Posts Tagged ‘ryukyu’

Falling farther and farther behind on blog posts. Still only up to events of July, and so much has happened since then! But bear with me, please.

I know it’s a little crazy, but I actually went straight from Fukuoka all the way back to Tokyo, in order to catch a few meetings, and then head back the other direction (west). Ultimately, I skipped Hiroshima and Okayama, as I wasn’t sure what conditions were like given the then-recent flooding disaster. But, as I’ll touch upon in future posts, I managed a crazy whirlwind set of visits to Kobe, Himeji, Ise, and Futagawa (Toyohashi) before settling in Kyoto for my last week. We’ll get to that. But in the meantime, while I’ve already posted about my feelings on going back to Tokyo, here’s a separate post on the exhibit “The Ryukyu Kingdom: A Treasure Chest of Beauty” (琉球:美の宝庫) held at the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo this summer.

It was truly wonderful to see such an extensive Ryukyu exhibit. Not just “decorative arts” – textiles and lacquerwares – but paintings as well. With label text highlighting “the superb artistic and technical mastery of the kingdom’s painters,” the fact that so much was lost in the war so we can’t know the full extent or “a full portrait of Ryukyuan achievements.” And, further, highlighting that the royal court had “a particularly deep connection with the Fuzhou art world,” and an extensive collection of Chinese and Japanese works. We can only imagine, if the war hadn’t happened, if none of this had been destroyed, how much more brilliant, more cultured, more “deep” for lack of a better word, Ryukyu would seem.

And I do love that they’ve brought some of the greatest treasures of Ryukyuan painting here. A cat by Yamaguchi Sōki; pheasants in the snow by Zamami Yōshō. Paintings of officials from the TNM, and of Gi Gakugen and Tei Junsoku from the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The Naha Port screens from Kyoto and Shiga Universities. Good thing I didn’t try to see any of these works at their home insititutions – they were on loan, here in Tokyo.

But, as wonderful as it is to see these treasures, I’m perhaps even more pleased to see additional works, like a painting of Li Bai viewing a waterfall, attributed to Gusukuma Seihô. Most of what once existed has been lost, but what survives goes beyond just a few famous paintings of cats, pheasants, and mythical beasts. Ryukyuan painting, like Chinese or Japanese, has a whole range, and that’s what we’re getting a tiny taste of here.

I’m excited to be learning the names of a few additional Ryukyuan painters. It’s not all Zamami Yôshô, Gusukuma Seihô, and Yamaguchi Sôki. There’s a very nice trees in snow landscape by Yakena Seiga which reminds me a bit of Sesshû or the like. Several pieces by Izumikawa Kan’ei 泉川寛英(Shin Shikyū 慎思丸)1767-1844, a painter for the Keezui bujôju, whose son Izumikawa Kandō 泉川寛道(慎克熈 Shin Kokki)b. 1800, painted the famous painting of a young official and his consort which graces the cover of the Ryukyu Kaiga catalog.

「琉球進貢船図屏風」(Ryukyu Tribute Ship Folding Screen), Kyoto University Museum.

It was exciting, too, to see the two most famous folding screen paintings of Naha Port, which I had previously only seen digitally, or in catalogs. One is held by the Kyoto University Museum, and the other by Shiga University in Hikone. Being so scattered, I had never had the chance to see them in person before. As a result, I don’t know that I had ever realized, but the Shiga screen is much larger and brighter than the Kyoto one. Both are great, but the Shiga one feels more iconic to me. Seeing them in person now, I realized it’s the one I remember much better, making the Kyoto one feel off, like a bad imitation, though of course it is not – it’s a fantastic original artwork unto itself. The Shiga screen stands tall, like it was meant to be put on the floor, while the Kyoto screen seems to be the height for being put up on a platform, like in a tokonoma perhaps. Interestingly, the composition is quite similar in both – how the returning tribute ship is placed relative to the haarisen (dragon boats), for example, and how the bay and other parts of town are arranged.

Another work on display that’s very cool to see is the Chinese basis for the famous pheasant painting by Okinawan painter Zamami Yôshô. I hadn’t realized there were these two, but I guess it makes sense. It’s great that the Churashima Foundation (which operates Shuri castle) owns this Chinese painting, so that it can be displayed comparatively with the Ryukyuan version.

A handscroll by Sun Yi 孫億 of birds and flowers was just gorgeous. A brightly colored piece in reds and blues and greens against an oddly bright yet not actually gold-foiled silk ground…

琉球来聘使登営図 (detail). Handscroll by Bun’yû, Tokyo National Museum. 1843.

And how about that, just my luck, the TNM procession scroll I wanted to see was here too. Now if only they had allowed photos, I could have gotten what I didn’t (couldn’t) get from making an appointment at TNM. Well, for part of the painting anyway. In any case – the scroll is beautiful, very well done with bright colors and careful details. But since we know it’s by Bun’yû 文囿、a student of Tani Bunchô, and not by any official Shogunate painter, I wonder if we can explain away the oddities as simply incorrect. The section of the scroll opened and visible begins with the two placard holders, then six muchi bearers (instead of just two; these were red-lacquered staffs used to part the crowds to make way for the procession). After one mounted figure in Ming style costume, we see one chingu 金鼓 banner and one tiger banner paired up with one another, then a few musicians, then the Prince’s sedan chair, followed rather than preceded by the royal parasol (ryansan). I do wish I could look at the whole thing.

A procession scroll from the Kyushu National Museum (Kyûhaku) was on display too, making me feel better about not trying to request objects there – this one would not have been available anyway. We see Prince Tomigusuku, head of the 1832 mission, surrounded by figures identified as 中小姓 (“middle[-ranking] page”), and by other names and titles. This may be the only scroll depicting the 1832 mission. They also had Kyûhaku’s copy of Sugitani Yukinao’s Zagaku scroll. This is a gorgeous, full-color, scroll painted by Kumamoto domain court painter Sugitani Yukinao depicting Ryukyuan Chinese-style musical performances at the Satsuma mansion in Edo in 1832. One version is now held by the Eisei Bunko, the collection of the Hosokawa family (descendants of the lords of Kumamoto), one of the more difficult samurai family collections to get into. But, apparently, Kyûhaku and Shuri castle own copies of it, each of which are slightly different. This one has gold leaf, but the colors are much more muted, thinner. How many copies of this painting are there?

“Evening Glow at Jungai,” by Hokusai, 1832, and the image he based it on, from an 1831 Japanese reprinting of the 1757 Chinese book Liuqiu guo zhilue.

And, finally, they had on display half of the eight prints of Hokusai’s “Eight Views of Ryukyu,” displayed alongside copies of the Ryûkyû koku shiryaku (C: Liuqiu guo zhilue) on which he based the images. Very nice. I know that so many of these names and references to particular works won’t mean much to the majority of readers, and for that I apologize. I am so far behind on blog posts, I’m afraid I’m just not taking the bother to really properly rewrite these personal notes on the exhibit into a more proper (audience-friendly) blog post. But, suffice it to say, I suppose, that just about every one of the most famous works related to Ryukyuan art were on display in this exhibition. A real marvel to see, and something I would dream of replicating if/when I might ever have the kind of curatorial position that might allow me to propose such a thing.

Moving down to the next level, they had more of the most famous treasures on display, including a pink bingata robe with dragons (National Treasure) that I saw a replica of at Shuri castle just the week before, and a white one with pink, blue, purple streaks, also very famous. A set of incredible royal serving dishes which I’ve seen many times before in catalogs but which is all the more impressive in person, for it’s size and bright red and gold colors, with the royal mitsudomoe crest.

A replica of the royal crown – they later showed the real one for a few weeks in August – similarly shines. Somehow I never thought of it as being quite so bright and colorful. But I suppose when it’s lit up properly – unlike the dim lighting at Shuri castle – that gives it the opportunity to do so. How impressive this must have looked on the king’s head, with the Okinawan sun reflecting off of the gold and jewels.

Next, a somewhat restrained lacquer dish that I think I like especially. No gold, no mother-of-pearl, just matte red and black, with a simple design of the mitsudomoe in the center. Apparently this was used in the ūchibaru (the women’s quarters of Shuri palace), for less ceremonial, more regular occasions. I wonder if the rest of the palace used similar designs, or if those for the women were especially restrained.

A 2014 recreation of the ogoe of King Shô Iku is a great inclusion. All of the official royal portraits were lost in 1945, though we are fortunate to at least have b&w photos. It’s hard to say just how accurate this painting might be to the brightness or boldness or coloration of the originals, but if all you can do is a replica, I like this better than nothing, for showing the brilliance and power and so forth of Ryukyu. And that it’s not all decorative arts and folk culture, but that it was a full culture, a full kingdom, just like Japan or Korea or anywhere else. Can you imagine if Western bookstores put all the Japan stuff under “folk culture” instead of under History and Art? I’m pretty sure they used to. If China and Korea aren’t under such categories, whether in the bookstores or in how they’re displayed in museums, why should Okinawa (or Hawaii, or anywhere else) be?

The next X number of objects were all lacquerwares of course, because what’s a Ryukyu exhibit that isn’t disproportionately filled with lacquerwares and textiles. But here was something new and interesting – an Okinawan lacquerware box (I guess I trust the experts that somehow we know from style, or otherwise, that this is indeed of Ryukyuan manufacture) decorated with the Tokugawa crest. And yet the labels say it’s not typical of the kinds of things given as formal gifts, but rather that it was likely to be shown, or seen, in the hand 手元で鑑賞するふさわしい逸品である, whatever that means. Having written these notes before buying the exhibit catalog, and not having that catalog on hand right now as I type this up, I’ll have to go back and look at it sometime, try to figure this out.

The exhibit ended with photographs and notebooks by Kamakura Yoshitarô, a prewar scholar whose mingei (“folk art”) ideas about Okinawa were, I suppose, rather problematic in ways, patronizing and orientalizing. But at the same time, he was instrumental in having Shuri castle saved from destruction, and in saving or at least photographing or copying down countless examples of Okinawan arts, crafts, architecture, and documents. His notebooks have very recently been digitized and also published in modern type transcription by the Okinawa Prefectural University of the Arts, and are just invaluable for anyone studying certain aspects of early modern Okinawan history. So many royal government documents – not just about arts or whatever, but about policies and events too – survive today only in those notebooks. I’ve been reading a lot from these modern publications, but to see the originals was really something. His sketches are just incredible. I’m glad they’ve been designated Important Cultural Properties. They deserve it. I would love to see more of them in person. If possible, it’d be amazing to do just an exhibition organized around them.

Gradually working my way through my time in Japan this summer. Next, some brief thoughts on some various other places I visited, and then finally, Kyoto.

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The University of Hawaii Press had a crazy massive clearance sale a month or so ago. I bought a bunch of books for super cheap that I would normally never be able to justify paying full price for (upwards of $50 each). I also bought some other books for my collection; who knows if I’ll ever find the time to read them, but somehow it just feels good to have them.

*Okinawa Prismed (沖縄・プリズム) is a catalog from a Museum of Modern Art Tokyo exhibit, covering Okinawan art from 1872-2008. (Not a U Hawaii Press book)

Somehow, I had never come across this catalog before in my research. I’m really glad I found it. The book divides Okinawa’s modern history into three periods: 1872-1945, when Okinawa was incorporated into the Japanese Empire; 1945-1975, when Okinawa was under US Military Occupation (which actually ended in ’72); and 1975-2008, when there was a resurgence in Okinawan culture and identity. The majority of the book is taken up by 1-4 page sections on each of a great many artists, both Okinawan and (mainland) Japanese, including both text and images. There are also a number of brief essays on each period of history, and on various themes within those periods. Being a Japanese publication, the vast majority of the book is in Japanese; however, the list of images, and Introduction essay are provided in English in the back. There are a lot of excellent pictures in here, both photos of Okinawa at various times in its history, and images, of course, of artworks; I look forward to reading about certain artists about whom I have heard of before, including mainland Japanese artists Yamamoto Hôsui and Tômatsu Shômei, but am also excited for the possibility of discovering native Okinawan artists about whom I might want to investigate further.

*The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a book about Faubion Bowers, translated and adapted by Samuel Leiter from a book by Okamoto Shiro. Bowers (1917-1999) was apparently Japanese-language interpreter and “aide-de-camp,” as Wikipedia puts it, to Gen. MacArthur during the Occupation of Japan. Having spent time in Japan in 1940-41 and been exposed to kabuki previously, Bowers fought to rescue kabuki, and to see it continue, when Occupation authorities pushed for it to be banned for its display of feudal values.

The history of kabuki in the modern period is something I know extremely little about, but as a fan of kabuki, I suppose I owe a great debt to Bowers; I look forward to someday finding the time to read this book, and learn a bit more about kabuki history beyond the “core” periods of its high points, i.e. in the Edo period.

*Which brings us to the four volume set Kabuki Plays on Stage, which I absolutely cannot believe I was able to get for so cheap. Each of these hardcover volumes normally goes for around $50 cover price, so to get them for literally 95% off was an absolute windfall victory. Books I never thought I’d own now sit prettily on my shelf.

The four volumes, edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, consist primarily of translations of kabuki plays by Brandon, Leiter, and others, 51 plays in total. In this alone, they are an unbelievable resource, since the majority of other translations out there are scattered between books with titles like “Five Classic Plays” and “[Overview of] Traditional Japanese Theatre.” These are, of course, excellent books as well, but when one is looking for the translation of a particular play, or is just skimming through to find a variety of different plays, a selection of 51 cannot be beat. Of course, some of the longer jidaimono plays, long enough to take up over 250 pages in their own separate publication, are not included. Each play translation includes pictures of performances, ukiyo-e prints, and the like, providing a visual element to help bring the play to life in the mind of the reader; introductions before each play explain literary references, historical origins of the play, and other interesting and important aspects. Lengthy introductions in each volume provide detailed overviews of the history of kabuki, and I expect will serve as an extremely useful basis for if/when I ever write out a summary of kabuki history for the Samurai-Archives Wiki – these could also serve as excellent readings to assign to students, I expect.

The only thing I have noticed in these volumes that I think stares out at me as a strong potential negative is that the translations are not annotated. I appreciate that these are meant to be clean and easy to read, and I am sure there are some very valid arguments for keeping them clean this way. However, kabuki plays make countless references to historical figures, historical events, and famous poems, as well as featuring, contemporaneous for their original writers/actors and audiences but not for us, countless elements of traditional/historical Japanese architecture, objects, garments, and the like. I’m not saying that we need to have a full paragraph on the history of the kiseru taking up a good 1/5th of the page, but a sentence or two the first time it appears, explaining that when the translation refers to a “smoking pipe,” they are talking about a long, thin, piece of bamboo with metal ends, used to smoke tobacco, and introduced around the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch. That said, on the positive side, the explanations and translations include a lot of specialty theatre terminology, such as keren and tachimawari, and a glossary in the back, not obscuring meaning through over-translation or through omitting terms such as hanamichi that very directly and clearly refer to what they refer to. I am glancing through the book, flipping pages, trying to see if the translations tend to use words like geta, kiseru, and noren instead of clogs, pipe, and curtain, conveying directly the Japanese flavor (and more specific referents to specific objects), but I can’t seem to find it…

I cannot wait to delve into these books.

*Southern Exposure, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, is a collection of Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It includes a number of poems, and 12 short stories, in translation into English, ranging from 1922 to 1998. Having not yet read any of them, I cannot say for sure, but I would think it a safe bet that none of these pieces (with the exception of a single verse from a set of translations of Old Poems) describe or refer back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and that all of them address more modern issues.

There is certainly a certain appeal to be found in the complexities of Okinawa’s modern history, political issues, and identity politics. From the overthrow of the kingdom, assimilation policies, and suffering under the control of the Japanese in the 1870s to 1940s, to the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, 27 years of American Occupation, the continued American military presence today, and issues of identity, diaspora, and cultural decline or revival, there are certainly a lot of touching, powerful, complex, issues to be addressed. I, personally, am still sort of coming around to any interest in these sorts of things. I think being in Hawaii was good for me, surrounding and immersing me in those kinds of politics; now that I’ve been removed from it once again, perhaps I’ll go back to feeling distanced from it. Or perhaps I will continue to sort of grow into being interested in such issues.

For one reason or another, literature has never really interested me, even as my interests in art, music, theatre, and various other fields have grown. But, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, it certainly never hurts to have more Okinawa-related books on my shelf. There are so few in English that to avoid buying something like this feels like it would have to be a very conscious, intentional, and obvious choice; an obvious gap in my collection to anyone who skimmed my shelves and knew what they were looking at/for.

*Prisoners from Nambu is a book I have seen countless times before, on shelves, and have always passed up. It explores a very particular incident in Japanese history, involving the capture of a number of Dutch seamen by people of Nambu (in the far north of Honshû). Being that it is such a specific incident, and not one that I am myself researching, I never gave this book much thought. But, then, after glimpsing over the ideas behind Luke Roberts’ new book “Performing the Great Peace,” and struggling with the issues of secrecy and deception in the Satsuma-Ryûkyû-shogunate relationship, I realized that, given the subtitle of this book, “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th century Japanese Diplomacy,” it could be of some interest and some use. We’ll see if I ever get around to actually reading it at all.

*Flowering in the Shadows is a collection of essays on “women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting.” Not exactly a topic particularly related to my research, but certainly of interest, at least to the extent that it might cover female ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Oi. In the end, it doesn’t. One brief chapter addresses “women in traditional Japan” in general, speaking mainly of the Edo period; another, by Stephen Addiss, focuses specifically on Ike Gyokuran, her mother, and her grandmother. To those who are interested in Gyokuran, you’ll have to pardon me for feeling like I’ve heard/read about this before, as if she seems the only woman artist everyone immediately leaps to mention & discuss. Personally, and this is just personal preference I suppose, I’m much more interested in female ukiyo-e artists, and women Nihonga painters. After so many centuries of art production being dominated almost exclusively by men, Kyoto Nihonga (and in Tokyo, too?) suddenly saw numerous very prominent women artists. I wonder how that happened, what challenges they faced, or how easily they were welcomed into artists’ social circles. How were their perspectives or messages about women in society perceived and received? I’m sure there are good essays on this out there somewhere – but not in this book. Still, of course, I’m sure it’s still a very interesting and useful book for those with a slightly different focus…

*Shelley Fenno Quinn’s Developing Zeami seems to be a somewhat more practical guide to the use of Zeami’s writings as guidance for one’s performance of Noh – as compared to some of her other work I have read which seems to focus more on Zeami’s writings as writings, as literature, as historical documents useful for us scholars in understanding and interpreting Noh.

This is still a very dense, serious book, not light-reading by any means. But, judging from chapter titles like “Developing Zeami’s Representational Style,” “Zeami’s Theory in Practice,” “Actor and Audience,” and “Mind and Technique: the Two Modes in Training,” it would seem that the book could be useful for the serious, philosophical, aspiring practitioner of Noh. One day I hope to teach a course on Traditional Japanese Theatre – maybe some selections from this book will prove useful. Or maybe I’ll skip this dense conceptual stuff and stick to things we find in slightly more survey-oriented books like Brazell’s “Traditional Japanese Theater.”

*Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting is an edited volume which came to my attention because of my use of essays by Elizabeth Lillehoj in attempting to understand how paintings might have served as visual records of official ritual events. Her essay in this volume focuses on a series of fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors) in the palace of Tôfukumon’in, depicting the Gion Matsuri. Much of Lillehoj’s work focuses on Tôfukumon’in, on issues of patronage, and on fusuma-e and the like in the empress’ palaces.

Other essays in the book discuss different aspects of the phenomenon of the use of classic themes – e.g. references to the Tale of Genji, or Heian period poetry – in early Tokugawa era painting. There are, as to be expected, several essays on Sôtatsu and Kôrin – interesting artists who produced beautiful works.

*Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan is another book that’s not from UH Press, but which I recently obtained. The idea of approaching Tokugawa Japan as an antecedent, and not as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, is troublesome, I think; but, at the same time, the idea of Tokugawa Japan as a vibrant, active, complex society with its own “traditional” equivalents to banks, mass media, postal service, highways & tourism, etc. is a valuable one, highlighting what makes Tokugawa Japan so exciting.

This is an edited volume of essays by Japanese scholars, translated by a number of scholars overseen (“edited”) by Conrad Totman. In my MA thesis, I made use of an essay from this book on “Urban Networks and Information Networks” by Katsuhisa Moriya. The article focuses chiefly on the hikyaku (飛脚) couriers who transported messages and packages along the major highways between the major cities of Tokugawa Japan; but what was most important for my purposes was simply to have something to cite to support the idea that Tokugawa Japan was well-interconnected, and that provincial towns would not have been totally disconnected from a sort of collective cultural consciousness. In any case, the book also contains essays on the bakuhan (shogunate + domains) system, on rural industry, the spatial structure of Edo, and the structures of Edo period society. Combined with certain other essays, I can see this being a good core for readings for a course on Edo period Japan as “early modern.”

*Finally, we have Challenging Past and Present, a volume edited by Ellen Conant, which, like Lillehoj’s “Classicism” volume, focuses on a specific period and set of themes within Japanese art history, in this case, the “metamorphosis of 19th century Japanese art” as Western influences poured in, and as societal pressures pushed artists to explore ways of being more “modern” in their art-making.

Though I should like to see more essays more explicitly addressing the origins and development of Nihonga, the volume focuses more on topics such as Yokohama-e prints, Meiji tourism & photography, the Rokumeikan, and “Imperial” architecture. Fortunately, all of these are plenty interesting topics as well. Prior to going to Hawaii, I had little interest in the Meiji period, thinking of the Tokugawa period as the real “height” of “traditional” Japan – by Meiji, everything from kabuki to ukiyo-e, to the worlds of the geisha, the samurai, etc. were in decline. And why should I want to study something in decline? But. Having now studied the issues of modernity more extensively, with a professor who specializes in this period, and these topics, I have come to see Meiji not as a period of decline, but one of interesting and exciting cultural clashes and cultural meldings. People negotiated with their past, with their identity, struggling to advance face-forward into modernity, without losing their distinctive Japanese identity. Besides, the further we get from that period ourselves, the more this world of 100+ years ago resembles its own “tradition,” its own distinctive romantic(ized) aesthetic. So, whether it’s the Rokumeikan, or Japan at the World’s Fairs, it’s not a Japan that’s in decline, but rather simply another Japan, a different Japan, with its own separate appeal.

A few of the early essays in the book address the historical background and historical development of Japanese art at this time in a broader sense, and could hopefully be interesting and useful for understanding these shifts in a broad, overall sort of way. One of the later articles I am particularly interested to read is by Martin Collcutt, and discusses “the image of Kannon as compassionate mother,” the subject of a pair of oft-cited and very interesting paintings by Kanô Hôgai (as well as one later copy by Okakura Shusui). I’ve been fortunate to see the Smithsonian’s copy of the painting in person, as well as the Okakura copy at the MFA, and the one in Tokyo virtually/digitally, and would be interested to see what Collcutt has to say about the differences between the copies, and the prominence of this particular composition; other scholars, including Chelsea Foxwell, have written about the same set of paintings, so it would be interesting to see how their approaches or conclusions compare.

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I’ve just finished reading Stephen Turnbull’s newest book, “The Samurai Capture a King: Okinawa 1609,” an account of the 1609 invasion & conquest of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū by the samurai forces of the feudal domain (han) of Satsuma. Turnbull is easily one of the most prolific writers active today of samurai history, and while his books are for the most part of much higher quality than those associated with what I can only call “sammyrai” history*, he is definitely known for his sloppy scholarship and for the popular/general audience (read: non-academic/scholarly) level of his publications.

All in all, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. I haven’t read a Turnbull/Osprey book in quite some time, and I guess I had built up some pretty harsh preconceptions (read: extremely low expectations) based on vague memories. To whatever extent that this account can be said to be reliable, Turnbull does provide a very involving, engaging, account of the invasion, in incredible detail. Contrary to my initial expectations and impressions, he does actually use Okinawan sources (not just Japanese ones), and does actually discuss at length the inconsistencies and exaggerations seen in troop numbers in the primary sources. He’s made me aware of primary sources I never knew existed – not only Shimazu family records and things like the Shimazu Ryûkyû Gunseiki and Ryûkyû Gunki, which I might have presumed to exist, but things like the ehon (picture book) version of the gunki monogatari (“Tales of the Records of War”) -something more commoner-level, and more widely available at the time of its publication.

Though I was at first frustrated or annoyed by his Shimazu-centric approach – given that I’m so used to reading things from the Okinawan point of view, and seeing the Shimazu as the attackers, the colonizers, the oppressive overlords – that feeling quickly passed, and in fact, I find his approach most intriguing.

I’m still a little taken aback at his representation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom as aggressive and expansive, when everything else I’ve read has to one extent or another emphasized the martial weakness and relatively pacifist attitude of Ryūkyū. This is perhaps the first (only) text I’ve read that explicitly refers to the Ryūkyū Kingdom as expansive and aggressive, and the first that in any way assumes validity to Satsuma’s claims over any of the islands; i.e. argues that the Ryūkyū Kingdom was aggressive against Satsuma, and that Satsuma felt the need to defend or reclaim their territory. I guess we (aspiring & professional Okinawa scholars) have all fallen into that trap of reading backwards into history a sort of Manifest Destiny on the side of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. However their expansion is described in books by Kerr, Smits, Matsuda, Sakihara, or even Sakai (the top Satsuma specialist), it very rarely has that tinge of aggressive, expansive, conquest.

On a quite related note, I am intrigued by Turnbull’s apparent position on the side of Satsuma in supporting or recognizing their claims to a number of islands which they claimed for centuries but never governed, administered, settled or colonized. At least he admits that the Shimazu never exercised any authority over these islands prior to 1609, but merely claimed them. Perhaps that’s him reading back into history as if those islands which are today part of Kagoshima Prefecture rather than Okinawa Prefecture – seized by Satsuma in this 1609 operation – are therefore, in the imagination, inherently part of Satsuma and always have been.

Perhaps, this is a good thing. Turnbull’s Shimazu-centric approach cuts like a Foucaultian-cleaver (no connection to Foucault’s pendulum; it’s a different Foucault) through the questions and perspectives hidden from us by the webs of prior discourse. We’d become so used to seeing the Satsuma-Ryūkyū relationship a certain way that no one even thought to, let alone dared to, consider the whole thing from Satsuma’s point of view, in a relatively positive light.

I do not wish to paint the book in a wholly negative light. In fact, on balance, I’d say it was quite good. It does an excellent job of describing the invasion in great detail, going far far beyond anything previously published in English, and thus provides a most interesting bit of reading, and a most useful resource.

I do, however, have some issues I would like to raise:

(1) Going beyond simply focusing on events from Satsuma’s point of view, he truly valorizes and lionizes the Shimazu effort, samurai weapons, fighting skills, and strategies. This is perhaps the chief fundamental flaw running throughout all his writing.

He spends time praising and in fact worshipping through his words the amazing technology and craftsmanship of the samurai katana. He then goes on to describe the other weapons, ships, flags, banners and other signalling methods, and strategies and tactics as though they are all glowing, superb elements of what made the samurai the greatest warriors in all of history. Unprofessional, subjective, inaccurate, and extremely one-sided, I should think that if I had written something like this, I would be embarrassed of myself.

He describes the Shimazu forces as having excellent intelligence, liaison, and communication in such a manner that it seems not an objective, factual description, but a celebration of their amazing martial prowess; by contrast, he portrays the Ryukyuans as totally lacking in strategy, tactics, or planning, reacting far too late at every step of the way, their defenses incompetent to the point of being laughable. These are what we, at Wikipedia, call “peacock words.” Calling anything excellent, amazing, or brave just to lionize that side colors the description in a way that’s not only subjective and potentially inaccurate, but is indeed unprofessional for any self-respecting scholar.

Again, while these may be accurate descriptions, and he does in fact quote directly from primary sources to describe the utter chaos that erupted as peasants and commoners gathered their possessions on carts and horseback and fled for the hills, somehow it is in the way that he describes it which paints a picture not of sympathy for the outgunned Ryukyuans, whose tiny kingdom was destroyed in one fell swoop, but of glorious, valorous victory for the Shimazu over foolish, primitive, incompetent islanders.

On another crucial point, Turnbull again fails to represent the nuances of the history. He gives a fairly thorough overview of the ways in which Satsuma hid its presence in the islands, and the complex reasons for doing so (Chinese trade through Ryūkyū as a tributary was contingent on the Chinese belief that Ryūkyū was still independent, since China was not trading with Japan at the time). But then he neglects a key point: namely, that most scholars today believe that Beijing was well aware of what was going on, and chose to continue playing the game as it benefited them in whatever way. In misrepresenting this, Turnbull continues his pattern of exaggerating and celebrating Shimazu ability, failing to present a more accurate and objective account.

(2) No footnotes or endnotes. No idea which statements are coming from which source, or which page. Imagine how much side information is left out by not having footnotes.

(3) While it would be difficult to say that Turnbull made any true mistakes in representing the ranks and titles of the Ryukyuan aristocracy, discussion of it is absent, and that still frustrates me a bit. This is what happens when you don’t have footnotes.

He represents the individual known as Kyan ueekata, which might be translated as “Magistrate of Kyan” or “Lord of Kyan”, as if Kyan were his name, rather than his domain. He mentions princes, describing them as the king’s son and brother, completely failing to acknowledge that “prince” was a rank within the aristocracy that was often held by those not directly related to the royal line. Were these individuals actually the king’s son and brother? I’m not sure. Maybe he was misguided by their title of “Prince”. Or maybe he’s right.

He represents Rizan, ueekata of Jana, who was also known by the Chinese-style name of Tei Dô (Zheng Jiong), as “Jana Teido”, mixing names & titles incorrectly, with no care for macrons, and with no explanation whatsoever of the different names and titles of Okinawan aristocrats. This would have been the perfect opportunity to make use of footnotes…

(4) A horribly unprofessional lack of consistency in the use of macrons. I know this sounds quite nitpicky, but in truth it’s no different than correct spelling. Typos I can excuse – such as the flubbing of a date on one of the otherwise very keen date flags that run along the margins heightening the sense of action and drama by providing a timeline of events. But when you consistently, throughout the book, spell Ryūkyū correctly (indicating the long vowels that would distinguish it from the short-voweled Ryukyu) and Ōtomo incorrectly, as Otomo, that’s a problem. Non-scholarly, public consumption book or no, I should think that Dr Turnbull of all people – an obvious enthusiast for the dramatic and exciting narratives and biographies of clans and of individual samurai – would care to get this right.

This happens throughout the book. The name of the kings, that of the Shō dynasty (not Sho) is rendered correctly, but things like Ōwan, which he explicitly translates or describes as “the great bay” and Ōshima (“Great Island”), are rendered as Owan and Oshima, which in Japanese can only mean “small bay” or “honorable bay” and “small island” or “honorable island”, respectively, the Ō for “great” never being represented by a short “O” vowel sound.

Further typoes include the description of Naminoue (“Above the Waves”) Shrine as Nama no ue (“Above Freshness”) on one of the maps, and Name no ue (“Above Licking”) on a caption. This is possibly the fault of copyeditors, but Turnbull knows Japanese – if this was his own mistake, then shame on him for not taking the time or the bother to notice the vast difference in meaning he’s created, to the point that I, quite honestly, saw “Nama no ue” and had no idea what or where he was talking about.

On a similar note, and I am sure this is the fault of the Osprey editors or book designers, and not of Dr Turnbull, the date flags which run alongside the margins, keeping the energy of the narrative going by marking off events and providing a timeline, do not correspond at all to what’s described on their respective pages. I love these flags – I think they’re a great feature. But when the siege on Nakijin is described in the text on pp32-37, and the timeline flag in the margins for these events is found on p43, that’s a problem. Throughout the book, the narrative runs way ahead of the flags, such that the flags for the mid-point events of the conflict are found on pages describing the surrender and aftermath.


All in all, if you’re interested in the subject, I cannot but recommend this book. It is by far the most detailed account available in English, is filled with wonderful illustrations and maps, and is a relatively easy read (not too dense at all). But if you are truly serious about researching the topic, I would suggest that you double-check any and all facts gotten out of this book. Turnbull frustratingly does not include any footnotes or endnotes, but at least there’s a bibliography.

As for the price, I’ve gotten things only slightly shorter, and of great scholarly importance (read: things that form the foundation of my own research; things I cite all the time) for free, through my universities’ subscriptions to JSTOR. Had this been published in a journal rather than as a separate book, you too could have downloaded it totally for free, provided you were associated with a university. I’ve also bought books far longer, thicker for $20. In fact, half the books on my shelf are 4x the length of this one, and less than 2x (or even less than 1x) the cost. But, it’s hardly a totally absurd price to pay; I’ve seen academic books and museum catalogs that go for hundreds of dollars.

*Books which exaggerate and falsify the martial skills of samurai and ninja, maintaining and reinforcing the absurd stereotypes of ninja magic and unreal, superhuman samurai ability seen in video games, anime, and other forms of fiction. The kind of stuff aimed at or primarily consumed by teenage martial arts enthusiasts obsessed with exotic weapons, bushido, and the like, who aren’t even on the level of ‘armchair historian’, let alone proper scholar.

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