I posted an entry at Frog in a Well Korea that might interest the reader of the Japan blog.
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]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
They call it a “red eye flight” for a reason. I really hope that none of the panelists at “Unstable Bodies, Unsettled Movements: Sport, Performance and Nation in Japan” took my nodding off personally: I really did want to hear what they had to say. (If anyone went to the Historians in Public roundtable and wants to share, I’d be grateful, by the way: that was my second choice.)
Aside from hearing the panelists, I got to meet not one, but two of my fellow Frog-bloggers: Dennis Frost, who was on the panel, and Michael Wert, who was in the audience with me. Tomorrow I get to hang out with Cliopatriots (being emeritoid, myself) and find out who won the Clios for last year! I love it.
An astute student in my Japanese Women class sent me this link [very adult content] with the thought that I might use it…. to stimulate…. class discussion! I’m actually quite intrigued… by the historical context and puzzle it presents. For those of you who wisely refrained from clicking through on first link, it’s a catalog of sexual devices and medicinals, bearing the imprint
Arita Drug & Rubber Goods Co.
Export and Import
1 Motomachi St.
Tel. Sasanomiya (3) 1465
“For both nations and inviduals have sometimes made a virtue of neglecting history; and history has taken its revenge on them.” — H. R. Trevor-Roper “The Past and the Present: History and Sociology” (1969), cited in Tosh, ed. Historians on History, p. 197.
Welcome to the September 1, 2006 edition of history carnival. I’m finally hosting a carnival with a number as high as my age! In honor of the quotes meme making the rounds, I’m going to use my personal quotation file as, um, decoration around the rich collection of material in this carnival. As usual, I’m making up categories as I go along: anyone who treats them as strict or comprehensive cataloging gets what they deserve!
I saw the immortals overlooking the volleyball court on our recent visit to the Kona side of the island, and felt an affinity. The Waikoloa Hilton is like that. It’s a massive resort complex, complete with its own trams and boat shuttles, littered with art both ridiculous and sublime, much of it Asian in origin or theme. The odd juxtaposition of beach party atmosphere and cultural decor which triggered my professional interest was mitigated only by the fact that our four-year-old still won’t slow down much for art. It all seemed like such a metaphor for Asianists in the American academy…
Anyway, I thought I’d continue the series we started last year and talk about my one Asia-related course this semester: Japanese Women. This is the second time I’ve taught it, and I’ve arranged things quite a bit differently. (First syllabus here) Some things are the same: strong emphasis on primary sources for class discussion and secondary scholarship in the hands of students — reading, presenting, writing about. Like last time, it’s a large group (almost thirty) and it’s a mix of history majors, Japanese studies majors, women’s studies majors (the class counts for major credit in all three departments) and students taking the class out of general or specific interest; lots of juniors and seniors, and — unlike last time — a cadre of students who’ve had classes with me before.
Some of the material I’m using this time is the same: Murasaki’s Diary, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, Hane’s Reflections on the Way to the Gallows, Bumiller’s Secrets of Mariko. I dropped Anne Walthall, The Weak Body of a Useless Women: Matsuo Taseko and the Meiji Restoration because, as much as I liked it, it was hard for students to see through the politics and exceptional nature of the character to deal with the gender issues (I’m going to be teaching a Meiji seminar in the Spring, though, and I’m bringing it back then). I added two books to compensate: Smith/Wiswell’s classic The Women of Suyemura and the recently translated Women of the Mito Domain by Yamakawa Kikue. I’m more excited about the former than the latter, though the little bit of Yamakawa that we used as a ‘warm-up’ reading this week worked quite well. As much as possible, I like to use autobiographical writing, or first-hand observation. And, like last time, students get to write short papers, priming the pump for discussions, on each of these works.
What’s changed, more than anything else, is the structure of the class. Last time I interspersed student presentations of secondary scholarship and my own lectures with the primary source readings; this time we’re reading primary sources first, with some lectured background, followed by student presentations/discussions of secondary materials (either a monographic work or multiple article/chapters on a subject). What I’m hoping is that this will give students more time and better background before they select their topics and sources
One of the first assignments was to go on the web and see what kinds of information about Japanese women’s history they could find. The results were quite diverse. Some of it came straight from the google search, but there were some outlying items as well, and some high quality resources. I perhaps spent more time than necessary talking about how obsessive interests can be valuable resources for historians and other scholars, and the collective intelligence of the internet. Students did notice the distinct lack of material relating to medieval/early modern women (except geisha) and the odd martial fixation of some of the highest ranked sites. With regard to the big gap between classical and modern women, I am still struggling to find good primary sources which cover that period. I could assign some of the early Tokugawa literature or Noh drama, but I’d prefer some diaristic or autobiographical material, and I just can’t find much.
I might have other syllabi to talk about in the next few weeks. In addition to a upper-level seminar on Meiji Japan, I’ve just been tagged to teach a course in our US-China Masters program, on “Problems and Issues in Contemporary China”; I’ll be giving it an historical spin, of course!
The effects of Meiji reforms on women have been pretty well documented: the continued legality of prostitution, including indenture; the consolidation of male power within family law and politics; the rise of the “Good Wife; Wise Mother” cult of femininity, education; etc. There’s been relatively little research that I’m aware of which really takes the male experience of Meiji all that seriously, separate from the general “Japanese” experience. One of the areas in which that’s really obvious, even to my students, is sexuality.
How quickly can the closet door close? One of the as-yet unstudied oddities of Japanese history is the shift in male sexuality from the Tokugawa to Meiji eras. As an example of the state of the field, here’s a recently published translation of a Japanese article from about two years ago:
Although there are many literary and artistic representations dating from the Edo period (1603-1857) which describe sexual acts which took place between men using terms such as danshoku and wakashu, at that time participating in such acts did not designate a specific type of person and so these records cannot be read as part of the history of ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ men. The so-called ‘birth’ of the homosexual took place in Japan in the Meiji (1858-1912) and Taisho (1912-25) periods when participating in same-sex sexual acts came to be understood as the result of a personal disposition, but almost no first-person narratives survive from this time.
The only records which remain from this period are case studies and analyses from a genre of sexology publications dating from 1900 which treated ‘homosexuality’ as one example of ‘perverse sexuality.’ There are also some articles and reports about cross-dressing male prostitutes who existed before and after World War II, but these reports, are also ‘about’ homosexuals and do not represent their own voices. However, this period of silence in which there were no records created by homosexuals themselves began to change in 1950 with the appearance of magazines such as Amatoria which took sex as their theme.
The near-total silence of Meiji sources is quite remarkable. It’s not like all the samurai just disappeared, and there’s a great deal of continuity in social, family, consumptive and cultural practices between Tokugawa and Meiji. I’m quite sure that the influence of Western sexual taboos is very strong in this regard, but it’s somewhat surprising that the deliberately transgressive and sexual “I-novel” writings of the Meiji and Taisho eras, for example, contain no (as far as I know) considerations of homosexuality.
It’s possible, I suppose, that the “Tokugawa” traditions of male-male sexual practices are really “early-mid” Tokugawa practices, which had mostly died out by the 19th century, but that’s a question for someone who knows the literature better than I. It’s also possible that the silence in the sources is a temporary thing, a result of our research interests, but there are people actively studying sexuality in Japan and it strikes me as odd, but not at all dispositive, that so little has been found.
If it isn’t ninja, it’s geisha. Yes, the weekend following the 64th anniversary of Pearl Harbor is the perfect time for “spectacularly unfortunate metaphors about male eels and female caves and one regrettably brief catfight in a kimono.”
I admit, I didn’t read Memoirs of a Geisha when it came out, hit the bestseller lists, etc. I haven’t read it yet, but I know I should. Not just to nitpick at the book and movie (which I won’t see this weekend, though I might over break if opportunity presents), though that might indeed be fun, but because its popularity is something which we will have to take into account when we teach for the foreseeable future.
Anyway, the New York Times review from which the above quote is taken has a pretty good synopsis of the film and background, and pretty much comes to the conclusion that it’s a film that works visually much more than narratively. The job of a movie reviewer is twofold: explain what does and doesn’t work about the movie so you know if you want to see it; be entertaining. For both, it’s hard to beat Dargis’ concluding paragraphs:
Mr. Marshall can’t rescue the film from its embarrassing screenplay or its awkward Chinese-Japanese-Hollywood culture klatch, but “Memoirs of a Geisha” is one of those bad Hollywood films that by virtue of their production values nonetheless afford a few dividends, in this case, fabulous clothes and three eminently watchable female leads. Although it’s always a pleasure to see these three in action, and there’s something undeniably exciting about the prospect of them storming the big studio gate, the casting of Ms. Gong and Ms. Zhang ends up more bittersweet than triumphant. Ms. Zhang, for one, shows none of the heartache and steel of her astonishing performance in Wong Kar-wai’s “2046.” …
Ms. Gong’s hauteur and soaring cheekbones work better for her character, a woman of acid resolve. Although there are moments when Hatsumomo comes perilously close to Dragon Lady caricature (“I will destroy you!”), the actress’s talent and dignity keep the performance from sliding into full-blown camp. But even the formidable Ms. Gong cannot surmount the ruinous decision to have her and Ms. Zhang, along with the poorly used Mr. Yakusho, deliver their lines in vaguely British-sounding English that imparts an unnatural halting quality to much of their dialogue. The. Result. Is. That. Each. Word. Of. Dialogue. Sounds. As. If. It. Were. Punctuated. By. A. Full. Stop. Which. Robs. The. Language. Of. Its. Watery. Flow. And. Breath. Of. Real. Life. Even. As. It. Also. Gives. New. Meaning. To. The. Definition. Of. The. Period. Movie.
Following KML’s post about the new museum on sexual slavery that is reported to open on August 1, found some links that I thought might deserve a separate post.
For those who are in Tokyo, a museum opening event will be held on July 31.
There is some information in English about this museum, by way of a notice on the passing of Yayori Matsui, a journalist, activist, and a key person behind the museum.
VAWW-NET Japan is an organization dedicated to ending violence against women during war and is currently positioning the museum as a node to connect to other such centers of information and activism in other Asian countries.
Here’s another piece of news that I’m sure some readers here will already know about. In 2000 they organized the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal, known as Women’s Tribunal 2000 (in English, Japanese). But earlier this year Asahi Shinbun reported that some government officials clandestinely interfered with the tribunal and attempted to discredit VAWW-NET Japan. This report was based on a disclosure from a producer at NHK.
The Constitutional revision question I wrote about here has expanded, apparently, to include the gender equity clauses, which are being blamed by social conservatives for “promoting egoism… collapse of family and community … a plunging marriage rate, an anemic birthrate and increasing delinquency in schools.” (OK, I followed it pretty well up to the last one: anyone who wants to explain to me the connection between gender equality and educational disorder is welcome to try)
Non Sequitur: A virtual gallery of Japanese Manhole Covers [via Ralph Luker] reveals some extraordinary public art. Now, can anyone tell me how this began, or why Japan does this and nobody else, as far as I know, does? Or is the US the only country whose underground access portal covers are boring?
History Carnival #9 is a rich collection (in spite of finals, it’s been a fine fortnight), including Craig’s essay (it’s much to substantial to be just “a post”) on Karate, which Sharon Howard graciously (and accurately, I think) calls “one of the outstanding posts of the month.” I will be talking about historians in cyberspace at ASPAC, and I’m grateful that I have so much to work with.