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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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The entire year of 2013 will be filled with Japan-related events in London, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the first official diplomatic exchanges between the Court of King James and the Tokugawa shogunate.

The first Englishman to ever travel to Japan was, of course, William Adams, the basis for James Clavell’s novel Shogun. Also known as Miura Anjin, Adams, the captain of a Dutch ship, was shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, and later became a retainer & advisor to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Right: One of two suits of samurai armor gifted to King James I by Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada in 1613, via EIC Captain John Saris. Held at the Tower of London since the 1660s.

I’ve never really thought about the date of the official beginning of diplomatic relations between Japan and Britain, but apparently it was in 1613. In that year, Captain John Saris arrived in Japan aboard a ship called the Clove, and exchanged gifts and formal letters with Ieyasu and Shogun Tokugawa Hidetada, on behalf of King James I, before establishing an East India Company factory at Hirado. Richard Cocks was the first head of that factory, which closed only ten years later. UK-Japan relations resumed in the 1850s, after the shogunate eased the “maritime restrictions” of the Tokugawa period. There were some rough bits in the relationship, and some very high points of quite close, positive relations, and then that brief period when Japan started conquering British colonies/outposts and everybody was at war, followed by the return of friendly relations from 1945 (or ’52, I guess), onwards through today.

Getting to the point, that 1613 date for Saris’ meeting with the Shogun makes this year, 2013, the 400th anniversary of Japanese-British relations. And, boy, does London have an events lineup planned. First of all, the list of people involved in organizing the “Japan400” events reads like a veritable who’s who of Japan-related people of the UK, from big-name scholars like Tim Screech, Leonard Blusse, Joe Earle, and Ian Nish, to numerous Sirs, at least one Viscount, and one Right Honorable Lord Mayor Alderman.

I just came upon the website a few days ago. Events began this week, in conjunction with the 470th anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s birth, and will continue through the end of the year. Closing ceremonies will be held on Dec 20, 2013, the 399th anniversary of the first ever art auction in Britain, in which John Saris sold the lacquerwares he obtained in Japan.

I can’t list every event on the schedule, but here are the highlights, those events I’d be most interested in, if I were able to attend any of them (which, sadly, I am not). You can find fuller lists of upcoming events at this page, and of events later in the year here. The schedule includes numerous lectures, workshops, symposia/conferences, exhibitions and festivals, including:

*29 January: Lecture by Prof. Timon Screech, “On the 400th Anniversary of the English East India Company in Japan: 1613–2013: A Forgotten Episode in Cultural History”, held at the Society of Antiquaries.
*31 January – 9 February: Anjin: The Shogun and the English Samurai, a new play by the Royal Shakespeare Company
*14-15 March: Lectures by Prof. Derek Massarella, on “Silver: The World’s First Global Commodity,” and on William Adams, respectively.
*April-May: An exhibition of “the art of the Japanese book”, at SOAS’ Brunei Gallery
*June: Conference on “Boundaries Across Edo and Meiji Period Japanese Culture, and the Role of Great Britain” at SOAS
*August: Exhibition of East India Company documents at the British Library
*September: The annual William Adams Festival in Kent will be even larger than usual.
*September: A conference on “1613 in Comparative Perspective”, held at SOAS.
*September: A conference on the history of international trade in weapons, held at the Royal Armouries.
*October: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s “red seal letter” (shuinjô) granting the British permission to reside and trade in Japan, will be put on display at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. The document is believed to have been in the collection since 1614.

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I will be beginning a PhD program in the Fall, studying under Prof. Luke Roberts, whose newest book, Performing the Great Peace, just came out a few months ago, and is now sitting on my shelf. I hope to be reading it before the summer is out. I had only a very vague sense of what it was about earlier – something about Edo period politics, and the relationship between shogunate and daimyo – and while I knew that basically anything I were to read would likely be useful information, expanding my understanding of the period, I was crossing my fingers that it would be interesting and exciting, and relevant to my own research.

There is always a danger when writing this kind of “first impressions” post, that the book may still yet turn out to be quite different from what I expect, but, having now read the first few pages, and a Japan Times review of the book, I think it’s safe to say that I do have a better sense of what it’s about. And, I am happy to say that I am actually quite excited to read this, and think it will have great relevance to my research, and to my understanding of Edo period politics in general.

In summary, Performing the Great Peace analyzes the ways in which the Edo period political system allowed, and indeed expected, daimyo to “perform,” on the surface, all due obedience to the shogun(ate) and his/its laws, while at the same time, beneath the surface, doing things very differently. It is about “open secrets” – doing one thing, and pretending to be doing another. As the Japan Times review cogently explains,

Two key terms that must be mastered for a proper grasp of Tokugawa rule are omote and uchi — roughly “outside” and “inside,” “surface” and “beneath the surface.” Omote was the ritual subservience a subordinate samurai owed a superior. Uchi was the willingness of a superior to allow subordinates to do pretty much as they pleased within their own jurisdictions — on one condition: that no semblance of disrespect or disorder breach the surface.

This seems like it could be extremely enlightening, a new seminal book for everyone’s understanding of how politics functioned in the Edo period. And, it could provide some interesting insights into the logic of Japanese administration and governance today. As events developed at Fukushima on & after 3/11, and as details have emerged in the fifteen months since, we have seen how the government, TEPCO, and other institutions tried to make sure that “no disorder breach the surface,” “performing” the proper obedience to order, to protocols and policies, while in fact, under the surface, in certain respects, chaos reigned. In applying the topic to contemporary behavior, we come dangerously close to getting involved with the discourse on Nihonjinron, something that I would prefer to not touch with a ten-foot pole. I would not be surprised if Dr. Roberts feels much the same way, and if he were to hesitate to say anything much about the relevance to today’s situations. Yet, perhaps there is something of value here for students and scholars of contemporary Japanese politics and sociology.

The topic of “open secrets” is an extremely relevant one for understanding the Ryukyu Kingdom’s relationships with Satsuma, with the shogunate, and with China, in the Edo period. It is something I have long known is important, but never really understood, or investigated, sufficiently, and something on which I therefore stumbled in my recently completed MA thesis on depictions of Ryukyu and its people in Japanese visual culture of the Edo period.

The Ryukyu Kingdom, then semi-independent, ruled over the territory that today constitutes the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The kingdom enjoyed a great degree of independence in its domestic affairs, but had been invaded in 1609 by forces from the Japanese domain (han) of Satsuma, and was throughout the remainder of the Edo period subject to Satsuma’s control in certain respects. I am still working out what are precisely the right terms to use when discussing this. Should we say “subject to” and “Satsuma’s control”? Should we say it was “subordinate” or a “vassal state”? In any case, Satsuma dictated Ryukyu’s foreign relations, and exacted tribute, or taxes, from Ryukyu. Ryukyu also sent occasional “tribute” missions to the shogunate, processing through the streets of Edo in colorful parades.

Above: Kanō Shunko, Procession of an Embassy from the Ryūkyū Kingdom, a pair of handscroll paintings (detail). c. 1710. British Museum.

Getting to the point, I think that in these parades, and in many other facets of Ryukyu’s interactions & activities in this period, there was a great degree of precisely the kind of “performing” that Roberts talks about. Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma was one of these “open secrets”, and a big one. At this time, China refused to engage in any formal diplomatic or trade relations with Japan, because the shogunate refused to pay tribute or formally acknowledge the Chinese Emperor as suzerain over Japan. Thus, in theory, China should have cut off relations with Ryukyu, if Ryukyu were controlled by (or part of) Japan. Instead, it was somehow in Beijing’s interests to look the other way and pretend that it didn’t know about Satsuma’s control of Ryukyu. And so, it played out like this: Ryukyu played the part of being a wholly independent & loyal tributary to China, performing all the proper ritual obeisances, and making efforts to hide Japanese influence in the islands, while continuing “under the surface” to pay taxes/tribute to Satsuma, to send missions to Edo, and to otherwise serve as a vassal, or subordinate, or whatever we wish to call it, under Satsuma (and by extension, the shogunate). At the same time, despite the Japanese influence in Ryukyu (the extent of which is still debated by scholars), Ryukyuans traveling to & in Edo on these missions were encouraged to play up their foreignness, and to hide their knowledge or understanding of things Japanese. What the commoners thought about Ryukyu remains largely unclear, but I think it not unreasonable to think that many shogunate officials would have been well aware of the Japanese cultural influence upon Ryukyu, yet all played the game of pretending that Ryukyu was more fully foreign and exotic in its ways – in short, the fact that the Ryukyuan ambassadors (to some extent) spoke Japanese, observed (to whatever extent) Japanese customs, and were aware (to some extent) of Japanese culture, was another one of these “open secrets.” Everyone knew, but everyone pretended not to know, for the benefit of “performing” the proper relationships. Finally, there is the matter of the actual economic & political relationships between Ryukyu and Satsuma & the shogunate. I know very little, actually, as to the fine details of this relationship, but it has been made clearer to me that in Ryukyu’s relationships to each Satsuma, and the shogunate, the “performing” of proper rituals of obeisance was paramount. The tribute missions to Edo were not diplomatic missions in which any serious policy discussions took place – it was all about ritual performance of subordination.

It is my hope, and my expectation, that Luke Roberts’ new book, Performing the Great Peace, will help illuminate these interactions, as they took place between the daimyo and the shogunate, and that it will help me to better understand, and articulate, how “open secrets” and omote/uchi functioned in Ryukyu’s relationships in the early modern period. Once I have finished the book (hopefully by the end of the summer), I shall post a more proper book review.

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