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Posts Tagged ‘Kyushu National Museum’


After Kagoshima, I activated my Japan Rail Pass, and took the (relatively) newly opened Kyushu Shinkansen up to Fukuoka. The main purpose of stopping over in Fukuoka was to see a procession scroll held by the Fukuoka City Museum. I do wish that I had planned a bit better, gone over to visit Kyushu University, checked out their library, maybe met up with a friend/colleague or two. But, everything was just so up in the air. I focused on getting permission and arranging an appointment to see this one scroll, and then just figured I would take the opportunity to see the rest of the City Museum, the Kyushu National Museum, and whatever else I might happen upon.

The only other time I’d been to Fukuoka (visiting a friend for a weekend in 2008), I made the mistake of trying to visit the Kyushu National Museum on a Monday. I had forgotten that National Museums (and a lot of other places) are closed on Mondays. And I had heard such amazing things about this then very newly opened national museum, which supposedly had such new and innovative approaches to the way its displays were organized. So, I was glad to get to finally go and check it out.

The Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the Kyushu National Museum turned out to be quite the disappointment. Firstly, because unlike the Tokyo National Museum they don’t allow photography, meaning I couldn’t capture anything of the really incredible artifacts on display, which can’t be seen anywhere else.

These included a 1591 letter from Nguyen Hoang to the “Ruler of Japan” (i.e. Toyotomi Hideyoshi), which I actually blogged about a short while back. The earliest extant communication between Vietnamese and Japanese rulers, ten years older than what was until very recently believed to have marked the earliest such exchange, this letter was designated an Important Cultural Property in 2018. I researched and wrote about late 16th – early 17th century Japan-SE Asia relations in my first MA thesis, and for more than ten years now have been excited to eventually get to see some of these letters. But now that I finally have, I wasn’t permitted to take photos for my personal enjoyment, or to post here. I guess the best I can hope for is either that Kyûhaku will eventually change their policies, or that the object will eventually go on exhibit somewhere else, that does allow photographs.

A series of seals from Korea were also of great interest. Coming from the collection of the Sô clan, samurai lords of Tsushima, these seals have a rather special historical pedigree. By which I mean, I’m sure there are plenty of Korean seals out there created for all different purposes and which made their way around the world for all kinds of reasons. But these are some of the very seals which the Sô clan lords were given directly by the Korean court to use as authorization to trade. These are not simply examples of something sort of similar, these are the very objects I have read so much about, in discussions of Tsushima’s special position in the history of Japan-Korea trade relationships. The Korean court granted seals or tallies to certain groups and individuals, which they could then use to identify themselves as authorized merchants. The Ming court gave tallies to various samurai warlords for similar purposes, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the Tokugawa shoguns later gave “red seal letters” (shuinjo) to authorized merchants in a similar fashion. In fact, the 1601 letter which I mentioned above, exchanged between Nguyen Hoang and Tokugawa Ieyasu, discusses just such trade concerns and red seal authorization papers. Of course, any such system is going to lead to the creation of forgeries – fake authorization documents (or seals). Such forgeries appear prominently in discussions of Korea-Tsushima interactions, and so to see them on display as well was fantastic. No photos, though. Boo.

One more I’ll mention is a scroll painting by Sesshû, one of the most celebrated Japanese ink painters of all time, depicting “peoples of various countries” 国々人物図巻 and including beautiful and detailed depictions of Qing/Chinese individuals of a great many ranks or social positions, from King to monk to peasant.

Entrance to the “Cultural Exchange” permanent exhibits gallery at the Kyushu National Museum.

Sadly, the organization and design of the exhibition overall was quite the disappointment as well. I had heard wonderful things, that it was going to be so innovative. But unfortunately it feels little different from any “international contacts” and “cultural exchange” section of any other museum, just expanded somewhat.

The exhibits are organized only very roughly into any semblance of chronological order or by geographical or cultural logic. There is not much of a coordinated narrative, but rather just a splash of many different examples of exchanged. A few items related to red seal ships and Vietnam, a few related to the Sô/Tsushima and Korea, a model of a Chinese temple in Nagasaki. But no discussion of Korean or Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, or of Dejima or the Nagasaki Chinatown. At least not in as clear and explicit a way as in the British Museum, for example. And no sense of the overall history of interactions between Japan and any one other culture or country. Things aren’t really placed in a context. We get some Ryukyuan ceramics but no discussion of the embassies. Some items related to interactions with Vietnam, but no models or paintings of the red seal trading ships that constituted one of the central forms of interactions in the 16th-17th centuries, and no discussion of Ayutthaya or anywhere else in SE Asia at that particular time.

Overall, the entire thing is very scattered, very bara bara as they say in Japanese. Outside of large numbers 1,2,3,4, on the walls, there’s no real structure guiding you through the galleries – it’s all open plan and you’re left to wander around in no particular order, and thus within no particular structure of narrative order or context.

As cool as it is to have so many SE Asian artifacts on display, it doesn’t feel so revolutionary so much as it just feels like the Asia galleries of the Tokyo National Museum.

In some sections, objects from all over Asia are displayed together, with no context or framing device at all. In one room, they have a Gandhara Buddha, a Buddha head from Afghanistan, Goryeo & Sui Buddhas from Tsushima (very cool examples of very early cultural interaction), and a large bronze Bishamonten that’s apparently the only surviving bronze of its kind by the Ashiya 芦屋 foundry. But no labels saying “Buddhism appears differently around the world,” or “each culture’s Buddhist sculpture was influenced by others, including from as far away as Afghanistan.”. Nor anything about the history of Chinese and Korean Buddhist sculptures entering Japan.

I can see why they didn’t have a catalog of their regular exhibit, but only catalogs of “treasures of the collection”: because there is no real logic, no real narrative.

Portraits of the Kuroda lords and other artworks, at the Fukuoka City Museum.

By contrast, the Fukuoka City Museum was excellent. They allowed photos throughout most of the exhibits, if I’m remembering correctly, had lots of fantastic stuff on display, and followed a clear and structured chronological narrative.

Easily one of the most famous objects in the Fukuoka City Museum collection is a golden seal from the year 57 CE. The oldest object with writing on it ever found in Japan, it was a formal royal seal granted by the Emperor of the Han Dynasty to the ruler of a small kingdom called Na, based at that time somewhere in the general vicinity of what is today the city of Fukuoka. Who knows what happened to the seal for 1700 years, but sometime in the 1700s, a farmer found it (!?!?) on a tiny little island just off in the bay, near the castle-town of Fukuoka. In the museum today, the tiny seal, only about one or two inches square, is dramatically displayed in its own small room. Immediately afterwards are displays including 18th-19th century manuscripts writing about this discovery.

From there, the museum goes on to tell a thorough but not too overly-detailed narrative of the history of the area, in a very well-organized and engaging way, with lots of wonderful objects on display and good thematic divisions, gallery labels, etc.

They allowed photos of much of the exhibits but not everything, and for whatever reason I never really wrote down any notes while I was there. So I have nothing too deep to say, except that it seems a very well-done museum. I really love local history museums like this one, where they have a really grand worthwhile story to tell – the history of one of Japan’s greatest and most intercultural port cities throughout the pre-modern period, the home of a most ancient kingdom, and later of various palaces and castles of great historical significance, including becoming home in the 17th-19th century of the Kuroda clan, one of the great samurai families, who left behind tons of great treasures. We don’t learn nearly enough about any of this in, say, the National Museum of Japanese History or the Tokyo National Museum, let alone in our survey histories (or even our much more in-depth seminars or the like), and so it’s wonderful that here it is, a museum telling this story.

The Asian Art Museum, Fukuoka, was another exciting stop. I had never actually heard of this museum before, but as it turned out it was just down the street from the place I was staying at.*

Once I learned that there was an “Asian Art Museum” specializing in modern art from across Asia, I got excited that it might be some Nihonga, Yôga, Guohua, and the equivalents across the region. Maybe it’s just purely because I had an MA advisor who specializes in such things, but I’ve really grown quite interested in that period towards the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th when Japan, China, and I presume Okinawa, Korea, and elsewhere as well, began engaging with “modernity” in art, wrestling with whether to make their own traditional modes of art “modern” in some way, either making them into “national arts” or “national traditions,” or ditching them in favor of Western styles and modes of art (which were seen at the time as obviously more “modern”) and adopting that as the new national art. And all at right around the same time as much of Europe was in fact leaving behind such expert masterful realism in favor of various modes of “modernism”, beginning with Impressionism.

In any case, there was not to be found any such discussion or display of issues of modernity or modernism at this museum. Here, “modern” really means “contemporary,” as in contemporary art of the last decade or two or three, meaning a very different set of types or styles of artwork than Nihonga or Yôga. Which isn’t a problem – it was still very cool.

Still from Yamashiro Chikako’s video piece, “Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat” (2009).

In fact, to my surprise, the very first work in the gallery was by an Okinawan artist. Yamashiro Chikako (b. 1976) is an Okinawan video artist. In her 2009 piece 「あなたの声私の喉を通った」(“Your Voice Came Out Through My Throat”) – I’m sorry I haven’t been able to find the video online – a survivor of the Battle of Okinawa tells of his experience, and his voice is heard even as we watch Yamashiro’s face, mouthing (seemingly speaking) the words. Complete with her tears and facial expressions. At one point, she stops talking and just cries, losing her composure at the thought of these horrors, as the voice continues describing them.

I really appreciated the way that Yamashiro’s work was displayed. I had been in Okinawa just a few days earlier, and I really felt – really got the feeling – that this is pretty much just how it would have been shown in Okinawa too. Catalogs for key recent exhibits of Okinawan contemporary art, including Okinawa Prismed and Okinawa Bunka no Kiseki, were placed for visitors to read, alongside catalogs specifically about Okinawan women artists. Yamashiro’s work was displayed very straightforwardly, without exoticization, I felt.

And the Asian Art Museum allowed photos! Very surprising for a modern art museum, and especially for one in Japan. Truly, a most welcome thing.

Modern art from across Asia is shown, not country by country, but by periods and themes. I was a bit disappointed to not see more Nihonga and Yoga, but the great range of stuff from across Asia is pretty great in a different way.

Still lots to see in Fukuoka, though. I’ve got to go back sometime.


*Incidentally, a nice place worth staying at. Sadly, I didn’t remember to get photos of this place, or to take good notes either. But from what I can remember it was extremely clean – that white, bright, new aesthetic that I just don’t understand why the business hotels with all their brown don’t aim for. I had a small room all to myself – bunk beds, if I remember correctly, but I guess you can book the room rather than only booking by the bed. Small but perfectly clean, good showers/bathrooms down the hall. The whole place had a slightly funny nautical theme, like you’re staying in a modified spaceship or cruise ship or something. I dunno. But in any case, they also had a nice sunny common room on the top floor. I’m not super into socializing with other hostel-stayers; I’m a bit too old for that partying backpackers sort of vibe. Or maybe I’m not too old and it was just never my thing to begin with. But, free wifi, plenty of tables, a nice big kitchen up there. And just a good, bright, clean, aesthetic. Not gloomy or claustrophobic like the business hotels. Plus, WeBase Hakata is pretty conveniently located – only a couple blocks from the subway, the Asian Art Museum, and a major theatre venue.

All photos my own.

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In a blog post almost exactly three years ago, I summarized an April 2013 news article that indicated that a document had been discovered which was now the oldest known extant communication between Vietnam and Japan – dated to 1591, it beat the previously oldest known document, from 1601, by ten years. I mentioned in that same blog post that the newfound document would be included in an exhibition being held that summer at the Kyushu National Museum.

Well, I’ve now obtained a copy of the catalog to that exhibit (just from the library – not for me to own, sadly), and it is *gorgeous*. Lots of fantastic stuff – paintings of red seal ships, red seal licenses, objects from the collections of red seal captains, Vietnamese royal crowns, this 1591 letter, other letters exchanged between Vietnam and Japan at that time, not to mention some very nice essays about a range of aspects of Vietnamese history. I was particularly excited to finally learn more about that 1591 document. I know it’s a super obscure one thing, but I think this letter is pretty exciting. And, hopefully, Hideyoshi fans will find it exciting as well.

Scanned from the Kyûhaku catalog.

Here is my rough translation of the catalog entry for the 1591 letter, with my own comments interspersed:

This is the oldest [extant] letter from Vietnam to Japan. It is addressed to “the King of Japan” 日本国国王, from 安南国副都堂福義侯阮, (a lengthy title that I don’t fully know / understand, but) which probably refers to Nguyen Hoang (d. 1613), who would later become lord of Quang Nam / Cochinchina, the southern/central part of Vietnam, and who would also initiate relations with Tokugawa Ieyasu in a 1601 letter previously believed to be the oldest such communication, before this one was discovered in 2013.

The content is, roughly, as follows: the previous year, someone named Chen Liangshan 陳梁山 came, and because I [he?] had heard that the King of Japan liked male elephants, I entrusted him with one. The ship was small, and he [we?] couldn’t get the elephant onto the ship, so we sent [instead] favored incense and the like. The following year, someone named Long Yan 隆厳 came to this country, and said that he had not yet seen Chen Liangshan or the goods, and so we gave him those goods over again. Since the King likes strange things from this country, I have sent Long Yan with swords and helmets and armor, that he should buy strange things, and then to establish back-and-forth exchange of communications 往来交信 [i.e. relations] between the two countries, I am sending this letter.
At that time (in 1591) in Vietnam, the Mac 莫 clan and the Le 黎 clan were vying for power. The Mac would lose Hanoi the following year (in 1592), and with northern Vietnam embroiled in war, Nguyen Hoang would make his base at Hue, to the south. This letter is addressed from a “Lord Nguyen” 侯阮, so it’s presumably from Nguyen Hoang, or someone closely associated with him.

The earliest communication from Vietnam to Japan recorded in the Tsūkō Ichiran 通行一覧 and the Gaiban tsūsho 外蕃通書 by Kondō Jūzō 近藤重蔵 (1771-1829) is in both texts a letter from Nguyen Hoang to “the king of Japan” (i.e. Tokugawa Ieyasu) in 1601. However, the Gaiban tsūsho also records that that 1601 letter included references to earlier communication, and the Tsūkō ichiran indicates that the first “Vietnam ship” to enter port did so in 1595. (The term I’m translating here as Vietnam ship is 交趾船, with 交趾 (V: Giao Chỉ, C: Jiāozhǐ, J: Kōshi) being the term that gave birth to the European term “Cochinchina.” I am unclear whether “Vietnam ship” here refers to a Japanese ship designated for Vietnam, which I do think is a possible interpretation of this term, or more straightforwardly a Vietnamese ship, in which case the port would be a Japanese one.)

In any case, returning to the 1591 letter, for the addressee “king of Japan,” Toyotomi Hideyoshi would seem the obvious guess. Hideyoshi would establish the red seal ships (shuinsen) system the following year, in 1592. However, there does not seem to be any evidence that either Chen Liangshan or Long Yan ever arrived in Japan bringing Vietnamese goods, and it seems they may have been false envoys who were not of Hideyoshi’s concern/business 関知しなかった偽使 .

Still, comparison of the dates – that Japan had an intercalary First Month 閏正月 and that Vietnam had an intercalary Third Month that year – would seem to suggest the genuineness of this document.

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The Asahi Shimbun reports today that a document has been discovered, sent from Annam (Vietnam), and addressed to Toyotomi Hideyoshi using the title “King of Japan” (日本国王). The announcement comes from the Kyushu National Museum. Up until now, the oldest known extant document related to Japan-Vietnam relations was believed to be one from 1601, received by Tokugawa Ieyasu, and visible today at the National Archives of Japan Digital Archive – a document which, incidentally, I once wrote a paper on.

The Tokugawa-era document comes from Nguyen Hoang, lord of southern-central Vietnam1, who writes to Ieyasu reporting that he has captured the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who had terrorized the Vietnamese coast sixteen years earlier. Nguyen uses this occasion as a pretext for extending offers of good will, and requests for a continuation of good relations. Ieyasu’s response, which I have never seen as an image of an original document, but have only read descriptions of, describes the shuinjô (“red seals”) system, explaining that any Japanese seamen who do not carry licenses with the shogunate’s red seal can be apprehended as smugglers or pirates, but that those who do carry such licenses are licensed “above-board” merchants, authorized by the shogunate. Thus was the earliest known extant document recording, marking, the establishment or continuation of Japanese-Vietnamese relations – that is, until now.

The 1601 letter from Nguyen Hoang to Tokugawa Ieyasu, from the Gaiban Shokan.

The newly discovered Hideyoshi-era document is on display at the Kyushu National Museum in Dazaifu (Fukuoka prefecture) as part of a Vietnam exhibition which opened April 16.

In this document, a Lord Nguyen (presumably the same Nguyen Hoang, r. 1558-1613) writes, in Classical Chinese of course, something to the effect of “I offer gifts, and would like to bind us in friendly relations.” The document is dated with a Vietnamese reign era which corresponds with 1591 on the Western calendar, and is explicitly marked 「日本国・国王」 (“Country of Japan, King”). It seems to have been brought to Japan by a Japanese merchant, many of whom were actively engaged in maritime trade in Southeast Asia at the time. The primary figure active in Japan at that time for whom the title “King of Japan” would correspond would have been Toyotomi Hideyoshi; however, whether the Vietnamese were aware of Hideyoshi, or knew specifically who they were writing to, is unclear.

1) Generally known as Quang Nam 広南 or Cochinchina, in contrast to Tonking 東京 to the north, ruled by the Trinh family, and Champa, the territory of the Cham people to the south.

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When I was interning at the art museum, there was an area on the book cart in the library section of the office, for books and magazines the museum didn’t want. Free to take. Most of them were things I had no interest in, but every now and then I’d take a few things home. Sometimes I didn’t even appreciate what it was, as my Japanese language skills were far poorer back then, but I looked at the pretty pictures and decided it was something that might be worth keeping.

Now that I am home from Japan and reorganizing my room, I’ve come across those things again. One in particular caught my eye -a magazine called “Asiage”, published by the Kyushu National Museum, which I am just a tad obsessed with. I was quite disappointed to not get to see the Museum when I went to Fukuoka/Dazaifu last month, and I really hope I get to go again soon.

Looking at the other issues, located on the museum’s website in PDF format for free, these seem to be very short (4 page) museum newsletters about which events and exhibits are going on each season. If only I were in Fukuoka… Still, they’re quite colorful, and there may be good tidbits in there.

In any case, this 120 page volume I have, was published right around when the museum first opened. Not quite a “number zero issue”, it seems to be a stand-alone publication. It is subtitled 「海の道、アジアの路」 (translated by the museum as “Ocean Ways, Asian Paths”), which is also the guiding theme of the museum’s main exhibition halls. From what I hear, rather than having separate galleries for Japanese, Chinese, and Korean art/history as many museums do, the Kyushu Museum focuses on cultural exchanges, and mixes Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, Southeast Asian, Okinawan, Dutch, and Portuguese material together in the galleries in order to illustrate this colorful and exciting aspect of history.

This ‘mook’, as the Japanese might call it, the publication being not quite a “magazine” nor a “book”, includes lots of interesting looking articles, focusing on a number of related themes. Various aspects of Japanese and Asian history as viewed from the perspective of the sea. International trade and cultural exchange. Countering the ‘sakoku’ idea that Japan was closed to the world, and detailing the exchanges that occurred during that period through Matsumae (Hokkaido), Tsushima, Nagasaki, and Satsuma/Ryukyu, trading with the Ainu, Korea, China and the Dutch East India Company, and China respectively. Articles focusing on Kyushu’s Jomon period heritage. On Okinawa. On Kyushu as Japan’s gateway on the world. And all accompanied by beautiful images in brilliant color.

I wish I could share the whole book with you. I feel weird talking about something and then saying “if you really want to know what I’m talking about, you have to buy the book.”

What really amuses me about this is that in the years since leaving the art museum, I have become extremely interested in all of these things. In Kyushu’s history and its role/identity as an international gateway. In the Kyushu National Museum. In Japan’s pre-modern and early modern international trade. In maritime history. In Okinawa. To have happened upon such a wonderful publication before ever knowing that this was going to become such a passion, without having been able to read much of the contents, and without ever having looked at it in the interim… How lucky!

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