Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘truth’

「美術漆器製造販売」, Meiji period catalog for ordering Ryukyuan lacquerwares.

Here’s one of the many posts I drafted a few years ago and never got around to posting. Still relevant today, I think.

In the course of my dissertation research, I began to get the feeling that Okinawan history can often be prone to certain ideas of conventional wisdom being repeated over and over, without a real solid notion of their veracity. Gregory Smits’ critiques of the oft-cited official histories produced by the royal court in his recent book Maritime Ryukyu would seem to support this. Now, whether this is typical in other fields as well, or whether it is more distinctly an issue in the field of Okinawan Studies, I’m not sure. But, regardless, I grew worried – and to be frank, remain worried – about accidentally including in my dissertation (as well as in conference presentations or journal articles) the kind of statements that would make an expert shake their head at my mistake. Much like how I shake my head at people who say that Okinawan is a dialect, or that Japan was “closed” for hundreds of years, or, as much conventional wisdom in the karate world would have it, that King Shō Shin banned weapons in the 16th century and that Ryukyu has been a kingdom of peace, a culture of pacifism ever since.

I know most people worry the most about the argument, the theoretical interpretation, and so forth. And of course all of that is important. But I think getting the details right, and doing your best to be a source that people can learn (and cite) accurate information from is also important. Advancing knowledge of the field not only in our interpretations but also in our findings: in correcting misconceptions and putting forth correct information, best as we can.

An 1889 book called Ryūkyū shikki kō (琉球漆器考, “Thoughts on Ryukyu Lacquerware”), oft-cited and regarded as a classic on the subject, almost a primary source, tells us the lacquer tree is not native to Ryukyu and has never grown well there – that Ryukyuan lacquer has always been made with imported raw lacquer from Japan or elsewhere. A number of museum catalogs, academic articles, and the like from the 1980s to today say the same, citing only this source. A curator I spoke with during my time in Okinawa, whose specialty of expertise is Ryukyuan lacquerware, told me much the same. And yet, I then read an essay by Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1933-2005)* explicitly addressing the point and saying “while many have long said that Ryukyu never had its own lacquer trees, most often simply citing the Ryūkyū shikki kō, as I have explained elsewhere, evidence shows that Ryūkyū certainly did produce its own lacquer, perhaps even since the Jōmon period, thousands of years ago”. Great. Now what? Absent the time, resources, expertise to hunt down the truth myself – which could, honestly, be an entire PhD project unto itself – which are we to believe?

One of the main gates into the portion of the Tokyo Imperial Palace grounds that is not open to the public. But prior to 1889, the emperor did not reside beyond this gate, but rather at a temporary palace outside of the current palace grounds entirely.

Learning new things very typically is not this ambiguous. I could cite numerous examples of things which I never knew, but which one scholar revealed, and which I feel I can now take to be true. To name just one, there is the basic general assumption that Edo castle quickly became the Imperial Palace after 1868; in fact, as Takashi Fujitani explains, Edo castle burned down in 1873, and for the better part of the next fifteen years – a pretty central key period in the development of the new “modern” Meiji Japan – there was nothing in the center of Tokyo but a gaping burnt-out hole, and the Imperial Court was based, instead, in the former mansion of the Kishû Tokugawa lords. If you never read Fujitani’s book, or certain other sources, you might never know, simply because so many other authors breeze past it or don’t even realize themselves that “the imperial palace” at that time wasn’t the same site or the same structure as post-1889.

Similarly, most discussions of Commodore Perry omit that he ever spent time in Okinawa. But, once you learn about it, you know it, and there’s no need to worry about doubting its veracity, or being unclear or undecided on which interpretation or account is correct. I could also cite numerous examples of things which remain a matter of interpretation, but at least there is a standard interpretation that’s widely popular and widely accepted among scholars today. I don’t have to feel frozen with indecision over whether to think Japan was “closed” in the Tokugawa period, when pretty much every major early modern Japan specialist today agrees that it wasn’t, or at least that it was no more “closed” than China or Korea at the same time, that “maritime restrictions” might be a better term, and that Japan did have very active and significant contacts with the Ainu, Korea, Ryûkyû, the Dutch, and the Chinese, albeit not with any other major Western powers.

But then you come back to something like the question of whether Ryûkyû historically, traditionally, had its own lacquer trees. And there just isn’t enough published on it to know. As of right now, as I sit here typing this, I have one curator telling me they didn’t (and I presume the gallery labels at that museum would say the same), and one rather preeminent scholar writing that that’s hogwash and that Ryûkyû did have their own lacquer trees. I also have a handful of museum catalogs and other books and articles on Okinawan art in general, or Ryukyuan lacquerware in particular, which make no mention of the issue. Now, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much for my own work; I’m not basing my larger arguments on any of these particular points. And, besides, there are always the questions of who’s going to actually even read my dissertation? And even if they do, are they really going to take note of that one footnote? Ah, but if they do, and if they cite me as having said that Ryûkyû either did or didn’t have its own lacquer trees – and all the more so if they then make some argument that rests on this assertion, well, now I really am complicit, if that’s the right word, in perpetuating a misconception.

So, what am I supposed to believe? This isn’t about judging the quality of the argument, or the evidence – it’s just one assertion against another, with very little if any evidence being presented. Nor is it a case of an active debate in the field, so much as it’s just a lack of information. A lack of evidence. A lack of scholarship. And so, everyone goes along either believing the Ryūkyū shikki kō (and the lineage of scholarship citing back to it), or they believe Tokugawa-sensei. Either way, young scholars like myself who are trying to build up their own knowledge of Okinawan history and culture are left just not knowing.

A bingata robe, formerly owned by the royal family, now a National Treasure and held at the Naha City Museum of History.Gallery labels tell us that this brilliant yellow was restricted to members of the royal family. Is that true? Or another piece of potentially mistaken conventional wisdom?

And, it can be very hard to know who to turn to. I have great admiration for traditional practitioners – dancers, musicians, weavers, martial artists – and could indeed write a whole blog post about how I would love to have a stronger ability to see things through their perspective, a perspective of traditions, cultural significance, technique and aesthetic; understanding things within a cultural context, a context of the tradition to which they belong, and not merely a political, economic, or social history sort of context that may pay attention to that history but without the same sort of appreciation. And yet, at the same time, while some traditional practitioners will have a keen eye for the questions and problems involved and may be able to regale you with their brilliant personal knowledge – beyond anything that can be found in books – as to the entire history of the issue, many other traditional practitioners are simply going to tell you conventional wisdom. They’re going to tell you what their sensei told them, or what they heard through the grapevine, like it’s gospel.

And so, perhaps we turn back again to researchers. And, yes, I can and I should reach out to people like Sudō Ryōko, who is probably one of the leading experts within formal academia on garments worn in the royal court, and ask her what she knows of whether bingata (a particular style of resist-dye decoration) garments were in fact truly limited to only the aristocratic classes, and in what ways and in what contexts. But I fear there will always remain this niggling feeling in my mind that it still isn’t settled. Whatever answer she gives me, there will be some other person, or book, that happens to say otherwise, and I’ll be left not knowing again. This nagging, frustrating, feeling, that no matter where you turn – encyclopedias, or something like Okinawa bijutsu zenshû (“Complete Collection of Okinawan Art,” pub. 1989) – you’re still not getting a truly definitive answer.

Were sanshin truly limited to only the aristocratic classes as well? I have certainly heard it said, many a time, but I am not sure if I’ve read that in a proper scholarly article, let alone read a fuller explanation about it. If I say they were, and even if I cite it to this book or that book, or to a conversation with this sanshin master or that music professor, am I still shooting myself in the foot for other readers who will look at it and say

ugh, how can this guy be so clueless!? Relying on X, doesn’t he know that Y showed that it wasn’t that way? How can I trust anything else this guy is saying if he even gets this wrong!?

Thankfully, I don’t think many or perhaps even any of these debates are crucial to my own argument, and so I may be able to continue to just skirt them entirely. But, even so, wherever I do cite anything on any of these issues, I’m entering into the danger of myself unknowingly repeating the same problematic conventional wisdom. And I’m not sure what the solution is.

*Descendant of the Owari Tokugawa clan, and long-time head of the Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. Not to be confused with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) of the Mito lineage, and the final shogun.

Read Full Post »