Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ikegami Eiko and aesthetic publics in Tokugawa Japan

I've recently been writing a piece (forthcoming in Japanese Studies) on how the classical conceptions of a public sphere or public realm in Habermas and Arendt have been challenged by conceptions put forth by Amino Yoshihiko and other historians as well as by activists in the homeless movmement in Japan. Against those who claim that nothing corresponding to a "Western" notion of the public exists in Japanese history, these historians and activists argue that vigorous and powerful public realms existed in pre-modern Japan, especially in the medieval era before the establishment of the repressive Tokugawa shogunate. What enables them to put forth this argument is that they reconceptualize the idea of the public. Instead of emphasizing speech and deliberation as Habermas and Arendt, a central feature of their idea of the public is what Amino calls muen (no-relation) - a quality that enables people to suspend the status, identities and ties of the surrounding secular world and to create egalitarian arenas open to marginal groups.

These historians succeed in locating strong domestic "publics" in medieval Japan. Striking examples include the horizontal associations of the ikki leagues, the egalitarianism of renga gatherings, and the suspension of secular identities at places associated with the sacred. But they usually don't try to establish any continuity between them and contemporary publics. Instead they tend to portray the Tokugawa era (1600-1868) as an era in which these domestic roots of the public were repressed and whithered away.

It is therefore interesting to find a work that focuses precisely on the Japanese "aesthetic publics" in the Tokugawa era and how they developed. Ikegami Eiko's work Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture (2005) promises to fill in the gap between the medievalists' account of the premodern publics based on muen and the establishment of the modern nation-state Japan after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. The book is also interesting since it makes fruitful use of the pioneering work of Amino and other historians who have followed in his footsteps, such as Matsuoka Shinpei or Katsumata Shizuo, but without sharing their pessimistic outlook on Tokugawa period society.

While admitting that the Tokugawa shogunate was repressive, she argues that Tokugawa society  witnessed a "network revolution" that went hand in hand with a popularization of aesthetic knowledge and civility. It thereby created an equivalent to the horizontal civic associations in European societies. In opposition to those who lament the lack of a genuine public sphere in Japan, she argues that the proliferation of aesthetics publics in this era helped form arenas of freedom from state control where people of various background could associate on equal footing, engaging in free communication characterized by liveliness, sensuality and laughter. ”The stereotype of pre-modern Japanese as people as submissive doormats trodden beneath the heels of militaristic despots fails to convey the vitality of Japanese communicative activities in this period – not to mention modern Japanese cultural practices” (Ikegami 2005:12).

There is much to appreciate in Ikegami's book. Focusing on the relation between art and politics, she provides an interesting and engaging history of Japanese art and aesthetics that gives due attention to its social context. On the way she also delivers an original argument about the origins of the contemporary nationalism that takes pride in Japan as a land of refined beauty and politeness. Here I won’t say much about these matters, where I think she does an excellent job. Instead I will focus on what I think is the main theoretical argument of the book, namely her intervention into the debate of whether anything like the the ”public sphere” existed in Japanese history before Westernization. Unfortunately, it is here that I find the book to be weakest.

The main idea, if I understand Ikegami correctly, is that the proliferation of aesthetic publics shouldn't be viewed simply as an indication of a lack of freedom or of people's wish to escape the world of politics. While it is true that Tokugawa authorities didn't tolerate open challenges to their power, she shows that this picture needs to be balanced against the abundance of freedom in the non-political realm. Even though the "official" realm was structured around vertically or hierarchically organized relations, they coexisted with extensive non-political "inofficial" areas in which horizontal associations proliferated. While the "dominant public" - represented by the so-called kôgi of the shogunate - stressed the maintenance of existing hierarchical relations, ”wide enclaves of free discursive spheres” existed outside this public which authorities had neither the capabilities for nor much interest in controlling.

From medieval times to the Tokugawa era 

The best way to follow her argument is to start with medieval Japan, when the central government was weak and strong horizontal associations emerged in the realm of art as well as in politics. Relying on the research of historians like Amino or Matsuoka, she illustrates the vigor of these associations with za (seated) arts. For instance, linked verse (renga) gatherings under cherry blossoms (hana no moto renga) were liminal events thought to be linked to the netherworld. In accordance with the principle of muen, people from various social backgrounds - from commoners to retired emperors - could participate in these poetry sessions without regard for status. Secular ties were suspended in the felt proximity to the sacred. An illustration of the radical, wild and unbounded nature of this freedom from vertical orders was the popularity of frenzied dancing, thought to be animated by sacred madness (kuruu). This freedom also took political form, as in the horizontal ikki alliances proliferating in the latter half of the Middle Ages, alliances that were often linked socially to preexisting linked-poetry circles.

"Hanami takagari zu" (Unkoku Tôgan, late 16th century): Dance for quieting the blossoms (yasuraihana)
The structure of the field of publics changed drastically with the strengthening of central power during the Tokugawa shogunate. Vertical relations now came to dominate the official public realm. While artistic pursuits like jôruri, poetry, threatre, music, calligraphy, painting, ikebana, bonsai, tea, or fashion grew in popularity, they differed in many respects from their medieval predecessors, becoming more controlled, secular and less subjected to "the spirit of magic" (ibid 137f). The decisive difference was that art was now forced to remain in the non-political realm. ”The Tokugawa aesthetic publics were able to build on the remnants of the medieval za spirit only by confining themselves to the interior realm of watakushi (the private) and accepting the official boundaries set for them by the state” (ibid 127). Although horizontal associations continued to exist, they were now confined to the realm of the non-political aesthetic publics. Ikki become outlawed and the word takes on a new meaning, starting to signify peasant revolt.
Shijô kawara yûrakuzu (early 17th century)

Another striking difference compared to medieval times was the reliance of Tokugawa aesthetic publics on the market. The widespread enthusiasm for learning the arts was fuelled by commercialization. Performing artists and poets able to make a living as teachers rather than having to rely on feudal patrons. Paid agents were used to mobilize amateur artists and poets. Knowledge about the arts was spread through the commercial press, and poetry contests were held with thousands of people from all over the country sending in contributions. Economic development was also important, along with the spread of literacy, in attracting various teachers and masters to rural areas. Ikegami quotes a report by a critical official in the Kantô area from 1826:
Performing artists of various types go out from Edo to visit different areas in the Kantô and generally wander around. These people include masterless samurai, Confucian scholars, painters and calligraphers, haikai masters, ikebana teachers, and masters of igo or shôgi games. They organize meetings, get permits from the local village officials, and earn good money from wealthy people in the area, and encourage luxurious spending. As a result, the peasants get lazy and neglect farming because of their bad influece. (quoted in Ikegami 2005: 206)
While some aesthetic publics were structured hierarchically, as in those arts that relied on the monopoly of certified "houses" (the iemoto system), horizontal loose networks remained vigorous in arts such as haikai-circles. Ikegami discusses the example of Igarashi Hamomo, a woman poet who travelled around to participate in linked-verse gatherings, relying on the hospitality of local members of haikai networks, locating other women poets and helping them organize women-only groups. Referring to haikai as ”network poetry”, she characterizes it as marked by border-crossing, jokes, subversion, travel.
Aesthetic public: the audience of an early kabuki play including two foreigners (Kabuki zukan, ca 1605)
Although these aesthetic enclave publics differed from their medieval predecessors, Ikegami stills sees them as functioning along the lines of the principle of muen. They were enclaves where "people could temporarily suspend the application of feudal norms" and where connections could be formed between people from various social backgrounds (ibid 4). People engaged simply as poets or artists, having decoupled from preexisting identities in the ”official” order. Being relatively egalitarian, these publics included bohemian samurai, rich merchants, village chiefs, artisans, small shopkeepers, and she even mentions fishermen who read poetry in their boats.

With time, she argues, the shell of the formal identities in the Tokugawa order became even more hollow:
Once the aesthetic publics were accepted as important components of the private life in Tokugawa Japan, they quietly produced individuals who considered their aesthetic enclave identities to be more profoundly rooted to their true selves than were their feudal categorical identities. (ibid. 43)
Here Ikegami seems to suggest that the Tokugawa order with its multiplicity of enclaves led to the construction of apolitical or private man as the true man. She thus supplies the social background to an important fact in the history of ideas recorded by Maruyama Masao, namely that Tokugawa scholars like Ogyû Sorai for the first time in Japanese history started to distinguish between a public realm ruled by the Tokugawa order and a private realm where people were free to engage in self-cultivation.

The ostensibly non-political aesthetic publics were not entirely decoupled from political empowerment. One example discussed by Ikegami is Watanabe Kazan (1793-1841), a painter from a samurai family who recorded in his diary the political discussions he participated in during his travels. Travels like that, she writes, provided occasions for learning about political realities, ”an education in political awareness”. Aesthetic publics, then, clearly had the potential to be transformed into political publics:
The pattern of socialization described in the writings of Kazan challenges the prevailing notion that pre-modern non-Western societies such as Tokugawa Japan did not develop spheres of critical discourse regarding political matters. [...] [L]ate Tokugawa Japan began to produce larger numbers of people with a critical political consciousness. This consciousness in turn was supported by numerous spheres of voluntary socialization that made use of the established logic of aesthetic enclave publics. (ibid. 201).
Such travels also contributed to the establishment of networks between villages, traditionally the most powerful base for popular protest. Regions with a high density of haikai networks also had a high level of grassroots participation in political mobilization around the Meiji Restoration (ibid 207). The spread of kokugaku, yonaoshi movements and the ”freedom and people’s rights” movement all benefitted from the networks of the haikai circles (ibid 213-218). Ikegami suggests that those networks also laid the groundwork to such remarkable local initiatives as the 1881 "Itsukaichi constitution" draft. An even more striking example is the 1884 Chichibu Rebellion (also known as the Konmintô Rebellion or Poor People’s Party Rebellion) which also sprung from local haikai circles. Fascinating material discovered by the historian Moriyama Gunjirô shows how the uprising had been preceded by poetry sessions dedicated to Sakura Sôgorô in Nagaru village.
Apparently, just as the medieval ikki horizontal alliances often had linked-verse sessions before their military actions, peasants in this community had two poetry-making sessions to solidify their dedication to their project of protest. (ibid. 219)
She also suggest that prayers to Sakura would have been understood as prayers to cherry blossoms (sakura), the old symbol of the sphere of muen (ibid 219).

"Eejanaika" dancing on the eve of the Meiji Restoration

The definition of publics

My first critical comment concerns Ikegami's definition of the word "public". She defines publics as ”communicative sites that emerge at the points of connection among social and/or cognitive networks” (Ikegami 2005:7). What I find noteworthy here is that she defines the public in terms of a relation between "networks" - publics are where networks "meet and intersect" (ibid 24), or where ”the actions of switching/connecting and decoupling of networks take place” (ibid 48). Networks are thus central to her definition. Problematically, however, I cannot see that she really clarifies what a network is. In her discussion of the concept of network she states simply that they consist not only of concrete interpersonal ties but also cognitive associational maps perceived in the form of narrative stories, and that the term network might be preferable as a substitute to more limited terms like social relations, social structure and values and norms (ibid 46f). This amounts, in my view, to saying that anything in society or culture can be a network. Using a wide concept of network is not bad per se, but an unfortunate consequence is that any social or cultural meeting-point can viewed as a "public" according to her definition, which strikes me as far too wide and imprecise.

This lack of precision is problematical in relation to the following issues:

1) It becomes hard to see how she delineates what she calls the "aesthetic publics". Are these publics not themselves better understood as networks of people with shared interests, rather than as spheres where networks "intersect"? Her accounts of these various publics suggest very clearly, I think, that the former option is correct. If she denies this, seeing them as nothing but spheres for the intersection of networks, then where is the substance that might justify labelling them as "aesthetic"? One might of course also try claiming that both options can be correct at the same time, but then the distinction between public and network collapses.

2) A second problem concerns the old problem of the relation between the public and community. It has long been claimed - by people like Arendt, Richard Sennett, Lyn Lofland, Karatani Kôjin and many more - that publics are social spaces where one "meets the stranger", i.e. a person who is not part of one's own community. By contrast, Ikegami appears to be claiming that publics are rather where one meets a person who is not part of one's own network. But what is the additional benefit introduced by replacing the word community by the word network? Presumably, a network is more open and not as tightly structured as a community. But if networks are per definition open, then the entire idea of speaking of connections between separate networks starts to look shaky. If a network has a connection to another, won't they be part of the same network? And if that is so, then how do we locate the sphere where networks "intersect"?

3) A third problem with the definition is that networks can be connected in secret. If that is so, does it really make sense to define that meeting as ”public”?

4) A final problem appears when she writes that ”identity, culture , and meanings as such are ’emergent properties’ arising from the interplay of human subjectivity in actors involved in network relationships at the communicative sites of publics” (Ikegami 2005:5). This is a very strong claim, because it implies that culture, identity etc cannot arise within networks, or in, say, local or bounded communities. Is that really true?

Japanese aesthetic publics and the Western "public sphere"

She repeatedly contrasts her own approach to that of Habermas. However, she does so in a curiously careless way, almost as if she hadn’t read him. This is a pity, because the result is that she constructs an artificial wall between the aesthetic publics of Tokugawa Japan and the bourgeois public sphere described by him, and that she fails to see the many similarities between the two conceptions.

Let us look at some of the criticism she directs against Habermas. Firstly, she claims that the public is necessarily plural, while he defines it as ”an integrated and unified realm”. This seems unfair, since Habermas is quite explicit in his book that he is not going to treat all public spheres, only the bourgeois one. Secondly, against the "normative" views of the public in Habermas and Nancy Fraser, she emphasizes that ”the field of multiple publics is always charged with the dynamic of power” (ibid. 58).
The efficacy of the message that flows from communicative actions is also influenced by the way in which that public is positioned in the field of multiple publics. Consequently, the concept of the multiplicity of publics brings us to another important question: If publics are necessarily multiple, what are the interrelations between them? [...] Habermas’ historically informed analysis of the public sphere in the West is in fact a case study of this hegemonic process in which one category of the liberal bouregois public sphere gained normative authority in the West. (ibid. 59)
This is a reasonable statement, but surely it is ludicrous to state that Habermas or Fraser are neglecting power relations between the various publics. Habermas himself would quite willingly agree to the fact that his analysis is a case study how the bourgois public sphere was shaped and reshaped by historical struggles in Europe (see his own comment in The Structural Transformation, 1989:xvii.).

What I find perhaps most regrettable is Ikegami's refusal to engage with the bourgeois "literary publics" (literarische Öffentlichkeiten), which Habermas sees as the seedbeds of the openly political bourgeois public sphere that later developed. Referring to the aesthetic publics of Tokugawa Japan, she writes:
Publics of this nature – popular, decentralized, and intuitive – constitute the diametrical opposite of Habermas’ model of the unitary, bourgeois, and rational public sphere of late eighteenth century Europe. (ibid. 381)
They might have been the opposite of the political bourgeois public sphere, but where they really so different from the literary publics? Just as she neglects the literary publics, she also neglects Reinhart Koselleck's discussion of the role of the masonic lodges in the 18th century – despite the fact that here we have a situation in Europe which is strikingly similar to the situation in Tokugawa Japan. In both cases repression meant that publics could only take the form of enclaves since open political dissent was not tolerated within the dominant public.

The difference might be that the enclaves in Europe - whether in the shape of literary salons or masonic lodges - permitted a budding political discourse, which later entered the wider public and helped spark revolutions. But as Ikegami herself notes, this is only a difference in degree, not in kind. The critical discourses recorded by Kazan during his poetic journey, the spread of kokugaku ideology or the formation of rebellions on the basis of haikai networks testify that the transformation of aesthetic publics into political one was well on its way by the late Tokugawa period. She traces the development of the aesthetic publics in Japan up to a point where they seem about to take the leap and reclaim the revolutionary energies they once possessed in medieval times. Unfortunately, her theoretical framework - which posits a rather sterile opposition between the Japanese and European trajectories - is a hindrance in order to understand the dynamics of that process. Rather than simply contrasting Japanese aesthetic publics to the "Western" or Habermasian political public sphere, it would surely have been interesting and fruitful to look also for similarities, especially through a comparison between the aesthetic publics in Japan and the literary publics in Europe.

The question of power

Ikegami makes an important point when she writes that ”the structure of the institutional field of publics in a society is profoundly influenced by the organizational structure of the state” (Ikegami 2005:63). However, I wonder if she goes far enough in clarifying the role of the state.

She makes it perfectly clear that the fact that the Tokugawa state was a repressive state intolerant of political dissent was a crucial factor behind the shape the Tokugawa aesthetic publics assumed. State power was decisive in curtailing the freedom of the earlier medieval publics which had often been very political and oppositional in relation to various powerholders.

However, at the same time she repeatedly emphasizes how the Tokugawa state relied on ”indirect rule”, which in practice meant that it delegated control. This, in combination with the ”Tokugawa network revolution”, which occurred as communicative networks expanded in scale, density and complexity, meant that the state was unable to survey or control the myriad of publics very efficiently.

The resulting picture of the Tokugawa state is not as clear as one could have wished. If the complexity of the networks meant that the state lost control, why were the aesthetic publics so afraid of venturing into the realm of politics? Why was the state able to retain efficient control in the realm of the political public sphere despite its inability to control the proliferating networks? Was there anything that forced the aesthetic publics to be more careful about political speech than enclave publics in Europe, such as the masonic lodges? Although Ikegami's text contains some clues to these questions - spies and the risk for detection, the fear of gruesome punishments, and processes of identity formation that lead to the idea of the non-political human being as the "true" human being - the picture still contains many blanks. Fear of detection and punishment has existed in many societies. Surely, there must have been ways of discussing politics in furtive ways in the networks of the aesthetic publics. How else could rebellions suddenly spring from them? Without clarifying that, the mapping of communication in these publics remains incomplete.

The public as muen or as political deliberation?

As I mentioned in the beginning, I am interested in how the classical formulations of the "public" in Habermas and Arendt are challenged by alternative conceptions of the public in which muen is central. Ikegami's book must surely be seen as a contribution belonging to the latter camp. At the same time, she clearly sees the "aesthetic publics" of the Tokugawa era as operating in a different fashion from the medieval publics analyzed by Amino. She also appears to see important lines of continuity between the Tokugawa publics and present-day Japan - for instance, the preference for tacit modes of communication, the ideology of "Japan" as a country of beauty and politeness, and perhaps also the reluctance to engage in explicit political discourse. Although her book doesn't deal with modern Japan, surely many readers will find it remarkably much like today’s Japan when she writes that in the Tokugawa era "an intensely controlled and hierarchically ordered formal society” coexisted with ”the relaxed and sensual dimension of popular culture” (Ikegami 2005:130).

Does this mean that she views muen as central to the way publics operate in contemporary Japan as well? This question is not so easy to answer. In fact, I believe her book can be read in two quite different ways.

On the one hand, many passages suggest that she sees a long-lived tradition of public life centered on muen as something distinctly Japanese. Such a conception of history appears to lie behind her repeatedly stated contrast betwen the Japanese and European trajectories, with the former being characterized by aesthetic publics operating with sensual and tacit modes of communication and the latter by rational, bourgeois publics of the Habermasian kind.

But on the other hand, her book can also be read as a story of discontinuities. The principle of muen barely managed to survive in the Tokugawa era by being confined to aesthetic "enclave publics", where it was "civilized" and lost its political function. As the Tokugawa order started to crack up and totter, these enclave publics again took on a political role, becoming the birthbed of open rebellion. As I have suggested, this reading foregrounds the similarities to the European patterns - especially to the "literary publics" and their politicization - rather than the differences. Although the principle of muen might still have animated these rebellions, we now see much more of rational political deliberation - for instance in the fervor of the "movement for freedom and people's rights" with their many speeches and pamphlets, the organization of political parties and the drafting of constitutions in villages.

I myself prefer the latter reading, for reasons I've stated above. A consequence of that, however, is that it becomes problematical to suggest any unbroken continuities between the Tokugawa era and today. Japan today is certainly to a great extent apolitical and consumerist - a land of play, shopping, amusement, aesthetics and subcultures. But rather than seeing this as a legacy of Tokugawa society, it is better to view it as a product of shifting historical circumstances in which important factors have been the ability of elites to placate social unrest through economic development and the fact that attempts to challenge power - through the "movement for freedom and people's rights" and the plethora of other movements in prewar and postwar Japan - have repeatedly run aground and produced a sense of defeat.

To summarize, I believe Ikegami vacillates between two standpoints. On the one hand, she claims that Tokugawa aesthetic publics were fundamentally different from the Western political, deliberative publics. On the other hand, her account suggests that they potentially represent something similar to the Western public, since political dissent and opposition actually grew out of the renga and haikai networks, thus following a similar development as the one Habermas traces from the literary to the political publics. This defence, however, tends to erase or weaken her argument that there is something fundamentally different between Japanese and Western notions of the public.

Final words

My criticism is not meant to imply any rejection of the book, which I read with much pleasure. Neither do I think that enclave publics are irrelevant today. They partake of the ambiguity that Adorno and Marcuse detected in the "affirmative character" of art, namely that art both prefigures utopia and sanctifies the status quo. By creating enclaves of substitute freedom, aesthetic publics genuinely help people lead happier lives, sustain their sense of self-worth and fulfillment, and to endure a situation in which they have been made politically powerless.

But does this mean that there is no need for protest or politics, as long as we have enclaves to which we can escape? Near the end Ikegami acknowledges ”certain disquieting features of this proto-modern heritage”, namely the unsolved problem of political discourse. The problem, she states, appears ”when the traditional Japanese non-discursive modes of communication are used outside their proper domains” in which case ”they may serve as a pretext to discourage the linguistic articulation of critical discourse” (Ikegami 2005:381). Rather than reading her simplistically as a defender of the freedom of the aesthetic publics, it makes more sense to read her as saying that they fulfill a legitimate and important role next to the political ones. There are times when we need to save what can be saved and take shelter, but there are also times when we become impatient and desire to venture outside to see the blue sky, and even times when we are forced out of the shelters since they are under attack and about to collapse. Isn't what is happening today, in an increasingly harsh economic climate and increasing concern with surveillance and security, that governments far stronger than the Tokugawa shogunate are destroying the enclaves of the apolitical aesthetes, except for the rich and powerful? How long can the subculture otaku, or the fashion-conscious freeter boys and girls, react to this destruction by gliding away to the next enclave, hoping to find his or her true self there, pretending that protest and the political public don’t matter?

Finally, let me add that there might be something misleading about the opposition between aesthetic and political publics. Nothing says one must abandon art to express oneself politically. There is critical potential in art. But it blossoms only when it leaves the realm of pure art, and allows itself to express whatever it wants to express, including politics.

Ikegami, Eiko (2005) Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Why not a Green Party in Japan?

It's interesting to compare Paul Hockenos' list of "elements" or factors behind the strong German anti-nuclear movement (in "Germany's Nuclear Endgame: The Lessons", in Open Democracy, 26 July) with the conditions in Japan.

It turns out that there are many similarities (strong grassroot protest, non-violent direct action, "non-ideological" diversity enabling alliances across left-right spectrum).

A major difference is that the Japanese movement never took off from the local level while the German movement developed nation-wide platforms and a Green Party, which in turn was crucial in fostering economic incentives and green legislation.

So the problem is: why won't Japan, with its myriad of obscure ephemeral parties, also set up a Green party? Now would be a good timing.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Strays thoughts

Travelling is good for thinking in many ways. Routines drop away, you meet people, and things seem to start anew. You think much and feel much. Doing both at the same time is always the best way to think. You get up early with too little sleep. As the hot summer makes you pause, you’re assaulted by memories and strange ideas. Instead of reading in a room you read on a bench, by the riverbank, on a train or in a café. You walk a lot. Your body loves it, feeling free, and your thoughts wander too.

It struck me today, as we were taking my son to kindergarten while he was sitting on my shoulders, that a boddhisattva cannot be a person who helps others out of pity. Theoretically, I know very well that this is nothing new. From a standpoint of non-duality, there is no helper and no helped. A boddhisattva who thought in such terms would be a contradiction in terms.

Perhaps a boddhisattva would rather be a person who, rather than thinking of herself as helping others, keeps searching for the boddhisattva in the other, recognizing the everyone she meets has the potential of being such a boddhisattva and waiting for it to appear – in the kindergarten teachers, the relatives who will visit us tomorrow, the homeless, the high school girls, the person in a suit who is hurrying past us, or anyone else in the throngs of Shijô street?

If I want to help others, it will surely not hurt if I recognize how much I myself am also in need of help. Listening to others as if their words could help you in some important respect – making you see things more clearly or enriching your life or whatever – is usually a good way of making you both feel better.  It’s not true that if you want to help others, you must help yourself first. If you want to help others, let them help you, or at least let them know that they have that ability.

There is a quote by Calvino, from Invisible Cities, which I think expresses this attitude, at least in part.
The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
To help what is not inferno is not to act out of pity. Rather than simply being good yourself, Calvino seems to be saying, we should help goodness to spread and give it room. The one who helps others out of pity doesn't just risk appearing presumptous, producing resentment and irritating people. Even worse is that he monopolizes goodness, thus stopping its growth and keeping it tiny.

Let me put it like this: whenever you want to help another, do so in a way that helps goodness grow. If you help another, but in such a way that you produce resentment or shame, then goodness will not grow. It will be something you have gained only for yourself, but such a goodness is worth very little.

It may sound strange, but our common view of religious dogmas often sound true only if we invert them. A boddhisattva is a person who helps others by treating them as if they could help her. If we turn to Christianity for a moment, I've always thought that it sounds unconvincing that we should pray to God for forgiveness. How much truer isn't it to say, on the contrary, that it's we who must learn to forgive God?

Karma is not the law that determines the transmigration of souls. How could there be any souls, if there is no atman? No, there is no soul that can preserve its identity even over the course of a life-time. How, then, could there be any identity between life-times? Karma is nothing but the birth of goodness from goodness, or of hatred from hatred. There's no need to involve the idea of the soul. The first five verses of Dhammapada put it well. So, actually, does Richard Gere. Asked what he had learnt from Dalai Lama, he answered: "That anything I do that's motivated by any personal enrichment leads to suffering for me, while anything that enriches the happiness of someone else makes me happy. And it's never failed" (thanx for the quote to E., whose doors and walls have always been a source of wisdom for me).

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The dolls of Awashimadô

On our way to Umekôji Park today, I was intrigued to find a small temple with the sign "Ningyô kuyô" (Memorial service for dolls). Walking inside we found a peaceful, small yard in front of a prayer hall, Awashimadô. What immediately caught our eyes was a big glass cabinet filled with the most marvellous, sad-looking dolls.

Looking left was another cabinett, just as marvellous.

Brilliant like a faded, slightly spooky fairytale court.

This slightly anxious-looking lady was sitting in a cabinet next to the prayer hall.

Beneath the cabinet, Hotei and the other "lucky gods" seem to be discussing the weather.

The only living presence we noticed during our visit at the temple were two cats who manned the reception desk:

Since I'd never seen a temple like this before, I first thought the idea might be to pray for the souls of dead children (as in mizuko kuyô, the memorial service for stillborn or aborted children), but then we discovered an explanation on one of the cabinets.
To thank and pray for the souls of the dolls who have comforted our spirits and taught us to respect and take care of all things around us will also purify your own heart.
Later, I also find the following text on the temple's homepage:
Here at Awashimadô of the Sôtokuji temple, we perform memorial services for dolls. In line with the saying that a soul resides in all things, we have long felt that things too possess heart and life and should be treated with care. Here we transmit our feelings of gratitude and say "Thank you for the time that has been" and pray for the dolls.
This, then, is where people leave their old beloved dolls and say farewell to them. A land of the dead of dolls. Looking at their sad faces, I felt it was like a home for the unwanted elderly.

There are still things I don't understand and which I wish I could find an explanation for. For instance, it seems that at many other temples, the dolls are burned after a memorial service. But the dolls we saw here looked old, even bleached in the sun. Perhaps they are just left at the temple instead of being burned. But if that is so, how long will they be here? Or are the dolls in the cabinet just a select few used for exhibition?

I also wonder if the background of "ningyo kuyô" is fully explained by the texts I saw. Doing a quick search on the Internet, I quickly learned that doll offerings were often made to temples by women wishing to become pregnant. This was for instance the case with Hokyôji temple, which also performs ningyô kuyô. If that is so, the dolls might once have had a sort of magical function, perhaps similar to the wooden Akuaba dolls I saw in Ghana which depict babies and which childless parents take care of just as if they were real children, in order to become pregnant.

That this might have been the historical reason behind the "ningyô kuyô" is confirmed by a Japan Times article by Setsuko Kamiya:

Historically, for instance, Kiyomizu Kannondo has long been a temple where couples would go and pray to be blessed with a child. When a child did come along, it was then customary for them to take a doll to the temple as the child's substitute to prevent anything bad befalling it. As time went by, some people simply started bringing dolls they wanted to get rid of, and the temple began accepting them daily and eventually started the annual ritual 49 years ago.
This seems to imply that the practice of ningyô kuyô is of rather recent origin. It also appears to be becoming more popular, with more and more dolls being offered each year at big "kuyô" ceremonies at places like Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

The article also add another interesting piece of information.   
All very touching, for sure, but why do so many Japanese feel the need to pray for the dolls before abandoning them -- to say such "Thanks and Goodbye," as signs at Meiji Shrine proclaim? According to Sumie Kobayashi, who heads the reference room of doll manufacturer Yoshitoku Co., the key actually lies in the annual Hinamatsuri Doll Festival. The dolls for this occasion, traditionally representing the wedding of the Imperial couple, are displayed on a platform. They are admired and handled with care and respect. Kobayashi explained that festivals such as this are rooted in ancient purification rites performed as the seasons change, and that long ago the dolls were votive symbols in human form.
Still, this doesn't seem to be the entire explanation either. To be sure, many temples seem to be specializing in hina ningyô memorial services, but that doesn't seem to be the case at Awashimadô where they appear to accept dolls of every conceivable kind, including French dolls, ceramic figures, teddy bears and Hello Kitty. 

So what we seem left with is simply the fact that for some reason many people find it hard to part with their old dolls. Or as the article says, referring to two interviewed people:
Both Okamoto and Yamada believed it just wasn't right to simply toss their dolls into a rubbish bin, not least because of the memories that they embody. Each felt that doing so would in some way bring a curse down on them.
This is a feeling which is easy to understand. "The end is important in all things", to quote a famous old book from the 18th century. Rites have always been useful to say goodbye in a proper way. But I still don't have any explanation to why this practice emerged when it did. What did people do with their dolls before the ningyô kuyô began? How do people part with other things they have loved?

A grotesque manifest

I just had a brief look at the (1,500 page!) 2083: A European Declaration of Independence”.

No, I didn't read it. I don't have the time or the stomach for this kind of thing. I read parts though, and here's my preliminary summary of what I saw: hatred of multiculturalism, the "cultural Marxist" elite and the "Islamic colonization of Europe". A desire to strike a pessimistic, heroic tone: our only hope against the near-complete victory of "political correctness" are a few courageous resistance fighters. Time is running out. In a few decades we will have a Muslim majority. The 50's was an idyll: today violence and criminality rule the streets. 

The introductory pages are followed by a ”book” on the atrocities of Islam and the falsification of history. The next ”book” is about Europe and the EU’s deliberate project to islamicize Europe. He claims that western feminism paved the way for Islam. Apart from cultural Marxism, multiculturalism and feminism, he also resents global capitalism, labour migration, low birthrates, rap and black culture.

An interesting curiosity is his hatred of what he calls the Frankfurt school, which he claims was founded by Lukács. This nebulous school - of which he thinks Gramsci and today's deconstruction also form part - assumes central importance in his thinking as a sinister contemporary "cultural" version of the classical "economic" Marxism but just as intent on erasing Western civilization as the latter. Thinkers like Marcuse, Fromm and Adorno are introduced in Wikipedia-like entries (with pedantic but truncated lists of important works). This entire tradition of thought is summarily reduced to "revolution", resentment against Western civilization and Gulag. Much of the information is superficial, the argument is crude and the entire text is full of repetitions.

There is also an attack on sociology, entitled ”Why the discipline of Sociology must be completely removed from Academia” (If he hadn’t been a madman, I would have felt flattered).

Another curiosity is his appreciation of countries like Japan or South Korea that ”never adopted multi-culturalism” (very flattering to these countries indeed!).

In the second half of the long manuscript I discover what I can only describe as bizarre long passages with descriptions of armour, weaponry and shields, presumably things needed by Knights Templars to repulse Islam from Europe.

The most repulsive thing about what happened in Oslo and Utoya are of course the acts themselves, the deaths and the cruelty. What point is there in paying attention to the ideas expressed by the murderer? What strikes me, however, is how well this guy’s world-view accords with what is propagated by islamophobic or racist parties in Europe - the desire to defend an idealized idyll against outsiders, the hatred of a dominant "political correctness" which is equated with betrayal. These are parties which have recently made spectacular electoral gains in many countries and are now trying to gain a measure of respectability. If one removes the comical theoretical ornaments, the basic ideas are familiar. One can only hope that the horrible deeds in Oslo and Utoya will help make them less respectable again.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A very reasonable protest

Here we go, on our way to join the protests against police repression in Osaka - a tiny group wandering through the longest shopping mall in Japan, the Tenjinbashi shôtengai.

Here's what the protests were about: In April seven people were arrested on charges of "disrupting official duties" as they were protesting against the fact that homeless people in Japan are not allowed to vote. To vote in Japan you need a certificate of residency (jûminhyô), which in turn requires the possession of an address. In addition to being poor and lacking a place to live, the homeless are thus prevented from exercising basic democratic rights.

The resident's card system is also hugely discriminatory against the homeless for many other reasons: without it it is impossible to get an ID card, a bank account, an insurance or a mobile phone - de facto preventing the homeless from receiving welfare or pensions or applying for a regular job.

Additional info (in Japanese) about the demonstration can be found here.

To deny people basic democratic rights for lack of a certificate of residency is absurd. It is also absurd to maintain a system that exacerbates exclusion. I give all my support to those who campaign for everybody's right to vote as well as to the demand that the arrested be released immediately.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Days in Japan

I've been in Kyoto now a couple of days, and perhaps I should say something about my experiences here. I simply love it. The summer heat, the warm nights, the people I meet, the way I myself function here. 

I've written before about the Kamo river. Today I decided to go to the university on foot along the riverbank rather than taking the train. Wonderful. I realized again how much I like the place. When I felt the gravel and the wooden planks of the bridges under my feet, it felt as if the place itself, or its spirit, was welcoming me. Yes, it was right to come here. Some places are just like old friends, and just as deserving of visits. 
As I passed the houses of the homeless under one of the bridges, three of the inhabitants were standing outside, joking with each other and laughing. A picture of happiness.

Recently my days have been taken up by trips to Osaka, by talks, meetings, events and fieldwork. I've been able to listen to amazing stories from people who participated in the last ditch fight to protect the tent village of Nagai Park from eviction - a fight that was fought not with violence but by a theatrical play, performed on a stage while the city staff and the guardsmen demolished the village (see here for some You Tube footage). I spent a peaceful morning at Oshiteriya, and what a privilege it was, next day, to take part in the cooking of tamago-donburi in Ôgimachi Park, despite the many mosquitos. My thanks to the generous chef! Tomorrow I'm off to Osaka again, this time for a demonstration and for an interview.

Nagai Park today
One of my impressions is that "deprivation" is not really the most apt word for describing life in the tent villages. There might be some truth in the statements of people like Ogawa Tetsuo or Nagagiri Kôsuke about the richness of life in these villages. Collective life seems to have survived here much more than in in so called mainstream society. Materially, it can't be denied that life here is characterized by hardship and poverty. But the poverty is perhaps not as extreme as many people think. As long as they are able to maintain their village, they are able to live a life not much worse than anyone else's. Above all they do not give the impression of being helpless or mere objects of charity or pity.

Over the last decade, most of the big tent villages in Osaka have disappeared, many through large scale forced evictions. Homelessness is still rampant, but today many of the homeless are forced to lead an insecure and ambulant life on the streets rather than in the comparative safety of the villages. Many have been pressured to enter shelters and apply for welfare. Among those who receive welfare and manage to secure an apartment, many feel isolated and return to the remaining villages to find company. 

Aluminum cans, crushed for recyling

I know so little and they know so much. There might not be much meaning in stating my superficial impressions. Still, I will end with one more. One of the few things in this country that really, really shines is activism, that of homeless people as well as that of freeters. Not pop culture, not chanoyu, not Toyota. Activism, by the way, is not a conduct linked to a particular role, that of "activists". It is the attempt to be alive, to be free and able to act, rather than just being an object or helpless bystander. 

Monday, 4 July 2011

Murai Shôsuke on the wakô

Wajin barbarian, Jurchen barbarian
Part of my pleasant stay here in Hokkaidô I've spend reading Murai Shôsuke's 1993 book Chûsei wajinden (A medieval account of the Wa people). A pleasant read, which taught me much about the wakô (in Chinese wōkòu, in Korean waegu). It's a work which is close to Amino Yoshihiko – one could even describe it as a direct attempt to apply the latter’s ideas of asylum and margins to the study of the wakô.
Wakô is a term which is often translated as "Japanese pirates", but as Murai shows, the wa of Korean sources didn't correspond to "Japanese". Neither is it correct to translate wajin, wafuku or wago as "Japanese people", "Japanese dress" or "Japanese language". Instead Murai argues that national categories are not really relevant in understanding the world in which the wakô lived, suggesting that the wakô are better understood as a transnational mix of "border-straddling people" who were able to establish something close to a shared culture of the entire East China Sea region. Wafuku and wago are best understood as the shared dress and the shared language of people participating in this culture. Ethnically, there was much mixture between populations across the Tsushima Straits. Thus Korean-born people too could be referred to as wajin if they had lived for some time on Tshushima and many sources show that wajin were a familiar and economically important presence to the populations along the southern Korean coast.

This means that he is critical of historian Tanaka Takeo’s provocative claim - based on sources that claim that Korean robber bands and outcaste groups had dressed up in wafuku - that the 14th century wakô were a mixture of Japanese and Koreans or even solely Korean. Murai objects that the sources supporting such a claim are scarce, late and motivated by prejudice against outcasts. Personally, I also find it hard to believe that the many pirates on Tsushima would have refrained from venturing westwards to raid Korea. Besides, there doesn't seem to be any point in a wafuku disguise unless there was a general assumption that wakô were generally wajin.

Much along the lines suggested by Amino, Murai argues that the important dividing line was not between nationalities but between the farming and non-farming populations. A cultural continuum conjoined the sea-going populations of the Tsushima Straits and southern Korea, and opposed them to the settled farming population supported by the Korean state. This also seems to be in line with how Korean officials judged the situation, since they repeatedly petitioned the court to deal with piracy by turning the sea- and mountain peoples into farmers by giving them land and taxing them (Murai 1993:54-58). Here I can't help recalling the arguments of Owen Lattimore and James Scott (see the latter's The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia) about how states in East and Southeast Asia have struggled for much of their history to stop their farming population from escaping and returning to a nomadic life. Were the wakô the nomads of the east, just as the Mongols and Jurchen were the nomads in the west?

The parallel between the wajin and the nomadic populations of Inner Asia is in fact a theme that is stressed repeatedly in the book. Thus the Joseon court regarded the wajin as barbarians on the level of the Jurchen yâmin (野人). Adopting the Chinese idea of a civilizational centre surrounded by ”four barbarian peoples” they saw themselves as surrounded by the yâmin in the north, Japan in the east, the ”three islands” (Tsushima, Iki and Matsura) in the south, and Ryûkyû in the west. Furthermore, the three landing ports granted to the wajin (三浦) in the south corresponded to the five fortifications (五鎮) which had a similar function in regulating trade with the Jurchen along the northern frontier (ibid. 59-62).

The account of life in the three ports (Busan, Ulsan and Jinhae) is interesting. The wajin who traded here came mainly from Tsushima, a barren and overpopulated island which was economically dependent on Korea and to which the three ports was a much needed source of economic wealth and a demographic outlet (ibid 108f). Originally only granted as landing ports, they soon developed into permanent wajin settlements or small towns with temples, amusement facilities and prostitution. Houses were in Japanese style with earth walls and thatched roofs. Despite restrictions on travel, trips to nearby hot springs were popular. The settlements were surrounded by walls guarded day and night to prevent the wajin from mixing with the local population (not so much out of fear of smuggling as because of military secrecy), but reports indicate that it was common for the wajin to cross the walls in secret.

The juridical status of the three ports was ambiguous and Murai portrays them in a fashion which recalls Amino's conception of muen or asylums from secular power. Policing and legal jurisdiction seems to have been abandoned by the Korean officials. Although they could punish local Koreans harshly for dealings with the wajin, they usually left the latter alone. This made the ports into a kind of legal limbo or “air pocket” in which only a vague authority was wielded by the distant Tsushima lord, a state which made the ports a haven for piracy and smuggling. They were also largely freed of taxes. An important factor behind this lenience on the part of the Joseon court appears to have been the fear of a renewed outbreak of wakô attacks and another was the fact that Korean officials and merchants too profited from the trade (ibid. 95-103, 126). Tightening of controls, the imposition of less profitable trade rates and harsher measures against piracy led to the outbreak of a Tsushima-supported revolt in 1510. With its suppression, the permanent settlements came to an end and from then on Busan alone was used as a landing port for the wajin

The later wakô in the 16th century had a quite different character compared to the early ones. The background was the resumption and rapid growth of trade in the course of the century. An important role in this trade was played by the huge production of silver in Japan, which took off with the introduction of Korean cupellation techniques in the 1530s. Ming China's demand for silver and Japanese demand for Korean cotton - rooted in military needs of the sengoku (warring states) era in Japan - provided the conditions for the second wave of wakô. Now it was no longer the Tsushima-Korea relation that was central. The main role was instead played by pirates based in Western Kyûshû, such as Wang Zhi, who raided across a far larger area than the earlier wakô. While earlier exchanges within the region had largely taken place within the framework of the Chinese-centred interstate system (the "tribute system"), this second wave of wakô was helped by the decline and gradual collapse of this system. With the waning of Ming power the policy of maritime prohibitions (hai-chin) could no longer be maintained, which led to the freeing up and proliferation of unregulated trade, a trade which was frequently accompanied by violence and went hand in hand with the increase in piracy.

Just as he had previously depicted the "three ports" as a form of asylum, Murai again deployes what seems like Amino-inspired language in depicting the freedom of the predominant pirate nests of this later era, places like Hirado on Kyûshû, the Gotô islet chain: “Places like Gotô or Hirado were bases of wakô activity with the character of asylums”. He also describes them as “utopias for pirates” where a “maritime world hostile to the state” could develop (ibid. 210). With the reestablishment of strong state power in China and Japan in the 17th century, new and stricter maritime bans are adopted in China, Korea and Japan and the world in which the wakô had proliferated ends.

The deployment of the idea of asylums (or muen) on the "border-straddling" peoples of the East China sea seems to me like a logical extension of Amino's original conception. It frees the latter of some of the difficulties arising from Amino's tendency to see muen as based in religious notions such as a lingering "primitive" authority of the sacred. Instead, the wakô asylums portrayed by Murai seems to have had sprung mainly from the weakness of the medieval state and the inability of the latter to prevent a plurality of rivalling power centers to arise which were strong enough to challenge or escape its control. It was this weakness which allowed the "border-straddling" peoples and their trade to flourish and to establish a shared culture covering much of the region.    

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