by Laura Miller
On July 6, 2019 it was announced that UNESCO had added 49 tombs in Japan to the World Heritage list. Called kofun, these earthen tumuli were constructed from the beginning of the 3rd century. There are several kofun shapes, the most distinctive being the keyhole shape. More than 161,000 kofun sites have been identified throughout Japan, and numerous intact sites have been excavated.

  However, kofun designated as belonging to ancestors of the imperial family are off limits to archaeologists. Even so, a few kofun not designated as under the jurisdiction of the imperial household were excavated and later determined by scholars to have most likely been the tombs of rulers. One notable type of artifact associated with kofun burial mounds are clay figures called haniwa. Haniwa were formed into the shapes of people, animals, tools, musical instruments, and dwellings. They were placed on the outside perimeter of the kofun.

Leading up to the UNESCO announcement civic leaders in Osaka created a mascot known as Haniwa Kachō (Section Chief Haniwa), and kofun-related merchandise started to appear in shops everywhere. Haniwa Kachō is often shown with an image of Japan’s largest keyhole-shaped kofun named Daisenryō Kofun. It is an enormous three-tiered tomb built in the 5th century, spanning an area larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Although customarily designated as the tomb of Emperor Nintoku (who may be a mythological figure) by the imperial household, that is merely conjecture. Promotion of the UNESCO listed kofun led to an increase in kofun and haniwa themed merchandise. 

During my fieldwork in the Kansai area of Japan in Fall 2019, I found things such as haniwa decorated soap, kofun-shaped pillows, and kofun-shaped curry rice.

Demon Vice-Commander Hijikata

By the end of the Edo period samurai mainly served as administrators rather than warriors. Even so, their privileged status fascinated some non-samurai men. The term bushidō, applied to the loose precepts for behavior found among the warrior class, was not widely used until around 1900. However, the diffuse, non-codified thinking of members of the warrior class proved irresistible to a man named Hijikata Toshizō who lived between 1835 and 1869.

    Image 1. Photo of Hijikata

Hijikata was a wealthy farmer’s son who diligently practiced martial arts and eventually transformed himself into a military enthusiast and samurai wannabe. Hijikata joined the Shinsengumi, a special posse organized by the Bakufu government in order to resist the imperial loyalists. He eventually appointed himself its Vice-Commander and participated in battles of the Boshin civil war (1868-1869), fighting for the Tokugawa dictatorship against the former samurai who had returned political power to the Imperial Court.

Despite his historical reputation as a nasty, mean-spirited, and ruthless narcissist who earned the nickname Demon Vice-Commander (Oni no fukuchō鬼の副長), Hijikata is widely romanticized today. The actor Yamamoto Kōji played Hijikata in the historical fiction television series named Shinsengumi, which aired on NHK from January 11 to December 12, 2004. Hijikata is mistakenly described as a samurai by some American fans of anime and manga. He is often depicted as a dashing, sword-brandishing hero. Recently he became the subject of a new manga series by Akana Shū entitled Zokugun Hijikata Toshizō (Rebel Army Hijikata Toshizō, published by Kōdansha, 2020-2021).

 

 

 

Image 2: Manga by Akana, 2021.

Hijikata is also a subject in the series of short stage performances entitled Hakuōki Musical, an adaptation from the anime and game media with flashy dancing and duels. There have been numerous iterations of the Hakuōki musicals since 2012. The version that was performed at the Shinkobe Oriental Theater in Kobe in 2018 starred Wada Masanari as Hijikata.

 

 

 

Image 3. Wada Masanari as Hijikata

 

English Names for Japanese Products, by Laura Miller

Former Sony chairman Akio Morita is known in the U.S as the co-founder of the Sony corporation. His English language memoir Made in Japan: Akio Morita and Sony was popular in American business circles in the 1980s. But Morita was not a scholar or historian, and many of the assertions he made in the book were corporate mythology packaged for a foreign audience.
One claim he made that was not historically accurate relates to the creation of the company’s name. The executive said that he needed to explain to fellow Japanese why the name Sony should be written in the Latin alphabet, and that it was the first Latin alphabet brand in Japan. However, from the Meiji era (1868-1912) on Japanese products have carried English brand names.
An example is this advertisement for unisex hair coloring called The Nice. Another famous brand was launched in 1896 by the Kobayashi company. Lion tooth powder was written in both the Latin script and the Japanese phonetic katakana script as ライオン (raion). It was exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition) where it received an honorary silver medal.

Queering Our Worlds: A Tribute to Mark McLelland

A small group of us in Japan Studies will pay tribute to Professor Mark McLelland (1966-2020) whose work in many disciplines inspired scholarship around the world. Thursday, February 25, 2021 7:00-8:30pm Eastern Time. Co-sponsored by the Association for Asian Studies and the Japanese Studies Association of Australia

Queering Our Worlds: A Tribute to Mark McLelland

 

 

 

 

America’s Fascination with Japanese Aesthetics by Laura Miller

Scholars are fascinated with the ways in which Japanese culture is understood, borrowed, demonized, and represented outside Japan. One book on this topic is Meghan Warner Mettler’s How to Reach Japan by Subway: America’s Fascination with Japanese Culture, 1945-1965 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018). Mettler discovered nuggets of original information that will appeal to Japan specialists and American historians alike. She looks at American interest in ikebana flower arrangement, Japanese art cinema, Zen Buddhism, Japanese gardening, and bonsai. One revelation was that the aesthetic concept of shibui (understated elegance) had been taken up by people in the U.S. in the 1960s. It has since disappeared, however. The more familiar concepts of sabi (simplicity, rustic beauty, unpretentiousness) and wabi (patina of age, appreciation of imperfection) have dominated the American imagination in the decades since and have dominated design circles. I loved that she found an article from a 1960 issue of the American magazine House Beautiful entitled “How to be Shibui with American Things.” Here is the cover.

Brocade Obi to Amulet Pouches: Adaptations in Kyoto’s Textile Industry

By Laura Miller

In her book The Kimono Tattoo Rebecca Copeland sets the tale in Kyoto, which has been a weaving center for centuries. The Nishijin district in particular has a long history as the location for gorgeous textile and kimono production. There are several types of Nishijin brocade produced, and the art form was designated as a national traditional craft in 1976. The luxurious, dense, and sophisticated obi kimono sash made by Nishijin weavers is one of Japan’s most renowned products.

Omamori at Byōdōin in Uji

A recent book by Jenny Hall provides historical and ethnographic accounts of the business. In Japan Beyond the Kimono she tracks how the Kyoto dyeing and weaving industries have been able to stay afloat after a period of economic distress. Not only have companies, craft guilds, and individual artisans been willing to transition to new types of production, they have also invested in innovative ways to use traditional fabrics and designs. I found an example of this in my research on omamori.

Omamori are cloth protection and good luck amulets available at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. There is a spectacular variety of types that target specific worries, from childbirth to travel. The brocade pouch is usually folded at the top and fastened with a fancy white knot drawn through holes. Before the 1950s omamori merely took the form of a sacred text or a visual image that was not swathed in material. People carried them home and made their own protective pouches from strips of old kimono and obi. Today the various aspects of making omamori, from design, textile creation, sewing, and assembly, is generally outsourced and not done within the shrine or temple grounds. Some of the celebrated Nishijin weavers in Kyoto turned their skills to omamori making.

One such company is named Kyoto Hosei, which opened in 1974 and has around 5,300 shrine and temple customers who order omamori on consignment. They make 20 million amulets per year! These are no longer hand woven but are made by machine-operated looms and a digital weaving process by a staff of around three hundred. Hikita Satoshi, current president of the company, says that they use “the traditional Nishijin weaving technique of Kyoto.”

Today there are textile schools, a Nishijin museum, and a Nishijin educational tourist center in Kyoto. These join the many small, family run weaving workshops in the area that are managing to survive with creativity and resourcefulness.

Originally published on Rebecca’s Reflections, blog by Rebecca Copeland, Nov 4, 2020

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