Judge Ooka’s Sidekick: A Samurai Never Fears Death and The Sword that Cut the Burning Grass by Dorothy & Thomas Hoobler

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:36 am

Wandering through the children’s section of our local public library with my son, I encountered a new-to-me children’s mystery series based in Tokugawa Japan. The books are by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler, and are piggybacking on the Judge Ooka character. Unlike certain other Japan-based anglophone fictions, these feature a cast of entirely Japanese characters, though the protagonist is still young and enough of a fish-out-of-water to justify significant exposition. The “Authors Note” in the back of each book briefly lays out the historical and cultural foundations of the story, and clearly notes which elements are “completely from the imagination of the authors.” (Sword, 210) Though I noted some anachronisms and some larger issues, on the whole these were surprisingly good in both detail and theme.

The books are the adventures of Seikei, an Osaka-born merchant class boy who is adopted as the son and heir of Judge Ooka in the 1730s. That kind of adoption was relatively rare, but well within contemporary norms, and the unusual nature of class-jumping adoption is fairly well integrated into the stories. The characters are a bit flat and the issues broadly drawn, but that’s not unusual for children’s fiction; more importantly, they are some of the most genuinely and humanely Japanese characters I’ve encountered in my sojourns into this literature. [Spoilers follow, of course]


Aizawa Yasushi on America

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:49 pm

In the Prefatory Remarks to Aizawa Yasushi‘s 1825 New Theses (新論) we find an interesting little gloss on the relationship of the “Divine Realm” of Japan and the Western world:

The earth lies amid the heavenly firmament, is round in shape, and has no edges. All things exist as nature dictates. Thus, our Divine Realm is at the top of the world. Though not a very large country, it reigns over the Four Quarters because its Imperial Line has never known dynastic change. The Western barbarians represent the thighs, legs, and feet of the universe. This is why they sail hither and yon, indifferent to the distances involved. Moreover, the country they call America is located at the rear end of the world, so its inhabitants are stupid and incompetent. All of this is as nature dictates.

The translation is by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi.


Dinner first, then dessert

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:53 pm

I was going to post about it here, but Another Damned Medievalist raised the question of how to deal with primary sources in a class where students lack important background concepts, and so I’m going to share the comment I made over there and then expand on it a bit:

I’m not sure if I’d call it a ‘brilliant’ idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the “you don’t know it yet, but this is important because…” stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn’t big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I’d gotten in the past.

As a side benefit, by the way, we’d gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

This is something which I’ve considered doing for a long time, but not all of my courses break down quite so neatly in terms of the material I use. On the whole, as I said, I think it was quite successful. One of my students suggested a change which makes a great deal of sense: instead of putting Mary Beth Berry’s Japan in Print at the end, after the primary sources — I was using it instead of any particular 17th century reading — she pointed out that it would be a good transition reading. That made a great deal of sense: it introduces a great deal of theory about reading and audiences, and the argument creates a tension between classical/medieval and early modern culture which would be give more focus to the primary source discussions. I would have to add another 17th century reading: Given the rumors of a Chushingura movie in the works, maybe it’s time to bring that back into my syllabi!


Ueda Akinari translation

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:09 am

PMJS has published William Clarke and Wendy Cobcroft’s annotated translation of Ueda Akinari’s Tandai Shoshinroku, available as a free PDF and also as a book-on-demand from Lulu (and eventually Amazon). I leave the commentary on the value of scholarly networks, non-profit online publishing, and the finally-growing body Early Modern translations as an exercise for our readers, who don’t need me to tell them what they already know.


The Bow

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:21 pm

President Barack Obama shakes hands and bows with Emperor AkihitoVia my old friend Scott Eric Kaufman I learned that President Obama’s visit to Japan was drawing criticism from the American right (I also learned that President Eisenhower bowed in public to a number of heads of state) due to Obama’s bowed greeting to Emperor Akihito.

Most of the commentary (this is an excellent roundup) hinges on whether it’s inappropriate for an American Head of State to bow to another Head of State. This is, of course, why Kaufman was noting Eisenhower’s bows, none of which were, apparently, mutual; other commenters have noted Clinton’s bow fifteen years earlier, and Nixon’s bow/handshake greeting with Emperor Hirohito. Some of the criticism is nuanced enough to note that mutual bows are appropriate greetings in Japan, but suggests that Obama’s bow was inappropriately deep and therefore servile and inappropriate.

Part of the problem in discussing this is the assumption that there is a stable protocol: Japan’s modern Imperial institution is younger than the American Republic, and interactions with other heads of state have always been somewhat improvisational. Before the Meiji Restoration, the Emperor didn’t meet heads of state. For centuries, the Emperor basically met nobody who wasn’t a member of the court aristocracy or high officials of the shogunal state: there was no public protocol except for a vague tradition that required the Emperor be above the gaze of anyone, not to be looked down upon. That tradition was revived in the Imperial era, but it wasn’t much guidance in dealing with modern crowds, photography, diplomatic visits. Even Meiji’s coronation ceremony was an innovation, purged of Chinese elements and enhanced with Shinto rituals. (See Keene, ch. 18) The first head of state to visit was Hawaiian King Kalakaua, but he was actually preceeded by a visit from former President U.S. Grant who greeted the Emperor with handshakes. Every time an aristocrat or diplomat met the Emperor, protocol had to be negotiated in advance, and it shifted over time: when and how much to bow, whether handshakes would be permitted, whether foreign women could enter the Emperor’s presence with their diplomat husbands, etc. But this wasn’t yet the great age of state visits: that doesn’t come until the 20th century, and the rise of air travel.

Before the next America presidential visit with a Japanese emperor, though, WWII intervened: the Japanese Emperor was demoted from sacred and inviolable to the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people. More importantly, perhaps, Japan became a neo-colonial extension of American power for a time (when that time ends is a matter of debate, of course) so that Presidential courtesies like Nixon’s bow were harmless to American power. By the time of Clinton’s gesture, though, Japan’s economic power was a threat to American dominance (well, with the 90s recession, not really, but pundits had spent a good portion of the ’80s talking up the Japanese threat, and the impression stuck), and the Imperial transition of 1989 took away the American sense that the Emperor was someone who had been defeated and disarmed. Even Clinton’s gesture towards a bow was too much for some, apparently: the very concept of monarchy raised spectres of pre-Revolutionary attitudes, though bowing is not necessarily a subservient act when done between equals (or by a superior) in the Japanese tradition.

Obama’s bow is a very formal one — formality and hierarchy are two different things — and in the context of a handshake. It doesn’t change the nature of the US-Japan relationship as much as the election of Japan’s new non-LDP PM, as much as the rising nationalistic culture, as much as the ongoing shifts in the economic relationship between two of the largest — and most obviously struggling — economies in the world.


Lines which make me less likely to adopt a world history textbook

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:53 am

So, I got a new one in the mail, and I start scanning through, with the usual particular attention to the Japan material, and right there in the “Cultural Identity and Tokugawa Japan” section is this:

Samurai (former warriors turned bureaucrats) and daimyo (the regional lords) favored a masked theater, called Nō, and an elegant ritual for making tea and engaging in contemplation. In their gardens, the lords built teahouses with stages for Nō drama.

I’ve seen teahouses, and I’ve seen Nō stages. Have any of you ever seen the two combined? Have you ever seen the 15th through 17th centuries collapsed so cavalierly? Then they jump to the “new, roughter urban culture, one that was patronized by artisans and especially merchants.”1 The Japanese sources cited in the “Further Readings” list include only Keene’s The Japanese Discovery of Europe and the Collcutt, Jansen, Kumakura A Cultural Atlas of Japan. Though the work is a collaboration of historians from a high-quality history department, the principal authors include nobody with Japan expertise, nor did any of the names of their “consultants” and “reviewers” jump out at me as familiar in the Japan field.

Now, I’m never going to pretend that Japanese history is central to world history, outside of a few moments, but there’s a great deal of excellent scholarship on Japanese history and culture, and a great deal of interest, still. How hard is it to get this stuff right?

  1. both quotations are from page 614. I’m not identifying the text because I’m not trying to target them specifically — the text looks interesting, and I’ll look at it again when the memory fades — but anyone who’s getting review textbooks can figure out what I mean. []


Young Samurai Book One (of at least three): Harry Potter Bushido

I almost didn’t check Chris Bradford‘s Young Samurai: The Way of the Warrior out of the library when I saw it, but some instinct told me that it was something I should read. Perhaps it was the realization that Young Samurai was the first book in a series — oddly, though, there was no information on the other books1 — and therefore likely to have some serious publicity support from the publisher. Perhaps it was the realization that the publisher was Disney/Hyperion, which more or less guarantees a pretty substantial distribution and readership. Perhaps it was the hope that I might find, finally, some historical fiction worth recommending…..

The book is about a young English boy who’s shipwrecked in Japan in 1611, and gets adopted by a samurai family, while being stalked by the ninja pirates who killed his father and crewmates. So it was a bit Karate Kid and a bit of the story of Will Adams (more Samurai William than Shogun); nothing surprising, really, but all a bit familiar. Aside from fairly predictable ahistorical elements,2 commonplaces of martial arts fiction, and the implausible interpersonal relationships, nothing out of the ordinary.

I was about halfway through the book, though, when I realized what I was reading: it was the scene where Jack, the young Englishman, shows up at the school of his adopted father/patron — a formidable warrior — and all the students are introduced to the instructors at a big banquet. I put down the book, walked into the other room and said to my wife, “It’s Harry Potter in Japan!”

[spoilers, of course, under the fold]


  1. As near as I can tell from the websites, the second book is coming out in the UK shortly, with the third book scheduled for next year and a TV deal in the works, but nothing on the US side about when the sequels might be available here. []
  2. ninja, yes, and wakou pirates (who are also ninja) off the coast of eastern Japan in 1611, and the post-Enlightenment attitudes of the protagonist []


Productive Procrastination

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 9:59 pm

The Journal of the Historical Society has put five recent articles up for free, including a four-year old essay by Herman Ooms on the state of Tokugawa intellectual history. Aside from the gallop through the history of state-of-the-field essays, it includes a quick, very positive, look at European scholarship in French and German. I’m not sure how long these articles (the rest of them look interesting, too, but not Asian studies) will be up, but I’ll be going back there for fun in between stacks of grading this week and weekend.

And, as a bonus, some 1920s British Jiujitsu demonstration films which really need someone who knows more about martial arts history to put into proper context.


When translating, leave currency in the original units

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:00 pm

Money hiding Swords I’m using Ivan Morris’ translation of Saikaku’s The Life of an Amorous Woman and other Writings this semester1, but one thing which is bugging me right off the bat is his habit of translating money into Pounds Sterling by converting the Tokugawa money to rice and then converting the rice to yen and the Yen to Pounds at the 1963 rate.2 Needless to say, neither I nor my students have any intutitive sense how much £16.70 in 1963 is worth today, but that’s what he says one gold Ryo is. According to the first historical currency calculator I could find, that’s about US$335.24 now. But that’s assuming that the original gold-rice/rice-yen calculation is worth anything….

I’d much rather have had a discussion about relative purchasing power, but here’s my best (quick) guess:


  1. Thanks, Alan! []
  2. Appendix II, “Money in Saikaku’s Time” []


Dutch Futurists

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:10 pm

Alan Baumler pointed me to peacay’s recent post of Dutch images of 17th century Japan. Some of them are quite accurate — the images of samurai, in particular, are quite nice — and based on the observations of Dutch traders and scholars at the Deshima trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Some of the images are based on Indian or Chinese models (though the tradition of religious statuary shared between these cultures means that they’re not as terrible as you might think). Some are pretty bizarre, but that’s par for the course before the 19th century.

Then there’s the one that stopped me in my tracks:

17c Dutch Engraving of reverse rickshaw

You can find the original here, in the full context of the book. Someone who reads 17th century Dutch might be able to help me, because I’m quite curious about the text at this point. Without it, though, I can only speculate.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, mainly the fact that the jinrikisha wasn’t invented for another two hundred years. Also, Japanese did not use wheeled carts for transporting goods.1. Before that, Japanese traveled mostly by foot and by boat. Samurai travelled by horse, sometimes. Other elites — including samurai, nobles, village headmen, the wealthy — traveled by palanquin (aka litter). Even the transport of commercial goods was mostly by boat and by hand.

While there seems to be some dispute about the origins of the rickshaw, nobody has ever suggested that it developed in the 1600s! I suspect what we see here is a failure of imagination. Having seen images of palanquins and bearers, but unable to concieve of transport without wheels, the illustrator added the — to him entirely obvious and necessary — elements. In the process, he created a shocking anachronism, and if anyone had taken these images seriously, could have radically altered the history of transportation.

  1. Hal Bolitho called Japan’s abandonment of the wheel one of the great mysteries of Japanese history, along with the failure to adopt the chair and the survival of the Imperial institution []

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