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29 responses

25 08 2009

Dear Asian Art Museum, SF

I have to ask: what does the museum hope to gain in formulating the programming and the language for the current promotional message for its “aim to be hip” Matcha programming?

At the risk of offending, and I do not wish to impute full responsibility to any single individual or department in the museum, but I find the upcoming “Matcha: Way of the Sword” event as it is advertised extremely problematic as a mode of museum education and promotion and offensive in its near obliviousness to history in relation to a highly mythologized and contested cultural symbol and a killing tool (however important the sword may be in its metallurgical and aesthetic properties).

I could offer a lengthy explanation, the terms of which you should be familiar with, but in brief the text glamorizes the sword and heroic swordsman without serious sensitivity to its place in the history of domestic warfare, and Japanese imperialism, and Western sword collecting and fetishism.

What does it mean to suggest to museum audiences that a tool of bloodshed and a symbol of elite power and imperialism is something to do “moves with in a fun workshop”? What does it mean that a former member of the Japanese military— offering a demonstration of “Samurai” swordsmanship— is the star performer in a municipal museum’s public program?

That the text concludes with “the exhibition reveals a softer, unknown side to these legendary warriors” furthers the suppression of history— of warfare and imperialism and its human impact in Japan and abroad— in the name of valorizing skill, artistry, and romantic stereotypes.

Perhaps focusing Matcha on a poetry competition— rephrased as a spoken word event or poetry slam— would lack the titillating fear-allure of a swordsmanship demonstration. And presumably Tea is already so already old-news in the museum’s programming that it won’t be a draw, even it was in large measure the primary cultural concern (and soft power instrument) of the Hosokawa for most of the house’s early modern history.

But does the promotion of “Japan cool” require evacuation of sensitivity and thoughtful reflection on the multiple meanings and uses of culture?

Profoundly tone-deaf to history and to communities that have diverse views of the Japanese sword, not always so sanguine and often deeply personal, the Aug. 27 event strikes me as a sadly missed opportunity for “outreach” and many steps backward in efforts toward self-aware cultural exchange between Japan and the US.

16 09 2009

Note: the above comment by Concerned refers to this event

29 08 2009

The fact is that tea ceremony originated with the samurai; in the late Sengoku period, practitioners of something which later developed into what we today call ‘tea ceremony’ were almost all of them samurai.

Thus, quite to the contrary of suppressing anything, the museum is doing just what responsible scholars and cultural educators ought to be doing – bringing to light an aspect of history and culture that is almost unknown in the conventional wisdom. Through this program, the museum is shedding light on a side of tea ceremony, and a side of samurai culture, that is not often seen or known about, precisely because of the dominance of the kind of focus you yourself mention – portraying the samurai primarily or solely as bloodthirsty warriors, and not as the three-dimensional, full people they were, schooled in poetry, steeped in traditional culture and arts.

When one insists time and again upon pushing a single given agenda – such as pushing the portrayal of Japanese as bloodthirsty killers, conflating our personal attitudes towards war, and perhaps more specifically towards certain aspects of WWII, with Japanese culture and identity throughout history – it is you who are promoting the suppression and obfuscation of aspects of history and culture, and not the other, the victim of your criticism.

30 08 2009

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

We think your first sentence may point out a challenge faced in putting together something like this, which is the balance between brevity and content. It wasn’t our intent to cover the history of tea as cultural practice, and we distilled down to the fewest words we could our intended content for most effective delivery. Our point about tea in this instance is not about practice or tradition, but rather how The Way of Tea has been used for ideological purposes since the early 20th century.

Both Okakura Kakuzo (Book of Tea, 1906) and Nitobe Inazo (Bushido: Soul of Japan, 1899) wrote their books in the United States, in English, with the express purpose of promoting among an American audience a highly motivated, very specific characterization of Japanese character, as something essential, pre-modern, timeless, and wholly unique and completely unchanged by the impact of modernization. That they did this at the time they did was not coincidence: Japan was trying to find its place on the international stage, after it had won recent military victories against Russia and China. In that context, these texts served a purpose as strategic nationalist ideology.

So an important distinction to make is that we’re talking about culture and how it has been used to serve nationalist ends — and the role that nationalism has played from very early on in promoting mythical culturalist notions of Japanese essential uniqueness that continue to resonate here in this show today — rather than provide an overview of tea practice origins or history.

As for the point about the museum doing what responsible scholars and cultural educators ought to be doing, we can’t say we agree with you. And you’ll note from a newer post that actual history scholars agree with us [http://www.froginawell.net/japan/2009/08/samurai-exhibit-pwned/].

We do agree with your point that what we all want is a more three-dimensional view, insofar as it can be constructed, of “who they were” that does not come at the expense of important historical foundation. We have no problem with the celebration of high “samurai culture,” so long as it put into historical context. That’s our point: why does the history have to be suppressed?

And what happens when you do that with warrior culture? And why would you want to do that—what’s behind that practice? We consider these very important questions not to be ignored when working with a cultural symbol of such power and resonance. There is a huge responsibility that comes with publicly displaying cultural symbols like this, and we’re doing our part to make sure that responsibility is upheld.

As far as pushing a single given agenda goes, could the same be said for promoting aesthetics of warrior culture without the context of history that even “responsible scholars and cultural educators” are calling for?

Another important distinction to make is the difference between Japanese and samurai. That’s really the point here, and a big part of why we did this. It’s unfortunate that in the culture that we live in today, that conflation is still a commonplace misperception that gets projected onto all people who are seen as Japanese. That’s exactly the essentialism produced by the ideological bushido and Way of Tea texts discussed above, and that’s exactly the kind of conflation we’re trying to challenge through this work.

Because Japanese and samurai are not one and the same. In order to take apart the myth that they are, we think it’s important to understand not only where that myth began and why, but also the dangers that follow if one promotes or moreover passively goes along with the promotion of that myth.

And that gets to the very core reason why we did this whole thing. There was no way we could just go along with it.

30 08 2009

I’d like to point out that the post by Toranosuke regarding the history of tea as principally generated by the warrior class is, well, not good history. Sen no Rikyu, who is generally identified as the founding figure of the Wabi-cha tradition of tea, passed through the Sen family to the present, was not a warrior but a commoner. Yes, his most elite patrons were warriors, but he also had patrons within the imperial court and commoner class. This does not discount the significant contributions— as patrons, practitioners, and arbiters of taste— that warlords such as Kobori Enshu and Hosokawa Yusai made within the tea tradition. The issue is about presenting non-simplified history, history that does not silence certain participants, and history that not derived from a single source.

1 09 2009
Ross Bender

Kudos on a brilliant intervention!

You may be interested in the developing discussion on the Premodern Japanese Studies listserve at:


8 09 2009

Ross: I’m on the PMJS listserve (a partial revealing of identity), and I would encourage its members to post in this venue not only within the academy. If history and sensitive interpretation are to be assumed on PMJS, why not engage these issues more broadly?

1 09 2009
Woody Blockhead

I find it curious that Toranosuke (and the Asian Art Museum, I might add) assumes that the practice of “traditional (sic) cultivated arts” such as tea ceremony or incense sniffing in any way conflicts with the history of violence and suppression on which samurai power was founded. It’s entirely common for the leisured rulers to cultivate activities that only a select few of those below them can afford the time or expense to practice, and then in turn to take their “higher level of cultivation” as justification for their elite privileges. Many of the samurai’s cultural activities were in fact modeled on those already established in the Imperial Court as its claim to power, with accompanying allure.

To borrow from a stark comparison that the producer(s) of this site made, would we have an exhibition on the Nazis that emphasized what “three-dimensional, full people” they were, with their truly profound interests in mysticism, music, and folklore? Indeed, we might, as the Nazis were “three-dimensional, full people” as much as anyone else, and that is part of what is so frightening about that era. But we would never think of divorcing the realm of Nazi mysticism from the realm of Nazi political activity and its repercussions. So why should we do so with the samurai? Cultural activities are not neutral but innately political.

I’m not against Toranosuke on one point, however. This parody site is free (unlike the Asian Art Museum) from having to support itself through appeals to the interests of the general public. The Asian Art Museum’s exhibition titles are Orientalist not because its curators (or even its shows) necessarily are, but rather because they have an obligation to bring in the masses–and Orientalism, like it or not, still has broad appeal. Yes, museums also have an obligation to educate and rectify popular misconceptions, and–though I haven’t seen the show–I can assume from the vitriolic tone that this exhibit failed miserably in that regard. Yet, to educate people, you do have to bring them in. In the non-academic world, where a significant portion of Americans think Japan is some part of China, there’s value in first giving them some knowledge, however flawed, then later rectifying it through critique like yours. Academics may reject Orientalism as a deadly sin, but I think many of us, if we go back and examine how we became interested in “Japan,” will find we grew from Orientalist roots.

This comment is not to undermine the worthiness of this site as counterpoint, but just to clarify that we all speak from a particular place, and this site’s place is unencumbered by the need for audience numbers, grant money, not insulting a lender, communication with children, etc. One conclusion I hope people will take away from this polemic is to question the very economic basis of museums in the U.S., which does hamper educational efforts and lends itself to pandering.

1 09 2009

G-raf, look again at the role tea ceremony played in relations between Hideyoshi, Ieyasu, Nobunaga and others. This isn’t all about Sen no Rikyu, who was indeed a commoner, and who his varied patrons may have been. Look at it from the point of view of “samurai and tea” and there’s actually quite a bit there.

8 09 2009


Clearly you have a samurai-fixed lens on this subject, so I don’t expect that you’ll be interested in a different— historical— point of view. Whereas if you’ll read carefully to note that I am not denying the role of members of the warrior elite in the formation of tea culture, but specifically addressing the historical landscape of tea‚ which was during the 16th century far more variegated then your samurai-centric view suggests.

But sure, let’s focus on “Samurai and Tea”: The subtemple Kotoin of the monastery Daitokuji, in Kyoto, boasts of its tsukubai in its garden brought back from the invasions of Korea; Hosokawa Sansai was a general in the last of the violent invasion waves of Korea under Hideyoshi. Yes, there is “actually quite a bit there,” but you are whitewashing history in order to valorize the Samurai and Tea.

Your reference to Knights prompts only a single comment: The Crusades were killing campaigns against the “heathen” and efforts to control lands and resources in the name of Christ (and for the coffers of the religious elite). So yes, I would have the same criticisms to level against an exhibition that glamorized Knightly valor while silencing the real horrors of war, especially against feudal levels of society that were without power, and that fetishized the broadsword… Got it: its about history that is more than just the myths, fond for some as they may be.

8 09 2009


I have a samurai-focused lens on the subject only because that is the subject at hand. If this were an exhibit on the history of tea and tea ceremony in Japan, it would be a different story. If it were an exhibition on tea, I would not push for a samurai-focused approach at all. But this is an exhibition about samurai, and about the various arts (beyond martial arts) they engaged in.

When thinking about and talking about museum exhibitions, one must always keep in mind the focus, the aim, the purpose, the narrative of the exhibition, and in particular one must remain aware of the extreme limitations of space and number of artworks or displays. Not every aspect of a subject can be covered in a single exhibition. It simply cannot be done. And, many would argue, it should not be done, as that would confuse and obscure a clearer representation of whatever one aspect of the topic you are there to display. Exhibitions of ukiyo-e art do not have the space or the obligation to cover the full depth and breadth of prostitution in Japan, just as an exhibition explicitly seeking to portray the *arts* aspect of the samurai does not have the space or the obligation to address these bloodier, darker sides of samurai history.

It’s not as if there are not exhibitions out there which address these issues in excruciating detail. There absolutely are. No one is hiding, censoring, obscuring, or whitewashing anything. It’s all out there, just not in this exhibition.

And, again, in case I haven’t said it before, I think it is important to note that the vast majority of objects in this exhibition (I would assume) are from the Edo period, and the period covered by the discussions of samurai involvement in the arts should presumably also be of that period. To conflate the samurai of the Edo period – bureaucrats and administrators engaged in cultural pursuits – with that of their violent and warring ancestors, or with the post-samurai violence of WWII is, I think, far more of an affront to accurate understandings of history than any supposed whitewashing. An exhibition, like a book, like anything, relies upon focus. Focus on a given theme and a given historical period – to go beyond that is to become, well, unfocused.

Yes, there is the historical fact of the darker sides of everything; but there is also the historical fact of the lighter side. That samurai engaged in various arts and were quite cultured – particularly in the Edo period, generations after any fighting, killing, on any considerable scale – is no less a true or valid aspect of historical fact than the darker, more violent and bloody aspects of what happened in the past. You seek not to bring balance, but to tarnish anything and everything by insisting upon a focus on the darker side.

As for the knights, well, I fully understand where you are coming from, and agree with you that that was a most violent, bloody, destructive and misguided portion of our history. I don’t deny that at all. But look around you – these exhibitions which I spoke of, focusing upon the aesthetic qualities, style and design, of medieval European arms and armor, these legends and stories about the glorious, valiant King Arthur are all around you. So, it’s not a question of saying “if there were an exhibition like that, I would have the same criticisms to level” – there is no “if”: those exhibitions are everywhere.

So if you want to change art museums into history museums of the grim, dark, gritty, bloody, violent, difficult aspects of history, brushing aesthetics and the arts off to the side, you’d better get moving. There are a lot of them to cover.

9 09 2009

The point about “focus” as justification for the elision of historical context completely ignores the role of the promotion of this exhibit: what is being sold, how many more people are influenced by that/how much more visible that is, and how intentionally un-focused the marketing campaign has been.

If you look at the edifice of the museum itself, the big red banners read: SAMURAI, in white on red, and nothing else. Similarly, in the muni metro stations, across the tracks one sees the big ads for “samurai,” again in white letters on red background, next to the Vader-like image. If you get up close to it, you’ll notice “Lords of the” in red letters on red background, barely visible, clearly a conscious choice to promote the show as just “samurai.”

What’s intentionally being marketed, sold, and exploited, is samurai, period. It’s not just daimyo culture, and it’s not just Edo-period. What’s being promoted throughout the city in a highly visible way, and on silly tv spots, is simply samurai. That’s what’s drawing people in in record numbers, that’s what people are paying for. And that’s the trope that’s being revived in popular consciousness in much larger numbers through the highly visible promotion of this exhibit.

Our point is, then, if you’re going to exploit that well-known cultural trope, then do it with a sense of social responsibility, and put the whole thing into context. Especially if you’re going to exploit it in a way that is, as noted elsewhere on this site by a distinguished curator, “fairly insulting to the whole idea of the samurai.”

We’re not “brushing aesthetics and the arts off to the side” (we’re artists after all!), and we have great appreciation for objects in the Hosokawa collection; we’re simply arguing for cultural and historical context, and making the point that to deny that context from a warrior culture such as this one, particularly for an audience largely unfamiliar with that history, is to effectively aestheticize violence, knowingly, in a time of war. We cite examples from the past in order to reveal the undesirable consequences that can grow out of such practices.

And we shouldn’t have to explain this but we’ll do it anyway: we’re doing it as parody, using humor, and the pointedness that we employ is in direct proportion to how egregious we see the museum’s omissions. In other words, we’re making fun, but in a very serious way, and it wouldn’t be resonating with audiences the way it has if it didn’t speak to the truth of a truly ridiculous reality. (Sense of humor is very subjective and maybe you’re not amused, but we have to say, the second most common word used to describe our work in all the feedback we’ve received, and there’s been lots, has been “hilarious!”)

What’s so bad about context anyway? And why is the suggestion of it being equated with “tarnishing anything and everything?” Seems just a little bit hysterical, which tells us we are no doubt right on the money with this intervention.

The rationale of “focus” is further undermined by the visible placement of people like Thomas Cleary, instead of respected historians, in the catalogue and museum events. The mythology of the Way of the Samurai taps into something romantic and timeless, not period- or daimyo class-specific, and isn’t that going “beyond” said focus exactly in a way that is “to become, well, unfocused?” If it was really about focus, why wouldn’t the exhibit and catalogue have included respected historians to actually put things in clear focus, instead of selling and spreading mythology?

As for major museum exhibitions “out there” that responsibly address the history of violence in samurai culture and its legacy in modern times, especially with a visibility and impact comparable to this show, we can’t recall a single one taking place in San Francisco, and we’ve lived here an awfully long time. If “there absolutely are,” maybe you can help us out by naming some for us.

Finally, if you’re really only able to see our call for historical context as necessarily “to tarnish anything and everything by insisting upon a focus on the darker side,” and you’re unable to recognize the value of historical context in a show like this, maybe it’s best at this point to simply agree to disagree. We can respect a difference of opinion, and there’s no single right answer. But we do see great value in raising the issues, asking the questions, and yes, pointing out difficult truths while making people laugh, regardless of how unpopular those truths may be.

1 09 2009

Furthermore, I’d just like to say that I think the comparison to the Nazis is unfair and inappropriate, designed solely to radicalize or rile up the discussion.

A much more appropriate comparison would be to medieval knights. Do we not have arms & armor sections in a great many art museums, focusing on the aesthetic qualities, the design and style of European arms and armor? And no one’s criticizing that. Do we not have castles throughout Europe which attract tourists by the busload and which, in their plaques and guided tours, speak of battles in the way one does exciting action scenes from movies, rather than in the way a WWII museum might handle the subject of war and violence? Do we not have cartoons and movies and fairy tales and other kids’ stories about gallant knights and their honorable quests and glorious victories over their opponents?

If it were an exhibit of medieval love ballads, castle architecture, or some other aspect of European arts relating to the culture of the warrior class (knights, lords, kings) of medieval Europe, would you have the same criticisms? If it were an exhibit of Roman arts – something treasured throughout the world’s museums – would you be critical of how it failed to represent the violence and cruelty of Rome in its conquests of Britain, Gaul, the Holy Land and elsewhere, not to mention the sexual, culinary, and other excesses of Roman generals and other military leaders? I somehow doubt it.

None of this is unique to the Asian Art Museum, nor to the Japanese art field specifically or Asian art field more generally. If that’s what you want to focus on – the glorification of violence, or the overlooking of the violent nature of warrior classes in history – then Orientalism doesn’t really enter into it. That’s a different issue, and one that has to do with the way our culture views legends and tales of medieval knights, action movies, etc., and not with the way one museum chose to handle it.

8 09 2009
Wesley Ueunten

I was impressed with http://www.asiansart.org site! As a Japanese American, I was infatuated by the myth of the samurai warrior until I started to learn that my ancestors and relatives from Okinawa have been victims of Japanese militarism. Samurai from Satsuma invaded the Ryukyus 400 years ago in 1609 under the pretext of punishing the island nation for not contributing to the previous Japanese invasion of Korea and China led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Satsuma subsequently skimmed taxes of Ryukyuans for centuries. In 1879, the Ryukyuan king was removed from Shuri Castle, which was immediately replaced by a garrison of Japanese troops. During WWII, there were incidents where “warriors” of the Japanese military who were supposed to be protecting Okinawan citizens executed them as potential spies if they spoke in the Okinawan language. Many young Okinawan women and men educated under Japanese militaristic education system tragically killed themselves or allowed themselves to be killed by American fire “in the name of the Emperor.”

It is not that I am anti-Bushido. A creed that espouses selfless service toward the greater good of society is potentially a great thing. I am just critical of the interpretation of Bushido that was forced down the throats of the Japanese population since Meiji times. Extrapolations of this narrow interpretation of Bushido has been at the base of many of our interpretations of Japanese culture and identity. Most crucial is that Bushido has been used to glorify and romanticize aggression, killing, and dying and to encourage blind loyalty. While I am no expert on samurai history, I would assume that the samurai themselves had deeper debates over what Bushido and did question blind loyalty and senseless violence. Unfortunately, however, it seems that in our imaginations of samurai, we fall into the pattern of flattening diversity within the category of Japanese as if they were a horde of people indistinguishable in character from one another — something that was at the heart of the internment of Japanese Americans.

15 09 2009
Julia Cross

In a recent KPFA interview with a representative of the Asians Art Museum web-site, and Professor Valerie Soe at SF State, Soe poignantly points out that art influences how people think and view those around them. In this vein of thought: What is the role of the AAMSF as educators? I am troubled that the average viewer might go home with a misconception of bu, bun, and the myriad of roles that Samurai played over a stretch of seven hundred years of Japanese history. This might mature into an illusion of Japanese culture.

The responsibility of a world-renowned museum like the AAMSF museum is to educate. This is quite different from the aim of a film–such as the Seven Samurai by Kurosawa—intended to entertain. A film portrays a fictional world where it is acceptable to be ahistorical. However, museums are intended to be didactic. Seeing an object, the viewer may associate the piece and its story with a particular reality. It might be useful to ask, what is the role of the museum?

Lastly, it has come to my attention that there are a myriad of exhibits on samurai throughout the country this year. This is curious considering the political climate between the US and the Middle East. Why are prominent institutions, meant to edify the public, choosing combat-related themes?

16 09 2009
ON THE AIR: KPFA’s Hard Knock Radio! « asians art museum's samurai blog

[…] And another posted to our blog here. […]

30 09 2009

Dear Asians Art Museum:
First of all, progressive Asians should not hide in anonymity because their historic self-effacement in this country has retarded their positive profile and kept them from really being heard all these years. So here goes. I am an old sansei Japanese Berkeley California girl thrown into US concentration camp at age 5 (1942-45) because of Emperor’s samurai assault on Pearl Harbor. Berkeley English major, drama/film minor, NYC in the 60s, now Seattle. Studied Chinese revolution, went to China in 1976, 1980, 1987, retired Seattle Center cultural programs. Currently writing about three generations of eccentric family including shogun great grandfather, anarchist grandfather, judo-throwing grandmother, SF Forbidden City chorus girl, Green Beret cousin, and a genius teen-age junkie brother born in camps (disgrace to model minority).
I am direct descendant of samurai. Grandfather son of an artist and editor of book on land/tax reform, anarchist/socialist opposed to military marauding all over Asia, joined 1907 plot to assassinate emperor. Married daughter of shogun, a general who led cavalry in Russo-Japanese War. Grandmother grew up in the Imperial Palace, converted to Christianity by Salvation Army. They fled to SF and Monterey where she cooked for railroad crews and he worked in laundry, active in Japanese-American politics, wrote poetry and read Shakespeare to his children. My grandmother returned to Japan briefly for a visit in 1910 with no reprisals or family reprobation so no avenging blood-thirsty samurai in this family.

Here are my specific comments about your “Lord It’s The Samurai” rant:
Re Korean slaves, I have no illusions about the brutality of the samurai culture, or Japan’s historic exploitation of and racism toward non-Japanese—Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, blacks, Brazilians, et al. So if you want to append here to this exhibit a Marxist criticism of a teacup, be my guest. But if you have ever seen a samurai movie with your eyes open, you darn well already know “what they actually did when not drinking tea and reading poetry.”
Re shudo, if it’s not a prevalent theme in samurai art it’s because homosexuality was not the big deal in feudalistic Japan as it is in the west today, which is subtly conveyed in Oshima’s (not very good) movie Taboo. You distort the historic reality to say shudo deserves more prominence in a samurai exhibit.
Re the mimizuka monument, it reminds me of the American Indian practice of slicing trophy scalps off of white settlers’ heads, so it’s not without precedent, but of course, one could say this was anti-imperialist revenge that was justified. But mimizuka is unequivocally horrible, and is as repulsive as Yasukuni and the monuments to Wounded Knee, the Alamo, the slave ships, the ten US concentration camps for Japanese Americans, Dachau and Buchenwald, and on and on throughout the world.
Re the atom bomb image, that’s a pretty tasteless touch. It implies that this ultimate weapon was necessary to stop the onslaught of bushido militarists in Japan, who were fact so depleted by then they were hiding behind a facade of bamboo swords and bamboo airplanes. For the US, Japanese civilians were expendable and bomb scientists just had to see their invention consummated.
Re your litany of the world’s sword crimes: After the devastation of WWII and the two A-bombs, the Japanese rejected any government role for militarists and created an anti-war constitution. Today Japan is the only country with a strictly enforced Firearms and Swords Control Law. The law is simple: “No-one shall possess a fire-arm or fire-arms or a sword or swords” so you cannot put the modern country of samurai on your sword list.

Re your blog from the witless Moye: This fails as humor or parody but succeeds brilliantly in promoting odious cartoon stereotypes:
From Moye: “So, uhm, with the propensity of Asian noses being flat and broad, how would it be historically possible for samurais to slice the noses off of over 38,000 victims in feudal Japan?”
“Excellent question, Moye!”
From me: “So, uhm, with the propensity of Jewish noses being high and large, is that how it was historically possible for Nazis to make 8 million victims at Auschwitz breathe in the gas oven fumes?”
“Excellent question, you!”

Re “orientalism” that refers to a Western framing of information about the East, what do you think you’re doing here with your American version of the “real” samurai?

My problem with your thesis, Lord It’s the Samurai, is the fallibility of the Marxist/Maoist blanket criticism of art that has no obvious social content. As such, it certainly is not the novel earth-shaking idea that you seem to be endlessly congratulating yourselves on exposing. China’s Cultural Revolutionaries would have liked to break the fingers of any kid caught playing the bourgeois music of that decadent Mozart. By this reasoning, the only honest task before you guys is to go around to all the world’s exhibitions and expose the phony facade behind the world’s art and cultural icons: There’s the Son of Heaven exhibition of Chinese imperial art (I edited the catalog twenty years ago) displaying work of women who went blind embroidering the Qin emperor’s robes and the slave workers thrown into the tomb after they created those 500 terra cotta warriors for the emperor at Xian. And how about the Great Wall built over the bodies of workers, the Greek Parthenon and Egyptian Pyramids covering the bones of slaves. And don’t forget the womanizing creep behind those astounding Picasso paintings. That’s all the examples, out of thousands, I can think of off the top of my head but, boy, you guys got your work cut out for you. Of course, you may prefer to remain in your provincial niche focusing only on so-called Asian/Oriental art objects in your local museum.

In conclusion, what mainly disturbs me about this is how it relates to my personal Jap-this Jap-that WWII experience. My biggest objection is that while ostensibly combating western hegemony over Asian art, you are pumping up new stereotypes, or rather reviving the old ones, the ones that sent me and my family to those US prison camps. Yeah, bring it all back, those headlines and posters, the WWII stereotype of the lethal Jap: JAPS AS SWORD-SWINGING MILITARISTS, BLOOD-THIRSTY JAPS AT BATAAN, THE JAP WAY IS COLD BLOODED MURDER, WIPE OUT EVERY MURDERING JAP. I told you we were right to send those Japs to camps, bomb the Japs out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They and their samurai bushido code would have hegemonized the whole goddamn USA.
Forget about the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit whose samurai spirit got them over the hills of Normandy and onto those Nazi machine gun nests to save a few unregenerate Texans. Your supposed cultural competency should inform you here that the samurai code, for good or bad, is the backbone of the Japanese ethos and education, embedded in the DNA and indoctrinated in every Japanese child at home and at school: be modest in all you do, hang back (the famous enryo), don’t flaunt or brag, don’t disgrace your family or race, be brave under adversity, clean is same word for pretty, leave things cleaner than you found them, five words for stiff upper lip, etc etc

So how much energy are we going to continue to waste on scholarly intellectual exercises so that a few cognoscenti and aesthetes can “have fun” blogging and brochuring and deconstructiing these things instead of actively working to change the world in a real meaningful way? As John Searle said in his NY Review of Books critique of deconstructivist theory, he was struck by Derrida’s “low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial.”
As for anonymity, you say you want to “keep the focus on the merit of the issues raised, and make it harder to dismiss that based upon how The Man [eeyew, it is not appropriate to misappropriate Black Panther-speak in this context] might try to marginalize us by pigeonholing based on some false notion of identity. We want it to be about the work itself. Plus anonymity can make it more fun, for both audience and us” (more fun??? what’s that all about?)

But, hey, thanks for really exercising my brain about this.

1 10 2009

Might we humbly suggest less exercise for the brain, and a little more for the heart and funny bone?

While we have no problem sustaining whatever heat is generated by our work ourselves, we take offense at the derisive reference to Moye, someone we consider to be gifted of formidable comedic talent, as “witless.” It’s one thing to simply not get it, but another to disparage those who do. Such judgmental abuse is as uncalled for as it is off the mark.

The reference to samurai movies as a source of reliable information on actual samurai history is one we can’t agree with, in the same way we wouldn’t want to base our understanding of mid-19th century American history on John Wayne movies. Exposing the inherent dangers of such romanticism is one of the overt goals of this project, whether or not everyone appreciates it.

Shudo was a widely practiced part of samurai culture, a discipline with its own aesthetics and ethics. We see no shame in historical fact, and no need to hide it. If historic reality is being distorted, it is in the censorship in the present of what was indeed a part of the culture that was widely written about in the literature of the time. Furthermore, if the samurai is going to be presented now as an ideal of masculine perfection, then it’s only responsible to fully disclose how that masculinity was enacted and what constituted it.

While we’ve been labeled by the commenter as Marxist or Maoist (you left out “Socialist!”), we don’t see ourselves or our work in such a limited light, and further submit that to subject the meaning of the art or its multiple references to such singular and one-dimensional readings is again to miss the point.

The idea that to ground a samurai exhibit in historical context is somehow anti-Japanese or anti-Japanese American is itself evidence of the very culturalist essentialism we are determined to undo. While the commenter sees the samurai code as “embedded in the DNA” of all Japanese, we see that as a dangerous myth worth exposing. We do this by shining light on the historical origins of how that nationalist myth came to be and the ideological motivations behind it, as well as the historical dangers posed by going along with it, all grounded in recent scholarship from highly respected sources. (Here’s a really good one). We’re not making it up.

We’ll say it again: samurai does not equal Japan, and providing real history about samurai does not equal an attack on all Japanese or Japanese Americans. It equals putting aestheticized and romanticized warrior culture into actual context; using real history and recent scholarship to undermine the dangerous promotion of culturalist and Orientalist stereotypes of samurai myth. It is entirely possible, and valuable, to deconstruct nationalist, culturalist myths without it being a wholesale attack on an actual people.

The idea that a critical history of samurai or of how bushido ideology has been abused should be somehow off-limits because it risks promoting the kinds of stereotypes that led to the internment of Japanese Americans reads to us as censorial hyperbole; that an informed critical analysis of the selective representation of Japanese culture in the US in 2009 should be disallowed for fear of repeat incarceration is sheer hysteria. We’re taking apart the dominant stereotypes, not reinventing old ones.

To demand uniformly positive portrayals of Japanese and Japanese American culture and experience that only show us at our best, at the exclusion of critical engagement and real history, is to demand a tired complicity in a community’s own emotional incarceration, something we’re all too familiar with. We give the audience a lot more credit than that in their ability to read images and art, and to engage with issues in a reasonably complex manner that can be productive.

We don’t expect everyone to appreciate our provocative aesthetic or our brand of humor, but the fact remains that there are a lot of completely reasonable people out there who do and have told us so, and yes the humor is an important part of the art. Yes, art! If this were simply the misguided intellectual exercise that the commenter sees it as, of no redeeming artistic value or social content, the whole thing would have been ignored from the outset. If it’s really so empty, why would anyone—from Moye at 8Asians.com to Kenneth Baker at the Chronicle to Weyland at Hard Knock Radio to the present fervent detractor—invest time and energy in responding to it?

It’s because, like it or not, it’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do, as art.

The fact that some folks don’t get the art, or moreover react strongly to it, is not unexpected, nor does their indignation make their opinions any more valid than others’. But in the context of all the other reactions we’re getting, it does validate that the art is working.

The fact that someone may claim a background of samurai blood or Japanese American internment or even UC Berkeley sansei doesn’t make their opinion any more valid than ours either, because regardless of whether such so-called “provenance” really matters or not, the truth is, we can in fact honestly lay claim to all of the same. The difference is we’re not invested in the notion that in and of itself it necessarily gives authority to one’s opinion over others’, nor does it even need to play a role in a well-executed intervention or in a well-reasoned debate. We believe there’s room for all substantive opinions and perspectives, and only from there can respectful dialogue begin.

Not that we don’t value the diatribes. On the contrary, such derision is proof that our work is indeed dangerous, which for many is exactly what art is meant to be.

1 10 2009

Wow–heartless, funny-bone deficit, judgmental, uncalled for, censorial hyperbolist, romantic, one-dimensional, fervent detractor–I’m a pretty disgusting piece of work, and flat-nosed too. It’s all proof that your work is sooo dangerous. What would The Man say about all this? I’m finished

1 10 2009

Although I profoundly disagree with many of your statements, M.A.S., and their mode of discourse, your differences of opinion from asiansart.org matter greatly because, well let’s face it, many— dare I say most— visitors to the AAMSF’s exhibition have never been exposed what either you or asiansart.org are addressing.

Unfortunately your strident tone and parting statement above may really mean that your “ideas are finished” not merely that your participation in this dialog is finished. Regrettable that you are not up to a substantive and civil reply, which might add to this debate in ways that might exercise the brains of many others.

13 10 2009

I’ve enjoyed your site.

there are many interesting article,

as Kendo & Iaido teacher, I present this tanka.

居合いとは(Iai to wa)

人に斬られず人斬らず、(hito ni kirarezu Hito Kirazu)

己を責めて平らかな道( onore wo semete tairakana michi)

[the meaning]

What is iai?
It’s a way not to be harmed by others and not to harm others as well.
It’s a sacred way to cultivate ourselves.

13 10 2009
Julia Cross


Hello Aoi,
Interesting tanka. Indeed, it seems to embody the “bun” and “bu” meaning, causing one to think.

14 10 2009

Julia Cross san.
thank you for comment.

Julia Cross さん、日本語が通じるのがありがたいです。
武道の極意は短歌の形で後世に伝えられているものが多いです。どれも抽象的で、短歌の解説を読んでわかったつもりになっていても 結局は何もわかりません。
知識も大切ですが、やはり長年の修行の中から 初めてその短歌の意味が、先人の残した素晴らしい智恵が理解できるものだと思います。
日本の武士道を語る場合でも、先ず 漢字の「武」 「侍」「武士」「兵(つわもの)」 、こういう漢字が何を意味するのか、 また、「切腹」も何故「腹」でなければならないのか、こういったことの理解からはじめないと、結局は頭でっかちの知識だけで 本質は何もわからないということになるような気がします。
文と武は切り離せないですね。又 「道」と名のつくものは、すべて1つに繋がっていきます。
武道の作法も 茶道の小笠原流から来ています。居合の足裁きは「能」の足裁きです。試合などで「心を無にせよ」と言いますが これは禅の世界ですね。
だから、武道だけ学べばいいわけではなくあらゆる方面から学ぶ必要があるので、一生かかります。「道」を学ぶこと すなわち「人間形成の道である」とこの頃 やっとこの意味がわかりかけてきました。


Budo tanka are very abstract and thus, difficult to decipher; however, if one studies Budo seriously, someday, at some point, the words in a Budo Tanka which were as impenetrable as stone, will begin to melt away and in time one will receive the gift of the master.

Before we talk about Bushido, it is important that we understand what the word ” Bu” , ” Bushi” ,” samurai”, ” tsuwamono” means.
and about ” Harakiri”,
why was Hara-kiri supposed to be an honorable way to die,
for japanese, what dose the word “hara(abdomen) mean,
when we learn Japanese cluture , we need to know the meaning of Kanji.

Bu should not be separated from Bun.
All ” the way ( Do in Japanese) leads to the same goal.
Budo’s manner is derived from japanese tea ceremony ( Ogasawara school)
to master Iai do footwork (ashisabaki) , we have to know about movement of Noh.
“No mind ” is from Zen ,,etc.
To understand Budo , we have to learn from all sides(all areas).
So it takes for a long time to learn Budo.

The purpose of practicing Kendo and Iaido is: to discipline the human character through the application of the principles of the katana.

recently , I have come to understand the meaning.

The role of the museum is to educate.
But during WW2, there were many movies controlled by Imperial japanese army to justify “Manchuria ” and to lead the people into wrong knowledge.
These movies are called ” kokusaku eiga” in japanese.
The Museum should not be ” Kokusaku eiga.”

17 10 2009
Julia Cross




Hello Aoi, thank you for your insights.

For various meanings this site is intriguing to me as well. Indeed, as you pointed out the role of the museum is to teach and this is precisely where its power lies. I think knowledge is the most liberating or dangerous tool. For instance, if we look at the war museum Yûshûkan, situated on the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, there are numerous people who will not visit this shrine or the museum because of its political/ historical role (http://www.yasukuni.jp/~yusyukan/history/index.html).

I visited this museum three years ago, knowing little about the repercussions that the shrine, and in turn the museum, have had on the global community. Struck by the deep meaning of a quote by a particularly eminent soldier, I copied it down in my notebook. Unfortunately, at that time I did not grasp the more abstract historical weight that these words embodied. Two years later after reading about the controversy, watching the film Yasukuni (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasukuni_(2007_film)), and talking to various Japanese friends about the shrine and the museum, I returned. My view changed completely.

Since a museum has a monumental influence, it is necessary for its viewers, and especially the museum itself, to question the historical image that it is projecting. Museums, similarly to the book Bushido, have their own biases.

19 10 2009
あおい [aoi, a.k.a. "sumie"]

Hi. Julia Cross さん
Thank you for nice comment.
and Yasukuni URL.



「人の命を助ける医者のメスも、持ち方、変えたら ドスになる」って冗談みたいな格言がありますが、知識もそうですね。

最初に ご質問の「腹」ですが、日本語には「腹」を使った言葉が沢山あります。
昔から日本人にとって「腹」というのは その人の本心とか本性、そういう類のものを
切腹は 主人に対してよからぬ事をした時や、戦で負けたとか 死をもって償う行為ですが、
この切腹も 実は 主君に対する 忠誠心の現れなんですよ。
切腹は 主君の前で、腹を切り開きますよね。
これは 何を意味するかというと
どうぞ、私の腹の中を見てください、私の腹の中には 主君のあなた様を裏切るようなよこしまな思いは一切入っておりません。
映画などで、切腹おおせつけるというと「ありがたき幸せ」と侍がいいますよね。ホントにこんな事を言ったかどうかは別にして、切腹は侍が侍として死ねるありがたい死罪だったんでしょう。もちろん、異論を唱えた侍も沢山いると思いまが、無実の罪で切腹を言い渡されても、一切言い訳もせず 見事に切腹した侍もいます。

切腹をいまふうの犯罪者の「死刑」としてとらえると、なかなか わかりずらい思想だと思いますが。
私の説明も かいつまんでポイントだけ書きましたので、わかりずらいかも知れません、ごめんなさい。

靖国のURL ありがとうございます。
こんな立派な建物があったんですね。機会があったら 訪れてみたいです。

このサイトも非常に 勉強になります。


Let me explain ” Hara(abdomen)” first.
there are many Japanese words which contain ” Hara” such as
” Hara wo Watte ( heart to heart/in all sincerity)”
” Hara guroi (black-hearted/ vioer/ to get categorized as a devil)
“Hara ni Ichimotsu aru ( have an ax to grind/ have something up one’s sleeve)
“Hara ni Osameru ( master one’s feelings/ never complain )

since eraly times, for Japanese , Hara has taken as a place to keep what one really feels, our nature, out mind, something like this.

when samurai violated loyalty to his master or lost the battle, etc, in some case , Seppuku( Harakiri) was sentenced on him.

In the Edo Era seppuku became the mode of capital punishment for members of the samurai class.
but Hara-kiri was an honorable way to die according to the samurai spirit.
because , byHarakiri ( Seppuku), Samurai could show his loyality for his master .

as I mentioned above, Hara was a space to put our mind.
when samurai did Harakiri , he cut open his abdomen.
what did it mean?
let’s just put in this way(↓)

” please look at inside!, I don’t have violation of devotion(loyalty), I don’t betray that trust for my master.”

So Samurai who was sentenced Harakiri expressed his appreciation.

if we see Harakiri as the death penarty in modern day , such Samurai thinking would not be understood,
about sense of ethics, Samurai world is different from our modern world ,

as an aside, in Buddhism, after we died, we become Buddhist image.
( even the most hardened criminal, after he died , he becomes Buddhist image)
So when assisting someone in committing hara-kiri by beheading him, Kaisyakunin( a person who cut off his head) accord someone every courtesy.
To do this, when a high rank samurai dose harakiri, Kaisyakunin swing his sword from a bit high position .

Bushido is “thought that was born in battle”,
it is different from modern day .

I am sorry my English is not so good,
and Thank you for reading.

21 10 2009

Did the samurai world described above, with its exalted code of honor, loyalty and ritual suicide, really exist?

Based on extensive studies of actual battlefield documents of samurai by historian Thomas Conlan, the short answer is “No.” Such loyalty is grossly exaggerated. And the idea of hara kiri was not as noble as the promoters of bushido myth would like us to believe.

But is the promotion of such a myth harmless?

How might it relate, for example, to the high rate of suicide in Japan (nearly 100/day in June of this year)? In the book “The Japanese Mind”, produced by students and faculty at Ehime University in Matsuyama, Japan (2002), a connection is made between bushido and the acceptance and even glorification of suicide that still exists in Japan today.

How might the same valorization of suicide also relate to the forced mass suicides in Okinawa? What does this tragedy have to do at all with loyalty, honor or devotion?

The tendency to indulge in myth apart from real history is characteristic of a pervasive desire for Japanese cultural essentialism: a fantasy of an essential, unified core of uniquely Japanese national culture and character that remains unchanged since premodern times, untouched by the influence and discontinuity of modernization. It’s a fantasy shared by Japanese ethnic nationalists and Western Orientalists alike; a nostalgic and aesthetic retreat to an isolated, romanticized, distant past that never really existed—hence the tendency to treat it as something apart from history: because in the face of real history, the fantasy all falls down.

The problem is the ongoing promotion of this mythical fantasy continues to have very real and harmful consequences on actual people’s lives.

22 10 2009

Conlan’s book is about Kamakura era .

his book was derived from many letters in Kamakura period.
it was war time . not peace time .

how about Tokugawa Shogun period??

26 10 2009

The myth of the samurai in general and in Tokugawa period in particular are covered in this section (left column) of our website, in an essay of the same name by Harold Bolitho of Harvard, downloadable as a pdf file.

Also, regarding Tokugawa period history, the section of our website on shudō—the samurai discipline of man-boy love, widely practiced at the time yet widely censored in the present by purveyors of romanticized samurai myth—draws upon recent scholarship which is profusely grounded in Tokugawa-era primary sources.

8 05 2012
Surabya Web Design

Julia Cross さん、日本語が通じるのがありがたいです。
武道の極意は短歌の形で後世に伝えられているものが多いです。どれも抽象的で、短歌の解説を読んでわかったつもりになっていても 結局は何もわかりません。
知識も大切ですが、やはり長年の修行の中から 初めてその短歌の意味が、先人の残した素晴らしい智恵が理解できるものだと思います。
日本の武士道を語る場合でも、先ず 漢字の「武」 「侍」「武士」「兵(つわもの)」 、こういう漢字が何を意味するのか、 また、「切腹」も何故「腹」でなければならないのか、こういったことの理解からはじめないと、結局は頭でっかちの知識だけで 本質は何もわからないということになるような気がします。
文と武は切り離せないですね。又 「道」と名のつくものは、すべて1つに繋がっていきます。
武道の作法も 茶道の小笠原流から来ています。居合の足裁きは「能」の足裁きです。試合などで「心を無にせよ」と言いますが これは禅の世界ですね。
だから、武道だけ学べばいいわけではなくあらゆる方面から学ぶ必要があるので、一生かかります。「道」を学ぶこと すなわち「人間形成の道である」とこの頃 やっとこの意味がわかりかけてきました。


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