my working through how to resolve that. (2) If you’re a big name professor or the like reading this whose opinion of me as a person, or as a scholar, is going to be shaped by this post, such that it will influence whether or not I get into a program, or whether or not I get hired, please don’t be offended or turned off by anything here, and keep an open mind as to who I am and where I stand. Thank you.

Now, getting to the heart of the matter: Why is it so frowned upon in academia to have your feet in two different disciplines? More to the point, why are certain disciplines so separated?

Pretty much every time I’ve applied to grad schools, or to certain other things, in the last few years, I’ve struggled with whether I want to be in History, or in Art History. Do I want to be a “historian”, or an “art historian”? And, I think I’ve finally settled into the answer – that it really isn’t about me flip-flopping and being unable to settle or decide on one discipline or another, but that rather I have found my interest, found my niche, found the kind of scholarship I want to do, and it rests squarely on the line. I know what I want to do, and it’s not reaching out in multiple scattered directions so much as it’s focusing on a single set of things that happens to straddle an artificial boundary.

The separation between Art History and History is really a false binary. Art history, like theatre history or dance history, or for that matter, history of science or economic history or political history, is merely one type of history, one aspect of history, and it frustrates me that it should be kept so separate. Yes, it has its own disciplinary techniques and approaches that it draws upon, in order to interpret images the way that “normal” historians interpret texts, and in terms of the scholars/thinkers/Theory with a capital T that it draws upon.

But, what is art, really? Well, art is a very broad term, and I am sure that there are plenty of things that don’t fit into these categories, but, humor me for a moment. The art that I’m thinking of:
(1) Serves as historical documents of the past, in visual form. This doesn’t mean they’re 100% accurate and can be taken at face value, but then neither can textual primary sources.
(2) Is a product of a particular time and place, that fits into a larger context of economics, taste, patronage, politics and social strata, cultural usages – whether religious/ritual or practical, etc.
(3) Is a product of a particular person, and whether we are examining the biography of an artist, or that of a political official, merchant, warrior, why should it matter? Why are some biographies “history”, and some are seen as outside of history, in the realms of art historians or literature scholars?

I have applied to PhD programs in History because I feel that this will give me the flexibility to *also* research topics that don’t rely upon visual culture. It feels quite constraining sometimes, to come up with a topic, and then feel like you have to do it through the lens of the visual, just because you’re an “art historian,” or that you can’t do it at all because it doesn’t concern visual sources or visual evidence.

I guess the best way to market myself, to define myself, is not to say that I want to be “both” an art historian *and* a historian, or to even really acknowledge the binary division between the two disciplines, but rather to situate myself as a “historian of visual & material culture,” grounded in History but also strongly interested in visual, material, cultural, aesthetic artifacts as crucial elements of the History of these people, and as indicative of that History.

The problem, perhaps, stems from the fact that the discipline of Art History itself, it seems to me, combines two fields. One being the History of Art, and/or the Art of History, which focuses on art and artists as elements within the cultural, social, political, economic context of their times, and the other (sub-)field, for lack of a better term, being something like Art Theory & Criticism, focusing on style, emotional impact, intended or unintended meanings, on the artist as inspired individual, and art as personal expression. There are those things that bleed through across the two, such as the history of stylistic developments being both a part of the History of Art, and of the interpretive side which I’m calling Theory & Criticism.

However, I am much more interested in artworks as products of their time, as firmly embedded within a commercial/economic structure, or within a literati culture of elite cultural pursuits & of gift-giving, or whathaveyou. Production, consumption, patronage. When we consider artworks as objects, as commodities, and not in isolation as “artistic expression” – that is, when we look at who made them, and why, and for whom, and what they depict, rather than how they depict it (style, composition), I think it becomes a lot more obvious how all of this, which we might call “visual & material culture,” is really no different from the study of History. That there is no reason to think that “cultural history” should be any less History than economic history or political history.

I don’t know the intricacies of the history of the development of the discipline of Art History, but I imagine that the key reason it is considered a separate discipline is for two main reasons. One, because it grew up out of an examination of the great masters of the past – Michelangelo, Rembrandt – seeking to analyze and understand the history of stylistic changes and developments, and the way style and composition are used to elicit an emotional response. There was a great focus at this time on aesthetic, and on what is and is not attractive, and why. We have since moved away from this idea of valuing art as being pretty or not pretty, and have taken a different stance… But, two, because the works of later artists, including the Impressionists, and certainly the Modernists, Fauvists, Dadaists, etc. lend themselves to a narrative not of historical context in the sense of understanding the broader context of a distant time & place, but rather to a narrative of artistic movements and individual expression.

It is because of this origin of Art History in, essentially, “art appreciation”, in a focus on style, technique, and personal expression, and on the history of stylistic movements, that Art History, at its core, remains a fundamentally separate discipline even while it continues to more fully embrace approaches that would make it seem more rightfully a part of, or an outbranching of, the discipline of History.

One wonderful example of this more historical type of art history, with less connection to “art appreciation,” is a project Tim Screech has been working on for some time, looking at a literal boatload of paintings, prints, and other artworks sent by the British East India Company to Japan. While the content of the paintings may be of interest, and while there may be great meaning behind what types of paintings (what types of subjects, in what style, by which artists) were sent, what is of chief importance (I’m assuming) is not the composition, style, of the painting itself as a work that elicits emotional response, or that expresses the artists’ personal expression. Rather, it is in the political, diplomatic, economic/commercial context within which this shipment of paintings takes place that is (I presume) the key focus of interest of the project. Could a Historian do this same project? Could he do this same project and have it count towards his publishing in “History”, count towards tenure? Could he do this same project and still be considered a “Historian”, and not be ostracized, set apart, or distanced from the field/discipline? Why not?

What do you think?

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Time Travel

I’ve been working on PhD applications the last few weeks (again), and have as a result been thinking more about what type of history (or art history) I like, where my interests lie, what sort of approaches I like. It’s the sort of thing I think about all the time, actually, justifying to myself my choices, and trying to work out where I stand.

I am sure there are many different ways of putting this, many different aspects; it’s a complicated thing, “what kind of history do you like?” But here’s one thing that I think I have always stayed true to, even if I didn’t quite know it or articulate it to myself as such.

For me, the study of history is like traveling in a time machine. My interest is in the actual time and place, how it looked, and what you might find. My interest is in fashion, architecture, and perhaps most of all in famous historical places, people, and events, and how and where they intersect.

There are those who study history in order to better understand how societies work, how nations or states rise and fall, or any number of other abstract and relatively universal concepts not necessarily tied down to a given time or place. Many are not interested in Japan because of its culture, its aesthetics, its Japaneseness – for them, it might as well be Portugal, or Benin, so long as certain societal or political structures are in place to be studied and analyzed. They are the kind of people who are interested in the Meiji Restoration as an examination of a relatively non-violent transfer of power, a revolution from the top down (i.e. not initiated or otherwise performed by the peasants or commoners), in which the ruling class willingly gave up their own superior class status, etc. etc. The kind of person who studies revolutions, regardless of when or where they occurred, being chiefly interested, rather, in how they occurred. And that’s wonderful. That’s a perfectly valid and extremely important type of historical research. But it’s not me. I, on the other hand, am the kind of historian who sees the Meiji Restoration as a very specific time and place, with a particular aesthetic, feel, or flavor, and as a nexus point where numerous people of great historical significance with extremely interesting life stories come together. I am not the political theorist, the societal structural analyst. I am the time-traveling tourist standing across the street from a group of important-looking people, holding an illustrated “who’s who” guide, and gasping to myself, “oh my god, that’s Saigo Takamori! And omg, that’s Kido Takayoshi and Ôkubo Toshimichi!” … Or, that is, I am the historian attempting to capture that experience through reading history books and otherwise researching and teaching history.

For me, what’s important about the Meiji Restoration is not the type of revolution it was, or whether it’s something we can call “a revolution,” or precisely what kind of political structural shifts took place at that time, in some kind of abstract way, as an example of “X type political structures” in some broad global-view comparing X-type politics to the Y-type politics seen in 13th century England or the Z-type political structures of 21st century Sri Lanka. For me, what’s exciting and interesting about the Meiji Restoration is what it must have looked like and felt like to be on the streets (or in the halls of government) at that time, as elements of Western dress, architecture, language, Western people themselves, begin to appear and to become incorporated into the urban landscape, alongside the traditional buildings, fashions, and lifestyles that continue (for now).

And I think this is where I struggle… against what I (perhaps mistakenly) believe to be a widely and strongly held perception in academia that it is the more abstract, structural, type of scholarship that is more valued, and that is, in fact, expected and required of anyone calling themselves a real scholar. For me, it has always been about the people, places, and events, about their stories, how they intersect, and about the colorful, exciting, interesting environments in which these stories take place – stories filled with samurai, townspeople in kimono, streets lined with machiya. I ask the who, what, where, and when, and revel in how the answers help me visualize vividly the scene. Yet, are we not expected to be focusing more on the how and why? And the why of the why? … Perhaps I am mistaken, and my approach, my kind of history, is more widely accepted and valid than I think. But I’m afraid to ask… afraid to be fully honest about my interests in my PhD applications, giving them instead what I think they want to hear.

What do you think? What sort of approach, what aspects of history do you find most interesting? Do you think one type or another is privileged and more appreciated and accepted in academia?

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