井の中の蛙

2/11/2009

The Teahouse Fire: Painstaking

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 6:46 pm

I don’t often get unsolicited books with handwritten notes from the authors, unless I worked with them in some way. What was even more surprising is that the book came to my new office before I was even done unpacking! That’s pretty spiffy service. The book had blurbs from Maxine Hong Kingston and Liza Dalby, which was promising. The book was about The World of Tea, and centered on an orphaned American taken in by a prominent Japanese family; not so promising. The author, Ellis Avery is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia in Creative Writing, and a five year veteran, we’re told in her bio, of tea ceremony training. Well, most of my fun books were in boxes, so I did read The Teahouse Fire, and since it is about the bakumatsu-Meiji era, I feel I should say something about it.

The Teahouse Fire is a historical fiction, which shares most of the flaws typical of the genre: a carefully set but very selective milieu; characters cobbled together from cultural and psychosocial fragments; wildly unlikely encounters and inappropriate behavior. Though the story does less damage to the historical narrative than usual for this kind of work, it is still an excellent example of why I don’t ever use historical fiction in my teaching, and why I rarely read it (especially in my own field!). [SPOILERS ahead]1

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  1. I’m an historian, so knowing how it comes out doesn’t bother me. []

2/5/2009

Sumo and tradition

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:59 pm

The NYTimes Lede blog [thanks, Mom!] linked Michael Phelps’ marijuana scandal to a scandal in Japanese sumo1 which has resulted in four retirements.

They almost got it right: they note that Sumo wrestlers are supposed to maintain “monkish” discipline, and there’s some real truth to that.2 They also made a classic error: I actually left a comment, which I almost never do at the Times:

“Shinichi Suzukawa” is not his “real name” but his birth name. Sumo wrestlers take on a new name when they enter the sport, and many will take on another when they reach high rank. After they retire, they give up their fighting name and take on a new name, often one based on their stable or coach’s name.

The Japanese tradition is much more flexible than the Western tradition in regard to names.

The name thing and the “monkish discipline” are clear reminders that Sumo, though it’s been a part of the entertainment world for a long time, has its origins in Shinto ritual. The accoutrement of the referrees are drawn directly from priestly garb; the throwing of salt and stamping rituals for purification, etc.

There was a pretty substantial period — most of the Tokugawa era, really — where Sumo seems to have been somewhat divorced of these practices (though ukiyoe of bouts show the presiding referees clearly in traditional garb), and sumo wrestlers were more like free agents and daimyo retainers, but when the modern sport is formulated in the Meiji and Taisho eras, it is clearly resacralized, almost certainly as a result of the state-sponsored resurgence of Shinto and the desire to connect it to a reimagined family-state tradition.

The name changes, then, are also part of this religious tradition: the tradition of taking a new name when taking religious orders is well-known in Buddhism; the tradition of taking on a new name for a new stage in life, and the pseudo-kinship relationship between a stablemaster and his wrestlers also play a role.

  1. yeah, MutantFrog got there first! []
  2. Though also some exoticism, clearly. All athletes are supposed to forego some pleasures in order to maintain high levels of physical training. []

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