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Posts Tagged ‘Meiji period’

I drafted this post months ago, and kept coming back to it, to revise bit by bit, worrying over the content, worrying over the precise phrasing of how I address this rather sensitive and political subject… It’s amazing how difficult it can be to discuss these sorts of things sometimes, these days.

Interior of the gallery. Photo from Tabisuke travel site.

The Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is a really interesting place. Built in 1926, the museum is a monument to the greatness of Emperor Meiji (r. 1868-1912) and the Japanese Empire. It is also a fascinating artifact of its time, though I wonder if the staff / curators / directors see it that way. I am told that the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium is in the midst of a very self-conscious, self-critical renovation which will transform it into precisely that sort of thing: a museum of the museum, a museum that tells the history of how museums were involved in colonialism, imperialism, promoting racist narratives, etc. The Belgian case is a really fascinating one, and there are a number of books and “essays out there on the subject. It would be amazing if the people running the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery had a similar attitude and approach, but (while I admit I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge at all) I suspect they do not.

The building housing the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery (or Seitoku kinen kaigakan, 聖徳記念絵画館) was completed in 1926, and boy does it look like it. Super big, heavy, tall, imposing, Fascist* architecture in hideous concrete on the outside. Lovely impressive deep woods and elaborate paneling and all of that (lovely and impressive, but also very 1920s-30s modernist ultranationalism/fascism, of course) on the inside. The gallery consists of two wings, one of Nihonga paintings (works in traditional Japanese materials and methods) and one of Yôga (lit. “Western pictures”), i.e. oil paintings. In each wing, massive paintings are installed into the walls, and are arranged in a chronological order, telling the history of the Meiji period (from 1868 to 1912).

“The Restoration of Imperial Rule” 大政奉還, by Nihonga painter Murata Tanryô 邨田丹陵. Depicts the last shogun in the main audience hall at Nijô castle in Kyoto, formally declaring the end of the shogunate in 1868. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The paintings themselves are stunning. Nearly all are super clean, in excellent condition, and many are bright, in bold colors. It’s a real shame they’re holed up in this one gallery, where (of course) no photos are allowed, and where I can only presume they never go out on loan. By which I mean to say, yes, the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery is open to the public, centrally located, and doesn’t cost very much to get in, but at the same time, I’ve visited the Tokyo National Museum and numerous other museums in Tokyo and across Japan, I’ve been to the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, and LACMA and the Honolulu Museum of Art dozens of times, and I never saw any of these paintings ever before, always seeing them only here and there online, or in Japanese textbooks, and wondered where they actually were held, and displayed… Maybe that’s a dumb comment/complaint to make.

But, in any case, I do sorely wish that I could have taken photos. Not only are the paintings themselves truly incredible works of art – and excellent images of specific historical occasions, which would serve really well on a blog like this one, or on a Wiki of Japanese Historybut the gallery itself, the way it’s furnished and arranged and decorated, is really something. Each work is accompanied by a big, heavy, wooden plaque which describes the painting in both English and Japanese, featuring too a sketch of the work that labels (identifies) each historical figure depicted. These plaques are – as I said – artifacts in and of themselves. Though I was told they date to the original 1926 opening of the building, many of the paintings date to the 1930s, so clearly the plaques describing those paintings can’t be older than the 1930s themselves – but, I don’t think they’re much newer than that. I do strongly believe these plaques do date to the 1930s, given the style of their make, the spellings of the romanization (e.g. Uweno and Inouye instead of Ueno and Inoue), and their content. They are valuable artifacts of the history of museums, and the history of Japanese nationalism, for sure, but also simply artifacts of craftsmanship, of handwriting, and so forth. Artifacts of how signs and plaques were made at that time. And they have not only a seriousness and a heft, but also a refined, high-culture sort of quality to them, an air of the post-Victorian or the faux-Victorian, that a great many museums have today done away with (arguably, for very good reason). Each piece is also accompanied by one or two more much newer, postwar (1990s? 2000s?) labels, thin things printed out and stuck on the glass, much more like you’d see at most other museums.

(We should be careful with using the word “modern” here. Though the term is very often, commonly, used to refer to “today,” in a very important sense, considering the history of notions of “modernism” and “modernity,” this museum embodies early to mid-20th century notions of “modernity” far more so than our lives today, in certain important respects. The whole ultra-nationalist, Fascist, thing that this museum was born out of, the early 20th century development of the museum itself as an institution, the somewhat industrial aura of the whole thing even as it’s done in deep woods and soft cloth curtains, all of that is much more closely tied into Modernism – the late 19th to early 20th century Modernism; *the* Modernism – than what we see as contemporary and up-to-date today.)

One of the big heavy wooden plaques, visible in the bottom right corner here. This is what happens when you don’t allow photos in your museum; people are forced to make do with whatever few photos happen to end up on the internet anyway – we’re forced to make do with crap, and to skirt a grey area in intellectual property rights; instead of simply using my own photos, I have to worry about being unethical or something for using others’.

I went online after I got home from the Gallery, and ordered a few different catalogs for the Gallery (several versions are quite cheaply available online, used). Sadly, none of them contain photos of the original plaques. While it is certainly interesting to have transcriptions of that text, so we can consider just how they phrase things, aesthetically, in terms of style and design, it would have been wonderful to have photos of those objects. Oh well.

It was interesting to see the range of artists included in the Gallery. Some, like Dômoto Inshô and Maeda Seison, are big names in the genre of Nihonga, and you’ll find works by them in just about any major art museum that has a Nihonga collection. But many of the others are names I wasn’t familiar with. Maybe they, too, are generally prominent figures in art history and it’s just me personally who hasn’t happened to come across them before. But I would be curious what stories there might be, to how certain artists’ relationships with the Imperial Court started or developed. Were any of these artists especially interconnected with the Court? I didn’t have the time or energy to read through all the labels at the time, so I only skimmed over most of them, to be honest, but I did gather that many of these paintings were painted in separate contexts, and were only later donated to the Meiji Gallery. So, maybe there is no story to be had there. But, I’d be curious. We’ll see what we learn whenever I finally get around to reading those catalogs.

I found it interesting, too, as I always do, to see the range of styles displayed. Many of the works struck my eye immediately as the mainstream, standard mode of Nihonga: a very clean aesthetic, with bright bold colors, relatively little shading or rounding of the figures, less detail, and some large fields of just sold color (or white or gold). But then, others, though also painted in the Nihonga manner – traditional methods and media – were darker, more finely detailed, with more shading and naturalistic rounding of the figures, a more naturalistic attention paid to perspective, things like this. Kondô Shôsen’s painting of the 1877 Siege of Kumamoto Castle is certainly smooth and flat – you won’t mistake this for an oil painting, with a surface like a rough sea – but it’s browns and greys and blacks, and just generally rough and gritty in its aesthetic. It is a battle after all. But, still, it’s a choice – Maeda Seison’s paintings of battles don’t look like this; they are all clean and bright colors.

But, let us finally get to the meat of the matter. If this whole gallery was built and arranged in the late 1920s, and the labels even date back to that time, what sort of historical narrative are they telling? What kind of horrors will we find?

I should hope that anyone reading this would give me the benefit of the doubt – and would then also go back to my posts about the Okinawa Peace Memorial Museum, and on numerous other topics – and understand that I am in no way an apologist, or a fan or supporter of Japanese imperialism / colonialism / ultranationalism. Not hardly. Not at all. And yet, as much as I have studied issues of Orientalism, imperialism/colonialism, and the history of museums, and would like to believe that I am quite conversant in many of the key issues at play here, nationalism in and of itself remains, for me, a little hard to pin down. This is not the Yûshûkan (the museum at Yasukuni Shrine which presents an infamously ultra-rightwing version of the events of World War II). The history being told here doesn’t cover the 1930s or ’40s at all (let alone from a right-wing or apologist perspective); after all, how could it if the paintings and the labels come from prior to that time? What the museum does cover is the period from 1868 to 1912, and specifically the events overseen and participated in by Emperor Meiji. This was a time of great modernization, industrialization, Westernization, and while all of this most certainly has its dark sides as well, what are we actually expecting from such a museum? What do we, as historians, desire or wish to see from such a museum? What forms of nationalism are good, or even just okay, and what forms are not? Is there a place in society for a museum dedicated to an individual like this, and to the sort of narrative it tells?

I’m not sure I could have possibly expected a museum founded by the Imperial government, and administered today by Meiji Shrine, to take a critical view. I’m not sure whether we should – given the obligations the Imperial Household Agency has to maintaining the prestige and reputation of the Imperial line, and so forth. If you’re looking for the progressive, critical, view, The National Museum of Japanese History (aka Rekihaku, out in Sakura, Chiba) does a rather good job of that, I believe, and I would encourage anyone to go visit that institution. But – and I mean this as a genuine rhetorical question, not as a political statement – What is the line between nationalism and ultranationalism?

As historians, and simply as individual people trying to find some solid ground to stand on, and trying to make a life for ourselves in the world, how are we to understand these things? Surely it’s not the case that all nationalism is bad, so how do we know where to draw the line? How can we decide for ourselves, each of us individually, but also to decide in terms of our institutions – to decide how to shape or critique our government, our schools, our museums?

Oil painting by Kita Renzô, depicting the Emperor’s 1883 visit to government minister Iwakura Tomomi, then on his deathbed.

The museum credits the Emperor, in certain ways, with all this modernization and nation-building and everything, as if he did it single-handedly, or something. But, it also acknowledges the top government leaders, the various national “heroes” of the Meiji story. For the most part, the narrative is one of education, of modernization, progress, nation-building. It’s one of technology, medicine, civilization.

But, of course, we are not surprised to find there are also elements in this Meiji Memorial museum that are positively, unquestionably, egregious and indefensible. As you would expect, there are a number of horrifically troubling choices of phrase, and a lot of painfully obvious omissions. I must admit, I have not read through all the gallery labels, especially not the Japanese-language versions of the labels, and I really need to some day, so my genuine and sincere apologies for anything I have missed. But, from what I did see, the museum does talk about the “pacification” of Taiwan, and the “bravery” of soldiers who died in service to the [imperialist, colonialist, militarist] country. And some of this is even on the more recent, more contemporary labels, I’m afraid. A plaque describing the end or aftermath of the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War tells us that “Russians received considerate treatment,” a very standard element of Japanese propaganda at the time, presenting Japan to the world as modern, as cultured and civilized. Perhaps the worst that I noticed was a plaque with the facepalm-(or just full-on losing it, shouting, and cursing)-inspiring title “The people of Japan and Korea are brought together.” Are you fucking kidding me? Oy gevalt. It then goes on to say that

“following the Russo-Japanese War, the Japanese government stationed a Resident-General of Korea in Seoul to maintain peace in the country. This proved inadequate and in 1910 it was decided that Korea should be incorporated into the Empire of Japan.”

This kind of language is horrific. This last statement in particular has absolutely no place in a 21st century museum, except as an artifact of the past, and I was horrified to see it simply said that way, so explicitly, as if this were historical truth (as viewed, or promoted, in the 1930s). I do sorely wish the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery would do like the Belgium museum, and take efforts to more explicitly “frame” these old plaques (rhetorically speaking) as artifacts of their time, as indicative of attitudes of that time, and not as ideas or views still accepted as “objective” historical “truth.” This last statement, about Korea, really makes my blood boil, and as soon as I saw it, I very nearly simply tore the rest of these pages out of my notebook to throw them in the trash. There is no excusing, no justifying, a museum for advancing that narrative – there is no proper way of arguing that the museum, as a whole, can be in any way “balanced” or okay, so long as such statements remain.

But, I hope you won’t mind if I forge ahead anyway – not by way of defending or excusing the museum, but rather by way of exploring out this issue of nationalism and national narratives. I am not at all surprised that this gallery should be as it is. In fact, I’m surprised that it’s not more explicitly, egregiously, racist and ultranationalist and so forth. To be honest, before I saw this stuff about Taiwan and Korea – and, again, keeping in mind that I wasn’t reading most of the labels all that carefully, but only skimming – I actually started writing a write-up about how surprisingly tame the whole thing was. Sure, it presents all of these historical figures, the Emperor especially, as upright and patriotic, and having done all these great things, but none of it (yet) struck me as so grossly, frighteningly, ultra-nationalist. It’s patriotic in a more subdued, everyday sort of way. This isn’t Mao or Hitler or Stalin or Kim Il-Sung the god-king. There was no discussion of Ôkubo Toshimichi or Inoue Kaoru or even the Meiji Emperor himself as being superhuman. None were presented as paragons of bravery, intelligence, or strength. The closest the Gallery comes to lionizing anyone is only in mentions of loyalty or patriotism, e.g. in the plaques accompanying a painting of the Emperor paying a visit to the dying statesman Iwakura Tomomi, who along with his wife bow reverently to the Emperor, doing their best to be properly reverent and respectful despite the disheveled state of their clothing.

As we would expect, the museum celebrates the promulgation of the Constitution, and the implementation of nationwide public education, without discussing the problems with those developments (e.g. the nationalistic content of the national curriculum, the violence visited upon regional and indigenous cultures by forced assimilation, the inequalities and lack of certain protections perpetuated by the Meiji Constitution).

But, while a narrative of civilization and progress is certainly implied throughout the museum’s narrative, I think it worth noting that it’s not grossly explicit about calling the previous eras “barbaric” or “backwards,” or talking about the Meiji Emperor “gloriously leading our nation into a new era of wonderful and brilliant greatness,” or anything like that. To give one example, in the Gallery’s “Official Guide” (オフィシャルガイド), though I don’t know whether this matches the labels in the actual gallery, it describes a painting of the last shogun abdicating his power simply as follows:

“The 15th shogun Tokugawa Keiki, who sits in the rear [of the room] in the center, is depicted before the retainers of the shogunate, expressing his decision to return power/authority to the Imperial Court. The place is Nijô Castle in Kyoto. Thus fell the 265-year rule of the Tokugawa shogunate.”

This is quite typical of the kind of language we see on many of the labels. Just sort of straightforward, blah, and to the point. Yes, it leaves out any criticism or dark sides, but it also doesn’t lavish excessive praise.

There is absolutely plenty of room for criticism of this gallery, and most especially when it comes to the way Korea and Taiwan are discussed (holy fuck). But, really, it sort of leaves me feeling I don’t know what to say. On the one hand, I’m not surprised, given the circumstances of the museum’s founding, its continued control by Meiji Shrine, its character as a Memorial museum to the Meiji Emperor and not as a “history museum” per se, and most especially the fairly right-wing views of the current administration and of a significant portion of the Japanese population at large (and the conservative or middle-of-the-road, certainly not-all-that-progressive-at-all views of pretty much every Japanese government for the last 70 years). But while it’s understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Especially not those comments about Korea. … I do sorely wish the whole museum might be redone as a “museum of the museum,” with labels distancing the museum in the present from the way things were presented in the past, and discussing the rhetoric and attitudes of that time, etc. … But, absent that happening, and outside of these egregious comments about Korea and Taiwan, I’m not 100% sure, actually, where to draw the line on all the rest of it. We in the US certainly aren’t above, or beyond, such kinds of debates. Sites like the Smithsonian American History Museum, and Pearl Harbor, remain at the center of periodic controversies over whether to tell a narrative that’s more purely nationalistic (and less critical), or whether to tell a more critical narrative that many see as horribly revisionist and as going too far. I’m not saying I agree with the latter group, but I am saying, how critical should we be?

If we were to “fix” this museum, what would we change, and how would we change it? While the horrifically offensive, imperialistic/colonialistic words regarding Korea and Taiwan are obvious places that need wholesale revision, what about everything else? What forms and types and expressions of nationalism are okay, and what are not? As historians, as teachers, as writers, as museum exhibit curators, what should we see as appropriate and inappropriate?

To what level should we crank the meter towards the “progressive,” and does every museum have to crank it to the same level? Is there any place at all for some slightly cleaner version of a conservative, relatively uncritical, flag-waving but not unabashedly sabre-rattling or heart-stirring, national(istic) narrative to still exist in some form in our societies, in our hearts & minds, in our education system, in our museums? Or not? And if not, where exactly is that line? As professional historians, as informed students of history, what exactly is the type of national(istic) history that we should, objectively or collectively, know to understand is okay, appropriate, and which types or forms or pieces of expression, rhetoric, or narrative, cross that line? I don’t “like” the Meiji Memorial Gallery – other than as a collection of aesthetically stunning and historically significant artworks, an artifact of its time, and a wonderfully thought-provoking experience – and I don’t support the Gallery’s narrative or its politics, but… as a person, as an individual in this society, it raises questions that I really don’t feel I have the answer to. And yet, there is this unspoken pressure that – as a historian, as a teacher, as an expert, all the more so than simply as a regular member of the public – I ought to know the answers, and that I had better figure it out quick, before my lack of more fully expert opinion on this matter costs me my academic career.

*I am well aware of the extensive debates as to whether totalitarian, authoritarian, ultra-nationalist Japan in the 1920s-40s was in fact “fascist” by comparison to either the Italian or German standards. And, I think there’s a lot of merit to the “‘fascist’ isn’t a particularly accurate or helpful label” argument – especially if we take Mussolini’s particular form of fascism as *the* model against which to judge. But, since I can’t say “Shôwa” style (the Showa period went all the way until 1989, and “Showa style” is more often used to refer to the aesthetics of the postwar era), and since I find “totalitarian,” “authoritarian,” and so forth too un-specific for referring to the particular case of 1920s-40s Japan, I’m going with “fascist.”

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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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Banner at Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima, summer 2014, advertising the campaign to get these sites named World Heritage Sites.

Well, after considerable controversy and opposition, Japan’s proposal for a whole series of sites in Kyushu and Yamaguchi prefecture to be named UNESCO World Heritage Sites has been approved. Congratulations to those municipalities, prefectures, and individual sites, and my condolences on the loss of Nadeshiko Japan in the women’s World Cup soccer match thing. I was rooting for you as soon as I found out you made it into the finals, which was about an hour before the game ended.

Frankly, I think this is one of Japan’s better World Heritage proposals. I think at one point they were trying to get “Warrior City” Kamakura named to the list – sorry, but while Kamakura may be really significant to Japanese history, I’m not sure there’s any call for it to be called “World Heritage.”1 By contrast, these Meiji period sites are perhaps among the greatest candidates in Japan for “World Heritage” significance – they represent the sites at the core of Japan’s modernization, industrialization, and Westernization at the end of the 19th century. Japan was the very first non-Western country to Westernize (for certain definitions of “Western”), and did so at a supremely impressive pace and degree of success.

The controversy, of course, is that Meiji industrialization is directly tied to Meiji imperialism, and to Shôwa militarism and imperialism. Many of the late 19th century sites on the list are exactly the same sites which in the 20th century were major centers of Japan’s war engine, some of them operated in part by forced labor of abducted Koreans. Japan’s wartime history is not something to be celebrated (though, worryingly, I think a lot of people in the Japanese government think otherwise), and least of all Japan’s exploitation of others, e.g. through forced labor. In the end, a compromise was reached, the terms of which were seemingly that Japan got to have its Meiji sites so long as a whole bunch of Korean sites got named World Heritage Sites as well, and so long as the plaques and other information associated with the Japanese historical sites make clear the negative things that happened there. I’m certainly not going to argue that these Korean sites aren’t worthy – Paekche was of great historical significance for Korea and for Japan, and these ancient sites look absolutely stunning in the photos; congrats to them on receiving some extra attention, and extra provisions for their protection. I hope to visit them someday. But, the politics are all too plain. The jostling between countries to have the most World Heritage Sites continues.

The Shôkoshûseikan in Kagoshima. One of Japan’s first ever industrial factories, and today a museum of Satsuma history.

From what little I know of the controversy, I don’t understand why Japan didn’t simply focus on a smaller number of sites that were more prominently or more exclusively associated with Bakumatsu/Meiji, and not with 20th century developments. The Shimazu villa compound at Iso, for example, was home to the first hydroelectric dam in Japan, the first steamship (built based on Western books, with no Western experts present in person), the first gaslamps, and so forth, and is closely associated with the first modern cotton mill in Japan, the Shûseikan – Japan’s first modern factory, complete with reverberating furnaces, blast furnaces, a smithy, a foundry, and a glass workshop.

But, instead, they decided to include, and to continue to insist upon, controversial sites like the coal mines at Gunkanjima (Hashima Island, Nagasaki), which were run in large part, in the early 20th century, by Korean and Chinese forced labor workers taken from Japan’s colonies / conquered territories, all of them working for Mitsubishi, one of the most major corporations at the time producing war materiel. What kind of politics was involved that this site had to remain on the list and be fought for, rather than just being dropped? Was it just stubbornness against backing down to Korean complaints? Was it pressure from local Nagasaki government? Was it the political influence of Mitsubishi? Whatever the case, it seems clear that politics, once again, comes before any semblance of an effort at objective choice of sites based on the expertise of historians & art historians.

The Iso ijinkan, or Foreign Engineers’ Residence at Iso, in Kagoshima.

Well, whatever. While the news and even the UNESCO webpage itself continue to only give vague and confusing information, are we not surprised that Wikipedia already has its shit together, just one day after the announcement. Ladies, gentlemen, and those who identify otherwise, here are your new Japanese World Heritage Sites:

In Hagi (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*The Hagi Reverberatory Furnace
*The Ebisu-ga-hana Shipyard
*Ôitayama tatara iron smelting works
*Shôkason-juku Academy (run by Yoshida Shôin)
*Hagi castle town (pretty cool; glad they snuck that in there, though it’s clearly more about being a castletown than about the industrialization period)

In Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi prefecture):
*Mutsurejima lighthouse
*Maeda Battery (assoc. with the 1863-1864 Shimonoseki War against ships from France, England, US, and Netherlands)

In Kagoshima:
*The Shûseikan and surrounding areas, including:
**Shûseikan Machine Factory (erected 1865, long before anything with forced labor)
**The Iso Ijinkan (Foreign Engineers’ Residence, 1867-1869)
**Gion-no-su Battery (coastal defense batteries used to fight off the British in 1863)
**Sekiyoshi Sluice Gate of Yoshino Leat
**Charcoal Kiln
**Reverberatory Furnace at Iso

In Saga:
*The Mietsu naval facility

In Kamaishi (Iwate prefecture, all the way up north):
*Hashino iron mining and smelting site

In Nagasaki:
*Kosuge ship repair dock
*Hokkei well shaft & Takashima coal mine
*Hashima coal mine (Gunkanjima)
*The former house of Scottish merchant & modernization advisor Thomas Blake Glover, oldest Western-style house in Japan
*Mitsubishi’s Nagasaki shipyard

In Fukuoka Prefecture:
*Miyanohara Pit & Miike Coal Mine (largest coal mine in Japan since early 18th c.)
*Miike coal mine associated port and railway
*Misumi West Port
*Yawata steel works in Kitakyushu
*Onga River pumping station

I’m certainly more eager to visit some of these sites than others. I’m much more into arts & culture side of things – e.g. the Hagi castle town, and Glover’s Western-style house – than the ugly, dirty, steel and concrete industrial sites, e.g. coal mines and such. But, that said, I did thoroughly enjoy visiting the few I have already seen – those in Kagoshima – and am glad to see those sites recognized. Looking forward to future trips to Shimonoseki, Hagi, Nagasaki, and South Korea’s many World Heritage Sites as well.

You can read more about the Kyushu-Yamaguchi sites at their official English website.

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1) Though, actually, on second thought, the Daibutsu is super majorly iconic, and many of the Zen temples represent a majorly important historical moment in the spread and development of Zen, and in the role of Zen monks as foreign relations advisors and diplomats.

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I’m currently working on a small project based in the Meiji period, so as soon as I got home (for the winter break), I grabbed Donald Keene’s Emperor of Japan: Meiji and his World off the shelf, and started flipping through it.

This is a monster of a book, as you can clearly see. It’s nearly 800 pages, and that’s not including notes, bibliography, index, etc. It’s surely the most detailed account of the life and times of the Meiji Emperor available in English – at that length, it would be hard not to be. One review on GoodReads, as well as several of my friends, expressed how difficult it is to get through this book, and I certainly can’t blame them. As the reviewer on GoodReads writes, “It wasn’t that the subject matter wasn’t fascinating; the problem was that Keene has no sense of priority. The book is loaded down with far too much detail with no concession to relevance.”

He may have a point. Still, I think that same level of detail that this reviewer complains about could potentially make Emperor of Japan a rather valuable resource. Granted, for any specific episode (e.g. General Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879, or the overthrow and annexation of Ryukyu around the same time), there is likely a full-length journal article or two that describes the topic in greater detail. But, even so, I’ve certainly found it an entertaining and interesting read for the brief sections I’ve chosen to pick up. To bring it around in a different way, let me say this – while an excessive level of detail may weigh down the book and make it less of a page-turner, it provides a fuller, more complete, narrative than most scholarly analyses. Where many other texts might mention King Kalakaua’s visit to Japan, for example, only very briefly, if at all, Keene devotes a full four pages to it. And where an argumentative/analytical work might pick and choose only those aspects of Kalakaua’s visit that support the author’s argument, Keene simply lays out a series of details (certainly not the most complete version possible, but, then, is that ever truly possible?) that allow one, as the reader, to then pull from in order to form different interpretations or arguments, or simply to understand a more full version of the narrative.

Here we see not only that Emperor Meiji and King Kalakaua discussed Japanese emigration to Hawaii, for example, and the political and economic details and implications, such as might appear in an article arguing something political, economic, or social historical about the origins of the Japanese-American community, but rather, we also see how Kalakaua and Meiji shook hands, how Meiji received Kalakaua almost at the threshold of his palace, and walked with him, as equals; we see Kalakaua being offered refreshments, but refusing, having heard it would be improper to eat in front of the Emperor, and we see the Emperor (or his men, at least) paying a visit to Kalakaua and his men only an hour after dismissing them, in an effort to adhere to European royal customs of etiquette, only to find the Hawaiians all in their underwear, relaxing after the long day. I suppose if someone really wanted to know the fine details of what Kalakaua ate while in Japan, where he stayed, what he wore, and what the Emperor wore, etc., they could look for the Complete Writings of David Kalakaua, or the like. But, there’s still something to be said, I think, for a rich, dense narrative like this one, that focuses not exclusively on political movements, but on personal, cultural, visual & material aspects, truly constructing for the reader a sense of the aesthetic & cultural world in which the Meiji Emperor lived, and the complexity of the many different things going on in his life, in his Court, in his government all at once. It is easy, when reading a journal article about Kalakaua’s visit, for example, to lose track of just what else might have been going on in Tokyo (or in the Imperial Palace in particular) at that time.

While there may be a wonderful wealth of books and articles discussing the Meiji period from a conceptual, ideological, or analytic point of view, providing valuable discussions of colonialist & imperialist discourses, discourses of “modernity,” and the like, here is a rare work actually describing what happened, in a direct, detailed, narrative manner.

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Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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Today (July 30) marks the 100th anniversary of the death of the Meiji Emperor, great-grandfather of the current Emperor, and a figure whose 45-year reign saw perhaps the most rapid and dramatic changes in Japan’s history.

Right: Perhaps the most famous portrait of the Meiji Emperor, drawn in graphite or charcoal by Edouard Chiossone in 1888. Photographs of the work were distributed throughout the country, a crucial part of a nationalism centered on the emperor. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Admittedly, when we consider that 45 years is also the difference between today and 1968, it is not actually that short a timespan. So much has happened in the world between 1968 and today, and so I suppose the argument could be made that the Meiji reign, from 1868-1912, should not be seen as such a big deal. Yet, in addition to the fact that this period represents the first emergence of a non-industrialized non-Western country into a top, world-class Westernized, industrialized nation-state, the most dramatic changes took place in the first ten years or so of the period.

The shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu (Keiki) officially resigned in November 1867, and an Imperial government took command of the country for the first time in centuries. The Emperor, whose personal name was Mutsuhito, had taken the throne earlier that year. Though the Shogun resigned peacefully, not being militarily forcibly overthrown, pro-shogunate forces acting on their own (i.e. not commanded by the shogun or his government) continued to fight until 1869 (and then again a couple times in the 1870s). Early in 1868, the Emperor officially declared the restoration of direct Imperial rule, and sent missives to foreign powers reporting the change in government; later that year, the former shogunal capital of Edo was renamed Tokyo, and the Imperial capital was moved there, after being located in Kyoto for over 1000 years.

Right: The tomb-mound gravesite of the Meiji Emperor, on the former site of Fushimi-Momoyama Castle in Kyoto. During the Meiji Period, in conjunction with a crafted culture/ideology of emperor worship, all the imperial gravesites in the country were re-fashioned to conform to a more consistent style of site to visit and revere. Photo my own.

A new Constitution, heavily influenced by Western models, including especially the British and Prussian modes of government, would be promulgated in 1890, but as early as 1868, a new government based on historical Imperial models was already in place, replacing the administrative structure of the Tokugawa shogunate’s governance. The quasi-independent samurai domains, or han, were abolished in 1871, and reorganized as prefectures, absorbed into a much more centralized, unified state. By the end of the 1870s, the samurai class and traditional Court aristocracy would be abolished, and replaced with a new peerage system of aristocracy based on European models, while the various status ranks of peasants and townspeople were combined and elevated into citizens.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan would have a nationwide public education system; Western/”modern”-style banks, industry, and corporations; its first railroads; and numerous other elements of a “modern” nation-state based on Western models.

Of course, such rapid modernization & Westernization did not come without sacrifices and difficulties; a myriad of aspects of traditional culture became seriously threatened, and each of these fields, from painting and woodblock printing to kabuki and other traditional performing arts, to Buddhism, faced dramatic struggles for survival. Though regional specialties (e.g. foods, souvenirs, known as meibutsu) and a strong sense of regional cultural identity remain today, this was also a period of powerful homogenization efforts, as an ideology of a single, homogeneous Japanese people and Japanese state was emphasized in the public schools and throughout the country.

Meiji Japan was a place of great advancement, if we might use that word, improvements in civil rights, democratic participation, and public education for all, a place of beautiful style and aesthetics, and exciting constant changes. I can only imagine it would have been beautiful and exciting to live in, or visit, such a place, a place full of rickshaws and railroads, of Victorian hats and coats juxtaposed with traditional kimono, of busy, active cities filled with impressive new monuments and sites of great history, and of new and old traditions.

Left: A statue of Emperor Meiji, at Naminoue Shrine in Naha, Okinawa. The plaque identifies the subject of the statue not as “the Emperor” or “the Meiji Emperor,” but as “The State” (国家, ”kokka”), a dramatic symbol, perhaps, of attitudes at that time equating the Emperor with Japan itself, and a symbol of the imposition of Japanese political control, ideology, and culture into the territory of the formerly independent Ryûkyû Kingdom. Photo my own.

Yet, many scholars today trace the militarism of the 1930s-40s too back to the Meiji period. For a time, the dominant narrative was that the 1930s-40s represented a dramatic break, an anomalous deviation from the positive, liberal, democratic path Japan had been on. Scholars today, however, point to a more consistent path beginning in Meiji. The northern island of Hokkaidô, the home of the indigenous Ainu, was incorporated into the Japanese empire in 1869, and over the course of the next 10 years, the Ryukyu Kingdom was dismantled, and its territory – the string of islands to the south of Kyushu, from Okinawa down to Yonaguni near Taiwan – was annexed. Taiwan itself became a Japanese territory after the Japanese victory in the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War, followed by the annexation of Korea in 1910, the Japanese victory over Russia in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War being quite notable as a victory of a non-Western power over a Western power. Colonial history, fascism, militarism, and the like being very popular topics today in scholarship on Japanese history here in the US, the Meiji period is becoming less purely positive and more controversial.

Japan remains today one of the leading Westernized/modern non-Western countries, a country on the cutting edge of technology and culture in so many ways. The modernization efforts of the Meiji period did not grow out of nothing at all – they were built atop proto-industrial and “early modern” foundations set in the Edo period – but, even so, the advances and developments of the Meiji Period were, inarguably, invaluable, in making Japan the great modern power and vibrant cultural scene that it is today.

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A sudden thought, not fully thought through…

In the 1890s-1900s, the yôga (洋画、”Western-style painting”) movement gained strength. The concept of the nude as an aesthetic, artistic subject was introduced into Japan after a number of artists including Kuroda Seiki and Yamamoto Hôsui returned from studying painting in Paris. As Penelope Mason states in her History of Japanese Art (2nd ed; 2005, p374), “it was considered pornographic – a frontal female nude having never before been a subject for public display.”

Is this not the same thing, happening in reverse, today, as various voices speak out against certain works of Japanese contemporary art, and against manga & anime in general?

RIGHT: “Morning Toilette”, 1893, by Kuroda Seiki. Exhibited in 1895, it was one of the first nudes to be publicly displayed in this way. It was highly controversial, and was called pornography.

Certainly, there is more to it. There is the fact that some manga/anime do portray very overtly pornographic, sexual, scenes, sometimes involving rape, sometimes involving young children…. and the fact that many who speak out against manga & anime fail to recognize that not all manga/anime are like this, just as not all live-action films produced in America are pornos.

And there is the element, which I tend to mention often, but which I may be perhaps making too much of, of differing attitudes towards the appropriateness of showing pubic hair. The Japanese omit it, on account of they consider the overt depiction of pubic hair to be too sexual, too explicit – in short, inappropriate. In fact, I think they may even have laws against depicting it. These images are then seen in the West, where the absence of pubic hair – intentionally absent to make the image “cleaner”, more appropriate, less sexually explicit – is seen as an indication that the figures are pre-pubescent, at which point the work is decried as child pornography.

Not to mention the whole phenomenon of the craze for “cute” in Japan today, something which did not factor in the nudes of ‘classical’ painting traditions.


LEFT: A work by the artist Mr., who is associated with Murakami Takashi’s atelier. More images can be found at this fine blog post on a blog entitled “traveling with the ghost”.

But, coming back to the original thought – the nude has been accepted in Western art as an aesthetic theme for thousands of years. Certainly, there were long spans of time when there were shifts in attitudes, and ancient Greek & Roman statues were irrevocably damaged in the name of propriety. But, by the turn of the 20th century, and certainly by today, people in the West are perfectly comfortable with the idea of a nude as a set theme in “high” art, and as an aesthetic and non-sexual (in certain contexts) form. The Japanese had trouble adjusting to this idea – they saw nudes and considered them scandalous and pornographic. Then they adapted to the Western view, and from there drifted off again into their own artistic trends and modes, producing works which, to my eye, are often far cleaner, more innocent, than almost anything we see in Western art, yet which are decried as child pornography. Perhaps we, in the West, are simply the ones who are now behind the times, superstitious, and unable or unwilling to see art, that is, asexual aesthetics, as it is intended.

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