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Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies

Written by Liam Head during MA Interdisciplinary Japanese Studies at UEA.

My main interest is in the Azuchi-Momoyama period, focusing upon the broad topic of warfare – ranging from weapons, tactics, sword manuals, techniques, castles and siege strategy. A particular research interest at this moment is the functionality and preservation of castles in Japan, especially those which have been host to massive battles in History, or have been instrumental in it.

  • Representations of Modernity in Meiji Prints: Steam Trains

    Dr Alison Miller’s TTL on representations of steam trains and speed was a very unique approach which called to a representation of Tokyo that is very prevalent in contemporary thought. Often we see on the news articles citing the absolute reliability and fragility of the train system in Japan, which adds to Japan’s digital identity to an extent. Particularly, the BBC did an article in which it reported upon the Tsukuba Express line management apologising for one of it’s trains departing 20 seconds early than intended [1]. Certainly, in many other countries around the world this doesn’t seem something to apologise for though this continues to characterise Japan as the country with punctuality in mind.

    Tokyo / Takanawa Steam Railway, Utagawa Kuniteru

    This thus introduces my interest into Meiji representation, how did Japan frame it’s newly implemented railways which visually changed the landscape, monumentalising the shift from old to new. Dr Miller’s approach introduced the broader categorisation of bunmei kaika-e which made me link this topic to others I have previously discussed. The aim of these prints was the newly introduced innovation and technology, which reminds me of the discourse regarding the policy of Japan throughout Meiji – namely, the desire to appear as a civilised country qualified to stand tall next to the world leaders. These prints often focused upon railways in different formats – some in the American configuration, some British and some in an even more cartoony fashion. What remained common was the focus of rails in common life, often the imagery of rail transport existed amongst people standing or walking nearby, suggesting it as a normative shift in the countries infrastructure.

    This would be in line with the cultural shift presented by the Meiji Restoration, in both physical forms such as trains, western architecture and fashion but also the implementation of (at the time) global standards. For example, the implementation of a constitution that also focused on reverence to the royal family, much like many of the global leaders of this period.[2] It’s interesting to see how Japan domestically and internationally represented itself through a very traditional method of woodblock but the technological modernity of trains – this suggests that Japan did understand the value of keeping it’s culture close but still taking strides to catch up with the rest of the world and what was considered the norm for modern powers. The cheaper nature of woodblock at the time suggests that Japan was very much conscious of it’s transition to the western view of modernity, which could explain why there wasn’t a major shift to western printing hardware despite this being seen as the international standard. [3]

    Bisai Railway Steam Locomotive.

    Throughout the talk the finer aspects of train representation was mentioned, including how to tell where the trains came from with a brief history of how these infrastructure developments occurred through cooperative development projects with Britain or United States. My main interest was the advent of bunmei kaika generally, and how much of a shift was presented through works in this category. I didn’t consider the significance of trains before, though I realised I should have considering how instrumental they are in warfare, supply, tourism and being an early implementation of models of labour connectedness and high speed transportation of goods.

    [2]IKEGAMI, EIKO. “Citizenship and National Identity in Early Meiji Japan, 1868–1889: A Comparative Assessment.” International Review of Social History, vol. 40, 1995, pp. 185–221. JSTOR, Accessed 20 May 2023.
    [3]McManamon, Sean P. “Japanese Woodblock Prints as a Lens and a Mirror for Modernity.” The History Teacher 49, no. 3 (2016): 443–64.

  • Stoneworks across oceans: Stonehenge and Jōmon connections

    For the closing weeks of this semester, we were able to visit the Stonehenge to see the ‘Circles of Stone’ collaborative exhibition, executed in part due to our executive director, Professor Simon Kaner.[1] First I’d like to approach a more theoretical aspect in the preceding 116th ARC Seminar involving a talk from Simon which highlighted a more introductory view to the pre-historic period of Japan and how it linked to the Neolithic periods of England.

    First arrival at the Stonehenge site, thankfully narrowly avoiding the earlier rain
    Photo taken by author.

    Amongst Simon’s introduction to the beginning of archaeology and subsequent developments of the understanding of the Jomon, what really stood out to me was the sheer level of terrestrial understanding and capability they had in the land. As a people of mainly hunter, gathering and foraging prospect, it was very interesting to me to understand that they had (to a degree) discovered agriculture in such an early era.[2] Although there is no concrete evidence denying nor confirming this, there is some indication that they came across a very crude understanding at least of agricultural practices. When one considers the isolation culture that defined the Jōmon , this is even more impressive.

    One further point I’d like to highlight is the theme of this exhibition more broadly: The identification of their own history. Through their desire to contextualise the landscape for their descendants both the Jōmon and Neolithic people of England would use monuments and stonework to achieve this. Particularly, I find it stunning that the Jōmon homed on in the same idea so much earlier and established a local understanding that there could be a degree of permeance in their civilisation. [3] This marked a jump in cultural practices, giving a centralised geographical spot for rituals of laying to rest, as was practiced at the Stonehenge.

    Jomon Vessel with Flame-like Ornamentation, held at Tokyo National Museum.,attributed_provenance_Umataka,_Nagaoka-shi,_Niigata,_Jomon_period,_3000-2000_BCTokyo_National_Museum-_DSC05620.JPG

    Simon proceeded to unravel the mystery of the Jōmon & Neolithic for us which proved to be a very convincing connection between these two island nations. This only further manifested itself when you applied the narrative he delivered to the Stonehenge and Avebury stonecircles. In person it becomes even more clear about the mark that these ancient people left on the land, and the possibility this had on societal and social development I think is a very intriguing subject to ponder upon.

    My favourite aspect of this trip was some of the presented items at the mini-exhibition present in the visitor centre. The decoration and curious shape that the Jōmon flame pot especially bares is revolutionary when you consider the time in which it was formed. When observing bronze age or Neolithic pottery of this era, they rarely stray from a uniform, round pot. However, in some instances of the Jōmon age people, they appear to take it as a duty to create a pot with such a unique profile and silhouette which suggests such a unique culture was brewing in some of these isolated communities. The belongingness presented through these pots truly reinforces the idea of these fragmented communities in ancient Japan. [4]


    [2] Kobayashi, Tatsuo, and Oki Nakamura. “Introduction.” In Jōmon  Reflections: Forager Life and Culture in the Prehistoric Japanese Archipelago, edited by Simon Kaner, 1–6. Oxbow Books, 2004. p.3

    [3]Jones, Andrew. “The World on a Plate: Ceramics, Food Technology and Cosmology in Neolithic Orkney.” World Archaeology 31, no. 1 (1999): p.56

    [4]Kobayashi, Tatsuo, Mark Hudson, and Mariko Yamagata. “Regional Organization in the Jōmon Period.” Arctic Anthropology 29, no. 1 (1992): p.87.

  • Narratives in Beato’s ‘Views of Japan’: A window into the East

    “A Social Meal” Felice Beato, 1868;_men_and_women_in_traditional_dress_Wellcome_V0037668.jpg

    Photography was one of the many new western imports which made it into Japan following Perry’s expedition. Various people from Europe came to photograph and discover the country of Japan. These photographs acted as a porthole into the East which was a land surrounded in mystery in this context.

    Felice Beato was one of the early and significant photographers in Japan during the later Tokugawa years, he would go onto make studios in Japan and train some of the great Japanese photographers of the late Edo and Meiji period. His photographs though, whilst noticeably more respectful than other colonial style images of the 19th and 20th century, had a narrative of exoticism behind it – even if unintended. By virtue of being a newly arrived Westerner in the country, he had a latent and intrinsic motivation to display Japan in it’s exotic and most interesting perspective.

    I will select the above photo – named “A Social Meal”, captured in 1868 as a way of illustrating my point. [1] The photo depicts a group of men and geisha, huddling around cutlery and sake. Most of them are in a particular pose which could be considered unique to Japan or at least the image of the far East. Whilst Beato and those associated to him were meticulous in establishing a scene for a genre shot – using the actual environment, or a studio recreation to achieve a natural environment for the subjects to be in. Additionally, he often made them doing tasks to appear more lifelike and natural for the camera.

    However – this desire for an organic yet common photo has inexplicably resonated with the desire to capture Japan as the essence of exoticism. As mentioned, each person in the shot is holding or doing something which would likely be of interest to a person who is reading about Japan, such as the woman playing the koto, the shamisen, or the men with fans, sake and the woman holding the pipe. Whilst we can safely assume based on the composition and genres of these shots that Beato didn’t mean any harm in his photography, there is an undoubted lean towards selling Japan as an image of the exotic. These can also be seen with the background composition – everything is very busy and almost intends to give the viewer something new to look at on each section. [2]

    The subjects of Beato’s shots within ‘Views of Japan’ are often of relatively mundane situations- there is little focus on the grand aspects of Japan like the castles or shrines, unlike his shots on the mainland which often preferred to target the buildings and cityscape . The simple context, yet busy shot suggests that the viewers Beato was trying to appeal to were those interested in the way of life & people of the far East, reflecting the role of Japan in the coming years as it became the central proxy for Western motivations (especially in the Boshin War). This conforms with the circumstances of the time and helps illustrate the cumbersome position that Japan occupied as the subject of many countries’ gazes. It’s important to understand that whilst the push for the exotic was likely latent in Beato’s photography of Japan, it’s very important to make the distinction between that and ethnographic photography. There isn’t much of a narrative implying that Beato was there to study and document the lives of the ‘exotic’ Japanese, but instead was simply following the popular demand for the time – it was not ethnographic photography unlike similar expeditions in the 19th and 20th century, such as Torii Ryūzō. [3]

    [1] The Getty’s Museum holds many of Beato’s works from China, India and Japan.
    [2] Lacoste, Anne & Ritchin, Fred. Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road. J. Paul Getty Museum p.17 (2010)
    [3] Ka F. Wong, Entanglements of ethnographic images: Torii Ryūzō’s photographic record of Taiwan aborigines (1896–1900), Japanese Studies, 24:3 (2004) , 283-299, DOI: 10.1080/10371390412331331546

  • Newspapers In Understanding The Domestic Perspective: The Illustrated London News

    Newspapers are a fantastic relic that can be utilised in understanding the national perspective on an incident or event, both in terms of its propaganda value in how it informs the nation and the preconceptions applied when looking into these affairs. The Illustrated London News are a fantastic primary resource collection that I have accessed for my dissertation project a lot so far.

    The Bombardment of Kagosima, Japan. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 7 November 1863. page 481

    The Illustrated London News started in 1842 and ceased printing in 2003. It covered news from all over the globe, often featuring illustrations to help break up the text. Being a newspaper in Britain, the conservative political association must be noted. This suggests that it would generally associate and agree with the values of traditional governance and be much more patriotic. Britain was a Liberal government at this time which could suggest some liberal tendencies which would support Britain’s reason for wanting to assist in an opening of Japan.

    The writer in this article talks about the Bombing of Kagoshima in 1863. It naturally follows a very Eurocentric view, following the actions of the imposing powers, most notably Britain and France. The British in this are shown as gallant and militarily extraordinary, with a full detailed account of the occurrences at Kagoshima Bay, with word from the leading British chargé d’affaires Edward St John Neale who was the British representative for acquiring retribution for the murder of Richardson, a British merchant killed by guards of the Satsuma Daimyo in the Namamugi Incident.

    “The Bombardment of Kagosima”, Japan. Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 7 November 1863. page 482

    This particular item is extremely useful for gauging the British perspective of the foreign incidents occurring within Japan. As an illustrated piece, it gives visual aide to the reader as to the relationship between Japan and Britain (or more generally, the West). This is key for understanding how the bakufu was undermined abroad – it’s clear that the West saw itself as the strong power, able to strong arm it’s way into domestic affairs of Japan. How the paper addresses the Japanese as well is key into understanding the implied national (and likely, racial ) superiority that the West felt in negotiations with the new nation. Whilst this is a strength, it’s also a weakness.

    Because all of the information in this article is sourced from involved British commanding officers – often using their direct word – it means that the information is directly filtered through their purview at their own prerogative. This means the source is limited when using it in a more general sense, with it’s main utility being for understanding how information was ferried and controlled as it left Japan and entered the British expanse.

    “Avenue leading to the temple of Kamakura, near the scene of the murder of the two British officers in Japan – from a sketch by our special artist” Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1865. Page 14
    “Avenue To The Temple Of Kamakura, Japan.” Column for The Illustrated London News, 11 February 1865. Page 135

    An interesting application of newspapers in my research involves the evolution of stories and interest throughout different volumes. To illustrate this, I have selected from the same newspaper entries about the Kamakura Murders of 1864. The connected illustration and text above are the 2nd entry following the initial reporting of the murders, the shift remains on the murder though there is a more informative approach applied to what is present in the illustration.

    “The Daiboodh [sic], or colossal bronze image of Buddhist idol, in the temple of Kamakura, Japan.” Column & Illustration for The Illustrated London News, 25 February 1865. Page 193

    Whereas here, the entry to the bottom left makes a brief note toward the murder of the previous November and continues to make an indepth dive into the history and significance of the Buddhist idol present in the illustration. It’s particularly interesting how the newspaper makes a shift from an event of controversy to a segue into other factors about the country. The contrast between the newspapers treatment of the Japanese, often calling them scheming and untrustworthy, to the utmost respect in covering their culture and installations is a particular worthwhile thing to notice when utilising this format.

    Overall, newspapers have plenty of functions and limitations when applied in different ways. The Illustrated London News is particularly interesting because whilst cameras were present at this time, illustrations were a much more accessible way for newspapers to decorate their contents with attractive media. For my dissertation, I feel like using newspapers as an implement to understanding the British perspective of Japan is most valuable. As shown with the bombing of Kagoshima article, there is a clear superiority being asserted by the writer generalising the Japanese as a scheming race whilst contrastingly presenting Britain as the gallant ideal is interesting and helps me understand the mindset Britain was approaching Japan with – and how this mindset would proceed in undermining the bakufu rule.

  • Objects Tell A History – De Waal and Netsuke

    Edmund de Waal born 1964, is a contemporary ceramicist, artist and author notably known for his autobiographic book, ‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ (2010, pub. Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This book documents de Waal’s journey, from his early apprentice pottery years throughout his life of how he connected to his family’s Jewish dynasty, the wealthy Ephrussi family, and their struggles against the Third Reich. There is a strong focus upon the sentimental value and memories that possess objects, and how a simple collection of Netsuke would embark de Waal on a quest to discover his past. Netsuke were popular collectors items in the west in the Meiji period, hence his family’s collection of it.

    As mentioned, De Waal is also a master potter. At the SCVA (Sainsbury’s Centre for Visual Arts), there is a collection of porcelain plates, placed within an unostentatious cabinet. Some of the items are stacked together and placed with care in a line. Some of the items are cracked or in some way damaged, though many of them show signs of kintsugi, the Japanese method of repairing pottery with gold which in itself is a philosophical process of embracing one’s flaws and turning them into something to be proud of. [1] This porcelain collection has thematic links of especially memory to de Waal’s netsuke story, and that’s the value of items as physical story tellers of times possibly long gone.

    ‘from the collection of a private man’, Edmund de Waal, 2011.
    1150 x 750 x 150 mm Accession Number: L.61 Copyright: © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Ian Skelton

    Much like de Waal’s journey of discovery through these ivory minatures, the simplicity of this display suggests that every item has sentimental value and can be a witness to a history of many years. Plates or saucers as shown in the collection, are often unimpressive, functional items (especially in the modern context), though when you consider how long they may have existed with a family, or person, then it’s true value can be seen.  The addition of kintsugi could imply the kind of memories items hold, perhaps of sadness or rage which caused the damage, but have over time been fixed and continued to press on.

    ‘from the collection of a private man’, Edmund de Waal, 2011.
    1150 x 750 x 150 mm Accession Number: L.61 Copyright: © Edmund de Waal. Courtesy the artist. Photograph: Ian Skelton

    This could be a metaphor for one’s life, or perhaps more. In any case, this collection holds many interpretations, depending on who views it. The idea of items holding memories is a very common thing in the time of the Third Reich, especially with Jewish families like the Ephrussi’s. This has been an enlightening session as it shows the approach of someone not from Japan and who doesn’t focus on Japan in their research, instead it is someone who has found a way to connect with his past and the conduit for that happened to be a netsuke.

    The Nazi book burnings and art plundering continues to appear today as families and descendants are united with pieces of their history, whether they are aware of it or not. Recently, French Culture Minister returned art pieces to their rightful owners who were forced to flee France during the occupation.[1] The paintings were of 15th – 16th century origin which much like De Waal’s netsuke, is very interesting because of how far back it stretches – suggesting whilst the plundering by Nazi’s was but a single chronicle in the history of the items, the object has had such a grand history. Whilst it doesn’t contain as heavy a story of self-discovery like De Waal’s does, it is a story of how objects are of great importance to their owners.


  • The JSDF: From defence to belligerency?

    This week I was able to attend the CJS Webinar themed on the book ‘Defenders of Japan: The Post-Imperial Armed Forces 1946-2016’, written and discussed by Garren Mulloy. The talk and book covered the history of the JSDF, from it’s fairly un-respected state as a self-defence army, to it’s current ever-shifting position as it gains more and more power in the face of growing threats in the pacific with China, North Korea and Russia. His discussion involved the means in which it was created and how it had evolved to it’s current point.

    Whilst the talk was technical in the content, it was very engaging as it had historical value but also strong significance in current times, especially considering the Japanese doubling of military expenditure following continuing Russian aggression in Ukraine. I also found very striking the idea of strategic entrapment that Japan had feared, and never considered the possibility of the US withdrawing.

    The JSDF follows an interesting position in the world of military history, whilst it is a military it occupies an awkward position of self defence force, and more contemporarily, a force capable of assault. The South-China sea situation has allowed the restricted position to be lifted slightly, which has granted a one-of-a-kind scenario to the JSDF. The reason I found it interesting is how it combines with my geographical knowledge of Japan. I had no knowledge regarding the JSDF in a domestic, non-military sense, however this talk enlightened me on the aid relief operations that had revitalised the JSDF’s image – notably the Tohoku earthquake.

    JSDF Vehicles at the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake

    This was interesting to me as it mirrored other instances of disliked groups providing relief to disaster zones. One such example was when the Inagawa-kai (稲川会) Yakuza group and were the some of the first responders to the Tohoku earthquake, similarly, the Yamaguchi-gumi (六代目山口組) also assisted at the Kobe Earthquake [1]. They didn’t show up to intimidate or capitalise, and instead went as discretely as possible to provide the aid necessary, and then leave to let the government resume.

    It’s interesting to see how an opinion can change when groups or organisations provide relief to the natural disasters of Japan. With one resident who received aid during the Tohoku Earthquake saying ” “Not all the yakuza are bad guys,” he says. “It wasn’t like they stuck around claiming credit for their work. They’re not demanding the blankets be paid back with interest. Maybe some of them are really like Kiryu.” This amusing nod to Kiryu Kazuma from the Yakuza/Like A Dragon, or Ryu Ga Gotoku (龍が如) game franchise implies that whilst it is true the yakuza may be violent, but deep down like Kiryu, is kind to those in need of help.

    In a sense, this taught me about how disasters and shared struggle can sometimes surpass the legal and political framework people often view the world in. Even though the yakuza are known for criminal and exploitative activities, they can be respected for their efforts in providing assistance in a struggle that their country faces together. This also applies to the JSDF, who unintentionally used this as a springboard for their reputation.


  • Kumihimo – threads of art and function

    This week I was able to visit the Japan House at the Kensington High Street in London, in which is currently held the Kumihimo exhibition, run by DOMYO. The expression of artistic value through threads is particularly interesting for me, as although my interest in it was initially nought it does infiltrate my areas of interest. Thread and bindings, all throughout Europe and Asia, had been one such means to secure various types of armour plates and more onto warriors of eld. The command of threads is displayed as an art form in this exhibition, showing the many patterns, functions, colour and designs made possible with a skilful hand – this exhibition coincides with Shimizu’s identification of the expanding movement in the west to appreciate art beyond two dimensional objects. [1]

    To give a brief overview of the Kumihimo exhibition, as taken from their attached information leaflet: “Kumihimo (lit. ‘joined or constructed threads’) are finely braided cords with a long history in Japan, linked to braiding technology from the asian continent introduced at the same time as Buddhism about 1,500 years ago…“. The information leaflet and exhibition is split into various sections of the history, future, function and artistic value of these threads, which made for a good overview of the entire topic.

    A set of O-Yoroi armour (Box Armour). The threading that is used to connect the O-Sode was one such implementation of threading.
    Photographed by the author.

    Whilst the exhibition itself was small, it was fantastically designed both functionally and visually, having defined sections without the aid of walls, obnoxious signposting or massive blocks of information. The way in which different products were presented was visually stunning, often allowing you to get close and touch / see the close details of the threads. I highly appreciated the integrated accompanying text, there wasn’t any text stands or information plaques that stood out against the overall theme of the exhibition, which made it visually blend quite well. It’s clear that the exhibition had found it’s niche [2] but took steps into finding the common ground between first time visitors and the complex past of this art.

    A beautiful piece of work found at the back of the exhibition
    Photographed by the author.

    Whilst there was accompanying text, for those who wanted a further look into the topics outlined, the leaflet given would give more information, giving you a useful reference point if a particular piece caught your eye. The presentation of the items ranged from various mediums, ranging from the threads being simply shown in their most basic state, to how they were used in armour, to the brilliantly sculpture further back as shown above. This made the exhibition really interesting even if the concept of threads hold little value to you, the way they are manipulated and utilised in this experience is what is most intriguing and what gives the exhibition the ability to be open for many.

    A few of the many displayed threads which were lined up in various display cases.
    Photographed by the author.

    The simplicity of the exhibition and beginner friendly light that the Kumihimo art form was presented in deserves great praise. Japan House took such a niche and commonly overlooked aspect of many societies (in this case, with a focus on Japanese) – threads – and presented it in an extremely accessible way. Whilst small, the venue was masterfully orchestrated to broaden one’s sense of the world of threads, rather than provide a linear path of dialogue which some may expect from an exhibition.

    [1] Shimizu, Yoshiaki. “Japan in American Museums: But Which Japan?” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001): p.126.
    [2] McLean, Kathleen. “Museum Exhibitions and the Dynamics of Dialogue.” Daedalus 128, no. 3 (1999): p.86.

  • Crosscurrents of Courtly Exchange – Anglo-Japanese Relations: A Turbulent History

    This week I was able to travel to Windsor castle to attend the Crosscurrents of Courtly Exchange Conference which hosted a range of speakers and tour of the castle itself – allowing viewing of the many artifacts and gifts that the royal family had received throughout the centuries. The talks ranged from pottery, Anglo-Japanese relations and even the composition of the banquets and feasts that were utilised in these courtly exchanges. In particular, what caught my eye, was Anglo-Japanese political relations in the courtly context. These two countries relations fall into my own purview though the lens of royal families was a new concept to me, this, plus the similarities in Japan and Britain (although superficial, the similarities of island empire and still holding a monarchy are notable to perspectives of the time) would also provide a potentially new dimension to how relations developed.

    The talk was headed by Dr Antony Best of London School of Economics and Political Science, in which he gave a concise overview of development and subsequent breakdowns of courtly relations throughout the 19th century and through to contemporary periods. Some key focuses of the talk were the awards given to one another, as well as the stately visits, and in particular what caught my eye was the mention of the order of the Garter – an almost 800-year-old order of chivalry given in honour of someone great. Usually, this order requires the person to be Christian, but the lack of requirement for the Japanese emperor shows the respect Britain had still held for the monarch despite the difference in power relations between the two at various stages in history.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

    The most interesting time for me was the second world war and subsequent years. This period, naturally due to the opposition in the war, was most unique as the relations had to be rekindled following such a world devastating event. This is especially momentous when recognising that the order of Garter once provided to Emperor Hirohito, had been revoked in reaction to the war. The following decades saw very little royal interaction, with some kindling involving crown prince Akihito in 1953, at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, or finally, in 1971, Emperor Hirohito’s state visit which marked the first royal visit in a fifty-year gap. Naturally, from here the relations began to repair anew, where Queen Elizabeth reinstated Emperor Hirohito the royal garter that had previously been revoked. I knew little about Anglo-Japanese relations in the succeeding decades of the second world war, and even less about royal family interaction, however the talk armed me with essential knowledge in which I was able to connect to my existing interest in military history and ask some questions to Dr Best after the conference.

    Emperor Hirohito, or the Emperor Shōwa, who would go onto visit Britain in the 1970s. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

    My main questions were orientated about the perspectives of Japan as a nation in the grander context of the world. In light of the Russo-Japanese War and first Sino-Japanese war, I wished to understand the ripples that were made across the established global empires, when such an exoticised country made such leaps into the Asian continent, and especially, against the powerhouse of the Russian Empire. In response to these questions, as expected, the Russo-Japanese war rang true as one of Japan’s most significant steps in its journey to being a global nation, in which it had previously stood upon the precipice of recognition. I was also particularly surprised to find how that Dr Best believed that the entire comparison of Japan and Britain as similar monarchy island nations, was very likely propaganda to help connect the two nations over racial bounds. The connection of the people and desire to transcend racial boundaries however is something I considered but I thought that it would’ve continued past that. I entered the conference under the idea that the Russo-Japanese War was indeed a large step for Japan, as confirmed by Dr Best in my correspondence with him, but I thought there would’ve been more significance placed on the mutual properties of the two island nations.

    The almost purely political nature of this talk sat in stark contrast to the more artistically specialised involvements of the royal family at the conference, though, this variation is what I most appreciate about it. The conference overall was the pinnacle of interdisciplinarity with a common royal theme, demonstrated at a fitting venue. 

  • Calligraphy and the West – Sir Ernest Satow

    Calligraphy to me is a nebulous subject, with only some small exposure through common media like movies – often you’d see companies, yakuza bosses, daimyo or other of these historical elites presenting some kind of calligraphy on the wall. For a long time, the meaning and associated process was unknown to me. Through the commencement of the Japanese Art History module I saw it as a fantastic time to combine that with something relevant to me. For the week of calligraphy I decided to combine what was relevant to me with the process of learning about calligraphy. In turn, I decided to choose this particular by Ernest Satow, one of the early ambassadors of Britain to Japan, at the cusp of the 20th century.

    Sourced from Wikimedia commons:

    With my background in mind and utter cluelessness about the subtleties of the calligraphic process, I chose this one because of two main reasons. Firstly, I’m used to mainly seeing only two to three characters making up calligraphy, which is naturally coming from own somewhat stereotypical perception. The writing is of the poem, ‘Spring Garden, from the Tang era of China, which extends the overall product past only a few characters. The main reason I initially took interest into this piece is because it is by Ernest Satow, up until this point it was rare to see calligraphy done by Europeans, especially in such a different script and one that is still currently preserved to see.

    Satow had learned his calligraphy in China and had continued to practice it throughout his ambassadorial career in Japan. This made me interested in how a foreigner would approach a foreign concept, and it surprised me that he would go onto continue practicing for over 15 years. On top of this, he was also granted the name ‘Seizan 静山’ by his calligraphy teacher in the 1870s, which is something which seems quite monumental for a European at this time, especially a would be ambassador in Japan. Calligraphy likely served as a useful conduit for Satow to constantly connect with Asia as he went into a career in China and Japan. To me, this dedication to calligraphy is the manifestation of his life long commitment to China and Japan, which is interesting when you compare other ambassadors of this time, such as Parkes or Alcock who didn’t partake in these activities to such an extent.

    Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1929) – Scholar and Ambassador of Japan

    The other reason comes from my own perception, whilst it is an untrained eye (in the most utter sense), I thought this was a somewhat amateurish piece. By no means is it bad or unimpressive, but certain details stood out to me. Particularly, is the size of the characters – naturally, I imagine it is difficult to maintain the characters when drawing by hand, but from this I could at least tell maybe it wasn’t someone who was practicing all his life for it. Next is the spacing of characters. I am used to calligraphy being like a style of cursive, with characters often being linked and seamlessly connected. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but the larger gaps between the characters looked odd and out of place to me, so I decided to look further into it only to find out it was by Satow – this could be a degree of bias however due to my association of calligraphy being a very Asia-centric artform.

    Calligraphy to me is still a very nebulous area but throughout the weeks of being introduced to it, it holds a unique aura that I cannot affiliate to any equivalent concept in the west. Whilst it can be considered art, the process, both spiritual and technical, is of note and can be a manifestation of one’s effort and drive. Using Satow, a would be renowned diplomat thirty years after he produced this piece, we can see on the microscale the early stages of cultural exchange that is naturally overshadowed by the macro-occurrences of the time (with the turbulent Bakumatsu period resulting in the Meiji Restoration). More broadly, the interaction with calligraphy has given me a wider perspective of the use of art and art history in understanding the early cases of foreign entry into Japan.

  • Colonialism In Photography: The Japanese Approach To The Ainu

    The above picture is titled ‘A COUPLE OF THE CHIEF ABORIGINES CUSTOM HOKKAIDO’, featuring the Ainu chief, Shitapire and wife Kanua (the description of names is provided by the collection but is noted, at least in English on the photo). This image has many parallels, expectedly, with the expeditions to Taiwan headed by Torii Ryūzō and all trips after. This photo was taken in 1933, which saw Japan in the middle of it’s imperial expansion.

    This photo however, doesn’t intentionally place any of its subjects in a negative or uncivilised light, though the interpretation of viewers in the context of 1933 would have likely received particular aspects through the lens of a civilised or superior power/culture. The very existence of this image and the purpose of it being taken though, very much coincided with the colonial power relationship that Japan has purportedly been pursuing through the former half of the 20th century. It’s hard to believe that people in Japan at this time entered Hokkaido, which had been forcibly colonised, with the intention of photographing and documenting Ainu people and culture – also considering the historical relations of Ainu and Japanese (that of war and rebellion) stretching back to around 700AD, one can see where asymmetrical power relations became a key concept.[1]

    The photo exhibits a staged feeling to it, the people are not elected to be foreground objects, instead they are located behind a table, and next to various baskets, bags or other equipment or decorative items. This staged feeling is significant because it orientates the photo to be presenting as much of what it can that is relevant to the Ainu people. The sitting, yet emotionless couple also produce an image of one trying to represent a single culture in a picture, including the people as objects of culture. This includes the people, their clothing, the hairstyles or facial accessories, their homes and poses – which inadvertently creates a superiority of the Japanese, they are treated as an interesting an exotic microculture, almost to be viewed for ones own leisure, not viewed as an equal civilisation. This is further exacerbated by the lack of obvious name to the two, the title chief implies a position of authority and wisdom yet the respect is not granted to them to include their name. The neutral position of those inframe further adds to the lack of identity, though is unquestionably more respectful than to pictures which isolate the individual. This image doesn’t significantly contribute to photography as a means of colonisation, though the context of which the image exists in does, the photographer, Kinoshita Seizō, doesn’t appear to be aiming to present them as savages as much as other colonial documentation.

    The explanation for this mayhap be attributed to the period – whilst assimilation and Ainu presence had been practiced and recorded before, it’s possible that the Ainu people (for those closer to Hokkaido) were more common knowledge, as a result,[2] they may have been better treated than tribes or groups who were only first contacted in recent years. In either case, there is still clear coloniser themes that can be drawn from this, though not as simply or explicit as alternative images. The purpose of this image, considering the fairly developed and modern nature of the Ainu, may be to present the Japanese colonisation in a good light, especially following the assimilation. This pushes the narrative of Japan as a coloniser which places it in another of the same categories as the current dominating powers like Britian and France, further attributing to the importance of the context in this image.

    Overall, anthropology (especially visual anthropology) stands to be an extremely linked and relevant subject in the broad context of Japanese Studies. It’s direct link to history proves to be a fantastic interdisciplinary avenue for discovering period accurate representations, intentions and thoughts in contrast with the wider historic national context, to a very relevant contemporary field of decolonisation and the proceeding on from the label of ‘colonised’.

    [1] Sutherland, I. L. G. “THE AINU PEOPLE OF NORTHERN JAPAN.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society 57, no. 3 (1948): p.205
    [2]Cornell, John B. “Ainu Assimilation and Cultural Extinction: Acculturation Policy in Hokkaido.” Ethnology 3, no. 3 (1964): p.288.