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


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


Only in Japan: Yakuza Sued

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:26 pm

The New York Times is reporting on tensions between the Dojinkai and the civilians living in the neighborhood of their headquarters. Two features of this are worth noting in the context of the Samurai course. First, the Yakuza are widely acknowledged to be one of the last, greatest bastions of feudal samurai concepts of honor and the utility of violence; comparing the modern yakuza to medieval samurai is shockingly fruitful. Second, the social order represented by the neighborhood association is a modern incarnation of the horizontal alliances described by Berry in The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, the ikki as described by Ikegami, and the goningumi of the great Tokugawa order.

Even the appeal to law, civil authorities, is quite traditional: though the Japanese are considered “non-litigious” it’s really not true of the present or the past. In the present, a lot of disputes are dealt with through arbitration systems that aren’t that different from small-claims courts. In the past, of course, the petition to authority and the lawsuit were common enough to be one of our best historical sources. [crossposted to Japanese History]

Late Update: Going through old email, I found this McNeill Adelstein report on the current state of yakuza. I was surprised to see that the 1992 law had so little effect: when I was in Japan in ’94-95, it seemed like it had done some good.


Controversy over the origins of the Japanese schoolgirl sailor uniform

Filed under: — Nick Kapur @ 10:39 pm

fukuoka-jogakuin-1921.jpgFor years private girls academy Fukuoka Jogakuin in Kyushu has been credited with first introducing in 1921 the famous sailor-style uniform worn by so many middle-school Japanese girls. However a recent investigation by a uniform manufacturer preparing an exhibit on the history of Japanese school uniforms has unearthed photographic evidence that Heian Jogakuin in Kyoto introduced a uniform with a sailor-style flap one year earlier, in 1920.

heian-jogakuin-1920.jpg The debate has heated up, with both schools insisting that they were the first and that the other schools claim is invalid. At a time when declining numbers of Japanese children are forcing private schools to become increasingly cuthroat in their competition for students, having an awesome uniform with a storied past is seen as a way to attract students.

While it seems incontrovertable that the Kyoto school had the sailor flap first, their uniform was an unsightly, shapeless one-piece, where as the Fukuoka school’s uniform is clearly a precursor to the style still in use today, so maybe both schools have a reasonable claim.

Source: セーラー服:発祥論争 平安女学院VS福岡女学院 (毎日新聞)


Reminder to self: Complicating History

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:31 am

This is an old-fashioned web-log post: links that I don’t want to lose in the ether or the depths of my Eudora folders. Both are from Japan Focus, and both have to do with complicating our view of Japanese history.

The first is a conceptual and migratory complication, which I’m always in favor of, by Chris Burgess: “Multicultural Japan? Discourse and the ‘Myth’ of Homogeneity”. Burgess does a bit of deconstruction on both Nihonjinron and its attackers, problematizing both homogeneity and diversity. Then he talks about migration, but goes beyond the usual platitudes by addressing actual numbers and even coherent international comparisons! I’m not entirely convinced — limiting the migration discussion to in-migration always makes me a little wary — but that’s why I want to go back and read it again another time.

The second is Aaron William Moore’s “Essential Ingredients of Truth: Soldiers’ Diaries in the Asia Pacific War”, which includes not only a substantial discussion of WWII diaries, but also a contextual discussion of the tradition of diary-keeping in modern Japan, especially the military, a discussion of the publication of military diaries in Japan, and then concludes with a discussion of wartime military diaries from other countries, so as to put the Japanese diaries in the fullest possible context.

Go, read, and come back and discuss, perhaps? Perhaps not.

Update: Nobuko Adachi — editor of the recently reviewed collection of Diaspora studies in which I had a chapter1 — graces this week’s Japan Focus with “Racial Journeys: Justice and Japanese-Peruvians in Peru, the United States, and Japan”, which tells the story of the WWII era deportation to the US and interment of Japanese-Peruvians, and the slow realization by the governments involved that a grave injustice was done. She then goes on to discuss the dekasegi and other return migration (including that most famous Japanese-Peruvian, Alberto Fujimori) and the crisis created by Japan’s economic slowdown. Interesting stuff.

  1. In spite of the very positive review, the book’s rank at Amazon is just on the cusp of the top million…. []


Akutagawa the Pacifist

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:00 pm

Japan Focus has expanded its mission one more time, this time to include new literary translations! They’ve published a Jay Rubin translation of an Akutagawa Ryonosuke story, The Story of a Head That Fell Off (“Kubi ga ochita hanashi”), which they describe as an “anti-war satire” and put in the context of a large body of untranslated Akutagawa anti-war satires

“Shogun” (The General, 1924), a well-known portrait of a victorious general resembling Nogi Maresuke (1849-1912), the “hero” of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, is a bitter satire of a man responsible for the death of thousands. “The Story of a Head That Fell Off,” set against the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, is an intense cry against the absurdity of war that unfortunately remains as relevant in our barbaric twenty-first century as it was in Akutagawa’s day.

In one brief, startling piece on the political misuse of history, “Kin-shogun” (General Kim, 1922), he incorporated Korean legend into a tale concerning Hideyoshi’s 1598 invasion of Korea.

I admit that most of the Japanese literature I’ve read was translated; I only delve into untranslated literary texts very rarely, but I do try to pay attention to what’s said about literature in other contexts. I’m more than a little surprised that Akutagawa’s anti-war stance never came to my attention before, but perhaps the fact that Akutagawa died in 1927 kept him from becoming a victim of the changing political situation post-1931 and therefore kept his politics a bit under the radar. Also, satire, particularly historical satire, can be very tricky to translate, especially for a general readership which is unfamiliar with the issues, context or style. And literary studies often specifically exclude political history, focusing on aesthetic and “cultural” elements, textual things that avoid the questions of audience and less subtle intentions.

It’s also a bit disconcerting, because Akutagawa is one of the few early 20c authors with which our students have the slightest chance of being familiar, through the famous movie version — and linguistic appropriation of the title to mean a situation of varying accounts — of “Rashomon” (and “In a Grove”, which is actually the story with the varying perspectives).1 It would be nice to have been better informed, and I wonder if my ignorance was common among my colleagues and readers, or if I just missed something obvious along the way.

The story’s pretty good, I’d say. It does have some of that familiar Akutagawa grotesquerie, which allows the characters to go a bit beyond normal polite conversation.

  1. Yeah, I took a look at the Wikipedia article on Akutagawa. It focuses quite exclusively on his more literary endeavors and views, and mentions none of the stories discussed in this article. []


Oh Tempura, Oh Mores!

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:06 am

The New York Times has been on a Japanese culture kick this week which I just couldn’t let pass without note. There have been not one, but two articles in praise of Sushi, and an appreciation for a Roots Kabuki troupe on tour in the US.


Samurai Baseball: Off Base or Safe at Home?

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 10:34 pm

[A version of this piece was published on Japan Focus (April 4, 2007)]

Baseball fans, lovers of a good fight, and those who are curious about how we go about understanding Japan will all welcome “Baseball and Besuboru In Japan and The U.S.” (Studies in Asia online), a group of essays growing out of a conference at Michigan State University last year. Michael Lewis in his Introduction does concede that baseball is a game but is “also a powerful economic force, a ladder for social mobility, a vessel freighted with national symbols, and for many something of a sacred cultural preserve with practices (or is it rituals?) that delineate them from us.” Lewis reports that there was great debate at the conference over “nature versus nurture, or cultural essentialism versus shared solutions to shared problems.” [1]

Pretty heavy stuff – as the cliché has it, “life is a metaphor for baseball.” Peter C. Bjarkman’s essay “American Baseball Imperialism, Clashing National Cultures, and the Future of Samurai Besuboru” quickly makes the case for larger significance. [2] Looking at baseball in Cuba, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan he argues that American Major League Baseball is trying to control and Americanize a lovely, global game and turn it into a cash cow. He quotes a Latin American charge that “El béisbol is the Monroe Doctrine turned into a lineup card, a remembrance of past invasions.” Bjarkman concludes that the American game has been assimilated; besuboru and béisbol are different from “baseball.”

Is the difference between the original Yankee baseball and the game in other counties the difference between the real thing and a knock off or between the narrowly conceived original and new versions creatively adapted? Is baseball franchised around the world like MacDonald’s? After all, “a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac,” so isn’t baseball just baseball? The dispute over baseball in Japan vs. Japanese baseball involves more than whether the bats are heavier, balls smaller, and training more strenuous. Do these differences represent differences within a system or between systems? Depends on who you ask.

Samurai Baseball vs. Baseball in Japan

On one side is Robert Whiting. His books are classics of sports writing and hugely influential. [3] His first book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) begins by stating that Japanese baseball “appears to be the same game played in the U.S. – but it isn’t”:

The Japanese view of life, stressing group identity, cooperation, hard work, respect for age, seniority and “face” has permeated almost every aspect of the sport. Americans who come to play in Japan quickly realize that Baseball Samurai Style is different. (Forward)

Whiting goes on to describe the game as “outdoor kabuki” rather than an athletic competition, for in a most un-American way, the game can end in a tie. The chapter “Baseball Samurai Style,” illustrated with a photo of Sadharu Oh posing with a samurai sword, derives a “set of strict unwritten rules that might be called Samurai Code of Conduct for Baseball Players” which “has roots in Bushido, a warriors’ mode of behavior dating from the 13th century.” (p. 37) These rules show how Japanese national character differs from American. In America, for instance, “excellence is equated with getting results no matter how unorthodox the form,” while in Japan “it is more important to conform to the set way of doing things.” Other articles in the Code provide for rigorous training and self discipline; that “the player must not be materialistic” (a provision invoked especially by management at salary negotiation time); that a player “must follow the rule of sameness”; must “recognize and respect the team pecking order”; and, finally, must strive for wa – “team harmony and unity”:

The good team is like a beautiful Japanese garden. Every tree, every rock, every blade of grass has its place. The smallest part ever so slightly out of place destroys the beauty of the whole…. When each player’s ego detaches itself and joins twenty five others to become one giant ego, something magical happens. All the efforts and sacrifices the players have made at last become worthwhile. For they are now a perfect functioning unit. (p. 67)

Whiting’s eye and effective style have insured that this way of framing the differences between American and Japanese ball has passed into media lore. [4] The 1994 documentary, “Baseball in Japan” claims:

Because of its slow pace, baseball fits the Japanese character perfectly. The conservative play mirrors the Japanese conservative and deliberate approach to life. Managers and coaches view baseball as a tool to teach loyalty and moral discipline – the same type of loyalty and discipline feudal Japanese lords expected from their soldiers and subjects. This samurai discipline requires endless hours of training, self-denial, and an emphasis on spirituality. So goes the Japanese approach to baseball. [5]

But others frame matters differently. These include Yale anthropologist William Kelly. Kelly’s first book was on Tokugawa irrigation practices, so he knows feudal Japan. Kelly criticizes those writers, Whiting among them, who go go back to unexamined ancient traditions rather than look at specific responses in particular historical circumstances. [6]

In his Yale class lecture “Professional Baseball,” Kelly agrees that some professional baseball in Japan does fit the “samurai” stereotype: “not entirely, not convincingly, not uniquely, but enough to feed the press mills and the front offices and the television analysts.” In fact, he says, this “spin” is part of the game. Our job is “not to dismiss this commentary as misguided (though much of it clearly is)” but to ask who is putting these ideas about, who is believing them, and why they are appealing: “The myths are essential to the reality….” Japanese baseball is “not a window onto a homogenous and unchanging national character, but is a fascinating site for seeing how these national debates and concerns play out – just as in the United States.”

Why did baseball in Japan develop this “samurai” self-image? Baseball in Japan was shaped by the important elements of the nation in the early twentieth century – education, industry, middle class life, the government, and above all the national project. Since baseball was an American sport but Japan was not a colony, baseball in Japan was a way of declaring independence, defiance, and creativity. From early in the century, the middle schools and colleges adopted a “fighting spirit” in athletics (recall that Teddy Roosevelt called for the abolition of college football in the United States when violence had become the hallmark of the game). In the 1930s the newly formed professional leagues adopted that spirit, which styled itself “samurai.” The government, which stepped in to shape local social institutions, used sport to train and manage its citizenry both spiritually and physically; major business corporations turned to college teams to recruit loyal executives; large commercial newspapers competed for readers by telling more and more nationalistic sports stories; transport companies bought professional teams. The Japanese public and media demanded “Japanese style” in sports to distinguish themselves from the foreigners and set models for self-sacrificing workers and citizens. [7]

This summary does not do justice to Kelly’s detailed argument, but should show that he does not rely on “national character.” He charges that “national character” is misleading because it “essentializes a population,” that is, explains its actions in terms of fixed codes which govern everyone rather than history or political choices; applies ethnocentric standards of judgment; and homogenizes the varieties of everyday lives.

At the Michigan State conference, Whiting went on the counter-attack. [8] Whiting stated that he has lived in Japan since the 1970s, graduated from Sophia University, speaks fluent Japanese, and is immensely peeved that academics use him as a straw man. He pitted his “forty years of watching baseball in Japan” against Kelly’s scholarship: “I admire his effort to put together an academic history of Japanese baseball,” Whiting began, but “I must say that I find some of [Kelly’s] interpretations of the game in Japan uninformed and believe that they undermine Americans’ understanding of it.” To bolster his case, he inserts a few choice specimens of academic jargon.

Some critics, Whiting continued, objected to the appellation “samurai baseball” as too simplistic, but he replied that he did not claim that Japanese big leaguers wear top knots, carry swords, or commit seppuku: “samurai baseball” is just a metaphor. The metaphor may not be perfect, but “metaphor means resemblance, and so we must consider the ways in which it does fit.” The word “samurai” is used to highlight the “very real similarities and the grounding that the game has in budo or bugei, the martial arts of old, and its relationship to bushido with its lessons about dedication, self-perfection, submergence of ego and development of inner strength.” “Samurai baseball” does indeed reflect the Japanese national character since the lessons have been “passed down from generation to generation by fathers, teachers, coaches and, in adulthood, corporate bosses, right to the present day.”

National character studies can be abused, Whiting agrees, but denies implying that Japanese behavior is instinctive, unique or without internal contradictions. In the end, however, “to suggest that there is nothing different about the way that the average Japanese and average American see the world… is to deny reality and throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Whiting charges Kelly with believing that “there is nothing different about the way that the average Japanese and the average American sees the world.”



Asian History News Dump, March 2007

This is a “dump”: all the Asia related stuff I’ve saved over the last…. two months? Anyway, nobody else has blogged about it, so I thought I’d toss it out there. I hope to resume more … measured blogging soon.
[Crossposted at all three Frog Blogs; sorry about the irrelevant stuff.]


Origami Revolution

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:25 pm

Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Memorial

I can’t recommend highly enough Susan Orleans’ profile of Origamist Robert Lang, in which she describes not only his groundbreaking technical and artistic work, but traces back the history of origami in the West and talks about the growth of origami clubs and culture in the world.

I got to hear talks, courtesy of the MIT Origami club, a few years back by Michael LaFosse and by the folder of the world’s smallest crane. There are some remarkable people out there, doing some incredible things. I’ve always been amazed at the ability to turn two-dimensional media into three-dimensional art, and if I had more time and energy, I’d really like to get better at it.

I myself got into origami out of self-defense: when my wife and I were in Yamaguchi for my graduate research, a few of her Japanese friends tried to show her how to do origami. Being blind, my wife can’t see instructions, and most people don’t really understand how to explain things non-visually; she asked me to show her a few things so that the next time it came up she’d have some idea what was going on. So we went down to the bookstore, got a few beginning books and a few packs of paper, and we began working on it. We got a lot of our practice in during those interminable NHK newscasts. I also started — and still do — carrying origami paper in my wallet so that we could practice whenever we had some time, especially while waiting at restaraunts. Our work, though basic, got better, and we delighted our relatives by using the stuff we folded for practice as packing material.

While we were in Cambridge, we joined the MIT Origami club for their annual January Seminars, where I learned how to do modular origami, geometric shapes made from simple units. That’s where we got to see some of the real masters, the people who will fold a frog for two hours, then unfold it so they can reverse the folds in the center, then fold it back up again, all to get the toes just right!

Lang has gone beyond that, in ways that just weren’t possible ten years ago: computer-aided design, laser-scored paper, mathematical modelling and new materials. The artistry is the same though: the wonderful feeling of creation, of surprise.


Girls’ Day 2007, Hilo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:45 pm

The Hawai’i Japanese Center had an open house today for Girls’ Day, and I brought my camera. I didn’t make my 5-year old sit through the boring speeches, but once they were over we all had fun wandering the exhibits (actually, when you do it with a 5-year old, you’re not “wandering” but “examining in great but sometimes random detail”) and eating mochi and brownies.

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