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Reading through a journal article by Prof. Asô Shin’ichi (Okinawa Geidai) on samurai gift-giving customs, and how that relates to Ryûkyû’s gifts to the Shimazu and to the shogunate, I found reference to this book edited by Asao Naohiro 朝尾直弘, which just somehow grabbed my attention. Entitled Fudai daimyô Ii ke no girei 譜代大名井伊家の儀礼, or roughly “Ceremonies of the Ii clan of Hikone domain,” it’s one of a series of books put out by the Hikone Castle Museum, using the Ii Family Documents 彦根藩井伊家文書 and other sources to explore a more extensive, detailed, complex understanding of the history of the Ii clan of Hikone domain, and by extension of aspects of early modern (i.e. Tokugawa period) Japanese history more broadly. Though it normally goes for 6000 yen (roughly US$60), I was fortunate to find a copy online for the far more reasonable 2000 yen. Thank you, Amazon.jp.

Even just on the face of it, this style of book, this approach, really appeals to me. I love the idea of using local histories in my own research. The scholars featured in this volume worked with the Hikone Castle Museum to produce something that doesn’t just take the Ii family as some kind of convenient case study, in order to examine something broader, more removed, more theoretical or abstract. Rather, it takes the Ii family, their records, their local domainal history, as something to be explored as a topic worthy of interest in and of itself. And so, while I admittedly am using them as a convenient example, a convenient resource, for my own project, nevertheless I find something really appealing about the idea of employing such research. I will also be reading, and citing, books like Yamamoto Hirofumi’s Sankin kôtai and numerous others which are more typical academic books, drawing upon whatever resources from here and there in order to build up an argument, or simply a description or narrative, of something much broader (in Yamamoto’s case, the “alternate attendance” or sankin kôtai system, as practiced not by any one domain, but by all of them, across the archipelago). But, reading this Hikone volume and drawing upon research that’s focused in on a particular set of documents from a genuine interest in the history of that particular family and their domain, makes me happy.

A section of Hikone castle, home to the lords of the Ii clan. Photo my own.

And, actually delving into the book, I find that at least some of the chapters – those by Okazaki Hironori 岡崎寛徳 – follow a really interesting format. Okazaki’s chapters, like all the others, like most chapters in most academic books, each address a particular aspect or sub-topic, and form an argument, or a narrative, about them, but they do so while quoting heavily from primary source documents – so heavily, in fact, that they serve as a pretty excellent resource for reading (and citing / quoting from) primary sources themselves.

To put it another way, Okazaki’s chapters read not quite like a normal essay, but more like something in between a normal essay, and a set of introductions or explanations for primary sources. Roughly half the text in each of his chapters is just direct transcriptions of excerpts from the Ii Family Documents, and while there certainly is some narrative argument being made, at the same time he’s also just showing the reader a number of different aspects of the topic, as represented in primary sources. Here’s a letter from the domain to the shogunate asking for confirmation on which kinds of gifts they’re expected to give on which occasions (and in what numbers/volumes), and here’s the shogunate’s response (including permission to reduce the amount of gifts, in these financially difficult times [the 1720s]). And here’s Okazaki’s introduction to what the document is that he’s quoting from, and what this excerpt is going to show us; and then, here’s Okazaki’s summary of the key points of what the excerpt said. All in all, I just find he strikes an excellent balance – providing enough of the primary sources, on enough different aspects around the same topic or theme, and enough information surrounding them, to allow you to use them for your own research, your own interests, beyond just the narrow focus of his argument (that is, in contrast to more typical essays, which only quote just enough to make their argument, and only very strictly those sections which are relevant to their argument, leaving everything else out); and, at the same time, he’s doing so within a narrative or argumentative framework, thus providing so much more framing context, and explanation, than a lot of works I’ve seen that are more explicitly dedicated to only sharing transcriptions of the sources (with minimal framing material), leaving it totally up to the reader to make of it what one will, depending on the reader’s interests.

A bridge near the entrance to the Hikone castle complex. Photo my own.

Let me see if I can give a more solid example. I think it’s easy to imagine a chapter or article from whatever book or journal that focuses solely on New Year’s audiences, for example, explaining out that one event, with maybe some minimal quoting here and there from primary sources, just enough to explain things out. And they of course would cite which sources they’re getting it from, and maybe they would explain a little bit what that document is, how it’s organized, why it contains the kinds of information that it does in the way that it does. I think it’s also easy to imagine a publication which just transcribes the entire primary source document, or significant sections of it, saying, essentially, “here it is. Use it as you will, for whatever aspects, whatever themes you may be researching,” without telling you much at all about the document itself – where it comes from; who wrote it, when, and why; which sections are about what; what new revelations might be learned from this document that aren’t found elsewhere; what to look for or to notice while reading; just the text itself, that’s it. Those are the two ends of the spectrum. Okazaki lies in between them. He spends a good paragraph or so introducing the Kôrei rinji gyôji tomechô 恒例臨時行事留帳, a 1736 document contained within the broader collection of Ii Family Documents – who wrote it, when, why, and what sort of stuff it contains. And then, while providing sizable excerpts from that text, sometimes a full paragraph, or even a full page or more at a time, he uses those excerpts to help show a full sampling of many of the different regular and irregular audiences & court rituals (at the shogun’s court, in Edo castle) in which the Ii participated. Here’s an excerpt explaining how for New Year’s, the Ii lord went up to the castle at X hour, sat in his designated waiting room (the Tamari-no-ma) in accordance with his rank, then moved to the Shiroshoin (one of several audience halls in the castle), and sat at such-and-such a spot, bowed X number of times, said such-and-such formal words, was told such-and-such by the rôjû (Elders) or by the Shogun himself, presented such-and-such gifts, bowed X number of times, then withdrew. And now here’s an excerpt showing how it was a bit different for the regular monthly audiences, for the “in-between” audiences (間之登城), for Girls’ Day and Boys’ Day and Chrysanthemum Festival. And here’s how it was for banquets following the shogun’s successful hunting expedition. And here’s how it was when the shogun decided to go horseback riding and to request (command, really) the various lords to come and attend just to watch him. Good-sized chunks of primary sources, presented not in-line just as quotes, just enough to make a single point within the course of an argument, but rather as good-sized chunks that are allowed to speak for themselves, surrounded by enough introduction, and summary, and explanation, to make them understandable and useful, and to present a broader narrative or argumentative description of a topic.

Other chapters in this book, outside of those by Okazaki, seem at first glance to follow a more standard format. But, after eleven chapters addressing various aspects of the topic of “the Ii family and rituals,” the book ends with over 200 pages of more straightforwardly, more fully transcribed primary sources, along with maps and diagrams of several relevant buildings / rooms, and at the very end, charts of the family tree of the Ii family, a lengthy chart of where each Ii lord was on given dates (as they moved between Hikone, Edo, and other cities, on official and personal business), and a timeline of incidents and events relevant to the history of the family & of the domain.

The sankin kôtai procession of the lord of Iyo-Matsuyama, as seen in one section of an 18th c. handscroll painting at the National Museum of Japanese History. Photo my own.

One thing I do find frustrating, and a little disappointing, though, about this book is that like much other scholarship, it skips over explaining out the basic, general, foundational situation, and focuses overmuch on changes, exceptions, and complexities. As wonderful as it is to learn, for example, about how the type and amount of gifts changed through negotiations in the 1720s at a time when both the shogunate and many domains were experiencing significant financial difficulties, I would love to first have a more general explanation of what types and amounts of gifts were typical, to begin with. And while it’s really interesting to learn about these various different hunting-related banquets and occasion of watching horseriding or Noh, I still don’t think I’ve ever yet come across a basic, step-by-step, description of just what normally, typically, happened when a lord arrived in Edo on sankin kôtai. This sort of thing is even more a problem in many of the other books and articles I have been reading, works which overwhelmingly employ extraordinary examples, rather than anything that might be representative of “standard” “typical” practices – for example, the journeys of either Tokugawa Iemitsu (in 1634) or of Tokugawa Iemochi (in 1863) to Kyoto, despite the fact that no shogun ever traveled to Kyoto for the 220+ intervening years; or the 1862 wedding of Imperial princess Kazu-no-miya into the shogunal family despite the fact that (a) this was probably one of only a very few Imperial-Tokugawa marriages, and (b) presumably by 1862 it’s late enough that practices would be quite different from whatever was typical in the 1600s or 1700s or even up into the 1830s or 1840s; or the shogunal succession ceremonies of Tokugawa Yoshimune, one of a handful of shoguns who were not direct relatives of their predecessors – why not use as your representative example records of the succession ceremony for a “normal” succession from father to son?

Still, returning to what I was saying about Okazaki’s balanced approach to sharing primary sources & scholarly commentary, and about the character of the book as a whole, it makes me wonder what other books might be out there of a similar type, put out by local museums, foundations, History Associations, local Boards of Education, or by more mainstream or academic publishers, but that might contain a similar approach, a similar balance of scholarly explanation and extensive provision of primary sources. Books which might not quite come up on the radar, normally, because they are less mainstream and might get filed away under “local history,” but which might prove surprisingly interesting, informative, and/or useful, either in general, or for one’s specific research project…

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I thought I would just sort of read through Morgan Pitelka’s new book, Spectacular Accumulation (U Hawaii Press, 2016) on the side. There was spring break, and then flights to and from BYU, and to and from Seattle, plus hotel stays in each of those places. Sure I can finish this thin book – in English – in just a few weeks of here-and-there, on planes and so forth. Nope. Who did I think I was kidding?

But, in any case, I have now finally finished it – in between lots of other stuff, which is a large part of why it took so long. For anyone reading this as a review, in order to see whether or not to pick it up, please don’t think it’s a slow or tiresome read. It’s certainly not. I just got busy, is all. I’m really glad I took time out and read it.

Discussing the political power and importance of gift-giving, collecting, and social rituals (such as tea ceremony), Pitelka makes a most valuable contribution to a growing discourse on the political significance of architecture, and of art. Drawing connections between Sengoku daimyô practices of hostage-taking, gift-giving, tea ceremony, falconry, and the “spectacular accumulation” of famous or otherwise precious objects (incl. tea implements and swords), Pitelka argues for the political significance of all of these things, writing

“I do not see practices such as tea, art display, gift giving, and falconry as symbolic arts that point in the direction of real politics – rather, I understand these forms of sociability as the political process by which the warrior society was made. Rulers placed limits on the cultural and social practices that other warriors could engage in, and thus empowered selected retainers through gifts and the extension of special cultural privileges. These acts created a kind of consensus regarding the distribution of power among those with different positions within the developing political structure. … We should take seriously the role played by cultural practices and social rituals in the establishment and maintenance of early modernity in Japan. … Cultural practice and social rituals such as … gift giving as tools for the reification of hierarchy and the replication of social distinction.” (14)

While Pitelka is certainly not the first to raise such issues, I still could not help to cheer (Yes! This!) as I read these lines. While Spectacular Accumulation did not, in the end, answer some of the more particular questions I was hoping it would, for my particular research needs – such as, describing in any detail the rituals of how precisely someone swore their fealty, or renewed their oaths of fealty, to a lord; or what special meanings a gift of a sword, or a horse, specifically, might convey as compared to any other kind of gift – still, the book provides some inspirational notions, and concrete historical description, for the intersection of art, social ritual, and politics.

And! Pitelka has also maintained a beautiful website/blog in conjunction with the book – go check out http://spectacularaccumulation.com/ for even more on Tokugawa Ieyasu, blog posts on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death, and, god, just tons of information and beautiful images.

A display of Chinese ceramics at the British Museum. Not quite what the shoguns would have had on display, I imagine, but perhaps in a related realm. Photo my own.

In the Introduction, right from the get-go, Pitelka introduces a number of intriguing and inspirational concepts, pointing too to other scholarship on gift-giving, collecting, and social ritual as political. He explains quite early on the titular concept of “spectacular accumulation.” Pointing to a Simon Schama essay on Dutch still-life paintings, he explains that spectacular accumulation is “the practice of hoarding symbolically significant things and aggressively displaying them for cultural and political gain,” (6) and then goes on to discuss the collection and display of Chinese paintings & ceramics by the Ashikaga shoguns, and the amassing of many of these same objects, along with swords and other treasures, by Sengoku daimyô. The fact that in 1615-1616 Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered a significant number of men to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to search through the ruins of Osaka castle for ceramics, swords, and other things which could be recovered from Hideyoshi’s collection, and added to his own, shows just how powerful and important this was at the time. Pitelka does later provide one of the most thorough descriptions of the Siege of Osaka I have ever read (because I am not a military historian or samurai fanboy and don’t generally seek out such content), but also talks about how Ieyasu’s ability to recover Hideyoshi’s collection – including many objects which previously belonged to Nobunaga, and to the Ashikaga – as an important part of building up his own image of power and legitimacy.

In Chapter One, Pitelka discusses the Ashikaga practices of collection and display, and its interconnection with tea ceremony – the objects used in the tea ceremony are treasures of the host’s collection, and their “display” through their use is a central part of the social event – as well as conceptual links between these and other samurai practices of cultivating an image of power/legitimacy. For a samurai lord to possess certain objects (or people, in the case of the Sengoku practice of hostage-taking), and to give them out as gifts to allies or retainers, were key elements in marking his power, and in establishing or maintaining hierarchies. Pitelka links these two by writing that

The most powerful members of warrior society, warlords (daimyo), exchanged entities over which they had some hegemony – a famous tea bowl in one instance, a vassal’s son or daughter in another instance – as part of a political calculation. Such acts of exchange created value for both the exchanged objects and people and transferred some of this value to the actors conducting the exchange. Even when the value was not commoditized or monetized, as in the case of gift exchanges of tea utensils or hostage exchanges of family members, a system of social and cultural hierarchy was inscribed through the act of exchange and accumulation (18),

and that these exchanges, of gifts and of hostages, “helped to define the grammar of politics” (18).

This connects in closely with what I am trying to do in my own project – to discuss costume, music, movement in space, and other culturally performative elements of Ryukyuan embassies to Edo as having had real political meaning, and real political impacts. Further, beyond that, to argue that these are not peripheral to some other, more fully real, set of political acts, but that these “cultural” or “performance” elements were, themselves, the core of the political interaction & event, that they were fundamental to the meaning-making.

However, perhaps because of the era he is focusing on – before the end of Sengoku, when Unification is still in-process – or perhaps because of his focus on the social/political conceptual argument he is making, much of Pitelka’s discussion of gift-giving speaks only in vague generalities about the role of gift-giving in forging personal/social relationships, where I might have been hoping for something more concrete, e.g. explanation of precisely which gifts symbolized entering into the gift-receiver’s service, as a vassal. Was it the case that when someone presented a daimyô with a sword, it was a symbol of their fealty, and that they would only do so in that particular circumstance, and that whenever they did not present the daimyô with a sword, they were not at that time swearing or renewing oaths of fealty?

The 13th century blade Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukezane, given by Katô Kiyomasa as a gift to Tokugawa Ieyasu, and today held at Nikkô Tôshôgû. National Treasure.

In Chapter Two, Pitelka continues along similar lines, describing the collecting practices of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, writing that they saw the “spectacular accumulation” of tea implements, swords, and the like “not as a static investment to be hoarded or protected from the ravages of time, but as an instrument in the politics and social maneuverings of unification” (44, emphasis my own), and discussing the ways they continued, and emulated, the collecting practices of the Ashikaga.

He also defends his focus on the cultural/collecting/tea practices of these warlords, writing that earlier scholarship often

“create[s] excessive delineation between an idealized ‘spiritual world’ of tea and the politics of a society at war, presuming that the tea practice of commoners like Imai Sōkyū and Sen no Rikyū, who were less directly involved in the wars of unification, somehow trumped the tea practice of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and others” (45).

This clearly ties into a much larger argument, a jab at academic attitudes more generally, which seek to divorce not only art from politics, but also the study of each apart from one another. Jumping ahead for a moment to the Epilogue, Pitelka builds upon this argument further, noting that “on the whole exhibitions of Japanese art inside and outside of Japan continue to fetishize the quality and originality of works as art over their social, political, and cultural contexts, or their meaning as historical sources” (174). Regular readers of my blog will know that this remains one of my chief sticking points, one of my pet peeves. I eagerly look forward to the day that we can see the Metropolitan, or other major art museums in this country, organize a Japanese art exhibit that thoroughly explores a historical development, event, or period, whether it be Kabuki theater, the bombing of Hiroshima, the urban development of Kyoto over the centuries, or Japan’s pre-modern maritime trade interactions, through beautiful art objects. These things are beautiful, yes. They are intricately and expertly-made, yes. They are inspiring, yes. But they are also historically significant and informative. I want to see tea caddies exhibited with a gallery label that explains how they were used politically by samurai warlords. I want to see paintings of Dejima, of Ryukyuan street processions, of gold mines, or agricultural techniques, or paintings of kofun burial mounds, coupled with labels that tell us not only about the painter, and the style, and the making of the thing, but that tell us about what is being depicted, and what this means for Japanese history.

Sankin kôtai procession of the Nagoya daimyô, as seen in a handscroll painting by Odagiri Shunkô (detail). My photo of a replica at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, of an original housed at the Tokugawa Art Museum.

Chapter Three expands yet again on this idea of gift-giving and ritual performance as political maneuvers with real political significance and impact. Pitelka moves us forward in time, past Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, focusing now on the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun (and the years immediately preceding and following), but the themes remain closely similar. While this chapter, like all the rest, is wonderfully informative on details we might never discover elsewhere, one thing I particularly took away from this chapter was the notion of the Sengoku & Tokugawa feudal orders as being particularly concerned with the movement of objects, and of bodies. Here, Pitelka reiterates an argument that hostages are not entirely unlike collections, or gifts, and that keeping one, or giving it away, is a gesture of power, of authority, and in the case of giving it away, of the forging or strengthening of personal bonds. When one gives one’s son as a hostage to one’s lord, one is showing one’s loyalty. And, when the lord eventually returns the hostage, he is showing his graciousness and generosity, a gesture of his faith in the retainer’s loyalty. Political marriages functioned quite similarly, in what I imagine are fairly obvious ways, tying one family to another. Sankin kōtai, or alternate attendance, should also be seen as being of a type, Pitelka reminds us – it is not only about each daimyō being forced to keep his family “hostage” to the shogun in Edo, but also about the daimyō himself being, essentially, hostage to his obligations to travel back and forth, and to expend a great deal of time and money doing so. It is a show of shogunal power that the shogun is able to command (control) the daimyō’s movement and physical location in this way, and a show of the daimyō’s loyalty that he obliges.

One more thing that comes up in this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, that I find particularly valuable is Pitelka’s reminders that nothing in history is guaranteed or predetermined. With these so-called “Three Unifiers” in particular, we have a tendency to think they were somehow destined to fail, fail, and succeed, respectively – and that the success and stability of the Tokugawa order, once established in 1603, was here to stay. This seems sort of a given as we look at it retrospectively. But, this was by no means guaranteed at the time. As of 1600, Ieyasu had merely claimed authority through martial victory – he was not shogun yet. And as of 1603, though he was shogun, there were still notable opponents to his rule – namely, especially, Toyotomi Hideyori and his numerous followers. But for a roll of the dice, history could have gone quite differently – Ieyasu might have lasted no longer than Nobunaga or Hideyoshi. What exactly might have happened instead I won’t venture to guess – there are likely some over at the Samurai-Archives Forums who would know far better than me just how feasible it was that Hideyori might have ever become hegemon, or whether the whole archipelago might have broken down into all-out war all over again, or whether this or that other outcome was at all likely. We should remember, too, that all the way up until the 1630s, there were still considerable foreign (read: Christian) influences within the realm, with a mission to Rome being dispatched even as late as the 1620s. Who knows what might have happened differently had the Christian daimyō acted differently, forming a faction against the Tokugawa, or simply breaking away as a separate “state.” Even though in the actual course of events they did not do so, it is still for this reason (among others) that I think it keen to put quotes around “Japan” as a “nation” or “country” during this era, and to speak of the Tokugawa state(s), even if there are those who cry “feh” at academia’s constant pluralizing of things like feminisms, globalizations, and so forth.

For some reason I can’t get the gif to work, so here’s a still from a brilliant animated gif by Segawa Atsuki 瀬川三十七.

Pitelka discusses falconry in Chapter Four, and as interesting as this is, I decided to skip it, in the interest of time. This was the one chapter that – on the surface, at least – seemed particularly less relevant to my own research interests, and so I moved on to Chapter Five, where Pitelka discusses the rituals of war. First, he disavows the reader of the notion that war is “a dramatic encounter between heroic individuals” (118). The lionization, mythological warrior narratives out of the way, he then turns to the subject of battlefield ritual, arguing that it’s not all about just pure violence (and strategy and tactics and so on), but that “struggles over political authority were as likely to occur in the realm of ritual practices as in martial conflicts” and that rituals such as formalities in letter-writing, and the seating order at meetings among lords & retainers (as in the image above), were intimately interconnected into “the hierarchy that defined warrior status distinctions and that allowed warrior bands to function both as units that waged war and as organizations that engaged in governance” (118). Further, not only that, but the idea that it was these rituals which “activated” that hierarchy, allowing people to feel/sense/know their place, and to perform or enact that hierarchical position or role appropriately, bringing the hierarchy as a whole into existence, and into force. This chapter, incidentally, also touches upon the practice of counting heads, as a means of marking battlefield accomplishment.

The Yômeimon at Nikkô Tôshôgû. Photo my own.

Chapter Six then focuses on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s deification, as Tôshô Daigongen, the Avatar that Illumines the East. This was a very interesting and informative chapter as to the details of this process, complicating what in a more general survey might be simply brushed over. We learn that Ieyasu was not immediately interred and deified at Nikkô, which remains the chief (or at least the most famous) Tôshô Shrine, but rather that he was at first interred and enshrined at Sunpu – which had been his chief base of operations for a time both before and after Sekigahara – and that it was only as a result of some in-fighting between the Buddhist monks Tenkai and Bonshun that the original Tôshôgû at Kunôzan (in Sunpu) declined in prominence and was replaced by Nikkô.

Sign outside the Tokyo National Museum for the “Great Tokugawa Exhibition” (Dai Tokugawa ten), Nov 2007. Photo my own.

Finally, in his Epilogue, Pitelka addresses the way Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa clan & shogunate, and many of the famous objects (chiefly tea implements and swords) discussed in the book, tend to be exhibited in museums. As a museum studies guy, I found this particularly intriguing. Museum politics is something that can be really touchy – because you don’t want to endanger future relationships, with institutions where you might want to do research, or from whom you might want to borrow objects, as well as for any number of other reasons related to professional networks, trying to avoid factionalism or backbiting, etc etc. But, not only is politics terribly intriguing in a backdoor “inside story” gossip sort of way, but it is also terribly important, actually, for pushing the field to do better.

Two points in particular emerge from Pitelka’s critique: one, that as I mention above, all too often we see objects displayed only as art objects, for their aesthetic qualities, with insufficient attention paid to their value or importance as tools for understanding broader historical contexts. And, two, that because of the particular politics of which institutions control which objects, and the because of the role of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkachô) in loans and exhibits of certain types of objects (esp. Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures), certain “mythohistory” narratives get emphasized or perpetuated, while critical, revisionist, or simply different (other) narratives get sidelined, or suppressed. The Nation has strong political motives to have its history represented in particular ways, reinforcing the greatness of Japan’s past, the great beauty of its culture, and so forth, for any number of purposes relating to tourism, foreign investment, diplomacy, general international prestige – and government – not only in Japan, but perhaps nearly everywhere in the world – is more interested in those things than in nuanced, complex, historical truth simply for the sake of truth.

Tokugawa clan crest at Zôjôji, Tokyo. Photo my own.

To conclude (this review), I *loved* Spectacular Accumulation, I really did. I learned a ton, I got lots of good inspiration on how to think about ritual, and I also really enjoyed Pitelka’s modeling of how to write a work that incorporates material culture so closely, so deeply.

But, if you’ll permit me to go on a tangential rant for just a moment – and this is by no means a criticism of Pitelka, but rather a thought about the field more broadly – it continues to really frustrate me that we can have so many books in Japanese that just lay out thorough, detailed, explanations of a topic, and yet this just doesn’t seem like it can be done (or, at least, it isn’t done) in English-language scholarship. I have at least four books on my shelf right now, all of them in Japanese, that explain in categorized detail the various kinds of rituals of Tokugawa period samurai interactions. One section on New Year’s rituals, and one on other annual ceremonies. One on births and one on marriages and one on deaths. One chapter on shogunal journeys, and one on sankin kôtai. And somewhere, in one of these books, I found that gifts of mackerel, in particular, more so than any other fish, were a traditional gift for New Year’s, because… well, I forget what the reason was, but it’s in there. And that while vassals would regularly present their lord with a horse on certain occasions, on certain others they presented an amount of silver as badai 馬代 – literally, “in place of a horse.” Yet, where does one see such information in English-language books? It might show up, if you’re lucky, in the course of describing some more thematic or conceptual argument, but almost never in a systematic discussion of, for example, in this case, a listing out of the various gifts typically given, and the occasion or the meaning. We constantly give specialists in other fields (e.g. scholars of European History, or World History) trouble, we criticize them, for not knowing Japan better, and for their uninformed statements about how things worked in pre-modern or early modern Japan. And there is, to be sure, a whole lot of nuanced complexity, and a great deal of validity, to that. But, I wonder, maybe if we started actually writing more informative works (and not only analytical, interpretive, ones), if that might be a big help towards having better-informed colleagues.

Anyway, returning from that digression, I loved both Pitelka’s approach in bringing material culture and cultural practice into the conversation on daimyô relations, and his good informative detail on the histories of individual tea implements, individual swords, and individual people and events, such as one might not find elsewhere. The next time I should be so fortunate to see the tea caddy Hatsuhana or the sword Ebina Kokaiji on display – maybe if they do another Shogun Age Exhibition or Dai-Tokugawa-ten – or the next time I read something about Sekigahara or the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony – I’ll have so much more context. I’ll be able to draw the connections in my mind, and get so much more out of the experience.

And, when I return to my own research & writing efforts, I’ll have so much more to draw upon in terms of thinking about, and articulating, just how material culture and cultural practices connected into political outcomes. I do hope that I can rightfully include in my Introduction something quite similar to Pitelka’s statement that

“This book avoids the artificial distinction between cultural history and political history, between narratives of beautiful things and … a history of politics. The famed cultural efflorescence of these years was not subsidiary to the landscape of political conflict … but constitutive of it.” (p6)

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Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford University Press, 1992.

Catherine Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice offers an extensive summary of a wide range of theoretical writings on ritual, from more general theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, and Durkheim, to the thought of specialists on ritual such as Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz, and Valerio Valeri. Bell’s intertwining and cross-referential summaries of the thought of these various scholars demonstrates clearly her profound expertise and grasp of these complex and theoretical concepts, albeit without conveying an understanding of those concepts to the reader in a clear fashion. These innumerable references amount to, essentially, a state of the field overview of scholarship on “ritual,” and provide a valuable resource for a reader to discover which particular works, of the many in the field, one should read in order to learn more about particular arguments or approaches. Bell’s own argument is often subsumed, or even absent, as she presents an array of conflicting ideas, or ideas addressing different aspects entirely, often (though not always) without making clear which approaches she agrees with, or advocates. Often in the volume she simply lays out a variety of ideas, allowing the viewer a fuller view of the range, and seemingly allowing them to simply pick and choose for themselves, without judgment on Bell’s part.

These references to others’ arguments are almost always very brief, and related in vague, broadly (in)applicable, and generalizing terms. They occupy an interesting in-between space, in which the reader is expected to be familiar enough with these thinkers to be able to understand and to follow along, but also unfamiliar enough to require the summary / explanation to begin with. We are told, for example, that “V. Turner developed [a] notion of ritual as social drama” (71), something anyone familiar with Turner would already know, and which anyone unfamiliar with Turner would not understand. The very next sentence begins a new paragraph, changing topics somewhat, and no further explanation is given as to what Turner means by “social drama.” This pattern of introducing others’ ideas in only the briefest and vaguest of theoretical terms is repeated throughout the volume.

Bell is extremely hand-wavy throughout the book. While her mastery of the literature is clear, her approach offers little evidence that she has studied any actual, specific societies to which these theories might apply, or from which these generalizing statements might derive. How is one to understand actual, living or historical societies, and the function of ritual within them, only by reading theorists, and not studying actual societies?
Even if we were to take it on faith that Bell has studied actual societies – we are led to understand that she is an expert on Chinese religion, though one would never know it from the text – Bell offers no evidence to indicate that her theoretical concepts are true or applicable, nor to indicate to which cultures, in which periods, in which ways, these might be applicable. While Geertz’ arguments about the functioning of the Negara rituals in 16th century Bali, and about Balinese attitudes and beliefs about ritual at that time, may be too culturally specific to be easily applicable to the study of ritual in other times and places, Bell’s work speaks to no culture at all. Specific examples taken from a wide range of cultures would help to suggest how these theoretical concepts might be applied to societies across space and time, but instead we are left completely to fend for ourselves as to whether these ideas make sense for our particular object of study. And, we are left to fend for ourselves more generally. With no concrete illustrative examples to latch onto, the reader is forced to contend with Bell’s ideas on a purely conceptual level, imagining for each and every phrase what she might mean without any evidence as to her intention.

Where Bell’s own argument does appear in Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, it appears to be largely single-fold. Though Bell spends the majority of the book rehashing a myriad of arguments by others as to just how to define “ritual,” or how it works, ultimately her argument is that this is not a useful question, and that we must consider ritual not as a separate category of actions unto themselves, but rather as a strategic choice in how we perform otherwise mundane actions – a choice of ritualization. This, along with the summarized arguments of dozens of other theorists presented in the volume, offers some intriguing food for thought, potentially informing how one thinks about ritual, how one approaches or discusses ritual in one’s own work, but only I think in an organic sort of way, incorporated into one’s thinking at the back of the mind. Bell is quite explicit that she does not intend to offer a concrete new theory, new approach, for ritual, and indeed, it would be difficult to apply almost any of the Theory from Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice directly into practice in one’s own ritual research. Bell operates almost entirely in an aetherial, conceptual realm of Theory, providing very little concrete evidence to explain, or support, her theoretical assertions and those of the scholars she is quoting. One can open to almost any page and find a statement like

… ritualization [is described] as a means of preserving strained social relations by simultaneously escalating and orchestrating conflict in such a way that it has to be and can be resolved (172).

Bell offers no concrete examples whatsoever to support this assertion, nor to help explain to the reader what is meant by this, or how it might function. The reader then is left to attempt to make sense of the theoretical assertion by considering her own examples. Does a royal entry preserve strained social relations? Does it escalate and orchestrate conflict? Let’s hope not – ideally, there should be no strained relations, or conflict, between a king and his subjects. How about a religious ritual, such as calling a Bar Mitzvah boy or Bat Mitzvah girl up to read from the Torah for the first time as an adult member of the community? Where are the strained relations, or conflict, in that? Without any explanatory examples provided by Bell, it is difficult to understand the theoretical assertion, and therefore difficult as well to be convinced, i.e. to find the argument compelling, a necessity in nearly any work of scholarship.

Further, Bell explicitly refuses to acknowledge that her theoretical frameworks derive from, or apply particularly applicably to, any particular culture. She acknowledges time and again that the specific cultural context is essential for understanding the particular functioning, or meaning, of specific rituals; in fact, she argues quite strongly at times that there can be no all-encompassing “ritual theory” that serves to explain all ritual cross-culturally. And yet, still, she goes on to speak only in vague, generalizing statements that are connected to no particular time or place, no particular people or culture, and no particular type or category of ritual (e.g. religious vs. secular, tribal vs. court ritual vs. modern political ritual). Bell writes that discussing specific cultures is not the point of this study, and that the application of these ideas to particular cases is left for future works by other scholars, perhaps drawing upon the ideas presented in this volume. She thus leaves us completely ungrounded, and lost. What kind of rituals is Bell imagining as she writes this? What kinds of rituals are we meant to imagine as we read it, in order for the various theoretical ideas being presented to make sense? Are certain sections meant to apply more fully to (Judeo-Christian) religious rituals, thus explaining why they do not seem to quite serve to explain tribal or animistic/shamanistic rituals? Does the entire book secretly take religious and/or tribal rituals as the focus, without considering “secular” political ritual? Bell refuses to say so, instead leaving the reader with a vague sense that everything in the book applies variously to everything (and nothing) in the broad world of ritual activity.

In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is a superficial and introductory, but extremely extensive, compendium of past scholarship on “ritual,” from Bourdieu, Saussure, and Durkheim to Roy Rappaport, Terrence Ranger, and Stephen Lukes. It serves in this respect as an excellent resource for discovering which scholars’ works to investigate more deeply. Bell’s arguments regarding ritualization as a strategic means of differentiating actions or activities within a broader context of (mundane) action and activity, also provides a valuably different and refreshingly new perspective on “ritual.”

In sum, Bell’s Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice is terrible. It’s one of the most hand-wavey, abstract, and ultimately meaningless academic books I have ever read, and that’s really saying something, given the things by Foucault and others which I have read for many a Theories & Methodologies class. rather problematic, as a source for trying to understand “ritual” further. The theory presented in this book is so far disconnected from any specific cases, specific cultural or historical contexts, or categories (political ritual? religious ritual? rituals performed at home, rituals performed in public), as to be extremely difficult to understand, let alone apply, to any particular case that one is examining. It is a wonder to me that anyone manages to make use of this book at all, and that it remains so prominent, so oft-cited. I would never have come across the book myself, or thought to add it to my reading lists, if not for how widely cited it is. It is so widely cited, in fact, that I had had the impression it was a must-read. Well, I suppose I am glad to have read it now, to know for myself just what it is, rather than having that continue to linger out there, not knowing whether it might have been useful for me, for my own research. And now I know, and the answer is, not in the slightest.

We shall see when, or if, I end up posting more extensively about some of the other works on ritual & performance that I have been reading… but, for now, in order to provide some contrast, let me maybe just say a couple words about some of the other works I’ve already posted about. Whereas Bell speaks broadly and vaguely about “ritual” in “societies” in general, Hevia, for example, speaks specifically about Qing and British diplomatic ritual in the late 18th century, giving us much concrete context for better understanding Qing ritual, British ritual, court ritual, and diplomatic ritual, among other categories. How bodies move in space. How hierarchy is constructed through ritual action. How differences in cultural attitudes or assumptions about ritual can result in problems. Edward Muir, who I have not yet posted about, along with Tom Pettitt and numerous others, analyze specific parades, processions, or other events in medieval and Renaissance Europe, using these as generalize-able examples, to point to how banners and music are used in parades, how processions might function – in terms of meaning-making, or emotional, social-political or psychological impact – both from the point of view of participants and observers. They point out to us how parades & processions function differently from theatre, since they pass us by rather than standing still. How parades & processions map out space, and negotiate relationships between different groups. How the members of a parade might be arranged before, after, or around the figure or object of the greatest importance, whether that be a king, ambassador, or relic. I know I am being quite vague and general here, but I promise you, even in this I am being far more concrete than Bell; and scholars such as Muir and Pettitt are more concrete still. Even the theorists, such as Victor Turner, provide specific examples to show what they are talking about. Hell, even Foucault does this, as he speaks of incarceration, schooling, specific episodes in the history of science, as examples to illustrate far broader, more abstract and conceptual topics. That Bell manages to so completely avoid providing any such concrete examples would be impressive, if it weren’t so exceptionally frustrating.

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James Hevia, Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793, Duke
University Press (1995).

James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar is quite valuable not only as a wonderfully thorough and detailed account of the 1793 Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor, but also for the arguments and frameworks it provides us for understanding political/diplomatic ritual and ceremony, as well as the conceptual underpinnings of the Sinocentric world order.

Among many others, one of the key threads running through the text focuses on court ritual, that is, formalized performances – words, actions, dress and appearance otherwise – as manifested in the interactions between Lord Macartney’s British embassy and the officials of the Qing court. As Hevia explains, a dominant view in the West both in 1793 and today, borne out of the Enlightenment tradition, identifies ritual as associated with the archaic, and the non-modern. The classic, dominant narrative of the Macartney embassy describes the Qing Court as blinded and hampered by “an insistence … on maintaining appearances or bending reality to fit appearances,” and identifies the emphasis on ritual as indicating “an absence of fully conscious rationality, a confusion of categories, and limited understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.” Hevia argues, and explains, however, that ritual must not be seen as mere theatre, nor as opposed to “real” political activity; rather, we must recognize the ways in which “ritual activities are themselves the very production and negotiation of power relations.”

Hevia also discusses the conceptual, ritual, functionings of Imperial “guest ritual” (賓禮, binli), and the so-called Sinocentric world order. Expanding upon the understandings conveyed in Fairbank’s Chinese World Order and other writings, Hevia explains that the exchange between the Emperor and tribute embassies can be understood as a process of initiating and completing, with the extension (da) of Imperial virtue (德, de) to encompass distant realms, and the response of that realm to send ambassadors and tribute, and to show sincere desire to join the Chinese world order (向化之誠, xiang hua zhi cheng), as the two crucial elements of the exchange required to enact, or maintain, the cosmic order. We come to understand more fully, now, how this ritual connects, too, to the process of investiture, the incorporation of imperial vassals and foreign rulers into the system as empowering them to replicate the same ritual relationships back home, with their own vassals. What was understood in previous scholarship as a concept enacted only within the Imperial Court, and within the minds of the Emperor and officials of the Court, now seems much more discursively real and powerful, as it is replicated across a network of hierarchical relations, manifesting throughout the Chinese Empire and its broader Sinocentric world. The tribute/investiture system, and its underlying logics, may have been a Chinese invention, but it was adopted and adapted throughout the region, and had considerable significance, perhaps comparable in some senses to the so-called Westphalian system of sovereign nation-states – a European invention which has now been adopted and adapted throughout the world.

Hevia’s inclusion of numerous specific Chinese terms relevant to the ritual conceptions, and provision of usable English equivalents, is additionally valuable for my efforts to be able to articulate these concepts in my own work. One of the most difficult aspects of my project researching Ryukyuan embassies has been the conceptualization, and articulation, of aspects of these concepts, and being able to understand 謝恩 (C: xiè ēn; J: shaon) as “expressing gratitude for imperial grace,” while still a bit vague and slippery, is a helpful step towards understanding, and thus being able to myself describe, just what it is that embassies are said to be expressing thanks for. That being said, however, one must be careful trusting Hevia (or any scholar, unfortunately) too blindly – Joseph Esherick published a review entitled “Cherishing Sources from Afar” in which he roundly tears Hevia apart for, allegedly, supposedly, mis-translating terms and misinterpreting documents. Who to trust? I don’t know. Much of Hevia’s writing is quite compelling – but if Esherick is right, and it’s based on mistaken interpretations, then we have a problem. But, if Esherick is the one who is mistaken, then perhaps we don’t. Beats me.

For Macartney, and in the dominant Western understanding since that time, ritual performance was merely representational; within the Chinese paradigm, however, ritual performance was itself constitutive – the ritual is not just a show of respect, but is indeed the construction and maintenance itself of power relationships, and of the domestic and international order otherwise. For the British, performing ceremony poorly or not at all was disrespectful, but for the Chinese, performing it incorrectly or not at all was destructive of the natural order itself.

The various aspects of the Chinese emperor-centric cosmological worldview, and its manifestations in foreign (“tributary”) relations, as well as the role of ritual and performance as not merely discursive, but constitutive, are two concepts which are central to my research on the Ryukyuan embassies to Edo. Certainly, both Ryukyu and Tokugawa Japan were deeply enmeshed in Confucian and Sinocentric discourses, with the Tokugawa shogunate appropriating those discourses to construct a sort of Japan-centric, or shogun-centric mode of constructing and performing hierarchical relationships (including the reception of foreign envoys from Ryukyu and Korea, in emulation of the Chinese Emperor’s reception of foreign envoys ); but, more examination and consideration will be necessary, I think, not only to more fully grasp these two concepts to begin with, but also to consider how they might be applied to the case of Ryukyu/Tokugawa relations, and how to articulate their functionings in that context.

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The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has a fantastic exhibit up right now, through Jan 12 2014, of images and objects related to royal ceremonies and processions in Joseon Dynasty Korea, many of them on loan from the National Palace Museum of Korea itself. And, despite all these objects being on loan, photography was allowed! Thank you, Asian Art Museum!!

My research focuses on ritual processions, and paintings of them, and so this exhibit was particularly interesting for me. I’ve looked at a number of paintings, prints, and illustrated books depicting Ryukyuan processions in early modern Japan. Comparisons to Korean processions could, in theory, be quite useful for me. And, indeed, it was interesting to see how similar the content of the images was, and how different the format and composition. In short, we see a lot of the same elements – extremely similar style of palanquins, ceremonial umbrellas, names of official posts – but, whereas the Japanese depictions of Ryukyuan & Korean processions generally display figures in single- or double-file, and quite large, in great detail, in a manner that might be said to resemble the view of the procession from the side of street, here we see something perhaps more resembling a bird’s eye view, with figures spread out in a grid, rather than bunched up in file. In any case, in short, it’s certainly given me a lot to think about, and I look forward to getting my hands on the catalog (available on Amazon for a very reasonable $26.42).

Plus, the exhibition included quite a few objects which certainly seem like they would be of great historical significance & really special to get to see. I regret my ignorance when it comes to Korean history… I’ve seen exhibits of objects of similar significance for Japanese history, and have felt it a very special and fortunate opportunity.

This was really a fantastic exhibit; I’m sorry I didn’t get to spend more time and see it more thoroughly. But I absolutely recommend it to anyone who can make it out.

In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art During the Joseon Dynasty is on display at the Asian Art Museum at Civic Center, San Francisco, from Oct 25 2013 until Jan 12 2014. Admission to the special exhibit is included in regular admission to the museum.

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