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Posts Tagged ‘museum of the city of new york’

Thanks to Japan Society’s Blog, a bunch of neat bits of Japan-related goings-on.

*”Wafrica”, a collaboration between a Cameroonian car designer and a 150-year-old Japanese kimono maker, showed some gorgeous and innovative designs recently at Omotesandô Hills. I think they’re fantastic, but cannot help thinking that if it were white people combining kimono with traditional/historical European fashions, it would be denounced (from at least some corners) as Orientalist. Apparently blacks can’t be Orientalist… or can they?

*Apparently, manga character Professor Munakata (宗像先生) has been going on archaeological-related adventures for many years now, touching upon extremely controversial subjects, such as territorial disputes between Japan and Korea, but has never before been to the West. His latest adventure touches upon the controversy surrounding the Elgin (Parthenon) Marbles, but from what I gather from the article in the Economist, it’s more about some totally crazy schemes to steal the Rosetta Stone, destroy St. Paul’s, and such, that Munakata-sensei has to foil. I wonder how directly they really actually address the controversies.

*Growing up, my father always told me you can find anything in New York if you look hard enough. Well, to a great extent, Okinawan culture has been the exception, so far as I’ve seen. I am not aware of any Okinawan restaurants, certainly no shimauta (live Okinawan folk music) bars, and I’m not even sure if there’s anywhere to study Okinawan language or sanshin except perhaps through private arrangements (by contrast, here in Hawaii, while there’s no real sanshin schools per se that have their own buildings and everything, the University offers classes, and there’s a Hawaii Okinawa Cultural Center that has its own land and buildings and everything). Yet, getting to the point, apparently we do have Junko Fisher, who has started teaching Okinawan dance, and Okinawan history through dance, at libraries throughout Queens. I still don’t know where to go to get my andaagi fix, but it’s a start.

*Meanwhile, the NY Times has finally put out a review of the “Samurai in New York” exhibit still up at the Museum of the City of New York until Nov 7. They write: ‘“Samurai” is one of those small, in-the-hallway exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York that delivers more than you’d expect,’ and I couldn’t agree more.

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese embassy to the United States, and the Museum of the City of New York is acknowledging this with an exhibition focusing on the embassy’s visit to New York.

I am not very familiar with the museum, or with the kinds of things they generally do or do not do, but I think it fantastic that they should go beyond the typical local-community-focused exhibits about African-Americans or urban development or mayoral history* that one might expect of this museum, to devote efforts and space to as obscure a corner of history as this samurai embassy. Given that Japan Society and Asia Society didn’t do it, it’s especially wonderful that someone should put together this exhibition.

The year was 1860. Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shogunate. The tallest building in New York was Trinity Church. Japan had not yet seen the Meiji Restoration; the US had not yet faced the War Between the States. After crossing the ocean with a larger group, 76 samurai left San Francisco by boat, traveling across Panama by train and then boarding a different ship for the journey to Washington DC. New York was their last stop in the US before leaving for home.


The key goal of this nine-month round-trip journey was to exchange the Japanese and American copies of the Harris Treaty, thereby completing the ratification process begun with the signing at Shimoda two years earlier. In sharp contrast to later Meiji period efforts (such as the 1871 Iwakura mission) to acquire, adapt, and adopt Western technologies, culture, administrative methods, etc, the members of this 1860 mission were encouraged to interact as little as possible with Western people. This was a complete surprise to me, though I suppose the more I think about it, the more it perhaps makes sense, as the country simply had not started shifting in that direction yet.

However, despite these intentions, the samurai ambassadors were persuaded to visit a number of different cities, were regaled with numerous receptions, balls, and other events, had their photos taken despite their initial objections, and became the talk of the media.

The exhibition feels like it consists primarily of gallery labels, which is great for someone like me who adores names, dates, and narrative, though in fact there are *quite* a number of artifacts, and I was really surprised by how many of these things come from the collections of the Museum itself. I think I was most impressed by a sword blade, one of a number presented by the samurai ambassadors to their American counterparts, and forged specifically for that purpose. Passed down through the generations, this particular sword blade never left the family, but the story of how it was obtained was lost for many years until sometime recently, when an expert rediscovered the sword’s provenance.


Other objects included a folding fan with Commodore Perry’s photograph on it, two actual Japanese and American flags flown at the events, and a sketchbook in which one member of the samurai retinue recorded his impressions. Reproductions from the newspapers and magazines of the time were neat to see, but were sadly too blurry to be properly appreciated.

The museum also provides a small booklet – quite solid, and a good ten or so pages in length; not a tiny advertising pamphlet – incorporating much of the text of the gallery labels, and a good number of pictures. Since I’ve fallen into the habit, for better or for worse, of taking photos of gallery labels and objects so as to capture the information contained in an exhibit, for later perusal and remembering, this is a great saver of time and effort.

All in all, this exhibit provides a glimpse into a fascinating, if quite obscure, corner of New York’s history (and that of US-Japan relations), and I would love to see more exhibits like it. It’s tough trying to think of US-based Japanese historical events for which US museums would have good resources (i.e. objects in collections), but I would love to see exhibitions about Commodore Perry in Okinawa, about Japan at the World’s Fairs, about General Grant in Japan… Surely, the Smithsonian or someone has artifacts related to the latter, and presumably there are good newspaper articles and such to pull from, reproduce and present. Maybe one day I’ll find myself in a position to be able to organize such an exhibition.

In the meantime, “Samurai in New York” is up at the Museum of the City of New York (103rd St and Fifth Ave) until October 11, 2010.

*Another large exhibit up at the moment follows the administration of Mayor John Lindsay, i.e. the period 1966-73. A permanent exhibition at the museum features “New York Interiors.”

EDIT: All of my photos from this exhibit can now be seen on my Flickr page.

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The Museum of the City of New York opened an exhibition this past Friday entitled “SAMURAI IN NEW YORK: THE FIRST JAPANESE DELEGATION, 1860“, featuring a rare look at a small, obscure, specific historical event of great cross-cultural interest. What was New York like in 1860, and what were these samurai’s first impressions of the city? What were New Yorkers’ impressions of the samurai?

This comes in conjunction with other events organized in celebration of the 150th anniversary of this first Japanese delegation to New York.

I hope to get to see this exhibit if/when I am home in New York over the summer. The exhibition runs through October 11.

Meanwhile, on a completely separate topic, travel photographer Chris Wilson posts today on his blog an interview with Okinawan painter Kyoto Nakamoto.

Okinawa is a bright, colorful, energetic and vibrant place. I love a great many things about the culture of (mainland) Japan, and there is definitely value and appeal to the restrained, quiet, and austere aesthetics of, for example, a formal koto concert, or a tea ceremony in the wood, tatami, and paper interior of an ancient temple. I love those things and appreciate them very much, but comparing them to the bold, vibrant colors and energy of, for example, eisa dances, Okinawa seems a brighter and more colorful place.

Okinawa is also a place, however, of great controversy, and of complex issues of identity. Intrigued by a handful of Chinese contemporary artists whose work I was introduced to in an undergraduate seminar on Chinese art, who very directly address political issues and issues of Chinese identity and tradition in their art, I am always on the lookout for Japanese and Okinawan artists who do the same. I would be curious to find out if Nakamoto-san sees her paintings simply as beautiful (and charmingly unique) depictions of Okinawan scenes as paradise, or whether there is some deeper meaning in there relating to Okinawan identity and tradition. Do the innocent, child-like figures in her paintings represent, for example, stereotypes or attitudes held by Japanese who look down upon Okinawans as naive? Or do they represent an innocence and paradise that has been lost? Do they represent a social criticism against the kind of society and the kind of life people live in Okinawa today, where, perhaps, these paintings might argue, there is not enough innocence, happiness, and play?

I look forward to the opportunity some day to see more of Kyoko Nakamoto’s work, and to discovering the work of other contemporary Okinawan artists.

Thanks much to Chris for sharing this!

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