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Posts Tagged ‘invention of tradition’

Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, UC Press, 1996.

Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.

Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.

This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.

Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.

A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space within the Imperial Palace.

As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.

Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.

Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.

On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.

All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)

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Through RSS feeds, Twitter, Facebook, email, we’re exposed to more about our world everyday than ever before. Not just the stuff the local paper feels worthy of printing, but news on a whole myriad of topics, curated by ourselves to match our interests. And, so, every now and then, I find myself with more tabs open, more things I want to share, than I really have time or energy to devote full posts to. So, it’s time for another Quick Links.

*Science Daily reports on a new way to date silk. Rather than using carbon dating techniques, which apparently require the destruction of more material than we are usually willing to spare from, for example, a priceless ancient Chinese ink painting, the new technique dates silks based on the deterioration rate of the amino acids, or proteins, which form the silk. Scientists used the technique on a number of already-dated objects ranging from a Warring States period (475-221 B.C.) Chinese textile to a 19th century Mexican War flag, to establish baselines for the rate of deterioration, against which newly tested objects can be compared.

*Japanese fashion/textile artist Izukura Akihiko will be enjoying a show at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and simultaneously at the Linekona Art Center downtown, in January-Feburary 2012. I’ll admit, I’d never heard of him before, was not at all familiar with his work. But, local Hawaii-based fashion critic Paula Rath has put together a beautiful blog post giving us a glimpse at what we can look forward to.

*The Asahi Shinbun reports that the 1570 Battle of Anegawa fought between a combined Oda-Tokugawa army and the allied Asai and Asakura clans, may have been much smaller in scope than previously believed. The battle features several giants of Japanese history – namely Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu – or, at least, their troops (I’m not clear on whether Ieyasu and Nobunaga were there in person; such fine details of Sengoku battles are not among my strong points), and has been, like most major battles, romanticized and fictionalized and retold numerous times over. Some sources give army size numbers in the 15-20,000 range. Whether this is realistic, I don’t know. But, at some point soon I hope to actually read the article, and see what it has to say.

*The Honolulu Academy of Arts has just announced on its Facebook page that from now on the museum will be allowing photography! This is a wonderful turn of events. Now I can go and record the images that I find most beautiful or interesting, and be able to come back to them again, to remind myself what I saw, remind myself which artists to look into… Take photos of gallery labels and save myself the time copying them down by hand in the gallery.

The museum does specify, however, that “No photographs or videotapes may be reproduced, distributed, or sold without written permission from the museum,” which seems a pretty standard disclaimer. Except that I remain unclear as to whether a blog such as this one – or uploading photos to Flickr – counts as “personal use” or “fair use” in some other way, e.g. “educational use”, or whether, on the contrary, it counts as “reproduction and distribution” and is thus not allowed. Having photos for my own study and such will be wonderful, and I look forward to being able to take some photos for that purpose. However, being able to freely share those photos in a context such as a blog, or on Flickr, without worrying whether it counts as fair use, that’s the next important step.

*UK newspaper The Independent reports on analysis of skeletons of people who committed suicide after the 1333 siege of Kamakura. Thanks to further discussion of this article on the Samurai-Archives forums, I am reminded and able to put it together that this is talking about the Hôjô clan “harakiri yagura” or “suicide cave” which I’ve actually seen, in Kamakura. Check out the article, and the discussion thread on the Samurai-Archives forums for more.

*The building housing Japan Society, built by Junzo Yoshimura in 1971, the first building in NYC to be designed by a Japanese architect, has just been officially named a “landmark” by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

I love that the article acknowledges that some might call it a “modernist box.” This is more or less the same terminology I use to criticize countless buildings I see, the style of which I just have no interest in whatsoever. But the appealing thing about the Japan Society building is that it’s not purely that; it’s not purely a modernist box, but it’s a modernist box with enough touches of hints of traditional Japanese architecture that it’s actually interesting and (somewhat) attractive, and not simply just another of more of the same. Personally, I would prefer to see more buildings that much more closely resemble truly traditional-style machiya, rather than just recalling it in an otherwise very modernist form. But, unattractive though it may be, at least on a conceptual level, the Japan Society building, as it is, represents the fusion of traditional and ultra-modern that is contemporary Japan.

*I’ve just come across an old blog post from a blog called Edwardian Promenade, discussing the modern history of women’s dress in Meiji Japan, more specifically, the adoption of yôfuku (Western garments – dresses, corsets, bustles, hats etc.) and the transformation of the furisode, kosode, and various other kinds of traditional Japanese garments into “the kimono”, a newly defined “national costume” for a newly defined Nation.

The post is wonderfully detailed, including lots of dates and such, and describing ways in which the kimono, or the way it is worn, changed in this period. I bet you didn’t even know the kimono changed at all – it’s so traditional, after all, right? Unchanged? Hardly. Like so many things held up as symbols of “traditional Japan” today, the kimono, like tea ceremony, underwent dramatic changes in the Meiji period. Evangeline, the author of the blog, goes into great detail about the way the kimono, and Western Victorian fashions, created different silhouettes, and their relationship to ideas of ideal beauty.

*Finally, there’s apparently an ongoing controversy about the relocation of a writing hut where Roald Dahl did a lot of his writing. The hut, in the garden of his home in Buckinghamshire, is in desperate need of repair, or it might not last another year. There is a plan, therefore, to move its contents – pens, pictures, balls of yarn, his La-Z-Boy, all kinds of things, to the Roald Dahl Museum. However, the museum claims that it will cost £500,000 to move, and more importantly, conserve, all of these objects. I think, if I’m not misunderstanding, the £500,000 also includes the costs of designing and building new museum displays to construct an exhibition around the objects.

Yet, there is apparently some public outrage over the idea that the museum, and Dahl’s family, should be asking for help raising the £500,000 when many allege that Dahl’s widow could (and should) just pay for it entirely herself, out of pocket, from the vast riches she earns off royalties and book sales and such.

Well, that’s it for now (phew!). Sometimes those links just really add up. I look forward to your thoughts, comments, and feedback. Sayonara for now!

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