Category Archives: art

Wordcatcher Tales: biombo, subaru

Biombo – The Spanish term biombo ‘folding screen’ comes from Japanese byōbu (屏風 ‘wallwind’ or ‘screenwind’) for the same item. I first learned the term in the caption to Fig. 9 in the book I’ve been reading, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. The figure shows an oil-painted canvas biombo depicting “The Encounter of Cortés and Moctezuma” as imagined by the artist Juan Correa c. 1683. It goes on to describe biombo as “a popular Mexican artform introduced by the Japanese ambassador to Mexico City in 1614”! This left me skeptical because Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868) is far better known for its policy of national seclusion (sakoku) than for international outreach.

But in fact Tokugawa Japan did engage in a bit of outreach before the 1630s. In 1613, Date Masamune, first lord of Sendai, had Japan’s first galleon built in Ishinomaki (one of the cities hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami). Later christened the San Juan Bautista and laden with ceremonial gifts, it set sail for Acapulco in New Spain with Japan’s first ambassador to the Vatican, Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (支倉六右衛門常長, also spelled Faxecura Rocuyemon in Spanish sources), who spent time in Mexico City in 1614 and again on his return trip in 1618. About 60 of his Japanese compatriots who remained in Mexico until his return were baptized there as Christians. Hasekura himself waited until he got to Spain before being baptized as Francisco Felipe Faxicura.

Subaru – I was shocked a few months ago to realize that I had never bothered to wonder what the name Subaru means in Japanese. The logo on Subaru cars should perhaps have given me a hint, but I only found out about the Japanese meaning from a linguist friend who was researching whether the position of the Pleiades marks a seasonal cycle in any languages I was familiar with in Papua New Guinea.

In Numbami, the two words used to translate English ‘year’ are damana, which also means ‘Pleiades’, and yala, which comes from German Jahr. According to Streicher’s (1982) Jabêm–English Dictionary entry for dam(o): “The Pleiades are the main constellation seen in Jabêm during the dry season (October to March), and governing their activities in their gardens, i.e. the felling of trees to clear the ground for new gardens; the burning and planting of fields is done according to the position of the Pleiades.”

In Japanese, ‘Pleiades’ is usually rendered into プレアデス星団 Pureiadesu seidan (= ‘star group’), but the older native Japanese name for the cluster is Subaru, and the Chinese character for it is 昴, pronounced BOU in Sino-Japanese. I’m not aware that the Pleiades play any role at all in Japan’s highly conventionalized seasonal cycles, but the constellation may be a convenient symbol of the five divisions of Fuji Heavy Industries that merged to create the Subaru car company.

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Westernized Edo-period Woodblock Prints

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 70-71:

Gennai, who was well versed in Western art and painted in oils himself, was surrounded by a cultural group whose role in Edo-period culture can hardly be overestimated. Gennai’s coterie included scholars of Western learning, doctors practicing Dutch-style medicine, scholars of Chinese literature, calligraphers, and many others. The interaction of these men led to the creation of a number of ukiyo-e and books.

Nishiki-e were an artistic development that stood in sharp contrast to earlier Japanese prints. In Japanese painting before the age of nishiki-e, empty space was charged with great meaning. Use of blank areas was deeply related to the Buddhist notions of emptiness (), to specifically Japanese ideas of space (ma), and to Japanese philosophies of nature. These concepts are in turn related to the idea of nothingness (mu) found in Eastern thought in general. From the time of Harunobu’s nishiki-e, however, virtually the entire surface of the picture was filled with color. Moreover, many nishiki-e employed Western techniques of perspective. This denial of the Eastern concept of mu and departure from the design and coloration of previous Japanese pictorial art was in part the result of a familiarity with Western techniques of oil painting and copperplate etching. Not everything was taken from these sources, but the works of Harunobu, Haruaki, Sharaku, Utamaro, and Hokusai unambiguously show such influence. These men (with the possible exception of Sharaku) often attended the daishōkai [calendar designing and printing events] and were good friends with Hiraga Gennai, Shiba Kōkan, and Gennai’s outstanding disciple Morishima Chūryō.

The establishment of nishiki-e with perspective within the context of traditional “flat” Japanese painting was an epoch-making event in the history of Japanese pictorial art. Western techniques had here been completely absorbed into Japanese culture. Although the roots of these techniques could be traced back a century and a half to Western influence at the start of the Edo period. Western procedures now reemerged as something entirely new. Nishiki-e met with such unusual acclaim by the Japanese commoner population because Western techniques had been so thoroughly assimilated.

This process of assimilation also led to the nishiki-e fads in Europe and the United States. From the end of the Edo period to the early years of the Meiji era, a tremendous number of nishiki-e masterpieces were sold to foreigners. The works of Hokusai, which were perhaps the most Western in tone, were especially prized and often became the subject of scholarly studies.

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The Strength of Edo-period Culture

From Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868, by Nishiyama Matsunosuke, trans. and ed. by Gerald Groemer (U. Hawai‘i Press, 1997), pp. 8-9:

The strength of Edo-period culture is not to be found in extant artifacts of the era. Rather, its strength lies chiefly in its spectacular breadth and diversity. This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural forms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryū (seventeen-syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayū, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations (kō) and toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally to indulge in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered the development of a highly refined handicraft industry. Never before had there been such an extraordinary variety of hand-made cultural artifacts in Japan.

Even in remote areas in the countryside or on distant, isolated islands, inhabitants cultivated rare varieties of flowers and trees and marketed unusual rocks or curiosities. As Suzuki Bokushi (1770-1842) noted in his Akiyama kikō (Autumn Mountain Travelogue, 1831), people in every corner of the land were busy manufacturing local specialties. Such articles were being produced, one by one, by thirty million people. By the late Edo period this activity had stimulated an unprecedented development of the transportation network. Mountain roads, waterways, and sea routes were extended in all directions to every nook and cranny of the country. Indeed, the construction of footpaths during the late Edo period can be seen as a kind of symbol of this golden age of handicraft culture.

No doubt, Japan today boasts a high level of culture. But the price has been high as well: severe environmental pollution and the wholesale destruction of nature. Until the end of the Edo period, red-crested cranes could still be seen soaring through the skies over the city; swans and geese flocked to Shinobazu Pond in Ueno Park. Foxes and badgers were found everywhere, and cuckoos (hototogisu) flourished in such numbers that their song was considered a nuisance. Even during the late Meiji period the water of the Sumida River was clean enough to be used for brewing tea while boating. Human activity imparted only minimal damage to nature. Viewed in this way, Edo-period culture seems almost ideal.

Certain elements of the Edo-period cultural heritage were vulgar, no doubt, but a more comprehensive view of the period reveals an almost infinite number of admirable qualities. Nevertheless, after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, governmental policies of modernization and westernization dictated a wholesale rejection of the preceding feudal era. Even the best elements of Edo-period culture were deemed outdated and vulgar and were thought to require prompt and thorough extirpation. That the true value of Edo-period culture could not yet be properly assessed had much to do with the lack of any inquiry into its origins and actual conditions. Recent research, however, has shown that Edo-period culture was outstanding in its own way and not at all inferior to the culture of earlier or later periods.

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New Scholarship on Wartime Kabuki, 1931–1945

The latest issue of Asian Theatre Journal (via Project MUSE) contains a review (by UCLA’s Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei) of James Brandon’s myth-shattering new book, Kabuki’s Forgotten War: 1931–1945 (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2009). Here are a few snippets to give a flavor of how stunningly revisionist the book is.

It was in 2002, at a conference honoring the work of Leonard C. Pronko, that I first heard James R. Brandon present the extraordinary research he was doing on kabuki during what the Japanese call the Fifteen-Year War, the last four years of which encompass the Pacific War of World War II. I will never forget the shock waves in the room as he showed slides and told us about a wartime kabuki play called Three Heroic Human Bombs. Here were kabuki actors performing in 1932, dressed in modern military uniforms, looking for all the world like realistic film actors, carrying bombs as they slogged through mud and barbed wire toward a glorious suicide during Japan’s war in China. And then he told us about other new plays from that period, starring famous kabuki actors performing alongside (gasp!) actresses—not onnagata, but females from shinpa and shingeki. The actors wore realistic, contemporary costumes without a trace of kabuki’s makeup or wigs, and there was nary a musician in sight. How could these contemporary propaganda plays about military exploits and home front patriotism be kabuki? We all thought we knew what kabuki was, but suddenly the hard-earned knowledge of about a hundred scholars was totally shattered….

As Brandon correctly notes, the war years have been studied extensively from many cultural and political perspectives, but this is the first book in any language (including Japanese) to focus on the wartime history of kabuki. Despite a few notable exceptions, in most Japanese histories of kabuki, “the war years are simply erased” (p. x)….

The book demonstrates kabuki’s often enthusiastic complicity with Japan’s militarist and imperialist exploits during the 1931–1945 war years, and also puts the situation of kabuki in clear historical perspective. During the early, successful years of the war, kabuki actors and playwrights were in great demand, and they performed many jingoistic, patriotic works. Nevertheless, most actors chose to remember things differently after the war. Brandon quotes from Ichikawa Ennosuke II’s postwar memoir: “The five years of the Pacific War was a dark period, a time of suffering for performers.” Brandon then comments:

Like most others, Ennosuke did not see himself as a participant in the war. Forgotten were his morale performances in Manchuria, flying to China to gather authentic war material, and the many heroic-soldier roles he enacted in war plays. In portraying himself as a victim of the war and dwelling only on the horrors of the war’s end, Ennosuke (and others) erased the victorious years, 1931–1943, when life was good for kabuki artists because of the war.

During the war, kabuki continued its centuries-long tradition of “overnight pickles” (ichiyazuke), plays based on contemporary events that were written and staged within weeks or even days of the actual occurrence. An early wartime “overnight pickle” (when things were still very good for kabuki) dealt with the 1942 capture of Singapore aided by the daring exploits of a young Japanese man whom the popular press dubbed “The Tiger of Malaya.” Brandon notes that more than one hundred kabuki overnight pickle plays were written and set during the Fifteen-Year War….

Brandon argues that official support for such morale-boosting kabuki performances, despite overwhelming evidence that Japan was nearing a disastrous defeat, offers a case study supporting the contention that without the atomic bombing, Japan would never have surrendered. He notes that the Japanese cabinet voted numerous times to continue fighting despite the destruction of nearly half of Japan’s urban areas and devastating losses in the Pacific. He offers the bizarre case of playwright Kikuta Kazuo, who wrote many anti-American, prowar plays for both Shōchiku and Tōhō, as further proof that the government was in total denial regarding Japan’s imminent defeat. Kikuta described what it was like to be one of the last members of the Japan Dramatists’ Association to remain in Tokyo after massive American firebombing began in March 1945. The Bureau of Information considered the Dramatists’ Association’s purpose to be “to gain victory in the war.”

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Ukraine’s Sure Got Talent in Sand Animation

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kara-e/Kōmō-e Mekiki

I came across a few interesting terms, two of them new to me, while browsing through a beautiful and fascinating book: Japan Envisions the West: 16th–19th Century Japanese Art from Kobe City Museum edited by Yukiko Shirahara (Seattle Art Museum, 2007).

唐絵目利き kara-e mekiki ‘Chinese art inspectors’ – When Japan was keeping the outside world at arm’s length during the Tokugawa era, the Shogun employed inspectors to appraise, catalog, and often copy samples of all goods coming from China and the West, perhaps as much to make sure the Shogun got the best goods as to keep harmful influences out. The characters that make up mekiki are 目 me ‘eye’ and 利 ki(ki) ‘efficacy, expertise’. But the latter also occurs in other contexts: ri ‘advantage, profit’; ki(ku) ‘to take effect, operate’; ki(kasu) ‘to use (one’s head), exert (influence)’; ki(keru) ‘be influential’; and ki(kaseru) ‘to season’.

唐絵 kara-e ‘Chinese painting’ – Kara is written with the character for the Tang dynasty, otherwise read (< Tang), as in 唐画 tōga ‘Chinese painting’, a synonym of kara-e. However, 唐 means not just ‘Tang’ or even ‘Chinese’, but ‘foreign’, especially when pronounced kara- in native Japanese compounds, as in 唐行き karayuki ‘going abroad’ (lit. ‘Tang-going’), 唐草 karakusa ‘arabesque’ (lit. ‘Tang grass=flowing style’), and 唐黍 karakibi/tōmorokoshi ‘maize, Indian corn’ (lit. ‘Tang millet/sorghum’).

Compare the wal- (cognate with Welsh) on English walnut (once ‘foreign nut’); or the 胡 hu (once ‘barbarian’) on Chinese 胡桃 hutao ‘walnut’ (‘foreign peach’) or 胡椒 hujiao ‘black pepper’ (‘foreign pepper’ vs. 辣椒 lajiao ‘hot pepper’), or 胡麻 huma ‘sesame’ (‘foreign hemp’).

紅毛絵 kōmō-e ‘Dutch painting’ – By Tokugawa times, the Japanese had to deal with a new kind of foreigner very different from the Asians lumped together as kara. The character abbreviation for the Dutch is 蘭 ran (lit. ‘orchid’), short for Oranda ‘Holland’, as in 蘭学 Rangaku, ‘Dutch learning’, but by extension ‘Western learning’ more generally. So Western-style paintings can be called 蘭画 ranga, just as Chinese-style paintings can be called 唐画 tōga. But this book refers to the more specifically Dutch-style paintings from Nagasaki as 紅毛絵 kōmō-eRed Hair painting’—a term I found especially engaging, as a former redhead myself (now mostly white), married to another former redhead (now more brunette with strands of gray), and the parent of a red-haired daughter.

By the way, Katsumori Noriko, whose chapter on “The Influence of Ransho [‘Western books’] on Western-style Painting” compares Japanese paintings copied from originals in European books imported through Nagasaki, starts by correcting the conventional history that Dutch-language books were banned between 1630 (the beginning of sakoku) and 1720 (during the reign of Yoshimune). She says (p. 99):

In fact, these policies applied only to Chinese translations of Western books. Books in Dutch, presented as gifts from foreign visitors, had been preserved over the decades in the shogunal library but were largely disregarded. When the bibliophile shogun Yoshimune opened his library in 1720, Japanese scholars had the opportunity to reencounter and study ransho firsthand.

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Tijuana’s Cultural Evolution, 1920-2000

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 171-172:

In 1920, Tijuana had been a village of eleven hundred. Eighty years later city officials could only guess the population neared two million people. There were entire neighborhoods populated by people from different Mexican states—Oaxaca, Sinaloa, Sonora, Mexico City. Yet the federal government in Mexico City kept Tijuana’s budget minuscule. So the city could neither control growth nor provide services for the newcomers. Shantytowns popped up on the ever-extending edge of town. “Cartonlandia”—Cardboardland, an awesome shantytown on the bed of the Tijuana River near the border—was almost a tourist attraction itself.

To the bureaucrats in Mexico City, and to most of Mexico, Tijuana was an ugly embarrassment, a virtually American city, and hardly Mexican at all. Government bureaucrats required extra salary to come staff federal agencies in Tijuana. In one sense, they were right. Tijuana resembled the global economy it depended on—an assault of random noises and images. “A modern-art painting” is how one Tijuanan described the city.

Yet Tijuana had a beauty that none of the country’s exquisite colonial towns possessed. Young and far from Mexico City, Tijuana was free of history and tradition. It was close to California, the wealthiest U.S. state. This created better jobs and educational opportunities in Tijuana than elsewhere in Mexico. As a crossroads, its people were open to new ideas. To Tijuana came the hardworking poor escaping the limits and decaying economies of their hometowns. Many of these folks intended to sneak into the United States; but they found lives in Tijuana and stayed.

“A more egalitarian society formed here. It’s part of what makes Baja California different,” said David Pinera, who is a professor of Tijuana history. “It was a society in the process of forming, a society in which the culture of hard work predominates and less the culture of privilege. There aren’t the closed social circles. The rich man here is someone who came from the bottom. His father didn’t give him any leg up. He was a waiter or street vendor and made it according to his own efforts.”

Thus a relatively large middle class could form. In the 1980s, banks, insurance companies, and auto dealers began to arrive to serve the middle classes. Tijuana then got its first supermarkets and shopping malls. Moreover, middle-class denizens naturally didn’t want their children exposed to strippers, shantytowns, drunk gringos, and naked-lady playing cards. They wanted music lessons, ballet, and art classes for their children. So a constituency for a more evolved city was born.

The quirky cast of characters in this chapter include:

  • Enrique Fuentes, who almost single-handedly nurtured a constituency for opera in Tijuana and who in 2001 opened an Internet cafe, El Café de la Ópera, with computers named Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata, linked to a server named Turandot
  • Mercedes Quiñónes, who spent years in a cultural wilderness, volunteering as a choir director and supporting family as a hardware wholesaler, before finding a professional voice teacher and becoming, at age 51, Tijuana’s premier soprano when Pagliacci opened there in 2003
  • The Russian emigré musicians who during the 1990s formed Baja California’s first state orchestra, then its first state music conservatory, teaching a new generation of Mexican music students

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