井の中の蛙

8/31/2009

Soft and Fuzzy Historic Events

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:42 am

Ton-Chan DollLast time I lived in Japan, the LDP lost control of the Diet, and for a year and a half there was a Socialist Prime Minister in charge of an implausible coalition between the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). The Democratic Party of Japan, which just took control of the lower house of the Diet, was formed in the aftermath of that coalition: the more liberal elements of the LDP combined with the more moderate elements of the JSP.1 This left a more conservative LDP and a more Socialist SDP, and also, as a side effect, left the LDP again in charge of the government, in coalition with the Komeito and other conservative groups. Another side effect: the bushy eyebrows and grandfatherly face of Murayama Tomiichi were immortalized in the “Ton-chan” dolls sold by the JSP; I bought one, thinking that this might be “historic.”2

You could hardly tell from the news reports coming out of Japan at the moment.3 I suppose that I’m not surprised by the lack of respect given to the mid-90s political turmoil: it was inconclusive and sloppy, not the kind of clear-cut “historic” event that makes for banner headlines. But what came out of it was an LDP that was, honestly, destined to fail: instead of representing the middle two-thirds of the Japanese political spectrum, it represented a heavily right-oriented one-third, while the DPJ took a big chunk of what was left. Essentially, the LDP split, probably the natural end to a party that was a coalition to begin with, formed out of a Cold War fear that Japan’s leftist parties might put aside their differences long enough to win control of the Diet. While it took a few elections, and another decade of disappointing economic stagnation, the left wing of the former LDP has overtaken the right wing of the former LDP, and a former member of the LDP is going to be Prime Minister.4

Is this “historic“? Well, it depends, of course. If the DP turns out to be more or less just like the LDP, then it’s no more historic than Pepsi™ overtaking Coca-Cola™. If the DP turns out to be a genuinely center-left party which reduces international entanglements while successfully fostering economic development, it could actually be a revival of the Yoshida Doctrine. That might actually be interesting, especially since it could mean a shift away from the normalization discourses we’ve been hearing so much of. I guess it’s a bit too soon to write the new narrative.

  1. This is a rough approximation. The faction politics of the LDP did not neatly divide along ideological lines, but some sense of policy alignment was starting to become clearer when the split happened []
  2. Actually, I bought two: one for me and one for my parents. []
  3. I want to thank Adam Richards for his tireless political blogging during this election, possibly the best reportage in English this time around. []
  4. I don’t think anyone’s going to make plush toys out of Hatoyama Yukio, though he’d make a credible daruma. []

8/29/2009

Samurai Exhibit Pwned

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 11:41 am

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been targeted by an anonymous artistic and political intervention that parodies the current Lords of the Samurai exhibition with a well designed website and a series of pamphlets distributed in San Francisco. The website is worth exploring, and becomes particularly interesting when paired with an interview with the anonymous critics on the 8Asians website.

Many in the museum world will feel that the parody is entirely unfair. The museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to education, and museum staff include many of Asian heritage as well as many respected scholars who have advanced degrees in Asian art history. In addition, some recent exhibitions at the museum have attempted to deal (not always very explicitly) with the history of Orientalism, such as the recent one on photographs of Asia, particularly South Asia.

One might also respond that at present museum exhibitions are not subject to the same kinds of peer review and scholarly criticism that help improve other forms of educational production. Other than the occasional newspaper review of a blockbuster exhibition, and the odd blog post by a volunteer scholar/critic, exhibitions and their catalogs rarely receive the kind of critical attention that they deserve. I have long argued that museums are probably the most important scholarly site in the world we live in for mass education about other nations and cultures. (TV and films reach more people, but are usually less grounded in scholarship and have less of a veneer of objectivity and authenticity.) A good specialty academic monograph might sell a few thousand copies. Many copies will go to academic libraries, where they might be read by multiple generations of students (we hope!). A big museum exhibition, on the other hand, might draw in 10s or even 100s of thousands of visitors. The AAMSF’s 2007 exhibition “Yoshitoshi’s Strange Tales,” for example, attracted almost 80,000 visitors, or approximately 931 per day according to The Art Newspaper‘s “Exhibition Attendance Figures,” 189 (March 2008) . Bigger Asian art exhibitions, such as the Freer Gallery of Art’s exhibition “East of Eden: Gardens in Asian Art” brought in well more than 200,000 visitors.

Most museum professionals are entirely aware of the incredible responsibility they have in putting on exhibitions that often substitute for a nation’s entire history. Curators know that visitors might feel that having visited a show on the samurai, they have in effect visited Japan itself. This is the wonderful power and also the great danger of the museum; it reduces social and cultural complexity, not to mention historical variation and diversity, to a few beautiful objects.

Topics like the samurai and the geisha are certainly valid subjects for museum exhibitions, and in these difficult financial times, must be attractive themes as guarantees of significant visitor traffic. But why not call attention to the problematic mythologization of these figures, as the Pacific Asia Museum’s 2009 exhibition “The Samurai Re-Imagined: From Ukiyo-e to Anime” did? Why not, as the parody of AAMSF’s exhibition suggests, pay attention to less well known aspects of samurai culture and history, whether that be sexuality, the reality of war, Japanese aggression in Korea, or modern wartime appropriations of the samurai image? Or why not, as the interview suggestions, highlight the more nuanced scholarship of Tom Conlon or Hal Bolitho instead of the work of Thomas Cleary? These are valid and important questions, and the controversy illustrates the need for more scholarly and critical attention to the politics of display of Japanese art.

8/7/2009

Adjusting to the new narrative

My China-side colleague, Alan Baumler, noted that China seems to have supplanted Japan as the go-to model for economic development. This has, he says, required him to alter his own attitude towards Chinese history, which never really had much of a triumphal arc before. He says, though

Well, the Japan people seem to have adjusted to going from an Asian Anomaly to a model for humanity and back, so I guess we can.

My response was

Actually, Japan’s gone 180 degrees and has become a negative example for demographic, financial and rights development. Between the “aging Japan”, “Lost Decade” and rising tide of neo-nationalism….. we need a new narrative, too.

The last few times I’ve taught my Japan course that comes up to the present, I’ve used Bumiller’s book, but that one comes just at the beginning of the economic stagnation, and is now approaching 20 years old. I haven’t seen much that I’d like to use to replace it, either literature or ethnography. There’s Japan After Japan, but it seems like the kind of stuff I’d have to spend more time explaining and excusing than making good use of. I’m tempted to shift in the direction of global diaspora or something on the globalization of Japanese culture, but both of those seem a bit like avoiding the question.

What’s the new narrative? Have the economic slowdown, normalization, and globalization affected the way you present the post-war arc, or are the last two decades a distinct period?

8/3/2009

Cultural and Physical History Mystery

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:02 am

Okinawa boats taken by T. Egami, 1898 Michelle Damian, who I met at ASPAC, has a new post up in her project journal with an intriguing mystery:

One type of vessel that has intrigued me is the massive yakatabune, boats used for pleasure gatherings on the river. They have a solid superstructure with heavy supporting posts and cross timbers, usually decorated with lanterns bearing the names of the restaurants that had dispatched them, and are often shown with smaller craft alongside used to ferry patrons or cook the food. … What is unusual, though, is the notch at the tip of the stempost. These vessels almost always have an extra protrusion at the end.

If the mystery ended there I could chalk it up to simply the convention for the yakatabune – perhaps just aesthetic, perhaps for whatever reason just an additional visual cue to the boat’s purpose. On a model of a similar ship in Tokyo’s maritime museum (Fune no Kagakukan), though, the stempost is apparently made of two separate pieces of wood scarfed together with a notch exactly like the tip of the stemposts in the prints. It is as though the boats shown in the prints had removed that extra piece of wood, leaving the uneven notch exposed. … If anyone has any thoughts or suggestions to help solve this mystery, I would be most grateful to hear them!

modern-yakatabune

Go to her project journal for the proper illustrations (the ones here are just some that I found on Flickr) and more detail.

My theory? I think the stem, because of its size, was removable. So when it might block the view of patrons, as in a fireworks-viewing trip, it was taken off the vessel, but when it was a pleasure cruise in which the patrons were more focused on the activity inside, it was left on for elegance.

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