Nostalgia and Representations of Asia in Japan

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 2:07 am

Last year I wrote an article entitled Losing the Soul of Japan which was posted on the excellent weblog Chanpon. In the article I made some comments on the topic of nostalgia in Japan for an authentic Japanese culture. This has been widely written about (perhaps the most important work on this in English is Marilyn Ivy’s Discourses of the Vanishing) but my own motivation in this earlier article was to explore the use of foreigners in campaigns to create a sense of shame amongst Japanese over the loss of their own “pure” selves. I added more thoughts on this topic in another posting here. As a student of Japanese history, I think this phenomena is an especially useful portal through which to approach the far more complex and powerful images of cultural loss, nostalgia, and authenticity which inform the ideologies of nationalism prominent during Japan’s imperial age.

I just recently read another article related to this topic which also touches on these issues, “Nostalgia for a (Different) Asian Modernity: Media Consumption of ‘Asia’ in Japan” by Iwabuchi Koichi (Positions 10:3, Winter, 2002), that makes a number of interesting arguments about Japan’s nostalgia in representations of Asia and in particular, media consumption amongst Japanese for Hong Kong products.

At the risk of oversimplifying a complex argument, let me see if I can describe what he is getting at. Iwabuchi begins by discussing existing work on nostalgia, and especially a feeling of mournful loss which is expressed through descriptions of other cultures. This, “Politics of the transnational evocation of nostalgia is highlighted when it is employed to confirm a frozen temporal lag between two cultures, when ‘our’ past and memory are found in ‘their’ present.” (549) Iwabuchi notes that quite often, what is missing in these portrayals of Asia is any appreciation for the cultural specificity and innovation in these other locations. However, after confirming these trends in Japanese postwar representations of Asia and connecting it to a critique of a (in the words of Renato Rosaldo, who he cites), “a particular kind of nostalgia, often found under imperialism, where people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed,” (quoted 550, forgive me for not confirming the original) Iwabuchi goes on to explore an interesting twist on this theme in the case of Hong Kong media consumption amongst Japanese fans…


Summer Reading Note: Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:22 am

I’ve finished Stephen Turnbull’s Ninja: the True Story of Japan’s Secret Warrior Cult, and I have good news for current and prospective graduate students: there is still an immense amount of work to be done on ninja and ninjutsu as historical phenomena.

The early chapters cover “non-traditional” tactics in samurai warfare, defined here as any military or violent action which does not take place between mounted warriors on a declared battlefield. Only a few chapters in — the Muromachi and warring states eras — do we encounter shinobi, experts in castle infiltration and solo armed combat. Aside from the Iga-Koga warrior clans — oddly mercenary, which also becomes part of the ninja mythology — there are no well-defined schools or consistent practitioners. The Tokugawa era section of the book shifts to discussing the increasingly magical, frightening and lurid image of ninja in popular culture, a topic which remains the focus for the rest of the book. Only at the very end, after citing Ian Fleming’s role in bringing ninja to western awareness, does Turnbull come back to the question of actual ninjutsu, citing Fujita Seiko (1899-1966) as “Japan’s last practising ninja” and functionally disparaging all other books, schools and practitioners as profiteers or self-deluded (though he never clarifies the position of foreword author Hatsumi Masaaki, whom he seems to hold in high esteem as a teacher and preserver of the tradition). Turnbull seems surprised by Ninjutsu schools’ claims that their art is a “Way” of self-development, which is odd because pretty much every other school or style of martial arts in Japan makes the same claim. He openly admits that he can’t judge the actual fighting techniques of these schools — though he does spend some time talking about weaponry and the creative additions made in literature and art over the years — and he cites but never evaluates the dramatic claims of several schools to be descended from various historical figures (some of whom used non-traditional tactics but were not shinobi).

The book almost entirely fails to answer any of my questions about ninja and ninjutsu. I am not someone who can be shocked, shocked, I say, to discover that samurai sometimes snuck around instead of limiting themselves to entirely fair fights, or that some warriors actually got pretty good at these tactics. Nor does it surprise me that samurai orthodoxy distanced themselves from these tactics so that, even though they appear as successful tactics in traditional military records, the self-image and modern image of the samurai drives these tactics into the shadows. I’m not terribly interested in popular images of ninja, unless there is some serious discussion of the reality, and the two discussions are substantially separate. I am interested in the history and accomplishments of schools of ninjutsu, because it is from them, not from popular culture, that the most fantastic claims of antiquity and continuity and ability come. Turnbull quotes an interview with the above mentioned Seiko Fujita, for example, in which he “claims he can ‘concentrate his senses’ to see eight times better and hear fourteen times better than normal,” (144) but, aside from deploring the “dilution of quality since ninja became so popular” (146), there’s no validation or testing of these claims.

Even in earlier sections, there’s an odd credulity to the source handling that is hard to take seriously. Turnbull notes, for example, the odd frequency with which ninja were tested before employment with stealing an item, usually a sword, from their employer, but doesn’t bring skepticism he justifiably feels towards these clichés to bear on the rest of the documents containing them. Turnbull notes the disdain in which conventional samurai held these tactics and practitioners, but doesn’t seriously question whether the samurai sources he’s using might be misrepresenting these warriors or underrepresenting the use of these tactics. I’m also surprised at the relative thinness of pre-20c popular culture references (and the early 20c military discussion seems a terrible diversion, either unnecessary or too short), given the consistency and wide acceptance of the images in question.

To be fair, it may be that the sources and citations he found are indeed the only ones to be found on the subject, and he’s doing the best that he can. There seems to be material here that is not found elsewhere in English, and that’s always a service to the profession. And this is certainly more interesting than the vast majority of the nearly-fictional ninja material in the popular and martial arts press. But it certainly didn’t answer my questions, or the questions of my students.


Dewey In Japan

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 7:40 pm

Naoko Saito takes John Dewey’s visits to Japan as a starting place for questions about “Education for Global Understanding” [registration required; I do like the way TCR seems to be branching more towards Higher Ed and international education lately, but it might just be a summer blip] and finds challenging material.

In his visit to Japan, from February 9 until April 28, 1919, Dewey was confronted with a severe challenge to his hope of attaining mutual understanding and universal democracy beyond national and cultural boundaries. Japan at that time was between two world wars and had undergone a democratization movement called Taisho Democracy – a movement that was soon to give way to looming nationalism and militarism. Dewey saw a flickering hope for liberalism in Japan, but he left the country in disappointment. He tried to approach Japan through his principle of mutual national understanding. During the short period of his stay, he struggled to penetrate below the surface of the culture. As a philosopher who was thrown into an abyss that existed between two cultures, Dewey acknowledged that “Japan is a unique country, one whose aims and methods are baffling to any foreigner.” He communicated with Japanese liberal intellectuals, gave a lecture at the University of Tokyo, and was exposed to the left-wing democratic movements among college youth. But he learned that “such higher criticism is confined to the confidence of the classroom” (JL, p. 174). Dewey realized that the “popular mind,” to which he wished to communicate his idea of democracy as a personal way of living, was dominated by “nationalistic sentiment.” He observed that “the growth of democratic ideas” and “the growth of liberalism” were hampered by the inculcation of “the emperor cult” (LJ, pp. 170–173). Especially in contrast to China, where “[e]very articulate conscious influence [was] liberal,” Dewey noticed the obstacles to “the development of an enlightened liberal public opinion in Japan” – “the conspiracy of silence,” patriotism, and the institutional religion that prevented “critical thought and free discussion.” Dewey was troubled by the authoritarian, nationalistic ethics indoctrinated in primary education (LJ, pp. 167–168). He could not find democracy in Japanese people’s way of living.

Furthermore, Dewey was confused by an inconsistency involved in Japanese modernization – a combination of the “feudal” and “barbarian” ethos of the warrior with the worship of western industrialization (LJ, pp. 160–161). As he put it, “There is some quality in the Japanese inscrutable to a foreigner which makes them at once the most rigid and the most pliable people on earth, the most self-satisfied and the most eager to learn” (LJ, p. 168). In the country’s “opportunism,” Dewey found it “difficult in the present condition of Japan to construct even in imagination a coherent and unswerving working policy for a truly liberal political party” (POJ, p. 259).

This experience of Dewey leaves us with a philosophical question: what happens if one’s democratic faith is not totally accepted in a different culture? [footnotes removed]

Actually, that last sentence should be, based on her description of Dewey’s responses, “what happens if one’s democratic faith is entirely rejected in a different culture?” A bit later, Saito notes that “In the series of lectures that Dewey gave at the University of Tokyo, the number of participants decreased from around a thousand to less than forty towards the end.” And, of course, there’s little evidence of Dewey’s influence in Japan’s educational or political systems to date. Clearly his visit failed to transform Japan, unrealistic as that standard of judgement might be. Clearly Japan as a society is not fully accepting of differences and others (are any societies?) and has a civil discourse which is more limited than many of us would consider ideal, or even healthy.

I’m mostly struck by the tension between the idea of Taisho Democracy, which was indeed in full swing when Dewey dropped in, and what Dewey observed as rigidity, obscurantism, chauvinism and authoritarianism. Given what we know of the course of history, Dewey’s observations ring true, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t miss something important. The 1920s were a heyday of internationalism in Japan, not just in the sense of the Shidehara Diplomacy but also in terms of translated literature and scholarship, travel overseas, international visitors to Japan, and the penetration of commodity culture carrying both domestic and international products and modes. Dewey should have seen some of that potential; instead he (and his followers in the present) deny that the eclectic and dynamic 1920s were more than epiphenomal. There’s a consistency to this narrative that I find troubling, possible evidence of a cultural determinism which is untenable, historically.


Possible Research Topic: Women’s Sumo

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:44 am

Japundit reports on his attempt to fact-check a Kyodo news story on sumo wrestling by women. Based on his results, this is a subject crying out for authoritative study, with strong roles for gender theory, rhetoric of drama and, of course, the rising tide of sports history.


Karate and Modernity: A Call for Comments

Filed under: — craig @ 1:25 pm

This posting is the introduction to a work in progress, sans footnotes, references, and italics. Like me, its akward and verbose, for which I apologize. I’m posting it because it has come to my attention that I am not the only historian working on the modernization of karate, I have recently heard from Ethan Savage of the University of Oregon. It is important for the two of us to coordinate a bit to make sure that we don’t step on each other’s research, and it is an opportunity to share our insights and hopefully help each other. And, of course, I welcome the responses of all froginawell readers.

Black belts on white uniforms, vigorous punches and high kicks identify karate worldwide. In karate practice sessions, the synchronized performance of esoteric maneuvers by groups of practitioners arrayed in rows before their instructor form the core. Although many karate styles emphasize competition over the so-called effete “dancing” of “traditional” styles that “begin and end with kata,” all karate practitioners decry the sportification (suspōtsuka) of karate. The synchronized performance of callisthenic maneuvers and some form of competitive sparring coexist in both jissen “real combat” and traditionalist styles. Practitioners subscribe to the generic philosophical regimen of the Japanese martial arts in which strict discipline and rigorous, persistent practice lead to individual spiritual development. Karate is a Japanese budō, (martial Way) which means that it symbolizes a unique and immutable ethno-national, virile spirituality that simultaneously instills and expresses invincibility, health, and morality. All also agree that karate is an ancient art. Beyond this, authors of karate history describe its origins as “murky” and “unclear;” they state that karate developed on Okinawa as a combination of primordial native arts and Chinese imports, typically describing an organic coalescence about five hundred years ago. The lack of further details, they say, results from karates covert, outlaw status. After the 1609 invasion of Okinawa by the samurai of Satsuma, their fear of karate had driven it underground, off the record, and under the historian’s radar. Banned from using the katana, Okinawans had polished their art in secret, bare-handed, had transmitted it at night and only among their intimate acquaintances. With modernity, much changed. For one, names. Old karate, that of the misty past, had been just te, hand. Then came the Chinese influence, a conjugation that birthed tō-de, Tang hand. Only when Okinawa was brought into the fold of modern Japan in the 1900s did the moniker take on its true form: karate, the empty hand.

And yet, in the 1921 Ryūkyū Kenpō: Karate, the first fully published karate text, little of this appears: karate is not a dō, lacks mythology, and is frank about recent Chinese influences. Reaching further back, to the unpublished writings of Itosu Anko, karate lacks even a name, makes no claims on the spirit, and mentions history not at all. Beyond that, the writing is in Chinese. Strangest of all, and most easily overlooked, is that through the 1920s there was only really one name: karate, the Chinese hand.

What are historians to make of this? Shall we dig through the historical record to discover the origins of these various traits? Plucking belts and uniforms from the history of judō, synchronized movement from the colonial period obsession with military drill, the division of new, jissen styles from their “traditional” parents—deriving their sport-orientation by the subtracting traditionalism of the latter? Shall we pursue the trail of karate until it vanishes in the mists—the inscrutable because unrecorded history of a vaunted tradition? Shall we satisfy our unsated curiosity with conjecture about the date, the exact origin, the means of transmission of Chinese martial arts? What about the possible secret meaning of every ancient mention of hands? And, at the end, do we recombine our findings into the tapestry of karate—a patchwork of once discrete elements that merge when viewed from afar? Alternately, does the historian perform some alchemy—combining one part judō, one part military drill, three parts secrecy, and four parts China—adjusting ingredients and portions, timings and temperatures to arrive at the correct recipe for modern karate?

These are viable methods for valuable goals, but I will take a different approach, proceeding from a different conclusion. (For to identify the components of modern karate is to start from the conclusion—to look at the final product, whole, inert, prone on the examination table; to dissect the adult in search of the infant it conceals.) I will start with the conclusion that karate was born old, asking not: how did karate foretell itself? but: when did karate authors begin to question their origins? From what vantage point did they look back and decide, a little spontaneously and even a little arbitrarily, that what their ancestors practiced was karate, or tō-te, or just plain te? In other words, perhaps they made such fine distinctions between these terms, not because such distinctions had always been made, but because those terms told the story of who they wanted to be.

I will not ask: how traditional is karate? but will instead investigate the means and meanings of that word. Labeling karate a tradition relieves it of the obligations of a rigorous historicity; or rather, it establishes a distinct set of historicized expectations. This relationship between tradition and history is problematic: by definition, every tradition needs a history to anchor it in the bedrock of origins; and yet to the extent that history is the description of change across time, especially in the upheaval of modernity, it undermines the validity of traditions by questioning immaculate transmission. Martial artists claim both this kind of unblemished pedigree and acknowledge (tout, even) changes that are sometimes quite radical. To accomplish this, martial arts historians judge changes by whether they preserve an original “spirit” encapsulated in the word dō. This spirit eludes definition: it is both immutable and under constant threat; it is both a weapon with which to attack the heretical, and an impervious protective amulet; it animates the tradition, makes it possible, but cannot be demonstrated. For karate, it is both the reason to practice and the least of afterthoughts. To understand how karate’s modernizers navigated the difficult terrain of historicism we must ask: how did they discursively generate this elusive spirit? where did they find it in practice? how did the make it both necessary and unobtainable?

Similarly, I will not ask: is karate a sport? Instead I ask: why do karate practitioners concern themselves with the question, and when did they begin doing so? All sports have histories, and maintain to varying degrees the traditional aesthetic: baseball has a tradition closely linked, but not limited, to American national identity, as cricket does for England. Even other of the Japanese martial arts, like judo, may be described in this way. But the same is true, to a lesser degree, of all sports—if sprinting had no tradition, why would anyone still recollect the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, whose speed is surpassed? For most practices, history and tradition peacefully coincide, if only because one dominates the other. But karate is somewhat unique in that the authors of its history pit tradition against sport, and visa versa. They state that theirs is “more” than a sport, even while competition forms an integral part of its practice. Why this discrepancy? What of sport is to be feared? To combine questions of tradition/sport: Why do its historians balance karate simultaneously on the descending slope of tradition and the up-escalator of modern sport?

I am not concerned with the questions: what of the Chinese origins of karate? what can we learn by putting their modern forms side by side? how do we measure their similarity and what would it tell us? do we identify and subtract Chinese affinities, and call the remainder purely Okinawan? In other words, do we attempt to derive the race of karate? I will contemplate the uses of a Chinese history for karate, its advantages and disadvantages: what did karate historians gain from careful manipulation of the place of China, and Okinawa or Japan, for that matter, within their liturgies of karate history? I will not add my voice to those debating when tō-te became Okinawan, and when karate became Japanese. Or make my own speculations about combinations, routes, and transmissions. I want to know: why must the unwritten history of karate be made to speak? And why must it remain selectively mute, able to say only specific things, and those with no specificity? But most of all: why does karate need a history at all?

The Multiplication of Karates

Although Japan’s annexation of Okinawa is most often described as “internal colonization” when it is mentioned at all, to those involved it was nothing so trite. After Japan officially annexed the Okinawan island group in 1874, widespread and severe derision of Okinawan culture as “backwards” and “uncivilized” replaced the official, and even then, limited, appeals to racial brotherhood and tacit sovereignty that had legitimized annexation. This discourse located Okinawa in a degenerate past and Japan in an enlightened future, and posited that only by reckoning with Japanese modernity could the country’s newest citizens hope for an improved future and the cessation of browbeating. For the next three decades Japanese administrators and segments of the Okinawan intelligentsia urged the “reform” of the Okinawan character through the purgation, right down to un-Japanese sneezes, of cultural elements that diverged from what were described as the homogenous norms of the “main islands.” Some responded by fleeing to China. But for the majority who remained, China gradually changed into the ultimate symbol of a revolting and fetid past. By the turn of the century, as assimilation (dōka) projects began to bear fruit, discursive treatment of Okinawa changed again: this time to emphasize the essentially Japanese identity of Okinawans, to claim that Okinawans had “always already” been good Japanese.

It was around this time that archeologists discovered that the Japanese race was a mixture of several distinct “native” peoples. Among these groups were ancestors of the Ainu, Koreans, Mongolians, and a lesser group that had long ago relocated to the Ryukyu Islands. This “proved” that, whether they realized it or not, Okinawans (and every native of East Asia) had always already been Japanese. But there had also been a fifth group named—paradoxically—the “original Japanese”. Okinawans, it turned out, had always already been Japanese, and they had also always already been second-class Japanese. Corroborated by linguistic and literary evidence, this convinced most that Okinawans comprised a prodigal “branch house” of the Japanese race and that the Japanese were the “parents” of all East Asia. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that after thirty years of an “assimilation” that saw the eradication both reminders of Okinawa’s affinities with China and many practices, like hand-tattooing, that were distinctly Okinawan, cultural affinities with Japan suddenly seemed uncannily numerous. Discovering this veritable theme park of breathing history, leading folk scholars concluded that Okinawa “preserved” intact Japan’s natal form. Ethnographers discovered that surviving Okinawan music and speech were ancient “subsets” of their Japanese counterparts, unchanged remnants on an island that time forgot. Japanese generally accepted this construction, flattered by their two-fold superiority as the providers of ancient Okinawan culture and of the template for Okinawan modernity. As Okinawa transitioned from the geographic exterior, “gaichi”, to the internal rural, “inaka”, Japanese began to discriminate against Okinawans as their primitive cousins rather than as primitive foreigners; “modernized” Okinawans came to regard “holdouts” as so many anchors holding them down, embarrassing them before their new friends; and the same scholars and activists who discovered the Japanese pedigree of Okinawa extolled their fellows to better themselves for the sake of their prefecture and their nation. The groups extolled Okinawans be proud of their identity—insofar is to be Okinawan was to be Japanese—and at the same time to become more like the “home island” Japanese—insofar as to be Okinawan was to be not Japanese enough.

Under this “always already Japanese” formulation, Ryukuan cultural elements remained viable only insofar as they could be brought up to speed with their erstwhile Japanese counterparts; the “subset” hiatus ended as soon as it was declared. Karate practices were no exception. Moreover, for karate in specific and Okinawa in general, modernization and Japanization were mutually defining terms. As they sought to promote their art to Japanese, Okinawans quickly realized that the in addition to the many parallels between Chinese and Okinawan martial practices that constituted a potentially fatal liability, there was also the matter of the non-modernity of karate. To restate, not only did Okinawan martial practices possess passé references, it also lacked required accoutrements. Modernization, for one, required that karate recount is history; modern things, especially traditions, do not materialize from the ether, they emerge from the cocoons of their pasts. Every modern entity can and must describe its history, explain and justify itself with a narrative that begins, transgresses a middle, and ends in a re-beginning called modernity. Karate could not move in the present without accounting for its whereabouts and activities in the past, and it could enjoy no fraternity with modern, Japanese traditions without first presenting a pedigree that linked it to narrative of the divine origin of all Japanese martial arts. Yet karate had no history, only a disparate smattering of legends that told no intelligible story. Karate historians had much to explain: Was karate born of the teachings of Daruma in China, the font all Japanese martial arts? (An easy one! They get harder.) Not just, when did Chinese martial arts begin to influence Okinawan arts? but more importantly, when and under what circumstances had this influence ceased? What, exactly, excused Okinawan martial arts for lacking what had become the paragon of the Japanese martial spirit after the end of the Tokugawa era, the katana? When so many Okinawan practices were being eliminated, why should karate survive? And most difficult of all, why did karate carry as its moniker the character for Tang China, the ancient name of Japan’s newly sworn enemy?

But the historical imperative was not a simple descriptive one, for it included certain strategic silences. They needed to know the details of their mystical origins, but they also needed to be at a loss to make a full accounting of the middle of karate history. Make no mistake: karate history soon had a middle, but it was indistinct—an outline with many precise gaps, a carefully composed picture of fog—because along with the questions that required answers were ones that could not be asked at all: Why could no 1920s karate practitioner trace a lineage more than two generations without arriving in China? Did Okinawan martial practices that had not come from China exist? What did karate texts tell, and in what language did they tell it? The answers to these questions needed to remain buried, or at least open secrets, in order for karate to achieve legitimacy, because any explanation would inescapably have been a story of betrayal.

There was also much to learn, for modern martial arts excelled at presenting themselves, and karate did not. Public demonstrations, books presenting instructive pictures and verbal descriptions of movements were necessary skills for the modern martial artist. Karate practitioners did not automatically know how to move in a modern way—to match words to movements and movements to words. They did not know how to express the ideology of karate movement for the spectator, the reader, and the viewer of photographs. And once it had been presented in books and on stages, karate had to match this representation in practice. Karate had to be rendered presentable to masses and rendered performable by masses. It is not that the modern period was the first to see movement rendered on paper or performed for an audience, but that in the modern period it became imperative that movements be justified in terms of their presentations more often than for their effects. That is to say, effects were judged on form rather than on result: not, did it work? but, did it take the proper form? not, how did it feel? but, is it a faithful mimicry? not, was it timed so as to produce the proper result? but, did it maintain an exact simultaneity? not, did it meet the circumstances? but, was it an exacting repetition? This is because in modern movement efficacy results from proper form, naturalness flows from faithful repetition, and proper timing from simultaneity.

The conditions placed on karate were therefore doubly contradictory: karate needed a modernization that declared its traditionality, and it needed to found this ancientness on a history that effaced much of its past. Yet this double bind also held a double opportunity—the imperative to construct a history for karate history almost from scratch meant that whatever displeased its authors could be dismissed as aberration and disavowed. The strategy they adopted was to multiply karate, not just in the present, but across time: in telling the story of karate’s beginning, middle, and end they created three karates. Faults could be sloughed off into one of the karates that existed only in the past tense: it was too late to deny connection to China, but amputation and cauterization was still possible. Conversely, the three karates could be united by continuities consisting of whatever pleased their creators: they could depict their predecessors as always secretly engaged in a Japanese identity by casting the troublesome name of karate as a subtle subterfuge with a second, secret, and entirely Japanese meaning; they could lay the blame for many of karate’s shortcomings on Japan itself: “Satsuma forced us to act un-Japanese.” This process of writing karate history spanned many drafts; it was written and then immediately rewritten; meanings were fixed and then radically rearranged; in terms of the above questions, they changed their answers and revised their strategies of refraining. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the project has never been completed—because once undertaken, narration its can never stop: not only must new events be recorded, but so must a new past. In executing this, karate authors borrowed heavily from the narratives of native Japanese arts, from the archeologists and ethnographers of long-secret Japaneseness, and the gurus of racial physicality. Karate proponents responded to the imperative of a traditionalizing modernity by creating new historical narratives in a process that simultaneously identified karate predecessors, gingerly detached them from contemporary karate, and sorted them into a chronology that transformed Ryukyu from the destination of Chinese martial practices into karate’s, and Okinawa’s, point of disembarkation in the direction of Japan.


Fukuzawa on Education; Mongol Scrolls

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:24 am

Reading over Fukuzawa’s Autobiography for class, I ran across a nice passage:

However much we studied, our work and knowldge had practically no connection with the actual means of gaining a livelihood or making a name for ourselves. Not only that, but the students of Dutch were looke upon with contempt by most men. Then why did we work so hard to learn Dutch?… we students were conscious of the fact that we were the sole possessors of the key to knowledge of the great European civilization. However much we suffered from poverty, whatever poor clothes we wore, the extent of our knowledge and the resources of our minds were beyond the reach of any prince or nobleman of the whole nation. …most of us were then actually putting all our energy into our studies without any definite assurance of the future. Yet this lack of future hope was indeed fortunate for us, for it made us [in Osaka] better students than those in Yedo. From this fact I am convinced that the students of the present day, too, do not get the best results from their education if they are to much concerned about their future. Of course, it is not very commendable to attent school without any serious purpose. But, as I say, if a student regulates his work too much with the idea of future usefulness, or of making money, then he will miss what should be the most valuable part of his education. During one’s school life, one should make the school work his chief concern.

Actually, reading it over, it strikes me as somewhat self-contradictory: he acknowledges that in Yedo such knowledge was very valuable, and that entree into European studies was a great benefit for the present and future. Oh, well.

Well, as consolation, another beautiful web resource, from Tom Conlan: The 13th century Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan, in several different recreated incarnations, with a fantastic viewing interface. The site claims that it needs a “high bandwith connection” but I’m viewing it over my home modem and having a blast. If you’ve got a high-speed classroom connection, though, your Mongol Invasion lecture just got that much prettier.


Renaissance Japan

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:33 am

Epochal analogies are some of the trickiest traps in our historical discourse. Whether it’s the Medieval v. Feudal snake pit or the quicksand of finely grained modernities, generalizing historical processes from one society to another is one of the most common, and most often failed, attempts to systematize that qualitative epistemology we call history. But we don’t give up: first because we need a shorthand to talk about processes, and the analogies, however flawed at deep definitional levels, give us a foundation to communicate with each other; second, because in our heart of hearts we historians believe that there must be rhyme and reason to the course of humanity, and only by the insistent dialectic of thesis and data will we reveal those rhythms and patterns. All of which is just my way of saying that I’d like to pass on a historical analogy from my teaching and I don’t want anyone taking it too seriously, but I don’t want it dismissed out of hand, either.



The Gateless Gate Online

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:04 am

Here is the gateway to The Gateless Gate. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But it’s a real treasure of a document, and a very nicely done site.

Granted, much of what I understand about Zen, insofar as anyone can say with any meaning that they understand Zen, comes from Ioanna Salajan and Paul Reps (There are, I assure you, worse sources….), and I’m more of a Daoist than Zen in basic attitude (I’m a Liberal Jew, which gives you this).

And, oddly enough in the same H-Japan digest, my old friends at the UIowa Center for Asian and Pacific Studies have put the papers for this panel on using digitized sources in research on Asian Buddhism up for public viewing here.


Sondheim’s Perry?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:21 pm

I had no idea: Stephen Sondheim (yes, I’m one of his many fans) wrote a musical about the arrival of Commodore Perry called Pacific Overtures. There’s a new version of it being staged in New York: anyone know if there’s a soundtrack, or video version of it (current or former versions) available?

I’m almost afraid to find out, really, what he did with it: there’s so much bad historical fiction and drama out there….


Farewell, Soseki

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:57 pm

I’m going to miss Natsume Soseki. I know, he’s been dead for a long time (are there any plans in the works for centennial editions or celebrations, because the hundredth anniversary of his greatest works, as well as his death, are coming up), and I’m not going to stop referencing or using his writings in my modern history classes. But one of the things I could always tell my students, if they doubted the importance of this particular novelist, is that he was featured on the ¥1000 note. No longer.

He’s being replaced by Noguchi Hideyo, discoverer of the syphilis bacterium. This is a good choice, I suppose: promotion of science and all that. Looking for images for currency, I stumbled across this article on photocatalytic substances and their use in evironmental rejuvenation and eco-friendly construction, and this article on natto-based water-absorbing resins. I spent two summers translating and cataloging Japanese technical writing, so I’m used to a certain overstatement in these kinds of articles, but there’s something very, very intriguing about the work being done here. It’s something of a truism among environmental activists that environmentally-friendly technology is its own economic reward, reducing costs and stimulating demand, but it can be hard to find really good examples when everyone points at the solar cells and says “why aren’t they cheaper yet”? I think Japan’s long-term economic importance in the world will be sustained by such technological creativity — melding scientific and economic and social innovation — and that’s worth noting. It’s also worth noting that he did the work that made him famous in the United States

Inazo, the educator and writer who worked so hard to introduce Japanese culture to the world in the early 20th century, is losing his place on the ¥5000, as well. I have more mixed feelings about that: though Nitobe is described in Hunter’s Concise Dictionary as “a strong opponent of militarism and nationalism.. an internationalist, Christian and liberal,” my strongest association with him is the cultural essentialism which he promoted through books like Bushidō: the Soul of Japan. That is a strain of Japanese culture commentary which provided great support to the militarists and nationalists over the course of the 20th century, and which still plagues us today in a variety of forms (including overwrought undergraduate essays on the samurai, which I’m plowing through now).

Nitobe is being replaced by Higuchi Ichiyo, about whom I know almost nothing. I’ll admit it: the woman being described as one of the first and most important feminist novelists in Meiji Japan I know nothing about. I know some of the work of Enchi Fumiko and Ariyoshi Sawako and Tawara Machi…. but not Higuchi. I guess I’ve got some reading to do. Still, she is the first modern woman to appear on Japan’s currency, and it’s nice to see a novelist still holding a place, though the ¥5000 is something of a ghetto in terms of daily use.

The reverse of the bills is changing as well: you can see them here. Mt. Fuji is moving from the ¥5000 to the ¥1000, and picking up some cherry blossoms. The cranes (I liked the cranes) are not moving the other way, though: the ¥5000 now features “Kakitsubata, or rabbit-ear irises, drawn by Korin Ogata.”

The ¥10000 bill will retain Fukuzawa Yukichi, which makes me very happy, though it will also be modified slightly to include the anti-forgery features of the other new bills.

And in a sign of how long I’ve been out of Japan, I hadn’t realized that they introduced a ¥2000 bill in 2000, featuring the Tale of Genji and its author “Murasaki Shikibu.” I do remember the phase-out of the ¥500 bill, and I still think that the transition to a coin for that denomination is a model of what the US government should do with its $1 and $5 paper denominations. Even I’ve mostly given up on the Sacajawea dollar, but that’s partly because I’m on an island where it’s harder to get them, but the cost savings in shifting to coinage would be considerable.

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