Japanese History Workshop, The University of Sydney, Dec. 5-7, 2007

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 10:12 pm

I’m headed on Sunday to Sydney to take part in an annual workshop on Japanese history. This is my first opportunity to travel to Australia and I’m excited to visit the largest Western nation that includes engagement with Asia as one of its major foreign policy platforms. I believe it is also the only English-speaking nation to have an Asian Studies major as a Prime Minister (elect); Wikipedia reports that Kevin Rudd of the Australian Labor Party “studied at the Australian National University in Canberra, residing at Burgmann College, and graduated with First Class Honours in Arts (Asian Studies). He majored in Chinese language and Chinese history, and is proficient in Mandarin.” Hao ji le.

The workshop includes a wonderful assortment of Japanese historians from across Australia, people whose work has had an influence on my own research but whom I’ve never had the chance to meet, like Tessa Morris-Suzuki and Elise Tipton. Also speaking are some newer people on the scene like the organizer, Matthew Stavros, and J. Charles Schencking, not to mention some Ph.D. candidates like Janet Borland and Rebecca Corbett. I’m one of three guests from abroad, along with David Howell from Princeton and Barbara Sato from Seikei University in Japan. A series of lectures and panels will be held at the University of Sydney over three days.

Sydney U, Courtesy of Matthew Stavros

I have to give my talk the morning after my arrival, which is a bit worrisome, but the topic is exciting for me because it comes out of my current research (I’m on sabbatical). Here’s the abstract:

Shogun, Deity, National Hero: Tokugawa Ieyasu and Japanese Material Culture.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, has been glorified as a strict Confucianist and an astute military strategist in films, novels, and more recently, video games, lending him iconic status on a global scale. Remarkably little information is available in English, however, about his life away from the battlefield. My recent research explores Ieyasu’s cultural practices and social networks with the goal of narrating an alternative biography of the first Tokugawa Shogun. Like many samurai, it turns out that Ieyasu was a student of calligraphy and literature, an admirer of ceramics and painting, an ardent lover of hawks and horses, and an antiquarian who went to great ends to obtain beautiful things. His hobbies and acquisitions reveal much about the cultural proclivities of warlords and the almost sacred value their material legacies possessed postmortem.
My paper will propose that diachronic analysis of material culture associated with Ieyasu–namely the significant collection he amassed and divided up among his descendants before his death–allows us to frame him, his legacy, and the Tokugawa period itself in an entirely new way. I hope to use this project, as well as my previous research on Raku ceramics and tea culture, to develop a theoretical framework for studying the relationship between material culture and national identity in Japan.

I’ll write again after I return with a report on the workshop.



Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:42 pm

I was looking over the new US Census name frequency lists [via] and noticed that there were no obviously Japanese names in the top 1000.1 In fact, the highest ranked one I could find was “Tanaka” (tied for #4160 with “Cornish”), followed closely by “Nakamura” (#4203), “Sato” at (#4276) and “Yamamoto” at #4289 (tied with “Schoonover”). That’s it for the top 5000. Looking at a list of most common Japanese names: “Suzuki” came in at #6045, “Watanabe” at #6295, “Takahashi” at #6378, “Ito” at #6998, “Saito” at #72492 , “Kobayashi” at #8097, and “Yamaguchi” (not on the top-ten list, but I seem to come across it a lot) at #10273.3

In other news, I just sent off my very minor corrections to the galley proofs of the Japanese-language translation of my Japanese Diasporas chapter. Kudos to the translator, who had to deal with sentences like “Should the quasi-legal warnings of the kokoroegaki or the official gravitas of Hara’s proclamation fail to impress, Yamaguchi emigrants were also required to sign contract-like pledges of good behavior.” and “Though there was some ebb and flow in the sugar plantation workload, it was not the cycle of temperate agriculture to which the Japanese were accustomed.” When I have to write in Japanese, I try very hard to think in Japanese, but when I’m writing in English, the last thing I’m thinking of is translatability. Anyway, it’s quite a thrill to see the work moving towards a new audience.

  1. I might have missed one, but I’ve looked twice. I didn’t count names which could be Japanese, phonetically, but which I’ve never heard used as Japanese names, at least not frequently. []
  2. a three-way tie with “Danforth,” “Florio,” and “Krieg” []
  3. “Dresner,” in case you’re wondering, is ranked #42912 (that’s not a typo: I’m in mid-five-digits), and my extended family accounts for almost two percent of the Dresners in the census. []


A brief rant at an easy target

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:37 pm

So I’m grading my latest World History quiz, and one of the terms is “samurai.” Being a two semester World History sequence, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the samurai — I had one day to cover pre-1500 Japan and Korea — so the answers were mostly based on the textbook (loosely) or people’s prior understandings of the term1 or on Wikipedia.2 At some point I got suspicious and looked up the glossary definitions at the back of the textbook.3 Most students don’t use it, but sometimes they think it’s a good short-cut for the short-answer identification quizzes I give. It’s a viable suspect.

Here’s what the book said:

Samurai (SAM-uhr-eye) A Japanese warrior who lived by the code of bushido (p. G-9)

Yeah, that’s it. No chronology, no economic or political context, and an undefined foreign term at the heart. A quick survey of the rest of the glossary reveals that most of the other definitions are: a) longer; and b) better. Not all, mind you.

Yeah, I had to check and see if they had, in fact, defined that foreign term.

Bushido (BOH-shee-DOH) The “way of the warrior,” the code of conduct of the Japanese samurai that was based on loyalty and honor. (p. G-2)

Aside from the proununciation error, it looks…. Oh, the Japanese samurai… as opposed to samurai elsewhere? “Honor” is a pretty vague term, too. Again, no chronology, no authorship, minimal context.

I know it’s a minor point, but this text is in its fourth edition and these textbooks go through what’s supposed to be exhaustive reviews by dozens of scholars. So why does the glossary read like a touched-up Western Civ text?

  1. ahem []
  2. the Wikipedia article has a note at the top begging for expert assistance and citations. Any of our readers already wikipedians? []
  3. Bentley and Ziegler and Streets, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History []


Giant Robot Exhibition

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 12:13 am

The Japanese American National Museum once again displays its amazing ability to hone in on topics of widespread interest while still staying true to its mission in its new exhibition, “Giant Robot Biennnale”!


From the website:

Developed in collaboration with Eric Nakamura of Giant Robot and the Japanese American National Museum

In celebration of its 50th issue and in collaboration with the Japanese American National Museum, the pop-culture magazine Giant Robot has assembled works by ten cutting-edge artists from around the country in Giant Robot Biennale: 50 Issues. APAK | Gary Baseman | David Choe | Seonna Hong | Sashie Masakatsu | Saelee Oh | Pryor Praczukowski | Souther Salazar | Eishi Takaoka | Adrian Tomine


The curator of the exhibition and owner/co-editor of Giant Robot is Eric Nakamura, a fascinating character who has been pursuing his passions in the pages of this amazing magazine for the past 13 years. Part of what is exciting about his work in the magazine is that his and other authors’ articles perfectly measure the pulse of Asian and Asian American pop culture as a living, breathing entity rather than as a somewhat stale object of scholarly enquiry. Rather than linking interest in Japanese video games and J-pop stars with the now common stereotype of the urban otaku teenagers locked in their rooms, Giant Robot exposes the likes and dislikes, the artistic and musical travels, and the subtle but omni-present cultural politics of diverse individuals who identify with Japan while not being contained by it.

It’s also worth noting that as Giant Robot has increased its subscription base and attracted more attention and funding, Eric and his partner have become serious patrons of local and international artists, setting up galleries and improving their communities in various ways. I wish more academic institutions approached community relations the way these entrepreneurs do!

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